2. Senior cycle in Ireland

In its Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 (DES, 2018[1]), Ireland committed to a review of its senior cycle and, more recently, in its Statement of Strategy 2019-2021, the country committed to “review and reform the curricula from Early Years to senior cycle level to enhance quality learning and support learners’ physical and intellectual development” (DES, 2019, p. 12[2]).

Upper secondary education (senior cycle in Ireland), 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 (e.g. higher education, further education and training, and/or apprenticeships). The analysis of upper secondary education in nine jurisdictions, commissioned by the NCCA during phase 1 of the review, shows that the main purposes of this level of education is preparing students for employment, developing their adaptability to the future, and ensuring they have the skills to become lifelong learners, and to participate actively in society (O’Donnell, 2018[3]). Given its key consolidation and transition role for students, upper secondary education needs to align with external contextual changes to be able to prepare its students effectively. To cater to these objectives, upper secondary education is shaped through a combination of academic and vocational programmes across countries (OECD, 2016[4]).

Ireland has a holistic vision of the purpose of its education system: education must aim to contribute to the development of all aspects of the individual. “All aspects” refers to: aesthetic, creative, critical, cultural, emotional, expressive, intellectual, for personal and home life, for working life, for living in the community, and for leisure. In this respect, all senior cycle programmes in Ireland aim to contribute to this general objective, with particular emphasis on the preparation of students for further education or training, for employment and for their role as participative, enterprising citizens (NCCA, 2001[5]). The Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 (Department of Education and Skills [DES], 2016), which gave rise to the review of senior cycle, included as its first goal to enhance learners’ experience and success. This implied developing critical skills, knowledge and competencies, well-being, greater subject choice, transitions, IT and language abilities.

Many OECD countries are seeking to respond to fundamental questions about the type of knowledge required in increasingly complex and changing environments. Globalisation, migration, changing labour markets, technology and the development of artificial technology, among others are aspects that raise the question of whether curricula based solely on academic subject study is sufficient. In recent years, many education systems have embarked on curriculum reforms. New curricula have been developed in countries such as Australia, Estonia, Japan, Norway, and Wales. In all cases, the focus of change has been on developing not only knowledge, but also those skills, values and attitudes required for fully engaging in the 21st century (OECD, 2018[6]). In addition, some countries have established periodic cycles for curriculum review, such as Japan or Finland, who undergo this process every 10 years, while others do not have clear revision mandates (OECD, 2018[7]).

The NCCA was asked to lead the senior cycle review1. Results from the consultation process at school-level in phase 2 of the review show that Ireland’s current senior cycle is well perceived across the country (Smyth, Banks and McCoy, 2018[8]). For example, stakeholders report that senior cycle education aims to cater for the needs of different learners with its four different programmes; that it offers a broad range of subject choices; that the Transition Year is an addition that allows students to extend their knowledge, skills and experiences beyond the traditional cognitive domains; and that the final assessment method is perceived as fair by students, their parents and society at large. From a comparative perspective, Irish upper secondary education appears to deliver high quality outcomes. Upper secondary completion rates are among the highest across OECD countries, as is the percentage of today's young people expected to graduate from an upper secondary general programme (OECD, 2016[4]). The latest edition of PISA results for 15-year-olds confirms that the mean score in reading performance of Ireland is one of the highest among PISA participating countries (OECD, 2019[9]).

However, some aspects of senior cycle education deserve further attention. The Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 suggested the need to:

  • increase subject choice for upper secondary students to enhance student motivation and engagement

  • equip students with the skills and knowledge to participate in a changing world

  • ensure that curriculum development responds to the changing needs of learners, society and the economy

  • improve transitions to the next stages of students’ lives

  • create a greater diversity of learning opportunities beyond school, such as apprenticeships and traineeships as alternative pathways

  • enhance support for learners to make informed career choices

  • create a focus on entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation to develop the national skills base and meet the challenges of growth in the modern world.

The consultation process raised a range of concerns: senior cycle is perceived to have a narrow focus, mainly as a filter to third level (higher) education; some programmes are not sufficiently developed to achieve their aims; the assessment method causes high levels of stress, even anxiety in students; doubts remain as to whether senior cycle is well-aligned with other education levels, especially the recently reformed junior cycle (Smyth, Banks and McCoy, 2018[8]).

According to the discussions in phase 2 of the senior cycle review, these challenges have been translated to the need to help individuals to develop a solid set of basic cognitive skills (literacy and numeracy) enriched by transversal non-cognitive skills (Smyth, Banks and McCoy, 2018[8]). This diversified set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values are expected to support the Irish learners to develop their lifelong-learning capacities beyond school age, to exercise a responsible citizenship and contribute successfully to social cohesion and economic prosperity.

