Feeder Schools: Explaining the data

Ironing out statistical quirks in the school league tables

It is worth bearing in mind that the percentage number listed in the last column of the main Feeder Schools table does not represent a "true rate" for the progression of Leaving Certificate 2021 students to college this year as it takes account of a number of different elements.

In the data provided to The Irish Times, each third level institution includes all incoming first year students who attended a given school, even though up to 25 per cent of incoming first years may in fact be past pupils and sat the Leaving Certificate up to 20 years previously.

Why is this? The government legislated more than 20 years ago to block the publication of current-year progression data from our second-level schools. Colleges are only obliged to provide the composite number of past pupils of any school of all ages who commence a degree programme in 2021.

In other words, a 40-year- old past pupil of a given school returning to college this year is included in that school’s numbers, which is then measured as a percentage of the current sixth-year class of 2021.


Who goes to college? In any given year it can be estimated that up to 25 per cent of all incoming first-year students sat the Leaving Certificate in a year prior to the current one, but due to current policy, they are not differentiated in the data provided by colleges.

More than 13,000 applicants to the CAO in 2021 did so presenting a QQI/FET award and more than 5,000 of all successful applicants for CAO progressed from levels five/six further education programmes.

More than 8,500 applicants in 2021 were Leaving Certificate students from 2020, and at least 2,000 others from 2019, with several thousand more from previous years.

Alongside these students who have taken post-Leaving Certificate programmes or those who have delayed going to college for a year or more, are those who have dropped out of another CAO programme in first year or at a later stage in the course and are re-entering the CAO application process seeking a different third-level course this year.

Those re-entering college for a second time are effectively counted and credited twice to their school.

While all this is true, given the significant increase in grades secured by those students who received Leaving Cert results in both 2020 and 2021, it is quite probable that the percentage of previous years applicants from all schools who secured an offer was somewhat less than normal in 2021.

Weighting The Irish Times estimates that for a school where the numbers taking the Leaving Certificate remain relatively constant, we can deduct 25 per cent from its published progression rate to calculate the true progression rate of the 2021 class.

But in looking at schools with high college progression (as a percentage of the class of 2021), we can’t ignore the fact that from the data provided to the newspaper that a certain number of schools have had a significant reduction of 15 per cent or more in the number of students sitting the Leaving Certificate in the past year.

It’s a statistical aberration – these schools have seemingly high college progression precisely because their Leaving Certificate student numbers are declining. To include such schools would create a false impression and distort the figures, particularly when we tabulate the “most improved schools”.

For that reason, we have excluded from all the smaller tables schools where the number of students in the 2021 class was 85 per cent or less than the number who sat the Leaving Certificate in 2020.

There are a number of other schools that appear to show an improvement in progression rates, where they have fewer students in the Leaving Cert class of 2021 than in 2020, but whose reduction in student num- bers is less than 15 per cent.

This factor may give a perception of improvement in progression rates because of the effect of previous years’ past pupils now starting college on this year’s progression percentage, but The Irish Times has included them in our most-improved progression charts.

How do schools score over 100%? Measured as a percentage of the class of 2021, the Teresian School in Stillorgan, Dublin 4, appears to send 113 per cent of its students (including past pupils) to college, and the percentage progression for Muckross College, Donnybrook, Dublin, appears to be 107 per cent.

Salerno Secondary School, Threadmill Rd, Salthill, Galway recorded a progression rate of 116 per cent in 2021.

So how is it mathematically possible for some schools to continuously record more than 100 per cent attendance of their former students at third level?

The explanation for this apparent mathematical impossibility is that when a student registers with a college in the CAO system, they are credited to their former school.

If every past pupil of that school eventually undertook a third level course through the CAO, the total number of students registered would equal the number of former pupils for that period of years.

The only explanation for schools who consistently seem to perform at more than the 100 per cent participation rate in CAO college courses is that some of their students are being counted twice, as explained above.

If a student drops out of one course having been counted and credited back to his/her school and starts a new course, they are again credited back to their original school.

The higher the level of college dropouts experienced by former pupils of any given school, the higher the school’s progression rate will appear as recorded by colleges in the CAO system.

The reality of this phenomenon will remain hidden within the progression numbers if the total number of students going to college from any school over a period of years remains significantly below the total number who took the Leaving Certificate during that time.

Under-reporting of progression Alongside the problem of over-reporting of progression rates from some schools, our charts can also unfortunately under-report progression. This is due to the unavailability of the relevant data – something that is beyond our control.

For example, there has been a major expansion in the opportunities offered to young people leaving second level through the huge increase in apprenticeship programmes, co-ordinated through the State training agency Solas across a wide range of economic sectors, beyond the traditional construction trades.

Some of these young people graduate with level eight honours degrees but are not included in the numbers provided to The Irish Times by colleges, as they do not secure their places through the CAO application process.

Furthermore, a growing number of Irish students are seeking and accepting places in continental EU universities, particularly in the Netherlands where up to a thousand students accepted a place this year. The progression charts do not include these students, as The Irish Times does not receive any data in relation to these students.

Similarly, schools in Border regions that traditionally secure places for their former pupils in colleges in Northern Ireland, where 850 students accepted places in 2021, may appear to have lower progression rates to third level than they have, as The Irish Times does not have access to that data.

A further 1,360 Irish applicants accepted places in universities in the UK, 460 of them in Scottish colleges, but not all of them would be from the 2021 Leaving Certificate class. But again those that are will not be counted in our progression charts.

Is it worth it? The Irish Times has provided the clearest possible picture of the ongoing success of our second-level schools in supporting one of the largest proportions of school-leavers across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in progressing to higher education.

This success has transformed our society and economy and facilitated the ongoing development of the economy.

While the tables indicate in broad terms how a school is doing in terms of progression to tertiary-level education, factors such as enrolment policies and geographic location also contribute to the ranking and the publication of this data is not passing judgment on the success or otherwise of any of the schools featured.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times