Well-being in the Irish secondary school: Reflections on a curricular approach

Schools and centres for education are increasingly positioned as playing a vital role in the promotion of young people’s mental health and well-being. Drawing on the example of Ireland’s reformed Junior Cycle curriculum (ages 12-15), we ask if the curriculum is the best means of nurturing positive mental health and well-being in schools.


"There remains an inevitable positivistic flavor to the idea of curriculum (which is not meant as a condemnation). The term curriculum tends to orient us away from the young person towards the structures and phases of study at an educational institution." Max van Manen (1991, p. 29)

Discussions around mental health and well-being in our educational systems are ongoing. Education is never a panacea, of course, but schools still plausibly have a role to play in empowering our young people to frame and respond to their mental health needs in ways that make sense for them; on this point, Ireland's Department of Education and Skills (2019) has recently stipulated that ‘schools and centres for education in Ireland play a vital role in the promotion of wellbeing’ (p. 5). In this short contribution, we aim to explore whether a curricular approach, such as the one adopted as part of Ireland's Junior Cycle reform, is the most effective means of promoting well-being in schools. Furthermore, we ask what such an approach means, not only in terms of student well-being but for the pedagogical tact and knowledge of our teachers.

As this special issue highlights, these are profoundly philosophical questions. They probe the manifold connections between education and human flourishing at a time when the key pillars of youth mental health—purpose, identity and belonging—are increasingly under threat from the far-reaching consequences of Covid-19.

We begin by describing how a curricular approach to well-being was adopted at Junior Cycle in Ireland—a period spanning the first three years of secondary school, for students aged between twelve and fifteen. We do this to (a) illuminate the (sometimes) happenstance nature of curricular reform and (b) set the context for our own argument that a curricular approach authorises a particular way of thinking about well-being that has the potential to diminish others. Ultimately, our sense is that an excessive focus on curriculum might in fact undermine schools’ most powerful asset: their ability to cultivate meaningful relationship between teachers and students.

Well-being as a curriculum principle

In 2011, Ireland's National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) published a proposal for the reform of the Junior Cycle. The proposed reforms centred on a shift from a largely passive model with learning assessed by written exam after three years, to a more interactive approach with a greater element of classroom-based assessment. Classroom-based assessment would be carried out by teachers and was designed primarily to capture, and build upon, students’ individual strengths over time.

As Walshe (2014) highlights, ‘the need for change was obvious’ (p. 177). The existing Junior Certificate had been designed for an era when most students finished formal education at the age of fifteen. It was associated with high levels of disengagement and a narrow focus on rote learning/examination that, the Department of Education and Skills (2012) themselves noted, did ‘not lead to positive learning experiences and outcomes’ (p. 3). The adverse effects of terminal assessment on mental health and well-being were openly acknowledged, with the Junior Certificate examination described as ‘a negative form of assessment, which causes stress and is essentially “a memory test”’ (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2011, p. 2).

The proposed Junior Cycle reforms aimed, as one NCCA representative put it, to ‘take the heat out of the Junior Cert’ by reducing the number of subjects students were expected to study as well as the emphasis on high-stakes, final-year, terminal assessment. It was hoped that such reductions would remove a significant degree of pressure and contribute meaningfully ‘to the physical, mental and social wellbeing of students’ (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2011, p. 10).

When the NCCA published the proposed reforms in 2011, the term ‘well-being’ was mentioned just four times throughout the 42-page document. The proposed reforms were endorsed by the Minister for Education and government more broadly and were ‘well received by school principals, employer and business groups, virtually all media commentators and, it seemed, most of the public’ (Walshe, 2014, p. 182).

The main teachers’ union—the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI)—however, took a different view, while the smaller Teachers’ Union of Ireland was more equivocal. The ASTI argued that teachers should not be required to assess their own students for state exam purposes—a move, it said, that would turn the teacher from student advocate to judge. It was clear at the time that teachers in other countries, as well as at other levels in the Irish education system, assessed their own students without being vulnerable to pressure or corruption. However, the specific issue of Junior Cycle reform became unfortunately entwined in ongoing grievances about cuts in public spending and, specifically, teachers’ pay and allowances that were about to be slashed by the Government. The situation became increasingly heated as the unions, as Walshe (2014) puts it, ‘tried to gazump each other in terms of militancy with threats of strikes, non-cooperation and protests’ (p. 184). A compromise would have to be reached.

