What’s the value of feeder schools?

Some say tables provide useful information for potential students but others say it just feeds middle-class anxiety

The Irish Times was the first newspaper to publish information about how many students, from which school, go on to third-level. Photograph: iStock

The Irish Times was the first newspaper to publish information about how many students, from which school, go on to third-level. Photograph: iStock


They’re perhaps the most controversial feature of the Irish education landscape. Back in 2002, The Irish Times was the first newspaper to publish information about how many students, from which school, go on to third-level.

This was a time before whole-school evaluations, when parents could only access whatever information schools saw fit to give them and whatever they heard on the local grapevine. Not surprisingly, the lists were enormously popular with parents and not one parent who contacted the paper was critical of the decision to publish.

Writing at the time, the paper’s then education editor, the late Seán Flynn, said the “education establishment” including teacher unions and school principals, were furious. Teachers said the tables only measured progression to third-level and did not account for further education – although reliable data on progression from school to further education is not recorded by the State – and also did not take account of the unique social and economic features of individual schools.

However, Flynn said parents do indeed take full account of a school’s entry policy and social mix, as well as sporting and cultural activities, and he credited them with the intelligence to know the different challenges facing a fee-paying school in Dublin 4 and a north inner-city school in Cork.

More than 15 years later, the tables are now published by other national newspapers. Teacher unions and school management bodies are still not happy about them, but the furore has settled down. We asked a panel that includes teachers, parents, students and academics about how feeder schools have impacted on Irish education.

- Richard Bruton is Minister for Education

- Geoff Browne is president of the National Parents Council Post-Primary

- John MacGabhann is general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland

- Dr Delma Byrne is a lecturer in sociology and education at Maynooth University, with a particular interest in the relationship between social class and education

- Gráinne Faller is a journalist and was instrumental in developing the methodology used to compile The Irish Times feeder school lists. She is the co-founder of FH Media Consulting, which specialises in media and communication consultancy for organisations involved in higher education and research

- Simon Burgess is a professor of economics at Bristol University, specialising in education

Should feeder tables be published at all? Do parents have a right to information?

Richard Bruton: Publication by newspapers of a school’s place in a league table will, of course, generate public interest. However, no one can imagine that they will tell a full story about that school.

Simon Burgess: The Irish Times is doing a wonderful thing by publishing the tables. This is information that should be in the public domain. Schools are given a lot of public money and custody of our children. The way in which they develop the skills of our children is extremely important and they should be accountable. Of course the tables are popular with parents: every parent, or almost every parent, cares about the future of their children and their life chances. Everyone recognises that education is a big part of this. But, of course, it is not the only factor that matters; parents care deeply about other factors but are entitled to this particular information so they can get a rounded picture.

I became interested in this area after the Welsh Assembly banned the publication of league tables in 2001. We were able to study what happened and uncovered systematic, significant and robust evidence that abolishing the tables reduced the academic effectiveness of Welsh schools [the Welsh Assembly voted in 2011 to allow the tables to be published].

Delma Byrne: I don’t understand the purpose of publishing them. They feed into middle-class anxiety about the choices parents make for their child’s education, and those who can exercise choice are those who already have higher levels of resources. They are a raw instrument that fail to adequately capture the contribution schools make to society. They don’t explain about how the variations between schools can be explained: class, race, ethnicity and gender and school location.

Gráinne Faller: Parents are not going to make a decision on a school for their child based solely on how many children it sends to college. They might also want to know whether the school has basketball and drama and we would never tell them they can’t have this information, so why do we want to deny them access to information on the performance of schools? Parents can find out everything about schools except academic performance; it’s like asking them to buy a pair of jeans that they haven’t seen and can’t try on.

What other information should be made available to parents and guardians about school performance?

Geoff Browne: Information should be provided about schools in relation to the range of subjects available, students’ social-skill development, moral and physical development policies and progression rates to the various career avenues including apprenticeships. Information on attrition rates of students after first year from colleges would be of benefit to parents.

Delma Byrne: There is already a lot of information in the public domain, including school inspection reports and whole-school evaluations, while there are other accountability measures including fitness-to-practice hearings. The tables don’t reflect what is going on in schools.

Gráinne Faller: Whole-school evaluations are becoming clearer, with better information on whether or not a school is effective, and this is a good step.

What positive impacts have they had on Irish education?

Geoff Browne: They offer a form of metric for parents, albeit a limited one. They have also demonstrated the need for a broader and quality evaluation of schools for parents and all other stakeholders in education.

John MacGabhann: None. They add nothing to public discourse except at the coffee shops and patisseries of certain Dublin postcodes. Invariably, the schools at the ‘bottom’ of the table are in a marginalised urban area. Does that tell us that the school is failing, or that society is failing these areas? The information provided by the tables doesn’t tell you anything of value. They just feed tribal competition among the well-to-do. The already advantaged schools can elevate themselves through exclusionary practices – and this happens in the ETB sector as well as in fee-paying schools – will of course be at the top. We can already predict that any one of the fee-paying schools in south Dublin will be in the top 20 and there will be expressions of mock horror over whether they have slipped a place or two. Schools that want to commit to and educate the entire community, and not just those who want to go on to university, are penalised. Will curiosity have me look at the tables? Probably. And then I will seethe at the injustice of them.

Simon Burgess: They give parents access to information. If they didn’t have this information, they would talk to friends and social networks, but only the most affluent and networked parents would have access to the right information. Making the information publicly available democratises information about the schools. I am not at all clear that having school performance tables increases inequality; indeed, our research shows that the Welsh policy change did not impact sorting by ability or socioeconomic status.

What negative impacts have they had on Irish education?

John MacGabhann: They are disrespectful to students whose Herculean efforts are absent from this reckoning, as well children who have made progress during their time in school, or children who have special needs and have been able to register progress that represents a huge advance and achievement for them. The tables say nothing about these young people. The media may run a few contextual articles to salve the institutional conscience, but they don’t have much time for deep analysis. This is where The Irish Times becomes a parochial rather than a national paper, speaking only to its perceived readership in certain Dublin postcodes.

If you ran a league table about the state of health of children in schools, you would find a clear correlation between smaller, less well-fed children and schools that are down the school league tables. League tables are little more or less than a reflection of the inequalities in Irish society; the real problem is that they celebrate those inequalities.

Gráinne Faller: I don’t like the idea of schools competing against each other, and the tables could be seen to punish schools that accept kids with special needs. If they were the only instrument by which we measured schools, they are incomplete, imperfect, blunt and not nuanced enough. But parents aren’t basing their decision solely on the league tables. Accurate and better figures could be provided by the State, but they won’t release them.

Geoff Browne: They skew information for schools who achieve substantial success outside the academic sphere by suggesting those achieving high transfer rates offer the best education. Perhaps only a few people read the small print or clarifications which accompanies the tables.

Richard Bruton: If you define success around just one dimension, such as exams, then schools could be seen to improve by turning away the children with greater needs, for example. [This] would be entirely in conflict with what we want to achieve for our education system, including breaking down barriers of disadvantage, responding to special education needs and developing alternate pathways into education.

Simon Burgess: They’re not perfect and clever schools can gain the performance tables, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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