MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Alternative Post-Primary Education Systems
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
(Assembly Researchers Ms Alison Montgomery and Ms Sandra McElhinney)
Thursday 16 November 2000
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs E Bell
Mr K Robinson
Mr T Marken
Ms A Montgomery
Ms S McElhinney
Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to the public session of the Education Committee. Today we are discussing post-primary education systems in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. From the Assembly Research Department, I welcome Mr Tony Marken, Ms Alison Montgomery and Ms Sandra McElhinney. We look forward to what they have to say, and I hope there will be an opportunity at the end of the presentation for members to ask questions.
Thank you. We are to discuss the education systems in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. I have some handouts here, which may be useful. We have illustrated the main points of each system on the buff-coloured paper and left you some space to make notes and comments in response to today's presentation. We have also provided a short briefing paper on Scotland for you to read at your leisure. Again, for the Republic of Ireland we have provided short notes, a briefing paper and a comparative table of the education systems in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This will provide information on main school phases, the types of school, transition procedures and the examinations and assessment procedures. I hope that we have provided you with enough information to consider these main issues.
I will start with Scotland. Sandra McElhinney will then talk about the Republic of Ireland. We will look at four main areas of the systems, namely the structures, transition procedures between primary and post-primary levels, the qualifications and examinations which are offered and some of the pros and cons within the systems.
The Scottish system is distinctive to that in the rest of the United Kingdom as a result of certain Education Acts passed pre-1996. The first Act, in 1994, established education authorities with a responsibility for school management. They devised very specific schemes of management for their schools that operate differently to those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Secondly, the education authorities also established a strong level of partnership between parents and the business community. A Parents' Charter was produced in 1991. This charter sets out the rights and responsibilities for parents. The authorities then established a technical and vocational education initiative in 1992, promoting close collaboration between business and education. Furthermore, the Scottish curriculum is based on a 5-14 system, and the curriculum covers various aspects of development and learning from the age of five right through to the age of 14. In Northern Ireland, we work through from ages 4-11, then from ages 11-16 and so on. The Scottish system is quite different from ours.
It is also a more flexible qualification system that brings together vocational and academic options within the one system, with one set of exams. These are some of the main differences.
There are two main types of schools in Scotland: publicly maintained schools, which do not charge fees, and independent schools which do. Primary education is from five to 12 years and there is no transfer examination when pupils move from primary to post-primary schools.
Secondary education is almost entirely comprehensive - 96% of pupils attend comprehensive schools. Admission to comprehensive schools does not depend on ability or aptitude. There is no statutory curriculum, but it is important to mention that guidelines are issued by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department and Learning and Teaching in Scotland (formerly known as the Scottish Consultative Council for the Curriculum) and the teachers use those guidelines to decide what they will teach. There are, of course, controls in place that are checked by Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI) in Scotland, but the curriculum is not prescribed in the same way as it is in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within secondary education, all pupils up to 16 years of age study English, maths, science, a modern European language and a social science subject such as geography or history.
Moving on to the transitional phase of the Scottish educational system, the introduction of parental choice in the 1981 Education Act allowed parents to choose the school they wanted their child to attend. In most cases pupils go to the local comprehensive. Each comprehensive has a number of feeder primary schools, and most children tend to transfer to those schools. Parental choice allows parents to request that their child attend any comprehensive school, and each school has its own admissions policy and entry requirements. They could include the distance a child lives from the school and whether siblings already attend it. However, academic reasons are not accepted as a basis for a placement request. In other words, they cannot accept a child into a school because he has a particular academic ability; that is not a factor in the transfer between primary and post-primary schools. The entry point for post-primary is at 11 or 12 years of age, and some schools accept pupils on the basis of a Common Entrance Exam (CEE) at 12 or 13.
Basically, if a parent chooses a school that he wants his child to attend, that school has to comply with the request within the limit of the places available in the school, and that is agreed with the local education authority. The only criterion for rejecting a pupil is if a school has filled its complement of places.
We have not gone into too much detail on primary education as we are concentrating on the curriculum instead. We have really focused on the secondary system, the Scottish Certificate of Education (SCE) and then the higher education system. Briefly however, at primary level, teachers are given a chance to teach what they believe should be taught, and they measure progress against certain targets which are identified in collaboration with the SCCC and HMI. Pupils move through the schools at different rates, but most are expected to have reached a certain level by the time they are 14.
I am now on page 2 of the briefing paper. The Scottish Certificate of Education, I suppose, equates with our GCSE. The SCE is designed to suit all ranges of ability, and most exams are taken at the end of year 4 - that is our year 13. Exams are taken at three levels, foundation, general or credit. That equates with the grades indicated on the sheet. Most candidates tend to take exams covering two sets of grades, for instance a credit and general or a general and foundation depending on the level of ability or aptitude. That is how they structure the Scottish Certificate. Pupils can also take additional exams at that stage that are set by the Scottish Vocational Educational Council (SCOTVEC).
