Reform of junior school cycle driven by glaring faults

Opinion: a more engaging system could improve students’ long-term prospects

‘Students’ experience of  active learning methods diminishes as they approach the Junior Certificate exam.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘Students’ experience of active learning methods diminishes as they approach the Junior Certificate exam.’ Photograph: Eric Luke


Significant reform of junior cycle education is currently under way. This has been informed by research on how young people learn and on the impact of educational policies in other countries, and by evidence on what is happening now in Irish schools.

There have been many claims and counter-claims about what the Irish evidence shows. However, the only body of detailed research on Irish second-level education indicates the current junior cycle is not providing an engaging and challenging experience for young people. Their learning is often well below its potential.

The ESRI Post-Primary Longitudinal Study followed 900 students in 12 case-study schools from entry to second-level education (in 2002) to completion of the Leaving Certificate in 2007/8. The schools were selected to capture the key influences on student educational experiences: the approach to subject choice, the use of ability grouping and the provision of support to students.

The study shows that, despite the junior cycle being designed as an integrated three-year programme, young people’s experience of it is at best fragmented.

First year involves a degree of turbulence for all students as they adjust to the new school setting, to different teaching methods and the greater number of subjects.

In second year, a significant number lose focus and drift or disengage from schoolwork. Third year sees them becoming highly focused on preparing for the Junior Certificate examination, spending extra time on study and grinds, and increased class time on “practising” exam questions.

Our findings show an overall decline in the extent to which students are positive about school and their teachers as they move through junior cycle. This is especially true for working-class boys.

We are strongly of the view that this disaffection should be taken seriously, as the evidence shows it results in many leaving school early or doing poorly in the Leaving Certificate and beyond.

Second year emerges from our research as the crucial year in shaping longer-term student engagement with education. Many who struggle with schoolwork in second year find it hard to regain lost ground later on and underperform in the national exams.

Failure to stay in school to Leaving Certificate level is often found to stem from difficulties in coping with schoolwork and negative experience of teachers in this year.

So the evidence clearly shows certain groups are losing out in the current system. But is this the whole story? The findings show that all students’ education experiences are affected by the ‘high stakes’ exam focus of the current junior cycle system. Why is this?

Less ‘chalk and talk’
Junior cycle students generally prefer more autonomy in the learning process, seeing a traditional teacher-led ‘chalk and talk’ approach as less helpful to their learning. They value interaction in class, where everybody can contribute and discussions are encouraged – in other words, a learning environment that more closely mirrors what they will face in the future workplace.

However, the evidence shows their experience of these active learning methods diminishes as they approach the Junior Certificate exam. Instead, more time is spent on ‘finishing’ the course and on ‘practising previous exam papers’.

Many struggle to combine the volume of homework and study and often feel stressed about the impending exams. In effect, the presence of a ‘high stakes’ exam narrows young people’s learning experiences to preparation for the exam.

There has been a good deal of discussion about how the Junior Certificate exam prepares students for meeting the demands of senior cycle. What is notable from our study is that, even after the exam, many students struggle to cope with the more challenging schoolwork in fifth year.

This suggests the Junior Certificate examination is not playing that ‘preparation’ role successfully. Students report increasing demands between junior and senior cycles, with schoolwork becoming harder and more investment in homework required.

As a result, students become less confident about their capacity to cope with schoolwork and less positive about school in general. The study therefore raises issues concerning whether junior cycle as currently structured serves as adequate preparation for senior cycle.

A more engaging curriculum with different teaching methods has the potential to see students achieve better outcomes within and beyond school. With better educational experiences, our young people can achieve more as individuals. Collectively, our societal and economic wellbeing will be enhanced by having an education system that serves our students better than is currently the case.

Frances Ruane and Emer Smyth are director and head of social research respectively at the Economic and Social Research Institute

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