A Gradgrind ethos is destroying the school system

Posted on: 2018-10-26 06:00:00

There was a boy in my rural primary school who we used to tease as the village idiot. He was popular though, and we fiercely defended him if anyone bullied him. Our two teachers worked hard to fit him into the school and thus the community, and in this they succeeded. I think he was a happy boy. Yet today that school would risk penalties for lowering its test score; and accommodating him would damage, not enhance, its reputation. That is the absurd situation in which our schools find themselves.

Recent revelations that pupils with special needs are being excluded to improve school performance can be put down to one thing: an obsession with testing. Since public league tables were introduced by John Patten in 1992, they have defined English education. First it was just A-levels, then GCSEs, then Sats, as the cry went out to measure everything.

Ministers of both main parties have become obsessed with the OECD’s Pisa tests, a crude way of comparing the incomparable. Under Michael Gove, English schools were to be benchmarked against Chinese ones. Under Nicky Morgan, tougher tests were demanded for six- and seven-year-olds. These were “essential to make British pupils more competitive with students abroad”. Education was treated as a branch of the Olympics.

The chief victims have clearly been those unable to keep up. Academies and free schools are more able to select, discriminate and remove difficult pupils. An extraordinary 15% of children now have special educational needs, which means schools have an incentive to exclude them. This year just under 4,500 are still awaiting placement in special schools outside the regular system. We are back to Gradgrind and Hard Times.

In an attempt to make the important measurable, we have instead made the measurable important. This month we have a first straw in what, it must be hoped, is a wind of change. Ofsted’s boss, Amanda Spielman, has criticised schools “where too much time is spent preparing for tests at the expense of teaching”. This is like the chief of the defence staff joining CND. Ofsted has for years judged schools on “exam floor targets” – the regime that led the last chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, to declare that fully “a third of British schools are failing”. That was after nearly three decades of league tables used to score, penalise and humiliate schools and their teachers – before starving them of money.

"In an attempt to make the important measurable, we have instead made the measurable important"

Exams are educational dross to which politicians turn when they can think of nothing else for pupils to do. The new GCSEs last June produced a deluge of criticism for challenging pupils’ mental resilience more than their memory. Such was the pressure that half of London parents bought private tuition. There was a predictable surge in mental stress among children.

Examination implies a public loss of faith in the profession of teaching. We don’t judge doctors by patient longevity, or lawyers by cases won. Yet we reduce education simply to what can be recalled on a particular day, even if promptly forgotten. It scores not just children but teachers and schools. A teacher recently wrote to the Times that in Germany, largely exam-free schools “are trusted to educate in the broadest sense, and objectively assess their own pupils, without recourse to any self-serving, outsourced exam industry”. I doubt that a modern English school would know what to do with its time without exams.

Askmost people what they remember from school and they mention an inspiring teacher, not an exam result. Ask employers what they look for in a recruit and they list articulation, presentation, creativity, imagination and social skills – qualities that appear nowhere in an English curriculum. They might be the benefits of talented pedagogy, but scoring them is absurd.

For the past three decades, millions of pupils have been bombarded with propaganda on the necessity of maths and science. Most have resisted, preferring the humanities and social sciences even where these are being stripped from the curriculum. Yet it was left to the Chinese educationist Yong Zhao to point out that whereas Britain and America have persistently scored badly in Pisa science and maths, they do brilliantly in scientific research and in numerate careers, from high finance to digital technology. Schooling seems irrelevant.

Pisa, Whitehall and Ofsted are obsessed with maths not because algebra is the key to happiness, or geometry to great riches, but because it is easy to score globally. Bereft of an ideal of a good education, government, and especially central government, likes anything that yields mass data. It holds the key to control, to the regime of rewards and penalties that underpins modern administration and its funding.

One day, I believe exams will be as outdated as the slate and the birch. For the time being, we can only bewail those most likely to suffer.

Simon Jenkins

Source: The Guardian

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