Transformations are on the horizon for Ireland’s education system 

The Irish education system is experiencing huge shifts. The entire structure of primary teaching is in overhaul while practical assessment is being trialled for the first time at secondary level. More students are opting for the optional gap year before completing their final years of school, and some gain exposure to science in a working, real-world context early-on as a result. The value of continued study in science appears to be appreciated as applications to study science subjects at university in Ireland have increased for the first time in 5 years.

For some of the same reasons the education system is changing, Ireland is actively encouraging more students to study at home. After many years of emigration, Irish teachers are also set to remain instead of looking for opportunities abroad after the Irish government recently announced a large increase in recruitment.

Ireland has been one of the largest suppliers of English speaking students and teachers to the UK, so will changes have knock-on effects elsewhere?

Illustration of science in Ireland

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Time for a change?

The recent STEM Education Review Group report recommended sweeping changes to STEM education throughout the Irish system, from teacher training to primary school students.

Some motivation for the reforms came from the first ever survey of the Irish public’s perceptions and awareness of STEM in society in 2015. Worryingly, half of those surveyed said they were put off science and maths by their experience of STEM during their school years. The ‘Science in Ireland Barometer’, commissioned by the state agency Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), also reported that half of the participants felt uninformed and 71% felt STEM was too specialised to understand. This is significantly higher than in comparable countries such as New Zealand. However, 92% did agree with the statement, ‘young people’s interest in science, engineering and technology is essential for our future prosperity’.

One of the biggest changes to the Irish science and chemistry curricula is a move away from exam-only assessment for the first time, following the UK system and others.

However, the proposed Leaving Cert (equivalent to A-level) chemistry specifications have been shelved a number of times with various models for practical assessment debated. The confirmation of trials in some schools this coming year has been met with great interest from teachers and other educators, but questions remain about the logistics of carrying out practical assessment with little or no school technicians. In stark contrast to the UK system, the majority of Irish secondary schools do not have laboratory technicians. However, one of the main reasons for this is the significantly smaller school size and higher number of schools per capita over the UK.

Maths leads the way

In 1999 science was formally incorporated into the entire Irish education system for the first time, starting at primary level with a broad syllabus called ‘Social, environmental and scientific education’.

The primary education system is now undergoing major overhauls proposed for the structure, content, and time given to each subject. Coding is to become part of the maths syllabus and digital skills are to be woven into all subject areas, but to date there has been no mention of changes to the chemistry content at this level. Chemistry is catered for under the general title of ‘materials’, which incorporates ‘properties and characteristics of materials’ and ‘materials and change’.

[The new maths syllabus is] a ‘philosophical shift in Irish secondary education towards an investigative, problem-focused approach to learning maths, emphasising its application to real-life settings’

A revised maths syllabus – commonly referred to as Project Maths – for both Junior Cert (equivalent to GCSE) and Leaving Cert level was also introduced to all post-primary schools in 2010. As one of the first major changes to STEM education in Ireland, the National Council for Curriculum Assessment (NCCA) described the new syllabus as a ‘philosophical shift in Irish secondary education towards an investigative, problem-focused approach to learning maths, emphasising its application to real-life settings’.

The 2013 report into the impact of Project Maths found Junior Cert/Cycle students (ages 13-15) were more positive and more confident in their ability than Leaving Cert students (ages 16-18) of the same period. This increase in confidence has been cited as a contributing factor to the increase in students choosing to study physical science subjects at Leaving Cert level.

In addition, in 2012, Irish higher education institutions introduced a bonus point scheme for higher level Leaving Cert maths through the main CAO application system. This was not only a significant incentive to study higher level maths, but also encouraged more students to attend Irish universities rather than go elsewhere. The UCAS data reflects the drop in applications from Ireland since this was introduced.

Movements in science

Junior Cert science was first revised in 2003, bringing with it ‘student investigation projects’ worth 35% of the total assessment for the first time. September 2016 saw the introduction of a new Junior Cycle science syllabus with the first cohort due to take exams in June 2019. The new course has an increased focus on student investigations and the core strands have been expanded from the traditional biology, chemistry and physics into ‘Physical World’, ‘Chemical World’, ‘Earth and Space’, and ‘Biological World’.

Student taking an exam

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The focus for the new specification is literacy, numeracy and key skills, as well as new approaches in assessment and reporting. However, unlike many other European countries, and despite calls from teachers and stakeholders, science remains a non-compulsory subject at lower second level, although it is taken up by the vast majority of students.

A unique feature of the Irish education system is an optional gap year between the Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert called the Transition Year. This year is free from formal classes and examinations and allows students to experience a wide range of educational inputs that often includes work experience.

Over the past decade, the Transition Year has grown hugely in popularity and has become an important target for science outreach to encourage more students into Leaving Cert chemistry.

Biology is the most popular non-compulsory subject at Leaving Cert level. It is perceived as the ‘easy science’ and has four times more students than chemistry. However, despite its perceived relative difficulty compared to biology, more chemistry students achieve an honours grade (A, B or C) than in most other subjects. The current Leaving Cert chemistry syllabus was introduced almost 17 years ago and is examined by a written paper only with no formal practical assessment at present.

