Why Tinkering with the JC System is a Bad Idea

The Junior Cycle (JC) reforms that are to be rolled out over the coming years are said to be moving us away from an ‘outdated‘ exam-centred system towards a more holistic, skills-based model of education. In trying to get to the root of these reforms, I’ve been trying to trace them back to identifiable authors. Who are the progenitors of these reforms? On what do they base their claims? Answering these questions is difficult because the JC frameworks are written anonymously and do not provide many references.  Jargon-ridden and amorphous, policy documents issued by the Department of Education and Skills have been setting out a vision of progressive, ‘child-centred’ education with a hollowed-out curriculum, as I explained in another blog. It seems that Irish educational policy-makers have been basing their claims on dubious research and on the vague notion that they do things better in Finland.

Mr. Ruairí Quinn

I have identified Ruairí Quinn, minister of education from 2011 to 2014, as one of the main architects of progressive reforms. One of the main purposes of the JC reforms, in his view, is to reduce focus on the terminal exam so as to make school a less stressful and more enjoyable place. He says that there “is compelling evidence from many countries that shows more students will perform better by moving away from such terminal exams” and says that teachers “are often hamstrung by pressure to teach to the test. The new reformed junior cycle will liberate teachers and their students.” Thus Mr. Quinn seems to think that abolishing exams will ‘free’ students and teachers from the shackles of oppressive traditional education. This was part of Mr. Quinn’s ‘big agenda’ to impose a social experiment on schools, in the belief that a conservative educational system is no longer ‘fit for purpose’, and that freed from the constraints of a knowledge-laden curriculum, pupils will be able to develop new 21st century ‘skills’. The progressive model he proposes is more likely to lead to a lowering of standards and discipline problems, as it devalues knowledge and reduces the authority of the teacher.

As a left-wing ideologue, Mr. Quinn has an aversion to conservative institutions. This aversion blinds him to the fact that conservative education has socially progressive effects. By giving disadvantaged students the knowledge and sense of discipline that middle-class students take for granted, conservative education helps disadvantaged students progress to third level and thus reduces social inequalities. The national culture is inherently conservative: it has taken shape slowly over many decades and is resistant to change. It is similar to the slow-moving nature of language, as can be seen in the stability of English spelling, for example, which has remained virtually the same for hundreds of years. Rules of grammar and spelling have been standardised and must be learnt to enable effective communication, even though they are a product of a different era when English was pronounced differently and may seem strange to us now. Many central aspects of our culture will evidently never change: the dates of the 1916 Rising or the poetry of WB Yeats. Passing on a body of traditional subject knowledge is thus an inherently conservative task.

 To take part in the national conversation and cultural life, citizens need a broad range of cultural knowledge to understand complex information and communicate effectively with those around them. Even understanding articles in the Irish Times 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 through reading their parents’ collection of the classics, this is does not happen in disadvantaged homes. Conservative schools can pass on this knowledge to disadvantaged students by holding them to high expectations and enforcing strict discipline, as the Michaela school demonstrates.

Ruairí Quinn is rightly concerned about the way in which many disadvantaged students ‘switch off’ and drop out in Irish post-primary school. But this is not a result of a high-pressure exam system or a lack of focus on ’21st-century skills’, as he asserts; rather it is a result of a lack of adequate prior knowledge and preparation that prevents disadvantaged students from keeping up in school. Early intervention programmes that focus on literacy and numeracy development among disadvantaged students, and a knowledge-rich primary school curriculum would go a long way towards narrowing the attainment gap, thus reducing the likelihood of school disengagement among the disadvantaged. Mr. Quinn seems not even to be aware of the success of these measures in reducing the achievement gap in other countries, however. 

Dr. Anne Looney

The second person I’ve identified as being at the root of progressive reforms is Dr. Anne Looney, Chief Executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), who seems to have had Ruairí Quinn’s ear throughout the reform process. According to Dr. Looney, ‘research evidence’ shows that centralised state exams are bad, and that everyone just has to change their ‘mindset’ and get on board with ‘superior’ modes of assessment, which are formative and classroom-based rather than summative and centralised. In her statements she produces no evidence for these claims, unfortunately. Dr. Looney’s original proposals have since been watered down, but the most recent framework proposal continues to push for formative assessment and a less centralized curriculum. This is in spite of the evidence that formative assessment was a complete failure in Britain, as Daisy Christodoulou explains in her upcoming book, ‘Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning’. In the first chapter, entitled ‘Why Didn’t Assessment for Learning Transform Our Schools?’, she shows that assessment for learning is only effective when it is employed as a tool for learning, not as a formalized method of assessment. Christodoulou’s book reveals the false promises made by educationalists in Britain who claimed that formative assessment would be ‘transformative’, as Dr. Looney has been claiming in Ireland.

Formative assessment can be valuable if it involves giving immediate feedback to students on the mistakes they are making and how they can rectify them. Feedback is thus effective if it plots a way forward for the student, pointing to specific actions that will improve future performance. If feedback is merely a summary of a student’s mistakes or if it is long delayed, it is ineffective, however. The state-mandated formative assessment being introduced under the JC reforms will thus most likely be ineffective, as it will not provide instant feedback and will focus on hard-to-measure skills such as oral communication, team-work and creativity (DES, 2015, p. 53).

Benefits of external, knowledge-based exams

Dr. Looney thus aims to move the Irish system away from high-stakes centralized exams based on content knowledge towards skills-based formative assessment. Her claims fly in the face of actual international research showing that high-stakes, knowledge-based exams motivate students to work hard, lead teachers to adopt better pedagogical methods, thereby improving learning and teaching.

As John Bishop demonstrates, in educational systems with high-stakes external exams, students spend less time watching TV, more time studying and reading, and are taught by better qualified teachers. This is partly due to the fact that there is more riding on academic results, thus raising parents’ and students’ expectations of the quality of schools. Bishop also finds that doing well in state exams becomes a form of positive signalling to peers, family and potential future employers. Although this may be less true of the JC than the Leaving Cert, people do take note of JC results and they do mean a lot to students and their parents. This leads to a greater investment of time and effort in educational performance. Contrary to the belief that such exams lead to sterile forms of ‘teaching to the test’, the subtle pressure of state exams causes teachers to adopt strategies that have been shown to maximise learning. It has been found that those teachers whose students get the best results in external state exams are, unsurprisingly, also those with the best subject knowledge and most effective teaching methods.

Where educational systems have decentralized, school-based assessments, on the other hand, students are less motivated to study for exams, since results will be determined by the relative achievement of their classmates on norm-based tests and teacher grades rather than on external objective measurements. This runs the risk of a kind of anti-academic culture emerging that discourages study so as not to raise the average norm-based grade. For example, those who work hard for exams in US school-based assessments are frequently ostracised or bullied for raising the average grade of the class against which their classmates are compared, making life more difficult for classmates who now also have to study if they want to do well. School-based assessment also encourages students to choose teachers who are easy markers.


The NCCA seems to be completely unaware of research that stresses the advantages of externally-graded, standardised exams: the JC reform proposals aim to shift Irish education away from the exam-based traditional model and towards a more decentralised model placing less emphasis on performance in externally-graded exams. Even after it emerged that Ireland has been doing well on objective international comparisons, the NCCA has refused to change course on JC reform. It’s a pity that Irish educational policy is being dictated by ideologues who have already made up their minds and refuse to listen opposing voices.