Transition Year: Not such a doss year after all

Transition Year has survived criticism and cuts, but can it survive the new Junior Cert? Students have their say


It’s been 40 years since the first Transition Year was piloted in three schools. Now more than 30,000 students take the programme in 560 of the country’s 700 secondary schools.

Transition Year, or TY, has weathered plenty of criticism. When entrepreneur Bill Cullen described it as a “doss year” in 2012 he certainly wasn’t the first.

Many predicted its demise when the recession started to bite: how could we afford a year of school trips and subject tasters when we couldn’t even fix the plumbing? Nevertheless TY has prevailed, fortified by positive studies by the ESRI and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) showing that students who take the programme earn more CAO points in the Leaving Cert than those who don’t.

Defenders of the programme say that in an Irish adolescence characterised by contrived academic pressures the TY programme is uniquely humane.

In a way, the TY programme has encapsulated what many progressive pedagogical thinkers would do to the system as a whole, if only the teacher unions and the university gatekeepers would accommodate it. In this sense, it may become a victim of its own success. The latest perceived threat to TY comes in the shape of the reformed Junior Cycle.

The value of TY lies in its divergence from State exams and rote learning, its emphasis on project work and subject sampling, all watchwords of the new Junior Cycle curriculum.

If the full NCCA vision for the Junior Cycle is realised, students will spend the first three years of post-primary school getting away from rote learning. What value will TY have then?

One of the strongest defenders of TY is the Irish Second-level Students Union (ISSU), which represents 140 student councils around the country. In partnership with the Department of Education, the union commissioned a survey of students and TY co-ordinators to find out how it is perceived on the ground.

The research group canvassed every school in Ireland to encourage students and TY coordinators to fill out a questionnaire on their response to the programme, whether they had taken part in it or not.

The group collected 1,323 student responses and 57 TY co-ordinator responses and backed up this quantitative data with four large group sessions in Dublin, Galway and Cork, where students discussed their opinions of the Transition Year programme.

ISSU president Mark Caffrey believes the results of the survey bear out the union’s support for TY.

The majority of students surveyed believe that Transition Year should remain in place as part of the Senior Cycle, while calling for changes to the programme to make it “a stronger and enhanced year within school”.

“We are passionately in favour of the reform of the Junior Cert, but we believe that Transition Year can continue to play a very valuable role in the post-primary cycle,” says Caffrey. “Career guidance and work experience are two of the key advantages of TY that a reformed Junior Cert can’t offer. You can’t send a group of second years out on work experience. We would be in favour of retaining it.”

Caffrey hopes the lessons that have been learned over 40 years of TY, and the changes to come in the Junior Cycle, will eventually inform a change in the Leaving Cert. “The Leaving Cert is a broken system. It’s based around rote learning, geared towards teaching to the test. Learning for life is not emphasised. Let’s start with the Junior Cert and see how it goes.” Six-year cycle Dr Gerry Jeffers of the department of education in NUI Maynooth has been involved researching the Transition Year programme for many years and he agrees that the programme should be retained in the context of the new Junior Cycle.

“The participation rate has gone up consistently. More and more parents recognise the value of a six-year cycle. The values that are informing the new Junior Cycle have been tried and tested and proved in TY methodologies.”

Jeffers is currently researching good practice in TY in an effort to highlight some of the very progressive work that he says is happening in the programme. “The problem is that we are doing some really strong educational stuff in TY and not elsewhere in Senior Cycle. It’s a very healthy development that the new Junior Cycle is using some of what we have learned.”

He admits that TY will have to change in the light of these reforms. “The alignment of the Junior Cycle will make TY more congruent. Up until now TY has existed in a sort of parallel universe. I see exciting possibilities for reform, great continuity from year one to year four. The short courses and other innovations of the Junior Cycle should make teachers more confident in delivering a strong Transition Year programme. The whole cycle from primary school to Transition Year will be more coherent. What happens after that is the big question.”

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