Beyond feeder tables: how to choose a second-level school

What questions should you ask before deciding which school is right for your child?

Do your homework: gathering as much information as possible can take some of the stress out of choosing a school. Photograph: iStockphoto/Vetta/Getty Images

Do your homework: gathering as much information as possible can take some of the stress out of choosing a school. Photograph: iStockphoto/Vetta/Getty Images


Being a parent is tough. There’s a lot of judging – especially of mothers – and everyone has an opinion on how best you should rear your children. One of the most difficult decisions a parent has to make is which post-primary schools to choose for them.

I’ve been compiling The Irish Times feeder school lists since 2010. Over the past six years, I’ve lost count of how many times parents, from all parts of Ireland, have asked me what school they should send their son or daughter to.

They’re understandably worried about making the right choice. More often than not, their main concern is whether the school is good academically. How many students is it sending on to higher education? But my answer has always been the same: there are many factors besides third-level progression that are worth considering.

The main one is whether or not the schools they have in mind are the right fit for their child. What are reasonable expectations for this child? Should they be looking at going to Trinity? Will it be a proud achievement if they get through school at all? Would they be more likely to thrive in a post-primary that emphasises sport, or drama?

The young person concerned should themself be at the centre of the decision, and would ideally be involved in making the choice.

Most parents consider a number of factors. Research from the Economic and Social Research Institute in 2010 found that about half of parents go with a local school (or, in some more rural parts of Ireland, it’s the local school). But about half of parents choose to send their child to a more distant school, so clearly other factors are in play.

What are they? Extracurricular activities, for one, with some parents and students specifically wanting a “GAA school” or a “rugby school”. Parents will also choose whether to plump for a mixed or single-sex school.

Many will be concerned about subject choices: does a school offer home economics, a full range of science subjects, and technical subjects such as woodwork and metalwork? Some will have in mind to send their child to a fee-paying school. For others, class sizes are a big issue.

Parents gather this information from a range of sources. One of the most significant is the annual Irish Times feeder school list.

The feeder tables help tell part of the story. But only part of it. Some of the schools with the highest progression rates – including some fee-paying schools – may have quite a number of poor teachers, but be full of students whose parents can afford to shell out on grinds. As a result, those schools may have a slew of A grades in, say, Irish, precisely because the Irish teacher is so weak that most of the class go for grinds.

As a result, those schools have a slew of A grades in, say, Irish, precisely because the Irish teacher is so weak that most of the class go for grinds.

If, on the other hand, a bright kid from a disadvantaged area has a weak Irish teacher, they’ll be at a disadvantage in the competitive CAO points system.

Choosing a school: factors to consider

Fee-paying or non-fee-paying? A school may be top of The Irish Times feeder school table but have poor supports for young people with additional learning needs. Or they may be in a disadvantaged area, much lower down the table but hugely inclusive, with brilliant teachers who work tirelessly to help every single child maximise their potential.

With this in mind, it’s worth remembering that there are wheelbarrow-loads of research which show that the single biggest factor in a child’s success isn’t whether or not they go to a fee-paying school; it’s the education level of the child’s parents, especially the mother, that makes a decisive difference.

Ethos: Religious ethos is emerging as a major factor in school choice. Some parents want their child to attend a school with a religious ethos; others don’t. A survey carried out by a polling firm for Equate, which is campaigning for greater equality in schools, found that 46 per cent of parents would not choose to send their child to Christian school if they had the choice.

In reality, there’s very little choice, as most second-level schools have at least some degree of religious control, usually Catholic. About 57 per cent are voluntary secondary schools, and they are almost all religious. About 3 per cent are Gaelscoils, virtually all of which are Catholic. Some parents might plump for a local community or comprehensive school because they think it is not religiously controlled, but many of these schools – including those run by the local education and training board – still have a Catholic ethos or a member of the clergy in a prominent position on the school’s board of management. Catholic prayers and symbols are likely to permeate the school day and a Catholic religious education programme is the default.

If you don’t want your child learning about religion in post-primary school, you should be able to choose for them to opt out. This is generally, but not always, a simpler process at second level than in primary schools.

Progressive or conservative? Don’t assume that, just because a school has a religious ethos, it will be doctrinal and dogmatic. Some of the best, most forward-thinking and inclusive schools are also religious, with a strong emphasis on social justice.

