In Britain yesterday, several newspapers published special sections devoted to the latest performance tables for primary schools. The Independent published a 36-page special section which was flagged on the front page as a "guide to the best and the worst primary schools in England". The Daily Telegraph also trumpeted its 8-page guide to "primary performance" with a teaser on page one asking: "How good is your school?"
In its own way, this media coverage underlines the great interest in such tables among parents, teachers and the entire school community. The performance tables provide a ready answer to the kind of questions that are often of very pressing concern to parents: How good is my children's school? How does it compare to other schools in the area? How is it performing in relation to the national average? The tables, originally introduced as part of the Thatcher move towards a more "customer-driven" educational system, do provide some very useful information for parents. But the crude manner in which performance is assessed on the basis of exam results and with little regard for social, cultural and economic differences, also tends to stigmatise certain schools and regions. As usual, the latest performance tables in Britain provide few surprises; the best performing schools are in prosperous Home-Counties; the worst includes the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. In general terms, the schools which perform best are those with an affluent catchment area and those where there is a high degree of parental involvement in their children's education.
British-style league tables at either primary or secondary level have never found favour in this State, where they are viewed across the political spectrum as a crude and insensitive measure of school performance.
A new ESRI study, Do Schools Differ?, by Dr Emer Smyth, published yesterday, underpins the case against league tables in Irish second-level schools. The study states that the variation in exam performance can often be largely explained by reference to the gender, social class and ability mix of pupils. Schools with a very high entry criteria will invariably perform well. Equally, other schools could actually be performing very well relative to their social and ability mix but this might not be reflected in the league tables. Dr Smyth concludes: "Knowing a particular school's average performance in terms of raw data tells us little about the difference the school actually makes to its pupils."
Dr Smyth's study is a timely reminder of the dangers inherent in any transition to league tables. But it would, nonetheless, be regrettable if it were to close discussion on the general issue of performance evaluation of both primary and secondary schools. Education in this State may be of a very high standard with a very dedicated corps of teachers and, indeed, parents. But it still fails many of our children. And it often lacks the kind of accountability that we take for granted in other areas of the public service. British-style league tables may not be the answer; but this does not obviate the need for some kind of system which would give more information to teachers, parents and children about how their school is performing.