Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 13 February 2001 (continued)
I quoted from page 18, section 4.9.3 of the public health report. That will enable the Member to research it more fully.
Mick Murphy drew attention to the fact that there were three Ministers involved. I did not fully understand his point. However, when I dealt with the three Ministers in person I found that they co-operated fully, and I do not want to minimise that in any way. On a person to person basis, that co-operation was there. However, I am concerned that Ministers may defend their Departments to the extent of not listening to what goes on there.
At the outset, I said that I was quite upset to hear a report on the radio this morning about the suggestion that sheep had been allowed into the area. It struck me as particularly interesting that someone should focus on this story after all this time. I detected that they wanted to divert attention away from the argument. On several occasions I have detected as much when I tried to investigate parts of the issue. It makes one feel that there is something of a plot afoot to disturb the public interest and to deflect public interest away from the issue. I may just be feeling a bit sore and persecuted but I have had that suspicion on several occasions. I wonder if it has anything to do with certain officials in a certain Department being conscious of the fact that they should have carried out tests on the safety, efficiency and protection of the water supply.
It is in the public interest for Members to bear this in mind. We are all aware of the extent to which we were dominated, in the past, by the Civil Service - there was no proper accountability. I definitely get the impression that this case was treated in such a way. Public health was constantly used to divert my attention away from protecting farmers. They were made the scapegoats at all times, even though the evidence indicates that the opposite is the case. This is what emerged from my dealings with the three Ministers.
Mr Paisley Jnr claimed that I failed to make a number of key points. I waited patiently for these points to be made, but I did not hear them. He was inclined to try to direct some form of calumny at me and to trivialise my comments, without realising that I am trying to reflect the very serious and sincere anger of the people I represent. I may perhaps be forgiven for my actions. I hope that I am forgiven, because I have seen the effects of this situation, and I get cross and upset when I can see ways around bureaucratic decisions that are not being taken.
I welcome the Minister's expressed willingness to try to solve the problem. I still maintain that his Department has a key role to play in this matter, and I hope that that will encourage him and his officials to do everything possible, in conjunction with his Colleagues. Interestingly, this debate might just result in greater co-operation between our ministerial Colleagues in the Chamber - there have been some examples of this today, and I am glad to see that happening.
Finally, I appeal to the Minister to consider seriously my request that the pasturage link be maintained. Experts say that the risk of a cryptosporidium outbreak is least hazardous in August, September and October, and there is no evidence that anything happens at those times. Even if the rest of my argument falls on deaf ears, I urge the Minister to consider allowing those months to be used to establish and maintain that pasturage link, which would allow the tradition to continue after the Department carries out the intended work.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on those Ministers responsible to make compensation available for farmers who are suffering financially as a result of the Silent Valley sheep ban in the Mournes.
Mr S Wilson:
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Education to publish information which enables the performance of schools in Northern Ireland to be adequately measured and compared.
I will outline why I felt this issue should be debated by the Assembly.
First, we have a decision that has caused widespread concern, and I am going to mention some of the people who have expressed concern in a moment. Secondly, we have an issue that once again illustrates the cavalier manner with which the Minister of Education handles his portfolio. It does no credit to the Assembly, to its Committees, or to the general education debate for such an important issue, which is central to the whole delivery of education in Northern Ireland, to have been delivered in this particular way.
This is an important issue. The Department of Education receives the second-highest amount of money from the Budget for Northern Ireland, and a high proportion of that goes directly to schools. Therefore, it is important to have some measure on how effectively that money is being spent. One way of doing that is to measure the output of schools. The Minister, in his wisdom, has decided to do away with the only measure of performance that is made available to the public so that they can judge whether or not schools are delivering. It is a decision that has drawn criticism from academics, including Prof Tony Gallagher; from industrialists, including the Institute of Directors; and from parents and some school principals. It is a decision that ironically - or perhaps not ironically, but predictably - has been welcomed by teachers' unions. Some may well say that the Minister, having failed to make friends anywhere else in education, has decided to zone in on the teachers' unions: better some friends than no friends. But if he is doing that at the expense of the accountability of the education budget and what goes on in schools, then the Assembly ought to be concerned.
