Batt O'Keeffe: radical shake-up

THE cabinet is considering the abolition of the Junior Certificate exam, taken by over 50,000 secondary school students annually, as a radical cost-cutting measure in next month's budget.

The sensational Department of Education proposal has been discussed at the cabinet table, according to Leinster House sources.

The Sunday Tribune understands that the proposed abolition could save up to €30m annually.

The government is looking into the viability of replacing the exam, which has been in existence since it replaced the Intermediate Certificate in 1992, with a new system of continuous assessment, with just one state-run Leaving Certificate exam at second level.

The cabinet discussions on scrapping the Junior Cert came after education minister Batt O'Keeffe signalled his support for a radical shake-up of the exam on results day in September.

He suggested a move away from rote learning as there is not enough emphasis on project work and other methods of learning.

He asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to review the exam.

The NCCA is due to report back before the end of the year.

News that the cabinet is considering abolishing the exam is a further indication of the severity of the crisis in the public finances.

Also in the area of education, it is understood that the government is considering putting a limit on free school transport in a cost-saving measure that will save between €100m and €150m annually.

If the proposal is implemented in the budget, only children of medical-card holders will be entitled to free school transport.

Under current rules, the distance a child lives from a school is the key determining factor in whether or not they get free school transport.

Like all other government departments, O'Keeffe's department is engaged in a series of bilateral discussions with the Department of Finance as the government attempts to deliver €4bn in savings in the 9 December budget.

According to a government source, the cabinet is also looking at cuts in the third-level grants system which could amount to cuts of anything up to 10% in student support grants. "Everything is on the table," the source said.

Cuts in the area of third-level research funding are also being considered by the government, although it is extremely difficult to see how the government could realistically cut this funding at a time when it is actively promoting the development of the 'smart economy'.

Despite the government's efforts to make savings in the budget next month, the Sunday Tribune has learned that concessions given to the Green Party in the recently renegotiated Programme for Government have come at a substantial price.

The decision to provide 500 teaching posts between primary and second level over the next three years will cost the exchequer €37m in a full year, according to a government source.

The Sunday Tribune has also learned that the estimated cost of the commitment to have "no further increase in the pupil-teacher ratio for the lifetime of this government", as laid out in the Programme for Government, will be €250m.

Meanwhile, Department of Finance officials warned last week that all sectors will face "extraordinary pain" in the forthcoming budget.