But how can a parent find out? There’s one really effective and relatively easy way: ask about the school’s relationship and sexuality education programme. Does the school bring in organisations such as Pure in Heart, which preach abstinence from sex until (heterosexual) marriage, act as though gay people don’t exist and provide inaccurate information about condoms (such as the false claim that condoms don’t work one in six times)? Or do they bring in the Irish Family Planning Association, which provides a comprehensive sex education? Or do the school’s teachers deliver the programme themselves in class? Is it all about the mechanics and biology of sex – with an emphasis on disease, risk and abstinence – or does it explore healthy relationships and safe internet use?

It’s not easy for parents to ask for all of this information, so here’s a simple suggestion: ask if the school runs, or intends to run, the BeLonG To Stand Up awareness week against homophobia and transphobia, or how it responds to the existence of LGBT students in the school. Does it behave as though, of the tens of thousands of students who have passed through its doors, none have ever been LGBT? Or will it tell you that LGBT students are supported in coming out and that bullying is not tolerated? Its response should tell you quite a lot about the school’s values.

School type: Religion aside, are community and comprehensive schools or voluntary secondary schools better? Research shows that school type has little influence, but what may matter more is the teacher union that is affiliated to the school.

Voluntary secondary schools are generally affiliated to the Asti, a union that has tended to oppose junior cycle reforms – which have focused on delivering a more holistic education – and refused to implement them.

Community and comprehensive schools, meanwhile, are either affiliated to the TUI or will have a mix of TUI and ASTI members. The TUI has been somewhat more inclined to support junior cycle reform. The ASTI has recently gone on strike over a number of issues, whereas the TUI has not. This pattern may or may not change, but there’s certainly no sign of the ASTI softening its stance at the moment.

School size and gender mix: A small school might seem wonderful, but it may have limited subject choices, so do check what’s on offer. When it comes to gender, Ireland is unusual in having a high number of single-sex schools. There are mixed research findings on the relative academic merits of single-sex and co-educational schools, but there is reliable evidence that co-education better prepares young people socially. Interestingly, research carried out by UCD professor of education Dympna Devine found that teachers – rather than students – in both co-educational and girls’ schools tended to use better teaching methods than elsewhere, although she stressed that social class and ethnicity also influenced teaching styles.

Academic record and options: The feeder school lists, despite their imperfections, give an idea of how many students from that school are going on to third level. But they don’t include progression to further education, which is a valuable qualification in its own right as well as being a route to higher education. The Leaving Cert Applied is also a valuable alternative and might be a good fit for your child, but not all schools offer it. Ask.

Subject choice: This is important, but sometimes parents inadvertently overlook it. A good school will allow a fair degree of flexibility around subject choices in first year before students settle down. Consider what’s on offer and how that might suit your child, and talk to them about their instincts when it comes to areas they’d like to study. You should have an idea already, based on what they liked in primary school. But be a little flexible yourself: some subjects, such as Spanish, simply have more demand than the number of teachers available.

Extracurricular: What clubs and sports does the school offer? Is your child sporty? Do they love drama, music or art? Are they into computers, chess or debating? If not, do you think these are things they might like? Sit down and talk to your child about what, besides education, they would hope to get out of post-primary school, and then see what the schools have to offer.

Pastoral care: Parents and young people are increasingly concerned about mental health. So find out what initiatives are in place to create a positive school environment, to prevent bullying and to support mental health. Does a school have sufficient guidance counselling? Does it even have a mental health strategy?

Different abilities: How does a school deal with students of different abilities? Do the strongest kids get put in an A stream, while those kids who don’t do as well in their first-year tests get sent to a C stream? Irish and international evidence is clear: streaming is bad for those students assigned to lower-ability classes, while those in the higher-ability streams don’t make any gains. If a teenager is told they’re not so bright, it’s less likely that the school will invest its best resources in them, while the young person may feel dejected and stupid and be less likely to perform to the best of their ability. Schools that still stream classes are way behind the curve.

Additional learning needs: Some young people have autism-spectrum conditions, dyslexia or dyspraxia or a physical disability. These children have as much right to a full education as every other child. Ask a school if it will support and accommodate your child; its response will tell you all you need to know.

Discipline: A good school has rules, demands respectful behaviour from its students, and involves parents in disciplinary issues from an early stage. And it has teachers that have high expectations of their students and encourage them to the best of their ability.