Last June, I wrote a piece for this blog on Leaving Certificate reform and specifically on how the CAO system, in my opinion, corrupts our Senior Cycle. Since then, Minister Norma Foley has announced an “acceleration” of Senior Cycle reform with seven revised subject specifications and two new subjects being introduced. It was also announced that the planned use of a teacher-assessment component at Leaving Certificate would be shelved, with concerns over AI at the heart of the decision.
So, has the landscape really changed following the Minister’s announcement, where are the improvements and is the “elephant in the room” ever going to be addressed? In this post, I’ll try to analyse if the Minister’s latest announcements address some of the issues I discussed in that post in June and reflect on whether we are set for a true reform of our Senior Cycle.
In my post in June, I stressed the importance of decoupling curricular reform from assessment reform at Leaving Certificate. Much of the headline space is filled with criticism of our assessment, mainly examinations, with much of this ill-informed and inaccurate. Last week, Eamon Ryan, Minister for Environment, Climate & Communications, said our current end-of-school assessment was not fit for purpose and was too focused on rote learning.
“I think our secondary school exam system is not serving our purposes, because it’s too much rote learning, the memory game … I think our secondary school curriculum is too exam focused and too… it’s all about learning and academic skills and I think it would benefit and serve everyone’s interest, if there was more of a mix, how you fix things, how you make things, and even just learning together, active learning, team learning.”Minster Eamon Ryan.
I would challenge this. Exams can assess far more than memory skills. I think the State Examinations Commission have made enormous strides in designing examinations that challenge pupils and assess critical thinking, analytical skills and more. Too many commentators, even our government ministers, look at our education system through the lens of their own school experience and not on what is truly happening on the ground. When did Eamon Ryan last spend a full day or week in school, shadowing students and teachers? Those at the coal face know that education and schools are a very different landscape now.
Don’t get me wrong, there is room for additional assessment components but they need to accurately reflect the purpose of the subject and be designed to ensure fairness and equity. I am encouraged by Minister Foley’s commitment to further research on AI and its effect on such assessments and the recognition, for now anyway, that their emergence has changed the landscape. Some are saying that AI is being used as a scapegoat here, and there may be truth in that, but I think it is a wise decision nonetheless.
My point here is that too much focus on assessment reform takes the focus away from our extremely slow rate of curricular reform. Our subject content does not get updated frequently enough, especially in rapidly changing subjects like the sciences, technology or economics. Our current science curricula are over 20 years old and, by God, have things changed since then.
So, to give credit, Minister Foley’s latest announcement that the Senior Cycle sciences (Biology, Chemistry & Physics) revised subject specifications will be introduced in our schools in 2025 is a welcome one. Hopefully, the syllabi will be dynamic, reflect modern scientific advances and challenge our students on a range of fronts. Crucially, they need to adequately prepare them for further study of the sciences at third level. In addition, new subject specifications will also be introduced for Business, Latin, Greek, Arabic and the new subjects, Drama, Film and Theatre Studies, and Climate Action & Sustainable Development.
However, questions remain. What happened to the ‘network schools’ programme? This programme was to pilot the new and revised subject specifications in 2025 before a wider release to all schools in 2027. I wasn’t a fan of the idea (surely these schools would have struggled with no resources or proper training) but Minister Foley made no mention of them at all in her announcement last week. Why were they shelved?
I know many teachers in the Subject Development Groups (the bodies formed within the NCCA to develop or revise curricula) for Biology, Chemistry & Physics and they were blindsided by the Minster’s announcement. The groups are still working on the revised curricula for these subjects and are not yet complete. I believe much of the work up to now was on developing the non-exam assessment component, which will need considerable change now too. There is still no science education representative on the Climate Action & Sustainable Development subject development group, which seems like an extraordinary omission considering the wide crossover this subject should likely have with Biology, Chemistry, Physics & Agricultural Science. Four of the spaces in that group are TBC, according to the NCCA website. How can an incomplete subject development group develop a new subject?
One might say that there is plenty of time … relax; however, the final specifications need to be in place by the start of the 2024 academic year. A comprehensive training programme needs to be implemented in advance of the new subjects being introduced. That leaves around eleven months to complete the subject specification, publish it for consultation, review the consultation and make the necessary adjustments and publish the final specification. That is really tight. It would be of enormous benefit if details of the assessment, both exam and non-exam components, were also released with the new specifications for these subjects but I won’t hold my breath.
So, the Minister’s announcement is welcome and I look forward to seeing the new specification for Biology in particular, my own subject, but I do sincerely hope they have learned from the mistakes made with the Agricultural Science subject specification.
In Agricultural Science, the new specification has been heavily criticised for its use of overly vague learning outcomes and a dearth of specific detail on the depth of treatment for each of these statements. It’s a specification in name only and teachers and students don’t fully understand what they need to learn. The State Examinations Commission don’t seem to know either, with multiple examples of questions appearing on Leaving Certificate exams that do not link to any learning outcome. I don’t think something similar will be tolerated in the other sciences.
The Elephant in the Room
Sadly, the Minister’s announcement did not refer the CAO and its role in the reform of the Leaving Certificate. As I argued in my previous post, the CAO has corrupted the Leaving Certificate reducing a student’s second-level education to a cumulative points total rather than a set of experiences, passions and achievements. As long as the CAO exists in its current format, true reform of our Senior Cycle will never happen.
I am not surprised the Minister made no mention of CAO in her recent announcement – it is beyond her remit. The CAO is owned solely by the Irish universities and the Leaving Cert is its plaything. The CAO must do better and Minister Foley and Minister Harris need to show more courage here. The reform of our curricula and assessment procedures still leaves our students in an ultra-competitive reductive points race.
So, has the Minister’s announcement made any great strides to reform our Senior Cycle? Well, yes and no. The revised and new subject specifications are welcome but questions remain around their development, structure, assessment and rollout. I genuinely hope the NCCA, along with Oide – the body that will be tasked with its rollout – get this right.
Her commitment to freezing teacher-based assessments, with a review of the impact of AI on teaching, learning and assessment is a wise move, even though there may be ulterior motives. I’d like to know what happened to ‘network schools’.
Finally, the elephant still remains at the back of the class, feet up with a silly little grin on its face. Without reform of CAO and our university entrance system, I don’t see much changing even if lots of positive things are happening around curricular and assessment reform.
Humphrey Jones is Head of Science & Guidance Counsellor at St. Columba’s College, Dublin. Follow him on Twitter / X @humphreyjones