In order to assist Ireland in the completion of the review of senior cycle, this chapter analyses the characteristics of senior cycle, to identify areas for consideration by the Irish Government and relevant stakeholders in light of international evidence. To do so, this chapter is organised in two sections: the first section describes the four programmes offered in senior cycle. Based on this information, the second section makes observations and suggests issues to be considered during further discussions about senior cycle in Ireland.

Ireland has comparatively high levels of education attainment among the OECD countries. The proportion of the population aged 25-34 with lower secondary education as the highest level of attainment in Ireland is lower than the OECD average, with an attainment rate of 9% in 2015, compared to the OECD average of 16%. The proportion of 25-34 year-olds whose highest level of attainment is upper secondary education is 39% in Ireland, 3 percentage points below the OECD average. On the other hand, 53.5% of 25-34 year-olds have attained tertiary education, which is among the highest in OECD countries in 2015, well above the OECD average of 42% (OECD, 2018[10]).

Upper secondary education in Ireland consists of senior cycle, which is a two- to three-year programme. The age range is 15 to 17/18 (years 10 to 11/12) with compulsory participation until age 16. Junior cycle graduates may spend year 10 (age 15-16) in a Transition Year, or move directly to a two-year senior cycle programme. While the Transition Year is not formally part of the Leaving Certificate, it is included in this report because it makes an important contribution to senior cycle learning experiences as it allows students to sample different subjects and undertake work experience and other projects, and helps guide them in choosing their upper secondary education subjects and future career path.

Senior cycle students may choose between three streams: the Leaving Certificate Established (LCE) programme for those studying academic and general subjects; the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP), which adds modules about the world of work to the regular Leaving Certificate; and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), a cross-curricular pre-vocational programme. All three upper secondary programmes award a Leaving Certificate, however the LCA does not afford direct entry to universities nor institutes of technology through the Central Applications Office (CAO).

In recent years, approximately 72% of students entering senior cycle take a Transition Year (TY). Then, 95% of students follow the Leaving Certificate Established programme (LCE) or the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) (69% and 26% respectively), with 5% following the Leaving Certificate Applied programme (LCA) (DES, 2019[11]). At the end of senior cycle, students sit an exam that determines, in combination with other important criteria, their entry to higher education. This procedure is known as the “points system2”.

The Transition Year is a one-year optional programme that forms the first of a three-year senior cycle in a number of schools, which students can choose to take before selecting the Leaving Certificate programme they will follow. This year is designed to provide students with skills beyond traditional academics, and might include work experience or social engagement as well. This programme is theoretically available to all secondary schools, and it is currently offered in about 93% of them (NCCA, 2019[12]). Each school designs its own Transition Year programme within the guidelines set by the national authority, so they can address the needs and interests of their student intake (DES, 1994[13]).

The Transition Year programme means to offer students a broad educational experience in order to acquire maturity before moving forward to further study and/or vocational preparation. Assessment is usually carried out on an ongoing basis and can include a variety of approaches such as school-based assessment of projects or portfolios, oral, practical and written activities (DES, 1994[13]).

The Leaving Certificate Established (LCE) is a two-year programme that aims to provide learners with a broad, balanced education while also offering them a chance to specialise towards particular higher education and career options. Students take at least five subjects (usually seven) for assessment, one of which must be Irish. Subjects are studied at either Ordinary or Higher Level. Two subjects, Irish and Mathematics, can be studied at Foundation Level as well. Syllabuses are available in 37 subjects. Each of these belongs to a subject group as shown in Table 2.1. Two subjects, Home Economics and Physics and Chemistry, belong to two groups. In addition to these subjects, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will provide assessments in any of the recognised languages of the European Union, where the status of the applicant/candidate is seen as appropriate (NCCA, 2019[12]). The certificate is used for selection into further education, employment, training and higher education (NCCA, 2001[5]).

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) aims at combining the academic strengths of the LCE with a set of subjects and approaches focused on self-directed learning, enterprise, work and the community3 (NCCA, 2003[14]). In 2018, 69% of students opted to take the LCE while 26.1% opted for the LCVP (DES, 2019[11]). Students in the LCVP study a minimum of five subjects, including Irish and two subjects from specific vocational subject groupings, plus two more courses of study in work preparation and enterprise known as “link modules”. They are also required to take a recognised course in a modern European language, other than Irish or English (NCCA, 2003[14]).

