We Don’t Need No Thought Control

In today’s Guardian, there is a piece featuring the head of the Dragon School in Oxford who is condemning the way the state sector is only assessed on academic performance. Management by levels of progress.

I’ve been a governor at my nearest state secondary school for over 6 years. I’ve chaired the governors’ teaching and learning committee for most of that time. I am also a trained teacher, although the last time I was responsible for a classroom was in the late 1980s – and a lot has changed in that time.

One of my biggest challenges is squaring the requirement to set the school’s academic target with my belief that education is more than assessment. I say “set the school’s academic target”. In reality, that’s set for us by external agencies. All we, as governors, can do is raise it.

While we had criterion-based exams, this made some kind of sense. (A criterion-based exam is like the driving test – you gain a level if you demonstrate you are competent at that level.) If you had a low attainment rate then you knew what the criteria to gain higher grades were, and it was (sort of) acceptable to say that, next year, we want x% more students to gain higher grades.

However one of the reforms undertaken by Michael Gove was to move back to norm-based exams (where only a certain percentage of students will gain a grade). You no longer know that, if you master skillset X, you will gain grade Y. Instead you gaining grade Y is entirely dependent upon how everyone else has done. If you gain 99% in an exam, under criterion-based grading you were likely to get an A. Now, if everyone else gets 100%, you’ve failed.

So a target for a school becomes meaningless. You can get your students to gain higher marks, but if everyone else is also gaining higher marks, your better performance doesn’t result in better grades.

It was this assessment that Michael Gove resolutely seemed not to understand when confronted with it by the House of Commons Education Committee – leading to the wonderful question from its Chair, “were you better at literacy or numeracy, Secretary of State?” Well, he obviously didn’t understand the statistics part of Maths, as you can’t have everyone above average.

However, despite the meaninglessness of targets, governors are still expected to set them, and schools are still judged depending upon whether those targets have been met. It’s rather like setting a football team a target of scoring 4 goals in a match, but the goalposts keep moving depending upon how other teams are doing.

So my time chairing my school’s teaching and learning committee has been dominated by discussions driven by data – projections, assessment, analysis of different groups – and little to do with the actual content of the curriculum and what the school is actually offering. Quite frankly, it’s horrible, and I wish it would change. But, each year, the ferocity of the targets seems to become stronger, as does the staff’s fear of not meeting them. The goal has been to become an outstanding school – in Ofsted terms – ignoring the wider educational requirement.

The environment where children can explore and become confident seems to have disappeared. I agree with the Dragon School’s head’s assessment.

My daughter, currently studying for her AS levels, is academically very gifted – but she is also musically and theatrically gifted. She’s always loved investigating things. We could see her primary school killing off that enthusiasm, and our son’s earlier experience of Year 6 was simply one of endless revision. So we took the decision to move her to a private theatre school – initially just for her Year 6.

She spent that year learning without the pressure of SATS, and (re)gaining confidence. She ended up staying for three. We were fortunate to have the money. It was, I think, the best thing we could have done for her at the time, but I resented that the facilities simply weren’t there in the state sector. We moved her back into the state system to start her GCSEs. It’s a credit to her and the school that she emerged with an unprecedented (in our family and in the school’s history) 12 A*s.

My analysis is that the rot has really set in by the time students start secondary school. Primary schools seem to be no longer places for students to explore, but simply factories to learn stuff by rote. If you haven’t learnt how to spell Wednesday this week, then that’s too bad, because next week you have to learn how to spell February (and we did have a variant of that discussion with our son’s Year 2 teacher).

Yes, there needs to be accountability within our schools. Yes, too many schools simply drifted without effective scrutiny. But the relentless pressure on our children to be better than a moving average is not education, and seems detrimental to the mental health of many.

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