Once upon a time, long long ago, I was interviewed for a Head of Department job.
In my interview with the Head, she asked me about how I would use data to inform my evaluation of departmental performance in public examinations.
I knew she wouldn’t like my answer, but I wasn’t desperate for the job, certainly not so desperate that I would pretend to be the very model of a modern learning facilitator in order to get it. So I told her that I’d looked up the department’s A Level results, that twenty-two pupils had taken the subject, and that this was far too small a sample size to tell anyone anything meaningful.
At that point she interrupted me and I didn’t get to develop the point, but I stand by what I said: the Law of Small Numbers is in itself enough to cast doubt on any conclusions drawn from pupils’ performances in public examinations.
But an exchange on Twitter this morning made me think of another reason why the accountability agenda is so damaging. An English teacher asked, provocatively, whether, given that public examinations in English Language assess rather more than just the specifications issued for those particular qualifications, teachers of other subjects ought to be held accountable for their pupils’ results in that discipline.
I responded by suggesting that given how crucial the ability to communicate well in standard English is to pupil success in other public examinations, perhaps English teachers ought to be held accountable for their pupils’ results in other disciplines.
I don’t think either of us was being wholly serious (though I’m willing to be corrected). But I think we’re both right.
No, really. I do.
Of course it’s the job of the English teacher to teach English, command of which is essential if pupils want to achieve the highest marks in subjects like mine (History). But if, from the First Form onwards, History teachers give their pupils more challenging texts (both primary and secondary), and focus on features of good writing, and correct spelling and grammatical errors, then it’s probably fair to expect, all other thngs being equal, that when they come to sit a GCSE this will have made at least some difference.
We don’t always pull our weight here, and this helps explain why.
My school is keen on evaluating departments by comparing the results of individual pupils in different subjects. This is, I suppose, preferable to assuming that ‘raw results’ tell you everything you need to know, though the approach has one rather obvious flaw: most pupils accept, as those who are tasked with holding their staff accountable must not, that they are just better at some subjects than others.
But there’s something else going on too. Or at least there ought to be. Last year I taught my Lower Sixth historians the unification of Germany and Italy. Some of those pupils also studied political ideology in Government & Politics. Some of those took Religious Studies – or, as it is often branded to make it more appealing to the twenty-first century pupil, Philosophy & Ethics.
It is not at all uncommon for sixth-form pupils to study History, Politics & Economics. If they pursue the nineteenth-century history option, then they will study economic policy three times: once in Economics, once in Politics, and once in History.
‘My’ results (I know, but that’s the way some people think, isn’t it?) aren’t mine. Nor are RS teachers’ theirs, nor are Economics teachers’ theirs. We have all contributed to each others’ – be that in discussions about just what the relationship between the governors and the governed should be, or about what drives economic policy … and that’s even before we start thinking about the contribution we’ve made in teaching our pupils analytical essay-writing, or just writing under timed conditions.
And those are just the obvious crossovers; others, perhaps utterly spurious, are everywhere. How many A Level German scholars will come across terms like Kulturkampf or Zollverein? I don’t know. Do A Level biologists consider the similarities between evolution and GK Chesterton’s warnings about the dangers of radical reform? Does watching clips of Prime Minister’s Question Time help Drama students, as they wonder if a character is more like John Major, William Hague, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown?
Do any of these make a difference? I can’t measure it, and I will concede that it’ll be a marginal difference. (Though if we’re measuring by results in public examinations, let’s not forget that for quite a few pupils a couple of raw marks will make all the difference.) These beans can’t be counted. But they’re good for you anyway, and if you’ve been ingesting them for years then they will have made a difference.
It’s almost like the end of a Priestley play, isn’t it? I have an input into your results. You have an input into mine. It might be tidy, and convenient for those holding the rest of us to account, to pretend otherwise, but that doesn’t stop it being true.