Currently, on completion of a Scottish Certificate at age 15, students move into S5 and S6, which are years five and six. At that level they sit the Higher exams, which are currently in transition. Until 1999 students could select four or more subjects at Higher level, which consisted of studying modules. Up to 4,000 different modules have been offered in the Scottish examination system. For example, in history there may have been modules on World War I and Scottish history - there may have been in excess of 100 modules offered in a particular subject. Students were able to select as many modules as possible to make them eligible to take that subject at Higher level.
Students could elect to take a Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, which also counted as a university entrance requirement. That was the system until last year. It is currently in transition with the phasing in of the Higher Still system. Higher Still replace Highers, but the two are basically the same level.
This is a unified curriculum and assessment system. This means that academic and vocational studies are taken together. Instead of selecting vocational Highers and academic Highers, students can now, within the framework of one subject, take a single exam with both vocational and academic dimensions.
Higher Still operates in a single framework with five levels of difficulty, as indicated at the bottom of page 3 of the briefing paper 'Selection Procedure: Alternative Education Systems and Arrangements'. I repeat that this is a modular system, with each course split into units of 40 or 80 hours. These are all internally assessed on a pass or fail basis, as noted on page 4. As well as looking at individual subject areas, Higher Still courses also involve core skills. This is an important element of the examination, because as well as studying specific subjects, communication, numeracy, information technology and problem-solving skills are looked at. Students can complete units without following full courses. A unit in a Higher Still course can be passed by the student's teacher, a teacher from his school or a teacher from another school. Assessed class work and examination results can be combined to achieve the overall result.
It is confusing on first reading. You may need to examine it in more detail yourselves. Basically it is a modular system with a series of units that make up each subject, and in constructing their Higher Still courses, students have many options available to them.
In our evaluation of the Scottish education system, we have looked at a lot of information from different sources. The perceived pros and cons are outlined briefly on page 3 of the document entitled 'Scottish Education System'. One of the positive aspects of the Scottish education system is that it is more class-friendly, with less social segregation than in England and Wales. This is because the comprehensive system is more complete - it is more inclusive because more pupils select those schools. There are more opt-outs in England and Wales, with more parents choosing public schools than in Scotland. Parents mainly select comprehensive schools.
Another positive aspect is that social and academic differences that exist in the system are perceived to be intra- rather than inter-school. There is greater diversity in individual schools as given pupils' backgrounds, abilities, outlooks and so forth than in schools with a more homogeneous group of pupils.
Another positive point is that there are closer co-ordinating links between primary and comprehensive schools. Largely because it is a 5-14 curriculum which covers the transfer from primary to post-primary levels, pupils follow the same curriculum through until age 14 rather than stopping at 11 and starting a new dimension when they transfer.
The fourth perceived positive aspect is that because most pupils transfer to the local comprehensive there is greater potential for links to develop between school and community. As most pupils attend the school in their community, there are closer links with local businesses and industry.
Fifthly, the comprehensive system allows pupils greater flexibility, maintaining the opportunities and choices available to them for a longer period. Within this broadly vocational and academic structure, they are able to study right through until year 6 or so, giving them more choice at that stage.
There are perceived negative aspects. The comprehensive system might imply that schools are less well equipped to stretch more able pupils because of the greater need for mixed-ability teaching. The system requires teachers to take on the challenge of addressing the pupils "at the top" and those of lower ability. They must pitch at the middle, but bring along less able pupils while still catering for the more able, and that is quite a challenge for teachers. Scottish teachers have commented on this as something they find in their daily work. It is a challenge always to pitch their teaching at every level, and this is something to bear in mind.
Where a local comprehensive school gains a poor reputation, parents can make placement requests for schools elsewhere and select schools outside the area. The obvious outcome is that enrolment expands in the popular schools and contracts in the less popular. Recent press reports suggest a growing trend of affluent parents selecting private schools over comprehensive ones because they perceive that some of the comprehensive schools are not coming up to the required standard.
Another problem is that as they are "comprehensive", these schools include children from every kind of background and ability, so there may be children with problems such as emotional or behavioural disorders. Therefore, a school can have children with disciplinary or behavioural problems as well as ones of lower ability. That may affect the exam performance within a school and the teaching, as teachers have to spend longer with a particular group of children. It can also affect schools' reputations. This perception of comprehensive schools is appearing in the press. Perhaps these schools are too inclusive, if being comprehensive is taken to mean having children of every kind, ability or need together in the same school.
