5. A coherent approach to the next stages of the review of senior cycle

In a current effort to explore ways to adapt and improve in a rapidly changing world, Ireland embarked on a review of its senior cycle (upper secondary education). This report aims to take stock of Ireland’s senior cycle review process, provide feedback on progress made and offer recommendations to inform next steps.

Senior cycle review phase 1 included the comparative analysis of upper secondary education in nine jurisdictions to understand this key level of education, in 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[1]). Phase 2 has included consultations in schools and a large-scale consultation which has involved a range of education professionals across Ireland through seminars and an online consultation. The review up to this point proved to be a rich source of information on perspectives of senior cycle and led to the engagement of different education stakeholders on the analysis of current strengths, issues and options for the future. The results have been communicated to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which is leading the review. However, next steps are important to conclude this initial consultation, reach agreements on how to move forward and agree on which specific actions to take.

To be successfully completed, the review needs to meet a number of requirements. It needs clarity in terms of the vision to be achieved and its related objectives as well as how to carry it forward; it needs information about how stakeholders’ contributions will be integrated and how participants will be accountable in this process; it needs to indicate how other policies should be aligned if changes or evolutions of senior cycle are adopted; and clear communication on content and timing to guarantee engagement, well co-ordinated efforts and identification of challenges in a timely fashion. In addition, there should be enough resources available and adequate capacity to undertake the review (Viennet and Pont, 2017[2]).

The OECD team suggests that the next stage should reach a conclusion on the senior cycle review. It should be informed by a discussion about the vision and purpose for the review of senior cycle education in Ireland, with recognition of both its strengths and challenges and clarity about the reasons for change and the goals to be pursued. It should continue with the effort to engage stakeholders in an inclusive approach, discussing with all (or at least most) relevant players in the system, and giving consideration to their opinions when developing the corresponding senior cycle change or adjustment. It should consider the complementary policies that are vital to any change, especially student assessment approaches, education professionals’ capacity building and school networks. With this information, the review could conclude with a clear and actionable vision for developing senior cycle.

In the following pages, this chapter presents the more detailed reflections of the OECD team for the next stages of the review of senior cycle in Ireland.

To move forward in the review of senior cycle, Ireland can take stock of and build on the lessons learnt and information collected during phase 2 of the review process. The following sections offer suggestions on how to address the issues identified in terms of the design, the engagement of stakeholders, and the context of senior cycle in a coherent and strategic way. Each section focuses on key elements which can contribute to shape the next steps of the review from a coherent perspective: refining the vision, objectives and tools of senior cycle; their coherence with the broader policy context; clarifying roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders; data and information needed for decision-making; communication and engagement plan; resources for implementation; timing and data.

For implementation purposes, the vision of a policy needs to be refined in operational objectives and tools (Viennet and Pont, 2017[2]). As reported during phase 2 of the review process and the meetings of the OECD team in Ireland, the purpose of the review of senior cycle is to assess the extent to which the current form of senior cycle is a good fit for the needs and challenges an Irish learner is facing in the 21st century. More concretely, as discussed in Chapter 3, the education community in Ireland is interested to know if senior cycle programmes fulfil the aspirations Ireland has for its students. In general, findings from the review process (until phase 2) point towards a perception that the purpose of senior cycle seems narrow for Ireland’s future aspirations, and that the focus of senior cycle to enter tertiary education excessively drives the dynamics of upper secondary education in the country (with the exception of the TY and LCA programmes). In turn, senior cycle education seems to be anchored to the premises of the “points system”.

In this regard, it seems that the general purpose of the process is to broaden what is perceived to be a rigid and narrow upper secondary education subsystem to one that is more open and flexible. Another major conclusion of the discussion of phase 2 (confirmed by the interviews and visits of the OECD team) is about the need to enhance the diversity of pathways to cater for the needs of all students.

Further discussion of the review conclusions in phase 3 will need to take into account the main challenges to putting these changes into effect. First, the education community in Ireland should be conscious that the current vision and objectives of senior cycle are rooted in a strong institutional tradition that permeates multiple generations in Ireland. The system and its logic is well-known across Ireland and, despite its rigidity, it also offers trust and certainty to society. As a result of this situation, any discussion taking place in phase 3 about refining the vision and objectives of senior cycle, should consider how trust and certainty should be kept in the system.

Second, diversifying pathways, in particular the vocational stream, a proposition identified by phase 2 of the review and confirmed by OECD meetings and interviews, will require strong commitment from stakeholders outside the education sector. More concretely, some of the missing but essential elements of strong vocational education options (such as workplace learning) cannot be possible without precise instruments to link vocational programmes with employers.

