The latest feeder school tables, charting progression from second to third-level colleges, underline the educational challenges faced by society and Government. At a societal level the aspiration of families to support their children in securing appropriate post-second level education has never been higher, as demonstrated by the fact that close to 70 per cent of school leavers now access third level through the CAO, either directly after their Leaving Cert or following the completion of a Further Education programme in their area of interest. The Government can be satisfied that the system is facilitating the aspirations of so many. But within the published progression data are major issues.
The fact that a number equivalent to 80 per cent of school leavers attending second-level colleges in Dublin 14 registered as first year students in a high-status institution, whereas the equivalent number for Dublin 17 is 4 per cent, demonstrates social class barriers which severely limit the aspirations and opportunities of many in marginalised communities.
The myth that attending fee-paying schools is a requirement or a facilitator in achieving access to high-points CAO programmes is dispelled by the equal percentage of former pupils of non-fee paying schools drawing their students from the same social class background, who progressed to third level this year. The two schools which topped this particular progression chart are Muckross College and Coláiste Íosagáin in Dublin.
Another issue is the quality of decision making on the part of school leavers in selecting their CAO course options which is revealed in the drop-out rates provided annually by the Higher Education Authority. Returning to the CAO process on a further occasion automatically credits an incoming first year undergraduate back to their second level school for the second time. This phenomenon is revealed in the plus-100 per cent attendance registered by many fee-paying schools every year. Most students from modest backgrounds attending State-funded schools cannot afford the high costs of repeating first year, where they must meet both the €3,000 registration charge and the €6,000-€8,000 HEA subvention, which will only ever by paid once on behalf each student. We need to improve the level of engagement between second-level students and quality guidance counselling.
The feeder tables also show most third level education is local with students wanting to continue their career journey alongside their friends. It is also economic – the cost of living away from home is now prohibitive. The participation rates of counties without a commutable third-level institution are significantly lower than those with one. Government must address this accommodation problem which is contributing an added layer of inequality.