Tests are no way to be our own nation again;Platform;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Education is child and parent of culture, not a fantastic re-enactment of global competitiveness, says Ian Stronach

WHAT word has been most commonly used in the annual lectures of the Scottish Educational Research Association over the last 10 years? The answer is "effectiveness". Professors Hargreaves, Tomlinson, Mortimore and Reynolds have all trooped north to sing its praises.

I come to bury it. Recent official reports have all suggested that "effectiveness", "improvement" and "excellence" reflect values "as relevant to modern devolved Scotland as they have been in the past" and are necessary to "underpin economic competitiveness".

I want to persuade you that "Scotland", or that portion of its identity attributable to such visions of a Scottish education, cannot be so reduced to a matter of tradition. "Educational effectiveness" (etc) is not the continuation of the lad o' pairts by other means. Instead, it should be seen as a global rather than a local effect, and as a disfranchisement.

From this perspective, "Scotland" is a postmodern object, an educational "score" and value, caught in a global constellation of league tables, and - of course - in constant threat of relegation. Witness the Scottish Office's recent report, Targeting Excellence: "International studies give cause for concern that our relative standing in key areas may be falling".

These international effectiveness discourses (IEDs) are today the most powerful educational theories in the world. The results of the Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) have dominated political debate about education in many countries, their publication even delayed because of the 1996 US elections.

What sorts of things get said within these effectiveness discourses? The need for education to be "world class", to be competitive: "Be literate and numerate - to a level at or above that of their peers in the rest of the world" (Scotland). "Our national goal . . .

is stated in terms of comparing education in this country against other countries. Our goal is to lead all other nations in the achievement of our pupils in mathematics and science" (US).

Maths and science testing result in global league tables. Educational effectiveness thus both anticipates and simulates economic competition. Education is performed, normed and publicly displayed in an exercise of global equivalences. It's a global audit, based on the hard sciences of testing and statistics, and a necessary preparation for global capitalist competition.

Or is it? Because it is also an immaculately circular argument, where league position becomes purpose, and one that makes astonishing metaphorical leaps. The "eight-year-old Scot" expresses the nation as a Collective Individual. The test item stands for the whole notion and purpose of education, thereby bringing about the accidental death of educational philosophy - the "purpose" of education being reduced to doing better than the rest.

These discourses, then, are a tremendously shaky edifice of mixed metaphors, mathematised and correlated so that figures of speech are magically transmuted into a speech of figures. Mathemythics? (Meanwhile the participants, whether politicians or educators, envisage themselves as modernisers and fail to note they have for some time been inhabiting the postmodern.)

What I call an "eduscape", is a highly mythic transnational representation of a country's educational performance in comparison to its perceived competitors, such as the educational paper tigers of the Far East. It produces educational debates that have all the features of anthropological "spectacle".

They offer a "public display of society's central and meaningful elements" (Beeman), become "obligatory passage points" through which debate must pass (Latour), draw on the "emic" appeal of league tables (Edelman) as a commonsense but crazy evaluation of merit, and offer what Little has defined as a postmodern identity: "self-realisation through the consumption of signs".

All of this fits well with Debord's notion of the "society of the spectacle", and in this game Scotland's educational identity emerges as damagingly underperforming in the light of its mythic reputation for excellence. But bear in mind it is myth calling myth to account.

McAloon studied another kind of spectacle, the modern Olympic Games. Ironic analogies have been drawn between IEDs and the Olympics by a number of commentators, but here no irony is intended. Just as the Olympics are a mixture of philosophy, games, ritual, festival and spectacle, so too is the IED eduscape made up of a mixture of myth, philosophy, ritual and spectacle.

Both are, in MacAloon's terminology, "neoliminal events", characteristic of their times. But they ought to have even more in common, since De Coubertin defined the primary goal of the modern Olympics as educational. The goal was "delivering man from the constituting vision of homo economicus". The IED vision, as we have seen, is precisely the opposite - the uncritical celebration of "Economic Man".

We must hope that the educational effectiveness movement betrays its ideals as thoroughly as the Olympic movement.

So what's the way forward? It's the way back to a recognition that education is both child and parent of culture rather than a fantastic re-enactment of the competitiveness of global capitalism through silly tables and "policy hysteria". We haven't been that sensible since the Munn report in 1977, which for all its conservatism at least knew that it was engaged in a philosophical and cultural task. So let's about turn, and make some real progress.

Ian Stronach is research professor in education, Manchester Metropolitan Institute of Education. His article is a condensed version of an address to the Scottish Educational Research Association in September.

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