In trying to predict the impact of the Junior Cycle reforms, it is necessary to establish why they are being introduced: what problems do these reforms seek to rectify? In a recent article in the Irish Times, ‘experts’ are cited as saying that the reforms are necessary to combat ‘a real problem with student engagement’.
In this piece I will argue that the approach taken by these reforms is misguided as it will not equalize educational outcomes. By diluting the content of the curriculum and replacing traditional subjects with more ‘relevant’ and skills-based courses, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is lowering standards for all and doing nothing to help the disadvantaged improve their performance.
The NCCA is rightly concerned about the way in which many disadvantaged students ‘switch off’ and drop out of school. The first problem that the reforms seek to resolve – student disengagement among working-class students – is thus a legitimate one, as this is at the root of educational inequality. But underachievement among the disadvantaged is not a result of a high-pressure exam system or a lack of focus on ’21st-century skills’, as the so-called experts assert; what prevents disadvantaged students from keeping up in school is rather a lack of adequate prior knowledge and preparation, a lack of common knowledge that the middle class takes for granted. Reform should thus not be a matter of radically overhauling the current system, as it has been shown to be effective for those middle-class students who are in a position to take advantage of it. The aim of any reform should be to narrow the achievement gap, allowing poor students to acquire the knowledge they need and to catch up with their more privileged peers.
It is unclear how the achievement gap will be narrowed under the new JC system, however. The underlying socioeconomic divide which accounts for much of the academic differential between schools is left unaddressed in the proposed reforms. Emer Smyth points out in her longitudinal studies of Irish schools that many teachers in disadvantaged areas of Ireland currently have low expectations for students, with many having given up entirely on certain students who seem uninterested in school. In order to improve educational equality, schools in underprivileged areas would thus have to undergo a vast culture change which would raise academic expectations and help their students reach the same standards as their more privileged peers.
The fact that the JC reforms offer poor-performing schools little guidance on how to seriously improve student attainment is thus a major omission. The framework fails to mention educational features that have been shown to be linked to good academic outcomes in controlled studies, such as developing wide cultural knowledge, using direct instruction and enforcing strict discipline. These factors are arguably as or more important than assessment methods in improving learning, but the JC reforms focus almost exclusively on assessment methods. It is unlikely that socioeconomically deprived schools will significantly improve without a vast change in culture and educational practices among teachers, parents and pupils.
In fact, the reforms are likely to further entrench educational inequality, as they advise schools to tailor instruction to their students’ level of ability. Thus, schools in deprived areas will be given a less challenging curriculum because their students lack the prior knowledge developed by privileged students at home or in better primary schools. Disadvantaged students will be judged by lower standards. It is a case of having low expectations for schools that are already doing poorly: how will this improve lack of engagement among poor performers? Surely the aim of education should be to broaden a student’s horizons, to introduce them to a world of knowledge that opens doors to new opportunities and aspirations. The JC reforms do none of this: by maintaining low expectations for poor students they will perpetuate inequality.
The JC reforms promote a broad range of vaguely defined non-academic skills. This will do nothing for poor performers, who need more academic content, not less, to catch up. If social inequality is to be reduced, schools need to equip disadvantaged students with the knowledge they need to go on to college, as educational attainment is closely correlated with financial success. Underprivileged students need to be able to succeed independently in college: what is needed to succeed in college is knowledge, self-discipline and perseverence. Ever-lasting academic virtues should thus be taught in schools rather than vague skills-based courses such as Wellbeing, an initiative concocted by government bureaucrats who know nothing about education.
The JC reform proposals make no mention of the need to reduce the knowledge deficit between social groups in secondary school, the root of the educational inequality. It is well known that a lack of knowledge holds disadvantaged pupils back. Middle-class students tend to have more cultural, parental, and financial resources at home to develop cultural literacy, and tend to have acquired more knowledge in primary school than their less advantaged peers. The head-start that middle-class students have upon entering secondary school grows ever greater, as working-class students fall further behind due to frustration and low teacher expectations. Middle class students capitalize on the fact that knowledge is built upon knowledge: the more knowledge a person has the easier it is to acquire more. By the time students finish school, the knowledge gap is enormous. Many disadvantaged students lack basic numeracy and literacy skills and struggle to find work. A very low percentage of them go on to third level. The majority of middle-class students, on the other hand, go on to third level.
Emer Smyth further demonstrates this socioeconomic gap: her research shows that school success in Ireland is largely determined by the socio-economic background of students. A student’s scores on initial reading and numeracy tests predict with a high degree of accuracy how the student will perform in state exams during secondary school. Middle-class females tend to do best in the initial reading and numeracy tests, while working-class males do least well.
The Schools We Need
To maximise their chances of doing well in life, students need to learn a broad range of cultural knowledge, enabling them to understand complex information and communicate effectively with those around them later in life. Even understanding articles in broadsheet newspapers requires a great deal of implicit cultural knowledge that writers assume their readers possess. While middle-class students may pick up cultural knowledge at home by discussing current affairs at the dinner table or by reading their parents’ collection of the classics, this is not the case in many socio-economically deprived homes. The only source of cultural knowledge for many disadvantaged students is thus school. This is why it is imperative that school is a place that maximises academic learning, passing on knowledge to disadvantaged students by holding them to high academic standards and implementing a behaviour system which ensures that learning takes place in a calm, orderly environment. The Michaela school shows that such a model is possible in a deprived part of London.
Early intervention programmes that focus on literacy and numeracy development among disadvantaged students are also important, and a knowledge-rich primary school curriculum would go a long way towards narrowing the attainment gap and preparing pupils for a demanding secondary school curriculum. The NCCA seems not even to be aware of the success of these measures in reducing the achievement gap in other countries, however. They seem preoccupied with imposing an ideological agenda on schools, an agenda that is egalitarian and progressive in name but that will only serve to perpetuate social inequalities.
It’s a pity that ideologues in the state department seem to have an aversion to conservative education, as they are trying to get rid of it in the proposed reforms: prominent government officials say it is outdated, and no longer fit for purpose. But if they took the time to examine the issue, they would see that conservative education has socially progressive effects. This is why many liberals in the United States support the Uncommon Schools’ Charter movement, as they see the difference that well-disciplined, knowledge-focused schools can make to the life chances of the poor. By giving disadvantaged students the knowledge and sense of discipline that middle-class students take for granted, these schools have transformed the lives of poor students, broadening their horizons by introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, giving many of them the opportunity to go on to the best universities. Since we have a centralized system of education in a small country, it should be possible to establish such schools in Ireland if there is a political will to do so. These are the kind of schools we need to truly tackle educational and social inequalities.