The second reason for my bringing the matter to the Assembly is that the Minister has handled this issue in an unacceptable manner. This is a major policy change, and it makes Northern Ireland different from all other parts of the United Kingdom, but, as we found out yesterday, the matter was not brought before the Executive. Other Executive Members were not consulted about it. So much for what we have been told about the Executive's ability to rein in rogue Ministers. The decision is contrary to the views expressed by the Education Committee. I know that some people will find it rather odd that another member of the Education Committee has put down an amendment welcoming the decision. But let me remind the Assembly what the Education Committee said to the Minister on this issue:
"The Committee believes that it is important that performance information on schools is made widely available to assist openness, transparency and."
- this is important -
"for the benefit of making comparisons."
That was endorsed unanimously by the Education Committee, including the member who is going to move an amendment to the motion in a moment or two.
The Committee went on:
"The Committee accepts that the provision of comparative information can assist schools to monitor and evaluate their performance and set targets to improve."
It concluded that:
"The Department should regularly publish comparative information..."
The first preference was that the comparison should be based on value-added information. But in the interim, until the Department decided what information to include, the Committee said that the Department should continue to publish the information as at present, but make it a bit more meaningful by benchmarking. In other words, rather than having one league table in which all schools were treated the same, divide it into divisions, similar to the football league, which would make it a bit fairer. Premier league schools should not be compared with fourth division schools. That may be an inadequate analogy, but it nevertheless demonstrates that schools divide into different sections, either because of their intake, their area, or the nature of the youngsters who go there.
The Minister ignored the views of the Committee. He ignored the views of many professionals, and he ignored the Executive. That is why it is important for the Assembly to debate this issue. The Minister now seems to be making decisions on the basis of some kind of inadequate and partial referendum. He sought to justify his decision by stating that 75% of the responses he received were in support of doing away with tables published by the Department. What he failed to say was that of the three options, two involved the publication of the kind of information that is currently available. One option was for it to be produced by boards, the other for it to be published by the Department. The division between those preferring that it be done purely by schools and those wanting some other central body to do it was almost fifty-fifty.
It was never indicated that the decision would be made on a headcount. Is the Minister going to handle these important issues simply by getting the responses and totalling them all up? Regardless of the nature, quality, standing and source of the responses, will he take 51% and say that if those people are in favour, then that is the route to take? For a party that has railed against majority rule, that is a very odd way to behave.
Is that how he is going to deal with the review of post-primary education? If it is, the message is that every Tom, Dick and Harry across the country should write in. That is how the Minister is going to decide - by some form of postal referendum. In light of Sinn Féin's reputation on postal votes, one has to query the wisdom of allowing things to be decided in that way. That is why this issue needed to be debated. It is significant that the majority of responses from parents said that they wished to have information reported by either the Department or the boards. Even though there has been a concerted campaign by teaching unions, 44% of teachers said that they did not mind such information being published by either the Department or the boards. There is no great resistance to performance information, presented in a comparative way, being published, however much the Minister likes to suggest that his decision was backed up by popular demand.
Let us look at some of the arguments. First of all, the Department's own consultation document recognises the value of these tables. Here are some examples:
"The Tables encourage competition among schools, and the effect of competition is often to drive up standards. Many schools have worked hard in recent years to develop strategies that will improve their 'ranking' in the Tables . the Tables can provide a basis for discussion about comparative performance, standards and quality of teaching between staff and Governors."
The document points out that the information is popular. Over the past seven years, more than 250,000 copies of the school league tables have been distributed. No complaint has ever been received from a parent about receiving unwanted material. I could go on. The Department's document indicates that there is value in the tables. The Minister, under section 4.2 of the Programme for Government, indicates that one of the prime reasons for demanding more money for education is to improve the standard of education. We have a situation where we have the Department admitting that a particular way of improving standards in schools is to publish information, the Minister saying he wants to do that, and yet he no longer publishes the figures.
The Department is now setting out targets for GCSE and Key Stage 2 attainment. If the Department is happy to set those targets nationally, why should we not look at the component parts of how those national targets are achieved? If some schools are underachieving, let it be known, so that, as the Committee said, they can be monitored and helped. Despite the compelling evidence from the Department, and the fact that the Department is now saying that targets will be set for GCSE and A level passes, Key Stage 2 attainment and everything else, those tables are not going to be published.
