Chalktalk: News and views in education

No transparency when schools are not open to Freedom of Information

MR. MARTIN CULLEN T.D. MINISTER OF STATE, DEPARTMENT OF FINANCE PICTURED DURING THE INTRODUCTION OF THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT AT GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS, YESTERDAY. PHOTOGRAPH:CYRIL BYRNE

MR. MARTIN CULLEN T.D. MINISTER OF STATE, DEPARTMENT OF FINANCE PICTURED DURING THE INTRODUCTION OF THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT AT GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS, YESTERDAY. PHOTOGRAPH:CYRIL BYRNE

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 02:00

Open up

Whatever happened to openness and transparency? Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn last week resisted proposed changes that would have seen all schools subject to Freedom of Information (FOI), a state of affairs he described as “unnecessary and unwise” and warned it could lead to the creation of “crude league tables”.

Surely what we need is more information about education and schools, not less ? Most Irish people have some connection to or stake in education, yet information about schools is scandalously scant.

The Minister brushed aside the possibility of FOI applying to schools saying it would “present intractable problems”, would “fundamentally undermine far-reaching reforms that are under way in the school sector”, and allow access to data that might contribute to the compilation of league tables.

But this happens anyway every November when newspapers, including this one, scramble to compile the inadequate information available to give an indication to parents about schools’ academic performance? Yes, they’re crude, and partial; the information could be so much more accurate – and rounded – if it was openly available.

The Minister seems to have put up a poor argument against opening up the sector to scrutiny. Education is one of the more closed areas of Irish society; indeed some activity in schools is closed even to the Department of Education (DES), never mind parents or students. There should be a better reason to exclude schools from FOI.

Whole School Evaluations, where they exist for a given school, can be bland and opaque and often need a code to unlock any snippets of real meaning. It can be difficult to get even basic information about what subjects a school teaches, unless it chooses to disseminate such information. Many do, but basic information should be a right, not down to the whims of an individual board of management.

That’s not all. There are ongoing concerns about how school complaints are handled. And when researching our recent Sex Talk series, journalist Peter McGuire continually came up against a brick wall seeking information on what resources schools use for religious and sexual education (RSE), and which outside agencies are brought into schools, sometimes without informing parents. Such a small proportion of schools approached responded that there could be no overall conclusions . Though RSE is part of the curriculum, schools have a free hand in how they go about it, and even the DES doesn’t know what outside agencies are teaching in our State-funded schools.

It’s all part of the same lack of transparency about education . Parents and students, teachers and schools, deserve better.

Science at NUIG goes public with the first undergraduate science fair tomorrow, exploring the science behind baking cupcakes, disappearing bees, and “Breaking Bad”, with experiments and hands-on activities. It’s free and open to all, 11am to 5pm in The View, Áras na Mac Léinn. Facebook.com/ undergradsciencefair. Also in Galway, Biomedical Science Under The Microscope , an exhibition of scientific images presented by NUIG biomed students, continues at Galway City Museum until Saturday.

Deirdre Falvey

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