‘The best’ schools in Ireland? Give me a break

Schools that reduce themselves to the denominator of degree fodder do themselves and society a disservice

Young people who demonstrate leadership, judgment, courage, empathy, and tolerance will be the beacons of their generation. Photograph: iStock

Young people who demonstrate leadership, judgment, courage, empathy, and tolerance will be the beacons of their generation. Photograph: iStock


It was a promise to publish a list of the country’s 400 very best post-primary schools in a recent promo for a recent Sunday broadsheet newspaper that sucked me in and piqued my interest.

It seemed that my educational philosophy professor of 50 years ago who insisted that “there are no absolutes in education” was about to be proven wrong.

Well, he wasn’t! Rest easy, Sam Clyne.

Because on a quick perusal it became apparent that the one and only benchmark used to determine the “best” schools was the percentage of their students that went on to third-level education.

It’s a perfect snow job but like the three card trick it continues to draw the punters. It works well because though there is no scientific way to adjudge the “best” school neither is there a scientific way to disprove a claim to be the “best” school.

Consider if the list were accurate and that we could rely on it. Imagine the possibilities. It must be the case that if the best schools were the ones whose pupils got to third level well then logically the very worst schools must be those whose pupils failed to get to third level.

Surely then we could shut down those non-performing schools and save the State a shedload of money.


Unfortunately, that would mean closing almost all of the special education schools in the country.

Whereas closing the schools themselves would be no loss, a lot of sensitive folk might be upset at the thought of children with special needs and profound needs being abandoned.

So maybe that would be overly extreme.

Allowing for an unhindered stream of consciousness though a more modest proposal suggests itself, one which would satisfy all parties.

Yes, lets close all those special needs schools that are failing to get their pupils with profound special needs into college but, and here is the clever bit, lets transfer all their pupils with special needs to the schools on the “best schools” list so that they can also get to college.

There it is, problem solved and money saved and everybody goes to college. Happy days.

Daft? Yes, because back in the real world it’s different.

Take three schools.

All of the pupils in St Michael’s have special needs including some with profound disabilities.

All of the pupils in St Vincent de Paul’s are from the city’s most socially disadvantaged area with high unemployment and where many end up in prison.

All of the pupils in St Boris’s which is fee paying have been enrolled as high achievers from wealthy, supportive families.

Then consider the questions: what is the function of these schools? What do we expect of them?

And what if a study of the schools’ former pupils revealed that 60 per cent of St Michael’s past pupils are living independently; 80 per cent of St Vincent’s are in gainful taxpaying employment; and 90 per cent of St Boris’s are in third-level education.

In the business of compiling the “best schools” list, which is the winner and which receives the wooden spoon?

But, in truth, the exercise is pointless. We are grading apples, oranges and pears.

Whereas reasonable people will agree that stress in a special or disadvantaged school may be far more demanding on teachers, parents and management no matter how successful they are, society will not award the accolade of “best” to a special or disadvantaged school.


None of this is to suggest that parents should not have access to all relevant information about a school.

Neither is it to belittle or infer that the staff and management of schools included in the so called “best schools” list are in any way flawed.

It is a reminder that the function of schools is to educate and that the function of education is to ensure that each pupil achieves full potential and not just academically.

Lists that short circuit or ignore that, and celebrate academic performance to the exclusion of all else, are not simply inaccurate. They are misleading. The education system of a democracy must aim to produce citizens with the qualities that a functioning, successful community needs.

Those young people who demonstrate leadership, judgment, courage, empathy, and tolerance and exercise them strategically, rationally and reasonably will be the beacons of their generation.

These qualities do not arrive wrapped in a degree scroll.

But the schools that seek to cultivate them in their pupils are building the community.

Whereas schools that reduce themselves to the denominator of degree fodder are doing themselves and society a disservice.