1. Introduction

One of the high-performing education systems across OECD countries, Ireland is committed to continued improvement and to adapting to the challenges that the future reserves for education.

Ireland has been among the top performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and generally been acknowledged for its education achievements. According to PISA 2018 results, Ireland scored among the highest in the OECD in reading with a mean score of 518 points compared to the OECD average of 487 points. In mathematics, Ireland scored 500 points, higher than the OECD average of 489 points. In science, Ireland scored 496 points compared to the OECD average of 489 points (OECD, 2019[1]). In terms of the percentage of top performers in each category, about 12% of students in Ireland were top performers in reading (OECD average: 9%), about 6% of students were top performers in science (OECD average: 7%), and about 8% of students scored among the highest levels in mathematics (OECD average: 11%). Particularly satisfying is students’ performance in the reading PISA test in Ireland in 2018 where the percentage of top performers increased to 12.1% (from 7% in 2009) and the percentage of low performers dropped to 11.8% (from 17.2% in 2009) (Figure 1.1) (OECD, 2019[1]).

In the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 (DES, 2018[2]) and its Statement of Strategy 2019-2021 (DES, 2019[3]), the Irish Department of Education and Skills (DES) has countersigned its commitment to deliver a learning experience to the highest international standards. This implied, among other endeavours, to review and reform senior cycle programmes1 (Ireland’s upper secondary education). Upper secondary education is a key stage in the education trajectory of any individual, leading to completion of education (and then to entry into the labour market) or to transition into further education. Senior cycle currently consists of a two- to three-year school cycle ending with school-leaving examinations that award one of two different diploma (the Leaving Certificates). Upon completion, students usually enter higher education or join the labour market.

A review of this level of education was contemplated in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019, sparked by the reform of junior cycle as well as by concerns about the need to update the content and delivery of senior cycle to ensure successful transitions into tertiary or the labour market, and to the requirements of our modern societies. More than 20 years have passed since the last time senior cycle was structurally reformed.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) - a statutory body of the DES responsible for producing advice to the Minister for Education and Skills on curriculum matters in early childhood education, primary and post-primary schools - is leading the review of senior cycle. Its aim is to engage all key senior cycle stakeholders early in the policy process, to gather their perspective and to report to the Minister based on their contributions. More specifically, the review aims to get a range of perspectives on the purpose, future, structure and functioning of senior cycle education. Through this review process, the question of whether and how senior cycle education needs to change has been approached collectively (NCCA, 2018[4]).

The review was conceived around three phases. The first phase (2016/17) consisted of identifying topics to explore in relation to upper secondary education, exploring the various approaches to conduct the senior cycle review as well as conducting a comparative study with other jurisdictions. The second phase (2018/19) involved two full cycles of reviews at both school (through school-based reviews) and national levels (through national seminars). The NCCA selected 41 schools from the 80 that volunteered to participate in the school-based reviews. The selection of this sample used DES statistics to ensure representativeness in terms of the schools’ type, DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools support programme) status, gender mix and language medium. It took place in two thematic cycles, the first one investigating the purpose, strengths and challenges of current senior cycle education while the second one focused on pathways, programmes and flexibility. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) served as a scientific adviser and contributed to the analysis of all the collected data throughout the process. Each cycle of the school-based reviews concluded with a series of national seminars (NCCA, 2018[4]).

The first series of seminars was built mainly on the presentation of the results from cycle 1 school-based reviews. In response to participants’ feedback on these first seminars, the NCCA re-designed the second series of seminars to include shorter presentation time and to give more time to discussions among the stakeholders participating. At the end of each series of seminars, the NCCA published a bulletin with the results and sent this to schools and stakeholders. In addition, all materials produced in this review and discussions are published online for the general public to consult (NCCA, 2018[4]).

The third phase (2019) consists of a round of public debate and discussions around a consultation document produced by the NCCA from the information collected in the first and second phases. An advisory report will be prepared once the third phase of the review is completed, which will be presented to the Department for Education and Skills, to inform its decision about whether and how to change senior cycle curriculum.

This OECD report results from the invitation the NCCA extended to the OECD to provide strategic advice for the senior cycle review process. The OECD analysis presented in this document focuses on the process and results of phase 2 of the review with the aim of providing strategic input and support for the third and final phase of the review process. At the time of finalising this report, the review process was nearing the end of phase 3.