One reason might be that the Minister is seeking to bring Northern Ireland into line with the Irish Republic, which is one of the few countries in the world that has bowed to the pressure of professionals within the education establishment. Not only does it refuse to publish the information, it bans publication by anybody else. What is the result? We hear a lot about the Celtic tiger, and how education has driven that, but the results are far from that.
The third International Maths and Science Survey reported that, when it tested nine year-olds and thirteen year-olds in maths and science, the Republic of Ireland ranked in the lower half of the countries surveyed. Only Cyprus, Iran and Portugal were lower. An international adult literacy survey looked at prose document and numeric literacy. Of the six English-speaking countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the standard in the Irish Republic was the lowest. It was also lowest in computer literacy in OECD English-speaking countries - just below half-way in the ranking of Western Europe. A whole range of statistical information shows that if standards are not measured publicly, it does not matter how much money is spent on education. There will be a lack of value for money.
Many arguments have been put forward against publishing the league tables - some of them fairly spurious. The first is that it affects the morale of teachers. I would have thought that one way of improving teacher morale would be to show that what they were doing was valued and measured, and that when improvements took place there was something to praise them for. The attitude of some of the teachers' unions contrasts greatly with that of teachers in other countries. The American Federation of Teachers actually called for the publication of standards. It said that it believed that it was important for students to know what they should be able to do at each grade level and to have examinations administered by the state, and that that in turn would create confidence in the schools.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Wilson, I ask you to draw your comments to a close.
Mr S Wilson:
I will finish now.
The second argument is that the publication of league tables distorts the activity of schools. I would have thought that the main reason why parents send their youngsters to school was to gain qualifications. Therefore, one needs to measure whether schools have achieved that.
I am sure that Ms Lewsley will deal with the third argument, which is that schools do more than just pump out examination candidates. That is quite true. However, parents, when they are choosing schools, do not look solely at league tables or performance tables. They will go to open nights and listen to what their children and other children say, what people who have gone through the school say, and what they read in the newspapers about a school. All that information is factored in anyway. That does not do away with the need to have some measure of school performance.
Finally, here is a quote from a letter sent to a local newspaper by a parent, referring to how some west Belfast schools had underperformed:
"The public has a right to know if schools have underperformed, and pupils have a right to have it redressed."
The only way one can know if schools have underperformed is if one has comparative information published. The only way one can have it redressed is to have schools monitored. For those schools which are underachieving, that information should be used as a means of devoting help, attention and resources so that children get what parents expect for them when it comes to the school system.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Owing to the substantial number of Members wishing to speak, I am going to have to limit each Member's time to eight minutes. The Minister will have 15 minutes in which to respond.
I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "Assembly" and add
"welcomes the decision of the Minister not to continue the current publication of school performance tables and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that information supplied to parents about schools is wide-ranging and detailed and includes social and economic background data, extra-curricular and non-academic classes offered and other 'value-added' information."
It is schools that should deliver performance tables, not the Department. As Mr Wilson said, we are not asking for performance measures to be taken away, but we are asking that the schools deliver them and not the Department.
As many of us know, last October the Department initiated a consultation on the future of school performance tables and invited responses from schools, parents and other interested groups on the issue. At that time, I was concerned that the consultation period was too short. Responses had to be returned to the Department by 8 December. I was also concerned that the options were too limited. Mr Wilson has already mentioned the three options. In response to that consultation, many people who responded at that time, including my own party, chose option two. The proviso was that it should be implemented with appropriate monitoring by the Department, particularly given the additional resources saved through ceasing to publish the tables. Under option two we believed that schools would be required to provide parents with a copy of their prospectus, with the details of their examination performance set in the context of other information about that school.
I believe that it is in the interests of equality of opportunity and social inclusion for all children that adequate information on schools is presented to parents to ensure informed choice. Education is a vital element in society, coming close in importance to food and shelter. Not only that, it is a human right. To provide parents with full and accurate information on schools, we need to recognise the need for a more holistic approach to the achievement of schools. I believe that there should be a duty on schools to present examination data, with vocational qualifications alongside academic qualifications. It is important that information on the achievements and extra-curricular and non-academic activities of the schools, including what I would term the value added by the socioeconomic background of the students and areas, be given.
