Skewed statistics do little to promote choice in education

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

On November 9th last, RTÉ news broadcast a report by education correspondent Emma O’Kelly. At the time, the Department of Education was consulting the parents of preschool and primary school children in Arklow, Trim, Tramore, Castlebar and Whitehall in Dublin about patronage of primary schools.

On the eve of the submission deadline of the pilot survey, Emma O’Kelly went to Castlebar where there are 11 primary schools, all Catholic. She spoke to about 40 parents. Half had not heard about the online survey, and with only a day to go, only four had filled it in.

She found no particular appetite for change, despite the lack of diversity. One woman summed up the views of many. She agreed with the need for diversity in patronage, but definitely did not want to see change in her own little country school, with which she was perfectly happy.

O’Kelly commented: “My visit to Castlebar makes me wonder about this survey. It can’t possibly reflect the richness of views I heard from parents, the things they value, the things they don’t want changed.” Her perception proved to be more than accurate.

The results were released this week and it is clear that there is some demand for change in patronage. However, the methodology was flawed, the submission rate poor, and it is imperative that a new and much more robust method be used for the next 40 or so areas to be surveyed.

Self-selected group

Using an online consultation was never a good idea, because it results in a self-selected group, not a representative sample. Only the late and much-missed Garret FitzGerald would have enjoyed ploughing through the statistics that were generated.

By my reckoning of the parents who have children up to age 12, roughly a third responded. That’s a very low response rate on which to base educational change. We don’t know why the response was so poor. It could have been poor publicising of the survey, being too busy, having preschool age children or children who will shortly be leaving primary and therefore not seeing it as a priority, or generally being pleased with the current school choice.

Of those who did respond, roughly 30 per cent would avail of a wider choice of schools if offered. Expressed as a percentage of the total population of children aged up to 12 in the various areas, in Arklow, that represents 7.2 per cent who would avail of change, in Castlebar, about 11.4 per cent, in Tramore 9.2 per cent, in Trim 11 per cent, and in Whitehall, 7.3 per cent.

But there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Insofar as we can infer anything from the low response, the demand for change is low. But if we look at raw figures of those who would avail of change, in Arklow, it amounts to parents of 192 children, 76 of whom are still preschool. That is a significant number. The largest number of those, 114, (ranging in age from four to 12) would opt for Educate Together as a first preference. That’s more than four classrooms full. That’s significant. Those parents deserve to be offered choice.

Vacate classrooms

If it were only about buildings, you could vacate some classrooms in Catholic schools, and everyone would be happy. Except, perhaps, the Catholic parents who want Catholic schooling who are being asked to move from a school they have no desire to leave. Not to mention those who wanted a VEC primary school, or multidenominational education through Irish.

What about where to locate the classrooms? Some schools are 5km away from towns. So which school gives up the classrooms, and will some parents not want the extra travel? One statistic, not highlighted very much, worried me. About four in 10 were not in favour of changing the system at all, even to cater for parents who want increased choice. Unlike those people, I support change.

The results appear to be a great endorsement of denominational schools, given that two-thirds of respondents are not seeking change. It suggests there is no demand for a one- size-fits-all secular education, because Educate Together also educates about religion.

But even if a majority of parents who responded are happy with their choice of school, it is still vital to try to accommodate parents who want change. Much more detailed information is needed from all the stakeholders in each area. For example, how many parents are willing to vacate a school they like in order to facilitate others? How far are parents willing to travel in order to avail of change? What guarantees will be given to denominational schools that their ethos will be protected after the changes?

Without this kind of robust information gathering, securing change that is equitable and acceptable to the local community will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

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