The education gap: Can schools beat the postcode lottery?
Long read: Despite State efforts at reform, location often still dictates how a student fares at school. Can teachers and parents fight back? John Meagher finds out
Siobhán Hoey used to excel at athletics. At one stage, she was the Irish national champion in the triple jump. Then she took a shine to the bobsleigh - and she and sister Aoife become the first Irish women to compete in the discipline at the Winter Olympics of 2002.
The Portarlington, Co Laois native got used to the baffled expressions when she would tell people about her love of the bobsleigh. Ireland may have had almost no tradition in winter sports but Hoey wasn't deterred. If anything, it made her more determined to show the doubters that she could succeed.
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Years later, and she faced a similar challenge when she took on the role of principal at the Assumption Secondary School for girls in Walkinstown, Dublin. She had been used to teaching at schools where virtually every student went on to third-level education, but this school in a traditionally working-class area of south-west Dublin was completely different.
A decade ago, in Hoey's first year in the job, 42pc of the girls attending went on to further eduction after the Leaving Cert. Fast-forward 10 years and the figure stands at 100pc. It's a remarkable turnaround and one that was recognised this year in a Sunday Independent league table as the country's most improved school.
What's the secret? Siobhán thinks back to her bobsleigh days and says it boils down to a belief that substantial change can happen if enough hard work and dedication is applied to the vision. And if the collective - teachers, parents and pupils themselves - is on board.
"Why shouldn't girls from this area go on to further eduction?" she asks. "Just because that might have been the trend in the past doesn't mean it should continue. We wanted to create a dynamic centre of learning here, an environment where each child is cherished and given a holistic eduction. And we want them to have a goal and vision for their future and to help them recognise their strengths."
It's a sentiment shared by the school's deputy principal, Ciara Cummins, who left her job in a fee-paying school to come to Dublin 12 seven years ago. "We tell the students that they are the most important people in the school and that we're honoured to teach them," she says. "You can see them sitting up straighter. They become proud in their school and what they can achieve afterwards."
"Pastoral care is very important here," Hoey adds. "We've essentially got an open-door policy where pupils can feel comfortable to talk to us about anything. What we want to do is help give them that confidence that makes them feel that further eduction is something they would want to do. It's about changing the mindset, too, to help them raise their own expectations. We often have former students who went on to third level coming back to talk to the students. They could have come from the same road as them and they're relatable."
Joanna Conneely, an English and history teacher, says she has noticed a significant change in the eight years she has taught at the school. "The first year we had College Awareness Week, if felt like a bit of a novelty for the students, the second year it didn't seem so strange to them and in the third, it was normalised.
"We have links with Trinity College though the TAP scheme [Trinity Access Programme] and it helps make students from as young as second year realise that college can be for them, that it's something they can envisage for their future."
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The school, which is governed by the Sisters of Charity order, has invested in improved facilities, too. There are new science labs, improved home economics kitchens, a new library. The exterior and long corridors of the school may hark back to 1962 when it was opened, but there's a modern, cutting-edge feel to much of the classrooms. Visitors to the canteens - including one specially designated to sixth years - will be struck by the amount of positive messages on the walls.
All these changes help, Siobhán Hoey says, to foster a better environment for the students to be as good as they can be. "We expect them to work hard for themselves," she says. "We want them to have dreams and we want it to be the expectation where a student goes to third level, not the exception.
"In the past, a child would come to school here and chances were they wouldn't go on to further education. That's been turned on its head."
If this school is an example of what can be got right when enough vision is applied, few could argue that there is anything like a level playing field when it comes to education in Ireland - and especially in Dublin where your postcode frequently determines your child's chances of going to university, getting that course they want and, ultimately, what career they embark on.
It's been 13 years since then education minister Mary Hanafin introduced the DEIS scheme - Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools - but many believe there are still huge inequalities when it comes to second-level education. And that's despite progress made as a result of the 2006 initiative.
Earlier this year a report from the Educational Research Centre (ERC), Drumcondra, gave examples of how pupils in DEIS schools - of which Assumption Secondary School, Walkinstown is part - are narrowing the gap and the data is compelling: fewer pupils are sitting foundation level papers in Junior Cert English and maths and more taking higher level papers in these subjects.
But this year also saw how high achievers - many pupils of the country's most prestigious private and state schools - have pushed out the boundaries for entry to UCD's hugely desirable economics and finance degree, with an unprecedented cut-off of 601 CAO points.
There may be progress but not enough. According to the ERC "significant gaps still exist", mainly based on income inequality, which plays out in many ways, not least in how some families can buy advantage, whether that is sending children to private schools with their smaller classes and extra resources or paying for grinds in a push for extra CAO points and gateway to the most desirable of professions.
Inequality and the impact of intergenerational disadvantage isn't just apparent in our schools system, but is a reality at a much earlier stage. Studies by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) into data from the Growing Up in Ireland surveys offer intriguing insights. Among the findings is that three-year-olds whose mothers have a third-level education are 50pc more likely to have books read to them than those whose mothers left school early.
Professor Selina McCoy of the ESRI specialises in areas of education and inequality. She believes DEIS has made a fundamental difference for the better but she says there is still significant inequality. And, much of the advantages some schools enjoy, or are perceived to have, are derived from media-driven league tables on school performances.
"They can play a big part in the school parents choose," she says, "and, often, that means the local school is ignored. They simply can't compete with other schools that are perceived to be better. I don't want to use the word 'segregation', but that's what's happening - the cream is coming off, certain schools are getting a more advantaged intake and consequently that's got a bearing on exam results and the rate of progression to third level.
"What's never taken into account is the importance of the pastoral aspect of schooling. Always, it's just the academic measure that's recognised and that can ignore the great work that could be done by a school that's not seen to be fashionable."
It is a view echoed by the principal of a well-known boys' school in south Dublin. "This school has always been proud of the fact that pupils of all abilities and social strata come here," he says, "but since the upturn in the economy, it's definitely been a case that boys that would have come here are being sent to private schools, because they're perceived to be better, not just academically but because of the old boys' network. How can we compete with that?
"I'm confident that the standard of teaching here is on par with the best schools in the catchment area, but it may not be seen to have the cachet other schools have. And when parents in the area bypass your school year after year for fee-paying places with the sort of facilities you can only dream of, it's impossible to feel you're on a level playing pitch because of course you're not.
"So, this idea of postcode inequality can exist within the same postcode, too. Of course, parents want the best for their children, but some don't realise the very best school for them is in their backyard. It may not have a big-name sports team, but their boy or girl could be much happier there."
Clive Byrne, chairman of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, was familiar with the phenomenon of well-run local schools being bypassed when he was head of the now defunct Presentation College, Glasthule, Co Dublin.
"It had a very good academic reputation," he says, "but when [then education minister] Niamh Breathnach abolished fees for third level, parents started to invest in second level and they bypassed Pres."
Byrne believes that if more chose to support their local school there would be less inequality. "There's an awful lot to be said for sending your kids to the local school - their friends are there, the parents often know each other, there's a great sense of community and continuity. And they can provide the sort of rounded education that the grind schools, for instance, simply can't and don't. You can't put a price on that sort of education."
Despite his view that Irish education has a long way to go to be a level playing field, Byrne believes it is important to remember the positives. "The bottom line is education in Ireland is pretty good no matter where you go. Of the kids that start off at four, more than 90pc are still at school aged 18 and 70pc of them go on to some form of third-level education.
"The system is working but parental choice and social aspiration is changing things. And, of course, there was always been a hierarchy of schools. That's just a fact and that's not going to change any time soon."