Judging Schools on Attainment Results is Educationally Ignorant

As many may have noticed my tolerance level of political interference in education is at an all-time low. However, it is easy to criticise those in power (actually, very, very easy at the moment!) so perhaps it is time to give politicians who are meant to be looking after our education system some well-intentioned, non-political advice.

Nicola Sturgeon has actually asked to be judged on her ability to reduce the ‘attainment gap’. The First Minister is absolutely right to focus on this area. So what is the ‘attainment gap’? Currently, Scotland languishes near the bottom of this particular performance indicator internationally. That is to say, the attainment gap between our poorest and most affluent pupil base. Two local authority schools, separated by a mere 7 miles, in Glasgow and East Renfrewshire, illustrate this. One recently had 0% of its pupils attaining 5 Highers or more by the end of S5 whilst the other had 48% of its pupils achieving exactly that. These attainment disparities are nothing short of a national disgrace and an unacceptable iniquity.

The Government, however, is in very real danger of seeing this attainment gap widen. That would be a disaster for the First Minister but also for the nation’s children. All Scottish children should have the opportunity of a first-class education but few, it would seem, are receiving it.

Politicians assume that to improve it that they need to pore over lots of data. Unfortunately, you cannot judge an education system on data. I received an absolutely first class education and when faced with 9 O-Grades, passed a mere 4. You can imagine my parents’ joy and pride…

And therein lies the problem. I was, at 15, bone idle and did not appreciate that to pass the exam an element of hard work was required – nobody had ever thought to mention that to me (not abdicating fault, just the reality). Did this data evidence mean that my school and my teachers were ‘unsatisfactory’? No, of course not. I was at fault.

Seeking ‘evidence’ of educational quality from attainment results is educationally ignorant.

The problem is that HMIe, Education Scotland, Local Authority Education chiefs and Government Ministers are focusing on that attainment almost solely. Of course, human nature will mean that Head Teachers will ensure that their attainment figures improve or, at the very worst, remain stable.

In practice, this will cause schools (particularly high-performing ones) to create circumstances which ensure pupils that may fail an exam are not allowed to sit the exam. We see this already – the stakes are so high that the less academic pupils are being side-lined or presented for examinations at a lower level than they could potentially achieve. Why? Because schools are being judged and scrutinised on their attainment figures. Heaven help the Head whose school’s attainment figures drop…

Furthermore, cuts to budgets that remove auxiliaries, employ fewer teaching assistants, remove free musical tuition, undermine schools’ creative arts provision and see the arts in general as ‘peripheral’ subjects, do not help.

And at the other end of the social divide, pupils will continue to attain poorly. So, in essence, the gap will widen and I can guarantee that this scenario WILL happen. So what’s the reality?

If a child learns because he has been told to by a higher authority; if a child does not develop their own work ethic; if a child attends a school where she feels frightened or insecure or unsupported: then each of these children will achieve less than their potential.

In other words, the sole focus in Scottish schools should be on the development of a positive culture in a safe environment where learning is engaging and enjoyable. HMIe should be inspecting schools on that basis and that basis alone. At a recent inspection, I was told that the pre-visit paperwork I had produced for the inspectors was the least that had ever been produced by any school. The inspectors felt this meant they could not get a ‘feel’ for the school before arriving at it. I think they had a feel for it by the time they departed. We don’t judge a school by reading bits of paper, we judge a school on the experiences of the people who work and study there.

The analogy I often use when discussing this subject with other teachers is in the realm of gardening. The plant grows by being in the right environment, by receiving enough water, by being given just enough sunlight, by being planted in rich earth.

The plant does not develop because you measure its length each day, write down the length on a bit of paper and do likewise with a further 1000 plants until you produce a ruddy graph showing how different plants are doing with different gardeners in different greenhouses before making a series of valued judgements on the quality of each individual gardener and/or greenhouse! Anyone that thought that plant quality was about that particular data-driven evidence would be taken away in a little white van and locked up.

If you get the learning ENVIRONMENT right, attainment will improve. Automatically. Guaranteed.

@ScotGovEdu : ‘You’re welcome’ 🙂