Emer Smyth, research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), was speaking about the findings of her study of children’s experience of the switch from primary to second level.
A key discovery relates to the engagement with maths of children in third and fourth classes who took part in the research as part of the long-running Growing Up in Ireland study.
Prof Smyth found those who were more engaged in school at the age of nine coped much better with the move to second-level and were more engaged with education than others when they reached the age of 13.
By the time they were in first or second year, she said, they were settling down much more and were more likely to do well at school.
“Basic primary maths were very important for later engagement with the subject itself, but also for later engagement with school more generally. It means maths is particularly a stumbling block for some children,” said Prof Smyth.
“And there might be a case for looking at primary maths anew, in the same way that we did with Project Maths, and make it more engaging for pupils, and not as difficult for pupils.”
She said it should be about getting younger children more interested in the subject to help them acquire the skills needed for maths.
The findings are expected to feed into ongoing work by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to review the primary curriculum, including the time dedicated to different subjects. All schools have been told, since 2011, to dedicate more time to numeracy, including its integration into subjects other than maths.
Previous ESRI research tracked students’ experiences as they moved through second level, but this is the first widescale study to relate students’ progress at second level to their earlier schooling experience. It will be launched today by Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone, who said it will be of great value to policymakers and educators.
While two thirds of 13-year-old girls and 57% of boys liked school “very much” or “quite a bit”, female students were more likely to have bigger difficulties with the move to second-level. Around one fifth of all students were anxious about making new friends and all young people became less confident about their abilities as they faced new academic demands.
The study found more negative attitudes to school and poor attendance levels among young teenagers from lone-parent families or families with lower education levels.
Prof Smyth also highlighted challenges that emerged around the inclusion of people with special educational needs in mainstream second-level schools, as their attitudes to school, academic self-image, and engagement with school subjects were significantly different to those of their peers.
The research affirmed findings in other studies about the influence of the wider school climate and relationships with teachers on children’s feelings about education, particularly when they start second level.
“If they get a lot of positive feedback, they settle more quickly and are more focused. But if they receive more reprimands about behaviour or school work, they tend to settle less well, and to be less confident as learners,” Prof Smyth said.
Young people were found to have fewer difficulties with the move to second level if they have more friends and if they communicate better with their parents.