It is time to change senior cycle education, say students, parents and teachers
New ESRI research shows a strong appetite among students, parents and teachers for changing senior cycle education, which incorporates Transition Year, 5th Year and 6th Year. A study presenting their viewpoints shows that they mainly focus on changing the approach to assessment, with the objectives of reducing stress and capturing a broader range of student skills.
The report analyses findings from two rounds of consultation with 41 schools conducted by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) as part of a broader review of senior cycle. The study was carried out in the school year 2018-19 and recorded what participants believe are the positive and negative aspects of the current senior cycle programme and how they believe current challenges could be addressed.
According to participants in the study, a reformed senior cycle should include spreading assessment out throughout senior cycle and using a wider variety of methods to assess student performance, such as project work, portfolios and presentations. Teachers strongly emphasised that assessments should continue to be marked externally to maintain a fair and transparent system.
Participants also felt that senior cycle should embed life skills in the curriculum to better prepare young people for further/higher education, employment and adult life. Suggestions included work experience placements, the development of life skills (such as online safety and handling social media) and enhancing personal skills such as independence and resilience. Some participants supported greater flexibility in terms of combining different elements of senior cycle programmes (for example, taking Leaving Certificate Applied modules alongside some Leaving Certificate Established subjects) and allowing students to take subjects or courses at a different pace or degree of difficulty to cater to different needs.
Participants felt that such reforms would help to address current challenges, including a heavy workload and pressure to “cover the course”, which result in a focus on rote learning. These issues were seen as having a negative effect on student wellbeing, with young people reducing their involvement in sports and social activities in the build-up to the exam. Students were particularly vocal about the impact on their stress levels, with even junior cycle students expressing apprehension at facing the pressure of senior cycle.
Many participants highlighted the view that the current senior cycle programme provides limited pathways to success for students with a more practical orientation. It was also noted that pathways for students with special educational needs could be improved.
When it came to highlighting positive aspects of senior cycle, teachers and parents pointed to several strengths, such as the range of subjects available to study and the value of Transition Year in providing a wide variety of learning experiences. Students were also very positive about Transition Year. They highlighted positive relationships with their teachers and felt they were increasingly treated like adults after the transition to senior cycle. However, students were more critical of senior cycle than teachers and parents and contrasted the interactive methods used in junior cycle with the exam-focused approach in senior cycle.
Emer Smyth, one of the authors of the report commented, “This exercise has shown the value of listening to young people on issues that affect their lives. Young people provide a clear vision of the kinds of learning that would help develop them to their potential and prepare them for the changing world ahead of them. Their views should be taken into account in any changes to senior cycle.”
John Hammond, CEO of the NCCA, said: “It’s at classroom and school level that changes in learning actually happen so it made sense for schools to be a major source of ideas and feedback in the senior cycle review. We’d like to thank the teachers, students, and parents in the 41 collaborating schools for their enthusiasm, willingness, experience and expertise in contributing to the review. Their work, alongside the recently concluded final phase of consultation, which included 10 rounds of focus group meetings, 18 bilateral meetings, a national forum attended by 153 participants, and 4,300 responses to the NCCA’s online survey, provides us with a great basis upon which the review can now be progressed. The publication of the ESRI’s research report is both useful and timely in this context.”