Thursday 22 August 2019

League tables here to stay

Love them or hate them, school league tables are here to stay -- unless they are replaced by something better. Granted they don't reflect the totality of what goes on in schools; they don't tell you anything about the extraordinary lengths that schools and individual teachers go to in order to get disadvantaged students past the exam line.

Nor do they tell you anything about how schools are turning out well-rounded individuals with a moral conscience.

The educational establishment loathes them. John White, General Secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, argued yesterday there was not a shred of evidence that two pupils of equal academic ability -- one attending a so-called 'top' school and one their local school -- will perform significantly differently.

Some would beg to differ. His statement would be true if Irish schools all started at the same place in pursuing the twin goals of equality with high overall achievement.

This is the case certainly in Finland, which is consistently ahead in international league tables of achievement in reading, maths and science.

Parents know that some schools are doing better than others and not just in terms of exam results.

Around the country there is often little choice for parents about where to send their children as there may be only one post-primary school available to them.

But where there is choice, some will use league tables of feeder schools as an aid to help them decide where to send their children.

If they have money and the option of fee-paying or grind schools, the choices are wider for some.

Are these parents as well as those who have no choice to be denied the right to information about schools by the combined weight of teacher unions, school managers, the Department of Education and Science and even the National Parents Council (post primary)?

If they are entitled to it, then the parents should get the most accurate and up to date information. Unfortunately, that is not always possible as the colleges release the information in different ways.

Some list all the schools attended by repeat Leaving Certificate students, others simply name the last one attended. Some will not list schools with less than three students.

The obvious solution is for the Central Applications Office on behalf of the colleges to release the information in a consistent manner to the newspapers.

An approach to the CAO along these lines by this newspaper was turned down by the colleges. It is time to look at it again.

Feeder school tables will remain until some future Minister for Education takes the brave decision to publish the real information -- how schools perform in the Leaving Certificate stakes.

Fine Gael flirted with the idea of putting exam result details into an information pack about each school but its potential Government partner, Labour was, and still is, strongly opposed to the notion.

Fine Gael's previous education spokesperson Olwyn Enright took some stick from the teacher unions for her stance on the issue but stuck courageously to the view that parents were entitled to the information.

The views of the current Fine Gael education spokesperson, Brian Hayes, on the topic are unknown.

As a politically astute reader of the tea leaves, he will take the same line as his predecessor if he thinks there is a demand for it.

If the public interest in league tables of feeder schools is anything to go by then there certainly is.

He would do well to reflect on what happened across the Irish Sea where the Labour Party in opposition was strongly opposed to league tables.

But once it came into power it quickly dropped its opposition.

It realised that information about the performance of schools is power and parents want that power.

Obviously it is a sensitive issue for schools which quite rightly have reservations about having so much judged by a single criterion; one which can never fully reflect the extraordinary work done with individual students. Nonetheless, teachers are not the only stakeholders in education and sooner or later a broader engagement is going to be required and the sooner this inevitabilty is recognised the better for all.

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