Why some schools do better than others

Why do some schools send more students on to third-level institutions than others?

It's no surprise to find that schools in Dublin 4 send more students to third-level than schools in Dublin 24. Parents tend to be that bit more taken aback to find that schools in Donegal generally send more students to third-level than those in Wicklow.

But why do some schools do better – in the narrow sense of sending more students on to third-level – than others? We asked education experts for their views.

John MacGabhann is general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland. Dr Jennifer Symonds is an assistant professor at the UCD School of Education. Dr Anthony Malone is a lecturer at Maynooth University's Department of Education. Cathy McLoughlin is head of the access service at DCU, which runs the largest university access programme in Ireland.


“Why are houses bigger in Dublin 4 than in Dublin 24?” asks MacGabhann, a long-time critic of the publication of college progression data. “This is the middle-class establishment looking in the mirror and saying: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ They send more to third-level than others because of economic factors. Of course, the lists reflect back to them the value of their own choices.”


Fee-paying schools have a particular advantage, he says. “They raise more through fees than through the Department of Education subvention. If 500 pupils are charged €6,000 per year, that gives the school a nest egg of €3 million – money that a school in the public system could only dream of – to buy additional teachers and better staffing levels, as well as more middle-management roles for the better administration of the school. It’s always been our view that, while parents have a right to send their children to fee-paying schools, our tax revenues should not be funding these exclusionary practices.”

Symonds points to Irish data which show that students in disadvantaged schools still have less chance of attending college even after accounting for their attainment. She suggests one of the influencing factors could be money. “There are systemic issues: when people look for part-time work to support themselves through college, they are often restricted to low-wage, temporary and insecure jobs, so employers need to be under pressure to improve the conditions of employment.”

Malone says there is mountains of evidence, dating back to the 1964 Coleman report, to show that inequality and social deprivation has a long-lasting impact on academic achievement. “The better schools are those vested in helping both students from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds to achieve. Supporting cultures of high expectations, wraparound supports and quality teaching and learning are all important. But there’s a debate about how influential schools are in terms of academic success, with some studies saying it only accounts for about 20 per cent of a student’s academic achievement. Family background and other social factors may be more significant.”

Grinds and the ‘marketisation of education’

“Ireland has long had a preoccupation with academic success,” says Malone. “The post-primary system, formally founded in legislation in 1878, was based on competition and a narrow view of achievement. If you talk to students now about how they got on in school, they’ll usually talk about their exam results, but this tells us little about the quality of their educational experience. These tables are grounded in that tradition. There is an argument that we should have as much transparency in our education system as possible, but league tables can narrow the conversation and ignore the structural inequalities in education.”

Among access students, 97 per cent graduate with higher honours. Why didn't they perform as well in the Leaving Cert?

Grinds and extra tuition are more easily available to students from families with disposable income, says McLoughlin. “Among access students, 97 per cent graduate with higher honours. Why didn’t they perform as well in the Leaving Cert? They didn’t have access to grinds, grinds schools, and the preparation for the exams. If they did, it might push them up a grade or two.”

MacGabhann is sceptical of the idea that grinds buy better teachers. “Where’s the evidence? The grind schools claim they have the best teachers, but what is a good teacher? They’re no better than teachers in other schools. Grinds imply what the word sounds like: a type of force-feeding, compacting into notes and removing discretion to allow the student think for themselves. While they might make sense in certain circumstances – such as if a child is very ill – time spent on grinds would be better spent on independent learning and developing the critical-thinking skills that would really serve them well at college by lessening their chances of dropping out.”

Tradition and aspiration

“Conversations about going to college start at a young age in many households,” says McLoughlin. “That doesn’t happen in every household, particularly where there is no tradition of going to third-level. If a parent has had a bad experience of education themselves, they might be more inclined to agree that Irish has no use or that maths is terrible. Immediately, certain courses are ruled out, because they may not be aware they need maths for engineering or Irish for primary teaching. There are households who may not know about how Susi could cover a lot of costs. By the time it is discussed, it can be transition year and that’s a little late to be talking about careers and aspirations.”

Symonds says young people are hugely influenced by the expectations others have of them. “Having a high-quality aspiration is a powerful shaper of career pathways, and this could be for an apprenticeship or a strong vocational route – this is just as important whether the student is in a Deis school or an expensive fee-paying school. An inclusive school is about accepting everyone, including those who aspire to different pathways. College isn’t the right route for all young people, and evidence from the US shows that funnelling people down that pathway leads to higher drop-out rates.”

School challenges

Maths, Irish, science, technology and modern language teachers are in short supply. McLaughlin says Deis schools are having particular problems in recruiting and retaining teachers. "If you're a teacher with a choice of jobs, you may go for a school that's less challenging. We're also hearing that teachers prefer jobs outside Dublin due to the cost of living in the city."

Working with colleagues, Symonds interviewed young Irish people from Dublin Deis schools about their experiences of classwork. “The majority said they were motivated to learn and found classwork meaningful. But there was a discrepancy between what was said and how some students behaved: we found about 20 per cent not concentrating because they were distracted by others, resulting in lower attainment. This can be a vicious cycle for students who are grouped into lower-attainment classes where disruptive students often coalesce.”

Taking an approach which focuses on the strengths of learners, we need to look at what is happening in the classroom to prevent learning, says Symonds. “We should acknowledge that students often need a high degree of motivation to pay attention to material that’s not necessarily interesting. The system as it is privileges students who like to sit down and read and write, and doesn’t always acknowledge that adolescents seek autonomy and don’t like being told what to do.”

Young people who don’t enjoy school work can quickly disengage from school, and identify as someone who doesn’t work hard or want to go to college, says Symonds. “Schools and parents that hold high aspirations for their students – vocational or academic, and link these pathways to classwork, while helping students stay focused and avoid distractions, may see better outcomes.”