Streaming is practised in some schools on the basis of academic ability, and this reduces the potential social benefits that may arise from pupils being educated in a diverse environment. Streaming separates children into different groups, and this conflicts with the notion of comprehensive education in a diverse environment.
Another problem is that to cater effectively for comprehensive teaching and the wide range of ability means that you need fairly large year groups within a school if streaming is introduced, and that creates larger schools, with the possible consequence of school closures. The Gallagher Report refers to this point that by creating larger schools, some schools may close and others merge. That is a quick overview of the Scottish system.
I now open the meeting for questions or points that members may wish to raise. Perhaps I may start. The publicly maintained schools and the independent schools have been described. Are there any private schools; how many are there; and is there a religious factor to education in private schools in Scotland as there is in Northern Ireland?
Yes, there are independent schools. We have been looking at that issue in detail, and it is documented on the briefing paper at the bottom of page one. It states that the official figures for 1998 were:
"72 independent primary schools/departments.62 independent secondary schools/departments, and 33 independent special schools."
Some of the independent schools in Scotland are "all through" schools, so children can enter at nursery or primary level, go right through and have their whole education in the one school. There are 32 "all through" schools, and that is the reason we mentioned departments because that word includes the "all through" schools. Around 4% of students in Scotland would attend private or independent schools, as they are known. We have looked at the independent schools' locations in Scotland and, not surprisingly, Edinburgh has a large number, twice as many as Glasgow.
To answer the second part of the Chairperson's question, some of those schools are Roman Catholic schools. There is not the same division in Scotland as here on a religious basis, but there are some Roman Catholic schools, and many of these are independent.
In Northern Ireland we are academically driven, and we want to look at the vocational route. Here we have to educate employers that a vocational qualification should be recognised on the same level as an academic qualification. Is that a problem in Scotland or has it been overcome?
Scotland has the Scottish Vocational Educational Council (SCOTVEC) and the Trade and Vocational Industry Association (TVI). It has looked at the requirements of industry and endeavoured to generate courses and units within courses to meet these requirements. From the early 1990s the curriculum has been designed to go along the lines of the requirements set out by industry and to collaborate closely with industry and all kinds of bodies.
The whole idea of the Higher Still system is that these qualifications are brought together in one system and value both the vocational and academic together. That is one of the main reasons for introducing the system. Scotland did have different examination and qualification routes - one being vocational and one being academic. The Higher Still system has been brought in so now pupils can do both.
The short answer is that Scotland has tried to develop a close alliance with different aspects of industry, and different bodies have been set up in order to achieve that.
Mrs E Bell:
Within the all-ability schools do the pupils, as in our system, have a classroom assistant?
Yes, they do. They try, within their criteria, to accommodate a small number of children who can be educated in a classroom with a classroom assistant with more able-bodied children or their peers.
For example, each case is judged individually, but they do accommodate children such as those with Downs Syndrome.
Mrs E Bell:
Does Scotland have a process for statementing? Is there not a formal policy of mainstreaming? Everything seems to be done on a very local basis.
Yes, it is. Each of the education authorities seem to have a strong hold over the management and design of its schools.
Mrs E Bell:
There are a number of things here which give rise to several questions. It certainly has made us very aware. Our initial reaction was that all-ability teaching is marvellous.
Who sets the exams? Are they external, or are there internal school exams?
They are set by Her Majesty's Inspectorate (HMI) in collaboration with Learning and Teaching in Scotland.
Does research reveal any discussion, or feelings, on mixed-ability teaching versus streaming?
We have not looked at that in a lot of detail. Much of the comment that we have seen has come from teachers within the system, and they have highlighted the main difficulties of, as I said earlier on, trying to pitch lessons at a mixed-ability range. Streaming does operate in quite a number of comprehensive schools, which is an obvious means of tackling the higher-ability, and lower-ability pupils. Perhaps we could show you some of the results in greater detail.
You mentioned a number of independent schools at the bottom of page 1. Have you indicated the number of private schools?
In Scotland, "independent" means private schools.
So the word "independent" includes private and grammar schools?
Yes, that is what they are known as in Scotland.
Statistically, comprehensive schools have approximately what percentage of the school population?
You mentioned that there has been a move, by more affluent people, towards private education.
That is a very recent reference from the press, which suggests that more affluent, middle-class parents may be selecting the independent schools over comprehensive ones because of this all-inclusive issue. They feel that their children may not be being stretched enough, and they may not particularly want them to mix with every type of child.
At the moment, it is not significant. The numbers have not increased significantly within the last four or five years. Four per cent of parents still select independent schools. There is just a perception that there may be a trend in that direction. As yet, though, we cannot find any figures to prove that at the moment.
