‘Higher levels of antisocial behaviour and truancy’ among students in fee-charging schools

Research finds concentration of advantage did not have positive effect on adolescent behaviour

Levels of antisocial behaviour and truancy are higher among students in fee-charging secondary schools in Ireland compared with those attending other schools, according to research. Photograph: iStock

Levels of antisocial behaviour and truancy are higher among students in fee-charging secondary schools in Ireland compared with those attending other schools, according to research.

The findings are contained in a presentation by Prof Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) delivered to an international conference on school effectiveness at Trinity College Dublin on Tuesday afternoon.

No significant differences in adolescent behaviour were found between single-sex and mixed schools or between schools of different sizes.

However, it found that antisocial behaviour – such as stealing or graffiti – and truancy were higher in fee-charging schools compared with others when adjusted for family background factors.


Students in fee-charging schools had higher self-reported rates of stealing from a shop (18 per cent vs 12 per cent in other schools), behaving badly in public (22 per cent vs 10 per cent) or taking money or something else from school (11 per cent vs 5 per cent).

Prof Smyth said the findings indicate that a concentration of advantage at school level did not have a positive effect on behaviour outcomes.

“Some of the items listed are around taking money at home or in schools, so it may be that there is potentially more to take, but it also shows that you can’t make easy assumptions,” Prof Smyth said.

The findings are based on data gathered from the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study, which has captured the experiences of children at age 13 and 17.

She said secondary schools risk stereotyping the needs of students, with all-girls schools less likely to offer sport while all-boys schools are less likely to offer cultural activities such as choir, music or drama or socio-emotional supports.

Girls in general were much more likely to engage in reading, singing or music at ages 13 and 17. Reading rates for working class girls were at a similar level to reading rates for middle class boys.

Among both sexes, those attending disadvantaged schools reported lower levels of reading or playing music, but similar levels of involvement in cultural activities. They were also more likely to report that their education has been a lot of help in appreciating art and culture.

Prof Smyth said schools not only have an academic impact on students, but are increasingly expected to play a key role in supporting adolescent development, especially in the context of declining adolescent mental health.

There was evidence of a “backwash effect” of the Leaving Cert exam, providing further evidence to support ongoing reform of senior cycle education.

Anxiety rates among students increased between the ages of 13 and 17, which appeared to relate to the lead-up to high-stakes exams, with those in sixth year more depressed and anxious than other students.

Girls had much higher rates of depression and anxiety, which applied regardless of the school gender mix.

The concentration of disadvantage at school level was found to have negative consequences, especially for socio-emotional difficulties and behaviour, but also for broader health and cultural engagement

School principals reported a significant impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing, especially for more disadvantaged groups

Additional financial support from Government to schools for catch-up supports were limited to one year and there was a need for further research on the effects of these supports, Prof Smyth said.

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She said the findings support previous research highlighting the need for additional supports and resources for schools catering for very disadvantaged populations, given the gap in many developmental outcomes, as well as in academic performance. However, she noted there had been important progress in supports and out-of-school activities in disadvantaged schools.

Prof Smyth was speaking at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, which is hosted jointly by the Trinity College Dublin’s School of Education and Marino Institute of Education and attended by 500 researchers, teachers and policymakers.

Who: Speakers are leading education experts from across the globe. They include Andy Hargreaves (Boston College), Kim Schildkamp (University of Twente), Emer Smyth (ESRI, Ireland), Carol Campbell (University of Toronto) and Mohammed Elmeski (senior policy consultant).

Presentations this week address issues including leveraging research for inquiry, insight and innovation; professional development to support teacher and school leader effectiveness; school implications arising from the Covid-19 pandemic; and leading schools and education systems that promote equity, inclusion, belonging, and global citizenship.

Speakers include Andy Hargreaves of Boston College, Kim Schildkamp of University of Twente and Carol Campbell of University of Toronto.

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Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent