For some years now, national newspapers have published league tables of schools, ranking them by the percentage of young people who go on to higher education. These league tables have consistently shown that fee-paying schools, gaelscoileanna and all-girls secondary schools 'do better'. But what does this ranking tell us?
Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has shown real differences between second-level schools in their Leaving Certificate grades and in progression to higher education. However, there are also clear differences between schools in the kinds of students they have - in terms of their gender, social class background and academic performance on leaving primary school. These differences are not accidental - they reflect the active school choices made by families, with around half of Irish students not attending their nearest (or most accessible) second-level school.
Most differences in exam results between schools are, in fact, due to differences in their student intake. Knowing how many students a school sends to higher education therefore tells us little about the difference that school makes to the education and welfare of its students.
Are league tables a good basis for choosing schools? The answer is no, because they largely reflect the kinds of students already attending the school. A school may rank highly merely because it draws on students with higher abilities and from more privileged social backgrounds. On the other hand, a school serving a more disadvantaged community may look relatively bad in a league table but may actually be achieving very significant academic progress with its students. These rankings do not give a good indication of how your son or daughter would get on in that school.
League tables also foster a very narrow view of education, presenting entry to higher education as the only measure of success. They ignore other important goals of schooling - helping to develop young adults who are confident and adaptable in facing the future, who do not experience high levels of stress or emotional difficulties, who are actively engaged in their society and who are open to learning opportunities throughout their lives. None of these aims are reflected in the ranking of schools but few, if any, parents would not want their children to achieve these goals.
There will always be a debate about what makes a 'good school'. But research can tell us a good deal about the kinds of schools that enhance the academic, social and emotional development of young people.
ESRI research shows that the school climate (that is, day-to-day interactions between teachers and students) and teacher expectations have the strongest influence on how young people fare. Students who attend schools characterised by greater emphasis on praise and less emphasis on reprimand are less likely to drop out of school early and are more likely to achieve higher Junior and Leaving Certificate grades, be more self-confident and have lower stress levels.
When we talk to young people about what helps them learn, they see teacher care and respect as vital. Teachers with high expectations set challenging (but realistic) learning goals for their students, encourage them to take higher level in as many subjects as possible and foster an openness to learning. In contrast, punitive measures (such as detention or suspension) and low teacher expectations can fuel a cycle of student misbehaviour and disengagement from education.
How schools organise learning has a very significant effect on outcomes. Rigid forms of ability grouping (streaming) have a significant negative impact on student achievement for those allocated to lower stream classes without any gains for those allocated to higher stream classes. Schools which have mixed ability base classes therefore enhance achievement for all.
Schools also differ in whether young people are required to choose their subjects before entry or have a chance to try out subjects before picking them. Young people themselves say that 'sampling' subjects gives them a better idea of what new subjects are like so that they can make a more informed choice.
Schools can be an important source of support for young people at a turbulent stage in their lives, with some schools having highly developed structures to identify students having difficulties and providing assistance for them. After-school activities can provide young people with important opportunities to take part in sporting and cultural pursuits that they may not otherwise access. Recently published research shows that after-school cultural activities, such as choir and drama groups, foster a broader interest in the arts outside school hours.
In picking a school, looking at league tables gives parents a very misleading picture of what a school is like. Research might not give us the 'best' school but it helps parents ask better questions about the kind of school that would suit their children, such as:
n What kinds of subjects are offered? If my child is very interested in art or music, can they study it? Do students get a chance to try out different subjects in their first year?
n Are students encouraged to take higher level in subjects for as long as possible? Or is rigid ability grouping used?
n What kinds of support is available to my child? Are there good relationships between teachers and students in the school?
n What kinds of after-school activities are offered? What is available if my child isn't interested in sport?
Finally, ESRI research has shown that young people themselves have strong views on what school they would like to attend - an important factor to put into the mix.
Emer Smyth is Research Professor at the ESRI.
The publication of secondary school league tables usually engenders negative commentaries, which take aim at particular types of schools. Gaelscoileanna, fee-paying schools, or schools of a particular denomination are accused of being "private", "elitist" or "selective", and they are pitted against "public" state-funded schools.
When you drive up its mile-long entrance avenue hugged by ancient trees rooted between the many streams and lakes on its 500 acres, it's easy to see why Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, Co Limerick, has the best- ranked secondary school in the State.
Parents are naturally hungry for information about the secondary schools their children may attend. They can read annual school reports, some of which are very good, while some are not. For years, they have been promised a Parent and Student Charter. Education Minister Richard Bruton has finally announced draft legislation which will compel all schools to consult a lot more with parents and to publish more information. This will include details of "extra-curricular activities and school performance".