Are the universities accepting the qualifications of the Higher Still? Is there any evidence of reluctance from the vocational people, such as those in higher techs or further education, to accept modular qualifications?
The first exams are going to be taken in 2001, but we have already found some questions over the acceptance of the Higher Still. There are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, the Scottish Qualifications Authority has had a particularly difficult year because of exam marking, which you may be familiar with. With the introduction of a new set of exams, employers, industries and universities are perhaps going to be a little bit sceptical, initially, about how the Higher Still will compare with previous qualifications.
So I know there is a review going on at the moment, and the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (SCCC) are keeping a very close eye on how the Higher Still is being implemented. I know that the Scottish Widows has raised some questions over the standard too. It really is in transition at the moment, and it remains to be seen how effective it will be in the next few years.
Mr K Robinson:
Obviously there is a social element as well as an educational element in our studies of this, and that is coming through quite strongly. There are successful comprehensive schools and then there are ones which are sinking and failing; obviously you have not got detailed research on that, but it is an aspect we are going to pursue. There appears to be a large degree of parental acceptance within the system. Did your research uncover any resistance? Are parents totally satisfied or are they simply using the system to move their children from less desirable comprehensive schools to more desirable ones?
By and large, parental attitudes appear to be very positive. Parents take great pride in the Scottish system and, overall, have been very satisfied. At the moment there is a perception that some parents may be becoming dissatisfied with it. If they have the option of sending their children to an independent school, there is a perception that -
Mr K Robinson:
Would you say that they were more ambitious rather than less satisfied?
Perhaps. Those words would not have appeared in what we have read, but perhaps they are more ambitious for their children.
Mr K Robinson:
Obviously parental acceptance depends, to a large degree, on accepting the professionalism of the teachers. How do you think that this aspect of comprehensive schools came through? I notice on page 4, for instance, that a class teacher confirms the pass rate when a student is doing one of the units. I can see all sorts of resistance in Northern Ireland to a class teacher's being given that responsibility and, indeed, I can see the horror of the class teacher at having that thrust upon him.
This is one of the aspects of the Higher Still exam system that has yet to be confirmed and accepted. It is still in transition. Proof of that particular pudding will not emerge for another year or so until the first cohort of students actually goes through that exam. I think a lot of faith and confidence in the system is actually linked to the curriculum as well as to the teachers. As I said earlier, teachers select their topics from the Learning and Teaching in Scotland guidelines and teach to the particular needs of their class. I think parents believe that that is a positive approach to teaching. There is quite a detailed Parent's Charter in Scotland, which suggests that parents and teachers work quite closely, and there is a lot of collaboration.
Mr K Robinson:
Is it true to say that the professional standing of teachers in Scotland is somewhat higher than that of their counterparts in other parts of the UK and that that is for historical reasons?
Yes. Our initial research indicated that that is right. Yet we found various press reports where teachers were talking about being devalued and dissatisfied. That seems to be a tone that runs throughout teaching.
Mr K Robinson:
They have been involved with this curriculum?
Yes, they have worked very closely on its development.
Mr S Wilson:
The inclusiveness of the system appears to be exercising people's minds, about both our system and Scotland's. I notice that the Gallagher report pointed out that schools in Northern Ireland and Scotland display similar patterns of social differentiation. Although this is not completely borne out by your report, there appears to be an increasing number of reasons for some parents to choose more popular schools. Are you at odds with what Gallagher said? You indicate that, perhaps, there is more social inclusion in the Scottish system than there is in our own? How do you explain the difference between the emphasis you have and what Gallagher said in his report?
I think the Gallagher Report is looking at the system overall with the comprehensive system having 96% of pupils. There is greater social inclusivity because by and large people are staying within the system. We are suggesting that perhaps there are some chinks in that pattern. If you look at it in a little more detail, parents are, on occasion, opting not to use the local comprehensive school but to choose one elsewhere - selecting out of the local system - sometimes independent schools. We are probably confirming what Gallagher is saying in his report, but there is more to it. There are the beginnings of some changes within that and of people being dissatisfied.
Mr S Wilson:
One of the other concerns is about the effect of the introduction of comprehensive schools on results. I do not think that there is any dispute that, where comparisons can be made between Northern Ireland and England, when comprehensive education was introduced in England, results fell well below those here, and that goes right through to the tail.
You explained the different exam system in Scotland. There is a great difficulty in comparing the two, because the exams and the means of assessment are different. Is there any research that has tried to equate the exams in Scotland and Northern Ireland and compare the academic standards?
Another difference is that pupils in Scotland take the exams a year earlier. That is another important factor. It is difficult to compare the systems as they stand, because of all the issues that you mentioned. We have not come across any research that has looked in depth at the extent to which you can compare the systems - they are so different.
We do have the results that have come out of the different systems. Northern Ireland and Scotland have a much higher level of passes at GCSE and A Level or their equivalents than England or Wales. The rate of GCSE passes at grades A* to C is 83% in Scotland, 78% in Northern Ireland, 66% in Wales and 70% in England.
Scotland and Northern Ireland seem to be on a par in terms of overall level of qualifications and academic ability, but we have not looked at how the systems compare in detail. It is something that we will look at further.
You touched on some issues to do with the curriculum. The Scottish curriculum is less detailed, and teachers there are not subject to a common curriculum. That is deemed to be a positive thing, but are there any negatives, or perceived negatives, arising from it?
You could say that because the teacher has quite a degree of control over what is taught, the onus is on him or her to cover the curriculum and make sure that the children have as much access to it as pupils in other schools. Obviously, there has to be a degree of consistency, and HMI, Learning and Teaching in Scotland, and the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department set out quite strict guidelines. You could ask how one can be sure that every child has access to the full curriculum if it is not prescribed.
The curriculum in Scotland is perceived as a very positive curriculum in Europe. There is a lot of emphasis on personal and social development, and vocational aspects as well. It has been designed very closely with teachers, and parents have also had a lot of input. From my reading of it, the only possible negative is that the teachers control it themselves within the guidelines given.
The pupils' progress is measured against targets. Who sets those targets? Are they set internally by the school, or externally?
Those are external targets, set by HMI. The arrangements are currently under review.
I made a mistake earlier. It is the Scottish Qualifications Authority that evaluates and marks the exams, not HMI.
That has been a very interesting overview of the Scottish system. We now move on to that in the neighbouring jurisdiction, namely the system in the Republic of Ireland.
I will begin by describing the structure of the school system in the Republic of Ireland. I will then move on to look at both primary and post-primary education, the form of transition that exists and the exams and qualifications, and then I will give a brief outline of the major pros and cons of the system of education in the Republic of Ireland.
As is the case in Northern Ireland, the education system in the Republic of Ireland is currently under review. Compulsory schooling begins at six years and extends to 15 years of age. However, 85% of pupils of four and five years old also enrol in primary schools. The provision for education of four-and five-year olds occurs in what they term as junior infant and senior infant school. The vast majority of primary schools are state supported national schools. There are currently around 3,000 primary schools serving 500,000 children. More than 50% of schools have four or fewer teachers so you can see that there is quite a predominance of smaller schools. In addition, there are 64 private primary schools which receive no Government funding. Primary schools implement the curriculum as devised by the national Government and are subject to a state school inspectorate. The majority of children pursue an eight-year course in the national school after which they transfer at around the age of 12 to a post-primary school.
The post-primary sector comprises secondary, vocational, community and comprehensive schools of which the majority are secondary, approximately 445. Secondary schools educate 60% of pupils. The majority of those are privately owned and managed. Examples of that are the convent schools and the Christian Brother schools. These are overseen by religious communities and the remainder by Boards of Governors or individuals. The state pays 95% of teachers' salaries in these schools. Vocational schools educate 26% of all post primary students and are administered by Vocational Education Committees. Up to 93% of the total cost of provision is funded. Community schools and comprehensive schools have 14% of students and are allocated individual budgets by the state. With regard to the transition process, there is no standard national test for transfer from primary schools to post-primary schools. A scheme of entrance exams is employed by some schools. Therefore, there is no streaming on the basis of academic ability upon entrance to post-primary education. The majority of children are allocated to mixed ability schools on the basis of the individual school exam. Following the Junior Certificate, they are allocated to the Leaving Certificate programme most appropriate to their ability.
The post-primary curriculum consists of a three-year junior cycle followed by a two-year or three-year senior cycle. The Junior Certificate programme was introduced in 1989 to provide a single unified programme for students aged between 12 and 15 years. In September 1996, the new Junior Certificate schools programme was introduced.
The senior cycle caters for pupils aged 15 to 18 years. The students normally sit the final examination, the Leaving Certificate, at the age of 17 or 18 after five or six years of post-primary education. Students may spend up to three years in the senior cycle. They can either follow a two-year Leaving Certificate programme immediately after their Junior Certificate, or they may opt to follow a transition-year programme before undertaking a two-year Leaving Certificate. I shall outline the transition-year programme in more detail. There are also different Leaving Certificate programmes, which I shall presently describe.
The transition-year programme is interdisciplinary and student-centred, freeing students to take responsibility for their own learning. The programme helps them learn skills and become involved in projects and activities outside the boundaries of the certificate programmes. It is based in a non-examination environment.
