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Six take-aways from this year’s Feeder Schools: further to go for equal opportunities for all children

Feeder schools data shows how Ireland’s children progress after completing second-level education

The Irish Times 2023 Feeder School list, published today, provides new insights into how graduates of Irish second-level schools are progressing to third-level institutions in Ireland.

Former students who attended second-level in the State secured 44,511 places on undergraduate programmes at third-level institutions listed in this supplement.

They took the Leaving Cert in June 2023, or in a previous year in the case of up to 30 per cent of entrants, across the wide range of school types, Deis, fee-paying, Gaelcholáistí (Irish medium), or all other recognised schools.

Our chart clearly outlines how our school system reflects or shapes how our children progress following the completion of their second-level education.

  • Students attending Deis schools (English and Irish medium) make up 17.9 per cent of those sitting the Leaving Cert in 2023. They secured 17.4 per cent of the 44,511 places offered and just over 10 per cent of those offered in traditional universities.
  • Students attending mainstream schools make up 71.8 per cent of this year’s Leaving Certs and secured 73.2 per cent of overall places and 72.6 per cent at traditional universities.
  • Students attending Gaelcholáistí make up 3.4 per cent of the class of 2023 but 3.6 per cent of those securing places overall and 4.7 per cent of those receiving places in traditional universities.
  • Finally, students attending fee paying schools make up 7.3 per cent of this year’s Leaving Cert students, secured 9 per cent of places offered and 12.7 per cent of those secured in traditional universities..

From the data outlined above it is clearly evident that the school type a child attends both reflects and shapes the society in which we live.

We are providing enhanced progression opportunities for those seeking to use our education system to advance their learning and career opportunities every single year.

But there is still a distance to travel to reach a point where all children have equal opportunities to progress to their optimum course choice.

Some schools recorded a drop in the number of students sitting the Leaving Cert between 2022-23 which inflated their third level progression rates significantly. As a result, we have excluded schools where student numbers fell by 15 per cent or more in this editorial commentary.

1. Socio-economic factors

A quick glance at the progression chart to traditional universities will show the dominance of fee-paying schools in securing places, with eight of the top twenty being from this sector.

But progression is not determined solely by attendance at fee-paying schools.

The presence of Muckross College in Donnybrook and Coláiste Eoin and Íosagáin in the top progression charts, indicates that social class, location, language and parental expectations also play a part in shaping progression journeys.

Having perused the list of top progression schools, if you travelled out to UCD from Leeson Street and circumvented the campus before returning to the city via Ranelagh, you would pass the gates of most of those schools.

2. Most students are choosing to apply to their local colleges

Irish young people, unlike their counterparts in the UK, tend to apply for third-level places at their local colleges. Research carried out with those who have progressed to third-level indicate that most Irish school leavers apply to attend colleges where they can continue to socialise with their peer group.

There is also a growing economic factor causing students to select their local institutions, driven in large part by the soaring cost of accommodation in our towns and cities: living away from home adds hugely to the cost of attending college. There are significantly lower third-level progression rates among students in counties or geographic locations which do not have access to third-level institutions and who are therefore unable to attend a chosen course without living away from home.

3. Progression by postcode

Apart from the school a child attends, where families live also seems to determine overall third-level progression rates.

The most affluent parts of the capital city, such as Dublin 4 and Dublin 6, saw 87 and 99.7 per cent respectively of the total numbers of 2023 entrants who sat their Leaving Cert in local schools within these postal districts progress to third-level this year.

In other postal districts of the city, Dublin 10 and 11, the proportion of Leaving Cert students progressing to college in 2023 was 43 and 48 per cent respectively.

The divide is also stark when the figures are broken down into those who sat the Leaving Cert in 2023 and secured places in traditional universities. In Dublin 4 and 6, 71.5 and 71.9 per cent went on to a traditional university, compared with 19.8 and 34.5 per cent in Dublin 10 and 11.

4. We still want to pursue the CAO route

The 2023 feeder school data reveal Ireland’s exceptionally high third-level participation rate, which is among the highest in the world. Ireland also continues to have one of the highest retention rates at second level across Europe – that is, the proportion of students who stay in school until the Leaving Cert.

5. The growth of full-time senior cycle grind schools

While pupil numbers sitting the Leaving Cert continue to increase annually due to demographic factors, our figures show that numbers sitting the Leaving Cert in 150 second-level schools dropped by more than 15 per cent this year, compared to last year’s numbers. So what may be driving these numbers?

Firstly, the country was still only coming out of recession when this year’s cohort of Leaving Cert students started second level in 2017. Specifically, in relation to the lower numbers sitting the Leaving Cert in fee-paying schools in 2023, the downturn hit family incomes in 2017, adversely affecting enrolment numbers in these schools at that time.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, the presence of full-time grind schools in our main cities offering a two-year Leaving Cert programme seems to be drawing some families who can afford the fees for the final years of second-level education.

Some parents believe grind schools offer a more flexible range of subject choices than those available in their child’s second-level schools.

In some cases, students also want to escape what they perceive to be restrictive rules and regulations central to our second-level school cultures.

6. Progression is ultimately determined by the number of places offered.

The number of additional places offered by colleges changes marginally each year. Where those changes take place may determine the success or otherwise of individual applicants.

Calculations based on figures supplied to us show all of the Dublin-based colleges offered additional places with approximately 700 additional places being created in 2023.

In Limerick, both UL and Mary Immaculate College added some 300 between them.

In contrast UCC and the University of Galway offered fewer places than they did in 2022, based on the information supplied to us. Also of interest is the additional 248 places offered by the University of Ulster and Queens University Belfast.

These additional places – ring-fenced for students from the Republic of Ireland – were secured by the Minister for Higher and Further Education Simon Harris earlier this year in negotiations to replace funding cuts by the government in London.

Note: Some schools recorded a drop in the number of students sitting the Leaving Cert between 2022-23 which inflated their third level progression rates significantly. As a result, we have excluded schools where student numbers fell by 15 per cent or more in this editorial commentary.

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Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times