Does new core status for history in Junior Cycle mean other subjects will lose out?

Much depends on how much teaching time is allocated to history under new changes

History will no longer be an optional subject for students completing the Junior Cycle. Photograph: iStock

History will no longer be an optional subject for students completing the Junior Cycle. Photograph: iStock

 

Under the new Junior Cycle reforms, my son has short courses in a range of interesting areas. Will the Minister’s recent decision to make history “core” reduce teaching time for this and other subjects? Firstly, let’s be clear about what’s happening regarding the teaching of history at Junior Cycle level in our second-level schools. Under recent reforms, history became an optional subject, which led to a lot of public discussion over the perceived “downgrading” of its importance.

High-profile figures such as President Michael D Higgins questioned the decision to make the subject optional. (In fact, prior to the Junior Cycle changes, history was always optional in about half of post-primary schools, although about nine out of 10 students across post-primary sat the subject for the Junior Cert).

Arising from this debate, Minister for Education Joe McHugh asked for the optional status of the subject to be reviewed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). Its recommendation was that the subject be kept optional.

Following consideration of the NCCA report, the Minister decided that history should be be given a “special core status” at Junior Cycle. He has requested that the NCCA examine how best to accommodate history within the new Junior Cycle.

He emphasised there is no grey area regarding his decision, saying every student in the Junior Cycle will study the subject. A new version of the subject was introduced to schools in September 2018, as part of the roll-out of the Junior Cycle Framework.

From September 2020, all schools will be obliged to provide 400 hours at Junior cycle for the area of “wellbeing”, up from 300 hours currently. Wellbeing is a new combination of the previous subjects of CSPE, PE, SPHE and Personal Educational and Vocational Guidance.

Under the new Junior Cycle, schools are obliged to provide 240 hours for Gaeilge, English and Maths, and 200 hours for all other subjects. McHugh has given conflicting statements on whether schools will be obliged to timetable history for 240 or 200 teaching hours per year.

The answer to this question will determine how much flexibility school principals will have to ensure all areas of the curriculum receive adequate hours of class teaching time to cover subjects such as geography and science, which are vital if our young people are to have the knowledge and awareness necessary to build a sustainable world for themselves and future generations.

I do not believe the Minister’s decision to prioritise the teaching of history undermines the core principles of Junior Cycle reform, which I wholeheartedly support.

Citizens can only chart the future of their societies effectively if they have a clear understanding of its past through the study of history, presented in an educational environment, free of prejudice and manipulation, which is often present in much of what children will find on social media. In my view, the Minister made the correct decision.