What Makes a Good School Good?
Extract from Choosing a School by Deirdre Raftery & Catherine KilbrideReproduced with permission of Mercier Press
Page 1 below
|Results and league tables|
Subject choice and class allocation
The notion underlying ‘league tables’ is that the school with the best results in public examinations is the best school. According to this method of ranking schools, the best results are the highest results in terms of points for entry to third-level education. But as a way of measuring the effectiveness of schools and comparing them with each other in order to select the best school for your child, this is fundamentally flawed. First of all, it ignores the pupil intake.
For instance, in a league table, the ‘top’ school may be a relatively small one, which cannot take all applicants. Or, the ‘top’ school may be a very large school, which does take all applicants and which has six class groups in its final year. Here, the Sixth Year will be more or less representative of the population and the very high results will occur in about one-sixth of the cohort. Even in terms of crude examination results, then, the more interesting question to ask is not, which school got the highest results? The pertinent question is, how much did the school contribute to the results? In short, league tables will tell you less about the school than you actually need to know in order to make an informed choice. You may wish to consider issues that have been found to have a direct impact on children’s experience of school. These issues include school type, school environment, subject availability and choice, streaming and banding, discipline and teacher expectations.
Research indicates that many factors are involved in the ‘delivery’ of good examination results, but that school type is not one of them. It is unlikely that a parent, in a particular geographical location, will be presented with a choice between all school types: secondary, vocational and community or comprehensive. However, the programmes and examinations offered in second-level schools are broadly similar across all school types. Nevertheless, our research revealed a perception among parents that one school type might be in a position to ‘deliver’ better examination results than another and they were keen to choose the school which would give their children the best chance of achieving their full potential. However, from her analysis of Junior Certificate results, Emer Smyth could conclude that ‘school type … tells us little about differences between schools in average examination results'. Instead, a number of schooling factors influence the outcomes and these factors are examined below.
A school is an extremely complex organisation. In Chapter Six we will refer to the values and ethos statements, found in school literature, which indicate how the schools will play a role in the lives of their pupils. The sheer range of goals expressed there is an indication of the scale of the task which schools have set themselves in order to provide the best possible learning environment for their pupils. Factors identified in international research as influencing pupil outcomes include: social context; school management and staffing; school organisation and class allocation; school climate; teacher effectiveness. Emer Smyth’s study takes this multidimensional view of school effectiveness and tests it in the Irish context. Her study focuses ‘not only on academic outcomes but also on absenteeism and drop-out [rates] and on aspects of personal/social development among pupils.'
For the purposes of this book and its aim to help you choose a school which will be the best school for your child, Smyth’s research is useful in that it shows the influence of schooling factors on outcomes – social, developmental and academic – for the pupils. The second part of her research, involving a case study of six schools: two ‘academically more effective’; two ‘academically less effective’ and two ‘average’ schools, gives a more detailed report of these, including interviews with principals, vice-principals and staff. It is interesting to note that ‘Improved academic and non-academic outcomes are closely associated with certain aspects of school practice'. We shall look at some of those aspects of school practice now.
Subject choice and class allocation
One of the aspects of second-level schooling, which can confuse parents, is the bewildering array of subjects on offer and the near impossibility of making a selection if the child has no prior knowledge of the subject, particularly if it is not possible for the child to first experience the subject in question. The second related issue is how pupils are grouped in classes (class allocation). Even if all the schools being considered make broadly comparable curricular provision, schools may vary significantly in the way in which subjects and subject levels are made available to pupils. It has been found that more academically effective schools ‘tend to be more flexible in relation to choice of subjects and subject levels, delaying a final decision in order to maximise the number of pupils taking higher level subjects.’
In these academically effective schools, first year might offer a ‘sampling’ system whereby pupils have an opportunity to try out a wide range of subjects for periods of time ranging from two weeks to two months. After sampling a range of subjects, pupils select the ones they are going to take for their Junior Certificate. The decision about which pupils will take the higher paper and which pupils will take the ordinary level paper can be left as late as Easter of third year in these schools.
The size of the school has a direct impact on those decisions. Table 1.2 in Chapter One shows that, for the school year 2003/2004, there were thirty schools with an enrolment of less than one hundred pupils. In other words, there was just one class of less than twenty in each year of a five-year cycle. Furthermore, there was a total of ninety-five schools with an enrolment of less than two hundred which, with a six-year cycle, would indicate the possibility of one class certainly in some of the years. In some of these schools, the practice is to teach pupils of all levels together (mixed-ability teaching) until the point where additional tuition needs to be given to the weaker pupils in preparation for the state examinations at foundation or ordinary level and additional material needs to be covered with those taking higher level examinations.
Such mixed ability teaching becomes increasingly more difficult as the range of ability widens. In a large school, the range of academic ability is more or less reflective of the population and school management has to take serious decisions as to how best to deal with this range of academic ability, in order to get the best out of each individual and allow them all to achieve their full potential.
There are four grouping options open to schools: