In My Opinion: School policy has as much impact on pupils' achievements as curriculum
There has been a good deal of debate about whether the current Leaving Certificate model serves young people well. An Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) study published recently clearly shows that the current system narrows the range of pupil experiences and focuses both teachers and pupils on 'covering the course'.
This research, funded by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and the Department for Education and Skills, provides an important evidence base to inform policy development.
Our research shows that three aspects of school policy and practice are important: ability grouping, social climate and guidance. Some second-level schools use streaming, placing pupils in particular classes on the basis of entry tests.
Thus some pupils are taught in lower ability classes, not only for English and maths but also for metalwork, physical education and religious education. These are much more likely to leave school early and they achieve markedly lower grades in their Junior and Leaving Certificate exams than those of similar ability levels in mixed ability classes.
Contrary to popular perceptions, there is no benefit to those placed in higher ability classes; their results are similar to their peers in mixed classes. Why does streaming have this negative effect?
First of all, it often results in lower expectations among students and teachers. Secondly, lower stream classes generally study at ordinary or even foundation level, which sets a ceiling on potential achievement.
Even in mixed ability schools, pupils can have variable access to higher level subjects. The research indicates that moving away from streaming and encouraging pupils to take higher level subjects can boost pupil achievement.
The social climate of the school, as reflected in day-to-day interaction between teachers and pupils, is crucial to pupil engagement. Some pupils become caught up in a negative cycle of being 'given out to' frequently by teachers and 'acting up' in response. This cycle culminates in lower exam grades and sometimes in leaving school altogether.
In contrast, positive interaction with teachers, receiving praise and positive feedback, helps to engage pupils in learning and reduce the stress linked to exam preparation.
The research raises serious issues about the current Leaving Certificate model and points to ways of enhancing senior cycle education, by, for example, providing access to a broader range of teaching methods and using a broader range of assessment modes.
Regardless of any such changes, the research points to ways in which schools can fully engage pupils by adopting a more positive school climate, using flexible forms of ability grouping, and providing early guidance regarding educational choices.
Dr Emer Smyth is a Research Professor at the ESRI. From Leaving Certificate to Leaving School, by Emer Smyth, Joanne Banks and Emma Calvert, is published by Liffey Press