Recent President, National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD)
Senior Cycle Review
The NCCA is currently undertaking a review of senior cycle in post-primary education. The review offers an opportunity to explore the learning experiences of senior-cycle students and to generate a shared vision for senior cycle and a strong base from which to shape a curriculum that meets the needs of all learners for years to come. Kieran Golden outlines the findings to date.
To date, the senior-cycle review involved two phases: scoping, and school review followed by national seminars.
Phase 1, scoping (2016–17), identified key themes for exploration and established the process for conducting the review.
Phase 2, school-based review and national seminars (2018–19), provided the opportunity to work with forty-one schools nationwide to gather, analyse, and discuss teacher, student, and parent perspectives on senior-cycle education.
The school review took place over two cycles:
- Cycle one focused on the purpose of senior cycle education.
- Cycle two focused on pathways, programmes, and flexibility.
The feedback from schools in each cycle was analysed by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and presented at national seminars for further discussion with a broader range of stakeholders.
Teachers, students, and parents highlight many positive aspects of senior cycle, including:
- opportunities for students to mature, develop personally, and strengthen relationships with each other and with their teachers (this was frequently linked to experiences during transition year)
- the high quality of teaching staff, mature relationships with teachers, and motivational teachers
- varied methods of assessment, such as project work, portfolio-based work, opportunities for oral communication of learning, and assessments which are less time-pressurised and spaced out across senior cycle
- the objective, fair, and highly regarded nature of the current examination system
- varied teaching methods, including class discussions, peer learning, and pair and group work
- career guidance
- work experience opportunities and links with the local community and businesses
- emphasis on pastoral care
- supports such as learning support, and a focus on inclusion and mentoring
- positive school climate
- extracurricular activities.
Teachers, students, and parents also highlighted challenges in the current system, including:
- less value placed upon vocational, practical, and creative skills, subjects, and programmes
- concern about students’ wellbeing: parents raised the difficulty of trying to maintain personal interests, leisure activities, sports participation, and part-time work; students mentioned lack of free time for extracurricular activities, social interactions, and in some cases sleep; teachers highlighted the pressure across seven subjects and the impact on student well-being
- challenges of transition year (TY), including financial and location barriers to participation (some schools don’t offer TY), and difficulty regaining an academic focus after TY
- excessive workload and content-heavy curricula, leading to time pressures
- excessive exam focus, leading to stress, anxiety, and in some cases lower motivation; excessive media focus on examinations, and a lack of re-sits when a student is sick during exams
- stress from the ‘points race’ leading to poor subject, level, and programme choices, not reflecting students’ interests, abilities, or aptitudes; grinds culture giving an unfair advantage to families who can afford it and placing additional demands on students’ already limited free time
- different value placed on higher and ordinary levels in school culture and in the points system; bonus points for Mathematics leading to a range of challenges for teachers and students
- Career guidance viewed both as a positive and as a challenge in the system: more support may be needed, routes other than higher education should be emphasised, and students may be too young to make lifelong decisions
- focus on memorisation and under-emphasis on higher-order critical-thinking skills; the backwash effect of final exams on teaching and learning; concerns that exams come to be seen as a test of memory rather than intelligence
- parental and familial expectations and their impact on students, whether positive or negative, in terms of motivation and stress
- challenges with soft skills like motivation, responsibility, attendance, and independent learning
- currently there is no senior cycle programme following on from Level 1 and Level 2 Learning Programmes for students with significant educational needs
- lack of access to higher education from the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme, and stigma associated with the programme.
On the purpose of senior cycle education, teachers, students, and parents affirmed that now and into the future it should provide opportunities and experiences which:
Ask students to apply knowledge and develop skills
Teachers and parents emphasised higher-order questioning, critical thinking, problem-solving, information-processing, independent and collaborative learning, and the importance of opportunities to apply their knowledge. Research, analytical, writing, communication, presentation, and digital skills were all deemed significant. Creativity and innovation also featured, though less frequently.