Vocational subject groupings, one of LCVP’s distinctive traits in relation to the LCE, aim at providing students with a focus on developing vocational skills and exploring their career options. The majority of students follow a Leaving Certificate Modern European Language Course but a small minority take a Vocational Language Module in order to fulfil the requirements of the programme (NCCA, 2003[14]). Table 2.2 offers a sample of the subjects that are offered in LCVP.

The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) is a distinct, self-contained pre-vocational programme. It is designed for those students who do not wish to proceed directly to third-level education or for those whose needs, aspirations and aptitudes are not adequately catered for by the other two programmes in senior cycle. The LCA is structured around three inter-related and interdependent areas: vocational preparation, vocational education, and general education (NCCA, 2001[5]).

The LCA programme consists of a range of courses designed on a modular basis. Each module lasts 30 hours and each one of the two years of the programme is divided into two sessions (September to January and from February to June) so the entire programme has four sessions. A module within a given course is usually completed within a session. During the two-year programme, participants are expected to complete 44 modules (e.g. 11 modules per session, on average). An overview of a two-year LCA can be seen in the Table 2.3.

Entry into higher education is determined by order of merit on the basis of the points obtained from the six best scores on a student’s Leaving Certificate examinations. In addition, higher education institutions (HEI) at individual level might set minimum course entry requirements (known as basic matriculation requirements).The Central Applications Office (CAO) matches students’ results with HEI’s requirements and places available for each subject.

Commonly known in Ireland as the “points system”, this approach is said to contribute to high levels of trust in public education in Ireland. As related during OECD meetings, it also acts as a strong social and inter-generational connection among individuals educated in Ireland, and as a symbol of identity of Irish education. At the same time, the points system is also commonly considered a stressful experience by most stakeholders. However, it should be noted that students choose their preferred course before the results/points are brought to bear or act as the determinant of whether they get the course they chose. As a result, the vast majority of students are offered one of the courses listed in their preferences.

The analysis of relevant documentation, interviews held during the OECD visit and results from the NCCA review process highlight a number of strengths in the current senior cycle. The four different programmes offered aim to cater to 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. When looking into the curricular documentation related to the four programmes (LCE, LCVP, LCA and TY), the aims, purposes and learning methodologies proposed aspire to align with international best practices. In addition, there has been constant update of content, such as the inclusion of “Politics and Society”, and other subjects of transversal skills. In 2009, a key skills framework was integrated into senior cycle that included: information processing, communicating, being personally effective, working with others, critical and creative thinking (NCCA, 2009[15]). Furthermore, senior cycle enjoys high levels of trust from the public in Ireland, and its final examination (the Leaving Certificates) seems to be strongly rooted in the national culture. Irish students are motivated and Ireland has among the highest levels of completion across OECD countries in upper secondary education. (OECD, 2018[10]) (OECD, 2016[4]).

Despite these strong elements, the consultations during the review process, and the OECD team views suggest that some issues in senior cycle still require attention. First, there is a perception among some stakeholders that the current vision and purpose of senior cycle education does not fully correspond to Ireland’s future aspirations. Second, the impact of the final assessment associated with the points system to access higher education is to a large extent driving and shaping many educational decisions and choices from stakeholders (students, parents, teachers and schools). This implies that any changes made to senior cycle will have limited possibilities to succeed if the current assessment approaches are not reviewed accordingly, as evidence suggests (OECD, 2013[16]). Third, the recent reform of junior cycle may have resulted in the challenge to achieve alignment between junior and senior cycles. Fourth, during phase 2 of the review and meetings with the OECD, many stakeholders 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 (as part of the strategy to diversify pathways). Fifth, concerns for equity in senior cycle were raised in particular, observing that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds 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 remainder of this chapter briefly elaborates on these five issues.

First, the purpose and the vision of senior cycle seem to be too narrow and rigid for Ireland’s aspirations. At the moment, senior cycle appears to be, in practice, a filter for higher education. With a robust emphasis on knowledge and testing, and the embedding of skills in the curriculum in 2009, it is not clear how senior cycle is at present preparing students for the future beyond sitting the Leaving Certificate.

According to the discussions that took place in phase 2 of the review process, the vision and purpose of senior cycle seem narrow for Ireland’s future aspirations as discussed by the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 (DES, 2018[1]) and its Statement of Strategy 2019-2021 (DES, 2019[2]). In both pieces, the Irish Department of Education and Skills emphasises its commitment to deliver a learning experience to the highest international standards. In this sense, it is important that such a commitment is materialised into concrete actions to reinforce effective learning for students, especially in relation to non-cognitive skills. In the meetings and interviews with the OECD team, many stakeholders expressed their willingness for senior cycle to be enhanced to help equip Irish children and youth with the skills to face the challenges of the 21st century, succeed in higher education, enter and progress successfully in the labour market, access a range of alternative education pathways, and exercise a responsible global citizenship.