This report is part of the OECD’s Implementing Education Policies programme which provides peer learning and tailored support to countries (Box 1.1).

An OECD team (Annex A) has provided Ireland with this assessment and strategic advice on the senior cycle review and its next stages. The OECD team follows a methodology to support its analysis that combines research with fieldwork and education stakeholder contributions to ensure validity and ownership.

The OECD team has drawn on:

  • analysis of qualitative and quantitative comparative data, research and policies from OECD education systems

  • an assessment visit to Ireland (February 2019) to gather information (Annex B)

  • regular exchanges with the national co-ordinator and a group of education stakeholders

  • stakeholder perspectives from participation in national seminars in November 2018 (Dublin and Cork) and February 2019 (Dublin, Athlone and Limerick) and from findings from the consultations (NCCA, 2018[4]).

To undertake the assessment, the team builds on the four dimensions of its implementing education policies analytical framework (Figure 1.2). For a full assessment of the effectiveness of a policy, it is important to consider not only the policy itself; the engagement of education stakeholders in the process is vital from the early stages, as is the consideration of the contextual factors that influence the policy.

The framework has been adapted to analyse the review process of senior cycle in Ireland as follows:

  • Smart policy design: how is the senior cycle review process analysing how to equip Irish learners effectively to face and shape the future of Ireland?

  • Inclusive stakeholder engagement: are key education stakeholders involved in the review and what is their position on potential developments of senior cycle?

  • Conducive context: are the external contextual conditions and policies aligned for a review of senior cycle?

  • Coherent implementation strategy: can the different elements be brought together to ensure that the next steps of the senior cycle review successfully inform future decisions about senior cycle?

Building on the detailed methodology through the lens of the implementation of the senior cycle review, this assessment presents an overview of the main issues and challenges in the review and presents a set of issues to consider in the next steps of the review process.

Following this introduction, each chapter looks at specific dimensions of implementation, analysing Irish current conditions in relation to international data and evidence (when available), and qualitative data gathered from stakeholder consultation events and the OECD team visits:

  • Chapter 2 focuses on senior cycle programmes in light of the aspirations for Irish education stated in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 and other policy references to understand the review process. It looks at the vision and current structure of senior cycle programmes and concludes with issues for reflection for the next stages of the review process.

  • Chapter 3 discusses stakeholder engagement as the central element of the review of senior cycle, key to drive any potential change forward. This chapter reflects on who the main players are in the system, how they have been involved in the process and how their contributions can be most effectively integrated for the (potential) challenges ahead.

  • Chapter 4 explores how the review can adapt and be shaped to ensure a favourable context. In particular, this chapter highlights the importance of taking into account the experience of other reforms/changes, policies and contextual elements that might influence the implementation of the next stages of the review.

  • Chapter 5 brings the different dimensions together to consider how to shape a coherent implementation strategy to complete the review of senior cycle. It presents questions and concrete issues for consideration to move forward in the review process and preparation for future (potential) changes.


[3] DES (2019), Statement of Strategy 2019-2021, Department of Education and Skills, http://www.education.ie (accessed on 11 June 2019).

[2] DES (2018), Action Plan for Education, Department of Education and Skills, https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Corporate-Reports/Strategy-Statement/action-plan-for-education-2018.pdf (accessed on 3 December 2018).

[4] NCCA (2018), Senior Cycle review: what is the purpose of Senior Cycle education in Ireland?, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, Dublin, https://www.ncca.ie/media/3878/ncca_sc_single_pages_en.pdf (accessed on 19 April 2019).

[1] OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume I): What Students Know and Can Do, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5f07c754-en.

[6] Oireachtas (2018), Report on the ongoing reform of the Leaving Certificate curriculum, Houses of the Oireachtas: Joint Committee on Education and Skills, Dublin, https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/committee/dail/32/joint_committee_on_education_and_skills/reports/2018/2018-10-25_report-on-the-ongoing-reform-of-the-leaving-certificate-curriculum_en.pdf (accessed on 19 June 2019).

[5] Viennet, R. and B. Pont (2017), “Education policy implementation: A literature review and proposed framework”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 162, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/fc467a64-en.


← 1. According to Oireachtas (2018[6]) senior cycle curriculum has not experienced major revisions/modifications since 1972.

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