It was during the week of the annual teachers’ conferences, in 1974, that the notion of a transition year first emerged.
The education minister of the time, Richard Burke, sprang his brainchild on an unsuspecting audience, and public, at the TUI Congress in Dún Laoghaire. Using the hurling vernacular of his native Tipperary, "it was a solo run", he said in a 2001 interview. "Nobody in the administrative or educational sector of the Department of Education had – good, bad or indifferent – anything to do with this idea. It was just sprung upon them and they were just told to go and introduce it."
A year in office at the time, Burke described his initiative as “potentially the most important idea to emerge from my ministry”. The kernel of his innovation was as follows: “Because of the growing pressures on students for high grades and competitive success, educational systems are becoming, increasingly, academic treadmills. Increasingly, too, because of these pressures the school is losing contact with life outside and the student has little or no opportunity ’to stand and stare’, to discover the kind of person he (sic) is, the kind of society he will be living in and, in due course, contributing to, its shortcomings and its good points. The suggestion was made that perhaps somewhere in the middle of the course we might stop the treadmill and release the students from the educational pressures for one year so that they could devote time to personal development and community service.”
His noble aspirations – and counter-cultural proposals – were met, initially, with scepticism and indifference. Only three brave schools embarked on the TY voyage in the following September: St Joseph’s College, Garbally, Co Galway; the Municipal Technical Institute in Limerick; and the Holy Child Comprehensive School, Sallynoggin, Co Dublin. A year later, five more schools joined up.
But growth over the next decade was slow. An unexpected boost for the programme arose in the late 1980s with the decision to introduce a three-year Junior Certificate for all students. Schools that had traditionally offered a four-year pathway to the Inter Cert discovered that including TY would enable them to keep a six-year cycle. TY numbers jumped. Furthermore, the Curriculum and Examinations Board, a precursor of the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment), issued imaginative guidelines for schools. By 1993, the figures had climbed to 8,499 students in 163 schools, about 13 per cent of the cohort.
By far the biggest shot in the arm for Burke’s creative proposal took place in 1994 when senior cycle education was restructured. European funding was secured for teacher development. The department issued fresh guidelines for TY, sharper and more focused. For the first time, schools were obliged to engage in a programme of staff development as a condition of TY participation.
Formal support structures were put in place to enable such development and the model that was developed – a team of seconded teachers supporting regional networks of schools – later became the preferred form of support by the DES for other curricular innovations in the 1990s.
For those of us fortunate to be part of that process, abiding memories are of contradictory responses in staffrooms: teachers enthusiastic to devise educational experiences for their students that were relevant, creative and challenging sitting cheek by jowl with more sceptical colleagues. The latter, often very dismissive of the project, had no shortage of dire predictions of TY’s imminent collapse.
A dramatic surge in TY numbers suggested progress. 21,085 students in 450 schools began a TY programme in 1994. Growth continued. Schools and individual teachers became more courageous and innovative. Many schools developed close links with community organisations. The original concept of devoting curricular time to personal and social development through activities outside the classroom, especially community service and work experience, became a reality.
By 2004, an official account of the Irish education system stated that “Transition Year, which has been one of the major innovations in Irish education, is an option which is now firmly embedded in the system.” Today, TY is the preferred option for the vast majority of 15-year-olds. Educators in other countries show increased curiosity about this uniquely Irish innovation. In its 40-year history, Richard Burke’s solo run has borne much fruit.