Why history should remain optional in junior cycle

Carl O'Brien: 'There is no binary choice between having history or none during the junior cycle'

Late last year Minister for Education Joe McHugh requested a review of the optional nature of history in the junior cycle.

It was against a background din of criticism from heavyweight critics such as President Michael D Higgins who feared that the subject was being downgraded.

Mr Higgins expressed “deep and profound concern” about changes to the position of history in the curriculum.

“To be without such knowledge is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom,” he said.


Most children completing the junior cycle will still be required to study history in some shape or form

Historians, too, echoed his sentiments. UCD’s Diarmaid Ferriter said the move to delist history as a compulsory subject was a “serious mistake”.

The voices in this debate make strong points, born out of deeply held convictions that history is being downgraded.

But it’s a false debate.

There is no binary choice between having history or none during the junior cycle.

Much of the commentary to date has been based on outdated notions of how learning is taking place in the classroom.

Under junior cycle reforms which are being phased in, teaching and learning is now guided by “statements of learning” which are core to the curriculum.

There are 24 of them in all – and history directly relates to at least seven of them.

Here’s one, for example: a student “values local, national and international heritage, understands the importance of the relationship between past and current events and the forces that drive change”.

So, most children completing the junior cycle will still be required to study history in some shape or form.

Never been mandatory

Calls to reinstate the subject as compulsory is also based on a false premise – it has never been mandatory in all Irish post-primary schools.

It has been an optional subject in what used to be known as vocational schools, which now account for almost half of post-primary schools.

It has, however, been required of all students in voluntary secondary schools (typically, schools owned or run by religious orders),

The distinction owes much to the history of vocational schools in innovating to ensure the curriculum engages often disadvantaged students through offering, say, metalwork or woodwork.

What emerged in the reforms are changes which, overall, seek to give schools more freedom to meet their students' individual needs

And this is part of the problem: much of the commentary to date has been through an elitist prism of what education is like in a voluntary secondary school.

Making history compulsory would tie the hands of schools who are doing extraordinary work to engage some of the hardest-to-reach pupils.

There is also a worry among critics that making history optional will lead to a flight away from the subject.

Again, past experience tells us otherwise.

Vocational schools

Take vocational schools again. While it has been an optional subject for them, some 90 per cent of students in these schools are studying history during junior cycle.

This is because these schools see its value and have chosen to make it core, or students have chosen it themselves.

Students’ exposure to subjects at second level also owes much to the supply of qualified teachers in that subject. Latest official figures show there are more registered history teachers than in almost any other subject.

So, the reality is the vast majority of schools will continue to offer history. Where else are these permanent staff going to go?

Some of the voices against change say we should just keep the system as it is. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

This ignores a problem : while close to 90 per of students currently sit the Junior Cert history exam, this plummets to about 20 per cent in the Leaving Cert.

No other subject has this kind of dramatic fall-off: is this really a sign that our students are engaged with the old curriculum?

And this cuts across a fundamental part of this debate which has been missing to date: what is actually happening in the classroom?

Years of consultation

The core ideas of the junior cycle were hammered out following years of consultation and research over the past decade or more.

For example, an influential ESRI study in the mid-2000s revealed major problems with the engagement of pupils at junior cycle level.

While girls from middle-class backgrounds were highly engaged in school work, a second group – especially boys from working-class backgrounds – were switching off.

What emerged in the reforms are changes which, overall, seek to give schools more freedom to meet their students’ individual needs.

A move to make history compulsory threatens to undo much of the philosophy behind these reforms.

It would, doubtless, lead to a queue of other subjects who would rightly demand that they too should be compulsory: why shouldn’t geography, science, business studies, art, French or Spanish be mandatory too?

Junior cycle reforms aren’t perfect by any means. (wellbeing, a new subject, takes up too much time in the curriculum, say many). There will inevitably be teething problems and tweaks along the way. But the current approach at least holds the promise of harnessing teachers’ skills as professionals, giving schools more autonomy and genuinely putting pupils at the centre.