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Questioning the methodology

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West End Primary School is up for closure based on methodology that is open to question (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Over the past few weeks, the West End Warriors have turned up the heat on the proposed closing of West End Primary School. After reading a couple of recent news articles on the matter, I couldn’t stop wondering why the Progressive Labour Party has doggedly stood its ground and dismissed its own supporters in such a manner. Governments have capitulated for far, far less. So why on earth would it risk so much anger in the broad community?

Somerset Primary School

Curiosity eventually got the best of me, so I decided to do a bit of research. I found the Proposal for the Introduction of Parish Primary School Consultation Document (December 2020) on the Ministry of Education’s website. On page 9, the document begins to explain the Evaluation and Scoring Process for Parish Primary Schools:

“In order to undertake a fair, thorough and sound process to recommend specific primary school buildings to serve as redesigned, refurbished and fit-for-purpose parish primary schools, the Ministry of Education established the Parish Primary School Location Strategy Team. This team was comprised primarily of expert professionals with specialised knowledge of buildings, and/or currently work on the Government primary school buildings on a daily basis.”

Quite simply, the school with the highest score is the school that gets picked for redesign, refurbishment, etc. This seems pretty fair and straightforward to me. Also, I can appreciate that the Government would want to have some kind of objective measurement because it would otherwise risk lengthy fights in multiple parishes.

But let’s dig into the methodology for greater understanding. The final score is aggregated from weighted scores in four subcategories. The subcategories and their applicable weights are as follows:

1, Existing Building Conditions 20 per cent

2, Land/Property Conditions 30 per cent

3, Safety and Health 30 per cent

4, Transportation 20 per cent

Somerset Primary scored 61.66 per cent and West End scored 55.88 per cent. Interestingly, the two schools are only 5.78 percentage points apart. Given this minor difference, I wanted to see exactly how the scoring system worked. Therefore, I ended up replicating the model using Microsoft Excel so that I could see how the scores changed if I adjusted the model.

For example, Existing Building Conditions and Transportation have an equal weighting of 20 per cent. Does that really seem logical, especially in the context of parish schools? Given that students spend the vast majority of their time in the buildings, and given that a parish school system means that students don’t have to travel far, I adjusted the weighting. By increasing Buildings to 30 per cent and reducing Transportation to 10 per cent, this actually increased Somerset Primary’s lead to 8.23 percentage points. This seems fair to me.

But wait a minute. The elephant in the room is subcategory 1.2 Regulated (Historic, listed). Per the report, it looks as if the location strategy team were asked to confirm only whether or not a school building is listed by the Department of Planning as an historical site. That’s a “yes or no” answer. Consequently, both Somerset Primary and West End Primary scored a maximum of 30 points. This seems incredibly bizarre given that their histories are worlds apart. Even more confusing, the model seems to give no more points to school history than it does to plumbing. Further, the model effectively gives less points to history than it does to categories such as Accessibility and Bus Routes.

As the West End Warriors have demonstrated, a school does not actually have to be listed as an historical site in order for it to be of critical historical importance. If Section 1.2 was based on the historical importance of the school as an entity, and not just a physical building, and if a school’s history had a greater impact on the model, the scores in this particular subcategory would be dramatically different.

I actually found several items in the methodology that left me scratching my head. There were multiple tweaks to the model that I felt I could justify. By the time I adjusted it according to what I feel is important, especially as a Somerset resident of more than 30 years, West End Primary ended up with an advantage of more than 9.29 percentage points. Of course, this is subjective, which is the last thing the ministry wants.

Full disclosure: I never attended West End, and I don’t think I bear any real animosity towards Somerset Primary. The score I ended up with is simply reflective of the severe limitations that I think exists in the Ministry of Education’s scoring methodology.

Perhaps that’s why the West End Warriors are so furious.

Pull-out questions

• Who are the experts who were included on the Parish Primary School Location Strategy Team? Were any historians or community leaders included?

• Why was Transportation given the same weighting as Existing Building Conditions? Children spend far more time at the school than travelling to school. Is transport really that critical of a factor when students are coming from the same parish?

• Accessibility affects a very small number of students/teachers, and it is easily addressed with minor renovations. Why was this given the same weight as Safety and Environmental Conditions?

• Was the square footage of the existing school structures factored into the methodology? If not, why not?

• Given the Government’s projections of declining student enrolment through 2027, why were Existing Land Area and Expansion Capability considered key decision factors?

• Why were supermarkets, petrol stations and churches identified as key Community Services? How are they critical to primary school student education?

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Published March 16, 2023 at 7:59 am (Updated March 16, 2023 at 11:50 am)

Questioning the methodology

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