In the past three academic years, almost 5,000 pupils passing through year 12 have not been deemed eligible for inclusion in the Summary of Annual Examination Results (SAER) process used as the basis for the publication of the annual ‘Statistical Bulletin on Year 12 and Year 14 examination performance.’ This figure represents almost 7% of all pupils, including 1 in 10 of all pupils in the non-Grammar sector.
This is significant because the trend of declaring pupils ineligible is one which has developed and grown significantly in recent years, notably within the non-Grammar sector.
Indeed, what is striking at first glance is the difference in the numbers and percentage of pupils in the two sectors who are deemed ineligible. In the past three years, just 327 grammar school pupils were deemed ineligible. In contrast, some 4,636 non-grammar school pupils were deemed ineligible.
This is of importance because these key statistics are cited by educationalists, politicians (including the Education Minister) and the media upon publication to gauge overall performance in terms of the % of pupils obtaining 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English. Indeed, the SAER returns provided by all our post-primary schools form the basis of the annual league tables prominently publicized in our local papers.
In 2013/14 some 65.2% of year 12 pupils were reported as having reached the target of 5+ GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English, a significant increase of 4.3% from the 2012/13 figure of 60.9%.
The year 12 census for that academic year indicated that there were some 23,673 pupils of age to be included in the statistical profile for results. Yet some 1,614 pupils were deemed ineligible, of which a remarkable 1,459 attended non-grammar schools, with only 155 attending grammar schools.
Accordingly, were the ineligible pupils to be included in the statistics when calculating the figures for pupils reaching the target of 5+ A*-C GCSEs, the % figure would fall to just below 61%- based on the assumption that they did not reach the target.
The criteria for being deemed ineligible was clearly outlined in the Department’s Statistical Bulletin which outlined the latest Year 12 and Year 14 examination performances for 2013/14 (issued December 2014.)
Notably, the key data relating to examination performances in the Statistical Bulletin was prefaced by a section outlining the upward trend regarding pupils being deemed as ineligible for inclusion in the Year 12 statistics, indicating clearly that the Department is conscious of the issue and its significance in terms of skewing statistical outcomes.
Below is the criteria outlined upon which pupils may be deemed ineligible by a school for inclusion in the Year 12 statistics.
The year 12 performance figures are based on the number of pupils at the end of a GCSE or equivalent course of study who are eligible for inclusion in the Summary of Annual Examination Results exercise.
A school can consider a pupil to be ineligible for inclusion in the year 12 performance statistics if:
- A pupil has died;
- A pupil, either through serious illness (including mental health issues) or pregnancy, was unable to sit any examinations;
- A pupil has transferred to another school or has emigrated;
- A pupil is in a special unit approved by the Department;
- A pupil has a statement of special educational needs;
- A pupil has been placed in the EOTAS1 scheme;
- A pupil has serious welfare issues that have culminated in the inability to sit any examinations; or
- A pupil has been withdrawn from the school with the consent of their parent/guardian.
All other year 12 pupils recorded on the annual school census in October 2013 are included in this summary of annual examination results return
What is clear is that, increasingly, non-grammar school leaders are deeming a significant number of their pupils ineligible for inclusion in the statistics- so much so that the Department is now obliged to highlight the trend as a preface to outlining examination performance.
So. Cui bono?
The answer is pretty clear.
I have previously described our non-grammar schools as the true heroes of our education system. Uniquely, our grammar school system provides the equivalent of a private education sector funded directly by taxpayers with no extra financial burden on those benefitting from a grammar education.
In contrast, the doors that open to embrace those failing to receive the golden ticket of the grammar education take in the lion share of children with learning difficulties, behavioural issues, social/emotional problems and those residing in the poorer districts of our communities, with the associated problems stemming from peer, family and community pressures and perspectives. Put another way, the non-grammar schools are left to do the heavy lifting in the northern Irish education system.
Accountability can be a positive dynamic within education, and we have certainly seen how an improved culture of expectation and accountability has lifted all boats in terms of academic performance at non-grammar schools in particular over the past decade- as I outlined in a previous article.
Yet one element of the drive for improvement that can’t be ignored is that, in pursuit of increased percent figures for the numbers of pupils securing the key targets of 5+ A*-C GCSE grades, it is clear that the process of deeming pupils ineligible for inclusion in the SAER statistics has become a very effective means of helping a school put its best foot forward in the public glare, a development which has the knock-on consequence of increasingly casting a shadow over the authenticity of the comparative examination performance of our schools as presented in the annual Statistical Bulletin and league tables.
N.B. This story was carried in today’s Irish News by Simon Doyle, who was able to get this reply from a Department of Education spokesperson:
“Given that an increasing proportion of Year 12 pupils were being reported as ineligible, a working group was formed in January 2014 with a remit to reviewing SAER ineligibility criteria.”
The findings of that working group are not yet known.