Two damaging myths about education in NI

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Bertrand Russell noted that: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubt.”

In education nothing attracts fools and fanatics more than simple numbers. There are two enduring and extremely damaging myths about education in Northern Ireland can be traced to a misuse of numbers.

Letters to Editor

Letters to Editor

The first myth is that Catholic education is superior to that on offer in state schools.

One may get the sense (albeit a thoroughly mistaken sense as it turns out) that local league tables measure academic excellence. Descriptors such as “outstanding,” “exceptional” and “top performing” abound. But such inferences are not justified. These league tables are incapable of identifying excellent schools. Indeed, it could be argued that they measure academic mediocrity.

The established method used worldwide when rank ordering schools is the so-called “Grade Point Average” procedure. This attempts to respect the fact that the scale of standards implicit in the various grades is ranked in series by assigning a weight to each grade. For example, in conventional A-level league tables, 12 points might be assigned to an A* grade, 10 to an A grade, 8 to a B grade, and 6 to a C grade.

However, in Northern Ireland league, such good practice is entirely ignored. This deliberate error produces invalid rankings which are then used to claim that Catholic education is superior to that on offer in state schools. In Northern Ireland, all four grades – A*, A, B and C – are assigned exactly the same weight.

Unfortunately, a league table which treats a CCC profile as indistinguishable from a profile of A*A*A* cannot lay claim to distinguish schools on the basis of their academic excellence.

The misleading publication of flawed league tables leads into Myth no. 2:

Northern Ireland schools are therefore not world-class.

This is a particularly troubling myth at a time when Northern Ireland should be attracting inward investment. This myth is promulgated by those who want to see radical reform of our education system in general, and the death of selective education in particular.

Northern Ireland routinely outperforms England and Wales at GCSE and Advanced Level. It is very hard to make the case that a world-class education system is in need of radical reform.

Consistently Northern Ireland’s OECD PISA ranking have always been cited by those intent on talking our schools down.

However, the fact that PISA ranks are meaningless is simple to illustrate. Consider the balls on a snooker table before any game begins. The location of the balls requires 44 numbers (two per ball). A single number can locate nothing on the table because a location demands more than one number. But OECD PISA uses a single number to represent the state of mathematics education, for example, in the USA, a country with almost 100,000 schools.

Is PISA really claiming that what cannot be achieved for a simple little snooker ball is nevertheless possible for a continent of over 300 million complex, intentional human beings?

Stephen Elliott, Chair, The Parental Alliance for Choice in Education