Preparing for life after the Leaving Cert requires more than just rote learning
Tomorrow sees the release of the Leaving Certificate results.
So over the next few weeks, school leavers will be faced with making important decisions about their careers.
The vast majority will go on to higher or further education, but how well prepared are they for the transition to college?
There has been a good deal of policy debate about whether there is a 'mismatch' between school and higher/further education in their approaches to teaching and learning. But so far we have had little evidence of this issue.
'The Leaving School in Ireland Study', published today by the ESRI, provides new information on how young people experience the transition from school to further/higher education. This study draws on a survey of over 750 school leavers combined with in-depth interviews with 27 of this group. Together, this information gives us a comprehensive picture of young people's choices and challenges in the post-school period.
This cohort of young people had been followed throughout their second-level education as part of the 'Post-Primary Longitudinal Study'. So we know a good deal about what has helped them to learn. Throughout their schooling, students contrasted the kinds of active teaching and learning that engaged them in schoolwork with the more teacher-centred methods - such as reading from the textbook and copying notes - which dominated in the exam years.
By Leaving Certificate level, in contrast, many students - especially those who aspired to 'high points' courses - took a more instrumental approach, praising the kinds of teaching which focused on "what would come up in the exam".
In reflecting on their school experiences three to four years later, young people described the Leaving Certificate exam as requiring "too much writing and memory work".
A significant number found the exam schedule too demanding and felt under "too much pressure".
It is interesting that pressure was seen as coming more from themselves than from their teachers or parents. This sense of pressure echoes student reports of high levels of stress during sixth year, with many losing sleep through worry and having difficulty concentrating in the run-up to the Leaving Certificate exam.
The school leavers were asked about the benefits they had derived from second-level education.
Young people were broadly positive about how school had enhanced their personal and social development, for example, by building their self-confidence and enhancing their communication skills. However, they were more critical about whether second-level education had prepared them for life after school - for college, for work and for adult life.
Young people in this study saw school and college as very different experiences.
A large majority - over four-fifths - said that teaching and learning in the new setting was very different from what they had been used to, with almost half describing themselves as unprepared by their second-level education for this transition.
This 'mismatch' was seen as greater by those in higher education than by those in further education. In both cases, they are expected to direct their own learning and plan their workload, juggling deadlines for different projects and assignments.
This contrasts with a much greater emphasis on rote learning in preparation for the Leaving Certificate.
In settling into first year of college, students highlight challenges in knowing what standard is expected of them, in course difficulty and in managing their workload to meet deadlines. Project work is an important feature of college but very few students had much experience of project and team work over senior cycle.
The transition period involves not only new academic challenges but adjusting to a new group of peers, managing their finances and - in many cases - living away from their parents.
The study findings point to the need to provide a greater emphasis on the development of self-directed learning and critical thinking within second-level education.
The junior cycle reforms should lead to a more student-centred approach to learning, but there is scope too at senior cycle to use approaches such as project and team work to better equip young people for lifelong learning and the labour market.
The transition to further/higher education is not just a matter for schools. Further and higher education institutions have a responsibility to integrate and support these young people. Around 70pc - more than two-thirds - of young people said they could get extra help in their institution if they needed it, and four-fifths felt there was someone to talk to if they needed help. Such support is found to ease difficulties in adjusting to the academic demands of college and to a new peer group.
This is important from a policy perspective as young people who experience greater academic difficulties in the transition period are more likely to leave their course before completion.
In sum, the study provides important evidence to help ensure a more seamless transition from one stage of education to the next and to better prepare young people for lifelong learning and the world of work.
'Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions', by Selina McCoy, Emer Smyth, Dorothy Watson and Merike Darmody, is available for download at www.esri.ie.
Emer Smyth, co-author of the 'Leaving School in Ireland' study, is a research professor at the ESRI