A curricular approach to well-being

By 2014, under the threat of looming strike action and union directives to members not to take part in training, meetings or school planning related to the new Junior Cycle, government and unions met to strike a compromise. This compromise came in the form of both formative and summative assessments, and—importantly—a curricular approach to student well-being. Instead of addressing well-being by removing the ‘heat’ of an assessment method that the Department of Education and Skills (2012) themselves acknowledged did ‘not lead to positive learning experiences and outcomes’ (p. 3), the number of state assessments students had to undertake increased. Furthermore, these factional negotiations resulted in a shift from well-being as a curriculum principle, designed to ‘inform the school's thinking’ (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2011, p. 9), to well-being as an ‘area of learning’ (Department of Education and Skills & National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2017, p. 8) to which 20% of a student's time, or 400 hours over the three-year Junior Cycle, would be devoted. The years of careful planning, research and consultation that went into the original proposals to reform the Junior Cycle were upturned in a matter of months by a handful of negotiators. The NCCA was now tasked with developing guidelines to fill 400 hours of curricular time with well-being-related activities (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2017).

Curriculum as 'turning away'

Curricular decisions being made and unmade is one thing, and we doubt that the Irish educational context is alone in demonstrating ongoing tension between government directive and union response. But missing from the above story, we would argue, is consideration of a fundamental philosophical issue: Is the curriculum the most appropriate mode of promoting well-being in schools?

We would argue that it is not curriculum but the ‘pedagogical tact’ of our teachers as well as the broader school culture and environment that offers the greatest potential for the promotion of our young peoples’ well-being. (See for example the whole-school approach outlined in Well-being in Post-Primary Schools: Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention (Department of Education and Skills, Health Service Executive, & Department of Health, 2013.)

If we approach the increasingly pressing issue of mental health in a formalised way (e.g. 400 timetabled hours), we risk diminishing the very essence of the teacher–student relationship. And we risk losing the actual authenticity of human encounter. Because what really matters to any student's well-being is not one-off curricular input—a session on mindfulness practice, say, or a dedicated week of mental health promotion (‘five ways to well-being’, for example)—but meaningful and sustained relationship with the peers and adults in their lives. Indeed, as the My World Survey (Dooley & Fitzgerald, 2012; Dooley et al., 2019) of youth mental health consistently reveals, meaningful relationship between the young person and ‘One Good Adult’ is the single most powerful indicator of youth well-being.

We return here to our opening epigraph from Max van Manen. In his seminal The Tact of Teaching, van Manen (1991) argues that the very notion of curriculum turns us away from the young person in front of us and turns us towards the educational frameworks that constitute our school structure. In other words, a focus on curriculum orientates us away from humanity and towards the system.

Building on van Manen's insight, we would suggest that a curricular approach authorises a certain way of thinking about well-being while also diminishing or delegitimising others. We show concern for our students’ well-being when we listen to them, offer our time, encourage their abilities in a particular subject—ultimately, when we show an interest in their lives both within and outside school and respond to them as persons just as complex as we are. Such a response is what van Manen refers to as ‘pedagogical tact’, and it comes alive when the teacher knows how to attune themselves to individual student experience. Pedagogical tact might involve advising or improvising or simply holding back. These are all matters of self-trust where the teacher can demonstrate a certain measure of good judgement (or ‘situational confidence’ in van Manen's own term). Indeed, pedagogical tact involves not only self-trust but the courage to bring our full selves to our teaching.

To conclude, then, we would argue that the decision to adopt a curricular approach to well-being runs the risk of turning us away, not only from the young person in front of us, but from our own pedagogical knowledge and tact. Well-being should not be consigned to curriculum but should, in the words of the NCCA (2011), be a guiding principle that underscores how a school treats its teachers as well as its students. It should attend to the quality of our relationships rather than the quantity of hours spent on a particular subject. A commitment to well-being in schools allows the space for relationships and identities to flourish—in authentic non-quantifiable ways.


Department of Children and Youth Affairs. (2011) A consultation with young people on reform of the junior cycle. Dublin: Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

Department of Education and Skills, & National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. (2017) Guidelines for wellbeing in junior cycle. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills.

Department of Education and Skills, Health Service Executive, & Department of Health. (2013) Well-being in post-primary schools: guidelines for mental health promotion and suicide prevention. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills.

Department of Education and Skills. (2012) A framework for junior cycle: briefing note. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills.

Department of Education and Skills. (2019) Wellbeing policy statement and framework for practice. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills.

Dooley, B. & Fitzgerald, A. (2012) The my world survey: National study of youth mental health in Ireland. Dublin: Headstrong The National Centre for Youth Mental Health.

Dooley, B., O'Connor, C., Fitzgearld, A. & O'Reilly, A. (2019) My world survey 2: National study of youth mental health in Ireland. Dublin: Jigsaw, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health.

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. (2011) Towards a framework for junior cycle: innovation and identity. Dublin: National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. (2017) Guidelines for wellbeing in junior cycle 2017. Dublin: National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

van Manen, M. (1991) The tact of teaching: the meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. London, Ontario: Althouse Press.

Walshe, J. (2014) An education: how an outsider became an insider—and learned what really goes on in Irish government. Dublin: Penguin Ireland.

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