The Primary Classroom: Insights From the ‘Growing Up In Ireland’ Study

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This report provides new insights into teaching and learning in primary classrooms. Drawing on the Growing Up in Ireland study, the findings highlight how children’s experiences vary quite dramatically depending on the school they attend and the teacher they have.

There is large variation across schools, and within schools, in the time allocated to particular subject areas. This may mean that some students have over 18 full days less instruction than others in subjects such as Mathematics.

  • Teachers appear to adjust their timetable to reflect the mix of students in the school. As a result, marked differences are found between DEIS (disadvantaged) and non-DEIS schools, with children in DEIS schools spending more time on English and less time on Irish. Differences are also found by school gender mix, with boys’ schools spending more time on Physical Education, History and Geography, and girls’ schools spending more time on religious education.
  • But timetabling variation is also found to reflect teachers’ own characteristics, with more experienced teachers much more likely to spend greater amounts of time on English, Irish and Mathematics.
    While the Primary Curriculum (1999) focuses on children as active learners, the results show that more traditional teaching approaches remain dominant. Whole-class teaching continues to be commonplace, with much less use of active learning methods (such as group-work) than had been envisaged. Again this varies by teacher characteristics and classroom setting.
  • Younger teachers are more likely to use more active methodologies in the classroom than more experienced teachers. This suggests that initial teacher education has had a significant impact on more recent education graduates.
  • More active methods are much less prevalent in larger classes, indicating the constraints caused by class size.
  • Some groups of children have greater access to the kinds of active methods which may engage them in learning. Girls, those attending fee-paying schools, those attending gaelscoileanna and those in non-disadvantaged schools are more likely to experience active learning in their classroom than other children.

Speaking about the report, author Dr. Selina McCoy stated:

“The report highlights significant variation in the types of teaching and learning experiences primary school children have. While this reflects schools and teachers adapting timetabling and teaching approaches to the perceived needs of different students, the report points to the need to balance this flexibility at the school level with ensuring that all children have exposure to varied subjects and methods”.

For further information please contact:
Dr Selina McCoy (Senior Research Officer, ESRI), 01 8632059,;
Dr Emer Smyth (Research Professor, ESRI), 01 8632058,;
Dr Sarah Fitzpatrick (NCCA), 087 9675170, email:

Note to Editors:
1. The Primary Classroom: Insights From the ‘Growing Up In Ireland’ Study, by Selina McCoy, Emer Smyth and Joanne Banks (ESRI), published jointly by the ESRI and NCCA, will be published online on the ESRI website and the NCCA website at 1 pm Wednesday 18th January. The embargo is until 1 pm Wednesday 18th January.
2. A media briefing will be held at 10 am on Wednesday 18th January.
3. Growing Up in Ireland is a Government-funded study of children being carried out jointly by the ESRI and Trinity College Dublin.

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