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Minister wants schools to be more accountable

Parents will be entitled to a range of information about how their child's school is performing under new plans being drawn up by the Department of Education.

There is a growing acceptance within the department that parents must be provided with an accurate picture of the strengths and weaknesses of schools.

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This year at least 125,000 pupils will be put into so-called “super-sized” classes (30 or more pupils) – an increase of nearly 35,000 from last year. Photo: Getty Images.

This year at least 125,000 pupils will be put into so-called “super-sized” classes (30 or more pupils) – an increase of nearly 35,000 from last year. Photo: Getty Images.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

This year at least 125,000 pupils will be put into so-called “super-sized” classes (30 or more pupils) – an increase of nearly 35,000 from last year. Photo: Getty Images.

This could cover everything from the teaching standards and student achievement to how well schools look after their pupils' health and well-being.

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However, and crucially, it is unlikely that Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan will go so far as to include exam results which could be used to compile league tables.

Chief Schools' Inspector Harold Hislop recently warned against league tables based on exam results, saying they are "potentially misleading".

Department officials are working on a consultation paper on the matter, but have not yet decided on a set of proposals.

Ms O'Sullivan is committed to making the education system more accountable as part of a promise made in the renewed Programme for Government.

Today, the Irish Independent publishes its annual Feeder Schools supplement, detailing the transfer to third-level colleges this year of students from second-level schools.

In the absence of official data, it offers some insight for parents but because of difficulties in getting definitive information from the authorities, and inconsistencies in what is provided, it is an imperfect measure.

 

The education system has opened up in the past decade with the publication of school inspectors' reports - but there can be gaps of several years between inspectors' visits.

Schools may advise parents about their overall performance in the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams, but parents have no way of knowing the national benchmark and how their child's school compares with others.

The commitment in the Programme for Government covers giving schools more autonomy, as well as requiring more accountability. The programme also committed to publishing a consultation paper in the autumn, but it now seems likely it will not appear until next year.

A spokesperson for the minister said work was ongoing but "no decisions have been made regarding information for schools beyond what is already in the public domain".

They added that it was a "complex issue but the commitment given in revised Government priorities will be adhered to".

The department is looking at international best practice and the main aim is to explore the pros and cons of devolving more decision-making to local schools and seeking the public's view.

The spokesperson said: "If there is a solid case for this devolution of decision-making, then we would also need to review accountability in the schools system to ensure oversight and transparency is maintained."

While much of the focus on school performance is on exam results, the introduction of greater accountability would cover a broad spectrum and take account of the context in which a school operates.

Newspaper supplements on college entry rates from individual schools have grown up in a vacuum created by legislation that refuses access to information that would allow for the creation of league tables, comparing exam results.

Mr Hislop is critical of such tables and notes "strong evidence from many education systems that such league tables do not improve student outcomes and are damaging to school systems".

While Mr Hislop says that legal obstacles to the publication of exam results may have to be revisited, the minister is expected to stop short of allowing schools to be compared using this measure.

Mr Hislop believes that any extra transparency would have to involve the provision of additional contextual information, to give a more rounded picture of the school.

He outlined the thinking behind the need to make the education system more transparent in a recent address to school managers, where he said that the provision in the Education Act 1998, limiting publication of student assessment data, may have to be revisited.

He put it in the context of international studies comparing the performance of students in one country against another, such as the OECD PISA tests, where Irish 15-year-olds have mixed outcomes.

While there are limitations and weaknesses in such studies, they put an onus on the education system to be confident about how it assesses students and to be rich in information about student learning, he said.

Mr Hislop admits that some of the evidence in such studies is challenging and unflattering, such as that socio-economic status remains an important determinant of a student's learning in Ireland, and to a much greater extent than in some countries.

"Most parents' main interest is in their own child's learning, and parents now have rights to access much more information about the progress that their child is making than in the past...But it's not unreasonable for them to expect information about how well their child's school is operating", he said.

He said that the cost of providing any sort of acceptable data would be very high "but if we believe that parents deserve more and better information about schools, and if we also accept a legitimate public accountability obligation, then those of us within the educational system will be challenged to provide a better alternative; indeed, we may come to feel that we have a duty to provide a better alternative".

Irish Independent