Tuesday 21 August 2018

A matter of choice

Dr Anne Looney, Executive Dean of the Institute of Education at DCU, says that the refusal to release league tables based on exam results has allowed our education system to come a long way

Dr Anne Looney. Photo: Mark Condren
Dr Anne Looney. Photo: Mark Condren

When I started working in the Irish education system in the mid-1980s, classrooms were places where teachers and students worked, although rarely to the same degree. Anyone else - other teachers, school principals, or, God forbid, inspectors - knew their place and that place was outside the classroom door, and in the case of parents, generally outside the school gates.

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Like most education systems, ours has come a long way since then. Teachers at all levels of the system now have a more collegial experience, with greater acceptance of - and opportunities for - sharing and analysing professional practice to improve teaching and student learning. Teachers engage in research projects, observe each other and students, inspectors visit and observe in classrooms and schools, and principals work with teachers on school-led and national initiatives across a range of themes from the integration of technology to giving meaningful feedback to students. Last week, colleagues from DCU published an evaluation of an 'eportfolio' project. At the launch event, students discussed how the technology enabled them to share their progress with their parents; no need to wait for the dreaded school report!

Increasingly, schools and teachers share stories from inside classrooms on social media, and parents, and the general public, have come to expect and enjoy videos and presentations from the heart of the previously 'closed' interactions between teachers and students.

Inspectors' reports are published online; while the language may be nuanced, aspects of school life or of teachers' work that require improvement are clearly indicated in the reports.

So, classroom walls are far more permeable than they used to be. Ours is a maturing school system, still relatively young by European standards. It's only just over 50 years since second-level education became accessible to all. Today, our school completion rates are among the highest in the world. These rates, the envy of many other systems, are the product of a range of factors: strong cultural support for education; the high quality of our teaching force; developments in the system such as transition year, Leaving Certificate Applied and ongoing changes, and more planned, to second level education. All of these have a part to play, and none can be taken for granted. But I believe that we also owe our retention rates to Section 53 of the 1998 Education Act, a brave piece of legislation that allows the Minister for Education to refuse the release of 'information in relation to the comparative performance of schools in respect of the academic achievement of students enrolled therein', or, in non-legal terms, to block league tables of schools based on examination results.

That position was informed by the evidence coming from England and Wales after a decade of school league tables based on examination results, and extensive research evidence about the negative impact 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. Predictably, in Northern Ireland, where school-based examination data is released, the 'top' schools are the ones that select students on the basis of academic ability. In Australia, the release of test data from primary schools has led to greater anxiety in children taking the test who worry that if they do badly, their school will 'look bad'.

Policies that measure, compare, and rank on the basis of results have been included in a category of educational reforms identified by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlbeg, which he calls the Global Education Reform Movement, or the GERM. And while Section 53 of the Education Act is something of a vaccine against a serious outbreak of GERM, in the 'League Tables' published and read with considerable interest by parents and (admit it!) teachers and principals, we have what might be termed a mild dose of the GERM. But it's relatively harmless; and, in some ways, our more open system, and greater insight into how schools work may also be generating what I think is referred to as herd immunity to the more extreme 'strains' of GERM. I've yet to meet a parent who chose a school for their child based on these tables, a child who reported feeling anxious about them, or a principal who proposed a change in admissions policies because of them. As tables of who went where from where (and leaving out any students who went to Further Education) they have become something of an annual one-day wonder, with patterns and expectations now established. As an insight into how choice is distributed across the school system they are a powerful annual reminder that while we have come a long way as an education system, we have a way to go.

Commentary on these tables inevitably focuses on the 'top' schools. There are schools with the greatest concentration of choice. They are schools chosen by parents who also choose to pay fees, or schools chosen by parents who also choose an Irish-medium education for their children, or schools chosen by parents who were also able to choose neighbourhoods and communities of good quality housing, green spaces and family amenities. For some families these choices came at a price; sacrifices are made to prioritise education. But having the choice to make that sacrifice remains a hallmark of privilege. The 'top' schools ensure that their students will have at least the same choices their parents had and, in many cases, even greater choices.

As you move down the tables, you encounter less and less choice, until you get to the schools of limited choice - where parents had just one choice, or even no choice, to make because a school needed to be within walking distance or on the school bus route. The achievement of these schools is that through their remarkable work they give their students choices their parents never had, and the support to navigate their way through CAO forms, college open days, the language of the national framework of qualifications, SUSI applications and course requirements. If you are coming to this for the first time, it is a bewildering and daunting experience for a student and a family. If, with the support of your school, you are 'counted' in this table as a first in a family to make it to college, you deserve to be given special mention! And so does your school.

Well done schools-of-many-choices; you did what you promised to do and delivered choice, but in most cases to those who had it already. The really great schools are those who give choice to those who did not.

Dr Anne Looney is the Executive Dean of the Institute of Education at Dublin City University. @annelooney

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