A message from the minister

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Platform, Volume 21

3I am delighted to take this opportunity to reassure your readers about the place of history as a subject in the new Junior Certificate after 2017. History is one of the most popular subjects chosen by pupils studying for the Junior Cert. It will always be taught in second-level schools to students at junior and senior level. This is partly because we have passionate teachers who care about it and want to impart their love and interest in the subject to young people in our schools. It is also because students like it and want to study our past to gain an understanding and context for what is happening now and will happen in the future.

The proportion of students who sit the Junior Certificate in history is very high. This year 91.1% of the cohort sat the Junior Certificate examination in history—more than the number, for example, who sat examinations in science or any of the modern languages at that level. In fact, history is the fifth most popular subject at junior cycle level and I expect it to remain so. The vast majority of individual schools have very high uptake levels in the subject—showing the importance that schools already give to history. And this is for a subject that is mandatory in only half of our schools—the traditional voluntary secondary schools. It is not mandatory in vocational, comprehensive, community schools or colleges.

I want students who study history under a new syllabus to think critically. I want them to question their teachers and what is in their textbooks. A history class should be a lively discussion where students are asking ‘How do we know that actually happened?’ and demanding to see the evidence for themselves rather than to uncritically accept the past as it has been reported to them. Really effective history lessons enable students to learn to make informed judgements, to develop empathy with others and become well-informed citizens. It is expected that students’ experiences of the new junior cycle history will provide an excellent base for those considering taking the subject at senior cycle and impact positively in the future on the take-up of history at senior cycle.

4The debate has also brought claims that the teaching of history will be ‘dumbed down’ under the proposed changes and I want to dismiss the suggestion. In fact, the changes that we are making will place a greater emphasis on the development of intellectually challenging skills like critical thinking, evidence-based judgement-making and communication, and much less emphasis on rote memory and the regurgitation of poorly understood facts. The point of abolishing the Junior Certificate, and reforming junior cycle education, is simply to liberate our students so that they develop a love of learning.

In October 2012, I published ‘A Framework for Junior Cycle’. The Framework builds on the National Council for Curriculum Assessment (NCCA) document, ‘Towards a Framework for Junior Cycle’, that was agreed by all of the education partners. It sets out the principles, skills and statements of learning for the new junior cycle. The new junior cycle aims to give flexibility to schools by allowing them the chance to design their own curriculum in order to meet the needs of their students. It is about placing increased trust in schools by giving them more autonomy, and allowing for a decentralisation of power in relation to the curriculum. We know that the best-performing education systems in the world give schools greater autonomy. They believe, correctly in my view, that schools are in the best position to know what is right for their students. This is a radical change in Irish education, where we have always been inclined to set rules and issue directives from the centre.

So why not make history compulsory?
In an article about junior cycle, published last month in the Irish Times, Prof. Tom Collins quoted from Patrick Pearse’s The Murder Machine:

‘I would urge that the Irish school system of the future should give freedom—freedom to the individual school, freedom to the individual teacher, freedom as far as may be to the individual pupil. Without freedom there can be no right growth, and education is properly the fostering of the right growth of personality.’

This is exactly what the junior cycle reforms are about. The more subjects that are made core, the less choice there is for students. Subject choice is an important motivator in encouraging students to remain in school and to take an interest in what they are studying.

Several years ago, the Economic Social Research Institute (ESRI) carried out a longitudinal study of post-primary students. That study provides relevant data on the factors that energise, or deflate, the engagement of young people with school, and with learning. The report emphasised the importance of providing some subject choice for students. There are demands that history should be a ‘core subject’ for junior cycle—something that I have already said is not the case at present. No doubt other subjects are waiting in the wings to make similar demands—science, geography, modern foreign languages, the arts and so on. I believe all of these subjects are important but I do not believe that they should be compulsory core subjects.

It is clear from the published statements of learning that over the course of junior cycle students will need to acquire historical knowledge, awareness and skills. What is not specified in the new junior cycle is how these skills are to be acquired. That is a matter for schools to determine. The focus of the educational experience for our students must be on the quality of learning throughout the three years of junior cycle.

Looking beyond our shores, we can see that in high-performing education systems, such as Finland, New Zealand and Scotland, schools have been given greater freedom in deciding and creating the programmes that they offer. When schools in Ireland are implementing the new junior cycle, they too will have the autonomy and flexibility to design their own programmes within the parameters of the Framework. Schools will be able to decide what combination of subjects, short courses or other learning experiences will be provided in their three-year programme. The decisions by schools will be based on the needs of the students in their schools. Schools will have to ensure that all students undertake a programme that will be in line with the principles of ‘A Framework for Junior Cycle’ and will enable them to develop the range of skills and knowledge listed in the Framework’s 24 statements of learning. This means that apart from English, Irish and mathematics—the essential building blocks for literacy and numeracy—no other subject will be deemed ‘mandatory’, but programmes will have to develop students’ physical, mental, emotional and social well-being. Students will have to learn how to learn; they will have opportunities to create and present artistic works, to learn about and value science and technology, and to appreciate how diverse values, beliefs and traditions have contributed to the communities and culture in which they live.

The reformed junior cycle will be implemented on a phased basis from September 2014. The new history specification will be implemented in schools from 2017. This specification will be developed by the NCCA, and this will involve consultation with the key stakeholders and the general public. The new specifications will facilitate the development of skills, including: critically interpreting a range of texts; communicating; working with others; critical thinking; and managing information, particularly through the use of digital technology.

The new junior cycle will allow schools to provide for the study of history through a number of means, either as a subject (that will be the case in the vast majority of schools), a short course, or other learning experiences. Students opting for short courses will engage with the study of history for 100 hours. This means that some students, who would not have studied history at junior cycle level, will now be required to engage with the subject. At the moment some 5,500 of those students annually are not given the option to study history for the Junior Certificate.
It is likely that a lot of the innovative work that has characterised transition-year history will filter into providing short courses in junior cycle. So instead of restricting or excluding history, the proposed changes will mean that schools will enable more students to be exposed to the richness and wonder with which history is replete. New approaches are likely to provide a host of new opportunities, in history and elsewhere, for students to carry out group or individual project work. This will include designing tasks, making oral presentations, undertaking field trips, using information and communications technology (ICT) for research, and presenting reports. It will be about learning to learn and learning to think. It will highlight the role of ‘assessment for learning’ throughout the three years—the very opposite of ‘dumbing down’. It is about giving our young people the knowledge, skills and values that will enable them to understand and appreciate history.

I believe the implementation of the Framework provides a new opportunity to recast history as a vibrant, student-centred and valuable subject, with significant emphasis on the relevance of past experiences on our lives today and into the future. I want to conclude by quoting again from the article by Tom Collins, one of Ireland’s most distinguished educationists. He wrote: ‘The single most important attribute that a young person should have acquired at the end of junior cycle is a love for learning’. I couldn’t agree more. The new junior cycle takes us a step closer to achieving this aim. HI

Ruairí Quinn TD is Minister for Education and Skills.


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