A blank slate to reinvent secondary schools


LEFTFIELD:IRISH PARENTS increasingly want more for their children than just Leaving Certificate points. Parents of the 14,000 pupils in the 60 Educate Together primary schools around the country have been campaigning for a new type of second-level school for more than 10 years. They want second-level schools that will help their children become confident, ethical, critical and creative thinkers. They want them to develop lifelong learning skills and they want them to thrive academically and to develop personally and socially.

A longitudinal ESRI study over the past 10 years has illustrated how student learning is negatively affected by the jarring transition from the learner-centred primary environment to exam-focused second level; by the backwash from State examinations; by streaming; and by an over-emphasis on content and a lack of practical, applied learning. This study shows how student engagement deteriorates as students progress through second level, while others document increasing teacher stress and discipline issues. These two are not unrelated.

So students, parents, and teachers – as well as employers, third-level educators and, more recently, government and officials – say we need to reform our second-level system. There are lessons to be learned at home before we start looking abroad for solutions. We can learn a lot from our last major attempt at curriculum reform, for example.

The aims and ambitions of the current Junior Certificate when it was introduced, in 1989, were a far cry from the 13-subject content-coverage marathon students and teachers now experience. The lesson? Curriculum reform must be accompanied by appropriate reform in the examination system if it is to have any hope of success; you get what you measure.

Experience from Finland tells us teachers must be at the heart of any reform. While skeptics say low morale among teachers will prevent them from engaging with reform, in fact teachers are championing reform in the system right now – often in the face of resistance and with limited resources or support.

The new framework for the junior cycle, to be rolled out in 2014, should reduce the pressure on schools to cover large amounts of content and allow for greater flexibility, through school-based curriculum development. This will enable (if not necessarily force) schools and teachers to make shifts in focus: from remembering information to managing and critically analysing information, from exam-centred to student-centred approaches, and so on.

The framework will suit Educate Together’s plans, as outlined in its blueprint for second-level schools. In this model, which is the logical extension of Educate Together’s successful primary model, an ethical education curriculum forms the core around which integrated, relevant, student-centred learning is built. This curriculum centres on real-life social, economic, environmental, community and global issues, and students learn to engage critically and creatively to solve problems.

The applications Educate Together submitted for post-primary schools in north Dublin, Louth and Wicklow last month were supported by more than 5,000 expressions of interest from parents wishing to enrol their children; clear evidence that the appeal of this new model extends far beyond just parents in Educate Together schools.

Educate Together has a blank slate on which to implement change. It has parents, students and innovative teachers fully on side. At the conference it held last year – in partnership with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and the University of Limerick – academics, teachers, students and business leaders came together to reimagine learning at second level. If the Minister responds positively to Educate Together’s applications, it will be perfectly placed to open schools that will lead the reform Irish education – and Irish society – badly needs.

Emer Nowlan is director of second-level education at Educate Together