Education and skills report

Curriculum change: What is and what might be

Last year, in eolas issue 43, we introduced the work of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) in an article titled ‘Crafting curriculum and assessment for this generation and the next’. Since then and despite the tumultuous challenges of Covid-19, we have been progressing our consultative and developmental work across early childhood, primary and post-primary education in support of the Department of Education’s Statement of Strategy 2021–2023.

In this article, we’re putting the spotlight on curriculum developments in support of greater curriculum alignment and continuity across primary and early childhood education. We begin by outlining the consultation process on proposals for a Redeveloped Primary Curriculum before moving onto the rationale and the process for NCCA in updating Ireland’s Early Childhood Curriculum Framework.

Primary

What children learn and how children learn in primary school is changing, and we are asking the public for their views on the proposals published in the Draft Primary Curriculum Framework. The current Primary School Curriculum is 22 years old, and since it was launched in 1999, Ireland has changed considerably. Primary schools are more dynamic and busier than ever, and teachers and principals respond to a greater diversity of children and families. There have also been many policy developments such as universal preschool education, and the publication of a number of strategies which have specific actions related to the primary curriculum. In addition, society has growing expectations of the purpose of a primary curriculum reflecting, to some extent, changes in societal values, globalisation, technological advancements, and commitments to sustainability, social cohesion, and inclusion.

Taking all of this into account, we need to ensure that the primary curriculum continues to do the best for children, especially when we think of how children born this year will begin primary school in 2026 or 2027, start their working lives in the 2040s and retire in the 2080s/2090s. All of this creates an important opportunity to think about the purpose of a primary curriculum when we think of the years ahead.

As well as using research information, we have worked directly with schools and preschools to develop the draft framework. This has included working with a network of 60 schools, called the ‘Schools Forum’, consisting of different types of primary, post-primary and preschools from across the country. The public consultation on the Draft Primary Curriculum Framework is looking at the main changes proposed for the primary curriculum. These include:

  • supporting transitions between primary school and the home, preschool, and post-primary school;
  • introducing seven key competencies from junior infants to sixth class to enable children to adapt and deal with a range of situations, challenges, and contexts in support of broader learning outcomes;
  • using five broad curriculum areas for junior infants to second class that support subject-based learning from third to sixth class: language, mathematics, science, and technology education, wellbeing, arts education, and social and environmental education. The curriculum will continue to include the Patron’s Programme of the school which can be religious education, ethical and/or multi-belief education;
  • having more focus on physical education (PE), social, personal and health education (SPHE) and digital learning, along with the introduction of modern foreign languages (from third class), technology, learning about religions and beliefs, and a broader arts education;
  • giving schools more flexibility to decide, with some guidance, how their time is used across the school day and week. For example, a school might decide to allocate some time to a project or initiative in their local community; and
  • promoting learning experiences that involve children being active, interacting, collaborating with each other, thinking creatively and problem-solving, and feeling a sense of belonging in their school.

The consultation process

Taking account of the pandemic and the challenging circumstances in schools, consultation on the Draft Primary Curriculum Framework was re-designed into two phases. Phase one took place from February to December 2020 and focused on engagement with national stakeholder organisations and groups, while phase two, open from October 2021 to February 2022, prioritises working with teachers, school leaders, the general public, parents and, importantly, children.

Early Childhood

Now turning our attention to early childhood, we have initiated an updating of Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework, which is now 12 years old. The framework supports adults in providing appropriately challenging, motivating, and enjoyable learning experiences within nurturing relationships for children from birth to six years. Early childhood is a time of being and becoming, a time which provides important foundations for children’s learning and for life itself. Aistear is underpinned by twelve principles and unlike the curriculum used by schools, it describes learning and development using four interconnected themes: well-being, identity and belonging, communicating, and exploring and thinking. The framework can be used in a range of settings, including day care, playgroups, naíonraí and preschools.

While Aistear is only 12 years old, much has changed in Ireland since 2009 and this impacts on children’s lives. These changes include a society that is now more socially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse; developments in national policy such as First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and Their Families, as well as curriculum and assessment developments. New research, particularly research on babies, continue to raise awareness and emphasise the critical importance of this period in a child’s life. Given these and other changes, it is timely that we update Aistear to ensure its continued relevance and impact in enhancing quality curriculum provision for our youngest children. This is an opportunity to re-vitalise and update the framework by incorporating learning from practice and research with the overall aim of enhancing children’s lived experiences in Ireland.

The consultation process

Public consultation on updating Aistear is taking place over two phases. Phase one began in May 2021 and is ongoing to gather responses to two key questions:

  • What is working well with Aistear?
  • What might be enhanced or updated?

Children are at the heart of Aistear, and a strand of the consultation is dedicated to gathering the views of babies, toddlers, and young children. This is being undertaken by a team led by Maynooth University. Additionally, a team from Dublin City University Institute of Education is conducting a literature review to update the research base for Aistear’s themes.

The findings from these activities will be used to develop proposals for updating Aistear, and these will be the focus for Phase 2 of the consultation which will be initiated later this year.

Conclusion

Curriculum is central in ensuring continuity and progression in children’s learning within and across early childhood and primary education. High-level, sectoral consultations, such as those described in this article, don’t happen often. The aim of our consultative processes is to hear the views of all stakeholders, including children, on how future curriculum frameworks in both the early childhood and primary sectors can best support children’s learning, development, and wellbeing. The findings from both consultations will influence each other and thus ensure that there is strengthened curriculum policy alignment across early childhood and primary education which supports appropriate learning experiences for children.

You’ll find details on how you can have your say on the NCCA website at https://ncca.ie/en/updates-and-events/consultations/

T: 01 661 7177
E: info@ncca.ie
W: ncca.ie

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