Just what are schools for?

It’s the kind of question that can get you thinking.

Depending on who’s standing on a soapbox, you could be led to think that schools are responsible for any number of different, and possibly contradictory, functions.

  • Schools should prepare students for science
  • Schools should prepare students for business
  • Schools should prepare students for the world of work
  • Schools should prepare students for the arts

and so on.

In the midst of all of this there is the juggernaut of assessment.  The cycle of PISA brings panic and hysteria to departments and newsrooms as whole countries try to reassess how they are doing in competition with their neighbours.

I have previously stated my reservations around the Narrow Focus on Assessment, but for a better reply to PISA than I could ever write, have a look at this piece written in the Guardian.

But schools are, I  believe, more than just about turning out utilitarian units destined to be productive members of the business community or of industry.

I think that the piece of Irish Legislation dealing with the running of schools (The Education Act, 1998) actually gives a good idea of what schools can be.  In Section 9, (d) the Act states that schools shall “promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students, and provide health education for them

That really opens it up.

The children we take into schools will one day leave as adults ready to take their place in the world.

Yes, some will go on to be business leaders, and yes, some will go on to be innovators, entrepreneurs, productive employees.

But not all of them.

There will also students who will not find a job, there will be the students who may be too ill, or have too great a disability to work.

The students who leave our schools will go on to become parents, friends and neighbours.  They will be members of communities and clubs, they will be a part of society.  And how do our schools serve them?

Schools are not something that are separate, where students are trained.  Schools are a part of society.  They are places that children grow and develop.  They are messy complicated places full of little (and large) dramas.  Schools have got ranges of students of differing abilities, and differing personalities.  Schools are full of students fighting their own battles and still trying to do their best.

We already know this.  But in the face of the constant pressure of assessment, we sometimes forget it.

There is a great line in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’.  In a scene where a library is burning, some characters argue over which books to save.  As one fights for scrolls on maths and engineering, another fights for literature and philosophy “these teach us how to be human!” he cries.

I like that.

Schools are places full of humanity, and places where we learn to be human.

Maybe, ultimately, this is what schools are for.  Places where we learn to become human.

New Junior Cert

(For anyone outside Ireland, a little information about what the Junior Cert is is at the bottom of the page.)

One of the important things to know about the Junior and Leaving cert is that the exams are totally impartial.  The papers are set and corrected by the State Examinations Commission.  I have corrected papers in the Junior cert (JC), and never had any indication about the the origin of the papers I corrected.  I never know the gender, background or address of any student.  I could not bring any prejudice or favouritism to the grades that I would award.  And that, I believe, is as it should be.

This brings us to the new Junior Cert.  Our minister for Education has decreed that the JC will pretty much end in 2016.  At that point the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will have no more role in correcting those papers.  The new programme is called the Junior Cycle Student Award.  It is based around 24 statements of learning.  The awards are granted by local schools, and the courses are assessed by the teachers within those schools.  This leads me to a few problems.


As I said earlier, one of the great advantages of the current JC is that the examiner never knows the student.  Whatever mark a student  receives is based purely on the students work and ability.

Under the new system teachers will be responsible for continual assessment, and grading their own students.  That’s it, the end of impartiality; welcome favouritism, or vendettas.

Or maybe what might happen is that I could design my own course, and give my students great marks, because I’m just that good.  Or what happens if my whole school tries this.  Suddenly, going by our results, it’s an absolutely outstanding school, ticking all the right boxes.  But what about the school just up the road?  Don’t they have the same success stories? What about the school that doesn’t worry about ticking the boxes, and instead focuses on student welfare, and achieving basic numeracy and literacy in an area of disadvantage?

It seems to me that by taking an impartial agency (the SEC) out of the process, the whole system becomes more open to abuse and manipulation.


A Junior Cert (or a Leaving Certificate) awarded to any student, anywhere in the state, carries the same level of validity.

The new Junior Cycle Student Award is fundamentally different.  Schools will follow a set of Core Subjects that are set nationally, but mix into this short courses and Priority Learning Units (PLUs).  (PLUs are designed to be used with students who may have learning difficulties)


At the moment teachers are busy people.  A teacher on full hours will teach 33 classes per week.  Under current agreements, the same teacher will be expected to supervise 45 minutes of break-time, and cover one class for other colleagues each week.

Lets look at those 33 classes.  In that the teacher will have a number of students who are preparing for state exams.  The teacher will be preparing for each class, and they will assign homework, class tests, and then correct all of the above.  The school day is busy enough to ensure all this won’t happen in a 9 to 4 day.  So, most teachers take work home with them.

Now.  What happens under the new regime?  Teachers will still have the existing workload but in addition will also have to administer continual assessment, and volumes of paperwork.  Because, to paraphrase, education must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.  Many teachers are worried about just how much extra workload will be loaded.


Casualisation of the Profession

Under our current system teachers are contracted yearly to teach a certain number of hours (not everyone has full teaching hours).  Under the new programme it is possible that teachers could be contracted for just the duration of a short course.

When this is tied to recent developments you get a clear picture that life is not very rosy for Newly Qualified Teachers.  Wages have been cut, and it is virtually impossible to get a full-time job.  (I have a number of friends who have been years teaching and are still not full-time)

The New programme may be the way to go, for example, students will undertake a maximum of 10 subjects, a cut from current practice.  However, I do think a lot of negotiation needs to happen in order for it to happen properly.


A little note on the Junior Cert & Leaving Cert

Secondary school students in Ireland face two state exams.  One at age 15, called the Junior cert, and one at about age 18, called the leaving cert.  These exams are huge markers for students.  The grades achieved in the Leaving Cert are a huge factor in access to further education for students.

The Junior Cert is a student’s first experience of state exams.  But it is more than just a marker.  Performance in the Junior cert can indicate to a student what level he/she should take on as they advance to senior school.