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TY can't shake 'doss year' image

'They have no homework, no study routine, they don't seem to do any real academic work in school and all the good study habits developed in preparation for the Junior Cert go right out the window."

These are the comments of one mother whose daughter did transition year last year and neither mother nor daughter have much positive to say about the experience.

"My daughter and her friends told me that after starting in fifth year," she went on to say, "they feel like they're beginning subjects like French and Irish for the first time. They've forgotten everything."

Transition year has been on the agenda recently following speculation that the year might be scrapped in a bid to save money.

According to the Department of Education and Skills, it is an option that they put forward in the estimates for last year's budget.

"Work on the comprehensive review of expenditure (CRE) is currently ongoing across all government departments, including this department," said a spokesperson.

"The CRE will be a critical building block in formulating government's budgetary policy for 2012 and beyond, and the results will be brought before government later this year."

You may ask, as I did, how and why transition year came about in the first place?


"It was developed in 1974 from a concern that students had an insufficient focus on personal development, were lacking in confidence and initiative, and needed to have a stronger focus on experiential learning, social awareness and learning in workplace and community contexts," according to a spokesperson from the department.

The programme was confined to a very small number of centres initially but in 1994 the opportunity to participate in transition year was widened to all schools.

It's important to note that this 'opportunity' was accompanied by a subsidy to the school of £50 per child undertaking the year.

These days, schools who run transition year receive a grant of €95 per student. With 28,500 students taking up the option, this cost alone comes to €2.7m.

But that's not all. The unit cost per student per year of secondary school, to the department, is €8,828, making a total of almost €252m. So the real expense of transition year comes to approximately €255m.

I was a French and German secondary-school teacher in 1995, a year after transition year went mainstream. I disliked teaching it due to the lack of course material available.

As a language teacher, you had to be extra creative with your transition year class. This didn't suit all teachers or all students and it certainly didn't suit me, being newly qualified at the time.

Forty minutes, three days a week for a school year, is a long time to fill with material for a German class with only five students, the majority of whom had failed their Junior Cert German.

The Education Department of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, carried out a report in 2007, titled 'Attitudes to Transition Year'.

According to the teachers' perspectives in the report, some found it difficult to motivate students in the core subjects including Irish, English, French and Maths, and felt that students had difficulty adjusting to a set syllabus in fifth year.

Even in 2007, there still appeared to be insufficient resources, in-service and textbooks available, particularly in language subjects.

Other comments from teachers were that it needed "to be thought out again as it takes too long for students to be self-directed".

Emma Farrell finished the Leaving Certificate in June 2007. Although she loved school, she remains content with her decision not to do transition year.


"I have just qualified as a general nurse at 21 and I am currently considering higher diplomas," she says.

Emma decided to bypass transition year because she knew she wanted a career within medicine or advanced nursing which would require additional years of study.

"I was also afraid that the year out would have broken my concentration on study, my established study patterns from third year," says Emma.

Part of the appeal of the year is the work experience aspect of it. But this wasn't enough of an incentive for Emma, who opted for LCVP (Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme), which involved a two week-work experience placement in the Rotunda.

"I felt this was an appropriate alternative to the transition year programme offered by the school, in addition to the career guidance classes offered."

Although about 75pc of Emma's class decided to do the year, she remained in close contact with those she'd left behind.

Emma still feels that transition year is a positive addition to the curriculum.

"It provides a chance that most teens need to mature. My sister has just completed fourth year and I feel that she has become so much more outgoing and confident as a result.

"I feel that transition year should remain optional. In certain schools it is compulsory, which is not the way to go."

So if the key benefit of transition year is that it provides school-goers with an opportunity to mature, surely the best option would be to get rid of it, save the money, and change the school starting age from its current four to five.

At present, the majority of parents keep their children out of school until they are five anyway, despite the fact that the junior infants curriculum is targeted at four-year-olds.

This would create problems for some parents, though, who started their children in school at four with the deliberate intention of availing of transition year further down the line.

Vanessa Farry's daughter, Ruby, was four in June of this year.

"I decided to send Ruby to school at four instead of five," says Vanessa, "as she had attended playschool for 18 months and I felt she was ready for it.


"I was very disappointed to hear that the Government may do away with transition year," says Vanessa.

"I did consider contacting the school and delay sending Ruby for another year, but she had already had her introduction day in June and uniforms and books were already bought.

"If I had known this might happen, I would not have sent her until she was five and would have availed of the free pre-school year in a local playschool."

Vanessa says that if transition year is abolished, she would consider keeping Ruby back for a year, possibly at the end of junior infants.

As of now, if Ruby continues right through to sixth year without transition year, she will leave school at 16.

Vanessa thinks this is too young to leave school.

"I was only this age leaving school," she says, "and, looking back, I feel I was too young to know what career path I wanted to follow."

Vanessa is a fan of transition year, because she feels it benefited her older son, Alex, who did it in 2009.

"I had concerns when he started it that he would find it difficult to go back to his study work, but I was proved wrong as he settled back easily into fifth year.

"Alex matured greatly that year. He had never worked until his work experience in transition year, and it gave him great confidence.

"He has worked part-time ever since. He now knows what he would like to do after he leaves school."

In 2003, having left teaching and set up my own business in communication training, I provided an interview and presentation skills workshop to transition year students.

Even though this group of 60 students were looking for a work placement in the near future, I felt they were very much detached from the real world of work.

I also felt that this training in personal development would have been more beneficial to sixth-year students.

An ESRI evaluation of transition year said it provides an important opportunity for students to extend their learning, to experience innovative teaching approaches, to increase their social and civic awareness, to strengthen their preparation for the world of work, and to allow scope for maturing and personal development free from the pressures of formal examinations.

Although I see the benefits of work experience and maturity, does it need to take up a full year at a cost of €255m to the State?

Could we not take the best bits of it and try to incorporate them into the other five years? Can we look at a more holistic approach to secondary school as a whole? Establishing mini-companies and entering the Young Entrepreneur could be done from first year upwards in business studies, for example.

The same applies to entering the Young Scientist from first year science upwards.

Fashion shows and musicals are great fun, and can be an option for students to stay back after school and get involved in different projects. They do not justify an extra year in education.

Could two weeks of work experience, a relevant part of transition year, take place at the end of fifth year instead?

Would a better investment in career guidance from first year help students to become more focused on their studies, and be able to see how their studies link into the outside world?

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