Openness, transparency and accountability: these are widely considered to be the cornerstones of a functioning and vibrant democracy.
Except, it seems, when it comes to Irish education. Here, parents who should be entitled to find out information on their child’s school – or prospective school – are often left to fumble around for answers.
Every year, The Irish Times and other newspapers publish data showing the number of students from every publicly funded school in Ireland who progress on to third level in the State. Every year, there is criticism of this data.
This criticism is not only fair, but necessary to help people understand and contextualise the lists. The tables, compiled using publicly available data, are imperfect. The Government has better, more valuable data available, but it doesn’t seem to trust voters enough to provide it to them.
The tables are a raw metric that do not (and cannot) give schools credit for the excellent work they do in supporting all children – not just those with the family resources to buy grinds – with their emotional, moral and social development.
This data itself does not include, for instance, information on where students went to study in the UK or elsewhere, or the number of students who went on to apprenticeship, traineeships or post-Leaving Cert courses (in the latter case, because few seem to have considered, with a Government policy of increasing the numbers taking up further education, it might be useful to gather data).
Which is why, every year, this newspaper also publishes extensive articles, caveats and information about their use, and why they should not be the deciding factor in which second-level school your child goes to. We also stress, among other factors, the importance of whole-school evaluations, the local grapevine, and the school’s approach to teaching and learning. And we emphasise that feeder schools are but one data point in a whole year of extensive education coverage.
But perhaps there is no need to emphasise this, because parents and guardians themselves know it. Ireland has long placed a premium on education, and parents understand that these lists tell only part of a school’s story. They understand that extracurricular activities and sports, pastoral supports and school leadership matter too, and they know that what works for one child in one school may not apply to their own child. They get that a school in an inner city or remote rural area has very different challenges from a fee-paying school, flush with cash, resources and connections, in leafy south Dublin. They know that the local grapevine and a whole-school evaluation can provide more information than the feeder schools progression metric alone.
The case for limiting or banning them is, at its heart, only that officials and educators can understand this nuance, and that parents, guardians and the public are too stupid and cannot be trusted to grasp its limitations.
The argument that feeder schools are imperfect and do not tell a school’s full story is also that journalists should not pursue and publish information. This is antithetical to the nature of a free press and, in a democracy, is like King Cnut commanding the sea not to touch his feet.
It doesn’t even stand up: research carried out by Prof Simon Burgess found that, when the Welsh Assembly banned them in 2001, the academic effectiveness of Welsh schools was reduced.
Feeder schools can’t capture the holistic work of a school, goes another line of thinking – so ban them.
But students at the end of sixth year aren’t philosophically mulling on their own “holistic development”, because the exam-driven system that decides their future doesn’t provide them with a modicum of credit for this. Instead, for most of them, everything rests on a high-stakes system of terminal exams that are widely seen as outdated and in need of reform. The media, or feeder schools, didn’t create these systems; it merely reports on their reality.
The tables also tend to show that schools in wealthier areas have a higher third-level progression rate than those in more disadvantaged areas.
The media, however, didn’t invent the social inequality that the feeder schools table highlights every year. Instead, the reports on feeder schools are one of the few chances to highlight the inequality between different schools and different communities, and how society is failing these areas. There are multiple ways this data could be improved and contextualised, including comparing the progress made between a child’s Drumcondra tests, their Junior Cycle and their Leaving Cert. But, no surprise, these are shot down.
The journalists have gathered the data; now it is for policymakers to respond, instead of shooting the messenger.
Peter McGuire is a journalist who writes extensively about education