Findings about the formulae used by the Ministry of Education to place students in secondary schools on the basis of the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) system are strong arguments for a culture of free information flow out of government offices to the public.
In the instance of an accidental data leak of complete SEA results for 2018, pollster Nigel Henry’s expert preliminary analysis, published in this newspaper, provides evidence not only of placement criteria that are corruptible but also the struggle to find fair, workable templates for transitioning a mass of young people from primary to secondary schools.
The data show how the anomaly of the 1960 Cabinet-approved Concordat, known to the population as the notorious “20 per cent”, introduces unfairness in the placement system. Not only is that inequity built into the national education system but, as Mr Henry demonstrated, that 20 per cent sometimes mysteriously increases to 21, 25 or 33 per cent in Concordat-type assignment of particular students. The Concordat is a common target of criticism and review of it has been repeatedly recommended in reports on the country’s youth population. It appears that Concordat-inspired behaviour has seeped into placements at wholly government-run schools as well.
The problems go even deeper, according to Mr Henry’s findings. A merit point system that uses students’ actual scores to place them in secondary schools is combined with a zoning formula in which scores do not matter. It appears those two systems are incompatible, resulting in sometimes awkward, sometimes arbitrary decisions about the future of tens of thousands of young people and their families. A student living in Toco, for example, might choose a nearby secondary school because of relatively easy access. When that student is zoned and placed in the school, his/her scores do not feature in that decision. What therefore is the point of that student writing the SEA exam at all?
The limited number of post-primary pre-technical vocational learning centres and the ministry’s rule about the age at which a child could be considered for placement in that stream is shown in the data to significantly disadvantage families. Students whose SEA scores are high, or who are younger than 13, are not deemed in need of a place at one of these schools, despite the child’s inclination and parents’ assessment of what is best for their child.
Thus it is that an accidental leak of SEA data, left online for less than three hours before being recalled into secrecy, has generated much more information and far deeper analysis than was possible without it. Rather than returning essential data to a locked hard drive, the ministry is urged to disclose this and other related data, without revealing the names of the children.
The leak makes the case for public disclosure of even more data so parents know their children’s fate and expert minds could offer solutions to what hitherto has been regarded as an intractable problem defeating any attempt at equity and providing the best options available to children and their families.
In this regard, we urge the Government to consider the recommendations made by Mr Henry in his expert and timely analysis.