Some evidence from UK suggests that publishing league tables improves schools
Opinion: Temporary abolition of tables in Wales seen to have increased inequality
Why in Ireland do we cling to the belief that comparing schools and making them academically accountable is a bad idea? Photograph: PA
The Irish Times feeder school list has been an extraordinarily popular feature over the past 10 years.
While the information is of much interest to parents, it is not officially released. Rather it is compiled by this newspaper from a variety of sources such as third-level institutions and the State Examinations Commission.
Of students from a particular school who started college this autumn, there is no way of filtering those who sat the Leaving Cert this year from those who sat the exam in previous years. So the information we are publishing today does not tell you how many Leaving Cert students from this year started in third level in Ireland this year, rather how many students who ever attended each school went to third level this year.
There would be no need to compile lists like the one today if the information was released officially, but we are told that information about exam results or college progression for individual schools would do far more harm than good if it were released. Indeed, the Minister for Education can actively prevent the release of data that could be used to compile comparisons of the academic achievement of students in schools. He has this power under the Education Act and, according to the department, successive ministers have considered the potential benefits and disadvantages of the compilation and publication of league tables based on examination data, and on that basis they have exercised their discretion not to release it.
But what if the ministers have been wrong? What if official school league tables have been shown to improve the performance of schools and lessen educational inequality? What if school league tables are good for education?
Well three years ago a research paper with precisely those findings made waves across the water in the UK.
England and Wales have very similar education systems. Between 1992 and 2001, both English and Welsh systems published annual school performance tables, based on GCSE (Junior Cert level) exam results. But then, in 2001, the Welsh parliament voted to stop.
Here was a natural experiment between two identical systems, one of which now lacked a key component of accountability: the official school league table. Researchers at Bristol university, led by Prof Simon Burgess, decided to look at what happened next.
The result, according to their findings, was “systematic, significant and robust” evidence that abolishing school league tables reduced the academic effectiveness of Welsh schools.
Results fell dramatically. Welsh GCSE performance levels fell by almost two grades per student, per year. That’s a student who would have managed a B in a subject scraping through with a D. The effect was spread across the different subjects, but two full grades worth of a decrease is a huge effect, even when spread across five or six exams.