Education – Utopian or Utilitarian?

One of my many roles in society is that of a secondary school governor, and we had our regular half-termly meeting yesterday afternoon.

Secondary schools are set targets based on a number of criteria, including attendance, exclusions and quality of teaching, but the main ones are based on grades students attain at GCSE by the end of Year 11.  Targets are defined by reference to extrapolation from attainment at the end of Year 6, and governors (and teachers) have the ability to move those targets upwards only.  If schools are not seen as doing so, then Ofsted will complain that you’re not being aspirational, and mark the school down.


Last summer we saw that the marks required to attain particular grades, most notably in English, were adjusted quite significantly between the January and June exams.  This meant that a pupil who sat a GCSE module in English in June had to get many more marks to attain a C grade than one who sat the same module in January.  Educationalists cried foul.  After all, GCSEs were introduced as “criterion-referenced” examinations.  Basically the skills required to get a particular grade would be consistent across year groups.  This move was back to “norm-referenced” examinations, where grades were restricted to a particular percentage of those who had taken the exam.  The courts found that Ofqual’s move was legal although probably unfair.

So we have a system whereby all schools are expected to deliver better and better exam performance, but only a particular percentage of pupils can gain the required grades.  I have seen for a while the loss of confidence in teachers’ ability to predict grades – which means that the whole school becomes dependent upon just a few days of exam performance by stressed pupils.  The cynic in me sees this as setting schools and, more importantly, students up to fail.  Far better to target levels of improvement rather than actual attainment.

Today sees a call to replace GCSE grades with GCSE marks, so rather than getting a B, you’d get 68%.  An interesting idea and it will allow granulation, except that it means that there is more risk of pupils feeling a failure again.  I have thought for a long time that we should mix grade with cohort, so you would get attainment levels based on A through to G, and then a number representing the decile you’re in, so you would go from A0 to G9.  It means that you could then start to distinguish between, say, a B2 and a B3 – with the B3 having the same attainment levels as a B2 but less secure in those skills, but still better than a C3.

What is underpinning this aspect of the Government’s revamping of education is a belief that our country’s workforce needs to be competitively skilled in order to compete in a global economy.  At first glance this is a laudable aim.  After all, the tiger economies of the Far East hot-house their children and have very high levels of academic attainment.  Let’s ignore the inconvenient truth that parents and educators in those countries are becoming increasingly concerned about pupils “burning out” and a rise in mental health problems in young people associated with the fear of failure.

My local authority hasn’t put very much material investment into the infrastructure of the school I help govern for many years now.  For the last seven years, it has thought about moving it elsewhere in the borough – a position that has only been reversed six months ago, conveniently just after the school applications process closed.  The school has a few temporary classrooms which are now on their last legs and need replacing with new buildings.  The local authority has assured us that we are next on their investment list, right after building two new primary schools.  So plans are underway to look at rebuilding strategies.

Except that we find that the new rules introduced by the Department for Education now mean that the new classrooms must be smaller than the existing ones, which are already cramped.  We find ourselves forced, really for safety reasons, to replace buildings which will create new safety issues and probably still be a detrimental learning environment.  We have no say in the type of facilities created – that’s now pre-ordained.  Rather like exam targets, governors aren’t allowed to “govern”, merely ensure the school’s management tick the right boxes.

You can understand the rationale behind the buildings decision too.  The country has little public funds to spare, so removing architects as an essential part of the building process will save costs, as will making classrooms smaller as they will require less resource.  And government has to balance many competing demands on public funds: health, defence, pensions, police, infrastructure, environment – all of these are important.

The fundamental issue is, as it has always been, what is education actually for?  One view is that it should produce people capable of effective economic production.  If people aren’t capable of undertaking useful employment when their education is finished, then the system has failed.  We need people to work, to generate stuff, to be economically useful.  This is a utilitarian model.

The counter argument is that we should be primarily teaching people how to think and learn.  None of us know what the future holds.  When I was a child, there was an established idea that people chose a job and held it for life.  People showed a loyalty to their employers, and this loyalty was reciprocated.  That all changed in the 80s – right as I was coming out of the education system.  Now the idea that you will work for the same organisation all your working life is seen as somewhat archaic and quaint.  Ensuring that people have the skills to be adaptable future-proofs their employability as much as possible.  This is still utilitarian, but one with an unforeseeable target.

English: Michael Gove speaking at the Conserva...

Michael Gove’s version of the utilitarian model adds a cost constraint.  We must make people employable at minimal cost to society.  Those delivering education must do so as effectively as possible.  There has been an inherent belief within the Conservative party for the past 30 years or more that public institutions have huge inefficiencies in them that can be burnt out, like excess fat by an overbearing PE teacher shouting “work harder”.  The big flaw here when it comes to schools is that we need to consider who we are educating.  People are not sausages, and schools should not simply be the educational equivalent of food processing factories.  There isn’t a perfect mix of ingredients.  Pupils are individuals, with their own motivations and fears.  You cannot simply press a scientifically proven set of buttons and, bingo, out pops a set of accountants.  We’ve not reached Huxley yet, thank goodness.

Where is the vision?  Isn’t education important enough in and of itself to justify investment into our children’s future?  All of them, not just a privileged few?


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