ESRI research into students’ experiences in junior cycle


The NCCA commissioned the Educational Policy Research Centre of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) to carry out a study of students’ experiences of the curriculum in the first three years of their post-primary schooling. The research provides insights into how best to ensure a smooth transition for students from primary to post-primary school, how to motivate them to engage with and enjoy school, and how to challenge them to realise their full potential in the three years of junior cycle. The research is in three phases corresponding with each year of junior cycle.

Picture of Emer Smyth

Watch a vodcast of Dr. Emer Smyth, ESRI researcher, discussing different aspects of the three years of research at She answers questions such as:

  • do schools differ? (01.05 mins.)
  • mixed ability versus streaming; what does the research say? (02.29 mins.)
  • choosing subjects; subject sampling - does it work? (01.47 mins.).

Phase 1

In this phase of the study researchers carried out interviews with students, teachers, principals and parents. There was an emphasis on transition in this part of the study and in particular on the type of curricular provision that best ensured that students experienced a smooth transition and high-quality education in junior cycle. The study raised many important issues that inform the NCCA's ongoing review of junior cycle. These include the:

  • negative effects that curriculum discontinuity (between primary and post-primary) can have on students' learning
  • influence of the informal culture of the school, particularly the relationship between teachers and students, on student integration
  • benefits of an approach where students can experience a range of subjects as 'tasters' prior to selection of subjects for Junior Certificate
  • relatively low level of student interest in Irish, English, Mathematics and Modern European Languages compared with subjects with a more practical orientation such as Materials Technology (Wood), Physical Education, Art, ICT and Science
  • importance of offering a broad and balanced curriculum that includes a range of subjects with a more practical orientation that engage students and provide early success for those less academically orientated
  • concern expressed by over 40% of teachers that the first year curriculum is unsuitable for lower-ability students, and teachers' perceived difficulties in covering the curriculum in the time available
  • positive contribution of mixed ability groupings to students' learning and the negative effects of streaming on students in upper and lower streams
  • importance of early targeted support for 'at risk' students to help them to cope academically and socially and to prevent early failure and disaffection.

A report on the research entitled Moving Up, The Experiences of First-Year Students in Post-Primary Education was published jointly by NCCA and ESRI in 2004. As an initial response to the ESRI report, NCCA published and distributed the booklet Moving Up outlining the main findings and recommendations of the research. The booklet focuses on the research findings that are most relevant to the organisation of induction programmes in schools, to curriculum planning and to supporting students who experience particular difficulties in transition. It continues to provide useful information for teachers and schools, and for parents of students who are about to, or have just moved to post-primary school.

Phase 2

The second phase of the ESRI research looked at the experiences of second-year students. This part of the research has been supported by the Gender Equality Unit of the Department of Education and Science. A report on the study, titled Pathways Through the Junior Cycle: The Experiences of Second Year Students, was published by The Liffey Press in association with the ESRI and is available to order from A summary of the report and the NCCA's commentary on the research are available to download below.

Phase 3

The third year research report, entitled Gearing up for the Exams (also published by The Liffey Press), is based on two phases of data collection. The first set was collected in the period January to March 2005, a few months before the 900 students in the case study schools sat their Junior Certificate examination.This enabled the researchers to explore the changes in students’ attitudes as they moved into third year, their engagement with and experience of the curriculum and the learning process, and their attitudes to study and homework. Students' expectations and views regarding the impending Junior Certificate Examination were also analysed.

Importantly, the study continued post June 2005, with a second phase of data collection that allowed for the analysis of the performance of the students in the Junior Certificate examination. In addition, a phase of the research considered the senior cycle options available to students, the options they chose and their initial perceptions of the programmes they were taking. A summary of the report and the NCCA's commentary on the research are available to download, below.


Summary report (for three years)

Junior Cycle Education: Insights from a Longitudinal Study of Students(ESRI Research Bulletin 2009/4/1) (PDF 98KB)

First Year

NCCA commentary on ESRI research into curriculum provision and school integration among first year students(March 2004) (PDF 70KB)
Moving Up - the experiences of first year students: booklet for schools, teachers and parents
(May 2004) (PDF 346KB)

Second Year

Pathways through junior cycle - the experiences of second year students(May 2006) (PDF 71KB)
ESRI Report on the experiences of second year students - Summary
(May 2006) (PDF 208KB)

Third Year

NCCA summary and commentary on ESRI research into the experiences of third year students (Sept 2007) (PDF 195KB)


Vodcast of Dr. Emer Smyth, ESRI researcher, commenting on different aspects of the three years of research (