3. Stakeholder engagement in the review of senior cycle

Consulting stakeholders in the development and implementation of policies has become a common practice across the OECD for different reasons, even in those education systems where decision-making is centralised (OECD, 2018[1]). For example, as traditional representative instances have eroded and technologies have expanded possibilities to participate, more actors have entered the public debate. In addition, awareness of the importance of the quality of education for the future of societies has expanded beyond education professionals and parents to occupy international and national policy agendas (OECD, 2015[2]) (OECD, 2016[3]). As a result, governments cannot rely on linear forms of participation only, but have to engage with a broader range of stakeholders (Rouw et al., 2016[4]).

Viennet and Pont (2017[5]) recognise the central role of stakeholders in education policy making and implementation. They suggest that when planning for implementation, policy makers should understand stakeholders’ positions, interests and motivations on a proposed change in education policy; as well as take into account their readiness and capacity to implement a change. Acknowledging and engaging the wide range of education players and their perspectives on the policy is a crucial step towards the effective implementation of a policy.

In Ireland, engaging stakeholders is important for the review of senior cycle1 because it facilitates ownership of the vision and trust in the process, which are key for design, implementation and eventually for sustainability of any policy in senior cycle in the medium and long terms. Stakeholder engagement is, in this sense, a self-reinforcing exercise, as education professionals who see their role valued in the policy process are more likely to make further contributions. Stakeholder engagement can also help adjust the policy design to make it more realistic to schools’ needs by building on stakeholders’ knowledge, experience and practical contributions.

For Ireland, the review process can help collect and systematise the experiences of reform in junior cycle from different stakeholders. This input can be essential for a finer understanding of the need for and practical implications of potential changes in senior cycle. Finally, stakeholder engagement efforts might provide essential information on stakeholders’ readiness, willingness and capacity to implement by learning about their position regarding the proposed policy or reform; and about their capacity and resources.

This chapter reviews the main stakeholders and their connection with senior cycle education, and looks at the ways in which they have engaged in the review process so far.

The Irish education system is nationally led, but has a tradition and culture of institutionalised organisations that engage in education at different levels. Table 3.1 shows the different players that have stakes in senior cycle, from national, to regional, local and school level. In comparison to other systems across OECD, the State Exam Commission (SEC) and the Central Applications Office (CAO) are institutional stakeholders that play a key role at this level.

There are different approaches to engagement across countries, from the creation of national educational advisory institutions, to general ad hoc consultative approaches that vary according to subjects. Ireland’s approach to engagement is based on corporatist representation and consultation. Consultations, negotiations, and other processes engage a number of institutions in education policy. A number of them are represented in the Council of the NCCA and are already voicing their views. The review process described in the Introduction is designed to widen consultations and include perspectives of schools and practitioners.

The NCCA review has been tailored specifically to engage all key senior cycle stakeholders early in the policy process, to gather their perspective and to report to the Minister for Education and Skills based on their contributions (NCCA, 2018[6]). The review is focused on getting a range of perspectives about the purpose, future, structure and functioning of senior cycle education. The question of whether and how senior cycle education needed to change was therefore approached collectively. The review unfolded over its three phases, with stakeholder engagement as their core principle. The NCCA positions itself as a facilitator of the entire process.

The first phase (2016/2017) consisted of identifying topics to explore in relation to upper secondary education, as well as the various approaches to conducting a curriculum review. To this end, the NCCA carefully examined national and international literature, and consulted with national stakeholders and international experts on their experience with curriculum reforms and reviews. Lessons from the experience of Wales, the Netherlands, and of Ireland’s own junior cycle reform were considered, as well as other examples from the OECD during a national seminar. The information collected served two purposes: i) designing the rest of the review process; and ii) setting Ireland’s efforts to reflect on senior cycle education in an international perspective. This preparatory work concluded on some areas to discuss: the current senior cycle programmes, core experiences, skills, flexible programmes and pathways for learning, continuity and coherence with junior cycle, educational assessment, role of guidance, transition or bridging programmes, sites of learning, forms of reporting and certification, well-being, amongst others.

The second phase (2018/19) involved consultations at school level (through school-based reviews); these results were further discussed and enriched at national level (through national seminars) with a wider range of education professionals. The NCCA selected 41 schools from the 80 that volunteered to participate in the school-based reviews. The selection of this sample used DES statistics to ensure representativeness in terms of the schools’ type, DEIS status, gender mix and language medium. Table 3.2 displays basic information about the sample’s characteristics for school-based reviews.

