What’s stopping better information on schools?

A secondary school education is not defined by academic performance alone

Are third level progression charts a flawed and limited metric? Or do they provide valuable information to parents and guardians? The answer to both questions is yes.

The information published in today’s Irish Times isn’t popular with teacher unions or some politicians, who say they promote elitism and strengthen the position of already privileged schools.

Prof Kevin Denny, head of the school of economics, at UCD, takes issue with this. "The basic argument is the following: school is multi-dimensional, it's not all about points. Such tables don't reflect that. Ergo, nothing is better than something. But since deciding what school to send their children to is one of the biggest decisions many parents make, it is fundamental that they are in a position to make an informed decision."

College progression data is but one metric, and today we also publish advice on the equally important factors that parents or guardians might consider when choosing a second-level school.


At the Oireachtas Committee on Education in September 2021, John Irwin, general secretary of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, criticised the media for not including apprenticeships in the "so-called league tables".

But apprenticeships and further education are not excluded from the annual feeder school tables because The Irish Times or other newspapers choose to ignore the data.

Instead, it’s because data on the school of origin of students going to further education and training is not systematically gathered and released.

Despite the criticisms levelled at the media over progression tables, the road to better data has consistently been blocked by the Department of Education and successive ministers for education, who know exactly how schools are performing.

Today, however, we have published data provided by Dunboyne College of Further Education showing the secondary school of origin of its students. It helps to paint a much better picture of the outcomes for students at those schools, although it remains a partial outcome – many of their students may have gone on to other colleges of further education but the data is not always recorded or released.

Contextualise Today's data will show that, unsurprisingly, fee-paying schools in wealthier areas send more students to third level. Vital details that could help people contextualise and understand this information, however, are blocked by the Government.

"Are fee-paying schools all that good and are the State schools all that bad?" Denny asks. "Probably not, but parents cannot know for certain because the information that might help them decide is censored. Ireland, incidentally, is out of line with other English- speaking countries in publishing no information on school performance. Making an informed decision is precisely what the educational system seems determined to prevent. Those who argue against providing exam and other data on schools are implicitly saying that they know the limitations of this information but that the public does not."

So what might better data look like? Dr Aedín Doris, Prof Donal O'Neill and Dr Olive Sweetman are lecturers and researchers at the department of economics in Maynooth University. They researched school outcomes and the factors that influence how well schools do.

“It does make sense for the media to provide information on school performance, but that information should be meaningful,” they say.

"If you take The Irish Times Feeder School tables as the measure of a school's success, it will appear on the surface that fee-paying schools are good schools. What we do in our paper on value-added approaches to assessing schools, however, is control for factors that might have affected the post-primary school's cohort of students, including how they got on in primary schools, parental levels of education and their socioeconomic background.

"The data to compile this information on a school-by- school basis is not readily available to parents: it would require access to data on how incoming secondary school cohorts did on their Drumcondra tests, comparing that with the school's overall Leaving Cert results. Drumcondra test results are unlikely to be released publicly, and [most] schools don't publish their overall Leaving Cert results," they say.

“It must sometimes be disheartening to teach in a Deis school given that the current rankings as published in The Irish Times don’t give them proper recognition for their work, and this could impact on morale, as well as encouraging teachers to focus on the students who need to make a little more progress in order to make it to third level.

“A value-added approach may not be able to indicate a school’s precise numerical ranking, but they could, for example, say what schools are in the top 10 or 20 per cent.

“We think this would provide meaningful information for parents and policy-makers, but the Department of Education is reluctant to undertake value-added evaluations and allow meaningful comparisons to be made,” the researchers say.

“They do provide whole school evaluations, but they are very qualitative; they don’t seem fit for purpose but could indicate if there are serious problems in the school.

“In our work, we also looked at variables that correlated with high or low value added including streaming, student supports, school type, and characteristics of the principal.

“One of the few variables that we found to be associated with value added was having a female principal. This is replicated in other international studies, too. We found no relationship between school type and value added.

“People know of the good schools in their area, primarily through word of mouth, and a successful school is doing something unique, and not always measurable.”