The original idea behind the mathematical system was that it would liberate public servants from old forms of bureaucratic control. Once they were given the targets, they were free to achieve them any way they wanted. But almost immediately, New Labour began to discover that people were more complex and devious than the simple model allowed. Public servants began to find the most ingenious ways of hitting their targets.
“The Trap: What Happened To Our Dreams Of Freedom?”
The Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced two significant changes to the educational landscape in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The first was the National Curriculum, a standardised set of content for subjects to be taught in schools. The second was the introduction of the ‘league table’ system, where schools were ranked according to the outcomes of their students, therefore giving parents an informed choice of where to send their students based on a school’s performance in this regard.
I don’t mind the idea of a National Curriculum. I think all students no matter their background or learning environment should be given the same minimum standard of teaching and access to learning. I understand that as a result of standardisation then there are limitations on the breadth of teaching (that said, ironically, I feel there’s way too much in Mathematics curricula for Primary and Secondary schools) but there has to be some assurance that all students get as fair a deal as possible.
League tables (calling them performance tables don’t change what they are, DfE) however, grind my gears. I’ll lay my central belief about league tables out right now. No public service should be evaluated on free market principles, be it education, health, policing, fire and safety, whatever. Don’t get me wrong – the standards of service in these areas should be accounted for, but not purely through statistics. Whilst data doesn’t lie, it doesn’t tell the full story.
The A*-C measure meant that schools were primarily concerned with churning out students with at least a grade C. What this meant was, however, that schools were not focusing on progress: as long a student got a C, then it was happy days all round. This was despite the ‘value added’ measure, where schools were judged on the average amount of progress students in a year group made based on their starting points, with 1000 being the baseline.
The government became wise to this, and so started to focus on ‘expected’ (3 levels at Secondary) and ‘good’ (4 levels at Secondary) progress – completely arbritary measures in my book, by the way – and a real focus was placed on ‘value added’ as well. This would seem fair enough, however there’s a back story that’s missed here.
Up until a few years ago, ‘contextual value added’ (CVA) was also a measure used to judge the performance of schools. This took into account a school’s socio-economic context and adjusted the figures accordingly. Amazingly and bizarrely, this measure was removed, and as a result the performance of a school in a council estate in the post-industrial Northern Wastelands (flat caps, whippets, pints of mild and all that), was judged directly against the performance of a school in affluent Chipping Norton (Range Rovers, independent coffee shops, pet grooming, etc). Absolute madness. If there is one factor that determines the general performance of an average student it is their socio-economic background. Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions to this of course. But generally if a student has well-off parent’s they’ve got a head start on a student whose folks are on benefits. If you don’t believe this there is wave upon wave of statistics to prove it.
What does this mean then?
It means that social mobility in England and Wales, as difficult as it already was, is getting harder and harder. The flight of parents to ‘good’ schools continues apace. House prices rocket as a result. The ‘value added’ and progress measures become harder and harder to improve because schools in poor areas have increasing proportions of students with challenging backgrounds to support and try to help gain qualifications and life skills that will give them the slightest chance of making it in the world.
Consequently, schools will do anything – and I keep emphasising this – to improve results. We’ve all heard the stories of ‘support’ in exams, controlled assessments and coursework – and perhaps they’ve been exaggerated, but there is no smoke without fire. To a lesser extent the amount of revision time, 1:1 support, financial investment in tuition (both by schools and parents) is an indicator of the extent to which schools are judged solely on their outcomes. Ultimately, it is this debasement of the integrity (there’s that word again) of student outcomes that is most worrying.
We hear tales from business and academia of how students with good GCSEs or A-Levels can’t do the ‘three Rs’ properly. There’s a famous scene on ‘The Apprentice’ where students with A-Level Maths (!) can’t work out how much ice cream they’ll make from the ingredients given. This despite the piece of paper with their results on claiming these people were ‘C’, ‘B’, ‘A’, ‘A*’ grade students.
The fault of this is not with the GCSE or A-Level syllabuses – trust me, I’ve read them – but with the mechanism through which students are prepared for their exams. Notice I’ve used the words ‘are prepared’ and not ‘prepare’ – that’s no typo on my part. In public service, league tables are not a driver for raised standards. They are a driver for smoke-and-mirror, stress-inducing, Fordist means of ‘achieving outcomes’.
The fact is, however, that these are the rules of the game. Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs don’t appear to want to change the system. There are very few noises from anyone in control of education the UK seeming to oppose the status quo of league tables. In fact if anything it looks like they’re here to stay, especially with the introduction of the new ‘Progress 8’ measure; yet another figure around which loopholes and gaming of the system will form.
In these post-modern, post-industrial times, we live in a hyper-real universe in many respects, i.e. we can’t often distinguish reality from a simulation (for example I remember a ‘Free Dierdre Rashid’ poster displayed on my college library’s windows when the aforementioned soap opera character’s storyline involved them serving time for a crime they didn’t commit). I fear that this is becoming the case in education: a GCSE grade does not distinguish a student who has achieved that level through ability from one who achieved it through ‘intervention’. This means an unfair playing field has been made for when students leave school, and it’s all down to judgements through interview or application that determine success. Which, as a result, makes a grade pointless! Why is this? Because schools will do anything to get up that league table ladder.
I also want to look into the concept of ‘choice’ in education and the negative impact league tables have had there too. But I’ll get to that another time.