Playing the numbers game is bound to leave FE a loser

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

To enable as many students as possible to pass their qualification is surely a worthy aim. For too long our education system was set up to ensure the majority failed.

But when the emphasis on success and pass rates becomes all-consuming, other dangers follow. That is clear from the experience of schools. When your place in a league table is at stake, there is a temptation to forget about educational values and focus solely on numerical ones.

A catalogue of dodgy practices has been devised in order to raise Sats scores or ensure that as many pupils as possible register five "good" GCSEs or equivalent. Added to this is a national imperative to ensure that, year on year, GCSE and A-level results get better and better. Do we really believe teaching is continually improving or that children are developing bigger and better brains?

Now the focus has shifted to colleges. Here, too, success rates are on the rise, with a record 80 per cent of students achieving their desired qualifications in 2007-08. As yet, we are not into league tables. But with Ofsted grades and funding closely tied to those success-proving rates, the pressure to move onwards and upwards is unrelenting.

So the news, reported recently in FE Focus, that some colleges may be cooking the books to make student retention and pass rates look better, is perhaps to be expected. According to a Learning and Skills Council report, colleges have used various means to boost their figures by up to 40 per cent.

It would be naive to assume the obsession with results does not have a negative effect on other areas of college life. It starts even before the students arrive. Second-chance students - and there are many of them - are always hard to assess at interview. Those without conventional qualifications are a particular gamble - and one you are less likely to take when the numbers game is the only one in town.

This caution continues through to the course. When hitting the assessment criteria and thus "maximising your achievement" (the jargon phrase you must always use) is the be-all and end-all, teaching becomes narrower, less imaginative, more predictable. Teach to the test becomes the order of the day, stifling creativity and rewarding conformity.

But the real impact is felt with assessment. A lecturer I know at another college showed me an email he received from his head of department back in the summer. It was about "maximising achievement". It didn't tell them to do anything dishonest. But it did encourage them to round up all the slackers on their courses and make sure they did enough last-minute work to scrape a pass.

Today, many qualifications in FE require little or no outside exams. In theory, the quality of work and consistency of standards is guaranteed by the awarding body's external moderation.

But in recent years this has become much more of a "light touch" activity across the board. Essentially, it is about cutting costs.

Fewer visits to colleges are made, while the sample of student work scrutinised grows ever smaller. When concerns are raised by moderators, very often they are about administrative matters such as coversheets and presentation rather than quality of work.

So what happens with students perceived to be on the margins? If your boss is clamouring for results and the awarding body has its eye off the ball, there is inevitably a temptation to make everybody happy and push them all through.

Most teachers are not cheats. If anyone can pass anything, then it makes their jobs pointless. But, given the pressures described above, it is hard to believe that some won't ultimately succumb to the pressure to please.

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