Feeder tables are just one piece of the puzzle
Choosing a secondary school for your child can be surprisingly complicated. To assist you we have outlined some steps to help you with that process
Maeve Richardson, welfare officer with the Irish Second Level Students Union: “Good schools have peer-support networks to support young people, especially in the early days.”
Don O’Leary, director of Cork Life Centre: “For various reasons, between 10-20 per cent of children don’t fit easily into the mainstream Irish school system.”
Breda Lynch, ASTI vice-president: “I believe most students are happiest in their local school, moving on with the friends they have been with in primary school.” Photograph: Don MacMonagle
Ray Silke, teacher and ASTI member: “The overarching question should always be: will my child be happy in that school?”
Parents and students deserve information about schools. By giving a snapshot of how many students from a given school are going on to third-level, the feeder schools tables provide some of it.
But the feeder tables only give a partial picture and are perhaps of more interest to parents in areas where there is a genuine choice of schools – in smaller towns and rural parts of Ireland, teenagers go to the local secondary school.
Nonetheless, it’s a good idea for parents to get as much information as possible about whatever school their child is going to. Do they offer a range of sports and extracurricular activities? Do they have the Leaving Cert Applied, if that might be a better fit for your child? What subjects do they offer? Does their religious ethos (or lack thereof) fit with your family’s values? Do they genuinely expose the child to the outside world or is the school a privileged cocoon insulated from diversity? Will they support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) students? If your child has additional learning needs, will they fully support them? How many guidance counsellors do they have? How many students go on to third-level or higher education?
Don’t be afraid to ask these questions. Be afraid of schools who are won’t answer them and who shy away from transparency with vague or evasive answers.
We asked parents, teachers and students from a range of backgrounds and asked what they think makes for a good school. Some of the parents and teachers support young people with disabilities and additional learning needs.
Maeve Richardson, welfare officer with the Irish Second Level Students Union:
A good school gives students a chance to get involved. There’s a strong student council that the board of management listen to. They offer a range of sports, not just GAA. There are multiple extracurricular options for non-sporty students, such as debating, chess, Comhairle na nÓg, or the model UN.
They offer a range of subjects so that students aren’t restricted when it comes to exam time. They actively deal with bullying and don’t tolerate homophobia or transphobia, racism or discrimination against students with disabilities or different learning needs. Good schools have peer-support networks to support young people, especially in the early days.
Look at the history of the school. Observe how teachers interact with the students on an open day.
Don O’Leary, director of Cork Life Centre, which works with early school leavers to help them into employment or further or higher education:
For various reasons, between 10-20 per cent of children don’t fit easily into the mainstream Irish school system. These children can be highly intelligent, they may have additional learning needs, they may have difficult backgrounds, or they may come from very privileged families. How will a school support these kids? Schools should build a relationship with every young person and really listen to them.
A good school makes children feel they belong and gives them a sense of community. Staff and students learn from each other. As far as possible, students should have some control over the subjects they do. When you ask young people what subjects they like, they often choose those where they really liked the teacher. Our staff meet kids where they are, but we don’t have to worry about the points system. If a young person has mental-health or personal issues, or they’re hungry, you need to deal with that before you ask them to focus on maths class.
Roisin is the mother of a child with cerebral palsy. She lives in Dublin. On her request, we have withheld her last name to protect the privacy of her son:
My son has cerebral palsy. In my experience, it’s best to start the research around third or fourth class. I wanted a mixed-gender school with a positive attitude towards disability and which was not religious.
Ask the primary school to commission a psychological assessment in fifth class so the future secondary school can assess what resource hours the child may need or if they will require a special needs assistant. Look at getting a language exemption if this is relevant and get it inserted into the psychological report.
Go to the open days and bring your child along. These are very revealing and a wake-up call when you realise some schools don’t want children with disabilities. One school opened the day by saying that the majority of them will not succeed in getting into the school, because they had a very high demand and are extremely academic.
Follow up with a personal visit to the school and meet the person who has responsibility for special needs – usually either the principal or vice-principal.
The school I chose is Palmerstown Pobalscoil and they have worked hard to accommodate my son. Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock, Co Dublin, is a school which every parent of a child with disabilities would like to go to as they appear to be ahead of the field in integrating and supporting young people with difficulties; I didn’t follow it up as I wanted my son to be as independent as possible and get used to using public transport and I live in Rialto.
Generally, I don’t think secondary school is great for anyone with organisational or intellectual difficulties because the Irish model with changing subject and class every 40 minutes leaves many of them behind. My son is doing the Applied Leaving Cert and I’m hoping this will suit his needs into the future. The challenge now is where to after secondary school.
And, finally why he is wasting his time doing three periods of religion when he is an atheist?
Ray Silke, teacher and ASTI member, Coláiste Iognáid, Galway. He has been teaching for more than 20 years and is also a parent of four children:
The overarching question should always be: will my child be happy in that school? A happy and at-ease child will thrive in most environments and school is no different. Parents should ask other parents whose children are attending the school: are they happy there? What is the school’s approach to discipline, homework, punctuality, extracurricular activities and exams? What is the culture of the school like?
Attend the open evening. Ask the pertinent questions about the range of subjects, expectations of school staff, extra-curricular activities and pastoral care and well-being programmes.
Breda Lynch, ASTI vice-president and teacher at Dominican College, Dublin:
I believe most students are happiest in their local school, moving on with the friends they have been with in primary school. This works well outside city areas where, in general, the choice is very limited. In some cases, where pupils have special educational or social/ personal needs, it is important to speak to the relevant people in the school to see if the school has experience in this area. The views of other parents and/or students can be helpful here.
At a glance: the checklist – what a parent needs to ask
Most important: how will they support your child, whether high-achieving or vocationally-orientated, whether they have additional learning needs or not, whether they’re gay or straight, whether they’re sporty or not? Will the school meet the child where they are and help them reach their full potential?
What is the average class size?
Gender: Co-ed or mixed?
What is the religious ethos and how does it translate into the life of the school?
Is it progressive or conservative? Does it have comprehensive sex education?
What’s the school academic record like? Are they transparent enough to tell you?
What subjects are on offer?
What are the fees at the school?
What’s the discipline policy? How do they provide pastoral care?
How do they support children with additional or special learning needs?
What extracurricular activities are on offer?
How diverse is it? There’s a wealth of evidence to show that children who learn alongside those with mixed abilities, ethnicities, and social classes actually have better social, academic and cognitive outcomes.