4. A conducive context for the review of senior cycle

Understanding the context in which a policy is implemented is as important as having an adequate policy design and inclusive stakeholder engagement. An effective implementation process needs to recognise the role and potential impact of contextual factors. According to the OECD framework (Figure 1.2), three major contextual factors should receive special attention: the institutional settings of the education policy; the interaction and coherence with other policies (inside and outside of the education policy domain); and the impact of more general societal trends and shocks on the implementation process.

It is important that policy implementation is aligned with the governance structure of the education system. In highly centralised systems, for example, a policy that assumes a high level of autonomy for schools to implement reforms can face challenges if there is no investment in their capacity and resources to take up the reform. In addition, the implementation process needs to recognise the interactions with other policies. There is otherwise a risk of unintended consequences or simply limited policy impact. For example, an excellent curriculum reform design cannot be implemented without supporting teachers and schools in this task. These conditions might include the alignment of professional development for teachers to the content and aspirations of the changes in the curriculum, the adaptation of assessment methods to the learning outcomes expected from the changes in the curriculum, or to support schools with the financial, physical and human resources needed for the practice of changes in the curriculum. In addition, external trends and context might have a significant impact on implementation. Education policies (like any other ones) do not happen in a social vacuum, and external factors such as the economic environment and the social momentum might shape the process significantly. For example, an economic downturn might restrict the resources needed for implementation in the same way that an election or an adverse social momentum might erode the support for a given policy. Societal trends are exogenous factors that need to be acknowledged when thinking about implementation strategies.

In Ireland, a range of contextual factors can be considered: in terms of the institutional settings, Ireland is a centralised system that grants a high level of autonomy to its schools, which have high responsibilities in curriculum and programme setting and delivery. In some key aspects, this combination has been named as “central with schools” by the OECD (see below). In terms of policy interactions, at least two major policies should be considered for a successful review: student assessment and professional development for teachers. In terms of the societal trends and shocks, Ireland faces a mixed scenario. The economic recovery offers a landscape of economic stability that should impact positively on people’s perceptions about their own wealth and employment opportunities, but the negative consequences of Brexit for the country are still unknown and this uncertainty is a source of considerable concern among citizens.

This chapter explains how these three major contextual factors operate in Ireland and what are the main observations and issues that require special attention.

The institutional setting comprises the formal and informal social arrangements that regulate the implementation process in a given education system. These can be considered as fairly stable parameters (Jenkins-Smith, 2014[1]) and have an impact on the speed and extent to which a policy gets implemented, and drive daily activities at the local school level (Viennet and Pont, 2017[2]). The institutional structures and governance arrangements of the decision-making and implementation levels have influence on the way education policies may be implemented (Fullan, 2015[3]).

The governance model “refers to the dynamic process involved in the implementation and monitoring as well as decision-making in a system” (Burns, Köster and Fuster, 2016[4]). The OECD (OECD, 2015[5]) has distinguished five types of education governance arrangements summarised in Table 4.1.

According to this typology, Ireland’s system belongs to the category of “Central with schools”, as it is a system in which the Department for Education and Skills has a steering role in this policy area but schools might exercise a relatively high level of autonomy in key aspects, such as teacher recruitment or admissions policy. In Ireland, administration of the education system is mostly centralised, to the extent that the Department for Education and Skills either makes the decisions or provides frameworks and guidelines that define decision-making at school level. Overall responsibility for education lies with the Minister for Education and Skills who is responsible before the National Parliament. In practice, the Department of Education and Skills administrates education. The Secretary General of the Department manages the Department, implementing and monitoring policy, delivering outputs, and providing advice to the Minister and the Government.

Secondary schools in Ireland fall under the responsibility of the State, but they are owned by a trustee and managed by a board of management. Private organisations play a key role in the provision of education: trustees of voluntary secondary schools include bishops, religious orders, boards of Governors, education trust companies and private individuals (Gleeson, 2010[6]). Almost all primary and post-primary schools receive significant state-funding, but some of them are owned and managed by non-governmental organisations.

