School league tables teach us lessons
The Belfast Telegraph's exclusive GCSE and A-level league tables reveal not just the successes in our education system, but also the challenges that remain. Lindsay Fergus reports
The mere mention of two words – 'league' and 'table' – provokes debate and controversy. There are those who are vehemently opposed to post-primary schools being ranked based on their pupils' performance at GCSE and A-level. Then there are others who will devour the data with gusto.
Both the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, and the chairman of Stormont's education committee, Mervyn Storey, sound a note of caution.
"I would like to point out that, while school attainment statistics are important, league tables can never reflect the true state of educational provision," stated Mr O'Dowd, while Mr Storey said: "It is always useful for the public to have as much information as possible about the performance of schools, but it is important that parents do not judge the effectiveness of our schooling system solely on the basis of these statistics."
Both are correct: league tables should not be used in isolation – nor would we advocate such folly. However, that does not mean they should not be published.
Taken into consideration alongside other information, including inspection reports, key stage results, other parents' experience, attendance levels, a school's financial situation, enrolment numbers, a school's reputation and parents' feel for a school, they can help parents make an informed choice about the school that is best suited to the needs of their child.
A league table is a snapshot of one year's exam results. Nothing more, nothing less. Just like an inspection report is a synopsis of a school where inspectors spend just a few days in a school looking at a wide spectrum of areas, including exam performance, leadership, pastoral care – all which they also rate.
Schools can receive six gradings, with outstanding being the highest to inadequate being the lowest (a label no school likes to receive).
But as many schools are inspected only once in a pupil's education lifetime, it would be wrong to solely use the results of an inspection from seven or more years ago today.
However, that report can be used to ask questions, as, in conjunction with other information, can a league table, which is updated yearly with fresh information.
Although the education minister is opposed to league tables, in England such data is released annually by the Department for Education.
Mr O'Dowd's UK counterpart publishes performance tables featuring 5,000 schools, ranked within each local authority by the percentage of pupils gaining at least five A* to C grades, including English and Maths. Parents are invited to compare schools' performance.
But, as Mr O'Dowd's Sinn Fein party is anti-academic selection and grammar schools dominate the top of the league tables – the first 66 positions at GCSE and 16 at A-level – perhaps it is unsurprising that it is a service the Department of Education chooses not to provide.
The annual league tables – compiled exclusively by Belfast Telegraph – are based on information released by the Department of Education and they are beneficial to parents.
If that was not the case, then why, when the information is published, is there an increase in paper sales and thousands of hits on our website?
Easy to digest, they allow parents to look at schools in their area and compare their performance in two sets of exams, the results of which can have a significant bearing on a pupil's path in life.
Without identifying any schools, three non-selective schools in my local area have a similar percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals, but their performance at GCSE ranges from less than one-in-three pupils achieving five good GCSEs to almost half.
There is little difference in three grammar schools – just six percentage points between them. The league tables also provide valuable information. They clearly show the impact of academic selection at 11 on GCSE and A-level results, with grammar schools year after year claiming the top slots.
They also reveal how schools with a higher percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals have a tendency to come lower down the rankings, indicating the bearing of social disadvantage on educational attainment. In the top 100 schools, just 10 have more than one in four pupils from a socially disadvantaged background.
They also suggest that schools with a higher percentage of pupils with special education needs tend to have fewer pupils achieving the benchmark of five good GCSEs, including English and Maths.
Of the 100 lowest-achieving schools, half have more pupils with special education needs than the Northern Ireland average of 28.7%.
It is also interesting that, when you move to A-level and use generic subjects as opposed to including English and Maths, as at GCSE, there is significant narrowing of the performance-gap between the grammar and non-grammar sectors.
What the league tables portray are, on the one hand, the successes that exist in our system, but also the challenges that remain.
Not every pupil in every school – including selective schools – will successfully attain five GCSEs at grade C and above. That is because not all young people have the same abilities and aptitudes.
It would be a misconception to believe that we could ever have a system in which all pupils will achieve the same results. But that is the yardstick used by the Government. And that is where the challenge lies for the education minister and his department.
Yes, results are improving – though at a snail's pace – so something needs to be done to measure achievement where a pupil is assessed when they enter a school and is continually evaluated to ensure they reach their individual potential.
** Lindsay Fergus is a freelance journalist specialising in education issues