What impact is ‘hot housing’ having on children in school today?

Analysis: A new landmark study aims to shed new light on children’s school lives

A landmark study of primary schooling in Ireland is being conducted by UCD school of education.

Funded by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the study will follow 4,000 children in primary schools across the country over a six-year period as they transition into, through and out of primary school.

Working in partnership with the children, their parents and caregivers, teachers and school principals, two age cohorts are to be involved - those in second class and those in their final year of pre-school in 2019.

Primary schools in Ireland have always been central to the vitality of local communities, the focal point for marrying the love and care for children with national goals for economic and social development.



Investment in children, and their education is a cornerstone for societal development, central to raising quality of life and well-being.

At the foundation of the State, primary schools were central to building a sense of nationhood, the restoration of the Irish language and the (predominantly) moral formation of children into the Catholic faith.

Today, primary schools retain many of the vestiges of the past, with over 90 per cent for example remaining under Catholic patronage.

Yet they are “noisy”, diverse places, a far cry from the more rigid system up to the 1960s when children exited with a ‘primary certificate’, that for many, marked the completion of their formal schooling.

International studies of comparative performance in mathematics and literacy suggest our primary school system is working well, ranking among the highest for literacy (third out of 50 countries) and higher than average in mathematics and science achievement in the most recent surveys .

Hot housing

However, despite the progressive move to more child-centred approaches from the early 1970s, wider social change is having a profound impact on the pressures and challenges experienced within schools generally.

While we may think of these as epitomised in the annual “points race” at Leaving Certificate level, there is a downwards creep occurring that influences even the lives of our very youngest citizens.

Central among these influences are the heightened scheduling of children’s lives and their “hot housing” to ever greater levels of “success”, in an increasingly competitive, technologically oriented world.

Such trends are reaching into children’s lives from an early age, as pre-schools risk becoming “schoolified”, undermining the centrality of play, creativity and spontaneity so essential in the early years.

As educational levels rise, expectations for progression of children through higher levels become the norm.

Conversely, not to progress is a key signifier of educational and ultimately societal exclusion, with long term consequences for young people’s life chances.


Our successes in international rankings at primary level mask significant underlying inequalities in participation and outcomes among even the very youngest of children in our primary schools.

Yet we lack a detailed understanding of what happens in primary school classrooms. We also know very little about how this is viewed through children’s eyes.

The Children's School Lives study takes a holistic view of children's learning and development, exploring how their experience of school contributes not only to their academic attainment, but also their self-confidence, and capacities to thrive.

It will ask key questions such as: What is it like to be a child in primary school today? How does this change as she moves from one class to another, one school to another? What are the critical incidents and relationships that shape children’s values and identities, aspirations and well-being as well as their academic attainment? How might this be different for boys and girls, for children from different social and ethnic backgrounds and children with a range of additional support needs.? Do all children have equal chance to succeed?

We also need to understand how key adults engage with the system, both inside and outside primary schools.

For example: How do teachers engage with and teach the curriculum? What are the challenges they, and school principals face, in light of rapid social, economic and demographic change? How do parents experience their children’s primary schooling? Do grandparents have a role to play?

Children's School Lives is a landmark study nationally and internationally. It is the first systematic attempt to track the same group of children from pre-school into primary and from primary into secondary school, providing detailed information on their school lives that influences how they think and learn.


It will fill key information gaps currently in our knowledge of the primary school system, prioritising children’s voices and the richness of the insights they can bring.

Over time it will provide us with key insights into promising practices, as well as those that need to change.

Fundamentally, it will facilitate curricular and wider policy planning, informed by a rich evidence rich base located in the Irish context.

The study’s funding and vision recognises the centrality of children’s educational experiences not only to their present lived experiences as children, but also their capacities to flourish throughout their lives.

The ‘Children’s School Lives’ study is led by Professor Dympna Devine and Asst. Professor Jennifer Symonds, with Asst. Professors Deirdre McGillicuddy and Seaneen Sloan, UCD School of Education. For further details, email: csl@ucd.ie