There are worries that a “downward trend” in numbers taking up agricultural science in secondary school may begin, due to issues related to the new curriculum.

The Irish Agricultural Science Teachers’ Association (IASTA) will be attending a meeting with the Department of Education in the coming weeks.

The meeting’s purpose is “to air concerns over the new subject specification’s structure, assessment and implementation”, according to the IASTA.

The new agricultural science curriculum was brought on board in 2019. Along with the limits of the pandemic, teaching was made even more difficult by delays in accessing the brief.

The new curriculum also brought about changes to the practical project – individual investigative study (IIS) – that must be carried out as part of coursework and assessment.

This project entails investigating a research question, which students must link to a chosen enterprise, using the theme of ‘Improving Sustainability in Irish Agriculture’.

‘There are a lot of unknowns in the course’

Ahead of the meeting with the department, PRO of the IASTA, Johnny Gleeson, told AgriLand that teachers are becoming increasingly worried about delivering the new curriculum.

He notes that teachers welcome the new course and “really like it”, but there are “a lot of unknowns” causing worry.

“Our biggest concern – which has nothing to do with Covid-19 – is to teach this course and get these students ready to sit the Leaving Cert in June,” Gleeson said.

Basically, we don’t know to what level we should teach them – the new course is made up of a list of learning outcomes from different parts of agriculture.

“There are a lot of unknowns in the course. What we understand is that the course was created to keep it relevant for years to come but, in order to keep it relevant, the learning outcomes are very vague.

“There are titles that a PhD could be done – what we’re looking for from the department is the depth and level we need to teach.”

‘Mental health has been tossed around’

With time ticking to the Leaving Cert in June, Gleeson said that students’ “mental health has been tossed around here”.

“They’re all so worried about the project, about the Leaving Cert, whether they are doing mocks or not,” he continued.

“With the IIS, sixth years have now missed months of in-class time and they have to complete a project that the teacher has to stand over – how can a teacher stand over it if we’re not in the classroom?

How can they go to farms to do their project if they can’t go beyond 5km or go to someone’s household?

“We’re working towards the Leaving Cert because we’ve been told it will be happening. But, I have seen in the last week they’re [students] wondering.

“They’re worried. They read the media, they pick up on things.”

‘I’ve heard of schools with the numbers gone down this year’

Gleeson said that he has heard of schools that had a decreased number of students choosing to do agricultural science for the Leaving Cert because of the confusion over the course last year.

“Ag science numbers have always been on the increase over the past few years – I worry that this is the start of a downward trend in it,” he said.

“Students all talk about subjects, about what are the easy subjects and ag science would have had the rumour that it was an easy subject but now it is the total opposite.

This situation with the curriculum could undo a lot of good work that was done by teachers before and numbers could fall away.

“All we [teachers] want is to know to what level we need to teach this course and then, teachers are more than capable of promoting agriculture and continuing the upward trend of numbers.

“Students need the teacher to guide them through it. As someone who chose to study ag science because I did it in secondary school and had a really good teacher, I’d be really concerned for this year’s cohort.

“Before, students were learning a course that the teachers were so comfortable with teaching that they could see themselves progressing onto third level and industry in it.”

The IASTA has issued a survey to all members ahead of its meeting with the department, to collect feedback.