Contribute to their personal development
Teachers, parents, and students all emphasised the importance of developing soft skills such as resilience, self-respect, personal responsibility, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, self-acceptance and confidence, compassion, empathy, self-management, and a love of learning. They emphasised the importance of relationships and sexuality education. Developing the skills needed for life beyond school is deemed important in areas such as money management, cooking, DIY, driving, first aid, and job interviews.
Build towards diverse futures
Teachers, students, and parents recognise there are many pathways that students may take after school, including higher and further education, apprenticeships, traineeships, employment, or a combination of these. It was suggested there is too much emphasis on transition to higher education and not enough emphasis and value placed on other pathways and on lifelong learning.
Teachers, students, and parents would like to see more value placed on non-academic achievements.
Contribute to full citizenship and participation in society and the economy
Teachers, students, and parents would like to see more value placed on non-academic achievements such as effort and commitment, participation in school activities, and community and volunteer work. Students would like to see a more holistic report of their achievements at the end of senior cycle.
Teachers agreed up to a point but had queries about how this might best be achieved. Teachers, students, and parents all suggested that the ultimate purpose of senior cycle education is to help every young adult to reach their full potential.
The NAPD was one of many groups and organisations invited to bilateral meetings with the NCCA as part of the review of senior cycle. Earlier in the year, the NCCA commissioned ‘Senior Cycle Reform: What do you want?’, a research report on the need for senior cycle reform designed to promote dialogue while the NCCA was engaging in national consultations. This study was an attempt to explore possible solutions to make our senior cycle better.
While the current Leaving Cert enjoys the support of parents and students, the status quo doesn’t suit the needs of up to 25% of the cohort and would benefit from a review and a programme of reform to make senior cycle more reflective of the vision we have for society and the values we wish to promote among our young people.
Areas explored during the NAPD bilateral meeting included the use of the Leaving Cert as a filter for college entry; the possibility of extending the range of assessment to include presentations, project work, and extended essays; the possibility of including credits gained in fifth year in the final assessment portfolio; not having so much depend on performance in terminal exams in June; re-energising the Leaving Cert Applied and Leaving Cert Vocational; and reviewing different pathways to further education and apprenticeships.
The NCCA has reviewed the syllabi and content of a number of subjects and is engaging in further reviews as we speak.
New Subjects on the Curriculum
Responding to a specific request from the Minister, Computer Studies is now on the subject lines in fifth year. Google and Microsoft see this as a major commitment by the State to tackle a skills shortage. The availability of a second assessment component is welcome as part of the final exam. It is vital that necessary resources are made available in all schools to embed Computer Studies.
Students would like to see a more holistic report of their achievements at the end of senior cycle.
Lack of equipment or broadband must not be an issue if schools wish to introduce the subject. Equity in the system demands that such a relevant subject as Computer Science must not be offered in schools where parents cannot afford to provide the necessary equipment.
Politics and Society was introduced as a pilot subject in a small number of schools and has already been examined at Leaving Cert level. It has proved extremely popular, so it was no surprise that all schools who wished to offer it this year were permitted to do so. Uptake of the subject (which, unusually for Ireland, has an emphasis on philosophy), is higher than expected in schools that offer it. In some quarters there is concern that it may put pressure on numbers taking History for Leaving Cert, despite the controversy around History as a compulsory subject at junior cycle.
Colleagues have remarked that the reflective aspect of Politics and Society has enabled students to develop skills that contribute to the development of a rational student voice. Students develop an awareness of how to bring about change in the school and in society. An articulate student voice is so effective in a school!
The third subject to be offered is Physical Education. There was a broad welcome for Phys Ed as an exam subject, which is on offer in a small number of pilot schools. The infrastructure to enable full delivery of the programme is several years away because of a shortage of PE halls and essential equipment in schools at primary and post-primary, but the quality of the programme gives great hope for the future. The arrival of non-exam Phys Ed is also a good thing. The use of technology by way of an app is to be welcomed and should increase participation levels, particularly in sixth year when many students give up the subject.
NCCA’s broad consultation process is worth it. Taking time to reach consensus is the best way forward so that informed decisions can be made in the national interest.