We need to update transition year. Here are 10 simple ways to do it

Freedom schools have to shape own programmes can be a weakness of TY

Recent letters published to this newspaper have shone a welcome spotlight on the transition tear (TY) programme. Some questioned where it was a "waste of time", while others argued that it was a valuable experience and good for society.

A great strength of TY is the freedom individual schools enjoy in shaping their own programmes. However, this can also be a weakness.

Research suggests that young people mature through the TY experience, that their confidence is boosted, that career and life aspirations are clarified, that voices are discovered, that personal identity is enriched, that engagement with the world beyond the school is increased and that personal agency and capacity for action as citizens increases.

But these outcomes are not universal. Much depends on what happens at individual school level.


Keeping transition year “fresh”, ensuring a balance between the promotion of high academic standards alongside personal and social development places heavy demands on schools and, understandably in the present pandemic crisis, TY can slip down the educational agenda. Based on experience and reflection, ten relatively simple actions could greatly increase the chances of more young people benefiting from quality TY programmes.

1. Report

There should be an annual report on TY nationwide from the Department of Education’s inspectorate. In other programmes at second-level, State examinations bring a sense of closure, offer checks and balances, give teachers feedback through chief examiners’ reports and help everyone stay on track.

TY is under-inspected and very little information about the programme currently emanates for the department. An annual report would highlight what is working well and what needs improvement, help schools adjust and re-energise their programmes and work towards quality improvement.

2. Involve parents

Schools need to engage in more frank, adult conversations with parents about the programme. The official Transition Year Programme: Guidelines for Schools (1993) explicitly states that “the views of parents” should be considered when schools are selecting curriculum content.

Increasingly, parents have experience of being TY students themselves and have much to contribute. Other parents, including those new to the country, may know almost nothing about TY and have important questions. Schools need to listen more!

3. Focused support

Since the very first evaluation of TY in 1979, “continuity subjects” such as Irish and mathematics – in the core subject layer mentioned by Donall Fleming – have emerged as weak links in the overall TY experience. Continuity subjects continue to present big challenges to schools. More focused support is needed.

4. Interdisciplinary work

The department’s 1993 programme recognised the need for this when it stated that a key aim of TY was “to create that unified perspective which is lacking in the traditional compartmentalised teaching of individual subjects”.

We need more courageous exploration. European studies, media studies, global citizenship, local community studies, the classical world, independent living are just some possibilities.

5. Extra cost

The costs associated with TY should not deter any student from taking part. According to the Society of St Vincent de Paul: “Transition Year costs can be significant, particularly if a family has more than one child in secondary school.

TY has lots of social and educational benefits for students, but as it becomes mandatory in more and more schools, the Department of Education has to seriously examine how the costs impact on low income families and put in place measures to promote participation.” This remains an urgent issue.

6. Work experience

Employer groups and trade unions need to become part of the TY conversation, particularly in relation to work experience placements. Informal arrangements often work well but can sometimes reinforce existing gender and social class inequalities. Proactive initiatives to ensure quality placements for all students would help.

7. Community connections

Schools and local community groups need to build stronger practical links with each other through TY. Minister Dick Burke’s original vision back in 1974 was based on a view that schools were too exclusively academic and too isolated. He believed that young people need time to “stand and stare”, to consider themselves and their roles in society. In particular, he favoured community service.

The African saying “it takes a village to raise a child” has a particular resonance in TY; more schools need to discover the richness of local community connections.

8. Teamwork

In-school organisation and co-ordination needs more teamwork. Reflecting the cultural tradition of individual autonomy/isolation in schools, there is often an over-reliance on a single co-ordinator. Greater teamwork and more professional conversations among colleagues on the TY programme – including school leaders – are required.

9. More research

This should include longitudinal studies to gauge the long-term impact of TY. Researchers from other countries, often fascinated by Ireland’s unique educational innovation, express amazement at the limited research evidence related to the programme.

10. Update

The excellent Transition Year Programme: Guidelines for Schools should be updated. Written over a quarter of a century ago, these guidelines continue to inspire but, given the social, technological and educational changes that have taken place since, would benefit from a 2020 perspective.