Pupils and teachers could benefit from a mix of the vocational and the academic in a transition year the irish concept of the "transition year", where pupils take time out to gain a broader experience before studying for their most important exams, is being scrutinised in Scotland.
Although there are no plans to replicate Ireland's full transition year, education leaders are examining whether certain ideas could be incorporated into the Scottish curriculum. They believe teachers could benefit as much as pupils.
May Sweeney, national co-ordinator of A Curriculum for Excellence, travelled to Ireland late last year to look at the country's education system, and has now reported back to colleagues. The transition year, which research shows can improve exam performance, was one area that particularly interested her.
Introduced in 1974, the programme is offered in 550 of Ireland's 700 secondary schools. Only 300 pupils took part in 1978-79, but the figure grew rapidly after restructuring of the programme in the 1990s, reaching 23,000 in 2003. Some schools make it compulsory.
The programme emphasises social skills, independent learning and experience of adult and working life. It adds a year to a pupil's schooldays and is undertaken at about the age of 15, between the Junior Certificate (for 12-15-year-olds) and the Leaving Certificate (for 16-18-year-olds).
Research has shown that average performance in the Leaving Certificate was better among pupils taking part in a transition year. This has been attributed to four factors: more exposure to exam subjects; increased maturity; an in-creased ability among pupils to choose subjects that better reflect their interests and skills; and an increased ability to plan their own learning.
Research found, however, that the transition year could harden the attitudes of pupils already disaffected with education, and that the quality of programmes varied widely from school to school.
Each school involved has to devise its own version of the programme, within national guidelines from Ireland's education and science department, and will have a transition year co-ordinator responsible for overseeing the individual needs of each pupil taking part.
Mary Hanafin, the Irish Education Minister, is a big supporter of the scheme and was herself a transition year co-ordinator.
Pupils study core subjects, typically including Irish, English and maths, but can also sample less common subjects such as drama, economics and Spanish. There are modules designed specifically for the transition year, possibly dealing with enterprise or the media, while work experience also features. Social and citizenship projects, meanwhile, can see pupils organising community events.
Mrs Sweeney stressed that aspects of the Irish transition year tied in closely with A Curriculum for Excellence, and that certain ideas could already be found in Scotland. "It shows how some of the things we're trying to do can be done in practice," she said. "It's an opportunity for young people to personalise what they are doing. Because they have more time for some things, they can go into greater depth."
She added that the transition year also provided new opportunities for teachers. "Another interesting dimension is that teachers liked it because it allowed them to offer something else in schools, perhaps an additional course based on their own interests."
Irish pupils who complete the transition year gain a national certificate of participation, recognised by employers and higher education. Similarly, Scottish ministers expect that formal consultation will begin this summer on how qualifications at Standard grade and Intermediate level could recognise wider achievement.
Mrs Sweeney ruled out the prospect of a Scottish transition year, however, as she felt the best aspects of the Irish model could be woven into the new curriculum without adding an extra school year.
Brian Boyd, professor of education at Strathclyde University and a member of the curriculum review group, said any adoption of ideas from the Irish transition year should be for all pupils.
He explained that existing attempts to make the curriculum more flexible concentrated on the less able, but that all children would benefit from a better mix of the vocational and the academic.