Analysis: the decision by parents to send their children to fee-paying schools is influenced by location, parental education and occupation

Each year the Sunday Times publishes a league table listing the top secondary schools in Ireland. This is judged based on the percentage of school leavers that progress to third-level education. The table is widely publicised by the media and highlighted by schools in their efforts to attract future pupils.

It is fair to say that these tables are not a true measure of a school or a child's success over six years. The tables fail to acknowledge the personal or non-academic successes of individual students. Instead, a one-size-fits-all measure of success is unfairly applied to every child. A wider view is needed for parents and guardians weighing up schooling options for their children.

From RTÉ One's Prime Time, a 2014 report asks if fee-paying schools be subsidised by the tax payer

Students in fee-paying secondary schools consistently perform well in terms of Leaving Certificate results and progression to third level education. A consensus has developed that enrolment in such schools may be a smart investment in a child's future. This questions whether Ireland’s free education system really offers an equal education to all children. Given that all schools teach the same curriculum by similarly trained teachers, it is wise to consider that the difference in school performances may lie in the traits of pupils entering the school rather than the characteristics of the school itself.

Previous research has looked at whether there is any difference in the abilities of 13-year old children entering each school type. Children with high scoring reading, mathematics and science skills are more likely to enrol in fee-paying schools. They are also more positive in their attitude towards schooling. These are signs that parents who are enthusiastic about education are passing it on to their children, with fee-paying school enrolment being one of the ways to do this.

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report from 1969 on the opening of Wesley College in Dublin 16 in 1969

Recent research shows that similar household traits are shared among households that enrol their children in a particular school type. The pupils of fee-paying schools are more likely to be residents of Co Dublin from better off, self-employed parents who have achieved a third level qualification.

Students of fee-paying schools are more likely to be residents of Dublin, regardless of the fact incomes are higher in this area. The popularity is due to the fact that 54% of all fee-paying schools in Ireland are located in Dublin, while 26% of non-fee-paying schools are in Dublin. This questions whether there is a need for more fee-paying schools outside Dublin so pupils across the country have a fair chance in attending schools placing high in the league tables. Students in rural areas are as likely to pay for grinds as those from urban areas. Therefore, they may be equally as likely to enrol in fee-paying schools if they are given the same chance.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, a 2016 discussion on fee-paying schools with Arthur Godsil, (director, Godsil Education), Victoria White (columnist with The Irish Examiner) and Brian Mooney (career guidance counsellor and columnist with The Irish Times)

It is clear that educated, high-income earning households have experienced the education system for themselves and they are better able to afford school fees. These parents are more likely to "shop around" to find the right school for their child. Whether a child's parent is single or married has no effect on school choice, which is surprising given the assumption that a married couple would be better able to afford the fees. The number of children in a household has no effect either which is interesting for similar affordability reasons.

The demand for fee-paying schools is changing over time and it decreased between the 2004/2005 and 2015/2016 school years. As Ireland was in a recession between 2008 and 2011, it is no surprise that demand for such schools decreased. However, their decline post-recession shows a continued decrease in demand which is a concern for such schools. Fee-paying school are increasing in popularity among one social group; the high-income earning households. This raises the question of whether only well-off households are going to demand such schools in the future, in an effort to give their children an advantage over others.

54% of all fee-paying schools in Ireland are located in Dublin, while 26% of non-fee-paying schools are in Dublin

As we can see, the decision by parents to enrol their children in fee-paying schools is influenced by location, parental education and occupation. More difficult to measure is the attitude to education which these parents pass to their children, and which may be enhanced when placed in a setting of likeminded classmates. These findings add to the argument that the story of a school’s success may not be determined by the school itself but rather by the traits of the students who fill the classrooms.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