‘Too many of us are stressed and losing sleep’: Students explain why school needs to change

Our panel of pupils want more creativity, less emphasis on homework and greater recognition of learning outside the classroom

Erlandino Doha, Conor Dunne Atkins, Sofia Moran and Philippa McIntosh. Graphic: Paul Scott

It was the day everything changed: March 12th, 2020. Schools were shut and catapulted into an experiment in remote learning on a huge scale.

In many ways, the education system showed its resilience amid the chaos – but in other ways, the pandemic was a jolting reminder of an underfunded education system rooted in a 20th-century model of learning.

What we have learned since, combined with the rise of AI and its potential to reshape education, provides an ideal moment to debate what school is for and where it should go next.

As the Government’s plans to hold a citizens’ assembly on the future of education hang in the balance due, partly, to the change of taoiseach, The Irish Times is leading a debate about how to future-proof teaching and learning.


Last month we canvassed business leaders, educators, cultural figures and scientists for their views. Now, it’s students’ turn to have their say.

Our panel includes pupils of different ages, backgrounds and school types. It includes: Sofia Moran (8), a second-class student in Holly Park, Dublin; Conor Dunne Atkins (14), a second-year student at Clogher Road Community College, Dublin 8; Síofra (15), a third-year student at a school in Salthill, Co Galway; Philippa McIntosh (16), a transition-year student at Bandon Grammar School, Co Cork; Erlandino Doda (17), a sixth-year bursary recipient student at Belvedere College in Dublin 1; and Hazel (17) who attends iScoil, an online-learning service.

Restrictive curriculum: ‘We’re not given a chance to really think for ourselves’

Philippa McIntosh (16) says one of the biggest negatives is that the curriculum restricts how students learn.

“Even art, which should be free and creative, is restricted by the curriculum,” she says. “I understand the reason behind homework, but the sheer volume of it can be overwhelming.”

Conor Dunne Atkins (14) also feels that while teachers at his school “really do listen to us”, they still have to deliver the curriculum in a particular way.

“We are all taught the same and not given a chance to really think for ourselves,” he says. “We need to be given more opportunities to question everything.”

These issues also affect primary level. Sofia Moran (8) says when she started school it was lots of fun, but now the focus is on more traditional lessons.

“Maths is one of my favourite subjects, but it has become more about learning the information than about enjoying it. But I think that is just what the teachers have to teach, because that is what they are told to do.”

Homework: ‘It’s excessive’

Almost all our panel say they understand the need for homework – they just feel there is too much emphasis on it.

“The sheer volume of it can be overwhelming,” says Philippa McIntosh. As a dyslexic student, she would like if there were more leeway and understanding. “Yes, there’s allowances made in the exams, but we still have to spend much longer on our homework, and if it’s not completed, it will be held against us.”

Similarly, Hazel feels homework is “far too long” and adds to the anxiety of second level. “Homework adds to the pressure, and you don’t get any time to yourself at all,” she says.

By the time Síofra (15) gets home from school, she feels so much time is spent on homework that there’s little space or energy for anything else.

“Already, attention is turning to our [transition year] and Leaving Cert subjects, with a focus on which subjects are more likely to get us a H1. It shouldn’t have to be this way,” she says.

The points race: ‘It shouldn’t have to be this way’

As a sixth-year student, Erlandino Doda (17) know all about the points race.

“One of the big problems is how much is built around the CAO. There should be more options, more critical thinking and more input of student voices. Yes, there is an internal student council, and the ISSU is there, but I am not sure whether the Government really listens to the student voice,” he says.

Philippa (16) feels more should be done to make the curriculum more accessible and less stressful. “There are so many young people who are stressed and losing sleep: this is not how we should be spending our childhood,” she says.

Erlandino says policymakers should look at the international baccalaureate as a model. “In maths, for instance, students do a project on any area outside the curriculum. And they might look at continuous assessments, projects and alternative routes to college. As a bursary student, I am grateful for the opportunity, but you shouldn’t have to access a fee-paying school to have more chances of a better life – it is unfair,” he says.

Learning outside school: ‘Rat race leaves no time for this’

While Conor Dunne Atkins (14) says school is necessary, he feels it is not the only route to success. “I have an online business selling clothes (unpluggedclothes.com) that I started when I was 12. We should be encouraged to make plans that don’t just revolve around college,” he says.

Erlandino would also like to see more acknowledgment of what students do outside school. “For instance, I organise events in my own free time, but the education system gives no credit, and the intensity of the rat race leaves no time for things like this,” he says.

Philippa also feels that the intense nature of the exams means many students don’t have time for extracurricular activities.

“I used to do swimming but had to stop because there wasn’t time. I would like to see whether we could be given some credit for involvement in volunteering, sport or other activities,” she says.

Síofra (15) feels subjects should be more focused on skills you need in life, such as business and home economics. “I would also like to see more school trips and exchanges, that are not just tied to whether your school does them,” she says.

Better use of tech: ‘We barely even notice that we’re learning’

Hazel (17), who attends iScoil, says she has seen first hand how education doesn’t need to be delivered in a school setting.

“You can achieve an education without having to physically go somewhere: with technology becoming more relevant in today’s society, you can work from home online,” she says.

“Since I have been attending iScoil, I have rarely been sick or had to go to the doctors as much, as working from home is an environment that I am comfortable in. It has completely changed my life for the better and I am so grateful.”

Sofia (8) has seen how apps can make learning subjects such as learning much more enjoyable.

“There are lots of fun things they could do with apps or reading games, so we barely even notice that we are learning,” she says. “We could also do charades in Irish, for example. There is too much sitting still for six hours in school: we are children, we should be moving around more.”

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