The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) advises the Minister on curriculum and assessment at early childhood, primary and post-primary levels. It uses evidence from educational and other research, national and international, along with the valued experience of practitioners and experts, to arrive at this advice.
NCCA is a statutory, representative body and the approach through which it develops curricula requires that agreement is reached, where possible, with representative stakeholders in education – including teacher unions, management bodies, parents, the early childhood sector, further and higher education, business interests, and the State Examinations Commission . Increasingly, the pupil and student voice is a source of input and feedback on its advice too.
Beyond stakeholder involvement, consultation is a feature of the approach taken: there are public consultations on all major policy documents and curricula before advice goes to the Minister. By the time it does, NCCA has discussed and deliberated, sometimes over a couple of years, so the advice is considered and never offered lightly.
NCCA develops the specifications for particular subjects and areas of the curriculum. These specifications do not ‘merely set out a list of topics and learning outcomes’. For example the recent specification for a new subject, Leaving Certificate Computer Science, included the following material and sections:
- An Introduction to the specification
- An outline of the senior cycle of Irish education
- A rationale for the inclusion of Computer Science as a subject
- The aims and objectives of the course in Computer Science
- Related learning – how Computer Science can link to other subjects and areas across the curriculum
- An overview of the Structure of the course in Computer Science
- An outline of the senior cycle key skills to which it contributes
- A section on the teaching and learning approaches that are fundamental to Computer Science
- An outline of the three strands involved in the course and the learning outcomes for each of these strands
- An outline of how the student’s work on the course will be assessed.
All subject specifications go into this level of detail. In addition, after the finalisation and introduction of the specification, the NCCA publishes Assessment Guidelines. These provide further detail on each of the assessment components, including the final examination and any second assessment components such as projects, practicals, assignments etc. The Assessment Guidelines are developed in collaboration with the State Examinations Commission so that there is clear alignment between the specification and the assessment items in the examinations and assessment briefs administered by the SEC. Increasingly, for example in the case of all recently introduced Junior Cycle subject specifications, the NCCA also develops, on an ongoing basis, exemplification of student work/teaching and learning that demonstrate how learning outcomes in the specification are realised in the classroom or learning site.
Frequently, as in the case of Leaving Certificate Computer Science, Support Material for Teaching and Learning is also provided. This package of material, the Specification, the related Assessment Guidelines, the examples of students’ work, and Support Material for Teaching and Learning is designed to equip teachers with the material they need to successfully teach the relevant course. In addition, of course, the State Examinations Commission also issue teachers and schools with sample papers, and in time, past papers related to the examinations and these too assist teachers in their engagement with the learning outcomes of the course.
Learning outcomes are statements in curriculum specifications to describe the knowledge, understanding, skills and values students should be able to demonstrate after a period of learning. The DES policy on learning outcomes was set out in the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy in 2011 - A “learning outcomes” approach needs to be incorporated into all curriculum statements at primary level and in all new syllabuses at post-primary levels as they come on stream. Curricula should state clearly the skills and competences expected of learners at six points in their development (end of early years/infants, end of second class, end of fourth class, end of primary stage, end of junior cycle and end of senior cycle).
The point raised in this question about whether it would be appropriate to introduce ‘depth of treatment standards’ relates to the question of how detailed the specification of learning outcomes should be. This is the source of much debate and contestation in the literature on curriculum development and curriculum specification, with long-established as well as newly developing perspectives on both sides of the debate. NCCA keeps the literature on learning outcomes and outcomes-based specification under review and will shortly, in Q2 of 2019, publish a paper reviewing current approaches and views in this area, both in the literature on learning outcomes and in the experience across six jurisdictions worldwide. The paper has been developed in consultation with an expert in the field of curriculum studies, Prof. Mark Priestley of the University of Stirling in Scotland. It is currently the subject of peer review before being published and made available for ongoing discussion.