A study of Junior Cycle education has identified concerns among some school principals and teachers that a "chasm" has emerged between junior and senior post-primary learning as a result of "dumbing down" at Junior Cycle level.

The research, into the impact of the new Junior Cycle programme, has also heard that Classroom Based Assessments (CBAs) are causing heightened stress and anxiety for students and teachers, and that almost one third of teachers feel that the assessments are "not at all" a valid measure of students' work.

The concerns are among very initial findings published today as part of wider research that is ongoing at the University of Limerick.

The research, Exploring the introduction of the Framework for Junior Cycle - A longitudinal study, was commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).

However, as these findings were published, second-level teacher union the ASTI said it would direct its members to stop cooperating with the research project.

The union has expressed concern about a perceived conflict of interest, centring on the role of one member of the research team who previously worked for the NCCA on Junior Cycle subject development.

The union said while this person's integrity and professionalism were unquestionable and ordinarily they would be the ideal person to conduct such research, it believes that their previous role could lead to a perception of a conflict of interest.

The NCCA said it absolutely rejected any suggestion of a conflict of interest.

It said the governance and procurement processes underpinning the study were rigorous, transparent and fully compliant with relevant frameworks and regulations.

It said the UL tender had clearly stated the roles that the researcher in question had in relation to NCCA work in the past.

The new Framework for Junior Cycle was introduced in 2014. As well as exams at the end of third year, students are also assessed through projects called Classroom Based Assessments that are carried out during second and third year.

The exams they sit at the end of third year are shorter in duration and most have a common level, as opposed to Higher and Ordinary.

Study findings

The study found concerns around CBAs and stress, as well as under-preparation for the Senior Cycle, were greater in schools with a stronger focus on academic outcomes.

Some principals referred to a "chasm" that had emerged between the two cycles and perceived that the gap had been caused by a "dumbing down" at Junior Cycle level, but others said the "disconnect" highlighted inadequacies in the Leaving Certificate cycle and strengthened arguments for the need for reform at that level.

On anxiety caused by CBAs one school principal told researchers: "You were finding second and third year students who are giving up hockey because 'I have four or five CBAs coming up' or ‘I'm not doing the school show because we have CBAs’.

"I've had conversations with healthcare representatives and social workers over the last few weeks where students, because they knew they had a CBA on a Tuesday or Thursday, just weren’t coming to school on those days … the heightened level of anxiety is just incredible."

Elevated anxiety

The report finds that at times students' elevated anxiety levels appear to have been caused by teacher anxiety.

"This elevation of the CBAs to a significant high-stakes assessment was suggested as a significant stressor by another principal," it stated.

While this study does not include the direct voice of students, student representatives were interviewed as part of engagement with stakeholder groups.

Those representatives raised concerns about the low percentage of marks allocated to CBAs and claimed that the percentage allocated to the task did not reflect the amount of effort made by the students, the study found.

Student representatives also complained that the workload associated with CBAs was too time-consuming.

A school management body warned of ‘CBA fatigue’ emerging among teachers.

However, the study said that "despite the concerns put forward in relation to how the CBAs were interpreted at a school level, and the low weighting assigned to them, there was a recognition that the CBAs had contributed greatly to the development of important life skills and that they were enjoyed by students because of the opportunities they afforded students to explore topics of interest to them".

The study stated that its "tentative findings indicate the need for further investigation into these issues".