The school-based reviews took place in two thematic cycles, the first one investigating the purpose, strengths and challenges of current senior cycle education while the second one focused on pathways, programmes and flexibility. Each school was provided with a grant, access to relevant material, and was assigned an NCCA mentor for support. Students, teachers and parents of the 41 schools were invited to focus groups conducted by the NCCA mentor (for students) or by the teacher or the parent link for each school. The ESRI served as a scientific adviser and analysed all the data collected throughout the process. The two cycles of school-based reviews each resulted in a working paper by ESRI to prepare for the subsequent national seminars.

Each cycle of the school-based reviews concluded with a series of national seminars in various parts of the country (Athlone, Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Sligo, and Waterford), in which a wider range of stakeholders were invited to participate. The first series of seminars was built mainly on the presentation of the results from cycle 1 school-based reviews. In response to participants’ feedback on these first seminars, the NCCA re-designed the second series of seminars to include shorter presentation time and to give more time to discussions among participants. Members of the general public were also able to contribute to the discussions via email. At the end of each series of seminars, the NCCA published and sent to schools a bulletin about the cycle results. In addition, all materials produced in this review and discussions are published online for the general public to consult.

The third phase (2019) of the review consists of the presentation of a document prepared by the NCCA2 to the public, for feedback. The document summarises the themes from the previous phases and identifies areas for further development. It is expected that these ideas can be explored further with stakeholders, teachers and the wider public during the review process. The results of this phase will inform the final advisory report to be presented to the Minister for Education and Skills with the NCCA advice on the future development of senior cycle.

The phase 2 of the review process mobilised a considerable number of stakeholders and produced a large number of suggestions regarding its challenges and potential evolution. At school level, these were the groups consulted: students, teachers, and parents. The DES participated in the NCCA’s national seminars and received regular updates on the review process. Other central bodies such as the Teaching Council and the SEC took part in national seminars. Table 3.3 below offers some basic statistics about this process.

Contributions from stakeholders took place through a range of different events and approaches. School-based reviews included submissions from parents, teachers and students. Stakeholder attendance at seminars included many different education professionals at national, regional and local level or schools: DES inspectors, SEC, university lecturers, management bodies, union leaders, representatives from subject associations, National Parent Council, schools not involved in the school-based review, directors of schools from ETBI, Institute of Guidance Counsellors, JCT support service, PDST, and Irish Language groups. Emails were submitted by students, teachers and other bodies including 10 submissions from Irish language bodies.

School leaders engaged by co-ordinating the school reviews (in the case of the 41 participating schools). Teachers got involved in the review, responding to the school-based surveys and focus groups, and attending national seminars. This engagement, when sustained throughout the policy process, can contribute significantly to the quality of the curriculum since teachers inform its review, and help its development and implementation in the classroom. It is, therefore, crucial for government to continue to engage teachers to help design policy reviews and reforms (Schleicher, 2018[8]).

Both ASTI and TUI took part in the NCCA discussions alongside teachers, to advise on potential evolutions for senior cycle and with respect to teachers’ rights and work conditions. Both unions kept their members up to date on the progress made with the review. Each union has its own position on senior cycle issues and each remained open to discussing with the NCCA throughout the review process, resulting in a constructive dialogue.

Students were consulted through focus groups in the 41 schools involved in the NCCA review process and were invited to take part in the national seminars. As those most immediately concerned by senior cycle education, students in Ireland can bring a unique perspective on the changes to prioritise. Parents were also part of the school-based reviews. As reported by policy makers as well as other stakeholder groups, it is difficult for schools and education leaders to engage with parents (information reported during the OECD-IEP international seminar on education policy implementation, 25 March 2019). Yet parents can help raise students’ voices and contribute to the discussions on senior cycle.

Finally, in line with Ireland’s tradition of partnership policy making, the NCCA has made efforts to co-ordinate with the structures already in place for education policy advice, representation and consultation. Representative institutions – including parent associations, school management bodies, the National Association for Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), teacher and student unions – were invited to participate in the different national events and in consultations (NCCA, 2018[6]).

The NCCA’s tailored approach to engage stakeholders in the senior cycle review is a strong asset for the potential development of a revised senior cycle. The NCCA succeeded in designing and carrying out an inclusive review process to provide a range of perspectives that can enrich senior cycle over the longer term. School-level stakeholders had a central position in the review, but the wider education community was also included. The NCCA co-ordinates the review in coherence with the structures already in place for education policy advice, representation and consultation, in line with Ireland’s tradition of partnership policy making. The Council also conducted the review in a flexible manner, to respond to stakeholders’ feedback. This could lead to strengthening public trust in education policy making. Leading a stakeholder engagement initiative is no easy task, and the NCCA and the senior cycle community should be acknowledged for these successes. It should finally be noted that the review process has gathered concrete results, as it, for instance, confirmed a widespread agreement on the need for change in senior cycle education.

Some issues remain that, when tackled, will significantly enrich the discussions about the potential of senior cycle and reinforce the impact of stakeholders’ engagement. During interviews with the OECD team, a range of issues were raised, that also appeared during the discussions. First, there is ambivalence in the support that some stakeholders manifest for change, which jeopardises the chance to settle some of the widely recognised issues in senior cycle. Even when convinced of the need for change in senior cycle education, stakeholders tend to disagree on the nature and scope of the change, which makes finding common solutions considerably more challenging. The OECD team also identified key players who were not as involved as expected considering how important they would be if senior cycle is to evolve. Finally, some stakeholders interviewed by the OECD team reiterated the concern that the NCCA’s review might fail to translate their propositions into a concrete policy. The remainder of this chapter elaborates on these four issues.

There is ambivalence in the support that some stakeholders manifest for change in senior cycle. For instance, those who have gone through senior cycle education acknowledge its faults. Especially, most criticise the way preparation for the Leaving Certificate tends to shape the two years of upper secondary education. However, the same stakeholders also consider the Leaving Certificate is a rite of passage to be proud of. Similarly, students, teachers and parents tend to claim that presenting more than five subjects for the Leaving Certificate is challenging and too stressful, especially since all the exams are taken within a short period of time. Also, many stakeholders widely share the position that studying a larger number of subjects (i.e. more than five) is preferable than studying fewer in senior cycle.

Most of the individuals interviewed by the OECD team reported a strong aversion to risk in Ireland. The current senior cycle is therefore attractive because it is familiar and considered successful to the extent that it sorts most senior cycle leavers into higher or further education on a “fair” basis (qualifier used by stakeholders in both NCCA discussion and interviews with the OECD). As a result, stakeholders are undecided between their desire to solve the current challenges of senior cycle education and their fear of tackling unfamiliar issues. It would be important to clarify why the review is needed, and what would be the benefits of a potential change.

Generating consensus around specific policy changes or adjustments and getting support is always a difficult task, but not impossible. For example, in Denmark there was agreement on the need to work on the establishment of an evaluation culture of the system despite its multiple challenges. To that end, key interest groups got together to create the Council for Evaluation and Quality Development of Primary and Lower Secondary Education as the most prominent space to discuss and assess policies. This was the result of collaboration between municipalities (local government), teachers (unions included), school leaders (also with its own union), students, parents, researchers, and associations representing other stakeholders (Schleicher, 2011[9]).

Even when convinced of the need for change in senior cycle education, stakeholders tend to disagree on the nature and scope of the change, which makes finding common solutions considerably more challenging. For instance, students, teachers and principals appear to agree that the high-stakes Leaving Certificate encourages drilling to the test rather than engaging in deep learning. The interviews of the OECD team with higher and further education institutions confirm the issue, suggesting that many Leaving Certificate graduates lack higher-order thinking skills. Yet a visible part of public opinion still sees the Leaving Certificate as the best possible alternative to transition from senior cycle to third level education, because it consists of the same external assessment for all students.

Among those who agree that senior cycle should change, some suggest that the exams could be split between years 5 and 6; others that the assessment technology itself should change to accommodate the various ways different students have to learn; others argue that higher and further education institutions should first change their selection processes. These multiple propositions and their implications are worth considering and discussing for the NCCA and the rest of the senior cycle community.

Inclusive and participatory stakeholder engagement is key for policy making and especially for implementation to succeed, not least because a process that is well designed and carried out can build trust among stakeholders (Schleicher, 2018[8]). The OECD identified actors who were not as involved as expected considering how important they are for senior cycle.

While senior cycle and the Leaving Certificate are, in fact, focused on entry to higher education, it appeared that universities, colleges, institutes of technology and other post-secondary institutions were not strongly engaged in the discussions (although some higher education representatives were present during the national seminars). During their meeting with the OECD team, representatives of the higher and further education sectors admitted their institutions could be more involved. Their greater level of involvement could help discussions to move forward and reach specific proposals. For example, if admissions criteria for universities or institutes of technology changed (as a proposal to facilitate reform in senior cycle), then there would be more clarity in terms of the specific direction senior cycle education might take.

More attention should also be paid to the experience of the students who have already been through senior cycle and the Leaving Certificate assessment, in addition to the junior and senior students currently involved. Especially, the views of the students currently at third level and of students or professionals who did not perform well in the Leaving Certificate, could contribute to widening the perspective. Dublin City University faculty have conducted an exploratory study (under peer review at the time of writing) of first-year university students’ views on what they learnt in senior cycle (O’Leary and Scully, 2018[10]).

