The Minister for Education asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to review the place of history in the new Junior Cycle curriculum. The NCCA recommended that to preserve the integrity of the Junior Cycle Framework, history should not be made compulsory.
The Minister ignored the NCCA advice and for what in interview he called his own “personal reasons” decided history would have ‘special core status’ within the Junior Cycle. When asked whether this meant history would now be 240 hours class time (as for English, Irish and Mathematics) over three years or 200 (as at present) the Minister could not answer. This is an important detail.
The Minister ignored calls for geography to be returned to the core curriculum. It wasn’t even considered. Both history and geography traditionally have been treated equally and together since the foundation of the State. When Niamh Breathnach was Minister for Education, both subjects were under threat; however, they succeeded in being retained in the face of the introduction of CSPE.
The Minister also ignored requests for meetings and at no point was geography accorded an Oireachtas Education Committee meeting as history was.
The mantra adopted by both the NCCA and the Minister’s officials is that geography will remain in the curriculum. Such utterances are backed up with reference to the NCCA’s 24 Statements of Learning which describe what Junior Cycle students should learn.
The reality is different. Firstly, the original 24 Statements of Learning were edited to remove physical and environmental geography (SOL 8 was deleted and replaced). So students need not learn about physical geography and the environment in the new Junior Cycle.
Secondly, the Minister’s decision to return history was made without apparent reference to the timetabling and staffing realities of schools.
Schools must find for September 2020 an additional 40 hours for history plus 100 extra hours for Wellbeing. The new Junior Cycle curriculum is now, ironically, even more crowded than the old Junior Certificate curriculum it criticised for overcrowding.
Schools must find these extra 140 hours. The Association of Geography Teachers of Ireland are already getting reports of schools dropping geography completely from their programme in order to make space. It is not even being offered as a choice in some schools for the new school year 2020-2021.
In addition to this, because schools must ensure they have enough teachers to cover English, Irish, Mathematics and now History, schools may necessarily have to find additional hours in other subjects to attract sufficient history teachers to cover the core curriculum. So a half-hours history teacher could end up being offered additional hours in say maths (unqualified) just so the school can acquire that history teacher to meet the timetabling of compulsory subjects.
This means that in the 21st century, being a history teacher is a better career prospect than being a science teacher (science is not a core subject either). Geography is recognised by the Russell Group of universities as a gateway science. It is a science subject in Trinity College admissions. In Maynooth, it acts as a conduit for research in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that drives many software development companies such as those in Dublin’s Silicon Docks.
However, as geography disappears from schools, there will be fewer students taking up geography at university level. The economic implications of this are obvious.
The political implications are even more serious. Brexit can be viewed most easily as the outcome of ignorance of the geography of the European Union. Without a sound geographical awareness, the appreciation of our participation in the EU will decline with time.
And while climate change appears sparsely in the Junior Cycle science specification, a holistic understanding of the causes, effects and solutions to climate change can only be addressed through geography. This is why it was specifically written into the Junior Cycle Geography Specification. While some have suggested a short course could be held to teach climate change, such a course could not address all the sustainability issues surrounding climate change. This is also why sustainability is, uniquely, woven throughout the Junior Cycle Specification for geography.
Arguments that geography should not be compulsory because it was compulsory in only 52% of schools previously, and not compulsory in VECs (now ETBs) are misleading. On this basis history should be excluded. However, the NCCA has stated that since 1999 geography and history were compulsory in all schools but that VECs (ETBs) could retain Environmental and Social Studies (ESS) “if they chose”. The fact is history and geography were compulsory for all but a tiny minority of students. Both should still be. Not because of tradition but because they are essential entitlements in the education of our citizens.
The Department suggests it is confident geography will be retained by schools when making their curriculum. However, why such confidence did not extend to history is not clear. Regardless, the reality on the ground is that schools are already dropping geography from their curriculum altogether. And while existing geography teachers can advocate for their subject, no argument can second guess the timetabling and staffing needs of schools. It will be easier for principals to simply get existing geography teachers to teach other subjects such as their second subject or CSPE and drop geography altogether.
It is frankly staggering, given the threats to the earth environment and the imperative to educate all our children in sustainable futures, that any political party would preside over the removal of geography, not just from the core curriculum, but from schools altogether.
In addition to the obvious importance of geography, it is important to note that there are over 2500 geography teachers distributed across all constituencies Ireland, each with family members voting in the election.
If you, as a general election candidate, and your party, have any environmental credentials, it is imperative you commit to returning geography to the core curriculum of the Junior Cycle.