A significant milestone in Irish education history was achieved by the launching of the primary curriculum framework on 9 March 2023. Curriculum policy has been influenced by the prevailing globalising tendencies that have been dominant over the past three decades (Priestley & Biesta, 2013; Sinnema & Aitken, 2013), and this reform effort in Ireland further reflects a broader trend of nations adapting and refining their curricula in response to global influences and challenges.
Ireland’s primary curriculum reform and global curricular trends
Ireland’s primary curriculum framework echoes international trends in its emphasis on 21st-century key competencies, curriculum integration, and an increased focus on teacher and pupil agency.
Curriculum integration facilitates interdisciplinary connections between subjects, moving away from content- and subject-based knowledge acquisition. This approach fosters interdisciplinary problem-solving, which necessitates greater autonomy for schools and teachers. The new framework offers a number of opportunities for integrated learning experiences through integrating key competencies across subjects or organising learning under a thematic unit that combines a number of subjects from a curriculum area. Similar interdisciplinary elements are observable elsewhere internationally: for example in the Finnish Basic Education level, where multidisciplinary learning modules integrate various subjects to promote real-world experiential connections; and in British Columbia’s Curriculum (Canada), where teachers are encouraged to develop thematic units/modules that go beyond established learning boundaries. For such modes of curriculum making to work on a school level, however, increased collaboration among teachers and departments becomes vital, which itself necessitates greater autonomy for schools and teachers.
‘The new primary curriculum framework offers a number of opportunities for integrated learning experiences through integrating key competencies across subjects or organising learning under a thematic unit that combines a number of subjects from a curriculum area.’
Building on that notion, teacher and pupil agency are central in the new framework, reflecting a global discourse on teacher and pupil agency (Priestley & Biesta, 2013; Sinnema & Aitken, 2013). The framework is ‘supportive of child agency’ and teachers exercise their agency in response to students’ choices. Indeed, this approach is increasingly prevalent worldwide, with countries such as Scotland, New Zealand and Finland embracing this approach in their respective curricula.
Ireland’s framework highlights the importance of partnerships with parents and the community, which enriches and extends children’s learning by recognising and supporting their experiences in and out of school. This emphasis is also present in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence and the Every Child Succeeds Act (Section 1116) in the United States.
The framework’s commitment to evidence-based pedagogical approaches aligns with the broader European trend of grounding educational decisions in scientific research. The Irish government has demonstrated its commitment to this approach by supporting the establishment of an Education Research and Policy office within the Department of Education. Evidence-based educational policymaking is a common thread in curriculum reforms across Europe, including Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and England (Baek et al., 2022; Cowen, 2019).
Conclusion and recommendations
In many ways, the new framework stands out due to its emphasis on teacher and pupil agency and the democratic reform principles that underpinned its creation. Many aspects of the curriculum are praiseworthy, and this blog post has attempted to highlight the similarities that are emerging in curriculum making globally. Four key recommendations are offered to Irish education and curriculum policymakers to harness the potential of the new framework:
1) Clarify the definitions of teacher and pupil agency since they are both present, and explore their interplay.
2) Ensure success in attaining agency by designing a summative assessment framework that does not constrain it.
3) Monitor curriculum reforms in countries like Scotland and Wales to learn from their experiences and avoid potential pitfalls.
4) Provide greater transparency around evidence-based discourse, allowing teachers and stakeholders to make more informed decisions.
And finally, as the curriculum policy’s flexibility influences teacher agency (Priestley & Drew, 2017), it is essential to be cognisant of the existing factors that could impinge on the intended reform aims. For instance, earlier evidence has shown that the practice of standardised testing in primary schools and accountability policies (Brady, 2019) could foster a performance-oriented culture in Irish schools, which may jeopardise the framework’s goals.
Baek, C., Tiplic, D., & Santos, Í. (2022). Evidence-based policymaking in Nordic countries: Different settings, different practices? In B. Karseth, K. Sivesind, & G. Steiner-Khamsi (Eds.) Evidence and expertise in Nordic education policy: A comparative network analysis (pp. 253–279). Springer.
Brady, A. M. (2019). Anxiety of performativity and anxiety of performance: Self-evaluation as bad faith. Oxford Review of Education, 45(5), 605–618. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2018.1556626
Cowen, N. (2019). For whom does ‘what works’ work? The political economy of evidence-based education. Educational Research and Evaluation, 25(1–2), 81–98. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2019.1617991
Priestley, M., Biesta, G., & Robinson, S. (2013). Teachers as agents of change: Teacher agency and emerging models of curriculum. In M. Priestley & G. Biesta (Eds.), Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice (pp. 187–206). Bloomsbury Academic.
Priestley, M., & Drew, V. (2017, July 4). Teacher agency and curriculum development. BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/teacher-agency-and-curriculum-development
Sinnema, C., & Aitken, G. (2013). Emerging international trends in curriculum. In M. Priestley & G. Biesta (Eds.), Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice (pp. 141–163). Bloomsbury Academic.