While the education system is centralised, many decisions are made at school level, in accordance with frameworks and guidelines provided centrally. According to OECD data, in public lower secondary education, schools make most of the decisions (almost 46%), followed by the central government (42%). The schools and the central government make decisions jointly in the remaining 12% of the cases (Figure 4.1). For example, the recruitment of teachers, the admissions policy of the school, the second-level subjects and programmes offered, the budgetary priorities for the school within the centrally allocated grant etc. are all determined at the school level (OECD, 2018[7]).

In terms of decisions about curriculum issues, according to OECD data, Irish schools make 17% of the decisions against 33% that are made at central level. The remaining decisions involve multiple participants. For instance, revisions to content of programmes of study or new subjects are subject to approval at Ministerial level following significant stakeholder engagement. In addition, the programmes of study offered in an individual school are contingent on factors such as the number of teachers allocated to the school which in turn is determined centrally by factors such as budget and teacher-pupil ratio. Factors such as school ethos, parents’ perspective and the type of school (e.g. rural) may also influence the range of subjects offered.

Overall school curricula are set centrally, including some compulsory subjects. However, schools have a degree of flexibility in relation to the range of subjects that are taught in accordance with the context of the school, its resources, and the needs of the students (OECD, 2018[7]). While this may support responding to local needs, these factors together also indicate that the socio-economic background of each school might have a considerable impact on the way changes in senior cycle can be implemented more generally and on the range of subjects that can be offered more particularly.

Education policies may be introduced at any point in time without consideration to other policies already in place, leading to lack of coherence or misalignment (Viennet and Pont, 2017[2]). During the review of senior cycle, it is essential that two complementary policies are also considered: evaluation and assessment practices (OECD, 2013[8]), and teacher education and further professional development (OECD, 2018[9]). Failing to consider these policies concomitantly could undermine the review of senior cycle, as teachers would need acknowledgement of support to teach the new curriculum and schools would need to have alignment between senior cycle curriculum and student assessment practices.

Assessment is a process that helps focus on what matters most in education systems: the learning outcomes of each student. Student assessment is essential to measure the learning progress of individual students and inform further steps in teaching and learning, as well as to share information with relevant stakeholders to support decision-making at classroom, school and system level. More specifically, the literature distinguishes between formative assessments, aimed to identify aspects of learning to shape subsequent learning; and summative assessments, aimed to summarise learning that has occurred to either record, mark or certify achievements (OECD, 2013[8]).

Student assessment in senior cycle in Ireland includes both summative and formative approaches, and teachers are encouraged to use an array of assessment methods. The State Examination Commission (SEC) administers the main external assessment: the Leaving Certificate examination. Internal methods of assessment include: mock examinations and end-of-term school examinations; classroom tests administered at the end of topics or segments of the syllabus to assess students’ knowledge and mastery of particular skills; informal observation by the teacher; evaluation of homework; and informal analysis of students’ language and social development. Schools are entitled to define the nature and variety of assessment methods used for each subject, or to follow a similar framework as that used in the final examinations.

In fact, summative assessment for certification purposes has historically dominated in secondary education and especially in senior cycle, due to the influence of the Leaving Certificate examinations. According to OECD data, secondary schools in Ireland use standardised assessments to make decisions on student promotion or retention more than the OECD average (OECD, 2016[10]). Schools have often been found to prioritise similar methods to those used for State examinations: evidence, and OECD interviews refer that a majority of students’ assessment experiences during their senior cycle years replicate the type of tasks used for the final Leaving Certificate (LCE), which are mostly written tasks. The LCVP requires students to take a final exam as well as be assessed on their portfolio coursework completed during their studies. Students who follow the LCA programme accumulate credits for each of their modules over their two years of study, to complement final examinations.

Assessment for certification consists almost exclusively of external assessments carried out by the SEC. It carries out the marking, with written examination components making up the largest portion of LCE grades. Teachers are not required to allocate overall grades to any portion of a student’s work for the LCE. For LCA validation, 31% of the credits are awarded internally, 35% are given based on externally assessed tasks, and 34% based on the final, external assessment (NCCA, 2018[11]). The OECD team was further told this central, standardised approach to certification plays an important part in the credibility of the examinations system in Ireland.

