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Gap in progression to college between public and fee-paying schools may be narrowing

Seven of 10 schools with highest progression rate are non-fee paying, according to feeder-school data

For the second year in a row, the gap between State schools and fee-paying schools is closing, with a large number of students from non-fee paying schools progressing to third-level, according to data revealed in today’s Irish Times Feeder School list.

Last year, five of the 10 schools with the highest progression rate were fee-paying. This year, however, only three of the 10 schools with the highest progression rate are fee-paying.

However, a quick perusal of the feeder school lists shows that students from non-fee paying schools in relatively wealthy areas, as well as students who attend Gaelcholáistí (secondary schools that teach through Irish), also have an advantage when it comes to college places, with Santa Sabina in Sutton, Dublin 13, and Coláiste Íosagáin in Booterstown, south county Dublin, also sending high numbers to third-level.

While those students in the middle are catching up on those who attended a fee-paying school, the number of students from designated disadvantaged schools (Deis) has risen, albeit only slightly. Not all students in Deis schools come from disadvantaged backgrounds, while there are also students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend non-Deis — and even fee-paying — schools.


In 2020 and 2021, the pandemic led to calculated grades and, with teachers able to grade their students, the inequality barrier was smashed. At the time, some high-profile fee-paying schools complained that their students had been disadvantaged by the calculated grades process.

Deis schools

In 2023, 17.9 per cent of all students who sat the Leaving Cert went to Irish or English-medium Deis schools, 7.3 per cent went to a fee-paying school, and the remaining 74.8 per cent to all other schools — typically voluntary secondary schools or community schools.

This year, 63.2 per cent of Deis students progressed to third-level. Of the 6,288 places secured by these students, 2,385 secured a place at a traditional university, making up 10.3 per cent of the 23,170 university places offered in total.

A total of 2,912 applicants secured a place at a technological university, and the remainder went to another college (including teacher training colleges, independent/ fee-paying colleges and smaller colleges like the National College of Ireland and NCAD).

Ireland has approximately 48 fee-paying schools, of a total of about 730 post-primary schools, representing 6.5 per cent of the overall number of schools.

Of the 7.3 per cent who went to a fee-paying school and progressed to third-level, 73 per cent went to a university, 19.7 per cent to a technological university and 6.7 per cent to other colleges.

Non-Deis Gaelcholáistí, which represent 3 per cent of all Leaving Cert sits this year, secured 3.6 per cent of all college places in 2023, with 59.7 per cent going to a university, 21 per cent to a technological university and 14.8 per cent attending other colleges.

The majority of students — 71.8 per cent — attended other schools, and they secured 73.2 per cent of all college places, with 42.3 per cent attending a university, 28.2 per cent attending a technological university and 11.4 per cent going to another college.

The overall third-level progression rate for English-medium Deis schools is 63.2 per cent, compared to 99.5 per cent of students from fee-paying schools, 82 per cent of other English-medium schools, 68 per cent for Irish-medium Deis schools and 95.6 per cent for other Irish medium schools.

Our list shows percentages with some schools over 100 per cent, with the additional students being those who sat their Leaving Cert at that school before 2023, but only took up a college place in this academic year.

A further number from all second-level schools in the country go on to further education.

Unfortunately, despite extensive efforts to secure this data, there is no systemic data gathered on the numbers progressing from second level to further education.

Support structure

We know that students who pass through fee-paying schools and schools in wealthier areas are not smarter than those in Deis schools, and do not necessarily have better teachers. Rather, they have a better support structure, a culture whereby families generally expect them to go to third-level, and more financial resources, which allow them to avail of extracurricular grinds where a teacher is not up to scratch or where a student either needs or wants additional support with a particular subject or subjects.

It is a matter of debate as to whether these feeder-school tables reinforce this gross inequality, or whether they are one of the few news events to regularly highlight it.

This year, the fee-paying Catholic University is top of the feeder-school lists, followed by four non-fee-paying schools: Santa Sabina Dominican College in Sutton, Dublin 13; Coláiste Íosagáin in Stillorgan, Co Dublin; Coláiste an Phiarsaigh in Co Cork; and St Colmcille’s Community School in Knocklyon, Dublin 16. Two of these schools, Coláiste Íosagáin and Coláiste an Phiarsaigh, teach through the medium of Irish.

Indeed, Irish-medium schools, which generally tend to have relatively high third-level progression rates, continue to perform strongly. Besides the established benefits of bilingual education, one major factor in their success is that parents who choose to send their child to an Irish-medium school also tend to be very engaged in their son or daughter’s education.

Technological universities

Of the students who attended a university affiliated to the Irish Universities Association (IUA) — which includes TU Dublin and all the universities in the Republic of Ireland excluding RCSI — fee-paying schools dominate, securing six of the top 10 spaces.

By contrast, not one fee-paying school appears in the top 25 schools that attend technological universities. Data from 2021 suggests that students who attended institutes of technology — many of which have since merged into technological universities — earn, on average, €1,005 less than their university counterparts. However, since the formation of technological universities, this gap is likely to fall in the coming years.

Why don’t we account for further education and training?

Good question — and a legitimate criticism. Back when The Irish Times first began to publish this data, more than 20 years ago, the number of students taking apprenticeships was relatively low. Traineeships did not exist in any formalised way. Post-Leaving Cert (PLCs) courses were widely regarded as little more than a fallback option for those who didn’t get the CAO points.

Quite frankly, there was also an element of snobbery around these options.

That all began to change when Fás, embroiled in scandal, ceased to exist, with its functions taken over by Solas, the further education and training agency.

It has led to, perhaps, the single biggest change in Irish education over the past decade. Successive ministers for education backed Solas to drive forward changes. This meant traditional apprenticeships extended beyond the craft routes such as motor mechanics, plumbing and construction, and into newer areas such as auctioneering, biopharma and sales. Traineeships came after this, allowing school leavers and more experienced workers to gain, targeted, specific skills within a relatively short window of time.

PLCs, meanwhile, became more focused and more credible, with new pathways linking plc students directly into a growing number of college courses, making PLCs both a useful qualification in their own right as well as a stepping stone to third-level.

Technological universities, in particular, have embraced this change. At TU Dublin, for instance, just under 10 per cent of the university’s intake consists of students who entered from routes outside the CAO, including further education.

Ideally, The Irish Times would treat progression to further education exactly as we treat progression to higher education. Unfortunately, although TU Dublin and other colleges now collect data on those students who entered third-level after attending a further education course, systematic data about progression to further education from schools is not yet collected. This means that for the time being — and despite the reality that further education has never been a better option, providing excellent career and progression opportunities — we cannot credit a student who did their Leaving Cert in a school and then went on to further education.

We hope that better data-gathering efforts are still to come.

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