Skip to main content
European Commission logo
EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Teaching and learning in upper secondary education


6.Secondary and Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education

6.5Teaching and learning in upper secondary education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Teaching and Learning in Upper Secondary Education

Curriculum, Subjects, Number of Hours

The Senior Cycle caters for students in the 15 to 18 year age group. It includes an optional Transition Year (TY), which follows immediately after the Junior Cycle. TY provides an opportunity for students to experience a wide range of educational inputs, including work experience, over the course of a year that is free from formal examinations.

During the final two years of Senior Cycle students take one of three programmes, each leading to a State Examination: the traditional Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) or the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA).

The Leaving Certificate

The traditional Leaving Certificate examination is a two-year programme with a terminal examination of post-primary education and is taken when students are typically 17 or 18 years of age. It aims to provide learners with a broad, balanced education while also offering some specialisation towards a particular career option.

Students following the Leaving Certificate programme are required to study at least five subjects, one of which must be Irish unless an exemption applies. In general, students take five or more subjects for examination. Students normally choose 6 to 8 subjects from the list of approved subjects. All subjects are offered at two levels, ordinary and higher. Irish and Mathematics are available at foundation level also.

Syllabuses are available in 36 subjects. Each of these belongs to a subject group as shown in the table below. Two subjects, Home Economics and Physics and Chemistry, belong to two groups.

Group Subjects
Languages Group English, French, German, Irish, Italian, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Russian, Classical Studies, Hebrew Studies*
Science Group Applied Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, Physics and Chemistry
Business Studies Group Accounting, Business, Ecnomics
Applied Science Group Agricultural Science, Construction Studies, Engineering, Home Economics, Physics and Chemistry, Design and Communication Graphics, Technology, Computer Science, Physical Education
Social Studies Group Art, Geography, History, Home Economics, Music, Politics and Society, Religious Education

*In addition to these subjects, the State Examinations Commission will provide examinations in any of the recognised languages of the European Union, where the status of the applicant/candidate is seen as appropriate.

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) is similar to the traditional Leaving Certificate Programme, with a focus on enterprise and preparation for working life and with a concentration on technical subjects and some additional modules which have a vocational focus. This two-year programme combines the academic strengths of the Leaving Certificate with a dynamic focus on self-directed learning, enterprise, work and the community. Students typically take 6 or 7 Leaving Certificate subjects and two additional Link Modules: Preparation for the World of Work and Enterprise Education.

The Leaving Certificate Applied Programme

The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) Programme is a self-contained two-year course, intended to meet the needs of those students who are not adequately catered for by other Leaving Certificate programmes. It is designed for those students who do not wish to proceed directly to higher education or for those whose needs, aptitudes and learning styles are not fully catered for by the other two Leaving Certificate programmes. It is a person-centred course involving a cross-curricular approach rather than a subject based structure. Participants in the Leaving Certificate Applied are mainly engaged in work and study of an active, practical and learner-centred nature. Students follow a pre-vocational programme made up of a range of courses that are structured round three elements: Vocational Preparation, Vocational Education and General Education.

The curriculum for Ireland's post-primary schools is determined by the Minister for Education and Skills who is advised by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). The curriculum sets out, not only what is to be taught, but how learning in the particular subject area is to be assessed. The NCCA leads developments in curriculum and assessment and supports the implementation of changes resulting from this work.

The Curriculum and Assessment Policy Unit (CAP) of the Department is responsible for the support of the development of overall policy relating to assessment, curricula and guidance. It provides syllabuses, guidelines for teachers, circulars to schools and prescribed material for the examinations. It also provides financial and other supports to a range of aegis bodies. It provides funding for standardised testing and supports the implementation of the literacy and numeracy strategy.

The senior cycle curriculum is the subject of an ongoing review. The NCCA is engaged in reviewing subjects and the development of new areas of learning. New subject syllabuses are being prepared and introduced on a phased basis. A committee of subject-specialists convened by the NCCA is involved in the planning and design of a new syllabus.

In 2018, a total of 57,150 candidates sat the Leaving Certificate examinations (including the established Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Applied and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme).

Teaching Methods and Materials

As outlined above, there are three possible programmes leading students to Leaving Certificate examinations. There are differences in the educational aims and experiences of these programmes and this impacts on the types of methods employed in each.

The established Leaving Certificate programme is the most academically-oriented of the three Leaving Certificate options. The manner in which the Leaving Certificate examination continues to be used for selection purposes, both for higher and further education and for employment, has impacted on curriculum content and methods of teaching and learning. Among the important issues addressed in the updating and revision of the subject syllabuses, has been the emphasis on meeting the needs of a more diverse group of students. Methodology and second modes of assessment such as coursework and practical components have also been addressed in several of these syllabuses, some of which are now well established and have been examined in recent years.

Syllabus evaluation and re-design is undertaken by a course committee comprised of representatives of the partners in education, drawing on research and best practice. On the introduction of a new syllabus, the course committee also produces guidelines for teachers to assist them in the implementation of the new syllabus and in making decisions about the most suitable teaching and learning methods. These guidelines are intended as a resource to assist teachers rather than being in any way prescriptive. The guidelines also operate as a resource for use in the in-career development programmes to assist teachers in the implementation of the new syllabuses or curricular programmes. Guidelines for each subject are available here.

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme, which was first introduced in 1989, is described by the NCCA as a Leaving Certificate with a strengthened vocational dimension. Included in the ways in which it achieves this characteristic is the use of methodologies such as active learning, a focus on developing independent student learning and the promotion of cross-curricular linkage.

The Leaving Certificate Applied is intended to meet the needs of students who are not catered for by the established Leaving Certificate and the Leaving Certificate Vocational programmes. It is characterised by the use of innovative methodologies and by having an innovative structure. Active, participative learning and practical, learner-centred engagement by the students is an essential dimension of this programme. This programme was originally introduced in 1995. It required that the teachers who engaged with it would adopt a range of new teaching strategies to foster active, participative learning. In-career development and a support team were established to assist teachers in developing new teaching and learning methods. According to the National Evaluation of the Leaving Certificate Applied, the in-career development by the support team was a key factor in the successful implementation of the programme in schools.

The Transition Year programme is an optional programme in some schools while it operates for the entire year 4 cohort in others. It is not offered at all in a minority of schools. This programme is characterised (like the Leaving Certificate Applied and Leaving Certificate Vocational programmes) by active learning, independent learning, negotiated learning, the stressing of cross-curricular and school-community linkages. The use of group work, practical activities, discussion, project work, role-play and drama are all advocated in order to foster active, independent learning. It has been supported by the production of guidelines for schools, the creation of a support team to assist teachers in making decisions about employing the most appropriate teaching and learning methods and also the production of a variety of modules and transition units including learning resource materials. A number of examples of these modules include 'Shaping Space', 'Exploring Masculinities', 'Skills, Work and Youth: the SWAY pack', and 'In Search of Europe'.