Saturday 23 June 2018

Like them or loathe them, school league tables are here to stay

John Walshe
John Walshe

John Walshe

League tables are now part of the annual education calendar, despite their shortcomings. Parents know they are not perfect and that they don't tell you everything you need to know about an individual school and what educational enrichment it provides for students.

They know that other factors have to be taken into account besides exam results and college placements in deciding where to send their children. That's assuming they have a choice - which many parents don't.

If they do have the luxury of choices, parents also take into account the manner in which the schools nurture the emotional, spiritual, social, artistic and altruistic attributes of students in their care. And they consider the distance from the available schools - unnecessarily long travel distances on a daily basis should be avoided.

League tables do what it says on the tin - they indicate how well individual second level schools perform in the college entry stakes. Parents know that they should not judge an individual school's placement rate on the basis of the results from a single year. Circumstances in one year with a particularly good or weak cohort of students may give a distorted picture.

That's why 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 a nine-year period, to see whether the percentages going to college from individual schools are consistent, take a sudden surge or dip. And if they do drop suddenly they want to know why.

The information published today is taken from data supplied by the individual higher education institutions themselves. Unfortunately, they do not supply the details in a consistent way across the colleges. By way of example, let's take a student who repeats the Leaving Certificate. Some colleges mention the last school that repeater attended, while others list all schools where the student sat the Leaving.

Nor is it always clear in what year the students sat the Leaving in a particular school or if they had deferred for a year or switched to a new course after their first year in college. These caveats explain why some schools seem have more than a 100pc success rate in any given year.

However, the main criticism of league tables is that they may convey the impression that higher education is the only game in town. It can reinforce the view that the Leaving is just a screening mechanism for college entry. Nowadays instead of asking young people what their Leaving Cert results were, most people invariably ask, "how many points did you get?". The more points for higher education the merrier is the clear message.

But what about the whole further education sector and the expanding range of apprenticeships which are attracting increasing numbers? Why can't the feeder schools for these programmes be identified as well? In reality, the Sunday Independent and other newspapers would be happy to publish data from the further education sector if the details were readily available.

SOLAS, the further education and training authority, is looking at how the sector can provide better information around those entering and completing the programmes it funds. It says that "through the provision of better information and using the right channels for Leaving Certificate students and others we aim to assist our learners to consider and choose what is the best option for them and the various education routes that are available".

This will be useful but may not identify the individual schools that apprentices and PLC students come from.

In fact, it might not be easy to get information from all 110 further education providers, which have different computing and information gathering systems. A pilot scheme, perhaps in Dublin or elsewhere, might be necessary to kick-start the process - but the newspapers would certainly be interested in publishing the information if it were available in a digestible form, similar to that provided by the higher education institutions, i.e, the number of students from each second level school who enrolled in the sector.

The Government wants to copy the success of Germany where the extensive apprenticeship system is credited with keeping the rate of youth unemployment extraordinarily low. In 2016, just 7pc of young Germans were unemployed, the lowest rate in the European Union and far below the US (10.4 pc), the UK (13pc) and France (24.6pc).

Ironically German companies are concerned that as university numbers grow, not enough young people are doing apprenticeships, which will affect the future pipeline of skilled technicians and other manual workers.

"That's the problem for the German economy," argued Julia Flasdick, leader of the higher education department for the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK).

"You always need somebody to drive the machine as well as write the computer code," she was quoted as saying this month in The Times Higher Education supplement. A DIHK survey of more than 10,000 businesses in 2016 revealed that nearly a third had failed to fill all their trainee positions

The specialist magazine noted that lines between the two types of education are increasingly dissolving, with universities now offering more "dual" degrees that involve substantial on-the-job training, and with apprenticeships covering more theory.

Perhaps in future Irish parents and students will look on further and higher education as offering a continuum of opportunities instead of seeing the options as a hierarchy with the universities as the ideal choice. And the league tables of the future could be much more informative in showing how schools are preparing students to avail of the multiplicity of choices after the Leaving Certificate.

Sunday Independent

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