Overexamined, Uneducated

Standpoint‘s Mole in a comprehensive school believes we should teach children, not try to attain targets

Education The Mole UK Politics

For many people the highlight of 2008 has been the Beijing Olympics, where the athletic elite of this country competed against the rest of the world and succeeded magnificently. It certainly impressed me, particularly as I reached my athletic peak at the age of 11 and have not really progressed much further since then.

Luckily most people accept that each person has an upper limit of achievement in sports and are quite content to allow them to continue to enjoy taking part at whatever level suits them – no one pushes a pub footballer to play in the Premier League. But unfortunately the same sort of thinking does not apply when it comes to academic achievement. The idea that some people are not capable of achieving A levels or degrees is deemed to be not just incorrect but also morally wrong. Anyone who says this is held to be elitist, a viewpoint that would be laughable if expressed in the context of professional sport. Such views are spreading downwards from ministers through the education system. Many school heads and deputies are beginning to follow this misguided philosophy.

The comprehensive secondary school in which I work serves as an example of the effect that this thinking is having. There, the education of the students is being twisted in order to hit preconceived targets that bear little resemblance to reality.

For many years we have been teaching pupils from academically low backgrounds and sending them off with a good, rounded education and the social skills needed to work in shops and offices. A few students who showed exceptional ability went on to university, including medical school in one particularly gifted case. But in general they were GCSE-level students and were taught in a way which allowed them to achieve what they could and then sent out into the world to contribute to society in their own way.

Nowadays, however, all of our students are given targets which they are expected to reach and if they do not achieve them then the teaching is called into question. In some cases teachers have been named and shamed in front of the whole staff for this. This would not be so bad if the targets had been produced by people who knew the children and were aware of each child’s potential, but this is not the case. Instead the targets are produced either by outside agencies or by crude mathematical operations. For example, on arriving at my secondary school aged 11, students in Key Stage 3 (KS3) are now expected to raise their achievement in the SATs by two levels from KS2, regardless of their potential. If you think in terms of the high jump, it is like saying all students will jump one metre higher than they did at primary school. A child who is only capable of understanding to level 5 will be seen as failing if he was targeted with a level 6 purely because he got a level 4 at KS2, rather than seen as succeeding. Moreover, the teacher who taught him will be required to explain why this child did not succeed.

Other targets are calculated using more complicated mathematics than this. The Fisher Family Trust produces masses of data for each child in the country, predicting what they are capable of achieving at KS3 and GCSE. This is based on their previous results compared to the average for students of similar backgrounds. This is somewhat more realistic than just adding two levels, but is really applicable only to subject areas where the previous data exists, ie in maths, English and science. In reality these figures are pressed into service to predict grades in all subjects, based on, for example, the assumption that history is similar to English, so the English prediction is used for history. This already stretches the data beyond their applicable range, but when students are given predicted grades for music, art and PE based on their previous test results in English, maths and science, then the situation has descended into farce. It ceases to be funny when staff are victimised by management for not achieving these targets.

As a biologist I am familiar with statistics and their applications. I am also aware of a syndrome from which some biologists suffer, when they attempt to look more scientific by putting lots of equations into their work. This is known as physics envy. Many of our schools’ senior managers suffer from a similar syndrome, which I call business envy. This leads to them producing garbled “mission statements” and reams of data in PowerPoint handouts that they issue to all and sundry, including plenty of graphs and Venn diagrams. When one actually looks at them, they prove to be meaningless: I once asked what a diagram actually meant and was told: “Whatever you want it to.”

These people are forgetting the purpose of their job, which is to oversee the education of the children in their school. Instead, they deal not with real children but with data points to be manipulated in order to match another set of data points which they have been sent by the Government, the local education authority or the Fisher Family Trust. The new league table calculations for this year, which include English and maths in the 5 A* to C category, have caused a major flurry of activity – especially with Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Schools, threatening to close any schools that get less than 30 per cent. But this has not been educational activity. It is a search for so-called equivalent qualifications.

All of our year 11 students have been doing Adult Literacy and Numeracy (ALAN) tests which are online multiple choice tests that give instant feedback. If passed at the appropriate level, these can count towards English and maths GCSEs, thus pushing up our totals. Traditional GCSE courses with final examinations have been replaced in many cases by BTEC courses (those accredited by the Business and Technician Education Council), in some cases because the courses are more appropriate for their students, but in many purely to boost the school’s published figures. The BTEC courses are internally assessed throughout the two years of the course and students are required to demonstrate that they have met various criteria in order to achieve a pass equivalent to two, or in some cases four, GCSEs at grade C or above. In other words, a student can achieve five A* to C grades by passing just two courses.

Rather than actually having to learn and recall things for a final exam, students just have to demonstrate that they could meet a criterion at some point during the course. Naturally it is not that easy – they are limited to just three attempts to hit each one. The internal assessment is of course moderated: this year we sent off six pieces of work for external moderation, from a cohort of more than 100 students.

As a result of these grade-boosting activities, the summer term, which used to be quite relaxed, became a frenzy of completing BTEC coursework and doing online ALAN tests, which prevented any other students from using any of the computer rooms for more legitimate educational purposes.

I am sure that my school will achieve a record high in its results this year and will even remove itself from Balls’s danger zone. But I am afraid that our students, although more highly qualified than in previous years, will actually be less educated. This is doing a disservice, not just to them, but also to ourselves as educators and to society.

If the Government applies similar thinking to athletics then maybe I can finally get an Olympic gold medal to go with my One Star Amateur Athletics Association certificate.