Executive Summary

Ireland, one of the high-performing education systems across OECD countries, is committed to high quality education and to adapting its system to the challenges that the future presents. Upper secondary is a key stage in the education trajectory of any individual, and holds a key role in Ireland’s strategy to enhance an already robust education system. In a current effort to explore ways to adapt and improve in a rapidly changing world - like many other OECD countries - Ireland embarked on a review of its senior cycle (upper secondary education), which has not been structurally reformed for over 20 years. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) are leading the review and invited the OECD to provide strategic advice to inform the process.

OECD has engaged with Ireland to provide analysis to support the review process as part of its Implementing Education Policies programme. A policy assessment aims to take stock of Ireland’s senior cycle review, provide feedback on progress made and offer recommendations to inform next steps. The OECD team has undertaken desk based research, three visits to Ireland (November 2018 to February 2019) and participated in review meetings. This document presents the findings of this assessment with the aim to support the analysis and development of next steps in the implementation of the senior cycle review.

An analysis of the current design of senior cycle education and results from the review process show a range of strengths. Senior cycle enjoys high levels of trust in the public, and its final assessment (the Leaving Certificate) is strongly rooted in the national culture. The four programmes offered in senior cycle, Leaving Certificate Established (LCE), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP), Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) and Transition Year (TY), aim to cater to the different needs and preferences of the student body. The Transition Year is highly valued by students and seems to provide a good transition from junior cycle into the more academic senior cycle. The aims, purposes and learning methodologies proposed in the curricular documentation aspire to align with international best practices. Content is also regularly updated in response to perceived needs to learn about emerging topics.

However, the same analysis and review process suggests some areas in which senior cycle could improve. Some stakeholders argue that the current vision and purpose of senior cycle education do not fully correspond to Ireland’s aspirations. The impact of the final assessment and the system to access third-level education appear to drive senior cycle education, shaping the decisions of many stakeholders. This impact is such that any changes made to senior cycle will have limited possibilities to succeed if the current assessment approaches are not reviewed accordingly. Additionally, the recent reform of junior cycle would have implications for and result in challenges to achieve appropriate alignment between junior and senior cycles. Stakeholders also expressed their concern about not having a more rigorous and attractive vocational segment in senior cycle, one that gives real work-based experience to students and that is delivered in close co-ordination with employers. Finally, two concerns for equity in senior cycle were raised, in particular, observing that students from a more modest socio-economic background might not benefit from the same support to prepare for their Leaving Certificate examinations, nor from the same opportunities to take a Transition Year, as their peers.

The tailored approach to engage stakeholders in the senior cycle review is an asset for the development of senior cycle. The NCCA succeeded in designing and carrying out an inclusive review process, collecting a range of perspectives that can enrich senior cycle. While school-level stakeholders held a central position in the review, the wider education community was also included. The review was led in coherence with the structures already in place for education policy advice, representation and consultation, in respect of Ireland’s tradition of partnership policy making. The NCCA also conducted the review in a flexible manner, which could lead to strengthening public trust. The review has highlighted clear findings, as it confirmed for instance a widespread agreement on the need for change in senior cycle education.

Some issues concerning stakeholder engagement remain that, when tackled, could enrich senior cycle discussions and reinforce the impact of stakeholders’ involvement. There is ambivalence in the support that some stakeholders manifest for change, which jeopardises the chance to settle some of the issues acknowledged. Even when convinced of the need for change in senior cycle education, stakeholders tend to disagree on the nature and scope of the change, which makes finding common solutions considerably more challenging. The OECD team also identified key players who were not strongly involved, such as post-secondary institutions, students who have completed senior cycle and employers. Finally, some reiterated the concern that the NCCA’s review might fail to translate their propositions into a concrete policy or effective implementation process.

The current context is conducive to the review of senior cycle in some areas. There is a high level of trust in Ireland’s education system, so the population might support concerted efforts to provide Irish learners with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. The engagement approach developed by the NCCA for phase 2 of the review is contributing to engaging and empowering many stakeholders successfully. This inclusive review process can be interpreted as a signal of institutional evolution with the Irish education system learning from the experience of reform in junior cycle and trying to respond to previous shortcomings. Also compared with the recent junior cycle reform, the current economic situation, with macroeconomic stability and relatively low unemployment, offer a more conducive terrain for collaboration from education professionals.

Contextual issues remain to be addressed if senior cycle is to evolve. Coherence with existing and planned education policies will need to be considered. There is consensus around the need to learn from junior cycle reform for a smooth process in the event of evolutions in senior cycle. Collaboration among schools can seemingly be improved in areas like sharing resources, staff and learning practices to facilitate potential senior cycle change. Providing school leaders and teachers with better support and training seems to be a concern in the system among stakeholders. Assessment approaches would need to be adapted to any potential changes, as evidence shows strong impact on the whole senior cycle. The implications for equity of any potential change to senior cycle should be considered more systematically in the discussion. Finally, both stakeholders and authorities need to factor in a very high level of public scrutiny in whichever path will be decided for senior cycle.

In order to tackle the issues raised while building on Ireland’s strengths, the OECD suggests the third phase of the review of senior cycle could be structured around three key points:

  1. 1. Disseminating the main conclusions of phase 2

  2. 2. Acknowledging the conclusions, as they are based on stakeholders’ input

  3. 3. Defining the priorities and potential policy lines to tackle the main issues identified.

In addition, following the conclusion of the review, Ireland may consider the results in terms of their policy implications as follows:

  • Refining the vision for senior cycle and reviewing its structure accordingly. The process should aim to define collaboratively a clear vision and specific objectives of senior cycle in Ireland, and defining whether or how the current structure of senior cycle can evolve to realise this vision.

  • Reviewing complementary policies that need to align with senior cycle. Discussions during the next stages of the review process should aim to clarify the options for adjustment of assessment methods, needs for continuing professional development for teachers, and guidance services.

  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities for different stakeholders. Discussions should aim to engage and clarify the views and contributions of relevant institutions/agents. This can be done with specific invitations to the relevant institutions to present and contribute actively to discussions during the next stages of the review process in their corresponding policy area(s).

  • Defining a communication and engagement plan regarding potential changes. Discussions should focus on establishing a communication strategy to maintain inclusive stakeholder engagement for the next stages of the review process.

  • Providing clarity about specific results and outcomes for stakeholders from the review of senior cycle specifically for phase 3 and beyond.

  • Securing resources. To identify the resources needed to implement future steps in the review of senior cycle, discussions during phase 3 might consider establishing the specific objectives after the finalisation of phase 3 of the review process and which will be the main policy priorities to be followed.

  • Clarifying expectations regarding timing and pace. To tackle the concerns about the timing and pace of the review and reform of senior cycle identified in phase 2, discussions during phase 3 in Ireland should aim to clarify what is the best timing for the introduction of adjustments in senior cycle and what are the pre-conditions needed.

  • Gathering data and information for decision-making. To have solid information and data for the review process, discussions during phase 3 could aim to clarify the priority areas for lessons learnt in the reform of junior cycle and other relevant experiences as well as on what progress would look like.

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