We all know who to blame

18th September 1998 at 01:00
DID you know that adults who are seven feet tall are three feet bigger than those who are four feet high? Moreover, people who are four feet tall are three feet shorter than those who are seven feet high.

There, I knew you would be shocked. But here is the rub. When those little grown-ups were babies, were they three feet shorter than the big babies? Were they hell. They were probably only about six inches shorter. So clearly they have drifted further apart as they grew - a foot shorter, then 18 inches, two feet. Were they not eating their wheatythings properly?

I blame schools.

That was more or less the reasoning portrayed in press accounts earlier this month of a report stating that differences in the performance of the best and worst schools increased as children got older. Of course they do. It would be astonishing if it were otherwise. The older, bigger, or cleverer you get, the more space there is to be different. A 16-year-old with serious learning difficulties may well be performing like an eight-year-old. It is pretty hard to be eight years below average at the age of seven.

The second criticism aimed at schools was that children at the age of seven are ahead of "expected national standards", whereas at later stages they are behind these expected standards. The assumption seems to be that the test benchmarks originally laid down are perfect measures, therefore any deviation is a sign of failure, or success. But is it?

At a primary school in Birmingham they once entered four of their 11-year-olds for GCSE in maths. All obtained a grade C pass. In other words they performed like above average 16-year-olds, five-plus years better than "expected".

In the key stage 2 national curriculum maths test, however, the same four pupils gained level 5, the supposed achievement of the average 13-year-old. On this thermometer they were a mere two years better than "expected". The scores on two national tests, therefore, varied by more than three years. Yet we are not talking about two different schools, two classes or two year groups. It was the same pupils in the very same month. The identical point can be made about preliminary figures for baseline tests given to five-year-olds on entry to school.

I am in favour of the sensible use of baseline testing, having recommended it for Birmingham when I chaired their education commission five years ago, but only for diagnostic purposes. However, the "norm" and "average" merchants are already out in force. Baseline tests are best guesses at what five-year-old children of different abilities and backgrounds might be able to do on entering formal schooling. Many will be able to count up to 10, tie their own shoe laces. Some will be able to write their own name, the odd one will have translated Schopenhauer into Sanskrit. Others, sadly, will display less intellectual or social skill. As soon as it was revealed that 60 or 70 per cent of five-year-olds could not do some of these things, the "norm" merchants immediately began to accuse them of being "below average" or "failing to meet the expected standards". At least they couldn't blame schools and teachers.

I suppose one of the biggest failures in our educational system is the large number of people who have no comprehension at all of what the term "average" might actually mean. When the first national tests were given to seven-year-olds, roughly 50 per cent scored at level 2, the supposed "average", and 25 per cent at each of levels 1 and 3. It was the sort of distribution you would expect. "A quarter of pupils below average" the headlines screamed (apart from those who wrote "a third of pupils below average").

Clearly the norm merchants will not rest until everyone is well above average, and the word itself finally explodes. I could get to like the idea of blaming people for what is only to be expected, however. It is a really good wheeze. I must give more publicity to some little known sins, and the villains who commit them. Did you know, for example, that:

* most train drivers spend a third of their life asleep, yet they are responsible for our safety; * stupid people have a much lower IQ than clever people; * daily newspapers must be poor, since 99 per cent of people simply throw them away, and some even use them as toilet paper; * Thursday has never once managed to follow Tuesday, as Wednesday has always got in first; * 49 per cent of all bishops are below average.

I blame schools. Might as well.

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