The voices of children and students in the work of the NCCA
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) advises the Minister for Education on curriculum and assessment for early childhood education, primary and post-primary schools. The Council’s Strategic Plan 2022-2025 sets out the way in which that advice is developed, with a specific underpinning principle on child and student voice.
Our work respects and actively promotes the right of children and students to have their voices heard and included in shaping the curriculum and assessment advice we develop. Our engagement with young people is age- and stage-appropriate and takes account of how they communicate.
Young people from birth to 18 have much to tell us about what they enjoy and deem important in their learning experiences, and what they consider the purpose of these experiences to be. These reflections and aspirations play a key role in shaping curriculum and assessment in Ireland. A key marker of NCCA’s commitment in implementing this principle is the inclusion of the Irish Secondary Students’ Union (ISSU) as a member of Council. The next sections outline some additional examples of how the voices of children and students are included in our work across the early childhood, primary and post-primary sectors.
Early childhood and primary
NCCA is updating Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (NCCA, 2009) and is consulting with babies, toddlers, and young children to get their views. Babies and toddlers can be seen as ‘hard-to-reach’ groups, but they have the same rights to be heard under Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as older children. The challenge is for adults to find ways in which babies and toddlers can be given space, voice, audience, and influence (Lundy, 2007). This challenge is being met through an innovative study being carried out on NCCA’s behalf, with the first report to be published early in 2023.
At primary level, consultations with children have been carried out on NCCA’s behalf on both the Draft Primary Curriculum Framework (NCCA, 2020) and the Draft Primary Mathematics Curriculum (NCCA, 2022). Through both studies, children have very clearly expressed their views on how they want to learn. A key message from the children is the importance of being with their friends and learning collaboratively with those friends. The children want to learn through activity with concrete materials, for the most part, including learning through play in the senior classes as well as the junior classes. They enjoy a challenge when learning maths but want the time and space to work through the challenge, which gives them a great sense of satisfaction. Echoing these findings, children participating in the BEACONS event, From Purpose to Practice (NCCA, 2022), indicated that, in their view, “learning should be interesting, engaging and fun, and that the best learning happens when done with others” (p. 18).
A significant piece of research informing NCCA’s work is the Children’s School Lives longitudinal study (2019-2024), which explores children’s lived experiences in primary school and their transitions from preschool into primary and on to post-primary school. Children are key stakeholders in the education system, and this study is providing information at scale to complement the consultations described in the earlier examples. There is significant activity underway on the redevelopment of the Primary School Curriculum, and the consultations described here are ensuring that children are influencing the shape and direction of curriculum provision in primary schools.
“Children participating in the BEACONS event, From Purpose to Practice, indicated that, in their view, ‘learning should be interesting, engaging and fun, and that the best learning happens when done with others’.”
Student voice is also a key aspect of developments at post-primary level, with consultations with students a constant feature of how curriculum is shaped. A school-based review component was integral to the development of the Senior Cycle Review: Advisory Report (NCCA,2022) which informed the Minister for Education’s announcement in March 2022 on the redevelopment of senior cycle. 41 schools participated in the school-based review, with approximately 2,500 students taking part in consultative workshops and discussions. The ESRI analysis of student perspectives report yielded valuable insights and viewpoints, affirming the involvement of students in the process. Recent curriculum developments, such as the introduction of new senior cycle subjects, drama, film and theatre studies, and climate action and sustainable development, derive from these consultations with young people. Their voice will continue to inform how these new subjects are developed prior to their introduction to the curriculum, as well as other developments to come.
In addition to the consultative model of engaging with students, NCCA is currently involved in collaborative projects with two networks of schools: one with the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS) and the other with the Instructional Leadership Programme (under the auspices of Education and Training Boards Ireland). These projects have emerged from a successful Erasmus Plus project, Bridge to Learning: Student Voice at the Centre of learning and School Life. At the core of these projects is an acknowledgement of the right of young people to have a say in matters that affect them as enshrined in the UNCRC. These matters relate to the representative domain (e.g., student councils and other representative forums) and to their experience of learning, teaching, and assessment.
Children and students have a habit of asking the tough questions. This is certainly true of the young people involved in NCCA’s work. Informed by the Lundy Model of Child Participation and based on the National Framework for Children and Young people’s Participation in Decision Making (Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, 2021), what becomes important is ensuring that the voice given to these perspectives reaches the necessary audiences to influence decision-making on a national level. A prospect made altogether more likely with the inclusion of a representative from the Irish Second-Level Students Union on the council, and continued engagement with the voices of children and students through ongoing collaborations and research.
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