Thursday 18 July 2019

Levelling the field for entry to college

A school in a community with a history of socio-economic disadvantage continues to buck the trend when it comes to third level, writes Katherine Donnelly

Mary Daly, Principal, St Dominics Secondary School, in Ballyfermot. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mary Daly, Principal, St Dominics Secondary School, in Ballyfermot. Photo: Damien Eagers
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

It's CAO application time. Typically, about 60pc of 17 to 19-year-olds go to college, whether immediately after doing the Leaving Certificate or within a year or two of leaving school.

But various studies, as well as the so-called school 'league tables', clearly show the differences between communities when it comes to who progresses to third level. Against rates of around 80pc, 90pc and even higher for affluent areas, the average for teenagers from socio-economic disadvantaged backgrounds is around 25pc, and can be much lower.

Educational attainment of parents has been identified as a key factor in their children's educational journey. Parents with a Leaving Certificate or lower are more likely to have lower expectations for their children than parents with a degree.

The Eurostudent VI report on the social and living conditions of 20,000 third-level students in Ireland in 2016, published this week by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), is the latest to note the link.

Among its findings is that 69pc of students from homes where the highest parental educational level was up to Junior Cert progressed directly to higher education after school, compared with 93pc where parental education was beyond Leaving Cert level.

Notwithstanding the value of further education, such as Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses, both in terms of preparing students for work or as a stepping stone to third level, the figures point to a social divide.

Breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage in a family or wider community is tough. In circumstances where children lack the culture and supports at home to nurture their own education and career ambitions, the job rests with the education system.

Against the national average of about 25pc of school-leavers from disadvantaged areas going to college, there are schools bucking that trend. Among them St Dominic's College, Ballyfermot, Dublin, where, typically, 40pc-50pc of the Leaving Cert class go to third level, with about another 40pc progressing to further education.

When Mary Daly took over as principal of St Dominic's in 2000, only three per cent of sixth years were progressing to higher education. In those days, even retaining a student to Leaving Cert level was a challenge in certain areas. She says her "strong moral purpose was to break the cycle and raise the bar for all students, so more students would stay in school and complete their Leaving Certificate and then go on to college".

She had been working in the school since 1977, teaching Irish and Geography.

"From my experience in the classroom, I could see how students had the potential, but it needed to be tapped," she says.

The Ballyfermot principal credits the Department of Education's Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme, launched in 2005, with giving her the tools to advance her plans. "DEIS was a whole new way of working. It gave schools a real opportunity to raise the bar and have higher expectations of staff, students and parents - the whole community," she says.

DEIS provides a range of supports, including extra teachers and funding, and encourages a focus on basics such as student attendance, setting targets around literacy and numeracy, and the proportion of students taking subjects at higher level. "These are all the things you have to measure. You have to develop an action plan to make them become a reality," says Daly.

The St Dominic's approach to raising student attainment included more professional conversations between teachers about teaching, learning and support for students to encourage them to aspire to study at higher level, which has paid off.

About 50c of the junior cycle students now do all subjects at higher level. Students are further supported with extra tuition outside school if they feel it necessary, helping to level the playing field with peers from more affluent backgrounds who use grinds to sharpen their competitive edge in the 'points race' .

"We allow our students to follow their dream but, at the same time, to be realistic and to pursue the academic subjects they need," says the principal.

Building student confidence and driving their ambition starts in first year with a programme called Mol an Óige and the Daly says "we support them all the way through to be the best they can".

Nurturing that confidence is helped by staff members, including teachers, who are themselves past pupils.

St Dominic's has built strong and rewarding links with the business community, such as mentoring programmes with Allianz, and the social enterprises, and Camara Education, which offer technology supports.

Students also avail of taster programmes and other supports, such as pre-Leaving Cert tutorials in certain subjects, in universities and institutes of technology, giving them a sense of college life and helping them to work out what area of third-level study is best for them before they tick the boxes on that CAO form.

The principal's latest college progression target is 60pc, or above.

Irish Independent

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