I do not accept that it is impossible to devise a system for presenting the information on the value added by a school, given its particular circumstances and approach. All too often, emphasis is placed on the school's academic performance alone, and this can increase the burden on the school to meet targets and to satisfy league tables, with the result that it becomes league-driven and geared too much towards academia. We have to move away from perpetual testing to perpetual teaching. This type of limited information can also be misleading for parents when choosing a suitable school for their child's needs. What we should have, as I have said before, is equality of opportunity. We must tackle the issues of underachievement, rural schools, nursery education and, in particular, special needs education. We must ensure that we target social need and take into account a child's abilities and reflect a child's needs and parental choice.
We need to develop a second level education that gives equal weight to a vocational stream operating alongside an academic stream to develop a real and meaningful curriculum that meets the needs of pupils and society. In my opinion, although we have a high level of excellence, we also have a high level of underachievement that needs to be tackled.
As a parent of a child who got her results on Saturday morning, I can assure Members that only about 30% of parents will be worried about league tables. The others, of whom I am one, are only worried at this stage about what school their children will actually get into. For me the issue is not about league tables. It is about finding a school that can give my child encouragement and the equality of opportunity to fulfil her potential, whether by a vocational or an academic route. Given the right environment, I believe that she will have the chance to regain some of the self-esteem and motivation that she lost on Saturday at the tender age of 10. I also believe that our aim should be to encourage all our children to develop their full potential in relation to academic, sporting, vocational, musical, artistic or other abilities, and to cope with whatever limitations or difficulties they may have or encounter. I ask the Assembly to support this amendment.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate. I am speaking as the Ulster Unionist Party's spokesperson on education, but I will also be saying a little in my role as the Chairman of the Education Committee.
The whole issue of school performance tables has, from time to time, been shrouded in controversy. It is clear that there are conflicting views in the education sector as to their value. I am unable to give my support to the amendment tabled by the Member for Lagan Valley, Mrs Lewsley. In the submissions that were made to the Minister - and particularly those of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Education Committee - and the Minister's subsequent decision, there are gaps that I, as spokesperson on education and Chairperson of the Education Committee, am concerned about. The gaps relate, for the large part, to the main text outlined in Ms Lewsley's amendment. I am unwilling to commit myself to that amendment, in the light of the absence of a ministerial commitment to take action and support the proposals contained in the second part of the amendment.
The Ulster Unionist Party expressed its view to the Minister, as part of the consultation process, that there is a clear need for this type of information to be made available to those involved in education, including pupils, parents, teachers, library boards and the Department of Education. This would provide these groups with access to data, which would enable them to make better-informed decisions, albeit from a statistical perspective. School performance tables did not take account of everything that schools provide. For that reason, we were convinced that value-added information should be made available alongside the pure statistical data. Every effort should, therefore, be made to chart a school's complete performance on both an academic and a personal level.
The Ulster Unionist Party, in its submission on school performance tables to the Minister, also emphasised the need for his Department to consider the assistance and input of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), which has undertaken a wide range of useful work in this area. At the time of the ministerial announcement, that element was absent. I will be interested to hear his views on this value-added information and on the role that the CCEA might play in that respect.
The Education Committee's response was that it is very important that performance information on schools be made widely available and readily accessible to all stakeholders to promote openness and transparency and to enable comparisons to be made. That information must be accurate, consistent and easy to understand. In consideration of these issues, the Committee recognised that one of the benefits of the publication of school performance tables was the provision of accurate and consistent information that enables comparisons to be made. This comparative information could assist schools to monitor and evaluate their performances and to set their targets for improvement. However, the Education Committee also recognised that the old format of performance tables provided information on a limited range of examination results. It was felt that the tables might reinforce the view that academic attainment alone is of value and that the comparison of schools on the basis of examination results is misleading in the absence of a reliable method of assessing and reporting value-added information.
