School League Tables: A Subject of Contention

The Sunday Times recently published its annual School League Tables which tracks progression of students to third-level study from all 730 secondary schools in the Republic of Ireland.

The School League Tables continue to be a contentious issue – predominantly for one reason: schools are measured by a single criterion; a criterion which is only reflective of one aspect of any given school.

There is a certain cohort of parents who place a lot of weight on league tables in the decision making process when deciding on a school for their child. Opposing the league tables is an education system that loathes them; especially if you are one of those schools who does a plethora of work in getting disadvantaged students and students with special needs to the finishing line – the leaving cert. The School League Tables do not measure or rank such achievements. School League Tables highlight the schools that are successful in getting a high percentile of their students into third level but in doing so, they leave a huge amount of schools in the darkness of low rankings because of their league table standard of measurement.

In an article in the Irish Examiner, the Principal of Senior College Dun Laoghaire, Barry O’Callaghan expresses the concerns of many in the educational establishment that “League tables tell us nothing about those gone to apprenticeships, further education, agricultural, art, dance and other colleges; those happily gone to employment, those who cannot afford to go to university, those travelling the globe and those who have chosen to defer or terminate further academic progression.” He says such league tables are “placing huge pressure on teachers to teach exclusively to produce exam results; that instead of throwing a lifebelt to struggling schools is holding them underwater; is harming the teaching of sport, music and drama and is giving nervous breakdowns to top-performing schools lest they fall out of the top”.

There are parents and educators who are calling for a league table of schools that are not ranked solely on academic performance. They accept measuring the amount of students going on to higher education, could be one score attainable schools, should they wish to be graded in this way; but that other scores and rankings could come from the amount of  school activities, school awards, pupil-teacher ratio, IT classes and information from student surveys, for example.   These are the same parents who abhor the idea of their children being judged solely in terms of points, while their other qualities and achievements are ignored. Perhaps a solution to the inequities of The School League Tables is for schools to be free to provide alternative measurements or notes to qualify the results, or as suggested, for schools to opt out of being judged in a purely academic way.

Of course, in some cases, poor results can be traced to underperforming teachers (in the absence of special needs, disadvantaged students) and therefore league tables have the potential to flag problem schools and underachievement. There is a contingent of the media who continually campaign for incentives for good teaching with financial rewards. They base their argument on reports, including the recent OECD surveys of 15-year-olds in essential subjects of reading, maths and science since 2000, which reflected poorly on our educational output. Our ranking declined from 5th to 17th in reading skills and from 16th to 26th in maths.

Parents are entitled to the information provided by The School League tables, if this is the information they want. The solution from those denouncing league tables seems to be ‘no information’, which could lead to schools not being held accountable at all. There are many parents that will look to a school for a holistic balance in terms of the academic service and the personal service provided. There is the case that a school driven by points alone will neglect the other issues that a child faces on any given day: personal and social issues. Those schools perched at the top of the league tables necessarily won’t suit the needs of every child.

As human beings, we have the ability to possess up to nine difference intelligences; two of these intelligences explain why some people end up being more successful and happier than others. Inter and intrapersonal intelligences determine how well we get on with people and how we manage ourselves; both essential for personal and professional success. Neither of them are tested in our secondary school system.

The current points system and The School League Tables do exactly what they claim to do: they measure students and schools in terms of academic performance; one fact that it is worth keeping in mind when using these tables as a reference guide. Afterall, it is not a case of ‘are we intelligent?’ but ‘How we are intelligent’.

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