Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Massive Red Herring - The School Report Card

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.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps in their report on schools they are doing exactly what schooling would have trained them to do i.e. produce results that please 'teacher', gets them 'a grade', that shows off what clever boys and girls they are, that does everything, in short, other than really strive to find the best solution.


Firebird said...

Totally agree about the report cards. When choice of school is an illusion and parents, even parent governors, have no power to improve schools what is the point? Just more tax money down the drain for pointless window dressing.

Anonymous said...

You're not allowed to tour your child's school, or be there at all really.

My eldest wanted me to take her back at lunchtime, and stay with her until the children went in.

At first, the dinner women were pleasant and friendly. Then they started ignoring me; turning away when I approached. I asked one of the more intelligent ones and she said that the head teacher had told them to 'discourage Mrs. V. from coming.'

How childish and ridiculous. Needless to say, I ignored what they wanted. Their wishes weren't important. I only stopped going when my child didn't need me to go, but it was some time, and the dinner women (and some teachers) made nasty little comments often in my hearing.

I no longer think that schools are there to give an education. I think that schools are there to break a child's spirit, to make him or her toe the line, behave him/herself. In other words, to become an uncomplaining economic unit.


Maire said...

Great read, and the last paragraph,wow.

It really does seem that engineering conformity and not making a fuss or causing a disruption is the real purpose of our education system and when you see that people have on the whole quietly accepted such things as the illegality of taking a picture of policemen I can only think it has worked very well. :(

Anonymous said...

The report card thing is so utterly pointless (and probably expensive).
A friend of mine yesterday told me the local primary school has caused a bit of a panic; they have an intake of 30 per year and this Sept they have 22 sibling places altready taken leaving the 8 places to be fought over. And believe me they will be fought over.
Then another friend who home edded for a year (but hates it) is worried that of the four schools she put down as choices for her son who has special needs-he was offered a place at the fourth choice; which is the worst possible outcome for him.
His primary school wont allow him to repeat year 6 because "that isn't done in this county"!! I am really hoping this mum decides to go back along the home ed route. A lot of us would help her do it.

And as Diane has found schools don't like parents being there. We get 'trouble maker' labels attached to us if we do.

Anonymous said...

"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?"

I don't know why you insist on this idea. As long as you are providing the opportunity and offer a report of everything you have done, inspectors would leave you alone. If their philosophy is that the child is exposed or taught and therefore learns, it plays on your behalf. As long as you do educational stuff with the children, you're ok.

It's the slackers, who just want to live their everyday lives as normal, to which learning truly comes from day to day curiosity, not day to day planned activities and trips, who will be in trouble if the law changes.

And I'm a bit surprised you talk of school report cards like they are novelty? You didn't have these in England before?

Anonymous said...

Human knowledge is measurable. You can know what others know. You can see their progress when they apply their knowledge. Check the sketchbooks at, for instance. Notice how many beginners improve rapidly by taking the criticism and advice of others on board, even if they don't understand why very well at first.

That knowledge doesn't transfer directly from mind to mind doesn't mean people cannot be taught. Theories can and should be shared.

The issue is not at all if and how knowledge CAN be measured but if children's progress SHOULD be measured by the goverment and if a certain order of learning has to be ENFORCED by the goverment.

That's what you have to argue against.

Also, argue against the idea that without education in childhood people are doomed for life.