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Biggest secrets in Irish education are still kept strictly under wraps

No data made public on schools’ exam performance


Amendment: Micheál Martin was education minister in 1997

Amendment: Micheál Martin was education minister in 1997

Amendment: Micheál Martin was education minister in 1997

Details of how every school in the country fares in the Leaving Cert exam from year to year are still the most closely guarded secrets in Irish education. And it’s all thanks to a piece of legislation enacted when Micheál Martin was education minister two decades ago.

You can read details in the newspapers of how many students each school sends to college. But nowhere can you see league tables of how those same schools actually performed in the Leaving Cert over the years.

The traditional pattern of exam results was at the centre of the row over calculated grades. Some schools claimed that they suffered badly in comparison with previous years. They knew their individual historical pattern, as did the Department of Education and the State Examination Commission. But the public had no right of access to that data.

This is because of an amendment inserted by Micheál Martin into the draft Education Bill that he inherited in 1997 from his predecessor, Labour’s Niamh Bhreathnach. Section 53 of the bill, which became law the following year, allows the minister to refuse the release of “any information which would enable the compilation of information in relation to the comparative performance of schools in respect of the academic achievement of students enrolled therein, including, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing

(i) the overall results in any year of students in a particular school in an examination, or

(ii) the comparative overall results in any year of students in different schools in an examination”.

In non-legal terms, that means the minister can refuse to release exam data that could be used to compile league tables of schools based on examination results. You can put in all the Freedom of Information requests you like but the minister has the power to reject them.

The minister can, of course, also say yes but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon unless there is a legal challenge to that section of the act.

When he held the education portfolio, Minister Martin favoured greater openness and transparency, including allowing students access to their exam scripts. But he drew the line at giving the public access to data about the exam performance of schools.

This is in sharp contrast to the position in England where parents can read how every school in the country performs in the GCSE, taken at age 15 or 16, and A-level exams taken at age 17 or 18. The information is officially published by the Department for Education.

They are now so much part of the educational landscape that no minister would scrap them in England. They claim they drive up standards and point to the experience in Wales where results worsened when tables were abolished. These claims, like President Trump’s assertions about the recent US election, are disputed.

DCU’s Prof Anne Looney has described Section 53 as a “brave piece of legislation”. It was informed, she said, by extensive research evidence about the negative impact of league tables on teaching and learning in schools, on school morale, and on equality in the school system.

“It becomes increasingly unattractive for schools to admit students who might damage league table standings, and more attractive to admit students who would enhance them”.

Banning league tables of exam results has helped Ireland retain a very high percentage of students in post-primary schools, she argued in an article published some time ago in the Sunday Independent.

There is a lot of merit to her arguments. Her views reflect those of policy makers and education insiders. But the general public’s view is largely unknown.

After last year’s debacle, it might be a good idea for the forthcoming Citizens Assembly on Education to gauge the views of parents and others on whether it’s time to look at this issue again.

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