THE IRISH government's ban on publishing school league tables has been overturned following the intervention of a British newspaper and Britain's Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead.
The Irish education minister Micheal Martin is now considering going to the High Court to prevent publication of a league table of the 1998 school Leaving Certificate examination results.
This follows a decision by the Irish Information Commisioner in favour of three newspapers who are seeking details of the results under the Freedom of Information Act. Such disclosure is banned under a new Education Act which was signed into law at the end of last year.
The Commissioner Kevin Murphy, however, noted that the Education Act came into effect after the request had been made by the newspapers and that it could not be applied retrospectively.
Teacher unions and school managers are furious over the decision and demanding that the minister appeal to the High Court - he has four weeks from last Thursday to do so. Otherwise he will be obliged to release the information.
The Commissioner's decision was a coup for The Sunday Times whose Irish edition is engaged in a fierce circulation battle with the Dublin Sunday papers.
One of its rivals, the Sunday Tribune had requested the same information, while the weekly
Kerryman newspaper had requested details of the results for schools in Co Kerry.
The Sunday Times case was the most detailed of the three and included correspondence add-ressed to the Commissioner by Chris Woodhead and Dr John Marks, Director of the Educational Research Trust in Britain. In his letter Mr Woodhead wrote that the publication of performance data was the first and crucial step in managing the education system better.
The Commissioner consulted a dozen educational organisations as well as a prominent researcher, all of whom came out against publication.
He and his officials also travelled to Athlone to the exams' section of the Irish department of education and science which had argued that preparation of the information would cause unreasonable disruption. He rejected this argument.
He also rejected a teacher union claim that many parents would not understand a league table of results.
"I do not share these fears and, in other decisions I have taken I have made it clear that I am not impressed by arguments based on the alleged credulity of the Irish public or the need to protect them from possible 'misuse' of information."
The Commissioner's decision has come as a shock to the educational establishment which is doing everything it can to ensure that publication does not go ahead.