The lessons, if any, of Transition Year

THE American humorist and novelist Mark Twain said: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

He might well have been addressing the 62,000 students who have completed their Junior Cert  and who, in 90% of cases, have the option of doing Transition Year. The programme varies hugely from school to school. Some  offer TY on a select basis, or don’t offer it at all, while others mark the year as mandatory.

The Transition Year (TY) programme has been running since 1992 and is, in its own words, “designed to give teens a year to mature, learn new skills and gain both work and life experience”.

‘Ten years on, the notion the year is a doss still persists with some parents and educators’

The entrepreneur Bill Cullen  notoriously once said Transition Year was nothing but a “doss”. Almost 10 years on, that notion still lingers among some parents and educators, despite the huge growth in popularity of the ‘gap’ year.

There were just 27,000 pupils doing TY in 2009 when the outspoken businessman suggested it should be scrapped. Last year, close on 45,000 chose that avenue.

Nearly 80%  of pupils surveyed by the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) found TY to be a worthwhile experience, according to the report, ‘Transition Year: Exploring the Student Experience’.

But what about parents, who are one step removed from what’s really going on?

Undoubtedly some find it hard to adjust to the effect a dramatic change in school routine can have on their children. Even those who embrace the whole idea can look on aghast as their teenagers seemingly ‘party, party, party’.

“I just couldn’t wait for it to be over – it was a total waste of time,” one mother told me, seemingly desperate for school-enforced study to once again rein in her 15-year-old wild child.

Another saw it as akin to “a dangerous breeding ground for bad habits and excess socialising”.

But, of course, the beauty of the TY experience is that freedom that it offers: a chance for young people  to forget about learning for exams and concentrate, perhaps – and Mark Twain would undoubtedly concur –  on learning for life. Whether this concept works in reality depends on the criteria of such –  ranging from the quality of the varied programmes and success in securing worthwhile work experiences, to the attitudes and personalities of individual children.

While the obligatory school trip is tops with most in TY, travel a broadening of minds and all that, though  often a financial burden on some parents, and ‘dossing’ can lend itself to new friendships and experiences, even if some not always desirable, the prevailing conundrum seems to be the lack of workplace opportunities and, where there are such places, the lack of any meaningful ‘work experience’. In short, the student is invited in, given somewhere to sit, and left to his or her own devices.

A spokesperson for one large company told me: “We stopped such a facility. Ours is not the right environment – the place is too busy and fast paced and really there’s little that a 15-year- old can help on. We now tend to focus on more structured college placements now.”

Like most things in life, the TY programme is not an exact science. In the end it may well be down to the individual, to their maturity, their enthusiasm and their commitment.

After all, you only ever get out of life what you put into it. Though that in itself can take a lifetime to learn…