Outdated Leaving Cert subjects to get 21st century revamp
LONG-overdue reforms are on the way for a raft of Leaving Cert subjects, including the controversial economics syllabus which has not changed in 40 years.
Curriculum advisers are looking at a range of different subjects in order to better prepare pupils for the demands of the 21st century workplace.
Changes are also in the pipeline for applied maths, also written over 40 years ago and not reviewed since the Project Maths syllabus was rolled out.
And a new approach to the sciences will include, for the first time, practical tests in biology, chemistry and physics, as well as traditional written exams.
The subject reviews, by the National Council of Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), are part of ongoing efforts to create a more engaging experience for students and to ensure that they develop the ability to think for themselves.
Overall, about a quarter of the 33 subjects on the Leaving Cert curriculum are being modernised – including sciences biology, chemistry and physics, as well as art, applied maths, economics, agricultural science and home economics.
But there will be considerable costs involved in terms of training teachers, providing the necessary laboratory facilities, and running the practical exams.
Meanwhile, a new Leaving Certificate subject of physical education is also in the works.
As well as a written paper, assessment will include performance in one of three physical activities.
And Education Minister Ruairi Quinn recently gave the go-ahead for another new subject called politics and society.
A number of the older subjects – where students are still being taught the same content rolled out decades ago – are among those facing significant change.
Curriculum advisers are reviewing economics, which has not been altered since its introduction in 1969.
Last year a leading academic, Dr Kevin Denny of UCD, raised serious questions about the setting and marking of the economics paper, including that it did not allow for sufficient distinction between students of different abilities.
And the proposed changes in the sciences will bring teaching and learning in these subjects closer to the approach being taken for Junior Cert candidates, after the new syllabus rolls out in September 2015.
The Junior Cycle reforms are already causing controversy – with teacher unions starting industrial action today in opposition to elements of the plan.
The proposed Leaving Cert reforms are not only about course content, but implementing modern approaches to teaching and learning.
The aim is to ensure that students understand, and can apply in real life, what they are supposed to know in school.
A reliance on rote learning takes some of the blame for the "average" showing by Irish teenagers in tests by the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measure the problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds in up to 65 countries.
While some Leaving Cert subjects are undergoing a full review, others will be limited to a look at new forms of assessment, to offer better practical opportunities for students to demonstrate what they have learnt.
The changes do not amount to the sweeping reform happening at Junior Certificate, but reflect the need to equip school-leavers with the thinking skills they require for life and work.
The subject reviews are well overdue and, in some cases, detailed proposals for change were made a number of years ago but were not implemented.
The NCCA has sent its advice on biology, chemistry and physics to Mr Quinn and changes are expected to be trialled in schools next year.
However, final decisions on implementation will rest with the politicians – and are likely to take into account the costs involved.
Unlike what is envisaged at Junior Cert, the science practicals will not be assessed by students' own teachers, but by the State Examinations Commission (SEC), because this is a high-stakes school-leaving exam.
A revised syllabus for agricultural science is being looked at, as the subject has grown in popularity and importance with the resurgence in agriculture and the boom in agri-food.
And there will be a new practical focus in art, another subject where the syllabus hasn't changed for over 40 years, and home economics.