To tackle the concerns identified, discussions during phase 3 of the review 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. More concretely:

  • Identify, clarify and agree as much as possible with key stakeholders the implications of “equipping students with the proper set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to face the challenges of the 21st century” and “positioning Ireland as one of the best (if not the best) education system in Europe” as stated in the ‘’Action Plan for Education 2016-2019’’.

  • Define how the current structure of senior cycle should evolve to guarantee the flexibility and permeability needed to ensure that the system, although diversified to cater for the needs and preferences of different learners, remains well integrated.

  • Define how the current vocational stream should evolve to respond better to the needs of its students and to have a better link with the world of work.

As indicated in Box 5.1, policy alignment is essential in senior cycle. Findings from phase 2 of the review process, OECD evidence, and meetings and interviews with stakeholders in Ireland indicate that, in addition to the structure and flexibility of the programmes in senior cycle, three other areas or policies stand out as the most relevant ones shaping the future of any senior cycle review in the country: the assessment approach; continuing professional development for teachers; support and guidance for schools, students and teachers. These three were systematically identified by stakeholders (students, teachers and parents) during school-based reviews, national seminars, interviews and meetings of the OECD team and relevant documentation and literature.

Further discussion of these policies during phase 3 of the review process will need to take into account their complexity and the challenges to align them with the review. The current assessment system, embodied by the Leaving Certificate assessment at the end of senior cycle that feeds into the “points system” that determines entry into higher education, is an element deeply rooted in Irish society. It is perceived as transparent and (most of the time) fair. Adjusting the assessment would require not just to identify a good technical alternative but also one that satisfies the level of trust and transparency that Irish society demands.

Enhancing the overall quality and aligning teachers’ and school leaders’ continuous professional development with the ambitions of senior cycle is also strongly highlighted by stakeholders interviewed by the OECD team, prevalent in the reform literature and was a recurrent topic during the discussions in phase 2 of the review. Teachers translate and make sense of education policies in the classroom. Evidence points towards the need for them to continue playing a central role in discussions and design of any adjustment of senior cycle. In addition, any change to the curriculum requires teachers to be supported by targeted continuing professional development. School leaders, authorities and unions could collaborate with teachers to identify their specific needs and how to address them.

Reinforcing information and guidance services is also one of the main concerns raised during phase 2 of the review process and during the interviews and meetings undertaken by the OECD team. This concern seems to be a consequence of the conclusions emanating from the need of senior cycle education in Ireland to evolve towards a more flexible and open structure. If this policy line is eventually followed, students and their families will require information and guidance to navigate through the changes introduced.

To tackle the challenges and concerns identified about complementary policies, discussions during the next stage of the review process of senior cycle in Ireland should be aiming at clarifying the options for adjustment of assessment methods, needs for continuing professional development for teachers, and guidance services. More concretely:

  • Define if (and how) the assessment approach in senior cycle could be adapted in terms of: a) its periodicity (e.g. how assessments can be better distributed across the two years of the upper secondary education); b) its purpose and shape (i.e. knowledge and competency based assessments, including more formative components); and c) administration (e.g. if it is convenient to explore different combinations of external and classroom assessments).

  • Define more precisely what kind of continuing professional development is required to support teachers in the provision of changes in senior cycle and complementary policies and how this support will be run in practice across schools and the whole system.

  • Define the kind of information and guidance services required by students and their parents at school and system level so they can navigate more successfully any change in the system. Pay special attention to socio-economic disadvantaged students.

A policy needs clarity and visibility regarding who is supposed to implement what, and who is responsible in case a given step of the implementation goes wrong (Viennet and Pont, 2017[2]). The distribution of tasks and responsibilities is determined first by the institutional structure in place in a given education system. The implementation strategy, therefore, should identify key players and stakeholders and their corresponding responsibilities. The results of the discussions in phase 2 and the evidence collected through meetings and interviews with the OECD team highlight that the review of senior cycle requires the perspectives of all relevant stakeholders and institutions to continue to be engaged in phase 3. More concretely, institutions directly associated with the three areas/aspects identified in the previous section (assessment, continuing professional development, and guidance services) should be encouraged to play a more active role in the discussions of phase 3 and commit themselves to provide specific solutions and support in their related areas. Many of these institutions are part of the board of the NCCA and are already expressing their voices.

The review of senior cycle in Ireland is led by the NCCA, as facilitator of the stakeholder discussion. Discussions during phase 2 have offered some general conclusions about the policies that require alignment and co-ordination to improve the chances of being successfully implemented. To move forward, it would make sense to invite the relevant institutions and agents in these policy areas to contribute to the discussion. So it is essential to find the right set of incentives to involve more strongly the participation of entities such as the Central Applications Office or the Teaching Council.

