Drop the standards

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Creativity is being sucked out of teaching by a poorly-applied performance system, writes Andy Hargreaves

Recent news from the chief inspector David Bell that failing schools are on the increase and that primary standards are falling in the humanities and arts is a disappointment, but scarcely surprising. Similarly disturbing stories have surfaced repeatedly in the past couple of years.

Standards fell in 3,000 secondary schools immediately after Ofsted visits.

Creativity is disappearing from primary school learning. Middle-class parents are moving their children to private schools because the state system is losing its soul and its spirit. Meanwhile, the Department for Education and Skills tries to get its plateau-ing literacy numbers up by concentrating on the 20 per cent or so just below the pass mark rather than on the literacy needs of all children.

Of course, standards are essential in state education. Learning goals and standards should always precede teaching decisions. We should never go back to teaching the Julie Andrews Curriculum - "these are a few of my favourite things!".

But the national literacy and numeracy strategies and other measures have moved us to the other extreme of the Karaoke Curriculum - where teachers just follow the bouncing ball of the Government's script.

Standards have turned into standardisation. They are now more part of the problem than the solution. We have only to turn to the railways to see where tunnel vision on performance standards can lead us. Christian Wolmar's book, Broken Rail, showed how privatisation of the railways cut the cost of engineering repairs by contracting them out to private tender.

Flexible work teams who roamed the countryside replaced established work groups who had knowledge of the local track and the people who operated it, and whose standards were also rooted in craft pride and commitments to one another.

Having eradicated established cultures of engineering repair, Railtrack put contract-based forms of accountability in their place. These took the form of performance standards.

The new performance system rewarded quick fixes rather than long-lasting improvement. One way performance was measured was by determining if the trains ran faster after the repairs. A rail track has three components: the metal rail, the sleepers that hold the rails together and the ballast that supports the whole structure.

Repair contractors quickly found that replacing the rails alone, rather than also attending to the sleepers and the ballast, led to the quickest and cheapest improvements in train speed. Railtrack's performance culture rewarded quick-fix maintenance rather than long-term sustainability of safety and improvement. The tragic results became all too apparent.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Poorly applied performance standards push people all too easily into quick fixes rather than sustainable improvement.

Excessive concentration on minimum standards and short-term performance targets is pushing state education off the rails.

Superhuman efforts of heroic leaders can get schools out of failure but can't always keep them out. Getting accustomed to literacy strategies after faltering steps in the first year can push scores up and create appearances of improvement - but even these scores soon level off.

Outside pressure can force quick improvements, but schools regress as soon as no one is breathing down their necks. National strategies may raise literacy and numeracy scores but only at the cost of "collateral damage" on the creative subjects that are essential in a competitive knowledge economy.

Let's have no more fiddling of the figures, no more heavy-handed strategies and quick-fix solutions that suck the creativity out of teaching and learning, make improvement unsustainable and throw education off the rails.

Let's take the Government's commitment to excellence and enjoyment seriously, by admitting it's time not only to add more initiatives, but to pare back some of the standardised excesses that now exist.

Here are a few places to start:

* Make professional standards the prime responsibility of the profession, not this micro-managing Government. Treat teaching like other trusted professions and increase the powers of the General Teaching Council so it becomes a body that is serious and strict about setting and raising its own professional standards.

* Emphasise that national prescriptions are part of a menu for improving literacy standards that leave a lot to teachers' professional discretion, and not just an inescapable mandate for doing so.

* Follow the example of the Irish, Scots and Welsh and abolish the league tables of school performance that add fuel to the fire of obsession with numerical results.

* Create intrinsic incentives for outstanding leaders to move into persistently failing schools, by giving them breathing space to manoeuvre and to find creative solutions that engage pupils and the community without the threat of ceaseless inspection undermining their efforts. It is not enough to grant earned autonomy only for successful schools in affluent neighbourhoods.

* End the micro-management of teaching under low-trust government conditions, by connecting Ofsted criteria to how well schools operate as professional learning communities, where teachers and others combine the wisdom of their experience with the formal evidence of research and results to improve learning together. We have to use data for improvement, not embarrassment.

Sustainable improvement calls for stronger cultures of professionals who hold themselves and each other more responsible for change, based on their use of evidence and experience. Performance standards create educational accidents just waiting to happen. Professional communities create sustainable improvements that make us all more successful and secure.

Professor Andy Hargreaves is the Brennan chair in education at Boston college in the United States. He is currently in the UKon a national speaking tour

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