The Junior Certificate examination is taken at age 15, after three years in the junior cycle, and the Leaving Certificate is usually taken as a two-year programme at the end of post-primary education, when students are approximately 18 years old.
A major restructuring of the senior cycle is underway, and involves four main elements. The first concern is the availability of the transition programme as an option for all second-level schools, since at the last count the transition-year programme was found to be available in only 569 schools. Other targets are the revision of the established Leaving Certificate programme, the development and expansion of the applied Leaving Certificate course, and of the vocational Leaving Certificate programme.
At the last count in 1999, about 80% of students in secondary education chose to take the established Leaving Certificate. They must select five subjects, though most take seven. Options must include English, Irish, and Maths and a European language, and there are three levels - foundation, ordinary and higher - although only Irish and Maths are available at foundation level. This Leaving Certificate programme offers students the best opportunity to enter university. The revision I mentioned is being undertaken by the National Curriculum Council in the Republic of Ireland.
The applied Leaving Certificate is a two-year programme of general and vocational education and training. In 1999, 3·4% of students in secondary education chose it. It replaces and expands the existing Senior Certificate and Vocational Preparation and Training Programme. It caters for those students opting not to follow an academic path, though students may proceed to many certificate courses from it. The programme consists of four half-year blocks or sessions, and the student is awarded credits at the end of each of these. The subjects which they choose build up to a package of education suitable for their further career options, whether they want to pursue an academic or a vocationally orientated career. Credits are allocated internally.
The framework of the applied Leaving Certificate consists of a number of modules grouped under three headings. 30% of students' time is spent on general education consisting of life skills, arts, and social education. A further 30% is spent in vocational education, which covers subjects such as maths, technology and information technology. 25% of their time is spent on vocational preparation consisting of work experience and enterprise.
It is intended that the applied Leaving Certificate will be fully integrated into the system for certification of education and training qualifications developed by TEASTAS, the Irish National Certification Authority.
The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) concentrates on technical subjects. As a result of the high vocational content, it attracts funding from the European Social Fund. Pupils following the LCVP in its redesigned form take five Leaving Certificate subjects in all, two of which must be chosen from a set of vocational subjects. They must also choose a recognised course in a modern European language and three mandatory link modules: enterprise education; preparation for work; and work experience. Afterwards they are assessed by a National Council for Vocational Awards (NCVA) written exam counting for 40% and a portfolio of coursework representing 60%.
The final examinations for the applied and vocational programmes are different and are assessed differently. At present, most post-Leaving Certificate programmes take place in vocational schools, with awards being granted by the NCVA. For the applied and vocational programmes, there is no direct access to university through the Central Applications office (CAO) or Central Applications Services (CAS). However, pupils who opt for the applied course do more general Leaving Certificate content along with the vocational element and can therefore go directly into further education colleges where they can get a National Certificate Level II, which will allow them entry to university. It is more difficult to enter university using the vocational programme. By right, students have equal opportunity to enter university, but the three link modules they study are not yet credited. That is part of the present review.
We shall move on to an overview of the system in the Republic of Ireland. Among the perceived positive aspects is the inclusion of a transition year in the school cycle after Junior Certificate, which offers pupils an opportunity to focus on personal development and explore possible career paths. During this year, they may take courses or complete projects of individual interest. In some schools, they may also have an opportunity to undertake work placements.
The organisation of mixed-ability classes in secondary schools means that a diversity of pupils are educated together, although one can understand the challenges posed to those teaching such classes about which Ms Montgomery spoke earlier. In the majority of cases, pupils transfer from their primary to the local secondary school. There is therefore the potential for good relations to develop between the school and the community. Pupils have an opportunity to study a wider range of subjects at Leaving Certificate, and most choose between five and seven subjects. Pupils at A-level have a choice of between three and four subjects. The Irish system is perceived to allow students greater choice in their career paths.
Negative aspects of the system include the lack of formal external assessment at primary level, making it difficult to establish national standards for pupils. This may raise questions about the consistency of levels or standards, which are identified by individual schools. The content of the transition-year programme is devised by each individual school and varies considerably. It may also vary between pupils depending on which Leaving Certificate programme they choose to follow after the transition year. There is therefore a lack of consistency across schools, and the benefits to pupils may also vary accordingly.
Smaller schools may not have a sufficient range of teaching or resource facilities to offer the three different Leaving Certificate programmes. As I said earlier, there is a predominance of smaller schools in the Republic of Ireland, the reason being the traditional segregation on gender and religious lines. Some pupils may therefore experience constraints in their choices.
