We should listen to what young people have to say about their education

Opinion: Students want to be stimulated with hands-on approaches to learning

A new survey of students suggests a serious mismatch between how priority subjects on the school curriculum are being experienced by our younger citizens, says Prof Dympna Devine. Photograph: iStock

A new survey of students suggests a serious mismatch between how priority subjects on the school curriculum are being experienced by our younger citizens, says Prof Dympna Devine. Photograph: iStock


The recent report of thefirst national survey of young people on their experiences of teaching and learning in secondary schools is important on two counts.

First, it gives voice to young people as stakeholders in the education system. Just like other partners in education (teachers, parents, patron bodies, policymakers) young people have a voice to be heard and important insights into what is happening in our schools.

That the report was launched by the Minister for Children and the Minister for Education underpins the recognition at Government level of the need to take the views of young people seriously, recognition that is enshrined in Ireland’s signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child almost 25 years ago.

The report reflects the views of more than 3,000 young people (aged 12-18 years) and was sought by them, through Dáil na nÓg, the national parliament for young people, following their identification of education as a priority area of concern.

Second, the report clearly highlights what is working well in addition to what needs to change in the second-level system when considered from the perspective of students.

High expectations

Of note is the significant number of young people (74 per cent) who indicate their teachers have high expectations for them and encourage them to do their best.

A majority of young people also say teachers are well prepared and encourage them to think for themselves.

First-year students are especially positive about their experience. This suggests the care given by schools to support transition from the primary school sector is having a positive impact.

This is an important finding given the influence of positive school transition on student learning and engagement.

It seems, however, that as young people progress through the secondary school system their positive experience of it declines.

Older students in fourth and fifth years are the least satisfied. Of concern are the high numbers of young people (46 per cent ) who do not feel adequately supported in school, either through the provision of feedback on their work, being able to talk to a teacher if they are worried about falling behind and being satisfied with the levels of both learning and counselling supports for them in schools.

Information technology supports were also a source of concern with only 53 per cent saying their schools had good IT facilities. In addition, students expressed strong preferences for more interactive teaching methods that make learning interesting and fun, yet just 30 per cent agreed that teachers currently did so.

Core subjects

Students identified the three core subjects of the school curriculum – maths, Irish and English – as the subjects in which they would most like to see an improvement in teaching.

This suggests a serious mismatch between how priority subjects on the school curriculum are being experienced by our younger citizens.

These patterns cannot be divorced from the emphasis on examinations in our second-level system.

Assessment is a key part of student learning. Where it is highly pressured or stressful, however, this has a negative impact on student wellbeing. This is reflected in the very high numbers of exam-year students who indicated they felt stressed or very stressed (80 per cent).

It is also confirmed by the high numbers (67 per cent) in the survey who stated there was too much emphasis on exams in school. High-stakes exams run counter to the rights of children and young people to an education that is holistic and promotes positive well-being and development.

Girls, when compared with boys, were less positive about their experiences of secondary school.

They tended to be more critical of the emphasis on exams (especially in girls-only schools), their learning experiences, having a say and the provision of supports. They were also more likely to report feelings of stress due to exams, speaking in front of others and completing school work.

It was not possible to include questions about social class, ethnicity and disability in the survey although we know from previous research that these issues, in addition to LGBTI, are also important in shaping students’ experience.

It is worth noting also previous research we did with secondary teachers on their views of “good” teaching.

They expressed concerns that if they did not “teach to the test”, their students would fare poorly, something not tolerated in an increasingly competitive system where points and hothousing of young people towards exam success becomes the end point of educational formation.

We need to ask, however, if this is the best we can aspire to from our education system.


This, of course, raises questions of values and what we define as a “good”system. More than 40 years ago, substantive changes in teaching and learning were introduced to our primary school system, including the elimination of the primary certificate.

This freed teachers to work in a more holistic and child-centred manner, informed by professional judgment and deeper appreciation of how children think and learn.

From students’ perspectives today, they want a post-primary education which stimulates and interests them, which draws on active, hands-on approaches to their learning, which supports them as they transition through their teenage years and which values them as persons with a voice to be heard.

Some 44 per cent thought they did not have a say in either their classroom or schools. This lack of voice is also reflected in some of the responses young people provided on their experiences of teaching and learning.

For example, just 51 per cent said they were encouraged to give their opinions in class, and only 36 per cent agreed they were allowed explain themselves without conflict in schools. Older students (those in senior cycle) were especially critical in respect of having their voices heard.

This survey was born from the priority young people place on education. Rather than being relatively passive bystanders to a system that is “done” to them, it provides a clear signal that a change in the culture of teaching and learning in post-primary schools is needed.

Reform of the exam system is essential if this is to happen. An active, literate, confident and assertive younger citizenry should be the goal of education.

There is a wider issue of funding the education sector that emerges in the students’ concerns about supports.

The survey findings are also a call to policymakers and the public at large to value education sufficiently that it is funded to be the best it can be. Clearly it is something in which young people themselves see the value.

Prof Dympna Devine is head of UCD’s school of education. The survey So, How Was School Today? was commissioned by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs