Emer Smyth abstract

Paper Title

Reforming Second-level Education: Evidence and Policy


This presentation draws on the Post-Primary Longitudinal Study, which followed a cohort of young people in twelve case-study schools from first year of second-level education to Leaving Certificate level. The study placed a strong emphasis on student voice, exploring school organisation and process from the perspective of young people themselves. The presentation focuses on three issues which emerged from student accounts: what they see as good teaching; the nature of teacher-student relations; and whether they see their schooling as adequate preparation for the future. The presentation discusses the challenges in informing policy using mixed methods research and describes the way in which the findings fed into the junior cycle reform agenda.

The junior cycle reform promises an emphasis on the kinds of active teaching and learning methods which second-level students find engaging and much more flexibility at the school level to engage in course design. However, it raises a number of challenges above and beyond the current debate about whether assessment should be school-based. The number of subjects to be assessed will be reduced. While schools are free to offer a larger number of subjects, recent experience points to a close link between what is assessed and what is taught. Depending on how schools organise subject choice, there is a risk of differential student access to a broad range of subject areas, an issue which has important implications for later options at senior cycle and in post-school education. Effective curriculum implementation will require a significant broadening of the repertoire of teaching and assessment methods used in the classroom, which necessitates a strong emphasis on continuous professional development for teachers. System reform must therefore be underpinned by changes at the school level – moving away from rigid ability grouping towards high expectations for all students, promoting a positive school climate, and providing active and engaging teaching and learning in the classroom. The impact of junior cycle reform will also ultimately depend on the degree to which similar changes are brought about within senior cycle education.