Discussions during phase 3 of the review process of senior cycle in Ireland should be aiming at clarifying 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 to the next stages of the review process in their corresponding policy area(s):

  • Invite the State Examinations Commission (SEC) and the Central Applications Office (CAO) to express their views and discuss how to adapt their instruments to respond to the need for changes/adjustments of the assessment approach in senior cycle.

  • Invite secondary graduates who pursued a variety of paths following their senior cycle education, to widen the perspective on specific strengths and shortcomings of senior cycle and offer suggestions on potential evolutions.

  • Invite the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and related institutions to express their views about the impact of their admission criteria on senior cycle and the adjustments needed (as demanded by stakeholders in phase 2).

  • Invite teacher unions (ASTI and TUI) and the Teaching Council to express their views in the conclusions of phase 2 of the review of senior cycle and invite them to commit themselves to play a more active role in identifying the support needed for teachers to meaningfully enact changes in the curriculum in the classroom. This initiative could, in turn, help the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) and the Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT), under the auspices of the Teacher Education Section of the DES, to enhance CPD provision.

  • Invite organisations such as the Joint Managerial Body Secretariat of Secondary Schools (JMB), the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS), and the Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), and the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC) to express their views and define their contribution to the enhancement of guidance support services for students and their families.

  • Invite more systematically employers’ representatives to enrich the reflection about potential developments of senior cycle with their perspective and suggestions.

The language of a policy may not necessarily be understood by the stakeholders who are expected to implement it (Hill and Hupe, 2009[4]). A policy must gather political support among actors and across implementation levels if it is to be realised (Datnow, 2005[5]). With a large number of vocal stakeholders in the education sector, policy designers are encouraged to plan for engaging stakeholders as early as possible in the process of policy making (Schleicher, 2018[6]) and also to communicate clearly on the goals, objectives and processes required for the policy.

An adequate communication plan is also essential to keep stakeholder engagement, and this is particularly relevant for long lasting policy development processes. Even if stakeholders are committed to the exercise, a long review process can exhaust their support and resources for this task. To support long-term engagement, countries might need to explore planning options with short-term or intermediate outcomes to serve as incentives to encourage continuous engagement and this should be properly communicated. In this regard, stakeholders should receive clear indication that all the input contributed is received, discussed and, if appropriate, integrated to the policy making process, so that stakeholders feel their contributions are taken seriously even if they do not form part of the final policy document. At the same time, it is important to remain vigilant to avoid the absence of any key player in the discussion; if this happens, this should be fixed or at least acknowledged so proper actions are taken.

Discussions during phase 3 of the review process of senior cycle in Ireland should also be aiming at establishing the communication strategy to maintain inclusive stakeholder engagement for the next stages of the review process. More concretely:

  • Provide clarity about specific results and outcomes for stakeholders from the review of senior cycle specifically for phase 3 and beyond. That is, clarification on the main priorities and specific policy lines for future steps.

  • Discuss and receive feedback on the dissemination mechanisms used until phase 3 and identify if any adjustment is needed.

  • Identify all the relevant players absent in phases 2 and 3 of the review and discuss how they can be included in future steps.

  • Explain the steps that will follow after the finalisation of phase 3 and how stakeholders are expected to stay involved.

The inputs necessary for education policy implementation consist mainly of the funding, technology and knowledge available to the actors, as well as their capacity to use them. The amount, quality and distribution of these resources allocated to implementation determine to a great extent whether and how a policy is implemented (Wurzburg, 2010[7]). A recurring issue with resources is not only about whether they are available for implementation, or in sufficient quantities, but how they are used, and what for, i.e. what the resource strategy is (Bardach, 2000[8]).

Resourcing was not often mentioned as a limitation during discussions taking place in phase 2 of the review process or during the interviews and meetings with the OECD team. However, this aspect should still be considered as the discussion unfolds. Perhaps resourcing has not played a prominent role in discussions yet because specific priorities or policy lines are still to be decided and it is difficult for stakeholders to estimate the amount of resources needed for their implementation. In that sense, it is again strongly justified that one of the main goals of phase 3 of the review process is to establish, as clearly as possible, what are the main priorities and specific policy lines that should be followed after the finalisation of the review process. This can help clarify the funding or resourcing needed for schools and others in the future.

To identify the resources needed to implement future steps in the review and adjustment 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. More concretely:

  • Consider what would be the implications in terms of capacity and resources at school level of changes in senior cycle education, whether current school funding approaches would need to be adjusted, and whether specific resources would be needed to implement the potential changes. This reflection should encompass all schools, with specific attention given to schools with a high proportion of socio-economically disadvantaged students (DEIS).

