Every parent wants the best for their child, which is why choosing a post-primary school, where they will spend the bulk of their time as teenagers, is such a complicated decision. Should you choose a community school or a vocational school? Is mixed better than single-sex? Your local school has great facilities but it’s a huge place with six full class groups in each year – would your child be better off in that little private school a bus ride away? Do you go for the school that gets amazing results, or the one that has a fantastic sports coach given your teen is fixated on becoming the next Katie Taylor or Rob Kearney? Are there schools that tick both boxes and more?
Irish parents take school choice seriously. Economic and Social Research Institute research in 2010 found half of parents choose to send their children to a school other than the one that’s closest to them. That’s a lot of people actively choosing a school based on some factor other than convenience.
The Irish Times Feeder Schools tables, controversial though they are, are snapped up by parents year after year. There is a clear desire for information, any information, even flawed information, about how schools are doing. How many students are they sending to college? Some idea of how a school is performing academically, the success of these tables will attest, is better than no idea at all.
Naturally, lots of people simply send their children to the local school, but few do so lightly. Irish parents’ involvement in the decision is well-placed, as studies show choices made during post-primary education have a huge effect.
Indeed, data such as that in today’s feeder school lists, while helpful to a certain extent, does not provide anything like enough information about schools.
Dr Deirdre Raftery, director of research in UCD's school of education, is co-author, with Catherine KilBride, of the book Choosing a School – Second-Level Education in Ireland. She says, "Increasingly, parents are attuned to the importance of teenage mental health, and look to schools for support in helping them to raise young people who are confident and happy."
The key is not in choosing the best school, Raftery says. It is in choosing the best school for your child. As every child is different, the best school for one may not be the best for another. More awareness of the challenges faced by teenagers is leading to more examination of how schools approach such issues. “In choosing a school, parents may want to see how the school approaches health issues – physical and mental – and how it manages areas such as anti-bullying, examination stress, and physical education,” Raftery says.
The right school for your child is one that will contribute positively to their development, academic results and general wellbeing. Most parents know this instinctively, and automatically put their child at the centre of their decision.
The reassuring thing is that most schools are generally quite effective, meaning that they tend to have a positive influence on their students’ attainment. There are practical indicators of a school’s effectiveness.
Research shows objectively effective schools tend to be flexible when it comes to subject choice and level. They are clear, consistent and fair in their implementation of discipline. Teachers in such schools tend to have positive expectations for their students. Effective schools are well-managed and run smoothly.
Beyond those issues, things like location, school size and so on, are important in how they affect your child, but they haven’t been shown to have a significant impact on overall outcomes such as how well students do in exams as a whole. These factors may have an influence on how well your child will fare and that is what parents need to consider.
Just to confuse things, being top of the feeder lists is not necessarily an indicator of how academically effective a school is. A grand haul of A grades at Leaving Cert level could well be thanks to a huge amount of work on the part of grind teachers outside of school, in which case, the depth of parents’ wallets and ambitions are the factors having the largest influence.
The effective school is the one that makes a positive difference, be that an A grade, a C grade or simply completing school.
Essentially, most schools are a mixed bag. Some teachers will be excellent, others will be less so. Some year groups will be a dream to teach, others present more of a challenge.
What is reassuring for parents is that in Ireland the standard is fairly consistent and the decision will come down to where your child will be happiest.
A large part of the decision rests on instinct. “A Leaving Cert result, or progression to college, is the end product,” Raftery says. “There are six very important years between now and then.”
FACTORS INFLUENCING YOUR DECISION
The factors below have not been shown to have an influence on overall outcomes for students. However, you know your child and they may have an influence on how an individual student does in school.
Comprehensive versus vocational – does school type matter?
In Ireland there is a choice between voluntary secondary, vocational and community colleges and community or comprehensive schools.
Voluntary secondary schools are privately owned and managed. They are under the trusteeship of a religious community, a board of governors or an individual. Traditionally they offer more academic subjects than practical ones, although this is changing. They can be fee-paying or non-fee-paying.
Vocational schools and community colleges are run by local Education and Training Board (ETBs) and are largely funded by the Department of Education and Skills. In the past, they provided more practical and skills-based education, but now they provide a wide range of academic and practical subjects. Many vocational schools also offer adult and community education.
Many community and comprehensive schools were established as a result of an amalgamation between a vocational school and a voluntary secondary school. They offer a wide range of both academic and practical subjects.