Although some employers’ associations are present in the review (such as IBEC Irish Business), the participation of other major employers (such as administrations and companies) should be encouraged. Major employers could both benefit from a revised senior cycle and can contribute more to improve some specific aspects. Some stakeholders wonder how senior cycle could better help students develop practical skills, cater to a wider spectrum of learning needs and offer an attractive range of alternative pathways in education. These considerations follow the expectation that most stakeholders have that education should help students navigate the job market, for which companies should be key allies.

Making sure that all the relevant stakeholders are on board for both discussion and agreement, is an essential investment that pays off in the long run, or can erode policy efforts if not considered. For example, in the city of Hamburg (Germany), policy makers agreed on a school reform that would reduce stratification in the school system - a policy aiming at moderating the negative impact of stratification on student learning. The policy could have provided better and more equitable opportunities for all students. However, parents’ associations were not sufficiently involved in the discussion of the merits and advantages of this policy and were never convinced, so the reform was reverted by referendum in 2010 (Schleicher, 2011[9]).

Some stakeholders interviewed by the OECD team reiterated the concern that the NCCA’s review might fail to translate their propositions into concrete policy mechanisms. More specifically, they asked that some guarantee be offered that the views expressed will be considered seriously when the NCCA produces its official advice to the DES. Some stakeholders indicated they expect that challenges faced by school-level agents will be recognised by valuing their input and effort.

In its role as policy advisor to the DES, the NCCA can have a significant influence in the decision-making process. However, the reports and frameworks it produces are considered advice, which the government might choose not to follow. Because of the advisory role of the NCCA, stakeholders might overestimate the final impact of the review process, in which case they need clarification about the extent to which their contributions to the NCCA exercise can influence policy making in the DES.

It is evident that not all the opinions from stakeholders can be taken on board despite their value. Ireland might consider, as future steps, some mechanisms to continue involving stakeholders in the discussion on senior cycle and give them the opportunity to see by themselves the results of this collaboration. One attractive opportunity is to develop collaboration with stakeholders through pilot programmes. In 2015, Portugal started a series of programmes and initiatives to enhance the quality of its students’ learning. The “Project for Autonomy and Curriculum Flexibility’’ (PACF) (2017-2018) builds upon this effort and provides volunteer schools with the necessary conditions to manage the curriculum while also integrating practices that promote better learning. The PACF was being implemented in more than 200 schools as a pilot project during the 2017/18 school year. The pilot project enabled teachers to design and experience meaningful in-school professional development. They were also able to implement curricular and pedagogical changes that allowed them to engage with students with diverse needs and backgrounds. Because of this, the PACF has the potential to increase inclusion and equity in schools. Students also benefited directly from the pilot project, because they experienced innovative ways to learn, including with peers, by meeting professionals, learning outside the classroom and making their own choices about what they learnt (OECD, 2018[11]).


[7] DES (2019), Statistics: Data on Individual Schools, https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Statistics/Data-on-Individual-Schools/ (accessed on 3 April 2019).

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

[11] OECD (2018), Curriculum flexibility and autonomy in Portugal An OECD review, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/education/2030/Curriculum-Flexibility-and-Autonomy-in-Portugal-an-OECD-Review.pdf (accessed on 5 September 2018).

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

[3] OECD (2016), Trends Shaping Education 2016, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/trends_edu-2016-en.

[2] OECD (2015), Education Policy Outlook 2015: Making Reforms Happen, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264225442-en.

[10] O’Leary, M. and D. Scully (2018), The Leaving Certificate Programme as Preparation for Higher Education: The View of Undergraduates at the End of their First Year in University, Centre for Assessment Research, Policy & Practice in Education (CARPE), https://www.dcu.ie/sites/default/files/carpe/lc_report_sept_12.pdf (accessed on 19 June 2019).

[4] Rouw, R. et al. (2016), “United in Diversity: A Complexity Perspective on the Role of Attainment Targets in Quality Assurance in Flanders”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 139, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jlrb8ftvqs1-en.

[8] 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).

[9] Schleicher, A. (2011), Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the World, International Summit on the Teaching Profession, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264113046-en.

[12] 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.

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


← 1. The literature points to a number of ways in which stakeholder engagement can enhance the policy process and its outcomes. However, there is a limit to the availability and the relevance of evidence of the exact effects of stakeholder engagement on implementation effectiveness. This chapter therefore builds on the literature on stakeholder engagement in policy-making, on comparative case studies, and on qualitative evidence collected from interviews conducted in Ireland with stakeholders throughout the project.

← 2. For more details on the process and on the questionnaires proposed to each stakeholder group, see Smyth, Banks and McCoy (2018[12]).

Metadata, Legal and Rights

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area. Extracts from publications may be subject to additional disclaimers, which are set out in the complete version of the publication, available at the link provided.

© OECD 2020

The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at http://www.oecd.org/termsandconditions.