There is a strong emphasis on written papers in examinations and assessment, and continuous assessment is rarely employed. However, the Irish authorities are attempting to address that with the use of credit accumulation. There appears to be a strong culture of tutoring, known as "grinds," particularly at Leaving Certificate level. The pressure to achieve sufficient points for university entry appears to have led to an increase in the number of students availing of "grinds".
A comprehensive review of the points system and entry into university is going on at present. It has been said that the Leaving Certificate exam now seems to be another form of transition or entry into university using the points system, and the Irish authorities have looked at both the positive and negative aspects, but the review has not been completed yet.
How significant is the religious element? You referred to the small number of private schools. What is their basis?
As we said, 60% of pupils are educated in schools that are privately owned and managed, the majority by religious communities. I gave the example of the convent schools and the Christian Brothers schools. They are not co-educational - it is mostly the convents which educate girls and the Christian Brothers who educate the boys.
Although they receive state funding, do they still retain a degree of independence?
Yes. Most of the funding is used for staffing, capital building and improvements to the school. The majority of other decisions are taken by the Board of Management or the Board of Governors. Some of the schools, as we said, are fee-paying independent schools. Catholic schools account for 9% of the total of fee-paying secondary schools, while 3% are owned by non-Catholic groups, which are mainly Protestant. Approximately 4% of all students attend fee-paying secondary schools. I feel that is probably a representative cross-section of society at large in line with the proportion of Catholics and Protestants in the country.
You would almost need an education to follow all this. It is quite comprehensive and wide-ranging. This is a system we do not know much about.
It is continuously under review.
Continuous review and analysis are no bad thing in any situation. The needs of education and industry have been changing every five years. That is important. Have you found anything to show that the size of schools is detrimental to the end result? They seem to be fulfilling the needs of industry. Is there anything there? Is that something we should worry about? I was quite surprised to find that there were such a large number of small schools. Of course, that is the case in rural areas.
There are pros and cons in having a preponderance of small schools. One is the pupil-teacher ratio. The fewer pupils there are per teacher, the better it is for the pupil.
Ways in which the vocational aspect can be developed to meet the needs of the industry are being examined. A major review of the curriculum dealt with demographic changes and the lack of employment opportunities for pupils. As a result of the review, the Government decided that the majority of secondary education subjects in the Leaving Certificate and other programmes should contain a vocational element.
What lessons can we learn about tailoring our education system to the modern economy? I have often heard this from county enterprise boards in what I shall call the Free State ¾
If I had used that term, there would have been a row, but you may use it. [Laughter]
I have heard many variations in description ¾ you, Chairman, referred to a "neighbouring jurisdiction", while a member from the Alliance Party, who is perhaps a Unionist, said that we share a land border with another EU country. That was stretching the description a good deal. I will choose the term "Free State".
What lessons can we, in the Six Counties, learn from attempts to tailor the education system to the modern economy?
I am going to be very politically correct and say that there are lessons to be learned from every education system -
Geography seems to be the main lesson. Political geography at that.
It is no bad thing, as Mr McHugh said, to review ones' education system continually, and our planned procedure of looking at other countries' systems to assess their pros and cons will be very valuable. Perhaps this process will make us better informed as to the questions we should be examining, as well as informing our debate of current issues.
We were particularly interested in the concept of a transition year in the Republic of Ireland's system. On completing Junior Certificate examinations, pupils can opt to spend a year pursuing their own interests. In some schools, pupils are given the opportunity to do a project on issues of particular interest to them, or they can go on work placement. They have greater opportunities to build contacts with the industry sector to find out, for example, where they might want to move in their career or future education. That year is perceived as being very useful as pupils are given a year out from an exam-based cycle to reflect on where they might wish to go.
The difficulty with the system is that provision varies a great deal between schools. Some schools have a very well co-ordinated transition year, offering all kinds of opportunities, while others do not spend as much time developing this aspect. This is one of the ideas which we felt might be applied to our system.
The Leaving Certificate programme is quite complex, and pupils are still opting for the established Leaving Certificate course, which leads to university entrance. It is still difficult to encourage individuals to choose the vocational or applied approach. A very small percentage of pupils choose to take this route, but the academic option is still the most favoured.
There is evidence of this preference in the German education system, where parents and students select schools with courses which will result in the Abitur qualification and subsequent university entry. I foresee that happening in this case.
Mr S Wilson:
Is it entirely up to the individual to choose between the vocational and the academic route, or does the school apply its influence or operate a selection process? The vocational route is sometimes regarded as being second-class, as we discovered when we examined criticisms of our own system. You have also confirmed that this is the case in the Republic of Ireland.
If a student has chosen one route and finds it is not the route he wishes to go being either unable to cope with it or having changed his mind halfway through - is there any mechanism which allows him to change direction?