As reviewed in Chapter 2, a high-stakes summative assessment, the LCE also plays a crucial role in determining entry to third-level institutions (higher-education institutions and institutes of technology). This merit based “points system”, contributes to the high levels of trust in public education and has a strong social and cultural identity in Ireland, and is a symbol of Irish education. The points system was recently reviewed: the Revised Leaving Certificate grading system and a new point calculation system for entry into third level education was implemented in 2017. It aims to streamline the process to award points, and to encourage students to study subjects at a higher level by awarding points on a broader scale.

Literature on education change, especially in the area of curriculum, discusses the role of teachers as the foremost implementers (Hyttinen and Gouëdard, 2019[12]) (Viennet and Pont, 2017[2]). Their capacity to translate a change in education policy into the reality of education at school level is crucial, as is their professionalism as teachers. The latest results from the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey TALIS (OECD, 2019[13]), however, show that across participating countries many teachers express that they lack preparation in key areas in their profession, such as teaching cross-curricular skills or monitoring student development and learning. According to the conversations with the OECD team, some teachers in Ireland reported their concerns about feeling insufficiently prepared and supported to engage with further reform in the system. Although the review of senior cycle in the country is still in the early stages, it is important to consider the implications of potential developments for teachers’ and school leaders’ requirements in terms of capacity and training.

Post-primary teachers are well qualified in Ireland. Since 2014, teachers should either complete a Professional Masters in Education after their Bachelor’s degree, or hold an equivalent qualification. A new integrated professional induction framework (Droichead) began in 2016, to provide induction and support to newly qualified teachers. Schools could opt in to the Droichead process from that year (2016) but full rollout in post-primary is expected to take place during the period 2020/21. This is positive, considering that in countries participating in TALIS, only 38% of new teachers participate in some kind of formal or informal induction in their first school, despite the positive impact of induction processes on novice teachers’ transition to school and perceived efficacy.

Support initiatives for new teachers in Ireland include a website with information on induction processes, and a school support service that undertakes school visits and provides guidance and support on request to newly qualified teachers. The project Action aims to support teachers in the “how to” of teaching and learning, focusing on showing rather than telling what curriculum and assessment looks like in Irish classrooms. Resources on the website have been developed with teachers and other practitioners to provide useful ideas and helpful guidance on bringing the curriculum alive for students.

Beyond induction, professional development relies on teachers’ willingness as they are not required to engage in any CPD. Box 4.1 introduces different types of professional development opportunities in Ireland.

In terms of leadership, school principals in Ireland are responsible to the school board of management for the day-to-day management of the schools, with assistance of at least one deputy principal. Principals must have at least 5 years of professional teaching experience. Training is available at the Centre for School Leadership, which makes 300 places available for a diploma in school leadership and there is support for newly appointed principals through PDST. These supports are not compulsory but are available to all aspiring leaders and newly appointed principals.

The implementation process is also shaped by external elements that might have an impact on the education policy sector such as political, social, economic or demographic events. In this report, we refer to these events as societal trends and they play a role in shaping education policy and the way they are perceived by society (Viennet and Pont, 2017[2]). In the case of Ireland, there are two major aspects that should be considered at the moment: on a positive side, the relatively good momentum of the Irish economy and, on a more uncertain side, the risks associated with Brexit. These two elements might play a role in securing stable and inclusive engagement from stakeholders like teacher unions or employers interested in supporting further development of the vocational segment of senior cycle.

Between 2014 and 2018, Ireland’s real GDP has grown by 10.8% yearly on average, whereas the average growth rate over the same period was 2.3% for the OECD (OECD, 2020[14]) (OECD, 2018[15]) The unemployment rate has declined rapidly from above 11% in 2014 to 5.7% in 2018, and has stimulated wage growth in some sectors. Unemployment is almost at OECD average in 2018 (5.3%), after remaining above since 2008 (OECD, 2020[16]). Average wages are comparable with the top tier of OECD countries, and income inequality decreases through the highly redistributive tax and transfer system (OECD, 2020[17]; OECD, 2020[18]). Overall, these economic conditions can be favourable for employers to support internships from LCVP and LCA students or can put less pressure on teacher unions to get involved in ambitious curriculum reforms with the extra effort needed from teachers.

