Monday 24 April 2017

Nailing primary colours to the mast

Teachers and the general public can offer a view on the shape of the primary school curriculum for the next decade or more, writes our education editor

Alicia Hickey and Anand Enkhtulga from Rutland Street NS, Lower Gloucestor Place and their project 'Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, 'How can our (Sheltered Inner City) garden grow?' at the RDS Primary Science Fair.
Alicia Hickey and Anand Enkhtulga from Rutland Street NS, Lower Gloucestor Place and their project 'Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, 'How can our (Sheltered Inner City) garden grow?' at the RDS Primary Science Fair.
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

When the current curriculum for primary schools was being devised 20 years ago Ireland was another country. Society has changed a lot and so too has what is happening, and needs to happen, in the nation's classrooms.

In the late 90s, immigrants were starting to arrive, chasing jobs borne out of the economic boom of that decade. The "new Irish" brought with them different cultures and religions, and no religion, adding even more diversity to a society undergoing its own 'post-Catholic' social revolution.

Today, children of immigrant families make up about 10pc of the primary school population.

Back then, computer coding was seen as the preserve of a few highly educated nerds. Today, seven-year-olds can write their own algorithms, but depend on volunteer organisations like CoderDojo to learn those skills.

In 1999, when the current curriculum was introduced, the ink was not long dry on the first guidelines to combat bullying in schools.

The guidelines have been updated and are a crucial tool, but there is a new focus on promoting mental wellbeing among children. If all pupils were to feel good about themselves, perhaps the guidelines would become redundant.

A lot more has changed. Last year's 1916 centenary commemorations showed how, with the time to unleash imagination and talent, teachers and pupils lifted history from the pages of the textbooks and transformed it into works of dramatic and visual art.

What happens in primary schools must also be cognisant of external developments, such as the recent roll-out of universal pre-school education for three-year-olds. Those with responsibility for the curriculum keep abreast of latest research in teaching and learning, as well as new insights into children's experiences from their primary school years, such as is now available from the Growing Up in Ireland study.

School curricula must evolve with the times.

Changes happen anyway in response to various developments and concerns. A few years ago, the numeracy and literacy strategy was a direct result of worries about the performance of Irish students in international tests. A more recent assessment suggests that it has worked.

But tacking things on to a curriculum leads to complaints about overload and does little for overall coherence.

The task of advising the Government on school curriculum matters rests with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). It recently published a consultation document, 'Proposals for structure and time allocation in a redeveloped primary curriculum', now out for public discussion.

NCCA acting CEO John Hammond says that, after two decades, it is timely to ask what type of curriculum do we want for our children in primary schools into the next decade.

The NCCA proposals are not about the nitty gritty of what is taught in any subject, but about how best to use time and about devising an overall structure for the school year/month/week/day.

It is very much about deciding what we want from the system for the next generation of children. According to NCCA, "timed allocations are not neat, uncontested bundles of minutes allocated to individual curriculum areas or subjects.

"They represent values and priority in primary education - what we deem important for our young citizens in the formative years of their educational experiences and what we value and prioritise for children's learning and development."

Time itself is not an issue: Irish primary schools devote 915 hours a year to tuition, ahead of the international average of 754 hours. The challenge is about fitting in all the growing, and competing, demands.

As the NCCA sat down to do its work, subjects clamouring for more time were social, political and health education (SPHE) and physical education (PE), while new areas such as coding, modern languages, wellbeing, and a general education about religions, beliefs and ethics are banging on the door. How to do all that without throwing out the three Rs?

The NCCA has broken its thinking, and proposals, into two. The first looks at structure, such as for how long in the primary school continuum should teaching and learning be grouped into overarching, thematic and curriculum areas, rather than distinct subjects.

They borrow from international research and from the Aistear curriculum developed for early years education, which focuses on play as a vehicle for learning. Aistear is used not only in pre-schools but is also encouraged by the Department of Education for children up to the age of six or seven. Among the options for discussion now are whether third class, or even fifth class, is time enough to introduce distinct subjects.

Secondly, the document deals with the breakdown of time between different curriculum areas/subjects. A major talking point here will be the allocation for religion, currently two hours 30 minutes a week. That is twice the international average, while we lag well behind other countries in the time for science and PE.

The NCCA suggests significant modifications to existing timetables, with maths, English and Irish awarded a weekly allocation, while everything else would be given a monthly allocation.

Overall, the NCCA proposes that time for maths, English and Irish, combined with monthly allocations for SPHE, science, arts and PE, should amount to a minimum 60pc of the school year. Monthly allocations would allow for planning extended blocks of time for deeper learning in subjects such as history.

The other 40pc would be flexible time, for areas such as the patron's religion programme, recreation, assemblies, roll call and discretionary use. That may, or may not, have implications for the special place given to the patron's religion programme.

Taken together, these elements currently amount to 36pc of the full school week. As well as the time for the patron's religion programme, there is two hours discretionary curriculum time, one hour 40 minutes assembly time, 50 minutes roll call, 50 minutes for breaks and two hours 30 minutes for recreation. Instead of specifying time for each of these, the NCCA proposes giving schools greater latitude.

The outcome of the NCCA public consultation will inform more detailed work by the NCCA. That, in turn, will lead to a further consultation in 2018.

Primary pupils are class act at science fair

From online hacking, to finding out what sort of kite flies best, to designing packaging for posting a crisp, primary pupils are showing just what inquiring minds they have.

Some 6,000 fourth, fifth and sixth class pupils are involved in 240 primary school class projects at the RDS Primary Science Fair this month. Last week it was held in conjunction with the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, while this week, it runs at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. The showcase, now in its eighth year, has attracted schools from 24 counties this year.

Belfast has been added as a venue for 2017 (June 8-9), bringing overall participation to 7,500.

Projects are displayed at one of the three events.

The aim of the fair, which is non-competitive and seeks to engage the entire class in a science-related project, is to equip students with science and maths skills. It has been developed and fully managed by the RDS.

Research has found it to be unique on an international level, through its methodology of whole-class, child-led approach to primary school STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) learning.

It also found that multi-annual participation has a lasting impact on students, teachers and schools.

RDS chief executive Michael Duffy said engaging pupils in STEM-related projects at an early education age can be crucially important for students' long-term engagement with STEM.

Having Your say

The NCCA is inviting opinion through a number of channels, between now and April:

* Attending a focus group for teachers in one of the selected education centres

* Completing an online questionnaire

* Requesting a meeting for a school/organisation by emailing structureandtime@ncca.ie

Irish Independent

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