I visited Slovenia for an education conference last week. As part of the visit, I was let loose in the classroom.
It didn’t take long to completely forget that I was in another country. One group of 13-year-olds feels very much like another: the surreptitious gum-chewing, the wild enthusiasm from many, the deep suspicion of strangers from others, the curiosity about football teams supported, cars driven, pets owned and whether cats are indeed better than dogs.
Outside the classroom, I talked to a group of teachers about what distinguishes the English education system from many others. (I’m consciously referring to “England” rather than the UK here, because there are clear distinctions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.)
There were many rich observations, including the sheer celebration that is staff CPD, and perceptions of Ofsted. But the most notable found its root in this key question: “If a child does not fulfil his or her potential in an exam (excluding factors like illness or disaster), whose fault is it?”
Teacher responsibility for results
To our Slovenian colleagues, the answer is quite clear: the responsibility lies with the young person and, to an extent, the family.
I alluded to the fact that teacher pay and performance measures are (at least in part) linked to students’ test results. This is something that we take entirely as a given here in England, but was greeted with a high degree of bemusement by my audience.
“So,” asked one, “could you explain a bit about how that works?”
At this moment, it was a bit like guiding the others out of the back of the wardrobe into a land that, for all its familiarity, was suddenly quite surreal.
“Well,” I began confidently. “At GCSE level, it’s quite simple. There’s a basic performance measure for schools, which is defined by five or more passes, including English language and maths… umm. So a pass used to be a C and now there’s some debate over whether a pass is a grade 4 or a grade 5, because one is a ‘standard pass’ and one is a ‘good pass’.”
Shuffling. You know that moment when you feel you’re losing your audience?
“Honestly,” I said, “everyone understands it.”
I’m a bit less confident now. Remarkable as it seems, this is not something I’ve ever tried to articulate out loud, even though it has been part of my daily role.
A Slovenian teacher interjects at this point: “So, erm…how are individual teachers responsible?”
“Ah!” I’m finding my feet again. “Every teacher has a target for each individual student, and the class as a whole, for who needs to get a 4, a 5, a 9 and sometimes other grades, too. We track and monitor, usually using traffic-light colours, and our success is based on how many students are ‘yellow’ or ‘green’…and for ‘red’ students we do intervention and stuff.”
Audience members look confused, possible envisioning a multicoloured classroom. “How do you know what a child ‘should’ get?”
“Well, students are tested at primary school and at the beginning of secondary, and all their results go into a kind of, erm, machine thing, and this generates a target based on their potential…and we use these at individual student level, class level and school level to know how well teachers (and students) are doing.”
“And how do you know what to test them on?”
I mention standardised tests and testing bodies.
“And how do you know all teachers are testing them in the same way?”
I tell them about moderation and external markers.
“And how do teachers decide on the final grade?”
“Oh!” I say. “They don’t. Exam boards do that, because teachers aren’t qualified to. Umm…”
Cottage cheese dumpling, anyone? The day shifts awkwardly and blessedly onto local specialities for lunch.
During lunch, another teacher comes to see me. “How do you ensure plenty of students study a language?”
There’s this thing called the EBacc, I say. It’s another performance measure. At which point I turn to the pickled cabbage, lest one of our brains explode.
Now, these levels of accountability for performance are things that I’m so used to, and I’m not necessarily saying they’re entirely a bad thing – the role of the teacher in promoting success for students is absolutely key.
But when you find yourself suddenly realising just how ludicrous it all sounds when explained to others completely unfamiliar with such a system (ie, most of Europe), surely this raises some crucial questions about where we’re expending our energy as teachers and leaders and how we truly measure success in schools?