Privately-educated elite have greater access to third level

Figures illustrate socio-economic inequality in progression rates to college and university

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are denied the same opportunities as their wealthier peers, while parents with money can afford a better education for their children despite Ireland's so-called free education system, an analysis of 2017 Irish Times feeder school list shows.

Fee-paying schools continue to send large numbers to third-level, with Dublin-based fee-paying schools appearing at the top of the charts once again. Holy Child in Killiney – an all-girls fee-paying school in the heart of south county Dublin – comes top of the list for the first time, while 10 of the top 20 schools are fee-paying.

In leafier parts of Co Dublin, 100 per cent of students go on to third-level, while schools in Dublin 4, 6, 6W and 14 all record high third-level progression rates. By contrast, progression rates are lower in more disadvantaged areas of the city including Dublin 10 (Ballyfermot), Dublin 22 (Clondalkin) and Dublin 11 (Finglas).

None of this is likely to be particularly surprising and yet, despite Herculean efforts by individual college access offices to broaden participation, change is happening slowly. After initially failing to allocate any ring-fenced funding to the National Access Plan for Higher Education 2015-19, three funding calls have been issued over the past six months; these are aimed at increasing the number of teachers from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing pathways for a small number of students under the 1916 Bursury Funds and encouraging regional clusters of third-levels to compete with one another for funds by proposing innovative projects to increase access.


Data from student grant body Susi suggests that students may be more likely to attend third-level if they live close to a college with, for instance, Tallaght and Blanchardstown in Dublin – both of which have institutes of technology on their doorstep - receiving a boost. This is supported by national and international evidence: a 2013 study by UCD found that around 60 per cent of their entrants came from within a 9km radius of the college.

Another feature of the schools data set repeated again this year is the proportion of Irish medium schools that continue to rank prominently at the upper end of the tables. An analysis of Ireland’s most improved schools, where figures from 2011 were compared with figures from 2017, also reflects the growth in popularity of Irish medium schools, with many showing significant increases in numbers sitting the Leaving Cert and in ensuant progression rates.

The latest figures will undoubtedly be grist for the mill for those who have long argued for greater Government support for new Irish-medium schools.

In today’s paper, we publish critiques on the value of these feeder tables, with some commentators pointing out that these lists should not be taken to read that one school is “better” than another because it has a higher third-level progression rate and that, for many young people in disadvantaged areas, there are myriad social and economic factors mitigating against them going to college including limited formal education, limited financial resources, higher rates of poverty, higher rates of special educational needs and higher numbers of young people for whom English is not the first language.

By contrast, students in more affluent areas – and particularly those in fee-paying schools – are less likely to encounter any significant diversity and can more easily afford grinds and extra school tuition; counter-intuitively, a fee-paying school may be on top of the list because it is has exclusionary admission policies (parents of children with special needs who apply to some of these schools have, on occasion, been told their child would be better off elsewhere) and poor quality teachers that drive its students to attend grinds. There is also a wealth of academic evidence which suggests that the single biggest factor influencing a young person’s educational prospects is the educational level of their mother. Yet again, the figures published today highlight the depth of educational inequality in the Irish education system.

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.