04 October 2012 - Minister Quinn announces major reform of the Junior Certificate

The Minister for Education and Skills is announcing a radical reform of the Junior Certificate. Plans unveiled today by Minister Ruairí Quinn T.D. will see students rather than examinations at the centre of the new approach to assessment.

“We already know that significant numbers of first years do not make progress in English and Maths – the key building blocks of learning,” said Minister Quinn.

“Too many students ‘switch off’ in second year and never reconnect to learning.  We know that the experience of third year students is dominated by preparations for the Junior Certificate exams where the focus narrows to the performance in the examination rather than the quality of the learning.  It is high time we changed this – for the good of our students and our teachers.”

The Minister’s plans amount to the most radical shake-up of the junior cycle programme since the ending of the Intermediate Certificate and Group Certificate examinations in 1991.  Minister Quinn has broadly accepted proposals put forward by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to introduce a new junior cycle programme.

Schools will be expected to deliver a programme that will enable students to develop a wide range of skills, including critical thinking skills and basic skills such as numeracy and literacy.

Most students will generally take no fewer than 8 subjects and no more than 10 full subjects for certification purposes in the new junior cycle.  Students can substitute two short courses for one full subject, allowing options such as Chinese or Physical Education or Digital Media Literacy to be taken.   Schools will also be able to offer their own short courses in accordance with specifications provided by the NCCA. This will give schools the flexibility to tailor the programme to the needs of students in their locality - for example, a short course might focus on an aspect of local industry, agriculture or heritage.

Minister Quinn has recognised that the current examination has dominated teaching and learning.  He said, “The Junior Certificate is no longer a high stakes exam, yet we continue to treat it as if it were a ‘dry run’ for the Leaving Cert – to the detriment of many of our students.  There is compelling evidence from many countries that shows more students will perform better by moving away from such terminal exams.” 

The terminal Junior Certificate Examinations will be replaced with a school-based model of assessment with an emphasis on the quality of students’ learning experience.  This will be done on a phased basis with English being the first subject to be introduced to First Year students in 2014. 

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) will be involved in the assessment of English, Irish and Mathematics in the initial years as recognition of the central role these subjects play in literacy and numeracy.  These subjects will be examined at higher and ordinary level, while all other subjects will be assessed at common level.  The SEC and the NCCA will also provide materials to schools to assist in on-going assessment of students’ progress and achievement. 

This school-based model of assessment is just one element of the changed approach to assessment in the new junior cycle.  From 2014, students in second year will sit standardised tests in English reading and Maths, and Irish reading in Irish-medium schools.  From 2016 standardised testing in Science will also be included. The NCCA is also developing a new report card for parents which will give them much more information about their son or daughter’s learning progress. 

Minister Quinn continued, “This is not about our schools, students and teachers doing more work at junior cycle.  It is about them doing things differently.  Teachers are already doing a great job, but they are often hamstrung by pressure to teach to the test.  The new reformed junior cycle will liberate teachers and their students.  Parents too will benefit by knowing much more about their children’s achievements over the three years of junior cycle than they could ever find out from a State Exam certificate at the end of Junior Cert.”

The new focus on assessment will require significant Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for teachers and principals.  These programmes of support will begin in 2013. 

“I have listened to teachers and principals who have asked for the new junior cycle to be fully resourced.  The changes I am announcing today are not about saving money, in fact they will cost us considerably more than if I were to do nothing.  However, even in these very difficult financial times, this Government believes in investing in our children and I will provide all the resources necessary to ensure the success of the new junior cycle,” Minister Quinn concluded. 

Today’s announcement follows the publication of Towards a Framework for Junior Cycle – Innovation and Identity by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) last November.  Detailed discussions have taken place between the NCCA, DES officials, the SEC and education partners on its implementation. 

Dr. Anne Looney, CEO of the NCCA said, “Following the NCCA review of Junior Cycle, it was clear that we needed to begin the process of moving away from a terminal examination towards a greater emphasis on school-based assessment, and we advised the Minister on that basis. He has accepted that advice and taken it a step further, signalling an end to the terminal examination as we know it so that we can focus on developing a school-based model for its own sake, rather than as an add-on to what we currently do in the Junior Certificate Examination. For a system so used to examinations, it will be a challenge for everyone - inside and outside the system - to adapt to the new mindset. But the research evidence is clear on the benefits of that new mindset - for teachers, for students and their parents. And that the benefits travel with the students into the next phase of their post-primary education.”

Aidan Farrell, CEO of the SEC said, “The SEC looks forward to working with the Department, the NCCA and education partners on the implementation of these proposals. We will work closely with the NCCA on the design and development of the assessment toolkit which will support schools and teachers in the delivery of the new assessment model.

The SEC will play a critical role in supporting the change initiative while continuing to deliver the current Junior Certificate examinations. Crucially, the change at junior cycle presents an opportunity for a refocusing of efforts at senior cycle towards more varied forms of assessment across all examinations subjects”.

[1][1] The current Junior Certificate examination is also at NFQ Level 3

A Framework for Junior Certificate Reform


Editors’ note


For the majority of students, schools will certify a student’s learning at National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) Level 3[1] and issue students with a School Certificate. For most students, this certification will generally be for no fewer than eight full subjects or their equivalent and no more than ten full subjects or their equivalent. For a small minority of students, schools will certify their special needs students learning at NFQ Level 2. This will reflect their learning in five key units. It will be also possible for some of these students to take priority learning units combined with some subjects and short courses.

Schedule for the phased implementation of subjects



Phase 1

Introduced to 1st years in school year 2014-15

First certification in autumn 2017



Phase 2

Introduced to 1st years in school year


First certification in autumn 2018





Business Studies


Phase 3

Introduced to 1st years in school year 2016-2017

First certification in autumn 2019

Phase 4

Introduced to 1st years in school year


First certification in autumn 2020

Art, Craft, Design

Modern Languages

Home Economics




Mathematics [2]

Technology subjects

Religious Education

Jewish Studies



[1] The current Junior Certificate examination is also at NFQ Level 3

[2] Mathematics is being put back until 2017/2018 to allow for the full implementation of Project Maths before changes will be made

[1][1] The current Junior Certificate examination is also at NFQ Level 3