Forget the numbers - let me tell you a story

Statistics are all very well, but they don't have the answer when it comes to people's lives, writes spoken-word artist George the Poet
20th February 2015, 12:00am
George The Poet


Forget the numbers - let me tell you a story

It's hard to assess anything without context, much less an entire system of learning. Context is the story before and around the conclusion, giving meaning to the facts.

If we accept that relaying facts is the core function of education, what could possibly be more important than context? Context makes information matter. Without it, information is just "there" - alien to our human understanding and therefore inoperative in our decision-making. Without context, information is fact that never becomes knowledge.

To put these philosophical ramblings into context, here are some facts that matter: attainment is, and always has been, distributed unevenly among different groups. Girls currently outperform boys, with 61.7 per cent in England's state schools achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs in 2013-14, compared with 51.6 per cent of their male counterparts. Chinese students outperformed all other ethnic groups in the same period, with 74.4 per cent achieving at least five good GCSEs.

Black students, meanwhile, continued to do relatively badly, despite 75.5 per cent of them making the expected progress in English and 68.4 per cent in maths, against a national average of 71.6 per cent and 65.5 per cent respectively.

A similar attainment gap exists for pupils eligible for free school meals, 33.5 per cent of whom achieved at least five A*-C GCSEs in 2013-14 compared with 60.5 per cent of all other students. Pupils classified as disadvantaged struggled, too: 36.5 per cent got good grades, compared with a national average of 64 per cent.

Without context, these statistics prove nothing more than the fact that some students do less well in state education than others. But given that context is the story before and around the conclusion, there is more to consider.

Statistics are often used as a prop for bad storytelling. I'm referring less to my profession as a storyteller and more to my experience as a student. Statistics are too often bandied about to summarise human stories, when people's experiences can't be reduced to numbers.

For example, the story of black students in our education system is one of historical underachievement: only 53.1 per cent of the 2013-14 GCSE cohort achieved five or more A*-C grades, for example - 3.4 percentage points below the national average. One human explanation offered for this is the culture of low teacher expectations, an argument often laughed out of the room, perhaps because it receives little mainstream commentary from the affected group. In fact, there is almost no mainstream commentary from young black people beyond rap music, which, like the theories of low teacher expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies, is often laughed out of the room.

So, for lack of a robust frame of reference on the subject, I think it best to take you back to my 2008 A-level politics class, when my perception of statistics was changed for ever.

Turning a page

One morning I put my name down for the school's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) Oxbridge application support programme. Shortly afterwards, my head of year came into the lesson to ask me about it. Embarrassed though I was, I told him the truth: that I would like to study sociology at Cambridge University.

He digested this, left the room, then returned with a list of statistics and continued this very public dialogue:

"As you can see, George, the average Oxbridge undergraduate has nine A* grades at GCSE. May I ask how many you have?"

"Four, Sir."

"Probably best not to apply, then."

And that was that. Something inside me recognised I was out of my depth in more ways than a lack of qualifications. Apart from the fact that I didn't personally know any Cambridge undergraduates, I didn't actually know much about education outside school. Teachers were my only reference point, so when my form tutor shared the same discouraging sentiment a few days later, I internalised the message: I was the wrong type.

Luckily, my mum wasn't having that and I am now a Cambridge graduate. The point isn't that I was subjected to low expectations; the point is that this was, potentially, everything to me. Take away the fact that I was at one of the highest performing schools in the country, and that my mum was a fighter, and there would have been nothing stopping me from falling victim to the passive mechanics of systemic exclusion, as did so many around me.

The excessive focus on numbers and targets in our education system means that students' experiences and interests aren't adequately represented. With the best will in the world, some of the people who deliver education in this country are alienated from many students' sociocultural realities, and are therefore at a loss to unlock their potential.

In school, everyone is on a hunt for buried treasure. This treasure is called "success". Finding the treasure requires a map and a map-reader. Without these things, looking for success in school is like being directed to an unknown location over the phone with poor reception in complete darkness.

We need to contextualise education: teachers and students alike should be clear about what they are looking for and how to find it. Otherwise, everyone involved is simply serving a system that is failing them.

George the Poet will be appearing at the London Festival of Education. To find out more about the festival, visit or follow @LFE_15 on Twitter

Join the debate

TES has teamed up with the UCL Institute of Education to host the London Festival of Education on Saturday 28 February.

Guests at the event include shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, deputy mayor for education and culture Munira Mirza, Education Endowment Foundation chief executive Dr Kevan Collins and Finnish educational reform expert Pasi Sahlberg. George the Poet will also join them on the festival platform.

For more information, visit

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