It is a year of school that secondary students actually look forward to. But Covid-19, lockdowns and school closures have swept much of what makes transition year (TY) different and fun.
This year the pandemic means class trips are gone, very few students are able to attend work experience in-person and, while some of the most popular TY programmes, such as BT Young Scientist, Gaisce and Young Social Innovators, have continued, students haven't been able to meet up and attend events, with much of the focus moving online.
So what has worked for this year’s TY students, where has the programme fallen flat and what changes are likely to stay?
The Irish Times spoke to more than a dozen TY co-ordinators, parents and students, including three representatives from the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU), and two consistent themes emerged.
Firstly, the focus on Leaving Cert and keeping schools safe has meant that, in some instances, TYs are not seen as a priority, according to the group. Secondly, and more significantly, schools and teachers that have handed their TY students a degree of power in designing the TY programme have kept their classes much more engaged.
One 16-year-old TY student, who requested to remain anonymous, says he and his classmates feel abandoned by their school. “I was looking forward to the trips abroad, visiting college open days and outdoor adventure trips,” he says. “But we haven’t really been able to do anything that we planned. They never asked us what we want, and even where we have expressed our views on what we’d like to do – within restrictions – nothing happened . . . There was very little distinction between this and third year.”
Other students have had better – or at least mixed – experiences. TY students Éadaoin Drumgoole (15), Saoirse Exton (15) and Cian Walsh (16) are all involved with the ISSU.
Drumgoole realised at the start of TY that her high hopes were about to come crashing down, but she says her school has made the effort to listen to their hopes, concerns and frustrations.
"When we were in school but confined to our own county, we got to visit Carlingford Adventure Centre. We had a trade fair for our mini companies and we did a few short courses including some at Dundalk IT. Now, with schools closed, there's a mix of virtual learning and assignments, and a lot of it is more academic than you'd expect from fourth year.
“Recently, we had an assembly where our year head spoke with us about what we’d like to do. I’m class leader so I surveyed my classmates. The feedback was that the workload had become a bit much and our year head really listened and took on board what we’re saying.”
Exton and Walsh say that the ISSU is aware of a lack of guidance in some schools. “Where they don’t engage with their TY students or where it becomes all about academics – and remember, TY is supposed to be a year where we could forget about academics – students are disengaging,” Exton says.
At Cork Educate Together Secondary School, Pamela O'Leary says they see TY as the most important year of school.
"We've developed a timetable that reflects this, with careers, ethical education, citizens' science, film-making, poetry slams, a mini-med programme with RCSI [Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland], online quizzes, a ukelele challenge, 90s themed events, public speaking and more," she says.
“What can happen online has happened, and we took the students on trips when it was possible. Orienteering has been great as it can happen locally.”
O’Leary says keeping students engaged is key and this means open communication, a point echoed by other teachers we spoke with.
“We think that four online hours is enough while schools are closed: it’s hard for them,” says O’Leary. “But I’ve been so impressed with the resilience of our young people and they really appreciate when we respect their opinion and listen to them. And sometimes, with pressure at the moment to care for younger siblings or deal with broadband issues, it’s hard for a lot of TYs. We need to be supportive and, indeed, I make a lot of support calls to listen to what is working for them and see where they need support.”
Sinéad McDonnell, who teaches at Holy Faith Secondary School Clontarf is administrator of the TY co-ordinators' Facebook page and she also has a son in TY. She says that teachers are getting varied feedback from their students, with smaller groups generally easier to look out for.
“Students are having different experiences and while it’s partly down to the co-ordinator, a lot comes down to getting buy-in from other staff and from management. I’ve been lucky to have management behind me but schools are limited by factors including the size of the premises and finding alternative locations for spaced-out, socially-distant events.
“There are huge benefits to TY but this year, they’ve lost out on those little things that build independence, such as getting a bus into town or going to discos or concerts at weekends. Some schools are struggling with it during Covid-19, but TY can make such a difference to young people’s lives – and schools will see the difference in the students when it comes to sixth year – that it’s worth finding a way to make it work.”
How schools have adapted
While the pandemic has inevitably curtailed some activities, it has also opened up new possibilities.
“We ran a work skills programme in our school instead of work experience,” says McDonnell. “We did a social awareness week instead of community care and we will keep these for next year.”
Ailish O'Toole, TY co-ordinator at Salesian College Celbridge, sent out seeds with growing instructions to students and the horticulture teacher is providing guidance. Students have also had online photography lessons.
Several teachers say Zoom means they can get high-calibre guest speakers who would previously have been too distant to visit the school.
A record number of students were able to take part in the online version of the annual #ThinkLanguages event, organised by Post-Primary Languages Ireland.
Almost 5,000 students across 70 schools in Ireland took part, billed as the largest foreign languages celebration in the country. Schools were given access to virtual talks and workshops that ranged from Spanish flamenco and Portuguese capoeira dancing to Italian cuisine and Danish design.
Similarly, the first virtual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition allowed more than 1,000 students from across Ireland to take part remotely.
Work experience, a cornerstone of TY, has faced real challenges, but that didn't stop Salesforce, which employs 2,000 people in Ireland, giving students a chance.
"We ran a digital programme with about 30 students from St Dominic's in Ballyfermot, where I'm a past pupil," says Salesforce director of employee success, Terri Moloney. "We asked the girls to look at a sustainability agenda and convert that to how they can have an impact in their own community.
“We had to deliver it virtually because of the pandemic, but we think we’ve hit on a nice structure that works digitally and we’ll carry it on beyond Covid – though we are looking forward to being able to do it in person.”