Curse of the number crunchers

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Recently, I received a letter from my local education authority telling me it was "one of the most improved in England" and thanking me for my contribution to that success. My school, it seems, shows "consistently high standards".

I suppose I should have been pleased. It might seem churlish to say I was mildly irritated. Why? Well, for one thing, the letter contained unforgivable grammatical errors. If we're in the business of education, we should at least be able to construct our sentences correctly. And, secondly, looking at the signatures of the people on this sheet of paper, I haven't a clue who they are. They may be leading lights in the local authority, but they've never been near my school. In fact, the only person who visits is my school improvement partner, and she travels up from the West Country.

So what are these "consistently high standards"? Yes, you've guessed - they're Sats results, because that's all officialdom cares about these days. Raise Sats levels by half a per cent and you're the best thing since synthetic phonics. Drop half a per cent and you're heading towards death by special measures. Nothing else matters, and the Great God Data rules the world. Even my school improvement partner gets caught in the numbers game. "Did you know", she says, "that your data indicates summer-born babies do better than the other children in your reception classes?"

"Really?" I ask. "So what?"

How things have changed. I once attended a "broader perspectives" course, that involved looking at Birmingham's primary schools. Tim Brighouse was the chief education officer, and the effect he had on his schools was extraordinary. Every head, indeed, every teacher, had nothing but praise for him. Why? Because he knew his schools. He visited them. He knew what they were getting right, and when they needed help. He made himself available. And teachers who wrote to him got a personal reply. It's hardly rocket science, but it's what makes leadership work.

I only hear from my own authority when I've had the temerity not to provide a useless statistic demanded by the Whitehall. When its suited gents lean heavily upon my local authority, it, in terror, leans heavily upon its schools.

"We haven't had your unauthorised attendance data for 2006-07," groaned a desperate voice at me last Tuesday, "and the DCSF must have it by four o'clock today!"

Because I felt the poor soul was in danger of committing hara-kiri, I suggested he re-routed the department's telephone calls to me, so that I could explain, forcibly, that their computer software couldn't do what was being asked of it. And since it was theirs, why didn't they know anyway?

It would be nice if senior people from the authority dropped in occasionally and said, "Wow, you've just formed a 40-piece school orchestra? What an achievement! Your work on sustainability has won you the London Challenge two years running? Terrific! And don't your staff and children seem happy. No wonder your school works so well."

They won't, of course. Instead, I'm told the latest startling innovation from the education department in Whitehall is a wall-sized screen covered in electronic dots. Click on one, and up comes a huge stream of data about the school it represents.

Whatever turns you on, I suppose. But thank God I've still got the children.

- e-mail:

Mike Kent, Headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London.

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