Choosing a secondary school: Do your homework first

Tue, Nov 26, 2013, 00:01

Choosing a secondary school for your child can be surprisingly complicated. A community school or a vocational school? Is mixed better than single sex? This school has great facilities, but it’s enormous. Would your child be better off in that little fee-paying school a bus ride away? You like the look of this school, but you keep hearing that school gets better results.

Many people simply send their children to the local school. Indeed, a large cohort of parents in rural Ireland have very little choice. However, a 2010 report by the ESRI, which surveyed parents about their choice of secondary found half of the respondents chose a school other than the one closest to them. Irish parents are very proactive when it comes to choosing the right school for their children.

Just to increase the pressure, studies show that the educational choices a young person makes in secondary school have a huge impact on their later lives. How do you decide?

Do you use a guide such as the annual Irish Times School League Tables, which is published with the paper today, to help you choose? The popularity of the list shows a thirst for information about academic progression from individual schools, but does it really tell parents everything?

Dr Deirdre Raftery, the director of research at UCD’s school of education, is the author of Choosing a School: A Guide to Second-Level Education in Ireland (CMD Book Source). She says: “Feeder-school lists and league tables are blunt instruments. Your child is an individual and the information you need to make an informed decision is much subtler than that. As a parent, you are looking for an effective school for your child. The most effective school for someone else’s child may not be the most effective for yours.”

An effective school is one that contributes positively to your child’s development, academic results and general wellbeing. This is a more interesting perspective as it puts your child, rather than the school, at the centre of the decision. Your daughter is active: does the school have good sports facilities? Your son has dyslexia: will he be supported? Is the school of a suitable size? Will your child do well there?

There are practical indicators of a school’s effectiveness. Objectively effective schools tend to be flexible about subject choice and level. They are clear, consistent and fair in implementing discipline. Teachers in effective schools tend to have positive expectations of their students. Effective schools are well managed and they run smoothly.

Beyond those issues, factors such as location and school size are important in how they affect your child, but they have not been shown to have a significant impact on overall outcomes such as how well students do in exams as a whole. These factors may influence how well your child will fare and that is what you need to consider.

Just to confuse things, excellent exam results don’t necessarily indicate an effective school. A grand haul of As in Leaving Cert could well be thanks to grind teachers outside school. In that case, parents’ income and interest have far more effect on a school’s results than the school itself.

Conversely, an effective school may be firmly in the middle of the table of exam results, with respectable, if not overwhelming, grades. However, that school may have teachers working diligently to bring students who would have failed up to a pass or even to an honours grade. That school has a positive effect on its students’ academic outcomes and is an academically effective school.

Essentially, most schools are a mixed bag. Some teachers will be excellent, others less so. Some year groups will be a dream to teach, while others present a challenge. It is reassuring for parents that in Ireland the standard is fairly consistent.

According to Raftery, few if any schools will be wholly effective or wholly ineffective. “Irish schools are more similar than they are different,” she says. “Much of the time you’re comparing like with like and the decision will come down to the needs of your individual child,” she says.

Indeed, when parents were surveyed about school choice for the ESRI study, the most important factor in choosing a school was the child’s preference. That was more important for parents than whether the school was deemed to have good results or facilities. “Parents want their child to be happy,” Raftery says. “That outweighs everything else.”

The decision also comes down to instinct. “Remember that a Leaving Cert result or college progression is the end product,” Raftery says. “There are six very important years between now and then. Parents know when a place feels right and when it doesn’t. A lot of it comes down to common sense.”

Questions to ask
at the open day

What subjects do you offer? Ask what’s available. If your daughter wants to do technical graphics, for example, make sure it’s on the timetable.
When does my child have to choose her subjects? According to Raftery, flexibility around subjects indicates an academically effective school. More effective schools tend to allow students to sample subjects before choosing.
When does my child have to choose which level to study? Effective schools try to delay the decision on higher or ordinary level for as long as possible; this maximises the numbers doing higher level.
How are subjects timetabled? Raftery advises parents to think ahead. “Ask about timetabling,” she says. “If your child is very artistic and musical, will they be able to do both art and music or will there be a clash, now or later on?”
What is discipline like in the school? The key is not what is in the discipline code but how it is enforced. Effective schools will be consistent, transparent and fair in applying rules. While many parents dread a phonecall from the school principal, it has been shown that early involvement of parents in disciplinary matters is another characteristic of the effective school.
Am I confident in the teachers? Research shows Irish parents value teaching and assume it is of a high standard.
What do the teachers expect of my child? Teacher attitude and expectation is important according to Rafferty. When teachers expect and encourage high standards from students, good things happen. .
Is the school well run? This is difficult one to pin down but school organisation and leadership are important. If a school is not well-run, you will probably hear about it from other parents. If everything is running smoothly you may not even notice.

What will nail
your choice?

The factors below have not been shown to have an influence on overall outcomes for students. However, you know your child and they may have an influence on how an individual student does in school.
School type In Ireland there is a choice between voluntary secondary, vocational and community colleges and community or comprehensive schools.

