Explaining the progression charts of Irish secondary schools

It is important to understand the component parts: there are two key numbers associated with each school listed

To make sense of the feeder tables, it is important to understand the component parts. There are two key numbers associated with each school listed: the total number of students attending college this year and the total number of incoming first- year undergraduate students who sat the Leaving Cert in 2021.

It is also imporant to note that the percentage progression rates of Ireland’s second-level schools do not solely reflect the success of this year’s Leaving Cert class in securing college places through the CAO.

The percentage listed in the last column is not a “true rate” for the progression of the Leaving Cert 2021 class from each school to college this year as it incorporates a number of different elements.

So, who are the 49,000 students who make up the incoming first-year class of 2021? Of the applicants who secured a CAO place in 2021, 4,825 secured their place in Round 0 in July, predominantly those were applicants over 23 years of age.


A further 3,533 applicants secured their place in Round A in early August, they were predominantly graduates of FE level 5/6 awards. A further 40,607 applicants made up of the Leaving Cert class of 2021 plus over 12,000 others from the classes of the last four/five years received and accepted offers in Round 1 in early September this year.

Also included in that Round 1 offer group are applicants from Northern Ireland, the UK, other EU countries and international applicants from throughout the world.

In the numbers provided to The Irish Times, each third level institution includes all incoming first year students who attended a given school, even though up to 25 per cent of incoming first years may have sat the Leaving Cert up to 20 years previously.

Each of these students, excluding those who did not sit the Leaving Cert in Ireland, is included in the total number of students credited by colleges to each school. We publish this number because it is all that CAO colleges are allowed to provide. They are precluded from stating how many students from the class of 2021 secured a place this year.

Of the 49,000 students from the Republic of Ireland who started college in September 2021, we estimate that 75 per cent completed their Leaving Cert in June 2021.

Class of 2021 who progressed through the CAO The total number of students sitting the Leaving Cert who applied for a place through the CAO in 2021 was 48,104.

The State Exams Commission (SEC) figures on the number of students who sat the Leaving Cert in all schools in 2021 (the SITS) show that 57,952 undertook the traditional Leaving Cert with 3,173 opting for the Leaving Cert Applied (LCA).

The SEC provides The Irish Times with this data which allows the publication of the SITS number next to each school’s name. Combining this data from the CAO and SEC shows that 79 per cent of sixth-year students in Irish second-level schools sought a place among the 40-plus institutions it represents.

The remaining 21 per cent of this year’s Leaving Cert class decided – in consultation with their teachers, guidance counsellors and, most importantly, their parents – that applying to the CAO was not the appropriate or best career development move for them.

As access to accurate data for application numbers to the CAO from the individual schools themselves is not possible, The Irish Times includes this cohort in the SIT numbers, upon which the success percentage of each school is based.

It is worth noting that the fact 21 per cent of school-leavers do not apply for a CAO college place is not an indication of failure. They may be planning to pursue a further education course, through an ETB college, which is more appropriate to their career goals.

Every year, thousands of Leaving Cert students take these level 5 QQI courses in post-Leaving Cert colleges. Many complete them and progress to CAO courses the following year (and are credited back to their original school in the data supplied by the colleges when they register).

Studying abroad Another cohort from that 21 per cent who do not apply for a CAO place may be going outside Ireland to continue their studies. They may also have applied to colleges in Northern Ireland or to colleges in the UK.

In the past 10 years, a growing number of Irish students have opted to study in continental EU universities with high international rankings, which offer courses through English.

There are more than 1,000 undergraduate Irish students now studying at first year undergraduate level in Dutch universities alone. Many more attend colleges in other EU countries. Again, these students are not credited to their schools for progression to third level status in The Irish Times charts as we do not have any data on such students.

Factors influencing college choice Each year, the tables show very large numbers of students who go to college attend schools in socially advantaged communities. The data shows these students tend to opt predominantly for universities and teacher-training courses.

Higher Education Authority (HEA) data shows these institutions have the lowest drop-out rates (from 4 per cent in teacher-training colleges to 9 per cent in universities). Is that surprising, given the support these students receive from their parents?

The HEA data also shows students from schools in less-advantaged communities get far fewer places in high-points university courses and tend to progress to institutes of technology or technological universities.

HEA data shows these students have more difficulties completing college, with drop-out rates of up to 20 per cent common.

Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) figures show a large proportion of successful grant applicants go to ITs rather than universities, confirming the social- class divide reflected in institutions' student intake.

The progression tables also show how parochial our college choice is, and how the presence of a third level college in an area increases the progression rates of students from second level to third level within commuting distance of those colleges.

Unlike in the UK, where students tend to select colleges far from home, Irish students gravitate towards local colleges if they can get a place in the discipline they want. This may reflect the lack of a student-loan scheme which would allow consideration of a wider range of options and may also reflect the acute ongoing shortage of student accommodation, with recent reports indicating that up to 10 per cent of students are couch-surfing or, in some cases, sleeping in cars.

Publishing this data is not passing judgment on the success of any school in supporting their students to get to college. For schools where both parents of many students are graduates, and where they have been supported throughout their education, getting a college place is no great reflection on the success of their school.

Alternatively, we are keenly aware that for schools in disadvantaged communities, securing third level progression for even a small proportion of students reflects highly motivated teachers, and is a fantastic achievement.

McManus scholarship programme One of the most interesting pieces of data relating to schools' success in supporting students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds throughout the entire island of Ireland can be seen in the JP McManus scholarship awards.

The awards, established in 2008 and worth €6,700 a year to each student, are given annually to some of Ireland’s best performing students for the duration of their undergraduate degrees, and offer a lifeline to current sixth year students who fear their families will never be able to afford the exorbitant costs now associated with attending third level.

There is no application process, but qualifying students must attend a non-fee paying school, be exempt from paying the Leaving Certificate fee and must also be sitting the Leaving Certificate for the first time.

A total of 125 All Ireland Scholarships from the 32 counties are awarded annually. Over the past 13 years more than 1,000 successful graduates have already qualified with primary and postgraduate degrees under the scheme.

Why does The Irish Times publish these charts given the caveats? The Irish Times publishes these progression charts annually because they are based on data provided by the State Examinations Commission – total number of SITs per school, and the third-level CAO colleges – total number of former pupils of each school attending first year in 2021. Even if the information supplied to us could be more comprehensive, these charts are the only indicator of a school's academic performance available to the public. Third level colleges point out that this school's data originates at the State Examinations Commission. It is forwarded to the Central Applications Office, which forwards it to third level institutions. As the data is provided to each university for particular administrative purposes, they say they cannot stand over the accuracy of the data if it is used for any other purpose.

The data provided includes every school setting in which a candidate sat the examination, even if for only one subject.

Therefore, the data will not always reflect the number of incoming students to a third level college, because in cases where, for example, a candidate sat the examination twice, that candidate will appear as a statistic under both institutions and be doubly entered in the data. The double counting occurs even where the candidate repeated the examination in the institution where he or she first undertook the examination.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

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