It's nearly 10 years since entrepreneur Bill Cullen made headlines by branding Transition Year as a "doss".
Yet that notion still lingers among some parents, despite the huge growth in popularity of this “gap” year between the Junior Certificate and starting to study for the Leaving Certificate. There were just 27,000 pupils doing TY in 2009 when the outspoken businessman suggested it should be scrapped. Now, it’s close on 45,000.
Nearly 80 per cent of pupils surveyed by the Irish Second-Level Students' Union (ISSU) found TY to be a worthwhile experience, according to a 2014 report, Transition Year: Exploring the Student Experience.
But what about parents, who are one step removed from what’s going on?
Undoubtedly some find it hard to adjust to the effect a dramatic change in school routine can have on their children. Even those who embrace the whole idea can look on aghast as their teenagers “party, party, party”.
“I just can’t wait for it to be over – a total waste of time,” says one mother, with the air of someone desperate for school-enforced study to once again corral her 16-year-old daughter. She wouldn’t be the first to think the year’s freedom is a dangerous breeding ground for bad habits and excess socialising.
But, of course, the beauty of the TY experience is that freedom – a chance for young people and teachers alike to forget about “learning for the test” and concentrate on learning for life. However, whether this excellent concept works in reality depends on various factors, ranging from the quality of the programmes in schools and success in securing worthwhile work experiences, to the attitudes and personalities of individual children.
Yet, regardless of those variables, they will all be one year older – and hopefully wiser – when starting their two-year countdown to the Leaving Certificate.
The decision to offer TY in a post-primary school, and whether it should be mandatory or optional, is down to its board of management. Of the State's 714 recognised post-primary schools, 661 have students enrolled in TY, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Skills. And 67 per cent of pupils currently in year one of studying for the Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Applied or the Leaving Certificate Vocational programme have completed TY.
For those in schools where it is mandatory, there is no decision to be made by pupils or parents. But where it’s optional, parents can be conflicted over what’s best for their children.
So, would parents who have – or have had – a child doing TY unreservedly recommend it? And what would their advice be to help ensure it is a year to remember for all the right reasons?
Bairbre Ní Ógáin, a former teacher and mother of two sons who both had a “fantastic” time doing TY in their non-fee-paying boys’ school in south Co Dublin, believes the benefits are multiple. As well as being a year to mature before facing into serious study and career choices, it’s a chance “to explore different facets of oneself” through lots of different opportunities.
It can also be a real eye-opener, she suggests, to see fellow pupils in different contexts, such as the shy one blossoming on stage or the non-sporty one excelling at tenpin bowling. While it can be a challenge for some to cope with the splitting of classes, “the realisation that the students you didn’t ‘know’ before could actually be great friends” is, she feels, “one of the most positive long-term experiences of TY”.
However, she agrees that parents, as well as students, have a lot of readjustment to do – and both can be hugely influenced by negative comments from others, such as “doss year”, “waste of time” etc.
“The biggest adjustment I had to make as a TY parent was getting used to what appeared, to me, to be a complete absence of homework. Certainly, I very rarely saw any homework being done but, once I got used to that, I had no more misgivings.”
Repeating the mantra that rings in students’ ears, “You’ll get out of it what you put into it”, Ní Ógáin acknowledges that the year will not suit everyone. “It’s all about engagement and if the student won’t engage, it can be a very negative experience,” she adds.
That, unfortunately, is what Jen’s daughter is going through in her school in Co Kildare. Jen wanted her to do the year, “as she is very quiet and I thought it would bring her out of her shell more. The school made it sound great and it’s the first year they were making it a more academic TY.”
She advised her daughter that it was up to her to make the most of it and hoped she would join most things. However, “her shyness has been a huge issue and I suppose that is her biggest downfall. She has joined a few things but is really ignored – mainly by teachers – because she’s a middle-of-the-road-type of child and I find teachers most definitely have their favourites.”
Jen believes that those responsible for TY need to work at making it more inclusive for teenagers who find it hard to participate.
“It is very difficult for introverted students without specific interests to get the most benefit from the year,” says Gráinne Enright, a teacher living in north Co Dublin, who has a son in TY and an older daughter who has been through it.
Although it’s not compulsory in her children’s school, “I definitely encouraged both to do TY,” she says. “But I think it’s better when it’s not forced upon the student – either by the school or by their family. There is no right or wrong decision about it, but if the child makes the decision themselves, they are more likely to be happy.”
She sees the three main benefits as students becoming more mature before they start the senior cycle; the shake-up of friends’ groups and also that there is very little homework.
The latter "is not something I would have thought about as a teacher when my own children were little, but as my children got older I realised that I'm actually not such a fan of homework," admits Enright, who runs an educational services company, Brighter Minds.
I loved the fact that they had the time to wander the streets of our town or crash out with a gang in someone's living room watching a movie, without homework to rush home to
She would encourage parents to take a lot of interest in what their children are doing, as that can help motivate them.
"For example, a lot of people drop out of Gaisce [the President's Award scheme] once they start experiencing problems with some of their tasks. Parental involvement will definitely help to motivate them and get them back on track" – yet many drop out before their parents even know they are doing it.
As for the freedom they enjoy during the year, Enright says sometimes she would call her children for dinner, only “to discover they had left the house hours previously without telling me”.
“But with that said, I loved the fact that they had the time to wander the streets of our town or crash out with a gang in someone’s living room watching a movie, without homework to rush home to. Of course, boundaries are pushed, particularly when it comes to alcohol, but it’s hard to be too strict when other parents are permitting things.
“At the end of the day,” she adds, “teens will push boundaries and break rules, and I’m not sure that TY does a whole lot to change that one way or another.”
Mother-of-three Tracy Mooney thinks that probably the biggest benefit is that they are a year older going into the senior cycle. With two children having already done it and her youngest daughter currently in TY, she says “extra maturity attained was important to us as we live in a rural area, so our teens have to go away to college”.
It’s a good time to put serious thought into the next level, she suggests, and “the student that goes into fifth year with some idea of what they are aiming for is more likely to focus”.
The work experience is valuable for not only helping to shape career aspirations but also in giving youngsters a taste of the workplace.
“It’s nice for the students to see a company that they might like to work in when they are older, but often there’s not a whole lot they can do there, so it is more observation than anything else,” says Enright. “On the other hand, they can often be quite busy in shops, creches and cleaning/ironing services, even if it’s not their dream career. A bit of each is good.”
However, while Ní Ógáin says they were advised at the introductory meeting to let students find their own work experience, that can be easier said than done, and can depend on where you live and who you know.
“Not every parent has work contacts,” points out Mary Reilly, whose son is in TY. “We were lucky we did get him into places, but not everyone might have that.” Their local shopping centre, for example had “loads of them asking in the same places”.
She is glad her son’s school has a well-structured programme that keeps them busy, “which is a good thing as they could get lazy”. She has no worries about him settling into fifth year, as they have continued to do core subjects with tests, and she sums it up as a “good experience overall”.
The final word goes to Enright, who was involved in mental health research in a school where TY students came out as the happiest and least stressed.
“With mental health being such a huge issue for teenagers, I can only think that anything that makes students feel happier and less stressed has to be a good thing,” she adds. “And happiness is a bigger indicator of success in life than academic success.”