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Katherine Donnelly on Feeder Schools: A proud record, but not everyone gets the same chance


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These annual tables generate a certain controversy among the educational establishment because they are seen as a measure of only one aspect of education. But entry to third level is an important educational yardstick and while some schools freely share this information, parents have no way officially of knowing a school’s academic track record.

However, the picture painted here does not take into account other important school missions, such as nurturing the wellbeing of pupils and the cultivation of broader skills needed for adult life. Department of Education Whole School Evaluation (WSE) reports still throw up examples of schools that devote extra time to the points-rich exam subject of maths at the expense of Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE).

Nor do the tables measure the challenges facing schools that embrace high numbers of pupils suffering disadvantage, whether socio-economic or a disability, espousing an inclusivity that should be a touchstone of any education system worth its salt.

These tables have their shortcomings because higher education institutions count students in different ways and mistakes can also be made in the transmission of information. However, overall, they present a fair national representation of school progression rates to college.

Ireland has one of the proudest records of third-level attainment in Europe but the travesty is that not everyone gets an equal opportunity to secure that degree.

More than 50 years after free post-primary education became a universal right, social class continues to be a key determinant of a student’s chances of going to higher education. It’s commonly called the postcode lottery.

Most college places are awarded on the basis of the crude measure of Leaving Cert points: the more points a student achieves, the more choices they have and the more likely they are not only to go to college but to dominate in courses leading to elite professions, such as medicine and law.

But middle-class and more affluent families are in a much stronger position to give their children the edge.

The Department of Education’s DEIS scheme for schools in disadvantaged communities offers supports that go some way to levelling the playing field.

Individual schools do trojan work to create in their students a confidence and belief that college is for them just as much as anyone else, and to support them in realising that ambition.

College access programmes, such as HEAR and DARE which facilitate entry on reduced points to compensate for the impact of socio-economic disadvantage or a disability, respectively, on educational achievement have also helped.

In recent years, the roll-out of the early childcare (ECCE) scheme seeks to tackle the inequality where it begins, by offering all children educational input from age of two years and eight months, so that those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may never have a book read to them at home, don’t start school playing catch-up.

State intervention makes a difference but the inequality gap persists, so more is needed.

The Department of Education’s recently published Education Indicators 2020 provides a snapshot of the system, including the transition rates from post-primary school to higher education and further education. It’s a valuable benchmark because it captures the percentage of pupils from the previous five academic years who ultimately entered higher education or further education in 2019 that means it includes those who took a break after the Leaving Cert or did a PLC course before going on to, or instead of, third level. Overall, the combined transition to higher and further education was an impressive 89pc.

In terms of higher education, the average progression rate was 63pc but, while it was 71pc for non-DEIS schools, it was 41pc for DEIS schools.

An average 26pc of school-leavers entered further education, such PLCs and apprenticeships, but while the figure for DEIS schools was 35pc, it was 23pc from non-DEIS schools.

Further education is just as valid a post-school route as higher education and a better option for many students, including those with high points - but the reality is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to use a PLC, either as an alternative to, or as back door into third level, because more advantaged students beat them to the CAO finishing line in the Leaving Cert.

Points are not only important in terms of gaining entry to a college and course of choice a 2019 Higher Education Authority (HEA) report shows they are the best predictor of finishing college. The report concluded that, when it comes to graduating, Leaving Cert performance is more important than factors such as family background, type of school attended and gender.

That means that if students from a disadvantaged background are supported to maximise their potential and the competition is fair, they generally have the same chance of achieving their degree.

While students from backgrounds of socio-economic disadvantage are slightly more likely to drop out of college, the HEA found that their average non-completion rate of 30pc was not dramatically different from the 25pc among affluent students. Several studies show that non-completion among disadvantaged groups is often linked to finance.

However, when researchers dug deeper, into a sample of 83 elite courses requiring 500 points are more, such as medicine, dentistry, politics, engineering and architecture, students from disadvantaged background performed just as well as others: their non-completion rate was 9pc, compared with 10pc for well-off students.

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