Editorial: Backdown wrong
What a difference a few months in office, and a bit of pressure from powerful vested interests, make.
In April this year, the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, was resolute in her determination that information about the performance of primary and intermediate schools derived from proposed new national standards would be fully available.
Despite criticism from teachers and principals, who complained, with something approaching hysteria, that the media would take such material and make "league tables" of schools, Tolley said the Government could not stop the media from accessing the information. "Personally, I think the more information that's out there the better," Tolley said then. "The best disinfectant is fresh air."
This week, the minister sharply changed her tune. Far from upholding the principles of freedom of information, something she said in April our society valued, she has, under a threat from teachers' unions and principals, said she will work to make it as difficult as possible for the media to produce league tables from the information. "We want to make it as difficult for you [media] as possible. It will be too hard and too much work and not worth it in the end," she said.
It all leads one to wonder what it is the educational establishment, and now the minister, want to hide. National standards are designed to assess the performance of pupils from years one to eight in literacy and numeracy. If they have any use at all, which might be arguable, they might help to pinpoint schools that are doing poorly and so help to determine why and to target additional assistance to them. Since they measure only a very narrow, albeit very important, part of the curriculum, they are by no means a measure of any school's overall performance. And, of course, many other factors that might affect performance have to be taken into account. The standards information is simply another element people will use to make a fair assessment of a school's level of achievement. Everyone understands that so even if league tables were to be constructed out of the information it would be weighed accordingly.
The idea that schools might be subjected to any sort of objective scrutiny is, of course, anathema to teachers and their unions. They tried to persuade the minister to pass legislation to keep the standards information away from the media by law. The minister at least did not accede to that demand. But the fact that she, along with education bureaucrats and school functionaries, are now going to be turning their minds to trying to make the information impenetrable to outsiders, to say nothing else of it, hardly seems to be the best use of scarce education resources. It is also horribly patronising to those who should get the information.
The minister seems to have lost sight of the fact that this information is ultimately for the benefit of parents and pupils, and for the taxpaying public, who, after all, foot the bills.
Educationists should be concentrating on how to make it as accessible as possible, not seeking to conceal it and obfuscate about it. The minister's original position – that the information should be freely and intelligibly available to everyone – was the correct one. She should not be making common cause with those who want to cover up and obscure it.