Judging children with the click of a mouse

25th April 2008 at 01:00
"Look at the Emperor's new clothes," roared the people
"Look at the Emperor's new clothes," roared the people. "See how fine they look? See how delicate and translucent the colours are? See how the sunlight reflects off the invisibly fine gold thread ... ".

A friend of mine recently went on a two-day course to learn how to make accurate judgements about schools. When it comes to measuring school effectiveness, this course is not only the bee's knees but the bee's entire legs apparently. It also involved a sizeable swarm of buzzwords.

The training took place at Ye Olde Tastefully Converted Manor House Hotel, which is about as far from a real flesh-and-blood inner-city primary school as it is possible to get. The only evidence of children were the cherubim in the framed Raphael prints on the Grand Staircase. That's the one leading to the Sir William Poshfellow Gymnasium and Spa, not the one leading to the Olde Orangery, where fresh coffee and Danish pastries would be served prior to a 10am start.

Which is precisely when the veneer of relaxed gentility and antique charm was stripped away to reveal a high-tech world of laptops, interactive whiteboards and throbbing corporate efficiency.

The man who led the course - I imagine he must have looked like a Bond villain with an eyepatch, scary cat and an inability to pronounce Ws - presented my friend vith the tools by vhich you vill know school effectiveness. The next two days, my friend says, were spent closely analysing huge piles of school performance data.

Hour after hour she floundered, buried in a horizon-less sea of charts, tables and graphs, courtesy of Raise Online, Fischer Family Trust and the unlocked boot of a civil servant's Ford Focus. The evenings were spent washing down paracetamol with quantities of chilled Pinot Grigio.

Provided you can get your head around the mass of available data, a school's effectiveness can be precisely quantified. At the click of a mouse, its year-on-year contextual value-added, norm-referenced, impact on learning can be laid as bare as a fairytale emperor's bottom.

Real children craftily disguised as colour-coded dots can be made to pop up on a series of scatter diagrams. With laser-guided accuracy, their progress can be tracked and projected. Flashing red lights accompanied by computerised air-raid sirens provide warning of failures to meet targets.

OK, I made that last bit up. Anyway, the dots turned out to be virtual children. They had names but no faces. They had age-related expectations but no chaotic family circumstances. They had unique pupil numbers but no background of neglect or abuse. "So, how would you judge a school?" they asked my friend. "I'd look at corridor displays and in classrooms," she replied. "I'd talk to the children and their teachers ... ".

"And one by one, the people shrugged their shoulders and completely failed to recognise that the Emperor was stark naked."

Steve Eddison, Key stage 2 teacher, Sheffield.

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