In May 2016 the Belfast Telegraph published a league table of Northern Ireland grammar schools, based on the Advanced Level grades achieved by grammar school pupils in the school year 2014/2015. The Belfast Telegraph’s editor failed to reply to correspondence asserting that fundamental errors in the design of her newspaper’s league table could result in unfair reputational damage to schools (see, “Why the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News must set the record straight on grammar school league tables”). In the recent past, the Irish News has published a similarly designed league table based on the 2015/2016 examinations. This table has precisely the same design fault as the Belfast Telegraph table. Once again, there is potential for reputational damage to a significant number of grammar schools.
It isn’t difficult to spot the error in the tables. In assigning ranks to the various grammar schools, grades C, B, A and A* are treated as equal in value. This is clearly wrong; a grade B represents a higher standard than a grade C, a grade A represents a higher standard than a grade B, and a grade A* represents a higher standard than an A. Any instrument which treats a grade C the same as a grade A* simply cannot claim to measure academic excellence. The following scenario illustrates just how unfit-for-purpose these league tables are as tools for identifying high performing grammar schools: if every middle-sixth pupil in every school discipline across the entire grammar school estate were to simultaneously improve from C standard to A* standard, the tables published in these two newspapers would be completely powerless to detect any change whatsoever in standards.
Furthermore, both newspapers are, in effect, using highly questionable analysis to call into question the quality of teaching and learning in all “non-Catholic” schools. Here are a few quotations from Rebecca Black’s Belfast Telegraph piece: “It is impossible not to be impressed at the consistently high performances of our top Catholic schools;” “By contrast, some of the best known non-Catholic grammars have slipped below the Northern Ireland average;” “If someone could bottle the ethos for success in these (Catholic) schools, they could run the world;” “Sean Rafferty, principal of St Louis Grammar, makes a very salient point in today’s Belfast Telegraph in calling for the Department of Education to examine what makes the top Catholic schools so successful, to learn the lessons and spread that magic across the school estate.”
Is the Belfast Telegraph not guilty of promulgating what has been labelled “fake news”? Based on highly dubious reasoning, Rebecca Black is distorting the debate on the relative efficacy of Catholic and non-Catholic education in Northern Ireland. For Ms Black, the superiority of St Dominic’s High School (the school ranked first in both the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish News league tables) over, for example, Friends School Lisburn (ranked 12) is explained by the Catholic ethos of the former. However, when a Grade Point Average approach is used to compute ranks, the order is reversed and Friends (a “non-Catholic” school) is the superior school! The simplistic hypothesis that Catholic education is superior to that offered in non-Catholic schools is goes up in smoke when proper account is taken of the ordinal nature of examination grades: C, B, A and A*.