Think-tank calls for 'sea change' in second level education

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The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has called for a "sea change" in secondary schools after a study found that students feel under-prepared for the demands of third-level education and the labour market.

In the study, entitled 'Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions', a majority of higher-education students said they feel school didn't prepare them enough, and reported having had difficulties with time management and meeting the expected standards of their new course.

The think-tank says it wants to see schools focus more on project work and independent thinking, rather than "spoon-feeding" students.

The study drew on a survey of 753 young people three to four years after completing the Leaving Certificate, and in-depth interviews with 27 of this group.

Over 90% of those in higher education that were interviewed for the study said they felt their school work didn't prepare them for the demands, with too much "writing and memory" work in the Leaving Cert compared to project work and independent thinking at college.

"In reflecting on their experiences at school, young people characterised their Leaving Certificate exam as requiring ‘too much writing’ and memory work, with a significant proportion finding the exam schedule too demanding and feeling under too much pressure," the study's authors concluded.

"Many felt ill-prepared for the world of work, for adult life and for going on to college. Just over half felt that their second-level schooling prepared them for their course."

The ESRI says its interviews highlighted the gulf between the teacher-driven structure of second-level and the "independent, critical" thinking and deadlines of third-level.

The think-tank says a sea change is now needed to switch the focus towards better preparing school-leavers for the world of work and further education - and the planned Junior Cycle reform is just the start.

However it says any meaningful reform could take several years.

"Effective curriculum implementation will require a significant broadening of the repertoire of teaching and assessment methods used in the classroom in order to engage all groups of young people in learning," the study said.

"Our research also points to the importance of creating a positive climate as negative relations between teachers and students have deleterious long-term effects on student outcomes, including the transition to higher education."

Report author Emer Smyth says the focus must now switch to helping students develop independent and critical thinking.

"In any job you're going to have to be juggling deadlines and engaging in longer-term projects - yet they (school leavers) don't have the preparation for that," Ms Smyth said.

"So I think those kinds of issues around project work, teamwork and critical thinking have to be embedded in the senior cycle."

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