For these reasons, I believe, the Education Committee made two recommendations regarding the review of the school performance tables. The first recommendation was that each school be provided with a simple standardised package of information on how to enhance the range of non-examinable subject options and other aspects of school life which are on offer, with a view to their publication in its prospectus. In essence, that is now being implemented. This is my understanding of the response, but the Minister will want to confirm that.
The second recommendation of the Education Committee was that the Department should regularly publish meaningful and comparative information based on value-added performance indicators. This information would measure the progress achieved by students during a phase of education relative to their different starting points or the value-added education that a school offers. This would allow a more accurate assessment and comparison of schools. While the Committee is aware that as yet there is no easily understandable way in which to measure this, the Department of Education and the Minister should pursue this as a matter of urgency. A central provision of information would emphasise and heighten awareness of the importance of raising and maintaining standards. However, the information provided must be transparent, simple to understand and interpret and allow a comparison of like with like. That is why I am happy to give my support to the proposal outlined by Mr S Wilson. While I have great sympathy with and can identify very much with much of the text of the amendment proposed by Ms Lewsley, I am unable to give my full support to that this afternoon.
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr:
I congratulate my Colleague Mr S Wilson for getting this motion on the Order Paper, and indeed I support it. I want to contribute to the debate by reading an extract from an editorial in the 'News Letter' on Monday, January 15 - I think that was the day after the Minister took the decision to scrap the existing league tables. It said
"Surely the answer is to provide more information, not less. The tables have fulfilled an important function by putting previously unreleased information into the public domain, in an easily accessible way."
That "easily accessible" information, which was heretofore not available, has now been removed. That is censorship. The Minister has made a quite deliberate attempt to deny parents access to information.
No one ever argued that this information was the be-all and the end-all; neither was it ever argued that this was the basis upon which to make a decision about a child's future education - but was it? It was information to guide a parent and, indeed, to guide schools on the decisions that they had to make. It is unfortunate that less information is now available to parents when they come to make a crucial choice about the future of their child's education. That was the most regrettable thing about the Minister's decision, and it is that that has prompted this debate - we want to get a system of comparison in place. As the motion quite rightly states, information is published that allows for schools to be compared and allows us to make judgements against performance targets. In this day and age we are told to encourage the setting of targets and we are urged to reach and achieve them, so it seems very strange that the Minister of Education wants to deny us information which will let us know if schools are achieving the targets that have been set.
In the 'News Letter' on January 15, the Minister outlined his reason - or his excuse - for deciding to scrap the publication of these important tables. He said
"When I asked people what they would like me to do to improve the education system, one answer kept coming back. 'Do something about the league tables'.
This was second only to 'Do something about the 11-plus'."
That prompts the question: does the Minister do everything he is asked? Does he respond so favourably to every request that is made to him? Would he respond so favourably to similar requests to increase teachers' pay? A quare lot of people across Northern Ireland clearly think that he has not responded to that one. Teachers' pay has not been increased in the way in which they would like it to have been increased. No, the fact of the matter is that the Minister has fallen foul of the politically correct lobby on this issue. Instead of permitting parents to have access to all of the information they require, he has engaged in a form of censorship, and that is wrong.
The motion before the House will allow us to lift that censorship. Given the Minister's party and his protest in the past about censorship, one would have hoped that he would be able to understand parental concerns about censorship. However, it was a forlorn hope for many in the House and across Northern Ireland that he would be prepared to listen and respond positively to requests by parents and people in the teaching profession who want to see this information's being published. There is a truism that information is power. When you are denied information, you are denied the power to make appropriate decisions based on all the facts.
When the unfortunately named "school league tables" were first published, they gave parents a valuable measure by which to test schools. They blew apart the myth that grammar schools were miles ahead of other schools, and they put into perspective the criteria that academics placed on the exam achievement status of several schools. Indeed, the 'News Letter' editorial that I quoted from earlier made this very point. It said
"In 1993, the 'News Letter' highlighted the fact that in some areas, an extraordinarily high percentage of young males were leaving school to go on to Government training programmes, and a follow-up investigation revealed that in many cases, the programmes fulfilled no useful function. The result of this was that the Training and Employment Agency improved their schemes and their monitoring systems to the benefit of young school leavers."
