Tuesday 27 September 2016

Tables pressure on schools to steer students to third level

Education is about the social, moral and physical development of teens just as much as the academic

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

‘Statistics are as important for what they don’t measure as what they do’ (stock image) Photo: PA
‘Statistics are as important for what they don’t measure as what they do’ (stock image) Photo: PA

If you are a principal of a secondary school and league tables emerge, the first thing is the rush to check your position. A bit like checking the Premiership table on a Sunday morning.

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Last week this newspaper printed the six years tables from 2009 to 2015, so it does give a good indication on trends. You can be sure that parents in particular paid more than a passing interest in them too especially if they have a child at primary level and they have a choice of secondary school. In many cases there is no such choice.

When the idea of league tables was first mooted there was shock and horror from the unions who felt that these tables did not reflect the good work of teachers in some challenging situations. Now they are out in the open and the world has not caved in. My impression is that these publications have put pressure on schools to perform and resulted in changes in management style, subject choices and a load of other things, but most importantly, teacher performance has improved.

However, many schools do feel, and rightly so, that these tables have put them under pressure to guide students towards third level which may not be suitable for them.

Most schools have internal comparisons in various subjects and how they compare with national averages. These are the tools of the trade but as Mark Twain said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and within these school tables there are a whole range of issues which should carry a health warning.

First of all, the figures are not a comparison of like for like. Some schools have the Leaving Cert Applied course which means those students are not counted in these figures. These are generally weaker students academically so it gives a slightly distorted impression. These are the facts and is not a reflection on the Leaving Cert Applied course - in fact quite the opposite. More young people should be doing it.

The most important influence on Leaving Cert results - and thereby access to third level - is the calibre of student that walks in the door on the first day of school. Just like you need stars in every team to compete at the top level, the same is true of schools.

Location is another huge factor, schools in socially deprived areas have generally poorer outcomes. The tradition of education may not be strong here either and I often think that these statistics are grossly unfair to these schools in particular. In many cases these are the schools which are doing the best work and the publishing of statistics which on the face of it may not look good to the innocent eye are not doing them any service. Reputation is important in schools and looking at figures without an understanding can serve to further dishearten teachers, parents and pupils in some places.

So the statistics are as important for what they don't measure as what they do. Education is about the social, moral and physical development of young people just as much as the academic. The building of good citizenship and developing students who make a positive contribution to society in sport, the arts and helping voluntary organisations is as important as numbers going to third level. By adding another column in these stats showing those going to universities reflects that elitism still exists.

Many of those in the Institutes of Technology sector are providing courses at the equivalent level of universities and sometimes more focused on the world of work too.

There are a few guidelines on who does well in these sort of figures. Schools in middle class areas, girls' schools generally do better than boys', private schools do well because again they come from a certain background and those who go to gaeilscoileanna - as they have a certain educational drive to go to these schools in the first place.

In one particular year our school had 100pc going to third level. This was not necessarily a good thing as many I knew very well would have been better off doing some type of work. What I do know for sure is that quite a few who went to third level from our school over the years and every other school too, were totally unsuited for that route and again many either didn't see out first year at all or dropped out at the end of the year. The figure nationally is about one in six.

What is needed and mooted is a complete reorganisation of the old apprenticeship idea as modelled in other countries and where those going to pure third level becomes a much lower percentage as there is a parallel system of education and specific work training. The Swiss and German models, for example. Over the last 10 years there were not as many work opportunities so young people went to third level more, the future would appear to offer alternative possibilities with proper reform.

We are a bit hung up on third level for young people when there should much more work oriented alternatives which are not looked down on or seen as a way for academically weaker students. So the apprenticeship idea should be for hundreds of careers in banking, finance, business etc, not just the traditional ones likes carpenters, mechanics, electricians and so on. This type of work/study career would suit better a lot of those who get lost in the third level system.

Otherwise we will have this type of situation. A plumber went to a consultant with a minor problem. When sorted out he was charged e100.

The consultant on hearing this man was a plumber asked him to come to his house and fix a minor problem which he did and sorted out quickly. He charged the consultant e200. The consultant was taken aback by the charge and said after all his training he only charged e100 for his services and asked how the plumber could justify his charges. The plumber responded by telling the consultant that in his previous life he was also a consultant but he changed career to being a plumber as there was much more money in it.

Our fascination with third level and statistics for schools devalues a lot of potential future careers. So it is a matter of treading carefully on making judgements on what constitutes a success based solely on a school's performance in league tables.

Without fairly radical change, the existing skills shortages will get worse while youth unemployment remains at a figure close to 20pc. The tables won't show that while at the same time schools in many cases feel pressurised into having high access rates to third level for their students who either do not see out the course or else, in many cases, find there is no employment at the end.

Colm O'Rourke is the Principal of St Patrick's Classical School in Navan

Sunday Independent

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