Information gives parents more power
Parents are naturally hungry for information about the secondary schools their children may attend. They can read annual school reports, some of which are very good, while some are not. For years, they have been promised a Parent and Student Charter. Education Minister Richard Bruton has finally announced draft legislation which will compel all schools to consult a lot more with parents and to publish more information. This will include details of "extra-curricular activities and school performance".
Quite what he means by "school performance" is not clear. Does the minister mean publishing details of Leaving Certificate exam results - an idea that Fine Gael has flirted with in the past and one which alarms the education establishment? It's unlikely.
Feeder school league tables are a proxy for exam results - they are the nearest thing to the actual results. Schools profess to hate them (unless they do particularly well, of course) but parents love them. They know that they are not perfect and that they don't mirror the real value of a school. But league tables do, more or less, what it says on the tin: indicate how well individual schools perform in the college stakes.
This Sunday Independent supplement goes further than the annual publication of feeder school lists. It allows parents to track transfer rates to higher education over an eight-year period, to see whether the percentages going to college are consistent, improve or take a sudden dip. And if they do drop suddenly, they want to know why.
Parents are also aware of the school evaluation reports available on the Department of Education and Skills' website (education.ie). When these reports first appeared in 2003/2004, they were very anodyne and contained little criticism of individual schools. They still acknowledge and affirm good work going on in the schools but now, when it is necessary, they are quite tough on school failings. In some cases, the criticism is subtly worded, while in others it's quite clear to anyone where weaknesses in particular subjects exist in individual schools. That creates pressure on the teachers and the schools to improve in weak areas. Schools have to be constantly vigilant of the need to improve.
Parents rely on these reports, on local information and advice, and on feeder school tables to guide them into making a choice for their children. That's assuming they have a choice of school - which many don't. But there are gaps in the league tables - such as the figures for those going to universities in the UK - which explains why schools like St Columba's in Dublin don't have a higher rank.
The information published here is taken from data supplied by the higher education institutions themselves. And, unfortunately, they do not supply the details in the same way across the sector. Some, for instance, mention the last school a repeat student attended, while others list all schools where a student sat the Leaving.
One obvious weakness is the absence of data about the numbers going on to the increasingly important further education sector. For years, this was the underdeveloped sector but there is now a strategy for development in place and the Government is, at last, placing more emphasis on further education and on apprenticeships.
This point was made by Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) CEO Michael Moriarty, who asks: "Are we to forever label success as third level transition when there are a number of alternative learning pathways which all need to be equally valued? This is what is happening across Europe (and Ireland) in regard to apprenticeship training.
"Our view is that these tables measure success on a very narrow basis as transition to third level. Yet our education system needs to be measured in a more holistic way, which reflects the true value and success of schools. A school's success should be measured by the development of the student cohort in the context of student intake," he said, adding the point that ETBI schools are not selective about their intake, while others can be.
He is correct in saying that schools with restricted enrolment do dominate the tables, but the increasing success of gaelscoileanna and schools in the Free Education scheme has to be noted as well. He is also correct about the unfortunate omission of transfer rates to the further education sector. But the explanation for this omission is simple - the information is not readily available. If the details were available they would be published and would give a more rounded view of the success of second level schools in sending students to higher or further education.