Patrick Sullivan | Blog | 27.11.17

New curriculum, old debates!

For many teachers and school leaders in Ireland, the word 'curriculum' brings fort images of 12 curriculum books and 11 sets of guidelines, delivered in a single box to schools over 18 years ago. These books can be understood as a set of stories our nation has chosen to tell children about their world. If we think about curriculum in these terms, then the set of stories we currently teach our children are a little out-dated and may not represent our 21st Century understanding of the world.

Irish classrooms, reflecting society, have changed significantly since the introduction of the curriculum. Classrooms are more dynamic and busier places of learning, with teachers supporting and responding to a greater diversity of learners. Through research, we now know more about how children learn and the childhoods they have here in Ireland (McCoy et al, 2012; Smyth, 2015). Such research has impacted on how we think about curriculum and what it should aim to do. New stories emerge related to concepts such as wellbeing, identity, play, intercultural education, coding, values and citizenship education. The emergence of these concepts poses a key question, how can the curriculum better reflect what we know about children’s learning in primary school?

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has set about answering this question with the development and publication of Aistear- the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (2009) and more recently the Primary Language Curriculum/Curaclam Teanga na Bunscoile (2015). As we consider a new set of stories for children, old debates inevitably re-emerge. An example of such debate centres on the knowledge versus skills argument. Those in the knowledge camp believe that the teaching of facts has been denigrated and consequently has led to detrimental gaps in students’ knowledge and intellectual development. While those in the skills camp believe that it is much more worthwhile to focus on the teaching of transferable skills; such as the ability to analyse, evaluate and synthesise.

Another point of debate emerges when considering the role of subjects in a curriculum compared to more integrative curriculum areas or themes. For many, the perceived marginalisation of subject specific knowledge is leading to anti-intellectualism in our schools, while for others the elitism of the subject disciplines can serve to exclude many; and so more egalitarian, integrative learning may be favoured. A further consideration is perhaps that children at different ages need different types of learning experiences (Morgan, 2014). Research from developmental psychology tells us that younger children do not tend to think of learning in categories, while older children develop the capacity to organise their learning according to subject or discipline.

While public debate on these matters may have, for the main, laid dormant since the publication of the Primary School Curriculum, as NCCA begins to further develop the curriculum these important debates will re-emerge. Indeed, many others will no doubt arise also including the purpose of the curriculum, the role of the teacher, the role of values education, and the role of religious education, among others. The expected revival of curriculum debate in the primary sector will no doubt be hotly contested and yet this is exactly what the curriculum needs, a re-examination of its purpose and a re-orientation of direction.

Patrick Sullivan | Bio: 

Patrick Sullivan currently oversees the development of curriculum and assessment at primary level in his role as Director in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). He is a former principal of Ard Rí Community National School, which he founded in 2010. He holds a first-class masters in Educational Leadership from Maynooth University and is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Educational Leadership in Dublin City University. Patrick has taught in a range of contexts, from small schools in Ireland to large multi-cultural schools in the United Kingdom. He has also delivered teacher training programmes in the North-east of India as a member of the charity Global Schoolroom.


Department of Education and Skills (1999) The Primary School Curriculum. Dublin: Government Press.

McCoy, S., Smyth, E., Banks, J. (2012) The Primary Classroom: Insights from the Growing Up in Ireland Study. Available to download from Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.

Morgan, M. (2014) Stages in Educational/Cognitive Development: Current Status and Implications. Commissioned research for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Accessed at:

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (2009) Aistear- the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework. Accessed at

Smyth, E. (2015) Wellbeing and School Experiences among 9- and 13-Year-Olds: Insights from the Growing Up in Ireland study. Available to download from Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.

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