Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has rowed back on a controversial proposal to limit to eight the number of Junior Certificate subjects allowed for students from as early as next year.

The proposal, which would have affected next year’s first years, was strongly criticised by teacher unions who said it would cause chaos in schools.

This afternoon, Minister Quinn told post primary school principals that there was no obligation on schools to limit the number of exam subjects next year or the year after.

However, the minister said he would encourage schools to do so.

Figures released by the Department show the number of Junior Cert students sitting exams in a large number of subjects has increased dramatically in recent years.

Since 1995, there has been a 20 fold increase in the number of students taking 11 or more subjects. In 1995, just over 1,100 students sat that many exams, but this year almost 24,000 did.

This year the vast majority of Junior Cert students sat exams in 10 or 11 subjects. However, in 1995 most students sat an exam in just nine subjects.

The Education Minister has argued that limiting the number of subjects to be examined would reduce the problem of curriculum overload and would make more time for the development of core skills, such as literacy and numeracy.

The ASTI teacher's union has welcomed the minister's statement.

The union says it agrees that the programme has become overloaded and needs reform.

However, it said the recent unexpected announcement limiting the number of subjects a student could take had caused major confusion in schools.

The union said teachers wanted their students to receive an education that was relevant and meaningful and which equipped them for life.

The proposal to limit the number of subjects was part of a wider package of Junior Cert reforms due to be implemented from 2014.