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The gap year for social, emotional and vocational learning in Irish secondary education

Aidan Clerkin

The Irish education system includes a quasi-gap year, known as transition year (TY), midway through secondary school. Students may choose to complete six years of secondary education (including TY as the fourth year, aged about 15) or five years (without TY). TY was introduced on a pilot basis in 1974, becoming more widely available in the 1990s. Participation rates have since increased consistently, with two-thirds of eligible students now participating (Clerkin 2018a).

The aim of TY is to allow students a chance to step back from the pressure of high-stakes examinations, to provide a space for personal and social development, and to prepare students for life beyond school. TY students are generally given more freedom and more opportunities for self-directed learning. Cultural activities, subject sampling, entrepreneurial and artistic projects, community involvement and trips away from school are common. TY also contains a strong vocational component, with students engaging in work experience placements that can provide insights into real working environments and possible careers.

A similar experiment was carried out on a small scale in England in the ‎‎1920s and 1930s. Harold Dent, a headmaster (and editor ‎of the Times Education Supplement), offered his students the opportunity to have a ‘year out’ from their normal structured curriculum. For 12 months,


‘formal instruction [for these students was] cut to the minimum, and pupils [were] left largely to ‎their own devices in an environment calculated to develop the creative and ‎inquisitive instincts so that both inclinations and aptitudes may demonstrate ‎themselves.’

Dent 1939; cited in Rudduck and Flutter 2004: 9)‎

He reported that


‘…many of the boys were utterly ‎different creatures by the end of the term; they had developed poise, self-confidence and skill, ‎and there was little difficulty in fitting them into courses which were calculated to give them ‎present satisfaction and a sure basis for the future.’


Although Rudduck and Flutter (2004) go on to note how ‘wastefully subversive’ this idea ‎would likely sound to many present-day readers, Dent’s vision does resonate with the rationale for, and experience of, TY in Ireland. Internationally, there is now increasing recognition of the importance of social and emotional ‎characteristics in learning, in transitions from one environment to another (from ‎primary to secondary education, for example, or from education to work), in workplaces, and in supporting wellbeing.

Although TY is not well-known ‎outside Ireland, it has recently served as a model for the introduction of the ‘free learning semester’ in South ‎Korea, which was piloted in 2013 and has expanded to most South Korean middle schools. The gradual growth of TY over almost 50 years offers lessons to policymakers in South Korea and other jurisdictions who ‎may wish to introduce similar initiatives or programmes. For example, one important factor in making ‎TY more widely available in Ireland was the establishment of a professional development ‘support service’, comprising teachers who had been successful early adopters of TY in their own schools and could offer practical support and guidance. The creation of this support ‎service helped to facilitate a large increase ‎in provision and uptake in the 1990s (Clerkin 2013).‎

A review ‎of Irish senior cycle education began in February 2018. This provides an opportunity to review the theoretical assumptions and perspectives underpinning TY and its implementation in schools. Two new papers (Clerkin 2018a and 2018b) aim to:

  • clarify some aspects of adolescent development that are particularly relevant to TY, providing a more explicit framework for future ‎practice and research, and
  • introduce TY to ‎readers who may be interested in learning from the Irish experience of ‎integrating a ‘gap year’ within secondary education, students’ experiences of TY and the reported outcomes, and some persistent challenges that remain to be addressed.‎

Both papers are now available to read on an open-access basis from Review of Education.


Clerkin A (2013) ‘Growth of the “Transition Year” programme, nationally and in schools ‎serving disadvantaged students, 1992–2011’, Irish Educational Studies 32(2): 197–215.‎

Clerkin A (2018a) ‘Filling in the gaps: A theoretical grounding for an education programme for adolescent socioemotional and vocational development in Ireland’, Review of Education, 26 April 2018.

Clerkin A (2018b) ‘Context and Implications document for: Filling in the gaps: A theoretical grounding for an education programme for adolescent socioemotional and vocational development in Ireland’, Review of Education, 26 April 2018.

Dent H (1939) ‘The adolescent’s way of life’, The Hibbert Journal: A Quarterly Review of Religion, Theology, and Philosophy 37: 387–395

Rudduck J and Flutter J (2004) How to improve your school: Giving pupils a voice, London: Continuum