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Department under fire over old data in Northern Ireland schools audit

By Lindsay Fergus

A controversial viability audit of Northern Ireland’s schools is falling apart at the seams just days after it was published, it has been claimed.

Hundreds of schools were publicly ‘red-flagged’ by the department this week for missing a series of targets. But it has now emerged that some of the findings were based on historic information.

GCSE results from 2011 were not included in the controversial audit — a healthcheck of all schools announced by the Education Minister last September.

Instead, the department based its findings on schools’ GCSE performance in 2009 and 2008.

DUP MLA Mervyn Storey and chair of Stormont’s education committee has accused the department of “educational negligence” and of being “grossly irresponsible” over its handling of the situation.

He said: “Why has the department used data that in some cases is more than two years old?”

On Tuesday an audit of every primary and post-primary school was published on the education and library boards’ websites. More than 500 schools were found to fall short on department-set targets in three areas — quality of education, finances and pupil numbers.

A snapshot analysis by the Belfast Telegraph found that if GCSE results from 2011 and 2010 had been used, two of the nine grammar schools that had been identified by the department for falling down on the quality of education would not have been red-flagged.

The criteria the department used to judge grammar schools was based on if less than 85% of pupils achieved seven GCSEs including English and maths at grades A* to C in both of the last two years (2009 and 2008).

Both the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) and the Royal School Armagh were above that target last year. RBAI had 91.3% of pupils achieve seven good GCSEs including English and maths, and Royal School Armagh 94.1%.

Janet Williamson, principal of RBAI, said: “The audit is using historic data and is not accurately reflecting where schools are educationally and in terms of their finance.

“I feel strongly that the department has to take responsibility for over 500 of their schools being publicly described as stressed using their criteria, which was never discussed with any of the unions.

“Their data does not give a full picture. They have created the stress. How did the department let it get this far?”

Also of the 15 schools earmarked as failing on all three criteria — finances, enrolment and quality of education — one school would not have been in that category if the latest results had been included.

Under the department’s criteria St Columban’s College, Kilkeel, fell down because fewer than 25% of its pupils did not get five GCSEs including English and maths at grades A* to C in both of the last two years (2009 and 2008).

However, if 2011 GCSE results had been used St Columban’s would have been over that target as 29.2% of its pupils achieved five GCSEs including English and maths at grades A* to C.

Mr Storey, who is also his party’s education spokesman, said: “If the department was aware of the problems in the system, why did it not try to help those schools without naming and shaming.”

Use of old results defended by body

The Department of Education has defended its use of out of date data to determine the viability of Northern Ireland’s schools.

However, it has vowed that last year's GCSE results will be factored into area plans for the future of the schools' estate.

A department spokesman said: “The viability audits produced by the boards are a snapshot of the schools’ situations using the most up to date information available at the time.

“In the case of GCSE attainment for the 2010/11 year, fully validated and finalised statistics will be available in the very near future and will be factored into area plans. No decisions on the future of any school will be made without incorporating the most recent data and taking account of all pertinent factors.”

The Belfast Telegraph put a number of questions to the department, including several which it declined to answer:

  • Why is there such a variation in the targets for grammar schools and non-grammar schools?
  • Why were those particular benchmarks chosen?
  • And why were so many of our schools allowed to fall into such poor health?

To pass the viability audit, grammar schools had to meet a target of 85% or more of pupils achieving seven GCSEs, including English and maths, at grades A* to C in both 2008 and 2009.

There was a significant difference in the averages between grammar and non-grammar schools visible in the results, with fewer than 25% of non-grammar school pupils achieving five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grades C and above.

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