HEA study reveals how postcodes affects student prospects

A soon-to-be-published report by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) – as reported by the Irish Independent – has found startling results in terms of how affluence or the lack thereof can influence academic performance as well as progression. The research indicates the wealthiest areas see the most second-level students going on to attend third-level as well as those achieving the highest Leaving Certificate points. At the moment, those in disadvantaged areas are more likely to score less in the Leaving Certificate, earn less when they progress to the professional sector and are less likely to attend third level in the first place.

The report examined small patches of the population and cross referenced the most recent household income data alongside the level of Leaving Certificate achievement and progression into higher education. To measure socioeconomic background, researchers used the Pobal HP Deprivation index from the government to determine the relative prosperity or disadvantage of a particular geographical area.

Affluent students were discovered to be 10 times more likely to achieve high points in the Leaving Certificate and take their pick in esteemed third level courses. It found that students from the most affluent areas accounted for 32% of those scoring 555-600 points and 26% of those with 505-555 points. But only 3% and 4% from the most disadvantaged areas scored within the same points bracket. 24% of those scoring 155-205 Leaving Certificate points came from disadvantaged areas compared with 8% of the wealthiest communities. 

Furthermore, those from affluent areas tend to make up a high proportion of students in 500+ points courses such as healthcare, finance and business. A stark example are figures for medicine, one of the most competitive and highly-sought after professions. It was found that 36% of enrolments to the course came from the wealthiest areas as opposed to 3.5% from disadvantaged communities.

Overall, 19% of third-level enrolments came from the wealthiest families compared to just 10% from the most disadvantaged families. The HEA also found that socioeconomic status affected earnings in the year after completing college. Regardless of the level, the grade achieved, specialism or their initial employment, socioeconomic standing still had a strong influence on earnings after college. This could mean a difference of €1,000-€2,000 in pay levels a year after graduation between a well-off  student and disadvantaged student. 

DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) schools are attempting to close this wide and evident gap between the wealthiest areas and the most disadvantaged ones. In January of this year, the Educational Research Centre conducted research on DEIS schools and how they were performing in comparison to data collected from the Junior Certificate programme in 1998. For the purposes of the study, they used the possession of a medical card as an indicator of low family income. 

It appears that the DEIS programme is working as intended for students from disadvantaged areas. Since the year 2006, when the DEIS initiative began, there have been significant reductions in students sitting Foundation Level papers in both English and Maths. There has been an increase in students sitting Higher Level papers in these same subjects. Twelve years ago, in 2007, one fourth (24%) of all DEIS students sat Foundation Level Maths papers. This fell to 13% nine years later in 2016. Students sitting Higher Level Maths papers rose from 19 to 33% during the same time frame. The Education Research Centre stated in a press release that ‘significant gaps still exist and most of those gaps have their basis in income inequality.’

Disadvantaged areas have DEIS schools, while the wealthier areas have what are known as feeder schools. These are schools which have a proven track record of students going on to attend some form of third level education after their studies. In December of last year, the Irish Times published research concerning how feeder schools performed on a national scale. The most affluent areas of Dublin 2, Dublin 4 and Dublin 6 saw 90-100% of the student body progress to some form of third level institution. 80% of school leavers from Dublin 6 entered either into a university, college of education, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) or Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT)  In comparison, only around 57% of DEIS students went on to higher education, while Dublin 10 and 11 witnessed far lower progression rates of 42-44%. Dublin 17 saw the lowest progression rate with just 7% going on to attend higher education (however this data may be distorted by a single secondary school in the area). According to the report, these figures have seen no change since 2012.