Robust or bust

21st March 2014 at 00:00

Here's a little test. What do the following public statements have in common? "The Programme for International Student Assessment provides robust comparisons of nations' performance"; "The Australian government is to evaluate the robustness of the curriculum"; "Robust data gives us [the US Department of Education] the road map to reform".

"Robustness" has plainly become the latest educational holy grail, although I'm not sure that even the Holy Grail itself would be deemed sufficiently "fit for purpose" these days. Everything must be utterly robust now: exams, standards, inspections, teaching, training.

It's a wonderful vision but is any global figure out there robust enough to turn the dream into a reality? Can anyone ensure that the cherished quality "robust" prevails over those notoriously reactionary educational forces of fudge, fog and flim-flam?

Happily, help is on the horizon. Cinema-goers may have noticed that a rebuilt RoboCop is back in town. Once again he has been brutally enforcing his robotic version of law and order on the streets of Detroit, programmed to destroy anything or anyone standing in his way. I am not suggesting that RoboCop himself should sort out schools. But with his mould and materials still to hand, his creators need simply build and tweak an equally ruthless but more academically orientated cousin: RobustCop.

RobustCop's mission would go way beyond eliminating crime in a single US city. He would clean up educational evil across the world, with remedial action for schools, teachers and their leaders all driven by a brain loaded with the necessary data on every child's potential and performance.

Underperforming children would never forget the day RobustCop came to their rescue. Gazing dreamily through the classroom window, they would look on with awe as the metal-coated android strode through the school gate, heading resolutely for the coordinates of the school leader's office. After neutralising the leader, he would stroll down corridors, plucking hopeless teachers from classrooms and calling a dramatic halt to the lightweight, non-robust subjects infesting education.

And after mopping up poor practice in schools, RobustCop could be programmed to clear up exam grading or to "re-educate" wrong-thinking teacher training colleges. He might even keep an eye on the inspectors and their leaders.

But what if RobustCop (as with his cousin before him) comes across something that makes him question the "robustness" of those who created him? What if he learns that many of his remedial actions have been based on poorly researched premises or narrow-minded prejudice? What if he finds that he has left in his wake a generation of robot-students programmed to pass exams without ever really having to think for themselves?

Interestingly, RoboCop's masters tried to build in fail-safes to ensure that he could never turn on them. In the end, it did not work.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire, England

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