A revision of the main lab subjects is currently underway by the NCCA. Practical assessment is due to be introduced for the first time with trials for biology, chemistry and physics in 28 selected schools starting in October 2017. Emphasis will be placed on the skills learned rather than the lab report content. The new chemistry specification is inquiry-based and will require learners to evaluate evidence to make a clear presentation of their proposed solution.

The need for more STEM graduates?

Changes to STEM education in Ireland are designed to better align the system with the skills required by multinational companies with headquarters in the republic. In addition to many ICT, pharmaceutical and medical companies, nearly a quarter of STEM employers in Ireland are in the finance sector.

Innovation 2020, Ireland’s current strategy document for research and development, sets out to make public and private investment in R&D 2.5% of GNP by 2020. Ireland is already in a strong position as one of the top 20 countries for quality of scientific research, with particular strengths in nanotechnology, materials, animal and dairy science.

Ireland has one of the highest levels of maths, science and computing graduates per capita in the EU, a level that is nearly double that of the US. But it needs more to stay at home to meet demand. Due to the continued expansion of STEM careers in Ireland, the country also needs more research masters and PhD enrolments to fulfil its strategy.

Students from the Republic of Ireland represent 10% of the EU total applying to UK institutions. Applications from Ireland to UCAS have dropped by 14% in the last 5 years due to encouragement to stay at home. And presumably due to added uncertainty around Brexit, there was a particularly large drop in 2016.

The rapid reduction in Irish students travelling to UK institutions is a trend that could hurt future scientific collaboration. Both the UK and Ireland have benefited hugely from knowledge exchange for many years. The demand for graduates and teachers in Ireland, coupled with the uncertainty around Brexit, could damage future partnerships and opportunities for learning.

Supplying the system with teachers

In Ireland, similar to countries with highly ranked education systems (such as Finland), the initial teacher training (ITT) programme requires newly qualified teachers (NQTs) to have significant higher level knowledge for their subject specialism. Last year, more than a quarter of UK chemistry teachers held no higher than an A-level in the subject.

There are two main entry points into teaching, with most ITT providers offering the choice between a four year joint BSc in education and science or a two-year professional master of education, which requires a previous higher level degree. Specialism in two subjects is the norm with a specified level of content required for acceptance onto the Teaching Council, the professional standards and regulatory body for primary and post-primary teaching.

One prioritised action from the recent review of STEM education in Ireland was to address non-specialist STEM teaching as a matter of urgency

Unlike most of the UK, at Leaving Cert level, the Teaching Council data suggests there are significantly more teachers registered to teach chemistry than currently needed by Irish schools. Also, there is an apparent excess of physics teachers and a shortfall in those qualified to teach biology. However, most believe this number is not reflective of the classroom situation, as most NQT’s finish with specialisms in two subjects – mainly biology and chemistry.

There are concerns about the level of enthusiasm for chemistry within schools. It is often chosen as a minor subject after biology by many trainee teachers. Therefore, a significant number of those registered to teach chemistry may in fact be biology teachers. All Leaving Cert biology, chemistry and physics teachers can teach the combined Junior Cycle science subject. There are no individual science subjects at this level. The majority of students from Junior Cycle science continue to take up biology over other science subjects at Leaving Cert level. This might be because of a large excess of biology teachers.

Despite recommendations, the Teaching Council has no control over subject specialism output by ITT providers. One prioritised action from the recent review of STEM education in Ireland was to address non-specialist STEM teaching as a matter of urgency. However, the Irish government has recently confirmed a large recruitment drive for teachers in all subjects, regardless of specialisms required by the system. This was announced as an effort to cut the pupil-teacher ratios after years of increases. No provision or recommendation was made for the hiring of technicians.

Will the changes affect the UK?

Most of the changes have been broadly welcomed. But, until recently, a number of key issues have slowed the implementation of changes.

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In particular, the recession in Ireland meant pay cuts of up to 10% for all public sector workers.

Teachers who were appointed for the first time after February 2012 were not entitled to qualification allowances and received lower salaries and part-time substitution pay than those appointed before 2012. The lack of regular work at home and difficulties securing permanent contracts meant being a substitute teacher in Ireland was a tough existence. Many newly qualified Irish teachers headed to the UK and further for a better quality of life.

There is no data for the number of Irish teachers in Britain, but many surveys have reported steady increases over the past number of years with relocation packages offered and recruitment fairs popping up in nearly every Irish teacher training college.

The recent Lansdowne Road Agreement, however, has begun the process of public pay restoration in Ireland. These improvements coupled with the addition of 2,500 extra teacher positions in 2016 as well as increases to the Department of Education budget over all, is an enticing package for Irish teachers to return home.

In stark contrast to this, cuts of 6 to 11% per pupil announced for schools in England paint two very different pictures of the future of STEM education on these islands. Will the long hours and extensive assessment and administration duties also encourage Irish teachers to go home? The current staffing crisis in English schools could worsen still. Coupled with uncertainty about borders post-Brexit, the situation could get worse before it improves.

John O’Donoghue is a Royal Society of Chemistry Education Coordinator at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland