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Topical Issue Debate Tuesday 19th February: Science as compulsory subject for the Junior Certificate

Deputy Anthony Lawlor:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic. It is highly relevant given that the Minister of State is visiting Kinvara today to launch a CoderDojo club. Approximately 4,000 young people are involved in CoderDojo, which emerged as a result of a deficiency in science and computer science subjects in the education system. I welcome the emphasis on the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subjects in the new junior certificate cycle and the introduction of standardised testing for the science subjects from 2016 onwards.

The rationale for science is that it contributes to a balanced and broad educational experience for students, extending their experience at primary level. It is concerned with the development of scientific, literacy and associated science process skills and an appreciation of the impact science has on our lives and the environment. In an era of rapid scientific and technological change, the study of science is fundamental to the development of the confidence required to deal with the opportunities and challenges such changes present in a wide variety of personal and social contexts.

In 2006, Dr. Carol Gibbons, a former deputy chief scientific adviser, stated that we must foster and grow an interest in science at a very early age. Dr. Gibbons is now senior investment adviser at Enterprise Ireland and her statement remains relevant. In my area, the Kerry Group is generating technology jobs and Intel and Hewlett Packard are major employers.

Sadly, many of these companies have difficulty in finding Irish people with the relevant qualifications to take up positions. This issue has arisen at the jobs committee in terms of accelerating the processing of work visa applications for people at that level.

Ireland is unique among 21 countries in that science is not compulsory at junior cycle level. Students in Irish schools receive a lower proportion of teaching in science, approximately 8%, compared with the EU and OECD average of 12%. As with mathematics, it has been reported that fewer than 30% of teachers who teach a scientific subject have a degree in that subject. Many schools lack adequate laboratory facilities, as a result of which there is a tendency to reduce the amount of science taught.

I welcome many of the changes to the junior cycle. In driving our economy in a new direction, though, our emphasis will be on educations based around science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects. Making science a compulsory subject for everyone will be vital. Will this idea form part of the Minister’s proposals on a new junior cycle?

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): In the context of junior cycle reform, A Framework for Junior Cycle was launched on 4 October 2012. The implementation will begin on a phased basis in 2014. The cohort of young people entering first year in September 2014 will be the first to partake. All of the existing subjects, including science, will continue to be available. All students will be required to experience 24 statements of essential learning as part of their junior cycle programmes. These statements describe what students should know, understand, value and be able to do at the end of junior cycle, having fully engaged with and participated in the junior cycle programme of their schools. Irish, except where there is an exemption, English and mathematics will remain core full subjects.

One of the 24 statements of learning refers clearly to science when it states, “values the role and contribution of science and technology to society, and their personal, social and global importance”. Furthermore, science is also recognised in the junior cycle framework as having a key role in a number of other statements of learning. From 2016 onwards, there will be a standardised test for all second year students in science. This gives a particular importance to science in the framework. Schools will also have the option of providing locally developed short courses of 100 hours, supported by exemplars developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. However, it will be a matter for schools to determine from the range of subjects and short courses on offer how these statements of learning will be met.

Overall, my Department is in favour of leaving the decisions on what is offered at the school’s discretion and of students having as broad a range of options to choose from as possible. Schools are best placed to identify the needs of their students. The junior cycle framework gives them the flexibility to meet their students’ needs in the most appropriate way.

Currently, science is not a compulsory subject in the junior cycle. However, the overwhelming majority of students, some 88%, opt to take it. The specifications for science are being developed by the NCCA. The new specifications will be implemented in schools from 2015. We know that there will be a greater emphasis on school work than heretofore. In the recast junior cycle syllabus, some 40% of the marks will be awarded for the second component, that is, work in the classroom, and only 60% for the final exam. This will allow students and their instructors to engage to a greater extent in practical learning. Hopefully, it will encourage more students to continue their science and maths studies into the senior cycle and beyond.

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I welcome the statistics, but I am disappointed that science will not become a core subject. The Minister mentioned the three core subjects, those being, Irish, English and mathematics. I have a problem with Irish being a core subject. It only seems to be so because the universities have set it as an entry requirement. Science is of more relevance and importance.

I am concerned that schools will be given the flexibility to decide on what subjects to provide. Science costs more and requires laboratories if it is to maintained as a core subject. A number of parents have approached me with concerns that their children, who will be starting the new cycle in 2014, might not be offered science because the number of classes that their schools can teach will be limited.

Another problem is teachers, in that we do not have enough. This problem dates back to the Celtic tiger era when many people did not take scientific subjects.

I would love to see science as a core subject. If we are to drive our economy, it will be through maths, English and science. These will help us to extricate ourselves from this situation.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I broadly agree with the views expressed by the Deputy. At one point, we were going to restrict the number of subjects that could be done in the new junior cycle to eight, of which three would be the core subjects. In reality, almost 90% of young people are taking science. Making it compulsory would run into the difficulties to which the Deputy referred, since some small post-primary schools of 200 plus pupils would not have the resources or facilities to provide the course. The level of uptake is high at 88%.

Giving schools and pupils the choice to run their junior cycle in the revised system of ten subjects rather than eight, which was the original thinking, plus the specific breakdown of subjects that might replace a course, will provide some flexibility. I hope that, as we move forward, science will become embedded and will be regarded for all intents and purposes as a core subject along with the others.