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Private schools are not key to student success. I should know – I’ve taught in them

If you want to choose the right school for your child, I suggest you speak to longstanding staff members

In my teaching life, I taught for many years at two very different private schools, a community school, a Gaelscoil and two secondary Catholic schools. If you want to know a school or choose one for your child, I suggest you speak to long-standing staff members who have observed how the mission statement lives out in real terms in students’ and teachers’ lives. They are witnesses to whether wellbeing and respect is really actioned.

This is, of course, if you can find long-standing teaching staff. In some schools there is such a turnover of teachers that it would be hard to find someone who has been there long enough or one who does not have to to worry about breaking silence on their actual experience. This is a big red flag for any school. Teachers who have not left for other schools and are happy in their role speak for a happy school. They stay because they trust in how the school is managed and how they see the results of the work from the inspiring long-time dedicated staff.

Being a member of a highly energised, enthusiastic staff is exhilarating for a teacher, and if it has a wellbeing programme that is lived out for all to sense and witness, then it has all the ingredients of a functioning school. This was my experience in my first school, a private school in inner north Dublin, and I thrived there.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that for my second experience teaching in a private school when management changed after 10 years of my being there. A need to be exclusive at the cost of the school’s long tradition of being pastorally focused led many like me to leave the highly-prized permanent and pensionable job. A number in double figures left, leaving no one to tell what it was like as they moved to preserve their dignity.


Not all private schools are like this; indeed, some pay little heed to these tables because the school’s success is experienced through the wellbeing of the students and the staff. Everyone can sense that and it does not rely on league tables for credibility. So, too, in schools where the intake is from a broad range of the community at large, the mission statement has more of a chance of being lived out. They reach out to each student to inspire and empower them to fulfil their unique potential.

The focus is not on points because there is an acceptance that not all students need high points to achieve what will personally fulfil them and sustain them to live happy lives.

Indeed, as the national average points are approximately 300 and the majority of level-seven degree courses are at or around this level, there is little need for any school to drive points at the cost of student wellbeing and safety. All level-seven courses lead to a level eight, nine, 10 and PhD, if one is interested.

Thankfully, there are very many routes to prized third-level courses that don’t risk students’ mental health. So, one has to ask: what do league tables have to do with reflecting the success of schools? Who is reading them except those people who choose to delude themselves by them; these same people decide that high Leaving Cert points define a student’s natural ability or that they predict student success.

I do not believe that we are a deluded nation. In general, I think most parents are attuned to what is holistically sound for their child and will run themselves ragged to do everything in their power for their child. This does not have to include affording a private school.

A holistic education that promotes emotional intelligence, critical thinking and moral values allows for flexibility and facilitates all special needs of gifted children in all curricula. Teaching and guidance counselling, pastoral care and resource hours are every child’s needs at varying times throughout their educational journey.

If a child and teacher can feel this in action and a parent sees this, one will not need to read league tables and inspection reports, which can mask the reality. Listen to the child and look for the evidence of “wellbeing”.

Dr Clare Finegan is a guidance counsellor, psychotherapist and clinical supervisor.

She will be giving a workshop on practical skills to support students and staff on foot of critical incidents at the Institute of Guidance Counsellors’ national conference at Munster Technological University in Tralee, which take place from March 8-9th, 2024.