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Opinion: The CAO system can clearly be gamed, and it's perpetuating disadvantage

We believe university places should be awarded to students based on the ranking they achieved within their school, not their national ranking.

Phil Maguire

DESPITE THE ACKNOWLEDGED weaknesses of the Leaving Cert, the CAO points system for third level entry is often lauded for being a fair system. The admissions process is supposedly meritocratic, with exam performance being the sole determinant for earning a place at a third level institution. Family connections, status, power or wealth play no role in deciding who is accepted. Everyone has equal opportunity.

It sounds convincing in theory, but just how fair is the system in practice? At Maynooth University, myself and a final year Computer Science and Software Engineering student, David Kelly, decided to investigate. School rankings are announced by the media each year, based on third level progression statistics. This information is usually presented in a raw data format which is difficult to interpret. To make it more accessible, we decided to superimpose the historical data on a map. The resulting app can be viewed here.

Innate aptitude

As soon as the data are plotted geographically it becomes obvious that the CAO points system does not distribute university admissions evenly. People living in any area of the country should have, in general, the same level of innate aptitude as those living in any other. Yet the visual display reveals remarkable disparities in third level access across certain urban areas. For example, the north side of Dublin, inner city and west city are generally red (indicating low access) while the south side is consistently green (indicating high access).

Using school locations and third level admissions data from 2006 to 2013, we designed a simple algorithm to calculate the probability of a student living at a particular address going on to third level education. It should be noted that this algorithm makes great simplifications and ignores contextual details, offering only a crude approximation of underlying trends.

According to these calculations, a child living in Crumlin has only a 12% chance of going to university, while a child living in the Dublin 4 area has a 71% chance. For example, in 2013 a group of four schools in the Crumlin area sent between them only four students to university, out of a total of 117 who sat the Leaving Cert. In contrast, another school in Ranelagh sent more students to university last year (86) than it had students sitting the Leaving Cert (85). These statistics form part of a broad pattern which is consistently repeated in the respective surrounding areas.

Perpetuating disadvantage

As well as an association between CAO points and home address, there is also a strong association with the payment of schools fees. For example, a student living in Dundrum whose parents cannot afford to pay school fees has a 26% chance of going to university, while one attending a private school has more than double the probability, at 58%.

Although university admissions do not provide a complete picture, they suggest that the CAO points system might be perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage in certain parts of the country. The system can clearly be gamed, by paying private school fees, by paying for grinds and by sending children to schools that are culturally geared towards maximizing exam performance. The result is that students living in affluent areas are virtually assured of a place at third level. In contrast, students from disadvantaged areas, who cannot avail of the same resources, have restricted opportunities. Given how the odds are stacked against them, it is no surprise that many young people in these areas disengage from the education system at an early age.

Within a given school, CAO points has a strong correlation with student aptitude. Those with greatest academic ability will tend to achieve the highest points totals. Between schools, however, CAO points are less reliable as an indicator of aptitude. Different schools present completely different learning environments, meaning that comparing CAO points for students in Crumlin and Dublin 4 is like comparing apples and oranges. The data suggest that the strongest single predictor of CAO points between schools is not innate talent, but home address. Students are being accepted into university largely on account of where they live.

Inequality costs us all

Our education system should strive to eliminate academic disadvantage in society, not perpetuate and amplify it. Inequality is expensive. Research has shown that levels of inequality are correlated with lower physical and mental health, as well as greater drug abuse, imprisonment, obesity and violence. Inequality harms everyone by weakening innovation, investment and wealth production. As a consequence, the role that education systems play in facilitating social mobility and equality of opportunity may be just as valuable for economic growth as the act of teaching itself. Arguably, the single most important thing we can do to ensure the future prosperity of our nation is to act now and reduce educational inequality to the greatest extent possible.

In light of this, we propose that student performance should be evaluated within schools rather than between schools. University places should be awarded to students based on the ranking they achieved within their school, not their national ranking. For example, a student finishing in the top 10% of their cohort should be afforded the same opportunities, whether they attended a school in Crumlin or one in Ranelagh. A within-school evaluation system of this nature would encourage high achieving students to attend their local school, supporting a more equal distribution of resources.

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Some educators raise the point that, if more students from disadvantaged areas were allowed into third level, they would struggle to catch up. Initially, that might well be the case. But overcoming these disparities is exactly what our education system should be aiming to achieve. Contrary to its perception as fair, the CAO points system might actually be playing a key role in sustaining academic inequality.


Ten closest schools to selected locations in Crumlin and Dublin 4, with red indicating low university access (<10% percentile) and green indicating high access (>90% percentile).

Click here to try the app for yourself…

Dr Phil Maguire is co-director of Computational Thinking at Maynooth University.

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Phil Maguire

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