Paper over the cracks

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Effectiveness (i fek+tiv.ness)n. capability of accomplishinga purpose; creation of astriking impression; state ofreadiness for action

Effectiveness" may be the buzzword of 1996 but "effective" was a word I first heard used widely in the late Fifties. As my mother painstakingly replaced our Utility furniture with items generically described as "contemporary", she would gaze admiringly at the wicker chair, Picasso print or candlewick bedspread and say: "There. Isn't that effective?" She also incessantly moved furniture. In pursuit of the desired effect, my childhood echoed to the sound of castors on lino. And every time, she insisted that the rest of us agree that this, finally, was the best possible arrangement. I recognise the same behaviour patterns in successive Education Secretaries and their shadows, frantically shuffling threadbare dogmas in order to produce an effect of innovation.

The concept of creating an effect is central to the furnishing trade, but a "coal-effect" fire is characterised by an absence of coal. "Teak-effect" or "pine-effect" furniture is thinly veneered chipboard. My mother's glossy "Chinese effect" wallpaper covered the hardboard inner walls of our asbestos prefab.

Are we in education achieving effectiveness or simply creating an effect? Policies, prospectuses, development plans and league tables may just be concealing bored adolescents and demoralised staff.

"Effectiveness" achieves cult status by virtue of its unchallenging neutrality. We are told to measure "effectiveness" rather than "achievement" or "success", which imply absolute standards. We can define our own criteria of effectiveness - retrospectively if necessary, thanks to another neutral neologism in the vocabulary of management.

In the process of measuring effectiveness, do we reappraise, revise or improve practices? No, this would imply that there were previous deficiencies. What we do now is "re-visit" - a wonderfully unemotive word, if one can free it from its associations with stately homes, great-aunts and Bognor.

The concept "if it ain't broke don't fix it" has been superseded by the idea that "a school which is does not move forward will very soon begin to slip back". To be effective we must be making changes. Like every washing powder, we must be "new" and "improved".

The ultimate measure of effectiveness is, of course, our place in the league tables. Which must, if we are to be seen to be effective, improve year on year. One secondary school introduced a system of grades for its students based on continuous improvement. An A could only be given for improved performance. So a student scoring 100 per cent in end-of-term tests could not achieve more than a B the following term. Onwards and upwards, colleagues, or in this case, onwards and downwards.

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