As part of this topic, during these meetings, another element identified was the need to increase the range of subject choices for students. For Irish authorities, the central goal would be to reinforce student motivation and engagement and ensure that the curriculum continues to respond to the needs of learners, the society and the economy. For this to happen, education authorities in the country are already developing new specifications for a range of subjects, STEM included (DES, 2018[1]).

At the OECD, top-performing school systems often set clear and ambitious goals about what students should be able to do (Schleicher, 2018[17]). Following this practice, in Mexico, for instance, the Ministry of Education developed the strategic document “The Purpose of Education in Mexico (SEP, 2016[18]), an innovative piece that establishes, with unprecedented clarity, the learning aims for students in Mexican society, covering a wide range of skills and purposes (OECD, 2019[19]). Ireland might consider exploring this example.

The “points system” generates high levels of stress and anxiety among senior cycle students. The high impact of the current points system in determining students’ entry into third-level education generates considerable stress and anxiety levels in students and their families. Irish media both document and to some extent contribute to this environment with an exhaustive coverage of Leaving Certificate assessments during the summer period each year. The issue is complex, however, as these high levels of stress may be also associated with other more positive attitudes. For example, according to PISA 2018 results, about 96% students in Ireland reported sometimes or always feeling happy and about 5% of students reported always feeling sad. In most countries and economies, students were more likely to report positive feelings when they reported a stronger sense of belonging at school and greater student co-operation (OECD, 2019[9]).

Ireland could look outwards, to countries that seek to reduce stress levels while keeping student assessments fair. In Canada, for example, the Principles for Fair Student Assessment Practices for Education outline key elements for assessment practices that have served as foundation for teacher handbooks, board policies and departments of education policy documents on assessment and test development in Canadian jurisdictions. These principles and guidelines, intended for both assessment practitioners and policy makers, identify issues to be taken into account for assessments to be deemed fair and equitable. The text acts as a set of parameters and a handbook for assessment. The first part, directed towards practising teachers and the application of assessment in classroom settings deals with developing and choosing methods for assessment, collecting assessment information, judging and scoring student performance, summarising and interpreting results, and reporting assessment findings. The second part is aimed at developers of external assessments such as jurisdictional ministry/department personnel, school boards/districts, and commercial test developers. It looks into developing and selecting methods for assessment, collecting and interpreting assessment information, informing students being assessed, and implementing mandated assessment programs (OECD, 2013[20]).

As recognised by public officials, the recent reform of junior cycle would have implications for and result in challenges to achieve appropriate alignment between junior and senior cycles. This position is also shared by many stakeholders who indicated, during the meetings with the OECD team, that the transversal skills and critical thinking framework introduced with the reform of junior cycle might create challenges when students enter senior cycle, so there might be a problem of vertical integration in the system.

Education stakeholders also expressed concerns that the practical and project-based approach to pedagogy and assessment developed in junior cycle will clash with the more traditional approach in senior cycle, which may generate further issues for students. However, there is no consensus about how to tackle this misalignment: some stakeholders believe that a reform in senior cycle should take place immediately to correct these differences while others believe it is important to give time for the reform of junior cycle to mature and settle down in secondary schools before proceeding to another major reform.

Lower and upper secondary education are provided by the same institutions so creating synergies between the review and reform process of the two cycles seems reasonable and desirable. This might reduce transaction costs for schools, school leaders, teachers and the system as a whole. Within schools, many teachers work with classes in both junior and senior cycles which means that, in principle, they can be better prepared for a reform of similar characteristics and to shape the process in order to align the two cycles.

Pre-vocational education is offered through the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and to some extent with the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA). Both are presented and designed for students with more vocational preferences and use different learning approaches (especially in the case of the LCA). During phase 2 of the review process and meetings of the OECD team, several stakeholders questioned the extent to which the LCVP in particular is a real vocational option and not just an extended version of the LCE (since it “only” offers two vocational modules as add-ins).

Furthermore, students graduating from senior cycle and looking for a more vocational/technical post-secondary study option cannot apply through the CAO system (Central Applications Office) but need to apply individually to each further education institution, irrespective of which stream of the Leaving Certificate they took. This distinction reinforces the widespread idea that vocational education does not deserve the same considerations as more traditional academic options, creating a divide between programmes that are actually delivered in the same institutions.