This was achieved because of those school league tables. Under current departmental circumstances that could not be achieved. The Minister has denied people the information they need.
School league tables were not, and were never intended to be, the be-all and end-all or the only measure of school achievement, but they were a useful source of information. The Minister has decided to throw the baby out with the bath water. A small number of teachers must be laughing up their sleeves at the Minister of Education today, because he has been putty in their hands and has done exactly as he was told. "Get rid of the league tables; get rid of the guides; get rid of the measurements that, perhaps, point the finger of blame at some teachers, and tell them that they have to do their jobs in a better way."
The tables also encourage schools to improve their activities and raise their standards to help young people achieve the examination results they are capable of achieving. Instead of destroying an existing process, the Minister ought to have improved on the league system. However, this Minister's psyche does not allow him to build; it only allows him to destroy. This is a classic example of the destruction of information that should be made available to parents, teachers and the public so that people can make reasoned and rational decisions about the future of their children's education and about where children should go for their secondary or grammar school education.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I should not really be welcoming the opportunity to have this debate, because it is quite unnecessary. League tables were discussed at length in the Education Committee, and the issue should have been sorted out there. We made decisions, and while some people say that we came to a different decision, I do not think we did. Some of us pointed out the problems with the system. I do not agree with Members who say that we should keep the league tables.
I now speak in support of the amendment. I always worry when something positive such as education is raised in the "No" politics of the DUP. I always worry that it is not for the benefit of everyone concerned. The tables themselves are a blunt instrument for measuring performance, and I am totally opposed to their publication. Making information available is one thing, but publicising it so that the media and everyone else can have a field day supporting a particular agenda is unfair to the parents and, especially, to the teachers, who are trying to educate children in very different conditions. The decision made was probably the right one. Teachers and parents seem to support it, and I am sure that children in schools higher up the tables do. It is all very well if you are at the top of the heap, able to look down on the rest and make assertions about how you are doing, but it is a totally unfair system for measuring children's, teachers' or schools' performance.
I would try to put something in place that is fair to everyone. I would not choose, at any time of the year, to compare schools with each other on an unfair basis. That only serves to show that certain schools, certain teachers and certain children are not performing at all, while others are doing exceedingly well. That has to be wrong, and it was on that basis that we made our decision. Whether decisions were made by individuals at the Committee or otherwise, that is how I made mine.
League tables do not show the full picture. There they bear a likeness to the 11-plus examination. They measure only a few of schools' many educational outcomes, such as the students with five or more A to C grades. In particular, they do not take into account personal growth, social skills and the creativity of children, or the wide variations in the socio-economic and educational needs of pupils. They do not compare different context and ability ranges - even in the secondary sector - a school's extra-curricular activities, or its contribution to placing young people in jobs and supporting them in stressful circumstances.
Particular areas suffer social disadvantage. As many areas are deprived, children have to go to their local schools, and often they do not have a choice. League tables do not take into consideration the fact that there may not always be family support or money available to provide the support necessary to enable pupils to achieve the grades and standards that pupils at schools placed higher up the tables can. Social disadvantage, therefore, does come into the equation.
Education should not be a race to the very top, as the press says. Every school has special needs, and there is also the matter of pastoral development. For Mr S Wilson to say that the Minister ignored our views is wrong. There is to be a review of the situation, which we have talked about, and I am sure that that will be ongoing. We also intend to consult now and in the future on the issue.
Media sensationalism is one of the areas from which the DUP motion is coming. Is Sammy Wilson trying to highlight the performance of elitist schools against the performance of the many who want to deliver education in an unequal educational environment, rather than for any great educational reasons? The press's obsession with academic results does not necessarily help us obtain an educational system in which we can educate our young people for a modern world. My difficulty with league tables is that the media control - or try to control - agendas and come out with headlines that try to drive a particular agenda, and that is wrong.
I am all for the sharing of information and for the sharing of a wider range of information. That is what is wrong with the present system. A limited amount of information was available to parents - information which they were able to read in the press the morning after the league tables were published. We need wider information. We need to inform parents so that they can make a choice. I am in favour of sharing information with parents who are interested in all the information. In the past, parents were not always interested in the detail and, in some cases, even in the headlines. Education is about more than parents comparing the top schools with those that their children must attend because there is no choice. There is a disparity in the abilities of children, and many schools need to be upgraded - for which they must wait for many years - before they can be compared with a nearby school. Many such things need to be taken into account.
