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Feeder schools: Evaluating third-level progression rates

Why some institutions’ progression rates are over-reported while others’ are under-reported

The percentage number listed in the last column of the main feeder schools’ table does not represent a “true rate” for the progression of Leaving Cert 2023 students to college this year, as it accounts for several different elements.

In the data provided to The Irish Times, each third-level institution includes all incoming first-year students who attended a given school, even though up to 26 per cent of incoming first-years may in fact be past pupils who sat the Leaving Cert previously.

Why is this?

The Government legislated more than 20 years ago to block the publication of current-year progression data from our second-level schools. Colleges are only obliged to provide the composite number of past pupils of any school of all ages who commence a degree programme in 2023.

In other words, a 40-year-old past pupil of a given school returning to college this year is included in that school’s numbers, which is then measured as a percentage of the current sixth-year class of 2023.

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Who goes to college each year?

In any given year 26 per cent of all Republic of Ireland incoming first-year students sat the Leaving Cert in a year before the current one. Due to long-standing Government policy, third-level institutions are not permitted to differentiate in the data provided to the media.

Several thousand students secure college places yearly by progressing successfully from levels 5/6 Further Education programmes in PLC colleges. Alongside these students who have taken Post-Leaving Cert programmes (PLCs) are those who have delayed going to college for a year or more or have dropped out of another CAO programme in first year or at a later stage in the course and are re-entering another third-level course this year.

Those 7,326 applicants in 2023 who sought to re-enter college for a second time are effectively counted and credited twice to their school, first when they initially secured a place through the CAO application process and, second, this year if they secured an offer and accepted it.

Weighting

The Irish Times estimates that for a school where the numbers taking the Leaving Cert remain relatively constant, in line with CAO published data we can deduct 25 per cent from its published progression rate to calculate the true progression rate of the 2023 class.

But in looking at schools with high college progression (as a percentage of the class of 2023), we can’t ignore the fact that, from the data provided to The Irish Times, 150 schools have had a significant reduction of 15 per cent or more in the number of students sitting the Leaving Cert in the past year.

It’s a statistical aberration — these schools have seemingly high college progression precisely because their Leaving Cert student numbers are declining. To include such schools would create a false impression and distort the figures, particularly when we tabulate the “most improved schools”.

For that reason, we have excluded from all the smaller tables schools where the number of students in the 2023 class was 85 per cent or less than the number who sat the Leaving Cert in 2022.

There are a number of other schools that appear to show an improvement in progression rates, where they have fewer students in the Leaving Cert class of 2023 than in 2022, but whose reduction in student numbers is less than 15 per cent.

This factor may give a perception of improvement in progression rates because of the effect of previous years’ past pupils now starting college on this year’s progression percentage, but The Irish Times has included them in our most-improved progression charts.

Why do some schools score more than 100%?

Measured as a percentage of the class of 2023, Loreto College, St Stephen’s Green and St Michael’s College, south county Dublin, respectively seem to send 109 per cent and 112 per cent of the class of 2023 (including past pupils) to college, and the percentage progression for Coláiste Eoin in Booterstown appears to be 114 per cent.

As this seems to occur in the same group of schools constantly, how is it mathematically possible for some institutions to continuously record more than 100 per cent attendance of their former students at third level? The explanation for this apparent mathematical impossibility is that when a student registers with a college in the CAO system, they are credited to their former school.

If every past pupil of that school eventually undertook a third-level course through the CAO, the total number of students registered would equal the number of former pupils for that period of years.

The only explanation for schools that consistently seem to perform at more than the 100 per cent participation rate in CAO college courses is that some of their students are being counted twice, as explained above.

If a student drops out of one course having been counted and credited back to his/her school and starts a new course, they are again credited back to their original school.

The higher the level of college dropouts experienced by former pupils of any given school; the higher the school’s progression rate will appear as recorded by colleges in the CAO system.

The reality of this phenomenon will remain hidden within the progression numbers if the total number of students going to college from any school over a period of years remains significantly below the total number who took the Leaving Cert during that time.

Under-reporting of progression

Alongside the problem of over-reporting of progression rates from some schools, our charts can also unfortunately under-report progression. This is due to the unavailability of the relevant data — something that is beyond our control.

or example, there has been a big expansion in the opportunities offered to young people leaving second level through the significant increase in apprenticeship programmes, co-ordinated through the State training agency Solas across a wide range of economic sectors, beyond the traditional construction trades.

Some of these young people graduate with level 8 honours degrees but are not included in the numbers provided to The Irish Times by colleges, as they do not secure their places through the CAO application process. Furthermore, a growing number of Irish students are seeking and accepting places in continental EU universities, particularly in the Netherlands.

The progression charts do not include these students, as The Irish Times does not receive any data in relation to these students. Similarly, schools in Border regions that traditionally secure places for their former pupils in colleges in Northern Ireland may appear to have lower progression rates to third level than they actually have, as The Irish Times does not have access to most of that data.

Is it worthwhile presenting you with the data?

The Irish Times has provided the clearest possible picture of the ongoing success of our second-level schools in supporting one of the largest proportions of school leavers across the OECD in progressing to higher education.

This success has transformed our society and economy and facilitated the ongoing development of the economy. While the tables indicate in broad terms how a school is progressing to third-level education, factors such as enrolment policies and geographic location also contribute to the ranking — the publication of this data does not pass judgment on the success or otherwise of any of the schools featured.

The picture painted by the available data, although flawed and incomplete, is still much sought-after by parents when considering the important education choices they face regarding their children’s ongoing education.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

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