Children may learn foreign languages from third class

Sweeping changes proposed to primary school curriculum

The shake-up in how teaching and learning takes place in primary schools could see a reduction in time allocated to religious faith formation and other core subjects. Photograph: Getty Images

School children could start learning foreign languages as early as third class under sweeping changes being proposed for the primary curriculum.

The shake-up in how teaching and learning takes place in primary schools – the most dramatic in 20 years – could also see a reduction in time allocated to religious faith formation and other core subjects.

Instead schools would be given much more “flexible time” to decide on what areas of learning they want to prioritise.

The proposals are contained in a new draft primary curriculum framework to be published on Tuesday by the State advisory body the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).


This draft framework will guide the development of a new curriculum which will shape how children learn over the coming decades.

The NCCA is running a consultation on the draft blueprint until October 2020, and the new curriculum is likely to be in place for children born in 2019 and 2020.

Some of the proposals contained in the draft framework would see major changes such as:

* The replacement of subjects during the first four years of primary with much broader “curriculum areas”. These areas include languages; maths, science and technology; wellbeing; arts education; social and environmental education; and religious/ethical education. They would, in effect, include an increased emphasis on areas such as PE (part of wellbeing), digital learning and the introduction of foreign languages, education about world religion and ethics, and a broader arts education.

* More “flexible time” to allow schools focus more on areas of learning which would be decided by individual schools. This would be facilitated by an across-the-board reduction in time allocated for other areas of the curriculum, with the exception of wellbeing.This across-the-board reduction in time would reduce time set aside for patron’s programmes – or faith formation in denominational schools – from 2½ hours a week to two hours.

* The introduction of seven key competencies which aim to capture essential knowledge, skills, concepts, dispositions, attitudes and values which enable children to adapt and deal with a range of situations, challenges and contexts.

These competencies link closely with Aistear – the pre-school curriculum – and Junior Cycle at secondary school.


The NCCA says the changes build on the successes and strengths of the 1999 primary school curriculum, while responding to challenges, changing needs and priorities.

It says it aims to give increased agency and flexibility to schools in their role as “curriculum-makers”.

It would also, say officials, promote stronger connections between children’s experiences in primary and their prior experiences in pre-school, and with their later experiences in post-primary school.

In addition, it seeks to update priorities for children’s learning and development, and support a variety of pedagogical approaches and strategies with assessment central to teaching and learning.

The framework will be available online ( and consultation will run until the autumn mid-term in October 2020.

The proposed changes are based on an extensive body of research and curriculum consultations.

They also draw on work which has taken place in a schools forum, which includes 37 primary, three pre-schools and three post-primary schools, along with ongoing deliberations with education partners and wider stakeholders.

While detailed planning on resources, structures and processes has yet to take place, the NCCA envisages the completion of the development of all curriculum area specifications by summer 2024, after which they will be presented to the Minister for Education for approval.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent