The Irish Education System
School in Ireland is nationally mandated and funded by the Department of Education and Skills. It is compulsory for students to attend school for ten years, between the ages of 5 and 15, although there is leeway for a year each way. The school cycle officially runs to 18, however, and is divided between Primary School to the age of (roughly 12) and Secondary School to the age of (roughly) 18. Whereas Primary School is a straight run of ascending classes, Secondary School is broken up into the three year Junior Cycle (after which students can legally leave) and the two-year Senior Cycle, with a 'transition year' between the two.
Ireland has a centralised, state-mandated curriculum. Having said that, it is highly flexible and aims to promote each child's unique qualities. Somewhat singulary, the state leaves each educational establishment to formulate its own religious curriculum.
At secondary level, there is a strong focus on the breadth of education as much as depth, with the focus on moulding pupils into well-rounded, widely-knowledgeable individuals.
One aspect of education that varies by area is language. In English speaking areas of Ireland (most of it), English is the primary scholastic communication language with Irish taught as a secondary, although there are a growing number of Gaelscoileanna (Irish-speaking schools) and Naíonraí(total immersion pre-schools to teach kids Irish). In Irish-speaking Ireland, the language of education is Irish, with English, French, Spanish etc being taught as second languages.
The school year is split up into three terms and runs from roughly September to June, with breaks over Christmas and Easter and smaller mid-term breaks in the first two terms. Most institutions close for specific Catholic holidays, eg the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of December 8th.
All education is free in Ireland, including further education (see below) as long as you come from the EU.
Types of school
While all Primary Schools adhere to the same curriculum, there are various types of Primary Schools that kids can attend. National Schools educate most students and are governed by the local church diocese. Gaelscoileanna, Irish-speaking schools in English-speaking areas, account for about 10% of primary students. Multi-denominational Schools are governed by charities and accept children from all faith backgrounds. Preparatory Schools, as the name suggests, are fee-paying primary schools that receive no government funding, albeit they still have to adhere to the curriculum. Primary school education cumulates in the Junior Certificate exams.
Voluntary Secondary Schools, or just 'secondary schools' are similar to their National Primary counterparts, in that they are governed by religious communities, and educate the majority of students. Vocational Schools are governed by Vocational Educational Committees, and teach non-academic vocational subjects. Comprehensive schools meld these two flavours together, and provide a variety of academic and vocational subjects under one roof. Gaelcholáistíare the secondary equivalent of the above-mentioned Gaelscoileanna. There are also fee-paying independent schools that offer secondary education, and grind schools which tend to concentrate on the Senior Cycle syllabus and one-year 'retake' Leaving Certificate programmes.
Tertiary Education consists of academically-focused Higher Education bodies, and vocational institutes moderated by the FETAC, the Further Education and Training Awards Council. Fees for courses offered by both are free for EU citizens.
Some FETAC courses can count towards Bachelor's degrees. Areas covered are usually vocational, such as childcare, nursing, farming, skilled apprenticeships and tourism.
University admissions are centralised through the CAO, the Central Applications Office. Preference is given to candidates who achieve high grades in the Leaving Certificate.
Known as 'private tuition' or 'shadow education' elsewhere in the world, grinds in Ireland are incredibly popular, and are usually employed before the certificate exams, both Junior and Leaving. In 2007, 40% of all students working towards the Leaving cert paid grinds more that 5,000 Euro each.
Since the recession this sector has taken a diminishing blow, but still remains popular.
The structure of our second level classrooms mirrors the stifling rigidity of the curriculum at Junior and Leaving Cert.
The teacher stands at the head of the classroom, prescribing information with authority to students who passively absorb it.
Yet, these rigid curricula are prescribed to teachers just as they are to students.
Our teachers are highly skilled, highly qualified professionals. However, our tightly defined and heavily standardised second level curricula offer little opportunity for teachers to exercise the extent of their creative ability.
Teachers are best placed to assess and respond to the student as they interact with their learning material. Isn’t it time we empowered them to do that?
One of the abiding attractions of standardised curricula and examination is their inherent fairness.
Students sit a universal exam and are anonymously assessed. Undoubtedly many students flourish within such a system, particularly those with the financial means to access grinds and additional tuition, but it is how this system serves students in the long term that is the issue.
Our heavily standardised curricula make the assumption that information is rare and hard to find, an assumption increasingly out of step with real world experiences.
While defined tests like the Junior and Leaving Cert are designed for a culture that assumed the future would remain broadly similar to the past, the modern world is characterised by change.
These standardised exams are one-dimensional and simply cannot reflect the diversity of contemporary culture or prepare students for a society in a constant state of flux.
Illusion of fairness
When we consider this, the illusion of fairness begins to dissipate.
Inevitably, these exams become the sole measure not only of students’ success, but also of teachers’.
Students’ exam results are a minuscule reflection of the work teachers do. The development of meaningful relationships, establishing the trust necessary to encourage students to debate, to analyse and create, all take great time and great expertise.
This is what makes a good teacher. Yet, this is work that goes largely unrecognised by standardised exams primarily focused on information recall.
While much is made of the stress endured by Junior and Leaving Cert students, teachers must tolerate this each and every year. Teachers are under constant scrutiny not only through standardised testing, but external inspection and evaluation.
This illustrates a significant lack of both trust and respect for teachers as autonomous professionals.
Such a system does nothing to facilitate the communication, co-operation and collaborative work necessary among teachers for the development of successful and innovative learning environments.
Instead, this relentless scrutiny often results in an atmosphere of anxiety and unhealthy competitiveness. Inevitably, this has consequences for the relationships between teachers and students.
Pressure to advance through extensive curricula at an accelerated rate means that teachers are often forced to make choices with regard to the level of their interaction with students and the range of activities they utilise.
When we consider the teachers who have had the most abiding, positive influences on our own lives, we will likely recall encouragement, attentiveness and consideration, but these are not qualities that correspond with impersonal and stressful standardised tests.
Rather, the Junior and Leaving Cert force teachers into a more administrative role, responsible for the technical implementation of externally mandated standards and tests.
In 2014 the development of the new Junior Cert syllabus sought to address these significant shortcomings, most notably through the introduction of continuous, school-based assessment.
However, while continuous assessment was central to the initial reforms proposed by the then minister for education Ruairí Quinn, subsequent amendments have seen it whittled down to a mere 10 per cent of the overall grade.
Together with this, these continuous assessments will no longer be evaluated by teachers, but will be independently marked by the State Examinations Commission (SEC).
The diminished role of continuous assessment and transfer of evaluation to the SEC speaks to our slavish devotion to standardisation.
Far from ensuring fairness, independent assessment removes from the equation the student and their educational journey, both of which will remain unknown and unseen by the examiner.
Crucial skills such as collaboration, interaction and negotiation cannot hope to be appropriately determined in this manner. Instead, assessment and accreditation rest with the completed document, thus failing to address the fundamental problems of the old system.
While teachers are ideally positioned to assess and respond to all aspects of their students’ learning, independent examination deprives them of this responsibility.
In this way teachers, like their students, are confined by a model of conformity that is utterly outdated. They are thus robbed of their professional agency and creative capacity.
The uniformity of standardised education is failing students and teachers. Until teachers are granted a central role in assessment they will be confined by the futile rigidity of teaching to test.
Reformed education requires respect for the professional autonomy of teachers, granting them the freedom to make independent decisions with regard to what is best for their students. Education isn’t a product, it’s a process.
Only teachers can offer true insight into that process. Reform in the absence of such insight is no reform at all.
Dr Ellen McCabe is a researcher and lecturer, specialising in media and education