Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Just over two years ago (March 2013), I wrote an article for Public Affairs Ireland on the Junior Cycle entitled “Making innovation in education work”. In this article, I identified two key components necessary for successful curriculum reform; namely, dialogue with teachers, and investment in schools to support the change process. Fast-forward to May 2015, and these components remain centre-stage. In this article, I want to elaborate on what is now necessary to move beyond the current industrial relations impasse to ensure that the needs of our students remain the focus of curriculum reform.

In the 2013 article, I noted that the Framework for Junior Cycle is a particularly complex policy architecture. Unlike previous reforms, it moves beyond a focus on the “knowledge content” of the curriculum to a focus on students’ learning outcomes, their capacity to apply their knowledge (a skills-based approach) and, crucially, their social and emotional well-being as young adolescents. It also aims to generate quality assurance mechanisms in the education system which will generate evidence at school level, to enable the school to engage in continuous improvement. It provides for an inclusive curriculum by introducing specific curricular programmes for students with special educational needs and, for the first time, a new aligned qualification, placed at Level 2 of the National Qualifications Framework. The Framework is predicated on the concept of trust in the teacher-professional as an agent of change who, in the context of increased curriculum flexibility, is best placed to make decisions on what curriculum the school provides and how best to support and assess students’ learning.

Marginalising teachers

In hindsight, this very complexity should have alerted the drivers of the reform agenda to the need for innovative and widespread consultation with the teaching profession. Given our partnership model of curriculum development, those working outside the education system might find it hard to understand the depth of the perception among teachers that they had not been adequately consulted on the reform proposals. Several factors can explain this process. Unlike previous educational change which focused primarily on curriculum content, the Framework prioritises the learner with an attendant emphasis on integrating forms of assessment into everyday classroom practice to support the student and a syllabus model built around learner outcomes. For better or worse, the new language and philosophy of the Framework did not resonate with the experience of classroom teachers and resulted in a widespread perception of marginalisation from the change process.

This is a particularly problematic development at this point in time. Teachers need to be convinced of the merits of curriculum change in order to change their practice in the classroom. As noted in my previous article, the conclusion of the 2011 Report of the International Summit of the Teaching Profession1 teacher engagement is the most important factor in securing reform in education. It states:

“Learning outcomes are the results of what happens in classrooms, thus only reforms that are successfully implemented in classrooms can be expected to be effective. Teacher engagement in the development and implementation of reform is therefore crucial and school reform will not work unless it is supported from the bottom up. This requires those responsible for change to communicate their aims well and involve the stakeholders who are affected. But is also requires teachers to contribute as architects of change.” (p.51)

However, as noted in the Travers Report,2 the response of teachers to the Framework for Junior Cycle has also been influenced by a range of other issues—some related to the proposals themselves, others with deeper roots. The report noted that a decade of rapid social, demographic, and educational change, followed by salary cuts, deteriorating career structures, and the problem of increased temporary and casual employment in teaching have left many teachers alienated and distrustful.

What is clearly needed is ongoing dialogue, not just to address the outstanding issues arising from the Framework proposals, but also to address the systemic problems and related problems of under-investment and fractured career structures for teachers.

In this regard, the most recent ASTI Millward Brown survey3 of the capacity of schools to implement the new Framework for Junior Cycle—and other innovations—provides concrete evidence of how the cutbacks have eroded capacity and morale at all levels. Job dissatisfaction levels are at an all-time high: 52% of the 2,200 teachers surveyed stated that they were satisfied with their job compared to 77% in 2009. Workload was the main source of job dissatisfaction, in particular the high level of administrative duties in addition to teaching work.

The survey found that 88% of school principals believe that classroom teachers’ workloads are a key barrier to the implementation of the Framework for Junior Cycle. Similarly, more than 80% of classroom teachers say their current teaching schedule/workload is incompatible with the wide range of administrative, planning and collaboration work which are part of the Framework for Junior Cycle. These findings confirm other research which highlights the need to look at the manner in which teachers’ work is defined.

Given the depth of feeling teachers have about an increasingly unsustainable workload, it is not surprising that the new assessment process in the Framework for Junior Cycle has generated widespread discontent about the “bureaucratisation” of teaching.

The effect of cutbacks in education

The survey also examined the capacity of school leadership which has been badly damaged by the moratorium on appointments to in-school management positions. Despite some limited alleviation measures, most schools are struggling to deliver core services such as pastoral care, learning support, and special education teams. In fact, during the years 2009 to 2013, there were thirty separate identifiable cuts in second-level education funding, while at the same time twenty new school policy initiatives were introduced. Most, if not all of the latter, are premised on a concept of the school as an autonomous institution which has various team structures to regularly engage in self-evaluation and which, on the basis of evidence, delivers appropriate supports and curriculum to meet their students’ needs, including Planning and Implementing e-Learning in Schools 2009; Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life 2011;School Self-Evaluation 2012; National Anti-Bullying Procedures 2013; and Well-being in Post-Primary Schools: Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention 2013. At the same time, the second-level school system lost almost 1,500 teacher posts in this period because of the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio in 2009 and the inclusion of the Guidance Counsellor in the mainstream teacher allocation in 2012.

In effect, there has been a perfect storm of damaging cutbacks in education—in terms of teacher numbers and management capacity—and an never-ending process of innovation overload in schools. In this regard, the anger and frustration of teachers can be said to have crystallised around the Framework for the Junior Cycle.

No more time can be wasted in terms of getting comprehensive solutions to these inter-related problems. Dialogue must be restored between teachers and the institutions driving change to arrive at sustainable solutions to the acknowledged problems.

Dr Pauric Travers served as the Independent Chairperson of the negotiations between the Department of Education & Skills and the second-level teacher unions.

Editor’s note: Agreements have been reached between the ASTI, TUI, and Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan. The findings of these agreements will be published in a report of Friday 22 May 2015.