There has been a significant drop in students opting to study agricultural science in their Leaving Cert — with last year’s figures showing 1,000 fewer students than in 2021. A new syllabus was introduced in 2019 and while it was needed and welcomed by subject teachers and the Irish Agricultural Science Teachers’ Association (IASTA), it has come with this concerning decrease in students studying the subject in fifth and sixth year.

In 2023, a total of 7,460 students did agricultural science for their Leaving Certificate, a drop of 1,000 since 2021, when 8,468 students studied the subject. It is, however, difficult to know if this decline is a direct result of the new specification.

Another issue that can be seen is the lower percentage of students being awarded a H1 or H2 in agricultural science compared to the other science subjects: biology, physics and chemistry.

This means that students who want to obtain high marks in their exams appear to be better off doing the other science subjects. According to IASTA, this trend has already started, with anecdotal evidence from teachers.

A further fall in numbers is predicted in future years as science is no longer a core subject for Junior Certificate students in many schools.

Theory and practice

The Individual Investigative Study (IIS), or agricultural science project, gives students the opportunity to engage with the new course by combining theory and practice into a project. According to IASTA, however, this is not been a success.

“The IIS is the cause of serious anxiety for both students and teachers,” says Joe Corroon, IASTA chairman. “It involves students planning and carrying out an experiment based on a different theme each year and gathering data from this to draw conclusions.

“This experimentation usually involves growing plants, which must take place in the spring of 5th year and run through the summer. As you can imagine, most of this gets abandoned over the summer and students arrive back in September with no data and no experiment.”

The report then has to be uploaded to the State Examinations Commission portal on a special template. “This template is simply not fit for purpose with both script, pictures and tables or graphs moving onto different pages,” says Joe. The format of the IIS does not lend itself to weaker students, with the whole concept being difficult for them, according to IASTA.

Survey responses

Recently, Irish Country Living conducted an agricultural science teacher survey, with 112 teachers responding. These respondents had varied levels of experience teaching agricultural science, but the majority had been teaching between five and 15 years.

When teachers were asked if they have seen a decline in the number of students studying agricultural science as a subject for the Leaving Certificate since the introduction of the new syllabus in 2019, a stark 76% of respondents said yes. Meanwhile, 78% of teachers said the new curriculum/specification has discouraged students from selecting the subject for the Leaving Cert, with 5% saying it encouraged students, and 17% saying unsure.

In last year’s Leaving Cert, some 12.4% of students studying agricultural science received a H1. This is a significantly lower percentage than the students who received H1s in biology (18.8%), chemistry (22.8%) and physics (20.8%).

When teachers were asked if they thought this is having an impact on students selecting the subject at Leaving Cert level, 86% said yes, 5% said no and 9% were unsure.

Impact at third level

In the survey, teachers were asked what percentage of students in their class choose to study agriculture science at third level. Some 60% selected the lowest percentage of 0-15% of students, 23% of teachers said 15-25%, and 10% said 25-35%.

When teachers were asked if they feel there are barriers stopping students from studying ag science at third level, 44% said yes, 26% said no and 30% said unsure. For those who selected yes, the main barrier was students not realising opportunities in the sector, CAO points being too high and the lack of student accommodation in colleges. Other reasons given were: that it was perceived to be only for students with a farming background, the exam being too long and the lack of access to farms for IIS for urban students.

Teacher opinions

Conor O’Leary, CBS Mitchelstown, Co Cork

“The students don’t like the IIS investigation. While they might come up with some good ideas, in practice it’s not possible due to lack of suitable equipment or finding a suitable comparison.

“For example, nutrition: calf on ration v calf on no ration for DLWG. No farmer will deprive a calf of ration for the sake of a project. Any enhancement in farming has to be compared to a negative, which farmers aren’t going to do again for a project, so ideas become restricted. Projects have to be clearer and more investigation friendly.

“At the moment, it suits the higher achievers more while the weaker students or those who don’t like the research or writing side, find it difficult. The old project was a more level playing field which, from my experience, all students enjoyed. Also, the Leaving Cert exam booklet is too long with too much reading.”

Rhea Smith, Scoil Ruain Vocational School, Co Tipperary

“The project is far too difficult for a student of this age, and stage. Also, the exam questions are too ambiguous and difficult for them to figure out. For the most part, I really love teaching ag science, but never feel assured that my efforts, and the efforts of my students, will get them the grades they have worked for.”

Darragh Glynn, St Joseph’s Secondary School, Co Westmeath

“Often questions appear in the exam paper that students have not revised. I would like to see the learning outcome expanded upon. The ag science specification should adopt the tried-and-tested current LC chemistry, biology and physics syllabus.”

Michael Doyle, Presentation Secondary School, Co Wexford

“Much more guidance from the Department about the depth of treatment teachers should give certain topics. It has been left very broad and loose, which is another turn off for students trying to achieve high points.”

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