Katherine Donnelly: 'Minister eager to ensure subject has new chapter in classrooms'
History was never a compulsory subject for the Junior Cert, but it was as good as.
For pupils in the 52pc of schools in the voluntary secondary sector - those traditionally under the patronage of the religious - the study of history was mandatory. While it was not a "must do" in the vocational education/community college sectors, it was a de facto core subject.
Typically, 90pc of pupils in 97pc of schools studied history. In its advice to the minister, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) expresses the hope that the "re-invigorated" specification for the subject will ensure its ongoing popularity.
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But the Framework for Junior Cycle has moved the goalposts. It has turned on its head the decades-old approach to what and how young teenagers should be learning. It came after years of research, including an ESRI study that showed how, at 14, too many students were "switching off", and deliberations on how to do better for the nation's children.
Fundamental to change was that one size does not fit all and schools should have more autonomy to design their offering to meet the needs of their particular students, within agreed parameters. It is a flexibility the NCCA regards as particularly important for those working with disadvantaged students and those with special needs.
Making English, Irish and maths mandatory was agreed to underpin numeracy and literacy. Individual schools can decide the rest, including whether to offer short courses - a new concept of half subjects in areas such as coding, Mandarin and artistic performance or, indeed, ones devised by schools themselves. Students may replace a traditional subject for two short courses up to a maximum of two for four. The worry is would students abandon history for perhaps a coding and artistic performance combo?
Change was also driven by a need to leave behind a system dominated by rote learning, and to strike a balance between building knowledge and skills so pupils not only consumed content, but thought about and learned to apply that knowledge. With technology putting information at the swipe of screen, the NCCA sees the added value from schools developing skills such as critical thinking, so pupils can ask questions and "discern what is real and what is not".
Importantly for the NCCA, instead of looking at Junior Cycle through the lens of core subjects, the emphasis is on core learning. The framework sets out 24 statements of learning which, no matter what the subject, are a reference point for schools in ensuring they deliver the right educational outcomes for their pupils.
Whether a school offers history or not several of the statements affirm its importance, stressing, for instance, the need for students to "understand the origins and impacts of social, economic and environmental aspects of the world". But the minister wants to leave nothing to chance.