The Minister has made the right decision. It is popular with teachers and pupils, and they know best. Perhaps, the only people who think it better to keep the tables are those in the schools at the very top - the high-achieving academic schools. It is OK for them; they can turn in a great performance every year. They achieve such a high level of performance, because they get the cream of the crop. That is unfair to everyone else. The Minister's decision was a good one, and the issue can be considered again in the future. I support the amendment.
Mrs E Bell:
It is said that schooldays are the happiest days of one's life. I never believed that, even in my relatively trouble-free school life. I certainly do not subscribe to it today, given the many assessments and examinations that today's pupils have to endure in the three stages of their educational life. I welcome the Minister's statement that school performance tables will not be published again.
The Alliance Party feels that the tables, introduced in 1983, have a narrow focus on examination attainment only. They do not include information for parents and potential pupils about other vital factors - citizenship education, development of interactive living skills or facilities for children with special needs, for example. Full information on the overall situation in a school should be made available, and only the schools can do that. They are best placed to give details of academic achievements, pupil development and the range of projects that aid such development.
Prior knowledge of the total picture would have a helpful effect on how parents view such schools. The annual league tables do not convey that information. They simply show examination performance: they are not called "performance tables" for nothing. Such information places additional pressure on pupils and teachers to achieve the optimum number of passes in each examination. The Alliance Party is concerned by an increasing body of anecdotal evidence that suggests that some schools, in an increasing attempt to secure the best possible profile in the league tables, are suggesting that pupils who are experiencing difficulties and have been judged by their teachers to be underperforming in examinations should move to other schools before entering for examinations. That should not be allowed.
Good performance should not be the priority in education. Education should be centred on meeting the needs of all children, whatever their ability. The current mechanical approach is rarely to the advantage of the children concerned. In its submission, the Alliance Party said
"People assume that what is measured is an indication of what is deemed to be valuable by the system. The league tables, which focus solely on academic attainment in examination, reinforce the idea that academic attainment alone is of any value."
A more diverse range of criteria must be introduced if equity of value and esteem is to be given to all aspects of educational achievement and endeavour. The publication of the academic achievement of schools must also be placed in context. This would be best achieved through the publication of results as one aspect of a school prospectus, which includes the full range of educational and extra-curricular experiences, opportunities and initiatives offered by each school, and which reflects all the facets of a school's achievements.
The publication of such documents should be compulsory for all schools and could form the basis of the transfer booklet currently distributed to parents. The results of this recent consultation process on league tables showed clearly that parents do not want the tables, whatever Mr S Wilson may have said. They speak of performance alone, and parents do not want that. Parents also wish to see included the ethos of the school establishment, added-value measurements such as the ability range of pupils, a range of criteria wide enough to reflect achievement across the various aspects of educational experience offered throughout the system, and the different emphasis placed by individual schools on meeting the needs of all their pupils.
I hope that the review of the information that a school is required to include in its prospectus will include all types of schools in different areas, and that its findings will go a long way toward assisting schools in drawing up their individual information packages. Obviously, this is where the Department of Education could come in with advice. The Minister of Education has made such a commitment, and a full review has been taking place. I hope that that is done expeditiously. Performance tables have been shown to be problematic in encouraging pupils to have unrealistic ambitions and parents to assume unrealistic ideas of the abilities of their children by sending them to schools with the best record of achievement but where less gifted pupils may feel unable to match up.
In conclusion, I say that we should always have as our priority the establishment of a system that encourages and enables all children to achieve their own highest potential. The Alliance Party believes that the performance tables do not do this, and that the interests of parents, students and schools will be best served by the information's being made available within individual school publications, where the school provides the information as part of the school prospectus. The motion suggests that the Minister of Education should publish the information for comparison and measurement. That would put us back to square one, where the wrong values of superiority, et cetera, would pertain. Therefore I cannot support it. I support the amendment, as it outlines a good basis for the elements necessary for the future of our children's education.