Analysis: What the feeder tables tell us

Explaining the progression charts of Irish secondary schools

Each year the tables show very large numbers of students who go to college attended schools in socially advantaged communities, and that they tend to opt predominantly for universities and teacher training. Photograph: iStock

Each year the tables show very large numbers of students who go to college attended schools in socially advantaged communities, and that they tend to opt predominantly for universities and teacher training. Photograph: iStock


The percentage progression rates of past pupils of 677 second-level schools in Ireland, published in the feeder tables, do not solely reflect the success of this year’s Leaving Cert class in securing college places through the CAO.

In reading the tables, bear in mind the percentage in the last column is not a true rate for the progression of the Leaving Cert 2016 class from each school to college this year. Roughly 78 per cent of the figure in the final column reflects more accurately the progression rate of any given school – this is because about 76 per cent of those who registered as first-year undergraduate students in 2016 did the Leaving Cert in June 2016, with 22 per cent being past pupils from previous years. Two per cent of those who secured a place in a third-level college at undergraduate level in 2016 did so from schools outside the Republic of Ireland, and are not listed as part of the numbers recorded in these charts.

Why is this?

Under legislation, The Irish Times is denied access to the number of students from any school’s Leaving Cert class who applied to the CAO in an effort to secure a college place. What we do have is access to the number of students who sat the Leaving Cert in that school in 2016. We publish this number next to each school’s name – the SITS.

Figures from the CAO indicate that 84 per cent of the Leaving Cert class of 2016 applied for college places through it. Many of these students may also have applied to colleges in Northern Ireland if they live near the border, or colleges in the UK and continental Europe – places they may accept if offered in preference to a CAO one.

In such cases, they will not be included in our number of successful applicants as a percentage of this year’s Leaving Cert class, as our charts only contain data from colleges in the CAO system. We also know that 16 per cent of each year’s Leaving Cert class does not apply to the CAO, but we have to include them in our SIT numbers on which we base the success percentage of each school as we do not have this date for individual schools.

Our table of the number of successful former students – from any year – to secure a CAO place in 2016, shown as a percentage of the Leaving Cert class of 2016 only, includes the 22 per cent who sat the Leaving Cert in 2015 or 2005 or 1995, and are now starting an undergraduate degree in 2016. This is why it is not an accurate reflection of the progression of 2016 school-leavers.

We publish these statistics in The Irish Times each year because they are the only such data provided by the CAO and the colleges, even if it is flawed, and so is the only indicator of schools’ academic performance available. But it comes with a health warning (see Peter McGuire’s article on how the tables are compiled, and the limitations of the data).

Factors influencing college progression

Each year, the tables show very large numbers of students who go to college attended schools in socially advantaged communities, and that they tend to opt predominantly for universities and teacher-training. Higher Education Authority (HEA) data shows these institutions have the lowest drop-out rates (from 4 per cent in teacher-training colleges to 9 per cent in universities). Is that surprising, given the supports these students receive from their parents?

The HEA data also shows students from schools in less-advantaged communities get far fewer places in high-points university courses, and tend to progress to institutes of technology. HEA shows these students have more difficulties completing college, with drop-out rates of up to 20 per cent common. Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) figures show a large proportion of successful grant applicants go to ITs rather than universities, confirming the social-class divide reflected in institutions’ student intake.

The following tables also show how parochial our college choice is, and how the presence of a third-level college in an area increases the progression rates of students from second-level to third-level within commuting distance of those colleges. Unlike in the UK, where students tend to select colleges far from home, Irish students gravitate towards local colleges if they can get a place in the discipline they want. This may reflect the lack of a student-loan scheme which would allow consideration of a wider range of options, and may also reflect the acute shortage of student accommodation.

Publishing this data is not passing judgment on the success of any school in supporting their students to get to college. For schools where both parents of many students are graduates, and where they have been supported throughout their education, getting a college place is no great reflection on the success of their school. Alternatively, we are keenly aware that for schools in disadvantaged communities, securing third-level progression for even a small proportion of students is a reflection of highly motivated teachers, and is a fantastic achievement.

McManus Scholarship programme

One of the most interesting pieces of data relating to schools’ success in supporting students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds can be seen in the annual JP McManus awards. The awards are given, without any application, to the top performing 100 students, with a minimum of two from each county, to those who have medical cards and therefore are not charged the normal fee by the DES to sit the Leaving Cert. More than 24 awards are also given to students in Northern Ireland based on their A-level results.

In 2016, Coola post-primary school in Sligo secured all four scholarships awarded in that county. St Louis High School in Dublin won three awards, all for students born outside Ireland. Both award-winners in Wexford attended St Peter’s College. Cork schools secured 14 scholarships, making it the most successful county in Ireland in achieving top grades for this cohort of students, with Maria Immaculata Community and St Francis Capuchin College getting two each. Ardscoil Rís in Limerick secured two of the three scholarships awarded in that county. In Donegal, two of the four scholarships went to students from St Columba’s. Even more interesting is the fact that more than 25 per cent of the successful students holding medical cards who achieved close to 600 CAO points are new Irish, born throughout the four corners of the planet. The schools who helped these students secure these grades may not appear in the best-performing schools lists, but they are teaching the students in their care to the highest possible standards.

Key numbers on these tables

The enclosed tables therefore provide very important data to inform national policy making, but do they make sense to a reader? To make more sense of the feeder tables, this is a breakdown of its component parts, and the two key numbers associated with each school listed – the total number attending college this year, and the total number of students who did the Leaving Cert in 2016.

Following the close of 2015 college offers, the CAO said that of the 48,216 students who accepted a college place through CAO in that year, 47,362 had Republic of Ireland addresses, 361 lived in Northern Ireland, and 492 originated from outside the island of Ireland.

The CAO annual report shows a little under 18 per cent of successful applicants each year are age 20 or older, and so cannot be from the Leaving Cert class of 2016; 8 per cent of successful applicants are aged 19, so about half of that age group are of the class of 2016. Based on this analysis of the age profile, on average 78 per cent of successful college applicants from each Republic of Ireland school did the Leaving Cert in 2016, with the remaining 22 per cent coming from previous years’ groups. Each one of these students of all ages, excluding the foreign nationals who did not do a Leaving Cert in Ireland, goes towards the total number credited by colleges to each school. We publish this number because it is all colleges are allowed to provide. They are precluded from stating how many students from the class of 2016 secured a place in 2016.

The second relevant number in the tables is of the students who took the Leaving Cert in 2016 – the SITS. CAO figures show 84 per cent of them sought a place among the 45 institutions it covers.

Concluding the 16 per cent of students who didn’t apply for a CAO place, and don’t figure in the tables, are failures of our education system would be an incorrect interpretation. Every year, thousands of Leaving Cert students take level 5 QQI courses in post-Leaving Cert colleges. Many complete them and progress to CAO courses the following year (and are credited back to their original school in the data supplied by the colleges when they register).

Also, 2,000 Irish-based students start undergraduate courses in Northern Ireland and the UK every year, many from that year’s Leaving Cert class, predominantly in border counties. That is why these schools often report lower progression to third-level colleges in the Republic of Ireland, as the tables do not capture students studying outside the ROI.

In the past four or five years, a growing number of Irish students have opted to study in continental EU universities with high international rankings, which offer courses through English. At the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, for example, the number of Irish students has grown from zero to more than 80 in four years. There are also 32 first-year veterinary science students this year in Warsaw, constituting almost half of the English-language vet class. Again, schools whose students study abroad are not credited here. Guy Flouch, director of Eunicas (which handles applications from Irish students to European colleges), often speaks in schools about European study opportunities.