Supported by a strong domestic demand, the Irish economy is expected to remain robust if other factors are favourable as well. Uncertainties are significant, however, especially regarding the future of Brexit negotiations. Ireland has considerable commercial and financial ties with the United Kingdom: in 2015, exports to the United Kingdom made up 14% of Ireland’s total goods exports, and 17% of its total service exports, while imports from the United Kingdom represented 26% of total goods imports to Ireland. The direction taken by Brexit especially will affect the Irish economy, which could enter into recession if the negotiations were to come to a disorderly conclusion (OECD, 2018[15]; OECD, 2019[19]; OECD, 2019[20]).

The current context may be conducive for the review of senior cycle in some areas. There is a high level of trust in the education system in Ireland, so it could be expected that the population could support concerted efforts that are oriented to provide Irish learners with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. Also, the consultative approach during phase 2 of the review of senior cycle engaged many stakeholders and empowering their voices in the process. This inclusive review process can be interpreted as a positive signal, with the Irish education system improving and using more varied and inclusive approaches towards consultation and more extensive communication than in previous occasions. The current economic situation, with macroeconomic stability and relatively low unemployment, offers a more conducive terrain for educational professionals to collaborate.

At the same time, any policy implementation effort requires a number of elements to be considered. Because of its central importance in the education system, the review of senior cycle requires the alignment and adjustment of a number of other policies in education. First, there is consensus about the need to learn from the experience of junior cycle reform; most secondary education level institutions in Ireland provide both senior and junior cycle so they need to be ready to use this experience to transition into a smoother adjustment process for the case of senior cycle. Second, while teacher quality appears to be high, the OECD team considered that collaboration among schools can be improved in areas like sharing resources, staff and learning practices so this collaboration might contribute to make the collective reflection on potential changes in senior cycle more inclusive and representative of their collective interests and reality. Third, providing school leaders and teachers with better support and training to reach higher levels of professionalisation in relation to any potential change seems to be also an important concern in the system among stakeholders. Fourth, evidence shows that the assessment approaches have considerable impact on the whole senior cycle so the assessment approach requires to be revised in light of potential changes. Fifth, it would be important to put equity in a more prominent place in the discussion given the concerns reported by schools in terms of the provision of different areas of senior cycle (e.g. Transition Year) given financial limitations of some schools. Sixth, whatever adjustment in policy is decided, both stakeholders and authorities need to factor in a high level of public scrutiny in the process, which calls for a good communication strategy. The remainder of this chapter briefly develops on these six issues.

The need to learn from the experience of junior cycle reform was a recurrent idea from stakeholders in phase 2 of the review as well as during meetings with the OECD team. In September 2014, a new framework for junior cycle started to be progressively introduced. As mentioned in Chapter 2 of this report, the alignment of current senior cycle with junior cycle reform is a major concern for teachers, students and parents. For the school year 2018/19 the full reform of the junior cycle was rolled out. In the same way that the lessons learnt from the reform of junior cycle can be an asset for the review of senior cycle, the difficulties experienced in the former might also have a negative effect on the latter.

The following argument was presented by some stakeholders when opposing an immediate reform in senior cycle: that there should be reasonable certainty that any senior cycle revision would avoid the shortcomings and pitfalls that occurred in junior cycle reform. This point was especially prominent in the opinion of both students and teachers at some of the tables of the national seminars attended by the OECD team. In this regard, the experience from the reform of the junior cycle should be taken into account for the review of senior cycle.

As the junior cycle reform is being implemented and discussions about senior cycle continue, Ireland could benefit from gathering information and learning from the junior cycle reform process to inform discussions about senior cycle. Ireland has already built on its experience with junior cycle reform to inform the current review of senior cycle, but a more rigorous evaluation of junior cycle reform was suggested and could be beneficial. It is estimated that only 1 in 10 of education policy reforms is actually subjected to evaluation in OECD countries (Schleicher, 2011[21]). Very often, evaluations of the whole system or subsystem are challenging given the lack of resources, support, time or other factors, so alternative options can be explored. Although a full evaluation report might only be available in a number of years, getting rigorous and continuous information from monitoring the implementation of the junior cycle reform could indeed benefit developments in senior cycle. In New Zealand, for example, the implementation of the curriculum in English medium schools was monitored by the Education Review Office using samples of schools; this information was in turn complemented by survey data, other government reports and results from national and international assessments (Schleicher, 2011[21]).

Collaboration between schools could improve within senior cycle. According to the school visits of the OECD team and meetings with stakeholders, insufficient collaboration in some areas among secondary schools could be one of the most concerning consequences of a system driven by the points to be obtained in the Leaving Certificate. In the media, the success of individual schools is often measured by the proportion of their graduates admitted into higher education. Partly because of this model, secondary schools might hardly collaborate with each other in terms of sharing good practices, teaching resources and infrastructure. In that sense, Ireland’s secondary schools are missing the opportunity of getting the benefits of collaboration with their peers. Box 4.2 below, outlines the general benefits of school networks for teacher support, professional development and innovation in OECD countries.

During the NCCA review, stakeholders raised a concern to the OECD team that if changes were to occur in Ireland’s senior cycle education, some targeted support to teachers and school leaders would be essential. Providing the right support for teachers in preparation and implementation of a policy reform is essential for success (Schleicher, 2018[23]). As pointed out by Isaacs (2018, p. 10[24]): “investing in teachers, both in pre-service education and through continuous professional development is universally acknowledged as a positive step”; and this argument is supported by Darling-Hammond (2013[25]) who indicates that strong education performers such as Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Japan, support teachers throughout their careers and invest in their development. This becomes even more important with any curriculum change.

According to discussions in national seminars, interviews and meetings with the OECD team, for most teachers, CPD efforts in Ireland are mainly focused on the implementation of a new specification or syllabus for their subject area. In future steps of the review of senior cycle, it would be essential to: i) assess if supply is aligned with the professional demands that changes in curriculum might require from teachers; and ii) make sure that these programmes can be delivered to all teachers. In particular, the Irish authorities might assess if the Junior Cycle for Teachers initiative (JCT) is having a positive impact and if this model can be replicated or improved for senior cycle. Perhaps recently introduced systems can be used to provide teachers with more support and guidance about the changes that can be implemented.

In addition, there seems to be a need to enhance school leadership in the pedagogical domain. Stakeholders consulted by the OECD team reported that schools in Ireland are having difficulties filling principal positions, reportedly because of perceived low salary incentives and a considerable workload. School leaders face many and diverse demands which require considerable administrative, managerial and pedagogical skills and competencies. They are asked to develop a vision, inspire, motivate and develop their staff; to be experts in the most recent teaching, learning and assessment practices; and human resource managers who are able to provide feedback to staff. Changes to a level of education or to a curriculum require their capacity to engage the school with the change effectively. In Ireland, only half of principals have received specialised training before taking up their post. This reinforces the idea, expressed to the OECD team at different meetings, that continuing professional development (CPD) and support for teachers and school principals can be improved in future stages of the senior cycle review.

At the moment, CPD for education professionals seems generally fragmented and dispersed across the country (as shown by a relatively long list of providers and related initiatives). Ireland might consider enhancing CPD in the context of future senior cycle developments. Box 4.3 presents three different types of professional development activities for teachers in the OECD.

According to OECD data, secondary schools in Ireland use standardised assessments to make decisions on student promotion or retention to a higher degree than the OECD average (OECD, 2018[26]). Adjustments to the student assessment framework might be needed if the senior cycle review is to result in a shift in the development of skills and competencies of students. Currently, schools seem to prioritise assessment methods that replicate the final examinations. Considering the impact of the Leaving Certificate examinations on internal forms of assessment, adjustments would need to consider the balance between formative, summative, internal and external forms of assessments. If the curriculum of the senior cycle is to be reformed and non-cognitive skills receive more attention, there will be a greater need for varied methods and assessment tasks to gauge student progress.

