Tables reveal - but don't explain - progression rates for different schools
We're obsessed with college degrees in Ireland. In less than four years' time full-time student numbers will reach the 200,000 mark, according to the latest official Department of Education and Skills projections. That's double the total in 1995/96 and an increase of 30,000 in universities, institutes of technology and other colleges of education in a decade.
Some schools send much higher percentages of their Leaving Cert cohorts to college than others. Not surprisingly, many parents with ambitions for their children to go to college want to know how their daughters' or sons' schools fare in the league tables. By this stage parents know the flaws and limitations of such tables but, nevertheless, read them to get a rough guide as to how individual schools are doing.
A 10-year span of college placement rates - such as published in this special supplement - can reveal sudden dips or lurches forward in performance and potentially indicate that something is not right or is very right with an individual school.
It's easy to underestimate the influence an underperforming or a really good principal has in a school. The principal is the key person in a school and has to be an educational leader as well as a manager of people and resources. But, as the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has pointed out, the differences between the progression rates for schools are also very much a reflection of the kinds of students they enrol - in terms of their gender, their social class background and their academic performance on finishing primary school.
The league tables also confirm that there are real differences in progression rates between individual schools. They show that fee-paying schools tend to 'do better' in sending students to college. But so do many gaelcholaiste and girls' secondary schools as well as many others in the so-called Free Education scheme.
One thing the tables cannot show is the impact of grinds on individual schools' performances. The practice of paying for grinds is well established, especially in the capital but also across the country. "I can show you schools that are known to have the worst teachers of Irish or maths or history or whatever but who get the best results in those subjects because their students also come to us for extra help," is the boast of the head of one grind school. Grinds don't come cheap and those who can afford them feel they have an extra advantage, real or imaginary.
Barry O'Callaghan, from the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, has talked about schools where students obtain maximum points in their Leaving Cert but who drop out of college when they get there as they don't have creative and investigating minds. The single most important factor in choosing a school is if it fosters creativity, he believes.
About half of our 362,000 second level students attend their local secondary school, which means that parents of anything up to 180,000 other students make active choices for their children's education. Choice is easier to make in urban areas and those who can afford to pay for private schools have a much bigger range of options in the Dublin region.
Prof Emer Smyth, of the ESRI, says that in picking a school, looking at league tables gives parents a very misleading picture of what a school is like. The tables might not give us the 'best' school but she says that research can help parents ask better questions about the kind of school that would suit their children, such as:
- 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 first year?
- Are students encouraged to take higher level in subjects for as long as possible? Or is rigid ability grouping used?
- What kind of supports are available to my child? Are there good relationships between teachers and students in the school?
- What kinds of after-school activities are offered? What is available if my child isn't interested in sport?
Gerry Bennett, chief executive of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, suggested recently that it would be much better to see a league table that was focused on the holistic, social and personal development of students and that appreciates the guidance and values that schools provide every day.
"How refreshing it would be for Ireland to have a league table that measures how safe and happy our young people are in school, whether they have access to a well-being programme, whether students are encouraged to look outside their own worlds to advocate for those less fortunate, or whether there is an extracurricular programme that helps all of the students thrive and flourish, no matter their academic ability," he said.
It would, of course, but producing such a table would be a logistics nightmare and prohibitively expensive. Inspection reports on individual schools which are published on the Department of Education's website do provide some of that information but not in the same accessible format than a feeder school table does.
Nor, so far, has it been possible to publish information about the progression rates to the widening lists of apprenticeships or to the myriad range of further education programmes available. One of the justifiable criticisms of school league tables is that this area is effectively excluded and that the tables give the impression that higher education is all important.
The issue is being looked at in more detail by SOLAS, the further education and training authority, which is encouraging more Leaving Cert students to consider apprenticeships, Post Leaving Cert and other further education options. It points out, however, that many of those going on to further education courses are older and are not immediate school leavers. With so many different providers and different software, it won't be easy to get details in a consistent manner across the country which can be translated into accessible and digestible formats.
If it is possible to publish the details in an easy-to-read way the Sunday Independent would be happy to do so as this is also the kind of information that students - and their parents - would find helpful in deciding on future courses and careers.