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UK can learn from Ireland when it comes to secondary school

Students across the water spend the last four years on a relentless exam treadmill, culminating usually in just three A Level subjects

Sir Anthony Seldon, who has written biographies of the last six British prime ministers and is working on one of Liz Truss (a slim volume?), wrote in The Spectator recently that “our young people deserve inspiration, joy and love in their schools, which should be places that discover and celebrate what they can do, not what they cannot. At present, our lacklustre education system at large is failing our young people, employers and the country.”

Of course, he is writing about the UK and not Ireland, but I love the sentiment about what schools should be all about.

I actually think that Ireland gets it more right than the UK does in some aspects. In the UK pupils spend the last four years of their secondary schooling on a relentless exam treadmill, culminating usually in three A Levels, the narrowest finishing exam system of any country. Children at 16 choose just three subjects in which to specialise, when most young people have yet to realise where their gifts and interests lie. About 25 years ago AS Levels were introduced and pupils were able to opt for four or five subjects for a year, before going down to three or four A Levels for their final year. That was an improvement, but it has been thrown out and almost all now just do the three subjects for their last two years.

One of the results of this is that creative subjects such as music and art in the UK are taking a hammering. If I want to do medicine I need to do biology, chemistry and probably maths or physics; there is no room for the luxury of the creative subject which would provide balance and inspiration. Candidates for Oxbridge and Russell Group universities are told to avoid “soft” subjects, which suggest a lack of academic seriousness. With four or five subjects there was some room for the extra creative option, but with only three ... forget it!


There are three things that I think Ireland gets right and from which the UK can learn.

Firstly, the exam treadmill only extends to the last two years of secondary school rather than four. Yes, the Junior Cycle exams are important but they do not carry the weight of expectation and pressure of GCSEs. And, of course, they do not lead straight into the Leaving Certificate because of transition year (TY), the second thing that Ireland does differently. It is great concept to give our children a year without the pressure of public exams, as they puzzle out who they are. As someone who did all of his classroom teaching in the UK, I am a big fan of TY. At its best, it allows young people, before choosing which direction they want to go academically, to experience a variety of new subjects; it allows teachers to go beyond the curriculum, or outside it altogether, and pursue areas of interest that do not need to fit into the narrow and unimaginative constraints of the dreaded syllabus. The year allows for work experience, service work, trips, speakers and (dare I say it) some fun. Is that allowed?

Thirdly, the Leaving Certificate, while it may be rather limited in the way it is examined, allows for a far broader range of subjects for 16-year-olds to study, keeping options open for longer and not cutting off avenues for the future at a stage when, for most pupils, interests are still developing. The German Abitur is far broader for far longer; the International Baccalaureate is much broader and still very rigorous and growing in popularity in the UK for schools that can afford to make the change; students in the US keep going with a broad range of subjects right through high school and into their first year at college, only specialising in the second year. It also allows undergraduates to do modules and get credits for courses that are not connected to their main degree. I can study astrophysics and still indulge my interest in ancient Greek.

I think the UK system of three A Levels goes right back to an age when most subjects were seen as inferior to the “serious ones” and all were inferior to Latin and Greek. But no one, inventing an education system now, would suddenly say: “I have a great idea. Let’s get our 15- and 16-year-olds to choose just three subjects, even though they have no idea what they want to do with their lives ... and let’s make it really hard for them to do the creative subjects, as that won’t improve their earning potential.”

I need to own up. Seldon was my headmaster for six years and he was staying with us the other weekend. He mentioned St Columba’s in his Spectator article because he sent it to me in advance and we weren’t in it ... so I told him to add us in! As he says: ”our young people deserve inspiration, joy and love in their schools, which should be places that discover and celebrate what they can do, not what they cannot.” Doing seven subjects for the Leaving Certificate allows the brightest pupils to study the subjects necessary for medicine or economics, while still allowing space for the humanities, and for art or music, which nourish the soul and make us fully human.

And doesn’t that give us a greater chance of making our schools places of human flourishing, of inspiration, joy and love?

Mark Boobbyer is warden of St Columba’s College, Dublin