Monday 21 October 2019

There's more to school life than progressing on to third level

The Wider View

Clive Byrne is the director of the National Association for Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD)
Clive Byrne is the director of the National Association for Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD)

Clive Byrne

Does a parent, student, teacher or school leader in Dublin care which school in Donegal sends the most students to third level education and vice versa? Ultimately, that is the only information provided by the annual school league tables.

The league tables mindset - regarded some as the most valued measure of success - undermines, delays and acts as hugely counter-productive barrier for the urgent educational reform that we need in our second level schools, particularly in senior cycle.

While there is no doubt that some schools have an exceptional, recurring high rate of school leavers entering third level education, a number of common threads run through the second level school system which skew results and, consequently, our perception of what makes a good educational institution.

The current Leaving Cert curriculum and assessment process forces our teachers to 'teach to the test', rather than espousing a love of lifelong learning, imagination, curiosity and inquisitiveness.

Feeder Schools: Click here for the full breakdown of where Leaving Cert pupils have gone to college over the past 10 years

As a result, in recent years, a hierarchy of subjects has emerged. Bonus points are awarded for Higher Level Mathematics, which rewards students for effort rather than ability. Many students pick subjects out of sheer pragmatism rather than interest. A group of students opting for what are perceived as 'easier' courses can give casual readers of the league tables a false sense of a school's commitment to quality education.

Likewise, the student who gets 550 points in the Leaving Certificate but is five points short of their desired course is left distraught and may not even progress to third level education, despite their academic achievement. Again, this skews results.

The Leaving Cert fails to recognise and value independent learning and curiosity. Creative talents and involvement in extra- or co-curricular activities count for nothing, it seems. Ultimately, decades of school and experience end with a two-week memory test based on 21 months of rote learning.

The league tables also fail to recognise that there is a clear three-way split between advantaged, disadvantaged and private schools, which creates a lack of like-for-like comparison.

State policy emphasises inclusion and many schools have a cohort of students with learning difficulties, from disadvantaged backgrounds, or with tough personal situations who often struggle with academic learning and application. The one-size-fits-all approach of league tables does not take them into account.

Indeed, it is a well-known fact that there is a massive under-representation of certain groups in society in third level education including students with a disability and students from the Travelling community. On January 14, Dr Sindy Joyce became the first person from the Travelling community to be conferred with a PhD. While a very welcome and positive development, the reality is that many Travellers' children still do not even complete secondary education. This should be a wake-up call for the Department of Education: reform is needed now, and social class inclusion must be a central part of it.

Notwithstanding, a positive aspect of the school league tables is the rise in the percentage of school students progressing to third level education. As an example, Bailieborough Community School in Co Cavan went from 48pc in 2010 to 74pc in 2017. There has been an increase in Fingal Community College in Swords, Co Dublin, and a massive increase in Boyne Community School in Meath, over the nine-year period from 2009-2017, with a growth of 46.7pc, rising from 49pc to 92pc.

There is currently a varying level of misplaced snobbery throughout educational society in Ireland between a university, an institute of technology, further education training and apprenticeships, and in turn the creation of a prestige class between Level 8 awards and Level 4 awards. That is why the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, as part of its recently published report Senior Cycle Reform: What do you want?, developed three fundamental recommendations to alleviate these issues.

These are:

The establishment of a new Senior Cycle Reform Forum.

The inclusion of a practical or second component assessment as part of the Leaving Cert examination process.

Specific allocated funding provided for a collaborative approach toward traineeships/apprenticeships.

These recommendations will instigate the transition needed to move from standardisation to standard. We will have an accurate way to compare schools, extracurricular activities will no longer be ignored, the hierarchy of subjects will be eliminated, teaching to the test will cease, and creativity, curiosity and independent learning will become a valued part of the education experience.

Our job as educational leaders is not to compile league tables to enable a list of 'high ranking' schools - it's to provide a platform for students to excel and flourish in education and life.

Clive Byrne is the director of the National Association for Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD).

Sunday Independent

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