Enhancing vocational education is not an easy task because such an effort requires collaboration and resources from employers and unions as well. In general, the OECD has identified four basic principles that can be helpful for countries (Ireland in this case): i) establish a clear definition of how the mix and content of vocational programmes will be determined; ii) enhance the quality of learning experiences and methods for vocational students; iii) develop mechanisms to better assess and certify the learning outcomes of vocational students in close collaboration with actors in the labour market; and iv) secure a solid basis for policy support among other parts of the education system, the public administration and other stakeholders (like employers and unions) (OECD, 2014[21]).

According to the meetings and interviews of the OECD team during its visits to Ireland, two important aspects seem to have a particularly adverse effect on disadvantaged students in senior cycle. First, students of less privileged backgrounds may not be able to have the support of private tutoring to prepare their exams, as is the case for students from a more affluent background. Second, the Transition Year offer seems to be largely determined by the financial capacity of each individual school, a situation that could restrict the benefits of this apparently highly beneficial programme to (only) those schools that can afford it (Burns et al., 2018[22]).

These two challenges have already been identified by the senior cycle community. Furthermore, equity seems to be an important item on the Irish education policy agenda. Examples include the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) Plan that offers support to the most disadvantaged schools, including additional funding and teaching posts, through tailored school support; and the School Excellence Programme (2017) which funds pilots of innovative approaches to alleviate education disadvantage. At upper secondary level, the programme aims to improve retention rates up to Leaving Certificate examinations in DEIS schools. However, it remains uncertain the extent to which these programmes can provide specific support in relation to the issues identified (extra tutoring for students and support for schools to offer the whole range of provision conceived for the Transition Year).

Tackling inequality is one of the most complex and elusive challenges in public policy, not just in education. Some OECD countries have explored different approaches to tackle equity challenges. For example, Chile introduced formula-driven school grants with equity criteria that provide a transparent and predictable basis for school providers. The existence of a clearly defined and objectively measured formula as the basis for allocating resources imposes a hard budget constraint to providers and creates the conditions for basic spending discipline. The formula also accommodates the needs of a diverse network of service providers (OECD, 2016[4]).


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

[1] 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).

[13] DES (1994), Transition Year Programmes – Guidelines for Schools, Department of Education and Skills.

[12] NCCA (2019), Senior cycle, https://curriculumonline.ie/Senior-cycle (accessed on 20 February 2019).

[15] NCCA (2009), Senior Cycle Key Skills Framework, http://www.action.ncca.ie (accessed on 18 December 2018).

[23] NCCA (2009), Towards Learning: An Overview of Senior Cycle Education, https://www.ncca.ie/media/2511/towards_learning_an_overview.pdf (accessed on 15 August 2019).

[14] NCCA (2003), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme.

[5] NCCA (2001), Leaving Certificate Applied. Programme Statement & Outline of Student Tasks, https://www.ncca.ie/media/2554/lca_programme.pdf (accessed on 5 December 2018).

[3] O’Donnell, S. (2018), Upper Secondary Education in Nine Jurisdictions, NCCA.

[9] 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.

[19] OECD (2019), Strong Foundations for Quality and Equity in Mexican Schools, Implementing Education Policies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264312548-en.

[10] OECD (2018), Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2018-en.

[6] OECD (2018), Education Policy in Japan: Building Bridges towards 2030, Reviews of National Policies for Education, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264302402-en.

[7] OECD (2018), Education Policy Outlook 2018: Putting Student Learning at the Centre, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264301528-en.

[4] OECD (2016), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2016-en.

[21] OECD (2014), Skills beyond School: Synthesis Report, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264214682-en.

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[17] Schleicher, A. (2018), World Class: How to build a 21st-century school system, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264300002-en (accessed on 19 June 2019).

[18] SEP (2016), Los fines de la educación en el sigle XXI (The aim of education in the 21st century), Secretaría de Educación Pública, Ciudad de México.

[8] Smyth, E., J. Banks and S. McCoy (2018), Senior Cycle Review: Analysis of Discussions in Schools on the Purpose of Senior Cycle Education in Ireland.


← 1. The previous review of senior cycle was completed by the NCCA in 2009 (NCCA, 2009[23]).

← 2. The “points system” is a complex arrangement that cannot be explained in detail in this document. For more information about the “points system” in Ireland please visit: www.cao.ie.

← 3. In practice, most students, parents and teachers would not regard the LCVP as distinct separate track. Students enter LCE and make their subject choices. If they are eligible (have the correct combination of subjects and their school offers LCVP) they may take on the additional two modules that make up the LCVP. The certification received is the LCE and the LCVP module are noted on the certificate.

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