After a century of dogmatic rote learning, it’s time to bring in 21st-century education

Opinion: Many clearly intelligent students do not excel in our rigid education system

As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic and reflect on all that we have endured over the past two years, we must ask ourselves two important questions: what have we learned, and what do we value now more so than before?

In the context of post-primary education, the pandemic has demonstrated the resilience, dedication, adaptability, and innovation in our school communities. It has also reminded us that education represents something far broader and more intangible than exam grades or CAO points.

There is a broad consensus in the school community that senior cycle reform needs to happen. However, before it can, we must answer the overarching question of what purpose we want our post-primary education system to serve.

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to explore this theme -- a blank slate to revaluate the system, defects and all. For example, we now know after two years of interrupted class time that accredited and calculated grades and hybrid assessment options are not feasible.

Let us use this knowledge to develop a more durable method of assessment, one that is content driven, not simply outcome driven.

Blank slate

After over a century of dogmatic rote learning, it is time to bring in 21st-century education. Fundamental skills such as resilience and communication are not captured by the current architecture of post-primary learning, despite the high value and demand for them in our modern world.

Many clearly intelligent students are unable to excel in our rigid education system. The introduction of skills-based learning as an addition rather than complete alternative will allow for a more flexible system that can respond to the demands and aptitudes of students. It will focus on their skills and not their deficiencies, and value their strengths as well as improve their weaknesses.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) welcomes the proposed reforms to the CAO by the Government and the expansion of available apprenticeship opportunities; certainly, increasing the options students have at third level will give greater appreciation for skills-based education.

However, the reform agenda of the CAO and apprenticeship programmes must be applied to post-primary education. While there is some acknowledgement of practical skills in the Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate curricula. In the context of the overall programme it is little more than tokenistic.

In modern enterprises, communications skills, resilience, and emotional intelligence are highly sought after. Apprenticeships give learners these types of practical skills that transfer into other areas of work and learning.


We have seen the successes education reform has brought us in the past, including the Leaving Certificate Applied and Junior Cycle key skills. We will see the success of the apprenticeship programmes in the near future. Now let us utilise this blank slate moment to implement further reforms to bolster the system.

This requires a new vision for education in Ireland, one based on the individual, their aptitudes, and what they can bring to society. When we value each individual, we create for them an environment in which to discover their abilities and skills and flourish. This will encourage students to lead their own education and encourage independent learning.

There are many countries already doing this well, including the Netherlands, whose creative hybrid education system has begun to integrate skills-based learning into the curriculum.

With the potential Citizens’ Assembly on education, we should look to champion a modern approach to learning. Let’s place a value on the student voice and a value on their individual aptitudes.

This requires more than a small reform of the Leaving Certificate or the assessment model -- it means a complete reimagining of what value we place on education and on skills within that system of education.

Paul Crone is director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy-Principals (NAPD). The NAPD is hosting its annual symposium on Tuesday, 1 March.