ESRI research highlights the centrality of community and respect for students in Irish voluntary secondary schools

New research ‘Embracing Diversity in all its Forms’: The Voluntary Secondary Sector in Irish Education published today (30 April 2024) by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), examines the contribution of the voluntary secondary sector to the Irish education system, taking a holistic view of what schools are doing and how they are doing it. 

Voluntary secondary schools, accounting for over half of all second-level schools, are privately owned and managed but are largely publicly funded schools, usually under the patronage of an individual body such as a religious community, a charitable trust or a private charitable company. 

The research, funded by the Joint Managerial Body for Voluntary Secondary Schools (JMB), draws on a survey of over 2200 students in 21 secondary schools, in-depth interviews with teachers, school leaders and a range of national stakeholders and focus groups with students. It also draws on the ’08 Cohort of the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study and the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 survey of 15-year-olds to compare experiences in voluntary secondary schools and other sectors.

Key findings: 

  • Differences between the three second-level education sectors in intake and outcome have narrowed over time, though some differences remain. However, the diversity within the voluntary secondary sector remains pronounced, with different schools serving different populations. 
  • The ethos valued by students includes community-building, extracurricular engagement, balancing academic and personal development, and a commitment to inclusion and diversity. 
  • There was a sense in many schools of the ethos developing significantly over time, softening, and opening up to more religious diversity among the student population. Some students saw their schools’ religious ethos as playing an important role in promoting awareness, tolerance, and respect, while others disagreed with the religious ethos of their school or religion in schools in general. 
  • Students, regardless of attending single-sex or coeducational schools, favoured coeducational settings, while staff and parents expressed diverse preferences. 
  • Gender differences persist in the subjects available to students and in terms of their actual subject choices, as well as in the extent to which different subjects are seen as interesting or difficult. Only a small minority of students find learning Irish interesting, raising implications for the national language. 
  • Overall, technology was seen to enhance teaching and learning experiences, facilitate communication, support collaborative work and develop independent learning skills. However, there was awareness that its effectiveness depends on how it is used.  
  • Despite strong environmental awareness, students reported limited engagement in related activities in their lives, like environmental protection activities, choosing products for ethical or environmental reasons or signing environmental petitions. 
  • While students reflected positively on their social, academic and personal development, they were less positive about their schools’ role in building self-confidence, encouraging reading for pleasure, and in particular, making friends with the opposite sex.  
  • Regarding schools’ academic and Special Educational Needs (SEN) supports, some students expressed concerns about their specific learning needs not being met. There was a preference among students for more individualised or small group supports. 
  • The study shows an enduring impact of COVID-19 on students’ learning, academic performance, motivation and wellbeing. Attendance is also impacted. 
  • Life satisfaction levels also varied widely, being somewhat lower among girls, students with additional needs and those from economically vulnerable families. Students who report feeling they belong at school and who perceive better wellbeing supports at school are more likely to score higher on life satisfaction.

Eamonn Carroll, one of the authors of the report, commented: “The proportion of Irish second-level students attending single-sex schools stands out from other European countries, with roughly one third of students in all-boys or all-girls schools. While research participants outlined positives and negatives to all three types of gender mix, the strength of the preference expressed by students for coeducation in this study was eye-opening. This research underlines the need for schools to engage with students and the wider school community on this question.” 

Selina McCoy, another author, commented: “The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have highlighted the urgent need for professional, therapeutic supports at school for children and young adults. The growing trend of students missing school post-COVID-19 is especially concerning, with far-reaching consequences for their academic engagement, school completion, and future prospects” 

The JMB funded this research. Deirdre Matthews, General Secretary of the JMB said: “we welcome the findings of the research as reaffirming the enduring values and value of voluntary secondary schools in fostering inclusive and holistic learning environments and celebrating diversity as the values underpinning the ethos of the vast majority of our schools as well as mitigating disadvantage in all its forms. The JMB looks forward to engaging with our schools and policymakers on the implications of this research”.

Policy implications  

  • School infrastructural deficits and teacher supply problems are impacting the capacity of schools to offer a diversity of curricular- and extra-curricular activities. The system is reliant on volunteerism to provide extra-curricular programmes and stakeholders question its sustainability. 
  • Schools serving disadvantaged communities that are not part of the DEIS programme struggled to meet high levels of student need. This is related to the capacity of schools to meet growing student and community need, particularly in a context of funding shortfalls for schools. 
  • School leaders highlighted the considerable demands being placed on them across the multiplicity of roles they play – administrative, financial, human resources, industrial relations, infrastructural and the need for greater administrative and leadership supports.