Voluntary secondary schools (both fee-paying and non-fee-paying) are privately owned and managed under the trusteeship of a religious community or board of governors. Traditionally they have offered more academic subjects than practical ones although this is changing.

Vocational schools and community colleges are run by local vocational education committees (VECs). In the past they would have focused on more practical and skills-based education but now provide a wide range of academic and practical subjects.

Many community and comprehensive schools were established by amalgamating a vocational and a voluntary secondary school. They offer a range of both academic and practical subjects. School type has very little influence on how well students do in exams.
Location Just half of students surveyed in the ESRI report were attending their local school. The rest were travelling to one further away, indicating that Irish parents are active decision makers when it comes to schools.
Ethos/culture Is the ethos, religious or otherwise, important to you? Is it more or less important than other factors? Go to the open day and read the literature. How will your child fit in?
Size Larger schools can offer a wider range of subjects and levels. They often have good facilities and can cater to a variety of abilities. Smaller schools have the advantage of offering an environment where your child will be well-known by students and teachers but their subject and extra-curricular options may be limited.
Single sex or mixed? Contrary to popular belief, there is no difference in academic outcomes between mixed and single-sex schools. On a social and developmental level, mixed schools are particularly good for boys. The research for girls is a bit more ambiguous with some studies showing a mixed environment reduces gender stereotyping for girls while others show it reinforces stereotyping. Ask yourself what suits your child. Also, consider whether you would like siblings to attend the same school.
Streaming versus mixed ability Most schools have a mixture of abilities in all classes, particularly first year. Some schools later stream students by ability. Other schools stream students for certain subjects such as maths, English and Irish. Ask about the practice.
Academic outcomes Feeder-school lists, imperfections aside, give some idea of college progression from a particular school. For more information about student progression, ask the school about where its students ended up last year.
Learning support Your child is fully entitled to partake fully in school life and deserves a school that recognises that. Talk to the school. See what accommodations are already in place for those with special educational needs and how the school is willing to help. You will know from the response whether you have found the right place for your child.
Academic options Do you think a good transition year is important? Would your child be interested in alternative exam options such as the Leaving Cert vocational programme or the Leaving Cert applied? These are not available in all schools.
Cost Fees? No fees? Is there a book-rental scheme? Are students expected to have laptops or tablets? What’s the voluntary contribution? Is there a culture of school trips? What impact will this have on your family over six years?
Facilities and extracurricular activities Did your child like playing hurling in primary school? Did they show a particular interest in science or art? Does the school offer facilities and activities that will allow your child to pursue their talents and interests?

How to find out more

These are a great way to talk to teachers and students, and to have a look around the school, all in one go. Not all schools are good at publicising open days, so call the secretary’s office to enquire.

Talk to other parents. The word on the ground can be surprisingly accurate. Beware of the sweeping, “Oh, X is the best school”. Don’t disregard it but use it as a springboard to find out more. Trust your own judgment. What’s best for others might not be best for your child.

Schools’ own websites vary considerably in quality and content but they can be useful. Sites such as and and are also helpful.

The Find a School feature on the Department of Education website,, is on the upper right-hand side of the homepage.

You can input a few details about the sort of school you want and it will give you a map with schools in your area. Click into any of them for details, including website address, pupil numbers and all available inspection reports.

Department inspectors visit schools to conduct a variety of assessments including whole school evaluations, subject inspections, programme evaluations, follow-through inspections and unannounced, incidental inspections. The reports on these inspections are published online. The easiest way to locate them is to find your school of interest via the Find a School feature on

These are the most commonly used form of whole-school inspection at post-primary level. They are quite detailed and involve meetings with members of the board of management, the parents’ association, focus groups of students, the principal and deputy principal as well as groups of teachers. Inspectors also observe teaching and learning and distribute questionnaires to students and parents seeking their views.

Essentially, inspectors are looking at the quality of school management and leadership; the quality of learning and teaching; the implementation of recommendations from previous evaluations and the school’s self-evaluation process and capacity for improvement.


Most schools will have good points and areas for improvement so many suggestions for improvement can be couched in vague language. This can make it difficult for parents to distill any real meaning from the reports. Here are some suggested short cuts:

1. Look for the summary of findings and recommendations for further development in the report. These are part of the introduction in the WSE report.

2. What sorts of things does the inspector feel need to be improved? Watch out for things such as staff relations. Are there indications that staff members aren’t happy or feel unsupported? Communication, both within the school and between the school and parents, can be a problem. Are there indications that the school is not well managed or organised?

When an inspector selects large areas for improvement, it’s worth investigating further. Parents with students in the school can be an excellent inside line in such cases.

3. Sometimes the reports are very clear, especially on the good things. For example, if the quality of teaching and learning is described as “good, very good or exemplary,” that is a good thing.

Watch out for commendations of staff expertise and commitment, as well as levels of student support. Does it sound as if the school is working well? Are staff, students and parents happy and satisfied? What are the comments on teaching, learning and curriculum planning?

4. Whole-school evaluations essentially give you some idea of the culture and organisation of a school. Is the school welcoming and friendly? Is it well organised? Are all structures and policies in place? Are staff members enthusiastic and motivated? Are students and parents happy? A school should operate well on that basic level.

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