In league with an outdated ethos?


THE ANNUAL publication of the secondary-school league tables is greeted with equal measures of cynicism, curiosity, smugness and anxiety. This week’s effort at producing percentages that purportedly measure educational quality is no different, writes KATE HOLMQUIST

It has been greeted critically by those who doubt that sending 100 per cent of students to a high-points university course is necessarily an indication of a school’s ability to produce well-rounded individuals. There has been the curiosity of educators, students and parents alike to see where their schools ranked. There has been a certain silent smugness not just among many of the parents who can afford a top-ranking fee-paying school, but also among those fortunate enough to live in a community where the local non-fee-paying school has the energy, parental involvement and grit to make it to the top, and among those who have chosen non-fee-paying Irish-language education for their children.

Most of all though, the tables produce anxiety in the parents of children now in primary school, who are trying to decide whether to make the financial sacrifice of sending their children to fee-paying schools because the tables show fee-paying schools dominating the top-50 list for high-points courses. (The Irish Times published this list for the first time this week, adding yet another factor to be considered by parents who worry about making the wrong choice.)

The league tables seem to say that if you want your children to get on to a “high-points” course in one of the seven universities in the Republic, the five teacher-training colleges, the Dublin Institute of Technology or the College of Surgeons, then you should send them either to a fee-paying school or to a Gaelscoil in Dublin, as few non-Dublin schools and few non-fee-paying schools make the top 25. Of the 29 top fee-paying schools sending the highest percentage to a third-level course, though not necessarily a “high-points” course, all but 10 are in counties Dublin and Kildare.

If, as a parent, you base your decisions on league tables, and if making it to a high-points course is what you think your child’s goal should be, then there seems to be reason to despair if you haven’t got the access or money to send your child to a top-ranked school.

Yet not everyone sees things this way, and anecdotal evidence shows that a combination of financial pressures and more liberal views of what education means has made parents look at league tables more critically.

RORY BURKE, a consulting engineer, could afford to send all four of his bright, talented daughters, aged 12, 14, 16 and 18 (one of whom has participated in DCU’s programme for gifted young people), to any of the south Co Dublin fee-paying schools, costing more than €6,000 a year, that top the league tables. But Burke himself went to Oatland College, a non-fee-paying school, rather than Blackrock College or Gonzaga, and, as he says, “I’ve done all right”.

“League tables in the boom times added pressure on parents to send their children to fee-paying schools that ranked high in the tables,” he says. “At the moment, you hear stories that people are pulling kids out of fee-paying schools because they can’t afford them and they’re having difficulty getting kids into non-fee-paying schools. I know of one parent who had to put a child in a school he didn’t want to put him into, but there were no spaces left in the non-fee-paying school he would have preferred.”

When Burke was choosing a secondary school for his daughters, he looked at several league-table-topping fee-paying schools to see what they had to offer, visiting schools and examining their academic and extra-curricular programmes. In the end, though, his daughters, who had gone to St Raphaela’s Primary School in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, and who wanted to remain with their friends, made the final decision, to go on to the non-fee-paying St Raphaela’s Secondary School for girls. St Raphaela’s sends 72 per cent of its students to third level, including the 49 per cent who achieve “high-points” courses, compared to 100 per cent in both categories at the fee-paying Mount Anville.

“When I was doing the Leaving Cert, I remember walking with a friend of mine and we met one of the guys in our class,” Burke says. “He was studious but didn’t socialise much. He did extremely well in his Leaving Cert, but he turned around and he said: ‘Now that I’ve got the Leaving Cert, I’ll catch up on my social life.’ You can’t do that. Life is about more than getting 6 As. The Leaving Cert tables don’t give a true perspective of a school. “I’ve heard parents say that the only way to get a good education is to get your child into a fee-paying school. Just because you go to Blackrock College or Mount Anville does not mean you are going to succeed.”

Burke talks of successful entrepreneurs who scrambled their way up with little education, and also questions the value of a university degree if a young person hasn’t got the social skills and confidence to make it in the outside world. He wanted his daughters to have a secondary-school experience that nurtured the whole child. “When I interview people, I don’t necessarily hire the one with the impressive MBA,” he says. “That’s no use if you can’t deal with people in the working environment.”

A more useful league table, in his view, would be one that shows how people are doing in their careers five or even 10 years after their Leaving Cert.

St Raphaela’s has seen its waiting list triple and its enrolment rise in the past year, as parents began to scrutinise schools and their budgets in a time of recession. Eileen O’Donnell, principal of St Raphaela’s, says: “During the boom years, parents were sending their children to fee-paying schools, no questions asked. Now parents are coming in to visit us, and while in the past we had to convince them, now they are coming to us already convinced.”

LEAGUE TABLES DOnot reflect the fact that non-fee-paying schools are inclusive, taking in both academic and less academic students and providing support for children with different learning needs. Even so, community schools are narrowing the gap in their results compared to fee-paying schools. Thirty-three of the 50 top large schools are non-fee-paying.

Tommy Walshe, of the Parents Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (Paccs), is an advocate of the work of his local Moate Community School, which both of his sons attended and where 88 per cent of students go to third level, with 43 per cent going to “high-points” courses.

“The league tables are very unfair because they don’t compare like with like,” he says. “Not every student wants to go to TCD or UCD. Some are very good with their hands and they want to be out working as plasterers, plumbers.”

Walshe, whose eldest son is at NUI Galway and whose younger is doing his Junior Cert, is a maintenance man who has never earned more than €25,000 per year and has recently lost work due to the recession.

Next spring, Paccs will hold a conference on the theme of mental health for teenagers. “The points system means that teenagers are spending a lot of time getting points for the course they want, then they do the first year of university and find out it’s a very difficult course and they are not able to cope with it,” Walshe says.

“At our conference, we will be trying to promote the idea of parents trying to talk to their children and seeing what they want. As a parent, do you want your child healthy and feeling good about themselves? Or under stress and panicking to get points?”

The National Parents’ Council Post-Primary gets many calls from parents concerned about making the right education choices. Its president, Eleanor Petrie, believes that children who give their best will get the best out of whatever school they attend, especially when there is an ethos at home that supports educational achievement.

“The teachers in both fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools are identical in their training and the same curriculum is taught, and the reality is that fee-paying schools now have higher pupil-teacher ratios than non-fee-paying schools,” she says.

Many fee-paying schools, she adds, achieve a 100 per cent rate of Leaving Cert students going to “high-points” courses because they are not inclusive, finding ways to eliminate or not admit less academic children or those with Asperger’s or other learning differences.

“You may have that awful interview where the principal calls you in and says, in the middle of second year: ‘I’m not sure this is the school for your Mary – she would probably do well down the road in such and such a school.’ Every year we get calls from parents of children in certain fee-paying schools saying that they’ve been told that their child would be better off elsewhere,” Petrie says.

So many parents are questioning the Celtic Tiger idea that paying for an education makes it better (while also realising the importance of the home ethos and parental involvement in the school), that there could be a movement in favour of non-fee-paying and inclusive schools. Eileen O’Donnell says: “The single biggest advantage in private school was smaller classes. If that’s not the case any more, that could have an impact. There could be a levelling off among all schools in the league tables.”