Is it ethical to publish League Tables?

The Irish Independent published, what they called, a definitive league table of the best schools in Ireland, based on 7 years of data. It was based on the percentage of students that went on to third level from secondary school. Schools where close to 100% of their students went on to third level over the 7 years, were deemed to be the best schools in Ireland and today’s newspaper was full of little vox pop articles from the schools explaining how they managed it. The problem is that it’s all nonsense. League tables are possibly one of the most dangerous and threatening thing to be associated with our education system.

Even the Independent concedes that one should take the data with a pinch of salt in their article and even claims that the information is highly flawed and doesn’t give the full story about how good a school is. They are right on both scores. However, they admit that the data in these tables is taken seriously by parents and affects their choice of school. Therefore, is it right to publish tables like these? Furthermore, are we in danger now with POD that primary schools are going to be brought into this incredibly rudimentary measure of a school’s success?

While there are many flaws in these tables, my favourite flaw of all is that any of the new second level schools that have opened will achieve a score of 0% and therefore, by default, must be bottom of these league tables. If we bring this back to primary schools using the same criteria, on paper, my own school would be bottom of the pile for the reason that none of the pupils that have been through my school are old enough to have gone on to third level. Does this make my school the worst performing school in the county? (I’d like to think not!)

However, the big problem for schools, both primary and secondary, is that league tables are here to stay. It’s inevitable. Everyone either loves them or hates them. Even though I can see them for what they are, I still had to check where my secondary school featured in the running and where all the Carlow secondary schools featured. The only thing we can probably do is figure out a way to make the playing field level and bring in variables that balance out the rudimentary one.

This is a difficult task as education is an holistic profession with many variables that are not measurable in numbers. Students’ test results do not correlate with quality of teachers. For example, two students could view a C1 in honours English as an underachievement or an overachievement depending on their circumstances and possibly because of a good or bad teacher. We need to figure out some way to measure the quality of the teaching based on something other than student results as it does not give a true reflection. This applies equally at primary level.

We also need to look at other factors in schools – what sorts of extra-curricular activities are on offer, what type of parental involvement is happening, how are pupils treated, how happy are the staff, how happy are the pupils, how effective is the leadership, what sort of role does the Board of Management have, and so on.

While simply rating schools on the basis of entry to third level, is bordering on being unethical, this obviously doesn’t stop newspapers from printing them. It’s easy for them to grab a tiny piece of flawed data and create their league tables. Gathering the more useful information is hard. It may even be impossible, though I don’t think this is the case. We’re coming closer to the day when primary schools will be rated on similar grounds of student results in standardised tests so now is the time to give the journalists better data to use. If they’re going to rate us anyway, we may as well give them relevant information.

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