Thursday, 22 August 2013

People not percentages

I've heard, on more occasion, that the moment a teacher starts to see their pupils as percentages they should leave the profession. I suspect that using that criterion on A Level or GCSE results day would lead to many schools being unable to staff the timetable in September and with the vast majority bereft of a leadership team. 

I, for one, spent the beginning of this week constructing a mental percentage scale, ranging from outrage through to disappointment, relief, joy, to sheer exultation on the basis of anticipated GCSE results. I also admit to having made decisions on intervention based on how many pupils will benefit and the likelihood of outcomes in percentage terms.

While I wholly agree that teaching is all about the nurturing of individual talent and not the progress of a cohort by external benchmarks, the harsh reality is that the success of a school in the current educational climate rests on a matter of digits. Yes, it's possible to foster a culture of care, educational enjoyment and innovation, but without the data to prove that your ethos and pedagogy delivers hard and fast results, there is the real and absolute fear of the 'must do better' stamp blemishing your school's reputation and potentially its revenue as 'consumers' flock to neighbouring gold-standard providers.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against accountability measures. Any institution should be required to prove and evidence their worth, success and value in real terms. I'm just not comfortable with the limited, crude and faceless means by which these judgements occur.

The School's Data Dashboard is just one example. This readily accessible tool allows prospective parents, inspectors or any other interested parties to make a snap judgement about a school on the basis of a single year's GCSE results against national levels and in comparison with other 'similar schools'. It's a one dimensional view; one that gives no indication of the school's context, catchment or results history to be able to make an informed opinion. Clicking on the comparable schools for my own institution makes me wonder about the means by which schools were grouped together; using KS2 prior attainment may be a fair measure on which to compare pupil achievement but the lack of contextual indicators does make the picture quite limiting. We have an incredibly strong department that annually secures that best pass rates across the county and yet their quintile placing would suggest that achievement is substandard.

Furthermore, should the fact that as a school in Cambridgeshire we receive £600 less a year than the national average in basic funding per pupil, making us the worst funded county in the country, be included? If 'similar schools' in London, for instance, have thousands of pounds more per pupil, should this be reflected in the dashboard in a true Compare-the-Market-style value for money benchmark?

I guess the ultimate issue with quality assuring practice involving the academic achievement of pupils is that people are hard to compare. And that is why the system resorts to comparing quantifiable numbers and statistics. I don't have a problem with this if the method of awarding these numbers is fair and consistent.

The furore of last summer's exam results was well publicised with media saturation and court cases to fuel the fire of the injustice. Consoling English teacher colleagues who had worked tirelessly to support the cohort and were exasperated by a plummet in achievement was disheartening. However, all is relatively quiet this year. Aside from the brief mention of Gove's crackdown on standards, a fall in 'C' grades and tougher Science exams, most broadcasts and publications have reverted back to teenage-mid-drift-baring leaps of joy. Tomorrow's headlines will move onto more pressing political issues.

I, however, will continue to feel unease, a sense of injustice and a touch of guilt for the individual pupils who failed to achieve the all important 'C' grade. For some disappointed youngsters, it may have always been somewhat out of their academical grasp with caring teachers optimistically estimating that 'C' in the naive hope that a flurry of dedicated revision / private tutor / prevailing wind may be enough to secure it. For others, a lack of motivation, effort and commitment will have resulted in a fair and representative 'D' grade. However, there are a number of others for whom the phrase 'you get the grade that you deserve' doesn't ring true. 

It's those dedicated and hardworking youngsters who I know fit the exam board's specification 'C' grade descriptor, and whose controlled assessments and exam responses will have demonstrated the requisite level 2 skills, who have been cheated of their grade. The ones that needed that 'C' to be accepted onto their chosen course of study and are now having to renegotiate their place and re-sit their GCSE. The look of dismay and panic on those pupils' faces, while their peers rejoice with fluttering envelopes around them, stays with me.Why should their achievement and success be sacrificed for political goals? 

A recent article showed the average number of children that past or present Education Ministers to have had to be zero. I wonder whether this goes some way to explain the apparent lack of compassion and perspective in the regime for tougher standards. While having your own children should not be an essential requirement for the position, it would help. The thought of your own offspring suffering as a cause of educational reform adds another dimension to decision making, I would think. 

The current Catch 22 scenario in which schools are required to make progress to achieve Key Performance Indicators and appease inspectors while Ofqual are not allowing standards to rise is absurd. As is the notion that our standard of education is only going to get better if we deflate the achievement of C/D borderline pupils. There is something quite sadistic about setting out to squeeze the attainment of a specific group; like the sour-faced colleague who I'm sure we have all come across in our teaching careers who takes joy in being a 'harsh marker' rather than actually awarding the marks that pupils deserve. These people should not be allowed to toy with pupils' achievement and futures for the pursuit of personal agendas or ambitions.

Meanwhile the raft of dedicated and caring teaching professionals are desperate to secure progress for their pupils. Multiple re-sits and dual entries are indicators of the levels of desperation. It's not that these teachers and schools are attempting to cheat the system and I doubt that it's because they are truly trying to find an 'easy' way - the vast majority of us have integrity and just want an awarding process that is transparent, fair and equitable. 

Teachers have lost their faith, and their conviction. I know a number of very capable colleagues who no longer have any confidence in predicting a 'C' and who falter at awarding a Band 3 mark in fear of being inaccurate. Breeding this kind of anxiety and uncertainty is not healthy and does not benefit anyone, least of all pupils. 

While as a school we are celebrating record-breaking results and are extremely proud of the achievements of our pupils ('sheer exultation' on the scale, thankfully), I can't help but think of the individuals across the country who have been denied their deserved 'C' as a result of this Govian paradox of raising standards through cracking down on achievement. 

Educational policy needs to think about people more than percentages. 

1 comment:

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