Five-fifths of mad cows read bullshit

12th January 1996 at 00:00
I knew it. The public thought that the school curriculum and national testing had been simplified and teachers' lives had been made easy, but I always suspected that SEAC, the School Examinations and Assessment Council set up by the late great Kenneth Baker had never been dismantled and was probably thundering away deep in some secret cellar, endlessly churning out incomprehensible test papers for seven-year-olds.

A report in the Guardian, headlined "Ministry's emergency advisers", confirmed this dark suspic-ion, stating: "The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) meets twice a year but also convenes during emergencies. It is due to meet again in January to discuss the mad cow disease situation . . . The SEAC group, which is made up of senior brain experts, microbiologists and veterinary surgeons is due to be bolstered in the new year."The report goes on to state that there is no reason for the public to panic.

Actually, there is every reason for the public to panic. You see, "mad cow disease" is a Guardian misprint. It should have read "mad curriculum disease". Scientific research has now confirmed conclusively that this debilitating brain disease can be transmitted from politicians to human beings. When teachers were exposed to high levels of radiation from Government-sponsored printed bullshit, many of them started lurching unsteadily, speaking in a slurred voice and cackling inanely at the sound of words like "OFSTED".

One problem for the teaching profession is that there is at least one report on education each week, and sometimes even one per day. In less hysterical times this would be a good thing, but I am not aware of other jobs coming under the same degree of insatiable scrutiny. "One-third of dustbin emptiers drop rubbish on your drive", "Forty-nine per cent of all chiropodists below average", "Inspectors denounce mortuary attendants", are among numerous headlines I cannot recall ever reading in the national press.

Another problem is that the right-wing pressure groups in particular are very good at attracting publicity for their critical pamphlets, however flimsy, by issuing "come-on" press releases. The newest right-wing think tank, Politeia, headlined its press release on Chris Woodhead's pamphlet criticising schools in block capitals with "CHIEF INSPECTOR IN OUTSPOKEN ATTACK ON EDUCATIONAL THEORISTS WHO OPPOSE SCHOOLS REFORM". Pretty low-key, eh? I am thinking of starting my own right-wing think tank. To ensure media attention I shall find a catchy name for it, like Bollocks.

The biggest failure of our earlier educational system for older generations was that nobody seems to have taught anyone the meaning of words such as "norm" or "average". Most assessment systems of either teachers or pupils in use today are based on the idea of a normal bell-shaped distribution with lots of people in the middle and fewer at the extremes. When seven-year-olds were assessed for the first time, about a half scored at level 2, while a quarter got level 1 or level 3. This gave rise to numerous headlines screaming "A quarter of children below average" or "25 per cent fail test".

When the Office for Standards in Education publishes figures about the assessment of teachers, the same applies to grades 4 and 5 on their five-point scale. The assumption by press and public is that nobody should be on grade 4 or 5. I agree entirely. All teachers should be highly competent. But can you imagine what would happen if this desirable state were to be reached? Let us suppose that 80 per cent of teachers were given grade 1, 20 per cent were awarded grade 2, while 0 per cent obtained a 3, 4 or 5. There would be a huge outcry and a demand that all points on the scale should be used properly. The same would happen if all seven-year-olds scored at above Level 1 in national tests. The scale would have to be recalibrated so that those at the bottom obtained the new level 1.

The result of these innumerable norm-referenced assessments is that debate about quality is often anaesthetised, as teachers reel under one critical report after another. The eventual reaction to this situation can be seen in some school districts in the United States, where over 80 per cent of teachers are now graded "truly outstanding", a category originally intended for the best 20 per cent of the profession. Only the terminally naive believe that almost all the teaching really is "truly outstanding".

A set of solutions for teachers who feel unfairly bludgeoned can be found, interestingly enough, in the official Government information pack sent to all schools about bullying among children. If applied to teachers instead of pupils, the information reads like a teacher union publication.

Under the heading "When you are being bullied", it states: "Be firm and clear - look them in the eye and tell them to stop . . . Get away from the situation as quickly as possible." Good but unnecessary advice, Government. About three-quarters of teachers are doing just that and retiring early.

In the next section, "After you have been bullied", the official advice is: "Tell a teacher or another adult in your school . . . If you are scared to tell a teacher or an adult on your own, ask a friend to go with you . . . Keep on speaking until someone listens . . . Don't blame yourself for what has happened." Excellent advice for teachers, not just pupils.

I can just see the deputy head and sympathetic friend talking incessantly, while of course not blaming themselves, hoping Gillian Shephard will eventually appear and say, "There there, it's not your fault."

The title of this Government anti-bullying pack, by the way, is Don't Suffer in Silence. It deserves to take its place alongside the great classics on education, like John Major's book describing his vision of the future Tens and Units for the 21st Century and Chris Woodhead's pamphlet describing his vision of the future, entitled I Agree With You Entirely, Sir.

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