Big Brother watches on

7th December 2012 at 00:00

Remember Winston Smith in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four? He rebelled against an authoritarian regime, had his spirit broken and learned instead to love Big Brother.

Anyone who has been working in FE for any length of time may notice similarities to their own situation. It began 20 years ago, around the time of incorporation, with an increasing emphasis on accountability via data. Initially the focus was on student retention, then on pass rates. Eventually the two were brought together and "success" became the only game in town.

This was hard to take at first. I remember the shock that some of us felt at the thought that the benefits of education and training could be measured only in numbers. What about the intangibles - the minds trained, the knowledge gained?

How naive we were. Like Smith, our rebellious phase didn't last long. As the screw tightened, we learned to forget our old freedoms and to live with the new pressure. Some even started to like it. "Yippee! I've upped my success rate from 79 to 79.5 per cent this year," they cried.

To achieve these leaps forward we did what was required. Our managers echoed the generals of old in their exhortation: "They shall not pass." (Only, in their case, the word "pass" had been substituted by "fail".) Maybe we didn't yet love Big Brother but we started to think like him. How to make the figures look right became our mission, our life's work.

In this we were not alone. In schools it was Sats, GCSEs and A levels that were the measure of all things. Every year the pass rates went up. Maybe children's brains were getting bigger. Or maybe heads and teachers were doing all in their power to connive, manipulate and, on occasion, cheat their way to perform such wonders. It didn't matter. What mattered was that successive governments could point out how, under them, things were getting better.

Orwell's Big Brother was, of course, modelled on Joseph Stalin and his regime. Another characteristic of Stalinism was a sudden reversal of direction in which all traces of the old policy were wiped from the collective memory. This, too, has its parallels for teachers. Suddenly the public exam improvements have gone into reverse. Now unlikely bodies such as the CBI are declaring that schools have become simple "exam factories".

In our sector we find Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw writing - in his column in this paper- that one of his concerns is the focus that FE is putting on "helping learners to pass qualifications without ensuring they are sufficiently challenged or adequately prepared for their next stage in life". The reason for this, he says, is "a legacy of previous funding initiatives and incentives".

No mention of how inspectors have for years demanded to see the raw achievement data and then made up their mind about a college before seeing a teacher in action. Or how his predecessors asserted that there was no alternative to judgement by numbers. Now, suddenly, it appears that there is. Whether this means the monomaniac emphasis on success rates will diminish is another matter. Given past performance, it's more likely that Sir Michael's "challenge" and "preparation" will simply be added to the list of expectations alongside those "bottom line" figures.

Or, to put it another way, don't stop loving Big Brother just yet.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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