ESRI Report Highlights Challenges Faced by Young People after Post-Primary Education

The 'Leaving School in Ireland' study is the first of its kind to link experiences in second-level education with later outcomes.

A new report being launched by the ESRI today (Tuesday, 12 August 2014) provides new insights into the experiences of young people transitioning into further/higher education and the labour market. Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions follows the pathways taken by over 750 students as they make the leap from second-level school into the next phase of their lives.
This study, which draws on the experience of many of these students since they entered post-primary education through the Post-Primary Longitudinal Study (2001-2011), explores the long-term effects of school experiences.

Key findings include:

Schools make a difference

  • School experiences made a significant difference to the pathways young people took on leaving school.  Young people who had more positive interactions with their teachers were more likely to stay on in education after leaving school.
  • The social mix of the school had a particularly strong influence. Young people who attended socially-mixed schools and middle-class schools, were more likely than those from working-class schools to go on to some form of post-school education and training, all else being equal.    

Realising aspirations

  • Higher education was the dominant pathway for these young people – some 61 per cent of them entered higher education. The research found that those who took Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses often saw this as a compromise rather than a specific goal, especially where they did not go on to further study on completi
  • A significant proportion of young people did not achieve their goals and almost half expressed regrets about the pathway they had taken. Their regrets reflected their difficulties in accessing employment during the recession, not having the ‘points’ to obtain their preferred course, and courses not being what they expected.

The transition to further and higher education

  •  A large majority (over four-fifths) of school leavers reported significant differences in teaching and learning between second-level education and further/higher education. They highlighted particular difficulties in relation to the standard expected of them, the difficulty of the course and managing their workload. The need to engage in self-directed learning in further/higher education was contrasted with the more directive approach adopted in school.
  • Support structures within further and higher education institutions were found to play an important role in supporting the transition to further study.

Young people’s well-being

  • Young people were largely positive about many aspects of their lives, including friendships, accommodation, their course/job, and workload.  However, a significant minority (around one in six) reported high stress levels, with higher stress levels among those who were unemployed and those in higher education preparing for their final exams.


The study discusses a number of policy implications:

  •  The findings point to the necessity of providing a positive and engaging school experience for all students in order to enhance later education opportunities. Effective implementation of current junior cycle reforms will require a significant broadening of the set of teaching and assessment methods used in the classroom in order to engage all groups of young people in learning.
  •  There is potential within senior cycle to equip young people with the kinds of skills they need for lifelong learning and the labour market, through greater use of approaches including project work and team work.
  • Aspirations to higher education are evident as early as junior cycle. The study highlights the importance of a whole-school approach to guidance, in which advice from teachers on which subjects and levels to study keeps options open for the future and in which the climate of the school encourages young people to have high aspirations. Young people also value specialist guidance (especially on a one-to-one basis) which plays an important role in providing detailed information on potential courses and jobs.
  •  Post-school educational institutions have a key role to play in providing a range of supports for young people which facilitates their academic and social integration into college life, thereby reducing dropout and under-performance.

Report author Selina McCoy said “the research shows that schools make a significant difference to young people’s longer term outcomes. Aspirations to further and higher education emerge as early as junior cycle, indicating the importance of providing a supportive school climate which encourages high aspirations among all students”.

Report author Emer Smyth said “the research provides strong empirical evidence on a cohort of Irish students who have been followed over a period of 10 years. There is a huge amount of evidence in this report that can inform policy in this area. The ESRI will be hosting a major conference in the autumn on the report findings and their implications for policy development”.

For further information on the research please contact:

Dr Selina McCoy (Associate Research Professor, ESRI), 

Dr Emer Smyth (Research Professor, ESRI),

Dr Merike Darmody (Research Officer, ESRI),


Notes for Editors
1. This study has been funded by the provision of grants from 10 organisations, namely the Higher Education Authority; the Department of Education and Skills; the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment; the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals; the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland; the Further Education and Training Awards Council; the Higher Education and Training Awards Council; the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland; the Teachers’ Union of Ireland and the National Council for Special Education.