In recent times my blogs have tended to be updates on our work as opposed to addressing issues directly. This week though I really wanted to write something about “good schools”, in response to the publication of this year’s League Tables in the most recent edition of the Sunday Independent.
The League Tables, released annually by a number of publications, cite the percentage of students in each Secondary School in the country, in a given year, who go on to study in Third Level education after completing their Leaving Certificate examinations.
The term “League Tables” of course implies a premier-league type scenario – those sending the most students to third level are in for Champions League glory, while those who send the least are in the dreaded relegation zone and not taken too seriously. Those in the middle are seen as bog standard. But is that really how we should be assessing the quality of our schools?
Now don’t get me wrong – of course exam results matter and of course the ability of schools to assist their students in selecting, pursuing and obtaining a course and career path is one important element of any “good school”. It is one that is worthy of recognition but it is just one element. If you see it as the definition of a “good school” then, by extension, you believe the purpose of a school is not really to educate someone but rather to simply act as a cram factory for the Leaving Certificate.
Malcolm Forbes said that “the purpose of an education is to replace an empty mind with an open mind”, in other words education is not just about filling a brain with facts, rather it is about exposing people to the world, encouraging creativity and curiosity and exposing people to different ways of thinking, doing and living. It enables a person to reach their own personal potential, whatever that might be
Therefore is a school’s openness to diversity not just as relevant a measure in how we rate “good schools”? Is a school’s approach to extra-curricular activities and experiences not just as relevant? Is a school’s attitude in terms of challenging people’s perceptions and encouraging different learning styles not just as integral a measure of a “good school”?
I passionately believe it is and I believe when we are honest and see education in this fuller, purer sense then we also, by extension, create better, more inclusive schools for people with Autism and other disabilities.
I am not just writing this blog for the sake of having a moan – our current attitudes towards league tables, I believe, are impacting on the lives of people with Autism in the education system, both directly and indirectly.
Directly, we are seeing people with Autism face soft barriers to entry as a result of this strange, dated and yet ever more popular means of measuring schools. Naturally, school principals and boards of management are concerned with the reputation of their school and, sadly, the public’s measure of reputation is centred around these league tables. Therefore, principals and boards of management respond to this demand from the public and this is where people with Autism begin to suffer.
Many principals deciding on whether to offer a place to a student with Autism will, perhaps subconsciously, have league tables and public perception on their mind. If he/she takes in too many students with disabilities, who may not be appropriately served by our existing examination system, how will this impact on league tables? If this school becomes the accommodating, inclusive school for people with Autism and other disabilities, how will the community respond? Will people begin to see this school as simply a school for those who cannot or may be perceived to be unable to perform in the examinations system?
This thought process regularly influences schools and in AsIAm we have met so many families who have experienced soft barriers to entry as a result, with comments like “oh perhaps the school down the road could better meet his needs”, “we just don’t have a place to offer her”, “the students support needs are just too great” all too regular responses to applications for a school place for someone with Autism.
Meanwhile many schools do not embrace this attitude and open their doors (for a time at least) – yet receive no kudos and in the process our so called “mainstreaming” policy proves not be universal but subject to the creation of barriers or the goodwill of school administrations.
Any system of ranking schools which encourages this thought process among the general public and which influences schools in turn to have these concerns, cannot be good news for our community or for wider Irish society.
Should we not be more concerned with whether a school is able to meet the diverse needs of students? Is a “good school” not one where those who are highly academic and able to manage in our examinations system get lots of support and encouragement and their place in college, while a student who may be less academic or who may not be able to conform to the rigidity of the exams system would be able to reach their own potential and access the next step in their life, in a manner suitable to them.
Indirectly, there is a much wider societal impact to this outlook on education. It in turn equates “Leaving Cert” and “Success” and so, by extension, often influences our attitude towards people with Autism or other disabilities whose success may look different, whose aspirations may be very different but who in turn still obtain their potential, develop their talents and are happy – the true definition of success.
So to conclude, I want to say I am sure many of the schools who ranked very highly in the League Tables also provide very rounded experiences for their students and support inclusion. Equally, though I am sure many who ranked lower, using this system, provide a great experience for students based on personal potential, ability and need. In both cases I am sure the reverse is also true.
I don’t blame newspapers for publishing the league tables in the manner that they do – they are simply providing the information which the public currently values. This is about out values as a society – education, and how we assess its value, plays a huge role in our wider social fabric and if we do not believe in a diverse, inclusive education system then we do not believe in a diverse, inclusive society.
I hope in time we can think of a new way to measure our schools – which includes progression rates but also looks at a much bigger, bolder picture – now that would be a league table I would take very seriously! That would be a league table which would actually be of use to all families, including those affected by Autism and other disabilities.
Featured image courtesy of winnond / FreeDigitalPhotos.net