Performance matters, but at what price?

7th December 2007 at 00:00
When money gets tighter, you have to prioritise. Budgeted school running costs have risen over pound;1,000 per pupil since 1993. The early indications are that, under our new Scottish Government, this trend may not continue, making it more important that we spend what we have wisely.

Remember what Scotland's national priorities in education are, or used to be? As far as I know, they've not been changed, but they are much less prominent. Capacities have replaced priorities.

Google "Scotland's National Priorities for Education", and you will find a site that appears not to have changed since January 2006. According to the site, the last performance report based on them was in 2003. The priorities appeared to be withering away, even before the change in government.

I was always a believer in having priorities up front, and I didn't argue with what they were - achievement and attainment, framework for learning, inclusion and equality, values and citizenship, and learning for life.

Optimists might say that I needn't worry, because the four capacities have in effect become our priorities. But one of the things that worries me is that the capacities statements say even less than the old priorities did about what needs to be done to make our aspirations a reality.

Let's look at two things we spend our money on to achieve our national priorities: supporting and developing the skills of teachers, and our inspection system.

The TESS reported on September 28 that the inspection budget has increased by 95 per cent in four years to around pound;120 million. You may think that's still not a great deal, given the overall education budget in Scotland. But it could mean around 40,000 extra teachers. What is more, the local authorities collectively estimate that they spend pound;3 preparing for inspection for every pound;1 spent on the inspection itself. This puts the cost at nearly half a billion pounds - that's a lot of teacher time.

If you think this fanciful and irresponsible speculation, go to Ontario. There, the emphasis is on collegiality and self-inspection. There is no inspectorate and they thrive.

The main aim of inspection and staff development is the same - to improve the quality of learning and teaching in the classroom.

Dylan Wiliam joined the debate about class size in Scotland recently. He suggested that what the research tells us is that reducing class size does generally increase student attainment, but not in every classroom and at a huge cost. He believes there are more cost-effective options, such as investing in teacher professional development which, he claims, is approximately 20 times the cost benefit of class-size reduction.

I would like to see research which compared the cost benefit of staff development with that of inspection in improving the quality of learning and teaching. It's been argued that simply by measuring people's progress, or lack of it, against targets in itself causes improvement. Wrong. Measuring causes change, not necessarily improvement. Having a target and knowing someone is going to hold you accountable does motivate you to improve, even if it doesn't help you to do so.

But measuring people's performance can have the opposite effect. It can undermine motivation and lead to teaching to the test or cheating. And an inordinate amount of time is spent proving you are improving, rather than bringing about the improvement.

Of course, to be effective, staff development needs to be good. The trouble is the best can be costly in terms of teacher time.

Investing in quality staff development raises achievement, but to afford it we need to get our priorities right.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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