Making history mandatory will be popular - but could damage Junior Cycle reforms

Principals fear decision could hamper efforts to engage some of the hardest-to-reach pupils

A move to make history mandatory , say some at the coalface, threatens to undo much of the philosophy behind Junior Cycle  reforms. Photo: iStock

A move to make history mandatory , say some at the coalface, threatens to undo much of the philosophy behind Junior Cycle reforms. Photo: iStock


Minister for Education Joe McHugh’s decision to give history “special status” on the Junior Cycle curriculum will be cheered by those who feared the subject was set to be downgraded.

Heavyweight critics such as President Michael D Higgins had expressed “deep and profound concern” about history becoming an optional subject in the reformed Junior Cycle.

“To be without such knowledge is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom,” he said.

Many historians warned that moves to drop history as a compulsory subject at a time of fake news and global turmoil could not come at a worse time.

But the Minister’s move, which could effectively make the subject mandatory, also creates a problem: he has firmly rejected the views of the State body charged with advising and implementing curriculum change.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment recommended that the optional status of history in the reformed Junior Cycle be retained as it was crucial to wider reforms.

The rejection of this advice, say some, brings about a real risk that the core ideas of Junior Cycle reform - hammered out following research and consultation over the past decade or more - may be damaged.

Influential study

About a decade or more ago an influential study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) revealed major problems with the engagement of pupils at junior cycle level.

While girls from middle-class backgrounds were highly engaged in school work, a second group – especially boys from working-class backgrounds – were switching off.

This helped inform reforms which resulted in the Junior Cycle and which sought to give schools - especially those in working-class areas and special-needs schools - more freedom to meet their students’ individual needs within an overcrowded curriculum.

A move to make history mandatory, say some at the coalface, threatens to undo much of the philosophy behind these reforms by restricting the flexibility of schools to meet their pupils’ needs.

The irony in this current debate is that calls to reinstate the subject as mandatory have been based on a false premise: history has never been mandatory in all Irish post-primary schools.

It has been an optional subject in what used to be known as vocational schools, which account for almost half of post-primary schools. It has, however, been required of all students in voluntary secondary schools, which are typically owned or run by religious orders.

And this, say some, is part of the problem: much of the commentary to date has been through an elitist prism of what education is like in a voluntary secondary school.

Making history compulsory, say some principals, could end up limiting the capacity of schools who are doing extraordinary work to engage some of the hardest-to-reach pupils.

Other subjects will - rightly - demand that they too should be compulsory. A compelling case can be made for geography, science, business studies, art, French or Spanish to be mandatory.

Binary choice

Another feature of the debate over the status of history is that it has been about reducing history to a binary choice: students either study it or not.

Those most familiar with Junior Cycle reforms say this is not the case.

They say the new Junior Cycle promotes areas of “core learning” rather than core subjects, and that history remains important in the curriculum.

Under the reforms, the curriculum is broken up into 24 “statements of learning”, representing core and required subjects. Several of these directly relate to history. So, children completing the Junior Cycle will still be required to study history in some form.

The argument that making history optional would lead to a sharp drop-off in students studying it has not been supported by past evidence,

In vocational schools again, where the subject has been optional for decades, about 90 per cent of students study history during the Junior Cycle. This is because these schools see its value and have chosen to make it a core subject, or students have chosen it themselves.

A key question which will now be asked is how mandatory will history really be under McHugh’s plans to give the subject special status

Will all students be required to study it as a fully-fledged subject? Or will there be other options like short courses for pupils?

He has asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to come up with answers. These response will determine whether many of the reforms and rationale behind the Junior Cycle reforms can still be delivered.