The Name of the Game

There are three ways to run an education system.

One is for the Treasury to hand out a pot of money to each school and leave them to get on with it. This has several advantages, but it is now politically impossible.

Another is for the State to withdraw altogether and to let the free market run its course. This also has several advantages, but it is equally politically impossible.

So we’re left with the mess we have now. The Treasury hands out pots of money to schools (or, in some cases, local education authorities, or multi-academy trusts); the schools are then accountable to Ofsted inspectors. There is some attempt at harnessing market forces: parents do get to express a preference as to which school their children attend. And, to inform both Ofsted inspectors and parents, examination results are published.

This phenomenon isn’t going away. It may even be that it is the least worst option of the three. Its capacity for catastrophic failure is, overall, significantly lower than that of the other three options, though no doubt it doesn’t feel like that to teachers who have the misfortune of seeing their classes do badly in high-stakes tests while not being in favour at the Court of their own Head Teacher.

But let’s not kid ourselves please. The whole business of measuring schools’ and teachers’ performances by the standards achieved by their pupils in those high-stakes tests has a fundamental flaw at the heart of it. You’re probably familiar with Goodhart’s Law: that once a measure becomes a target, it becomes useless as a measure. Of course you are. I’ve blogged already about how misleading using pupil results to measure teacher performance is, and I won’t dwell on that again.

Edutwitter, or at least some parts of it, have been appalled by some of the marking policies applied to this year’s SATs. Pupils have been marked down for correctly-used but aesthetically-unconventional commas and semi-colons which were nonetheless quite clearly commas and semi-colons. Undoubtedly the next Year Six cohort will be subjected to extra practice at producing artistically unimpeachable versions of these punctuation marks. And why not? Well, because of opportunity cost. The pupils whose work was shown all over Twitter clearly understood the proper functions of commas and semi-colons and what they look like. Their time would be better spent moving on to other things. Now they won’t be. I am inclined to think that this is a bad thing.

A minor point? Maybe. So let’s press on. Reports that Year Six children in one primary school would be devoting Maths and English lessons after Christmas to cramming for SATS were greeted with widespread dismay. (It was not universal: some observed that the act of reviewing material already learned was well worth doing, and would help those children learn that material properly. I have some sympathy for this argument, but I’ve run enough ‘revision sessions’ to know that a great deal of preparing for exams involves not careful factual revision but tedious drilling of ‘exam technique.’) Much of it was directed at the school. And I agree: of course a primary school shouldn’t do this.

This reminds me, by the way, of my niece. She’s a moderately bright girl. Lives in Kent (or did, before she went away to go to university. So the story has a happy ending. She failed the 11+ but was in the top set at her secondary modern. Her time in that secondary school coincided with modular GCSEs, and so she was entered for some Maths and English exams at the end of Year Nine, and some more after just one term in Year Ten.

Now I suppose I don’t mind pupils being entered ‘early’ for public examinations, if they’re ready. But that wasn’t what happened here. She squeaked C grades in English and Maths. Not dreadful results: rather good results, in fact, for a grammar school reject taking exams two years early. But this wasn’t done in her interest. If anything she was disadvantaged by the school’s policy: leaving Year Eleven with B or even A grades in those subjects would probably have served her better. But she got those crucial C grades, and the school could therefore stop teaching her English and Maths, allow her to focus on getting the grades in other subjects, and allow the teachers to focus on transforming those C/D borderline pupils into solid C students. Do I blame the school for putting its own interests above those of its pupils? Of course I do.

At the other end of the educational spectrum – but not, as it happens, too many miles away geographically – I am reminded of something which happened around the same time. I spent two years teaching at a country boarding school which selected only by parental income. We often admitted pupils who had failed to gain admission to the very academic school down the road, or indeed who had been told by the up-and-coming Head Master that their particular talents would be better served by a school like ours than at a school like his.

Imagine my surprise when (after I had left, as it happened) the ‘English Baccalaureate’ results were published. This school is well towards the very top of the national independent schools league tables. And yet a greater percentage of pupils in the country boarding school left with an ‘Ebacc’ than of those who’d attended the academic powerhouse. Why? Because to secure that school’s league table position, a pupil who wasn’t going to get an A* grade in (say) French would be withdrawn from the subject. (It was usually a modern language, as studying them to the end of Key Stage Four is not compulsory.) I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to think that a school which shrugs and tells its pupils not to bother learning French any more because they’re not likely to get an A* in the GCSE is doing its pupils a dismal disservice.

Note I’m not talking here about schools which ‘teach to the test.’ I’m not talking about public examinations in some subjects (my own, History, is vulnerable to this, but it’s far from alone) which reward the gabbling of certain examiner-approved approaches to essay questions, and the way that teachers sacrifice the subject on the altar of the exam. I’m not talking about this because it could be argued – I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but it could be argued – that this is just what teachers have to, ought to and usually want to do, to help their pupils get the very best grades they can. No, I’m talking about those areas where the interests of pupils and the interests of schools diverge, and where that is caused by the phenomenon of high-stakes testing.

I will, though, observe that this environment has led to lots of teachers being caught cheating. This is one explanation. Here’s another. Some (in the US) have even been sent to prison.

Are all these incidents examples of reprehensible conduct by schools and teachers? Sure. Of course teachers and schools shouldn’t cheat.

But in the current circumstances they’re going to. Set up a system like this and it will only encourage it. It might make you feel better to denounce the teachers and the schools concerned, but with careers depending on results it’s going to happen.

Look, I don’t have an answer to this. Maybe there isn’t one: just because there’s a problem doesn’t mean there’s a solution. I’m just getting a little tired of hearing about how important accountability is, and how indefensible people who respond to the perverse incentives which it creates are. It might be the best system we’ve got at the moment, but let’s not pretend that it doesn’t have very significant flaws.

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