  • Clarify the leadership capacity that is needed, at school level, to lead change and adjustments in senior cycle. Take advantage of the network of schools established for discussions in phase 2 to identify leadership capacity and those cases where support will be needed.

  • At system level, make sure that teacher unions and relevant organisations work closely with the DES and NCCA to express their views on capacity building and support for change/evolution and commit themselves to the elaboration of specific policy mechanisms on this matter. This can be done though their participation and membership in the boards of the NCCA.

The timing and pace set for implementation determine to a large extent how the process unfolds. However, timing can be highly sensitive to the resources, willingness and capacity of individual stakeholders to collaborate in a co-ordinated manner during implementation. For the senior cycle community in Ireland, it is important that the timing is chosen carefully to continue with the review process and (potential) implementation, paying attention to the needs of all the relevant stakeholders.

International experience points to some lessons in terms of timing and pace of the review process and subsequent steps. Some countries undertake curriculum reforms ad hoc, while others undertake curriculum reviews in cycles, leading to clarity in steps and engagement processes by those involved. Defining the timing and pace in more ad hoc situations requires careful analysis and consideration of actors involved, and political and social context.

In addition, a recurring concern expressed by a group of participants in phase 2 of the review and in conversations with the OECD team was the relationship with the reform experience of junior cycle. More concretely, a group of stakeholders indicated that any discussion and reform of senior cycle should take place only after an assessment of the reform of junior cycle. However, this position is often contested by other stakeholders whose major concern is the potential negative impact of what is perceived as a misalignment between the recently reformed junior cycle and the senior cycle.

To tackle the concerns about the timing and pace of the review of senior cycle identified in phase 2, discussions during phase 3 in Ireland should be aiming at clarifying what is the best timing for the introduction of adjustments in senior cycle and what are the pre-conditions needed. More concretely:

  • Discuss and decide the different steps that can be taken to achieve a review of senior cycle and subsequent steps in the mid- and long-term. For example, it should be decided if resources should be mobilised in advance in some specific areas (such as assessment methods, continuing professional development, or guidance services for students and their families) taking into account only the general lines reported by the review process until now, or if resources and related complementary policies should be considered and mobilised only once a specific/detailed curriculum framework is available as reference.

Data and information constitute valuable implementation instruments that inform decision-making, improve the dialogue with participants and contribute to transparency. Data, and information in general, should serve the purpose of helping out the education community in Ireland to inform and to monitor the development of the review of senior cycle, its results, and further (potential) reform. Otherwise, it is difficult to grasp the lessons learnt and identify challenges to be tackled. At the same time, data and information might support accountability as a basic element in policy implementation, especially when public resources are in place. One of the main conclusions of phase 2 of the review process, which was also confirmed by the OECD team meetings and interviews, is the need to have better information about the impact of the reform of junior cycle to better inform future developments of senior cycle. In this sense, the experience of junior cycle can offer valuable lessons learnt and reference points to calibrate and anticipate the scale and kind of challenges ahead in the (potential) evolution of senior cycle.

Despite the need to learn more about other and previous experiences (like the reform of junior cycle) and the need to identify monitoring mechanisms to measure progress and impact, it is essential for phase 3 of the review process to identify which are the specific aspects to be taken into account to guide information and data gathering. Data should also be aligned to the vision expressed in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 and eventual vision for senior cycle refined collectively.

In addition, the senior cycle community could explore specific policy areas from which they can learn from this review process, including information systematically collected and data indicators constructed, if needed. This may include analysing the junior cycle reform and other similar experiences, on adjustments of the assessment approach, on continuing professional development for teachers, and on the enhancing of guidance services for students and their families.

To tackle the concerns identified in phase 2 about the need to have solid information and data for the review process, discussions during phase 3 should be aiming at clarifying 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. More concretely:

  • Identify the key policy priorities for senior cycle review and determine what is the relevant information and data which can provide the necessary evidence base to support it.

  • Discuss and agree on measures which would demonstrate progress with the review process and communicate these to all those involved.


[8] Bardach, E. (2000), A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving, Seven Bridges Press, New York, NY.

[5] Datnow, A. (2005), “The Sustainability of Comprehensive School Reform Models in Changing District and State Contexts”, Educational Administration Quarterly, Vol. 41/1, pp. 121-153, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0013161x04269578.

[4] Hill, M. and P. Hupe (2009), Implementing Public Policy: An Introduction to the Study of Operational Governance.

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

[3] OECD (2018), Teaching for the Future: Effective Classroom Practices To Transform Education, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264293243-en.

[6] 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).

[2] 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.

[7] Wurzburg, G. (2010), “Making reform happen in education”, in Making Reform Happen: Lessons from OECD Countries, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264086296-7-en.

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