In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that having too many choices and decisions can feel overwhelming, particularly when the stakes - your child’s future prospects, as you see it - are so high. There is a tendency to worry over the small details and wonder if, in this case, there’s a better or more suitable school around the corner.
The problem of school choice is, of course, a particularly urban one: for parents in rural areas or smaller towns, your child goes to the local school.
There's a good reason that The Irish Times Feeder School lists has proven so popular with parents over the years: they're desperate for whatever information they can get about schools. But how many students from each school goes on to third-level is just one component of what a parent might consider when choosing the school that is best for their child.
Dr Rose Ryan is director of access at Maynooth University, where a high proportion of students are the first in their family to go to third-level.
“When they’re making a decision about a school, parents look at school league tables and think that, because a certain number progress on to higher education, it makes for a good school,” she says. “Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t, but as a parent and professional, there is a lot more that goes into a school.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, the single largest component in how well your child might fare - academically, at least - in any given school has little to do with the school itself. Instead, parental income and parental level of education may have the strongest impact on a child: if a parent has the emotional and financial capital to give consideration to what school is right for their child, they’re already engaged with and invested in their education. In addition, a school with a 100 per cent progression rate may have some terrible teachers but, if it’s fee-paying or in a wealthier area, parents are more likely to be able to pay for grind teachers outside schools.
Culture of care
Even in an excellent school, only a small percentage of students will excel academically, says Ryan.
“There are hundreds of thousands in the school system,” says Ryan. “Parents want their children to be in a school that cares for them and cares about them. If a school has this culture of care, they support the students academically but they also see the wholeness of the individual, and so academic performance, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, imagination, spirts and drama are all important. Parents pick up on subtle cues about where to send their children, but I had one metric, it would be to see how the school supports the weakest students, not the strongest, The best indicator of the school’s culture is how they helps students with personal, financial, social, family, cultural or learning challenges.”
In Irish education, at least, power rests with the school principal. The school’s board often - or usually - falls in line behind the principal. If, in your search for the right school, you find the principal and teachers cagey and defensive from the outset, this can be a bad sign.
“A supportive principal provides leadership to teachers,” says Ryan. “They set the tone and culture and what is expected of students.”
Indeed, this is a topic that often comes up with former students of a school: what their teachers expected of them. If it’s assumed they won’t go on to third-level or further education, they’re likely to fulfil this prophecy - and what teachers assume about their student may be guided by their principal.
At Mercy College in Inchicore, Dublin 8, the school principal, Michelle O'Kelly, leads a team of educators that promote college-going from the first day of school. Following their principal's cue, teachers in this socially disadvantaged area treat every girl as equally likely to attend third-level as a student from a wealthy family in a fee-paying school - and it has, as expected, led to higher progression rates.
St Joseph’s in Rush, north county Dublin, took a similar approach: like Mercy College, it improved guidance counselling, school planning, connections with a university (in this instance, Trinity College) and teaching and learning. Both schools also ensured that the student voice was not just listened to, but heard and acted upon. At St Joseph’s, this approach has seen third-level progression rates more than quadruple, from a base of 15 per cent, in a decade.
Student and parent voice
“The idea that one middle-class person of a particular age knows what’s best for the school is flawed,” says Ryan. “There is often a sense that the teacher is the font of all wisdom and authority but, in the best schools, teachers are facilitators of knowledge and students are treated as equal partners. Institutions that listen to the experience of students and enact meaningful change are much better institutions. When students talk about a good school, they don’t talk about how great it was that 30 students got 500 points or there was a 90 per cent third-level progression rate: they talk about how respectful staff were to them and that there was a nice place to eat lunch in the school.”
The best schools also have meaningful ways for parents to engage with the school, rather than simply being cash cows for “voluntary contributions”.
Other important factors to consider:
* Diversity: Exposure to different ethnicities, sexualities and socioeconomic backgrounds helps a child learn about different perspectives and experiences.
* Extracurricular activities: what is your child interested in and can they do it in this school?
* Religion and ethos: they may say that they value all children equally, but what actually happens to the children of non-religious families during religion class? Are there meaningful opt-outs? What if a child - perhaps your child - comes out as gay, bisexual or transgender - will they be told not to talk about it, or will they be actively supported in an environment that does not tolerate homophobic or transphobic bullying?
* Wellbeing: How does the school actively uphold policies and procedures that support young people's health and wellbeing. When it comes to bullying, don't just look at the school's undoubtedly impressive written anti-bullying policies: ask on the local grapevine what really happens with reports of bullying.
* Subject choices: if they don't have, for instance, a good choice of language or science subjects, can they facilitate students to study these subjects remotely?
Where to get info on schools:
* Word-of-mouth: There's perhaps no better source of information than the local grapevine. If you can bear yet another WhatsApp group, there's plenty of parent groups who can fill you in on what the local schools are really like (although you should bear in mind that these groups can also be hotbeds of unfounded rumours).
* Whole school evaluations: You'll find these on the Department of Education website. While they do give a good overview of a school's strengths, weaknesses and areas that have or could improve, they're not always up-to-date.
* Open days: Most in-person open days are still on hold due to the Covid-19 crisis, but many schools run virtual open days. These should give you a sense of the school's ethos and values, subject options, wellbeing and pastoral care supports and approach to student and parent voice. One thing to look out for is the school's teaching and learning approach - and a good sign is if you notice that the school emphasises the word "learning" over the word "teaching."
What do you think?
What’s education for? Hopefully turning out emerging adults, who are considerate of others. People who are able to work as teams. People who are able to weather the storms of adolescence, who are on the way to finding out who they are
Actively looking at a DEIS school because league tables do not give the full picture, just a very narrow slice & are just classist imo. This school probably won’t do well according to the league tables but is more likely to have the supports my kids need to reach full potential.
* Cllr Carly Bailey (Social Democrats)
How many SNAs do they have? Certain ‘high achieving’ schools have no SNAs, no students with Special Education Needs & no soul.
If I could get both my kids into non-fee-paying schools that are co-ed, religion-free and have no real uniforms, that would mean a lot more to me than any ‘ranking’ possibly could.
What’s the transition year offering in each school. What extra curricula like drama performances, school choir, newspaper available.
Kudos to Schools that have as many pupils complete 6th year as start 1st, that have daily library access, that have choir, sports, clubs, that have lockers and are open to study before and after school. Points lost for uniforms, bullying, bad toilet facilities and snobbiness.
As much as schools can do, the home life of students will make or break them in most cases. Fee paying or not, if a student is not loved/cared for etc at home, success in school is much more of an uphill struggle.