Oh honestly, is this really the best the DCSF can do? In the cause of trying to work out how schools should develop in the 21st century, rather than really set their minds to some of the serious problems which underpin the faulty model of school-based education, we just get more of same, this time under the moniker of the School Report Card.
Really this is no big idea. It solves none of the actual problems that schools currently face. All it is is a smartened-up Ofsted report, with the Achievement and Attainment Tables and the school prospectuses thrown in for good measure. Somehow it's meant to stream-line the whole process, whilst at the same time adding more categories for assessment and not even doing away with the Ofsted report or presumably for a school prospectus either. Ho hum. So, yeah, on the face of it, this plan only scrapes a D on the cutting-the-red-tape criteria.
And the plan is bad to useless on every other account too. It is nigh impossible when you really come to think about it, to work out the point of this whole exercise. Who, for example, is it really meant to serve?
According to the stated aims, it is meant to make it easier for parents to understand how well the school is doing. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that it really did do just that, what would be the exact purpose of that then? Most parents don't get a huge amount of choice about where to send their children to school and if their school is doing badly overall, are they going to be able to stride in of a Monday morning and demand that it be set right and then seriously expect to see a huge change in the situation?
But more importantly, this type of assessment card won't actually make it any easier for a parent to tell whether their child is receiving an appropriate education. Look at the pretty pink bar graph of ridiculously broad categories on page 5. Would that really tell you whether your child had been listening during maths class this morning. Oh COME ON, and yet let's not forget, parents are responsible for ensuring that their child is in receipt of a suitable education.
Parents could most likely get a slightly better idea of whether a school would suit their child just by walking round the school with the child or get a better grasp on whether Johnny had been listening by trying to have a conversation about the maths lesson over tea, though heaven knows this is still such an appalling way of assessing any actual theory growth in the mind of another.
By way of demonstrating the spurious nature of trying to work out beforehand what will engage a learner, I could give the example of our experience of going to two recent lectures with my son. I feel I know my son very, very well and often think I sense that we have similar learning styles.
Not long ago, we visited an engineering museum where we received a lecture from a very softly spoken, elderly engineer with a pleasantly obsessive bent that would earned him the full aspergers' diagnosis had he been schooled in this day and age and no props other than a few largish lumps of corroded metal dotted with a few hinges and some rusted dials. My son and all four of his close companions listened intently for two solid, buttock-squishing hours, while I fidgeted, tried to attend, got quite desperate and started doing an 18 times table in my head just for the fun of it.
More recently, we attended a workshop that was funded by a space technology company. The lecture, which was relatively short and sharp, was glorious to look at. Every possible mod-con produced a visual feast of sheer beauty and the speaker had a great store of engaging one-liners. A lot of the parents were enthralled. The boys however contrived in this relatively short space of time, to fidget, bounce about, pass notes, whisper sweet nothings, engage in a momentary tussle over something and then slump in increasingly unlikely angles in their chairs.
I have to say that I was all the more surprised that DS remembered what seemed like every word of this second lecture, despite giving absolutely EVERY single appearance of not having listened to a word of it.
Heck what do I KNOW? When that HE inspector comes knocking at my door, would I really be able to give him an honest answer about what happens in the head of my child? And yet I could be jailed you know, jailed for failing to ensure that my child is in receipt of a suitable education. Ho hum.
Which brings us back to the point here. The law (Section 7) and this School Report stuff is just so much epistemic hogwash. I can neither force my child to learn, nor can I reliably tell whether he has learned it. Heck the learner himself doesn't reliably know what is going on in his own head. I claimed the other day to have failed to have understood almost all the Latin I was ever supposed to have learned, and I honestly believe that is mostly true, but I was pleased when I didn't do badly last night (I've just checked) with the Latin bits in Auden's New Year Letter, which I have to say, surprises me enormously! (Not so incidentally perhaps, I should report that this poem floored me with it's allure and I really wasn't expecting that either. Anyone feeling dull of spirit, go read Auden and then throw in a bit of Keats for good measure.)
And if you can't reliably gauge what is going on in the head of the learner, nothing else about this Report Card makes sense. Just as it won't help parents, it won't help teachers, the school governors, the School Improvement Partner, or anyone else with a genuine interest in the growth of knowledge. It might help the government look as if it is doing something about education, it might work to pull the wool over the eyes of the odd tax-payer here and there, but where it really matters, ie: in the head of the child, it will almost certainly not make a blind bit of difference.
And before we let the matter of faulty epistemology drop, we should also note that even when there is a growth of knowledge, are we quite certain that we always want knowledge to grow in predictable, measurable ways? Reading Auden's Lullaby, last night, I felt I had an intuitive, personal relationship to that poem that meant so much to me. I don't know quite why but I then googled the poem and read a university lecturer's critique of it. I veered from feeling truly sorry for the man, to furious, to quite desperate that my private relationship to the poem had been so violated. Had it been necessary, I hope I would not have sacrificed what felt like my genuine understanding of this poem to get a good grade, for surely this would have been to lose something by way of valuable knowledge.
Human knowledge is not predictable, not measurable, works by fits and starts, by fitting ideas to problems, by discarding useless theories, by repeated failure, by provisional success. You can't pour it predictably into the head of another. You cannot force it in either. The learner must always develop the theories himself. We shouldn't be putting so much emphasis on trying to measure it. Instead, education should be about provision and enrichment, about failing as much as succeeding, about recognising the epistemological uselessness of attempts at compulsion, about removing compulsion and allowing for the birth of personal efficacy.