Something has gone terribly awry in our education culture. We ought to know that we orbit the star of the Greater Good, and are, in turn, orbited by the satellite of Accountability. Instead, we are in the grip of a cult. We have come to worship our moon, and only let the light of our star reach our eyes reflected and refracted by the former’s cold surface.
Last month, there was a rare astronomical event.
In her evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee, children’s commissioner Anne Longfield set out five issues which, for her, are top priorities. Number one among them was wellbeing in schools.
So far so good.
Ms Longfield’s contribution came as part of the committee’s series of hearings on accountability.
The alignment of these two concepts could, nay should, have led to some radical rethinking. Unfortunately for us all, those in charge of our education system witnessed the eclipse and were too mesmerised by its magnitude to actually study it.
Where we needed Einstein and Eddington, what we got was ritual sacrifice.
Ms Longfield’s proposed solution to the pressing issue of children’s wellbeing at school is as simple as it is utterly bereft of any evidence of actual thought.
“I am concerned we measure attainment ad infinitum,” she said.
Yes? … YES? … Never has a comma caused me to pause for breath with such wild anticipation. Try this with me. Read it again, and breathe in deeply on that comma. As you do, close your eyes and imagine where this sentence might go. Not too long. Then release your breath as you read what Ms Longfield actually said.
“I am concerned we measure attainment ad infinitum, (now!) but we don't measure wellbeing."
Is that where your mind went? No, me neither.
Mesmerised by measurement
The idea that the solution to the nefarious effects of constant high-stakes measurement is to bring in more high-stakes measurement – albeit of a different thing – is palpably insane. It is further evidence, if we needed any, that we have surrendered our profession to a cultish scientism whose mantra is measurement.
If a thing isn’t measured, it is of no value. If a thing is to be of value, it must be measurable. No matter the validity, the reliability or, indeed, the effects. So long as there are numbers, and that those numbers move. Up is the preferred direction of their movement, but there is as much fulfilment to be had from their going down. There are rites to accompany both. Celebratory. Castigatory. These are the glue that keep the cult together. We perform the cult.
Martin George reports for Tes that Ms Longfield wants “schools to be judged on the wellbeing of their pupils, as well as their attainment”.
Let’s be charitable. Let’s assume for a moment that this is implemented and works. Students’ wellbeing is measured and, over time, increases, as surely it must. Schools become greater places for children to inhabit. Let’s put aside for a moment the clear subtext that they aren’t, which by the by isn’t very charitable, and any questions we could ask about why that might be the case, if indeed it is. Let’s ignore, if only temporarily, the fact that wellbeing is often determined before a child arrives at school and after she leaves.
We would still have to be charitable enough to imagine that all the other judgments made of schools would come into balance with this new addition – that emphasis on attainment, curriculum, leadership, teaching and learning would somehow lessen to make room for it.
This is probably the future that the children’s commissioner envisions. It is not one that everybody agrees with by any means, but she is a High Priest chosen to testify. You and I, dear colleague, are not. We are given this forum simply to discuss, to vent and to argue with each other, but we will be the ones to implement it.
And we know, don’t we? We know that this envisioned future of hers still belies the fact that where measurement is involved, good people make bad choices. Beyond her generous interpretation of educational politics, we know that the act of judgement itself always brings about perverse incentives and unreliable data – not least when we are dealing with a poorly defined concept for which there is little consensus on means of its assessment.
What about the school facing a more disadvantaged community, and therefore a higher incidence of poor wellbeing among its student population? What about the school being made to measure something that, until it was measured, was better understood? What about resultant catch-all policies and their adverse effects on those who – until measurement had its way – were without wellbeing issues? What about the gamers and the falsifiers? What about the blame culture?
And what about the wellbeing of teachers? Plans are already afoot to measure that, to account for it. Heaven help us.
And we could play their game. Oh, if we had a voice, we could play their game. We could insist, if we had a voice, that attainment and wellbeing be measured again five years after our students leave school, and again five years after that, so that politicians were held to account for the effect of their policies on communities, on society as a whole. Yes, we, too, could be creatures of the night and worshippers of the Moon. We, too, could feed on data. If we had a voice.
But we wouldn’t, would we? No, when we have our voices back, surely we will go tell it on the mountain: “The Greater Good is our end and the means to our end. We do not use our voices to silence the voices of others, because there is room for everything under the Sun. Data is our slave, not our master.”
Yes. We will tell them, when we have our voices back.
Until then, colleagues, join me in silent prayer.
The night is long and full of terrors.
JL Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship and co-editor of newly published Flip The System UK: a teachers' manifesto, published by Routledge and priced at £14.95