New Studies of Senior Cycle Education in Ireland Published

Media Release for the two reports 'Choices and Challenges: Moving from Junior Cycle to Senior Cycle Education', by Emer Smyth and Emma Calvert, ESRI, and 'From Leaving Certificate to Leaving School: A Longitudinal Study of Sixth Year Students' by Emer Smyth, Joanne Banks and Emma Calvert, ESRI.



New Studies of Senior Cycle Education in Ireland Published

To be launched at the HEA-NCCA Conference, 'Transition or Transaction?: Moving from Second to Third Level Education in Ireland', on 21 September 2011 at O'Reilly Hall, University College Dublin. Choices and Challenges: Moving from Junior Cycle to Senior Cycle Education and From Leaving Certificate to Leaving School: A Longitudinal Study of Sixth Year Students. The most comprehensive studies of senior cycle education in Ireland are published today (20 September). They address some of the key questions facing the Irish educational system: What effect does the Leaving Certificate exam have on young people's learning experiences? What helps students to perform well in the Leaving Certificate exam? How do young people make decisions about the transition to higher education? What kinds of skills do young people develop during their time at school? These books provide an important evidence base for answering these questions by drawing on surveys of, and interviews with, young people in fifth and sixth year. They are the latest in a series of publications documenting the experiences of students as they move through the second-level system. The books highlight many new findings relating to senior cycle education, including: The current Leaving Certificate model impacts significantly on teaching and learning in sixth year and earlier years.

  • The study clearly indicates that the current Leaving Certificate model tends to narrow the range of student learning experiences and to focus both teachers and students on 'covering the course'.
  • Sixth year students report teacher-centred classes, which focus on practising previous exam papers, and a very heavy workload.
  • Many students contrast what happens in their classes with the kinds of active learning which engage them. Others, especially high-aspiring students, become more instrumental, focusing on what is likely to 'come up' on the exam paper, and expressing frustration with teachers who do not focus on exam preparation.
  • Almost half of sixth year students take private tuition ('grinds') to prepare for the exam.
  • Young people are acutely aware of the 'high stakes' attached to the Leaving Certificate exam, and the way in which it represents a gateway to future education and job opportunities.
  • Levels of stress are high among many Leaving Certificate students, especially among girls. Many are spending considerable amounts of time on homework and study and find it hard to balance the two.

Leaving Certificate achievement is strongly influenced by junior cycle experiences.

  • Choices made as early as first year about subjects and subject levels may limit the options open to young people for the Leaving Certificate and after leaving school. This is a particularly important issue for students in lower stream classes and those in working-class schools.
  • Second year is a crucial phase in student engagement. It is often regarded as an 'in-between' year by school personnel but many students who struggle with their schoolwork in second year find it hard to regain the ground lost later on.
  • The quality of relations between teachers and students plays a vital role in shaping student engagement and performance. There is evidence that disengagement from school at senior cycle can stem from negative patterns of teacher-student interaction at junior cycle.
  • Students placed in lower stream (ability) classes in junior cycle are more likely to drop out of school early and achieve much lower Leaving Certificate grades than others, all else being equal.

Moving to senior cycle is an important transition for young people.

  • Most students report a significant 'gap' in standards between junior and senior cycle. They find schoolwork much more difficult on entry to fifth year, and course materials and types of assessment are more demanding.
  • Many fifth year students report particular difficulties with higher level subjects, with some dropping down from higher to ordinary level during the year because of course demands. This is a particular issue for Maths.

Are young people prepared for the future?

  • Sixth year involves not only preparing for the exams but also making key decisions about life after school. Students are broadly positive about the guidance they receive but feel it is overly centred on higher education entry. They would like guidance provision to be made available at an earlier stage and to have more time for individual sessions with the guidance counsellor.
  • Clear social class differences are evident in young people's decision-making processes. Middle-class students draw on a good deal of 'insider' knowledge of the higher education system from their parents and siblings. Their working-class peers are more reliant on school-based guidance.
  • Looking back, young people are most positive about the personal and social development aspects of their education, about 'the education' they had received and about the development of 'learning to learn' skills. But they are more critical about whether school prepared them for adult life and for the world of work.

These books provide unique insights into young people's experiences of preparing for the Leaving Certificate. They highlight important issues for policy, suggesting ways of enhancing senior cycle education, by, for example, providing access to a broader range of teaching methods, embedding key skills such as critical thinking in the curriculum, and utilising a broader range of assessment modes. They also point to the need to adopt a more positive school climate, flexible forms of ability grouping, and early guidance regarding educational choices in order to enhance student engagement in education.

Note to Editors: 1. Choices and Challenges: Moving from Junior Cycle to Senior Cycle Education, by Emer Smyth and Emma Calvert, ESRI, and From Leaving Certificate to Leaving School: A Longitudinal Study of Sixth Year Students by Emer Smyth, Joanne Banks and Emma Calvert, ESRI, are joint publications of the ESRI, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), and the Department of Education and Skills (DES). The study was funded by the NCCA and the DES. 2. The publications will be launched at the joint HEA-NCCA Conference 'Transition or Transaction: Moving from Second to Third-level Education in Ireland' which will take place on Wednesday 21 September at O'Reilly Hall, University College Dublin. For information please visit our website. 3. Members of the Media are invited to attend a Media Briefing to be held at the ESRI, Whitaker Square, Sir John Rogerson's Quay, Dublin 2 on Tuesday 20 September, at 11 am. 4. The publications will be available to download from our website at noon on Tuesday 20 Septmeber. 

Link to Leaving Certificate Publication details