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'Feeder school' league tables: Here's why they give parents a distorted view of what constitutes a decent school

‘Feeder Schools’ tables show that students who attended private fee-paying schools go on to attend third-level education at higher rates than others.

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LAST WEEK SAW the annual blaze of publicity surrounding the Irish Times’ and Irish Independent ‘Feeder Schools’ tables, which showed that students who attended private fee-paying schools go on to attend third-level education at higher rates than others.

Some have taken this as evidence that fee-paying schools perform better than other types of school: a misleading interpretation that risks giving a distorted view of what constitutes a good school. 

Firstly, these league tables illustrate a fixation in Ireland with higher education, ignoring the diversity of post-school education and training pathways on offer to school leavers.

Evidence from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI) clearly shows that alternatives like the Post-Leaving Certificate programme serve both as a pathway into higher education, but perhaps more importantly, as providing valuable learning and career development opportunities in their own right. 

Second, research by economists at NUI Maynooth has shown that the better results achieved in state exams by pupils of fee-paying schools are largely explained by these students’ higher prior ability and family background.

Once you account for the fact that pupils of fee-paying schools come from more advantaged backgrounds and (relatedly) have higher reading and maths scores on entry to secondary school, going to a fee-paying school has no effect on results in state exams.

This matters because there is evidence that crude rankings influence the choices that parents make over where to send their children to school.

Schools that appear high in these rankings are more likely to be oversubscribed than schools who do not but who research suggests genuinely boost their pupils’ performance in state exams. This suggests that parents are not sending their children to the schools that give them the best chances of going to college, if that is their objective.

The same research shows that if each child were to attend their local school with the highest estimated value-added, test scores could rise significantly: by an amount equivalent to having a parent with a university degree.

The scope for such gains highlights the potential benefits – at minimal cost – of providing parents with information about the value-added of schools. 

However, addressing socioeconomic inequalities in academic achievement requires far more than that.

‘Simplistic and irrelevant’

We know that gaps in skills are large, open up early in life, and are important determinants of future outcomes.

For example, although the dispersion of scores in international standardised tests is smaller in Ireland than elsewhere, ESRI’s Growing Up in Ireland survey shows that children in the lowest-income fifth of households are still more than three times as likely as those in the highest-income fifth to be rated as below average in numeracy by their teacher at age 5.

We also know from evidence at home and abroad that these gaps can be reduced with sustained policy intervention.

A recent evaluation by researchers at UCD showed that an intensive programme of home visits and group parenting substantially raised cognitive skills and reduced the incidence of behavioural problems among young children in disadvantaged Irish families.

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This demonstrates the potential of early interventions to alleviate the effects of being exposed to disadvantage early in life, something that the Government has indicated backing for in its ‘First 5’ strategy for children published earlier this year. 

But greater levels of support are needed later in childhood as well. ESRI work has shown that a major challenge facing schools in disadvantaged areas is the far greater complexity of need among their students: for instance, a much higher share with learning or emotional-behavioural difficulties. Although such schools receive additional grant funding from the government, they are also less likely to ask for or receive voluntary contributions from parents. 

The current levels of state funding are likely insufficient to bridge the gap in resources between schools in advantaged and disadvantaged areas, particularly in urban areas. A school funding formula weighted more heavily towards those in the most disadvantaged areas could help address this, something the Department of Education is currently considering. 

There is also a clear need for greater attention on alternatives to higher education and how these can be improved. 

Last year SOLAS reporting spending more than €600 million on Further Education and Training for around 300,000 beneficiaries across 28,000 courses. In comparison to countries like Germany, Austria and Australia, these are less aligned with labour market demands and – despite their scale – have until recently been subject to limited systematic evaluation.

A stronger emphasis on work placements and the formation of skills in demand by employers could enhance the effectiveness of these courses, as could more intensive monitoring and evaluation.

More generally, we would be better served by trying to understand how we can best equip students to thrive in all walks of life rather than fixate on simplistic and irrelevant Feeder School tables.

Barra Roantree is an economist at the ERSI whose work is focused on taxation, welfare and pensions policy. Selina McCoy is an associate research professor at the ESRI whose work focuses on education policy and social inequality.

About the author:

Barra Roantree and Selina McCoy

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