Neither whingers nor pessimists

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Last week the Institute of Education drew the Government's attention to problems with its plans to measure rising standards. The advice was dismissed as 'absurd and farcical'. Yet, says Peter Mortimore, the institute was only doing its duty

In a democracy, a university's knowledge and skills should inform the work of government policy makers. Such a contribution can identify flaws in proposed policies and offer alternative routes to commonly accepted goals.

Much of the reporting of educational issues implies that there can be only one "right" answer and that those who raise objections are either whingers or pessimists. This is a dangerous attitude for any society to adopt, as history has repeatedly demonstrated.

In education, as in so many areas of public life, alternative arguments have merit and fine judgments are needed to assess the costs and benefits of different views. A full and honest debate is essential if this process is to lead to the formulation of successful policies.

Adherence to the concept of academic freedom has, since the 13th century, enabled those working in universities to speak without fear of victimisation, except for those periods - for instance, earlier this century in Germany and Italy - when politicians sought to stifle independent voices Universities have an important role to play in the Government's plan to raise standards in education. Sometimes this will involve putting forward new ideas. At other times, however, it will mean asking hard questions or demonstrating snags in the policies. It was disappointing, therefore, to read, in last week's TES, of a Government spokesman's hasty dismissal of a central point in the Institute of Education's response to the White Paper, Excellence in Schools.

The White Paper was produced with remarkable speed, reflecting the Government's commitment to education. But such speed makes the need for a full and frank consultation process all the more important as, otherwise, policies may be formulated without sufficient time for ideas to be tested against what is already known. They may, as a result, not solve some of the difficult problems which have dogged the education service for years.

The virtue of White Papers is that they offer those outside government an opportunity to present constructive criticism. Accordingly, the institute provided 38 pages of considered comment.

We responded to most of the questions raised by the White Paper and drew on evidence of many years of research into assessment, effective schools and other relevant topics, the specialist technical knowledge of our staff and our awareness of international evidence. We are committed to the Government's aim of raising standards and we are anxious to help it avoid some of the pitfalls into which previous administrations have fallen (at considerable cost to their credibility and the public purse).

We discussed the thorny question of how to measure educational standards over time. This is what produced the somewhat intemperate response from the spokesman. Assessment of the progress of each pupil is generally recognised to be a key component in the repertoire of today's teachers. What may be straightforward when one teacher is dealing with the work of one pupil, becomes complex when national agencies are dealing with entire age-cohorts of pupils for a variety of purposes.

Issues of reliability, validity and manageability have not been created by awkward critics in order to make difficulties. These are real issues and how well they are dealt with defines the worth of any assessment exercise. Successive changes, over a decade, in the last government's policies illustrate the need to face up to the challenges.

Establishing appropriate targets from pupils' assessment data is a worthwhile strategy, but measuring absolute standards over time is fraught with difficulty. There is a temptation to seek simple solutions. The recent shift in public statements from the notion of an "average" (around which pupils' scores in any test or exam are likely to fall) to that of an "expected level" (to be reached by all) implies a radical - and welcome - change in the model of assessment to one which focuses more clearly on outcomes. Yet changing the language without altering the assessment system which underpins it ignores serious technical problems.

In our response to the White Paper we referred to the experience of systems of assessment in other countries and drew attention to the dangers of building policies which rested on technical solutions which could not be delivered. We cautioned policy makers against "quick fixes". We would have been failing in our duty had we glossed over these points.

Concern for raising standards must not be seen as the prerogative of those who adopt a punitive stance. Many who believe that high expectations and the celebration of achievement are crucially important also care deeply about standards and are critical of incompetence in any part of the education service.

The key to the Prime Minister's aim of establishing a modern society, equal to the challenges of the 21st century, must be an education system in which each individual can progress according to his or her talents and motivation rather than according to the financial or cultural capital of their parents.

Achieving this aim will require capturing the imagination, and capitalising on the goodwill of those who work in schools and colleges. It will also demand partnership from government and its agencies, the professional associations and those who work in universities. All have different roles to play: all are important if the project is to succeed.

Professor Peter Mortimore is the director of the Institute of Education of the University of London.

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