This is the 20th anniversary of The Irish Times feeder school lists, which were first published in 2002. Writing at the time, the newspaper’s then education editor, the late and much-missed Seán Flynn, said the “education establishment”, including teacher unions and school principals, were outraged.
Critics of the lists said the data did not take account of the socio-economic advantages of schools in wealthier areas. They argued that the data was demoralising for schools in disadvantaged areas, or schools that worked hard for their students but had lower third-level progression rates because of factors outside the school’s control. They said the lists did not account for the holistic education provided by a school, including pastoral care, sports clubs and student societies. And, in more recent years, there has been growing concern that the data does not include any information on progression to further education or apprenticeships.
Twenty years on from the first “league tables”, the same criticisms continue, albeit now more through grumbles than howls. But it was a game changer for parents who, until then, had to rely almost entirely on the local grapevine for information about schools. The data remains popular with parents, who are largely aware of the limitations of feeder school tables and who do indeed consider multiple other factors in choosing a school, such as extracurricular activities, student councils and inclusion and diversity policies. Nobody pretends that they tell more than a partial picture about the academic aspect of a school.
The data published now is, indeed, limited in what it can capture. The information on the number of students who started in third level is provided by the institutions themselves, but there is no way of getting a true picture of the success of the Leaving Cert class of 2022 because there is no mechanism to filter out those who sat the exam in previous years but only started college in 2022. This would result in a much more accurate and official list.
The Department of Education has this data, but successive ministers have used their power to veto it, believing that “official” league tables would be detrimental.
Another limitation of this list is that data about the number of students progressing to further education or apprenticeships – a number that has grown in recent years – is not systematically captured and so cannot be provided here.
Much of the criticism of feeder school lists has, not unfairly, focused on the media’s continued publication of this admittedly limited data. But, where there is an information void and people are hungry for information, the media will step in.
There has been some progress in bringing more transparency to education, arguably because critics could not credibly decry feeder school lists but fail to satisfy a demand for information on schools and education.
Whole school evaluations, which did not exist back in 2002, have helped put more information into the public domain. In recent years, these have become clearer and more easily accessible for parents and should be one of the first ports of call for parents choosing a school. There’s more accountability in the system, with fitness to practise hearings rooting out unsuitable or negligent teachers. Parents can also get information at open days. But, when it comes to academic performance, this limited data is the only information they can get.
Much of the academic research on the value of feeder school or league tables comes from the UK. Between 1992 and 2001, both England and Wales – two countries with identical education systems – published official data. In 2001, Wales stopped. Simon Burgess, a professor of economics at Bristol University, specialising in education, produced research that found that abolishing league tables reduced the academic effectiveness of Welsh schools, particularly in the bottom 75 per cent.
The Welsh assembly reversed its decision in 2011.
In Ireland, the conversation is moving on. There’s a grudging acceptance that the data published now is here to stay, at least as long as the Government refuses to provide any other academic data on school performance.
Even if the Government did publish official data, this would not account for why some schools do better than others. In 2020, Maynooth University academics Dr Aedín Doris, Prof Donal O’Neill and Dr Olive Sweetman published a paper calling for a “value-added” approach to school performance. This would account for the progress made by students between the end of their primary school education and the end of their second-level education, adjusting for factors such as parental level of education and socioeconomic background.
It’s an approach that is now widely seen as providing the most accurate information on school performance and, as a bonus, is fairer and less demoralising to schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged students. It would provide parents with real, contextualised information on schools. It should mean the end of feeder school lists in their current form. The State has the data, and could make this decision overnight. There is no indication that the Department of Education is even considering it.