Research has shown school type has very little influence on how well students do in exams.
Local or not?
Just half of students surveyed in the ESRI report mentioned above were attending their local school. The rest were travelling to a school further away, indicating Irish parents are active decision-makers when it comes to schools.
Does school ethos matter?
This is subjective. Is the school's ethos important to you? Is it more important than other factors? Go to the open day, read the literature. How will your child fit in?
Big or small?
Larger schools can offer a wider range of subjects and levels. They often have good facilities and can cater to a variety of abilities. Smaller schools have the advantage of offering an environment where your child will be well-known by students and teachers, but their subject and extracurricular options may be more limited.
Girls or boys, or both?
Research shows no difference in academic outcomes between mixed and single-sex schools. On a social and developmental level, mixed schools are particularly good for boys.
The research for girls is more ambiguous, with some studies showing a mixed environment reduces gender stereotyping for girls while others show it reinforces stereotyping. Ask yourself what suits your child.
How does the school deal with different abilities?
Most schools now have a mixture of abilities in all classes, particularly in first year. Later, some schools stream students according to ability. Other schools stream students for certain subjects only – maths, English and Irish for example. Ask about the practice in your favoured school, and again ask what will suit your child.
What's the academic record like?
Ask the school. Feeder school lists, imperfections aside, give some idea of college progression from a particular school, but they don't tell the whole story. If you want information about student progression, the best option is to ask the school where its students ended up last year.
What happens when a student needs extra help?
Your child is fully entitled to take a full part in school life and deserves a school that recognises that.
Talk to the school. See what accommodations are already in place for those with special educational needs and how the school is willing to help. You will know from the response whether you have found the right place for your child. Academic options? Do you think a good transition year is important? Would your child be interested in alternative exam options like the Leaving Cert Vocational programme or the Leaving Cert Applied? These are not available in all schools.
How much will it all cost?
Fee paying? Non-fee paying? Is there a book-rental scheme? Are students expected to have laptops or tablets? What's the voluntary contribution? Is there a culture of school trips? What impact will this have for your family over six years?
Outside of academia?
Did your child like hurling in primary school? Did she show a particular interest in science? Is he a talented artist?
Does the school offer facilities and activities that will allow your child to pursue his or her talents and interests?
CHARACTERISTICS OF AN EFFECTIVE SCHOOL
Ask what subjects are available. If your son wants to do home economics, for example, make sure it's on the timetable.
Flexibility around subjects is a characteristic of an academically effective school. The more effective schools tend to allow students to sample subjects before asking them to choose what they want to study.
When do students decide about higher or ordinary level? The longer students delay the decision, the more of them will end up doing higher level.
Think ahead on this. If your child is keen on music and art, try to ensure there isn't going to be a timetable clash later on.
This is about implementation. The code of discipline is one thing, but effective schools will be consistent, transparent and fair in their application of rules. Procedures will be clear. While many parents dread a phone call from the principal, early involvement of parents in disciplinary matters is another characteristic of the effective school.
Quality teaching is important and research has shown Irish parents value teaching and assume it is of a high standard.
Teachers in effective schools expect and encourage high standards from students.
School organisation and leadership:
This can be difficult to pin down but is vital. If a school is not well-run, you will probably hear about it from other parents. If everything is running smoothly you may not even notice.
IDENTIFIED A SCHOOL?
How to find out more about what works – and what doesn’t
Open days are a great way to talk to teachers, students and to have a look around the school all in one go. Some schools are better than others at advertising their open days so call a school and find out when theirs is on.
Talk to other parents. The word on the ground can be surprisingly accurate. Beware of the sweeping "Oh, X is the best school," but don't disregard it. Just use it as a springboard to find out more. Trust your own judgment, however. What's best for everyone else may not be best for your child.
Schools' own websites vary considerably in quality and content but they can be useful in finding out more. Websites such as schooldays.ie and citizensinformation.ie can also be helpful.
The Find a School feature on the Department of Education's website, education.ie, is useful. It's on the upper right-hand side of the homepage. You can input a few details about the sort of school you want and it will give you a map with schools in your area. Click into any of those schools and it will give you details about the school including website, pupil numbers and all inspection reports available.
Departmental inspectors visit schools and conduct whole school evaluations, subject inspections and programme evaluations.