I shall deal with your first question, which asks about influences on the choice of programmes. When students initially enter secondary school they are allocated to mixed ability classes. There are no influences regarding the programme to which they proceed after the junior cycle. Allocation to different programmes occurs at the beginning of the senior cycle. There are summer and Christmas exams each year, allowing schools to monitor the progress of students, although this is not externally standardised. Schools therefore have a good idea of their pupils' abilities and aptitudes, which are discussed with parents and students. A student can choose the programme he wishes to pursue. There are influences on pupils from parents and schools to choose one or other course, but no formal pressures.
In relation to the second part of your question, there are three levels - foundation, ordinary and higher. Foundation level is only available in Irish and Maths. The majority of students who choose to pursue the academic route would attempt the higher papers. If students choose a higher paper and find during the course of the two-year Leaving Certificate programme that it is too difficult, they can choose the ordinary paper in the examination. That is how proceeding through levels is addressed.
Could I clarify if the teaching of mixed ability students to the age of 16 is compulsory? Is it statutory or can it be avoided?
It is more or less accepted practice.
It seems to be a dual system. There are mixed-ability classes, but after the Junior Certificate and at the beginning of the Senior Certificate, students are allocated to programmes.
After the Junior Certificate came the mixed classes.
Can we go through this so I am absolutely clear? As regards academic study, 80% of students choose the established Leaving Certificate. The Celtic Tiger is allegedly built on the 3.5% of students who take the applied Leaving Certificate, which is the vocational route. With present demographic trends, this 3.5% could represent a large number.
These systems are still being introduced.
It is a phased introduction.
They have not been introduced in all schools. The majority of schools may currently be offering only the established Leaving Certificate, and the figures indicate that 80% of pupils are taking this examination. They may not have introduced the applied or vocational Leaving Certificate. Those figures are very recent.
What is the maximum number of pupils taking the vocational Leaving Certificate?
It is 10,000 pupils.
That is 15% or less.
Universities seem to be balking from accepting some of these certificates.
Yes. However, at present this is under review, and TEASTAS, the Irish National Certification Authority, is reviewing the applied and the vocational programmes. The review focuses especially on the vocational programme, as some of the subjects on it - specifically the link modules - are not credited, leaving some pupils at a disadvantage when it comes to entry into further and higher education.
Are "grinds" very popular? Is it true that roughly 80% of the student population go through "grinds"?
I do not have an actual figure and did not come across one but from anecdotal evidence it would seem that the majority of students feel the need to have extra tutoring. It also appears that the majority of students pursue the academic route, and they go and have these "grinds" in order to raise their points level.
Are there alternatives to further education equivalent to higher techs?
In Ireland, school leavers may proceed to a series of further education colleges. There are Regional Technical Colleges, Institutes of Technology and four streaming courses for which the majority of students would be paid a training supplement. There are also apprenticeship schemes available, and Youth Reach is a scheme which allows students who opt out of the formal education system to receive training and classes.
Mrs E Bell:
I have strong reservations about such a culture of tutoring, for it is definitely discriminatory, and -as we have said - a question of haves and have-nots. Many people have been talking about the later stages, but I am concerned about primary level. There seems to be no formal preparation in primary for the next stages. Surely that must discriminate against or put pressure on some students. What is the parental influence on that?
There is not a culture of external assessment at primary at all. The first time pupils experience an externally marked exam is their Junior Certificate, at age 15. They are obviously assessed internally in school exams, but there is no formal assessment in primary schools.
Mrs E Bell:
In primary school there are some tests.
They have internal, twice-yearly exams, assessed by the teachers themselves. Students' progress is tracked, but not in the formal or standardised way.
Thank you for both those papers. Tutoring seems to be done by private colleges, certainly in Dublin and Galway, and I am sure elsewhere. Do you have any information on the extent of that? I notice there is one here in Belfast, Bruce College, an offshoot of the one in Dublin.
There are private colleges. With the changes in the Leaving Certificate, there seems to have been an increase in the number of private colleges offering tutoring and the opportunity to re-sit the Leaving Certificate. Rather than choosing a course in the higher and further education system, many students are taking the second option and choosing to enter a private college for a year, like Bruce College, or the School of Commerce in Cork. In one or two larger urban areas, they are choosing to take a year to re-sit their Leaving Certificate examinations to increase their points level and enter their chosen course.
Thank you on behalf of the Committee for your excellent presentation. If members have any additional research they would like carried out, they should notify the Committee Clerk.
Mr Chairman, I know that the Committee has plenty of paper already, but I should like to leave this comparative table, we have drawn up for you. It will take the Committee through each stage in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We hope the Committee will find it useful.
16 November 2000 / Menu