Junior Cycle Reform

Below is a submission which our support group made to the NCCA in response to the call for ideas for a new Junior Cycle. The consultation phase ended on 3rd December 2010.

February 2011Summary of Consultation Findings

Of note is that our submission is specifically mentioned on page 16. It was one of 40 written submissions received.

October 2012: A Framework for Junior Cycle, final document.

Gifted Advocacy and Support Group – Wicklow/South Dublin

As a support group for parents of Exceptionally Able children in the South Dublin and North Wicklow areas, we are very interested in how a new Junior Cycle might address the needs of this learning population. We set up the support group in 2009 after the dissolution of the Irish Association for Gifted Children which had for many years served as a contact source for parents to meet in their local areas. We discovered a large cohort of parents involved and engaged in their children’s education. There are several other parents’ groups throughout the country. We are willing participants in initiatives to provide equality of challenge and opportunity for  Exceptionally Able and Twice Exceptional learners.

In formulating our response to the call for submissions for ideas for a new Junior Cycle, we considered the following criteria:

a)    Whether our proposal would benefit the largest possible cohort of pupils

b)    Whether the changes could be implemented on a phased basis

c)    Whether the changes would be cost-effective

d)    Whether our proposed Junior Cycle would be equally accessible to all schools

e)    Whether Exceptionally Able  pupils would benefit from the changes

Junior Cycle Portfolio

We noted that the NCCA has already identified the skills needed in the future by our students in its Key Skills Framework document. The learning of these skills cannot be ignored until the Senior Cycle and must be addressed before pupils even leave Primary level. We feel these skills can be most effectively learned by Junior Cycle students by moving away from a traditional exam-based system to a more flexible modular programme which we have called the “Junior Cycle Portfolio”. The fundamental idea is that students would spend between 3-5 years (depending on whether we include 6th class Primary and/or TY) building a personal achievement portfolio of their work.

The goals of the Junior Cycle Portfolio would be as follows:

1. That each student would build a personal portfolio of standards reached and goals achieved with examples of work, certificates, references, etc which would attest to the attainment reached and equate to the level of the old Junior Certificate.

2. That students would complete the Junior Cycle with a foundation for the skills needed for the 21st Century workplace, as outlined in the NCCA Key Skills Framework.

3. That each student would understand and be able to engage in the type of learning style most suited to their abilities and academic needs.

4. That students take ownership of their learning and its outcomes in the form of this personal portfolio which can be built upon and refined as they develop further skills.

5. That students be set on a path to understanding the value of life-long learning and how they can continue to develop their strengths even after they have completed learning modules.

6. That students complete the Junior Cycle with some ideas for a future career path, shaped by their experiences in creating their learning portfolio.

A Curriculum which leads to Life-Long Learning

Each curriculum subject would have built-in provision of the five key skills. This can be achieved through measuring progress and mastery in ways other than written examination.

Through the use of ICT, students could show their work by visual, audio or written output. Both group (Working With Others) and individual learning (Being Personally Effective) could be demonstrated in this way. Through project-based learning students could demonstrate research (Information Processing), process (Critical and Creative Thinking) and presentation (Communication) using the Key Skills needed for future attainment across a broad range of careers.

Using Assessment for Learning (AfL), teachers could set open-ended tasks for many subjects, as evidenced in the NCCA AfL examples. The role of teachers will necessarily change so that they become facilitators, consultants and mentors for their students rather than the more traditional role of instructor. Where students need extra help or guidance this can be put in place. It is vital that students identify  their own personal learning style and the methods by which they respond best to learning. There are many relatively simple questionnaires which students can fill in which will help them identify their strengths and utilize them effectively in building their portfolio. It is of enormous benefit to students to understand themselves in this regard. We also feel that if students are engaged in their own learning outcomes, they are more likely to remain in full-time education to Leaving Cert level and beyond.

We feel this approach would have benefits for students, teachers and schools. Although some training would have to be undertaken by teachers, the curriculum underpinning each current Junior Certificate subject would remain the same, with students choosing different modules of each (within parameters set by  schools/ Dept of Ed) rather than the current content-heavy rote-learning approach.

The difference lies in the principle that we must guide our young people in how to take responsibility for their learning. From 6th class or 1st Year, students would learn “how to learn”, to research, find resources, use expert advice, work co-operatively and work on their own to reach goals they set largely themselves under guidance from their teachers. Each child would learn to maximise their own potential and measure their progress against themselves rather than against an artificial benchmark of an “average” student, which some students easily surpass and others find a struggle. Although a certain minimum standard would need to be agreed upon to achieve a Junior Cycle Portfolio award, there would be no limit on the level that could be attained therefore allowing students to find their own strengths in certain subject areas and move on at their own pace. This approach would also “level the playing field” for the many students who do not perform to the best of their ability in formal examination environments.

Examples of work which could be included in a Junior Cycle Portfolio

  • House Exam results (continuous assessment)
  • Music/Performing arts achievements
  • Sports participation certificates
  • Scouting awards, badges, achievements
  • Science Project and Experiment Log
  • CTYI certificates
  • Multimedia Presentations
  • Examples of Group Presentations and Projects
  • Problem-Solving Programme participation log
  • Gaisce awards
  • Young Scientists certificates
  • Young Social Innovators awards
  • Projects on curricular subjects
  • Community awards
  • Research projects (individual or group)
  • ECDL
  • Art/metalwork/woodwork or other work

Parental Involvement

A new study by researchers at the University of Leicester and University of Leeds shows that parental effort in their child’s education is the determining factor in educational attainment. It also found that the effort of parents, student and teacher was what aided achievement regardless of socio-economic background. The study concludes that “policies that aim at improving parental effort might be effective in strengthening educational attainment. Influencing parental effort is certainly something that is much easier than modifying their social background.”  Ref  Schools should use the portfolio approach to encourage the active participation of parents in helping children acquire the skills needed for the 21st Century and the production of their portfolio.

Examples of Resources to support a Junior Cycle Portfolio

The Differentiator


Introducing Depth and Complexity

Future Problem Solving Program International


Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats

Guide to Learning Styles

Exceptionally Able students in a new Junior Cycle

The Centre for Talented Youth in Ireland at Dublin City University gives a thorough outline of the importance of identification of gifted students in the article Why Should We Identify Gifted Children. We need a clear method of identifying EA children so that we ensure as many as possible are afforded the opportunities and support needed to thrive.

Teachers should receive tuition in recognising and supporting giftedness as part of their pre-service training. Giftedness is far more than a high IQ. It tends to come with a whole array of learning, social and emotional traits and characteristics which must be understood in order to be supported. As well as basic training for all teachers, we must have some teachers who have more in depth knowledge of gifted education. Each school should have at least one such teacher who can act as a consultant within their own school community, as outlined in the NCCA Guidelines for the Teaching of Exceptionally Able Pupils in Section Four.

A new Junior Cycle has the opportunity to provide for EA pupils by facilitating the implementation of the NCCA Guidelines for the Teaching of Exceptionally Able Pupils. The Guidelines provide the template schools need to identify and support gifted learners. Our proposed Junior Cycle Portfolio complements the aims of the Guidelines in ensuring that the learning needs of Exceptionally Able students are adequately met and gifted students can reach their potential.

Gifted Advocacy and Support – Wicklow/South Dublin

Coordinators: Karen McCarthy and Catherine Riordan

NCCA Junior Cycle consultation: list of submissions.