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Opinion: Can we really trust that Junior Cycle reform isn't linked to the austerity agenda?

We live in a time of austerity – and education is being targeted along with other elements of society.

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THE ARGUMENTS TO date in relation to Junior Cycle reform read like a list of comments from the packets of those love sweets we all remember from our childhood and which have recently started making a comeback. All these sweet-sounding bites seek to seduce the Irish people, students, teachers and school leaders into thinking that Junior Cycle reform is benign and unconnected to the austerity agenda – and, sure, aren’t all other countries doing this anyway?

Who wouldn’t want our young people to become creative thinkers and escape from a ‘success’ mentality that appears to be embedded in the Irish psyche? A mentality of economic competitiveness that is played out on a daily basis as Ireland seeks to present itself to the global world as an economic success, and has little or no time for reflection on the type of society we want, what is worthwhile and desirable into the future?

The truth is that we live in a time of austerity – and education is being targeted 

The arguments about Junior Cycle reform increasingly suggest that the debate is only about teachers assessing their own students. This is a most misleading framing and fails to reveal the true story. The true story is that we live in a time of austerity when European governments are being told they must diminish the size of each nation state, reduce the public sector and let the markets dictate.

Within this overarching umbrella, then, why would you need the expense of state-run examinations? After all, European institutions have now set up comparative standardised tests, such as PISA, that will examine what the world has agreed are the most important subjects – science and mathematics and a smattering of reading literacy. We clearly live in a utilitarian and petty-minded period of history with very little international regard for the arts and humanities, and where democracy and social commitment is presented as a most outdated and tiresome project.

A smart Minister for Education and Skills might stagger the introduction of this reform

Removal of the cost of a state examination in Ireland like the Junior Cycle, reported to be between €15 million and 24 million a year, is a substantial annual saving to the Irish government. The evidence from policy research suggests that the government has really no great say in this. They will simply have to push this reform through, if not in the next 48 hours than into the near future.

I assume we want our society to develop in a way that is democratic, with citizens who are able to hold a decent argument and contrarian viewpoints, rather than this soft sell which suggests that all that’s needed is to remove the government funding and back off and then all the flowers will bloom. At the moment the plan is for each teacher to receive an online toolbox and one day of in-service training per year for four years. A type of cut-and-paste approach to teacher professionalism in what is being heralded as a serious game changer in Irish education.

We should be playing our own tune

So might it be smarter to resist the seduction of these love sweets and seek the truth behind this rush to copy everyone else without any collective capacity to think about how we, as a small nation on the edge of continental Europe, should be playing our own tune. A smart Minister for Education and Skills might stagger the introduction of this reform in a way that ensures that the financial savings made remain in the Department of Education and Skills as a sustainable investment – and do not return to the Department of Finance.

Such funding could be used by schools to restore their guidance services to adequately protect vulnerable children; to provide a daily hot meal to young people living in poverty; to reduce class sizes from 32 to 15 teenagers; to change the furniture and seating arrangements in classrooms to reflect new ways of independent learning, and to allow schools and teachers access to public funding to engage in state-of-the art professional development. Such an approach might also ensure that Ireland, as a small nation on the periphery of Europe, retains its distinctiveness in education and scholarship and yet continues to play ball with the other nations of the world.

Dr Geraldine Mooney Simmie is a Lecturer in Education in the Faculty of Education and Health Science at the University of Limerick.

Geraldine has completed a comparative doctoral study of the education policy process in Norway and her critique of the junior cycle reform has recently been published internationally in the peer-reviewed journal Citizenship, Social and Economics Education (Volume 13, Number 3, pages 185-198).

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Geraldine Mooney Simmie

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