The OECD considers that formative assessment should be used as a support for learning in addition to summative assessment. While summative assessment and reporting are important at key stages of education, it is the daily engagement of teachers and students with assessment information that will lead to sustainable improvements in teaching and learning. Both types of assessments should be well embedded in a broader assessment framework.

While most OECD countries have promoted the use of formative assessment, often there is little information available regarding its effective and systematic implementation across schools. There are tensions between formative and summative assessment that need to be recognised and addressed: pressures for summative scores may undermine effective formative assessment practices in the classroom; assessment systems that are useful for formative purposes may lose their credibility if high stakes are attached to them. Professional learning in assessment and concrete support for teachers and schools can support and rebalance some of the tensions.

Ireland and its teachers have acknowledged for quite some time the benefits of formative assessment for their students’ learning outcomes, attitude and motivations in secondary education. Some stakeholders expressed their interest to start a discussion about whether the introduction of classroom-based assessments (CBAs) can be positive for students learning or not. Nevertheless, the stakes of final examinations for students’ career paths significantly raise the costs for schools and teachers to spend time developing and grading assessments that might not be considered by themselves, students or parents as the most direct preparation for success in the final exams, as several confided to the OECD team. The successful implementation of any change in student assessment in senior cycle faces considerable challenges, given the prevailing influence of the Leaving Certificate Examination.

The possibility to introduce complementary assessments for certification or shifts in the way they are delivered in junior and senior cycles while safeguarding the quality of SEC examinations is an ongoing topic for debate. For instance, some stakeholders suggested during the NCCA review and to the OECD team that Leaving Certificate subject examinations be spread out rather than clustered at the end of one year. Counter arguments included the cost of organising several national sessions and the stress it would duplicate in students, who could be seen as effectively sitting multiple examination sessions rather than preparing all year for one.

In general, the current examination system retains credibility because of the highly trusted efficiency, objectivity and transparency of its administration processes and the expertise that teachers have accumulated in preparing students for state examinations. A key issue to take into account is that teachers in Ireland generally reported to the OECD and during the review that they preferred not to be involved in their own students’ assessment for certification at least while there is no specific proposal about which role they should be playing; in addition this might significantly add to their workload. If, during phase 3 of the senior cycle review, there is consensus about broadening the cycle for students to acquire knowledge and competencies, then adjustments in the overall student assessment approach might be needed.

Some schools might have financial difficulties to implement certain changes intended in a reform; there are already reported differences in terms of the provision of some programmes depending on the socio-economic background of some schools in Ireland1. Funding allocation depends on the student-to-teacher ratio, which encourages competition between schools to grow their student base – as reported during the OECD team visits plus some schools are able to charge fees. This situation risks widening the gap between schools in terms of the range of subjects offered. For example, expanding the range of subjects on offer or establishing modules rather than year-long courses in the programmes might require hiring more teachers, or technical (often expensive) equipment might be needed, putting some schools in a more privileged position than others. Another visible aspect of the equity challenge is illustrated by the provision of the TY in schools: while 89% of the schools offer the option and approximately 72% of the students take it, stakeholders interviewed by the OECD team reveal that smaller schools (and those with a higher proportion of socio-economically disadvantaged students) are less likely to offer this programme in full.

There is enormous public pressure on any education policy development in Ireland. Given the importance of senior cycle, as the last cycle before finalising secondary or as a bridge into tertiary education, even minimal adjustments might generate heated debate. What happens around senior cycle, especially in relation to the final assessment, is followed and scrutinised by Irish media intensively. At the same time, despite the levels of stress and anxiety generated for students and their families, the Irish public seems confident in the fairness and transparency of this process. In short, any adjustment or reform in the area should factor in a considerable level of attention from the media and the public.


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← 1. At the same time, equity and provision are also impacted by other dimensions such as school size, gender provision and geographical location.

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