Explaining the progression charts of Irish secondary schools

Percentage progression rates do not solely reflect success of this year’s Leaving Cert class

Interestingly, more than 21 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

Interestingly, more than 21 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


Each year, the tables show very large numbers of college-going students came from schools in socially advantaged communities. These students tend to opt predominantly for universities and teacher-training courses.

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 of €6,750 are given annually for the duration of student’s undergraduate degrees, 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, attending non fee paying schools. More than 24 awards are also given to similar students in Northern Ireland based on their A-level results.

St Nathy’s in Roscommon had three winners in 2017. Sixteen other schools secured two award winners each. Thirty three students achieved 600 points with 11 of them securing the max of 625. Darragh McAuliffe from Listowel scored 813. Even more interesting is the fact that more than 21 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 that 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 2017.

Following the close of 2016 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 2017; 8 per cent of successful applicants are aged 19, so about half of that age group are of the class of 2017. Based on this analysis of the age profile, on average 78 per cent of successful college applicants from each Republic of Ireland schools did the Leaving Cert in 2017, 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 2017 secured a place in 2017.

The second relevant number in the tables is of the students who took the Leaving Cert in 2017 - the SITS. CAO figures show 84 per cent of them sought a place among the 44 institutions it covers.

To suggest that 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 as their first choice take level 5/6 QQI courses in post-Leaving Cert (PLC) colleges. Many complete these programmes and progress onto CAO courses the following year (and are credited back to their original school in the data supplied by the colleges when they register).

A proportion of 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. There are now over 1,000 Irish students studying at undergraduate degree programmes in the Netherlands.