Students from wealthy areas more likely to proceed to third level education

Image Credit: Cominic Daly

The Irish Times Feeder School Tables revealed more students from DEIS-designated schools progressed to third-level in 2020 than in other years. However, the figures reveal socio-economic disparity still exists in third-level education.

The Irish Times Feeder School Table is a collection of figures compiled by The Irish Times, indicating which school third-level students completed their second-level education. There are 198 DEIS-designated secondary schools in Ireland. The figures for 2020 show that 63.5%, or 6,662 of the 10,486 students from DEIS schools, progressed to third-level, in comparison to 57% percent in 2019. 

However, students from wealthy areas are still more likely to progress to third-level education. There are 51 Fee-paying schools in Ireland, the majority of which are located in south county Dublin. Fee-paying schools also account for over 50% of the top 10 schools with the highest progression rate. 85.5%, or 3,252 of the 3,803 fee-paying students who received calculated grades, progressed to the third level. This is a slight decrease from 2019 figures, although this may be attributable to students who took the Leaving Certificate in November.

Students from DEIS schools account for 19.3% of all 2020 Leaving Certificate students, whereas students attending fee-paying schools make up 7% of the group. However, of the 43,705 third-level places recorded in the tables, 12.3% of that number was filled by students of DEIS schools, and 11.7% by fee-paying students. Only 32.7% of students from DEIS schools achieved a place in a high-points course, in comparison to 85.5% of students who attended fee-paying schools. 

The calculated grades system received much criticism from schools with a tradition of achieving high points in the Leaving Certificate, who believed the algorithm disadvantaged their students. However, the process may have contributed to the increased progression to third-level for students from DEIS schools, as the rate significantly increased from an average of 26% over the last six years.

In 2020, 22.4% of UCD’s 4,462 incoming first years attended a fee-paying school, in comparison to 8.1% of UCD’s first-years who attended a DEIS school. Collectively, over 25% of first-year students at UCD and Trinity College attended a fee-paying school. Students from fee-paying schools also accounted for 28 of the 50 highest point places in 2020.

The figures from 2020 indicate that the investment in the DEIS programme since 2005 is greatly increasing progression to third-level education, however, the figures also show student from fee-paying schools and wealthy areas have an advantage. The disparities illustrate that more work is necessary in order to enable and attract students from disadvantaged areas to attend high-points colleges, and prevent social class from acting as a barrier to education. 

Rachel, a guidance counsellor who works in a DEIS-designated school spoke to me about the issue. Rachel outlined that the increase in DEIS student progression rates may be due to the fact many more schools came under DEIS criteria in the last six years, which means more students have the opportunity to avail of DEIS supports. Rachel described the programme as creating an “additional level of support which allows third-level to be an option”. She emphasised that the supports benefit the students in a wide variety of ways, from access to school lunches, to support and guidance navigating the choices and forms involved with third level education, as many students in her school may be the first in the family to pursue third-level education. DEIS status also decreases the financial barrier to accessing third-level education. 

In describing what can be done to increase access to third-level for students in disadvantaged schools, Rachel stressed the importance of students having access to higher level Leaving Certificate subjects, equal access to practical subjects regardless of gender, and exposure to a wide range of subjects from a young age. She also highlighted the importance of being able to participate in Transition Year experiences, which provide “non-academic learning that builds students confidence”. The funds the DEIS programme provide have allowed these opportunities to exist, however, Rachel outlined her belief that further programmes, such as exposure to role models in the local community who have gone on to third-level education, may help motivate students who have never considered further education as an option. She also noted the benefits of a programme of community mentoring with local business people.

Rachel described the support DEIS students get in college as “outstanding”, and particularly praised the “incredible work” of Access Officers, as well as the benefits of drop-in support clinics and teaching how to learn module. However, she expressed concern regarding what level of support these students get upon graduating. 

When asked why there are fewer students in UCD from DEIS in comparison to fee-paying schools, Carla Gummerson, Graduate Officer for UCD Students’ Union, said: “'I think the University has always been seen as an elite university, which in turn can give students the perception that they may not be welcome in UCD.” Gummerson further commented that “it is only in more recent years that the University has built up relationships with DEIS schools. These relationships include outreach work from various colleges. They reach out to DEIS schools to do workshops and information sessions so that students feel welcome in UCD and see it as an option for them.” Gummerson emphasised that “UCD has to break down the barriers before we will see a significant rise in students from DEIS schools.”

Gummerson outlined that her belief that UCD “are getting better at making the courses accessible to DEIS students, but I do feel there is still more work to do”, emphasising that the “Colleges and Schools within the University is needed to ensure that the courses are accessible to students”. Gummerson described the Access Lifelong Learning centre as “key to the support of DEIS students.”