Feeder schools: Why do some schools do better — or worse — than others?

Irish Times feeder school tables to a large extent reflect existing and in-built social inequalities

At first glance, it seems clear: a parent sends their child to a fee-paying school, and that child has a greater chance of going to third level than someone who attended a non-fee-paying school. After all, isn’t the data right there, in black and white, on The Irish Times feeder school tables?

But the feeder school tables, to a large extent, reflect existing, in-built social inequalities. Both at home and internationally, there is clear evidence that fee-paying schools in themselves do not boost academic performance, relative to non-fee paying or disadvantaged schools.

In 2020, a team of researchers at Maynooth University found that students who attend fee-paying schools tend to do better, on average, because of their prior ability, the money their parents were able to spend on additional tutoring and grinds, their family income and the level of education of their parents. There is no additional boost from attending a fee-paying school over and above non-fee-paying schools.

The research is contained in an academic paper, Good Schools or Good Students? The Importance of Selectivity for School Rankings, by Maynooth University academics Dr Aedín Doris, Prof Donal O’Neill and Dr Olive Sweetman.


The researchers are among those who call for a “value-added” approach to measure school performance, which measures where students start in terms of ability and background against their eventual academic outcomes.

“If you take The Irish Times feeder school tables as the measure of a school’s success, it will appear on the surface that fee-paying schools are good schools,” they told this newspaper in an interview last year.

“What we do in our paper on value-added approaches to assessing schools, however, is control for factors that might have affected the post-primary school’s cohort of students, including how they got on in primary schools, parental levels of education and their socioeconomic background.”

It stands to reason, and is supported by bounteous international evidence, that a parent who attended university, has secure employment and values education will pass on advantages to their child. By the same token, parents who send their child to a non-fee-paying, Irish-medium school are, in general, more consistently involved in their child’s education — and this is among the factors that influence the relative success of this type of school.

All of these advantages would be passed on whether or not a child attended a fee-paying school: this is why you will also see high third-level progression rates from non-fee-paying schools in wealthier parts of the country, including around parts of north and south county Dublin.

If the parent also attended a fee-paying school, they are significantly more likely to be plugged into a well-educated and higher-paid alumni network. So, if their child is thinking of becoming an architect, dentist, doctor, solicitor or scientist, they’re in a better position than others to pick up the phone to their mother or father’s friend, and maybe get work experience with them, and perhaps ultimately get a job with them. Inequality is perpetuated over generations.

Of course, not all parents who send their children to fee-paying schools are especially wealthy. Some fee-paying schools, including Belvedere College in north inner-city Dublin, take in a proportion of scholarship students.

Meanwhile, many parents say that they forgo holidays or other luxuries to pay second-level school fees. On the basis of the evidence, however, they might be better off saving their money on school fees and, instead, taking that holiday.

What makes a good school?

A female principal. “In our work, we also looked at variables that correlated with high or low value-added including streaming, student supports, school type, and characteristics of the principal,” say Maynooth University academics Dr Aedín Doris, Professor Donal O’Neill and Dr Olive Sweetman. “One of the few variables that we found to be associated with value-added was having a female principal.”

Doris said that one possible explanation for this is that female principals have more effective leadership styles.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, of course. But, in the Irish system, the school principal wields enormous power, setting the tone with regard to inclusion, bullying and respect. Not all parents have a choice about which school their child attends but, for those that do, it’s worth paying attention to your gut about the school principal. Are they open to questions and are they generally transparent about information, or are they guarded and defensive? This can tell you a lot.

Extracurricular activities. Sports and social clubs are a vital and important part of life for young people. Here, it’s less about what a “good” school should offer, but instead about what interests your child. If they love GAA but the school is fixated on rugby, or they’re really interested in social justice but the school doesn’t have any programmes like Model United Nations, Young Social Entrepreneurs or debating, it might not be the right fit for your child.

Inclusion. An inclusive school doesn’t just state that they oppose discrimination; they also take active measures and run programmes to oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and all forms of discrimination against people with disabilities.

Results. A good school will make room for students of all abilities, and may also run the Leaving Cert Applied Programme alongside having support units for autistic or other neurodiverse students.