Feeder schools list reveals scale of social inequality as pupils from fee-paying schools dominate high-points courses

Despite “free fees” and access initiatives, we have failed to significantly narrow the participation gap at Third Level

 

The annual list of feeder schools shows the number of students who are progressing to higher education from individual secondary schools. As a measure of academic performance, it is a blunt instrument. It does not, for example, show the numbers going on to further education or apprenticeships. Nor does it show the extent to which schools are providing excellent extra-curricular activities or pastoral care.

What it does show with startling clarity is the scale of inequality in Ireland. Fee-paying schools are dominating the top-end of the feeder school list and sending virtually all their students to high-points courses.

While there are just over 50 private schools nationally out of about 700 secondary schools, they are disproportionately represented among the students going to our top universities. In 2013, for example, fee-paying schools accounted for 16 of the top-25 schools sending students to high points courses. Three years later, the number has risen to 20.

By contrast, the proportion of students progressing to higher points courses falls to between zero and five per cent in many schools in poorer parts of Dublin and elsewhere. These figures are reflected by official data which shows college progression rates broken down by postal district. While more than 90 per cent of school-leavers in affluent areas such as Dublin 6 are going to college, this falls to as low as 15 per cent in more disadvantaged districts such as Dublin 17.

The reality in Ireland today is that going to a top university can involve crossing some of the deepest ravines of the social divide. Despite “free” university fees introduced 20 years ago, and numerous access initiatives, we have failed to significantly narrow the participation gap. The scale of this social divide should provide a wake-up call for policy-makers and Government ministers.

The Government’s National Access Plan for Higher Education 2015-2019, aims to boost the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at third level by a modest total of 1,500 over the next three years.

However, there is no ring-fenced funding to meet these aims. Instead, the plans envisages that any solutions “will have to take place within the context of overall financial resources available for higher education”. In a sector starved of resources and in the midst of a growing funding crisis, it is hard to see where the money will come from.

Some argue that the feeder school list unfairly stigmatise schools in disadvantaged areas by highlighting their relatively low progression rates to higher education. But suppressing the information is hardly in anyone’s interest, especially not the children and teachers living and working in disadvantaged communities. If anything, the figures provide a compelling case for far more to be done to help bridge this gaping social divide.

In the interests of greater transparency, Feeder Schools 2016 is complemented by a dedicated and unique interactive online platform giving irishtimes.com readers access to Department of Education evaluation reports and progression rates over recent years for each featured school.

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