Lightbulb #7 – There’s an asset out of containment!

A fairly bizarre combination of factors led to this post. Firstly, a conversation with a pupil. Secondly, this rather thought-provoking article in the Guardian. And thirdly, the recent Jurassic Park reboot. I hope you’re intrigued…

The central premise of Jurassic World, for those who haven’t seen it, is that a large, genetically modified dinosaur goes on the rampage in the now opened and finally lucrative Jurassic World theme park. While Chris Pratt’s down-to-earth, rough-and-ready dinosaur whisperer character sees the monster as a ‘highly intelligent animal’, we are openly invited to criticise the park’s frosty CEO played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who spends much of her time on the phone to shareholders talking about the profit margins generated by the reptilian ‘assets’ in the theme park. She eventually, of course, has her view of the dinosaurs shifted and her ice-age heart melted by Chris Pratt, and it all, after a fair few chompings, ends happily ever after. Prehistoric gender roles aside, it began to strike me that education in the UK is in danger of heading the same way with our attitudes to student data and exam results. Are we heading down the slippery slope where the children are no longer even seen as students, but as assets? And when they fail to meet their target grade, or have to take time off school due to stress, will there be panicked distress signals on satellite phones: “There’s an asset out of containment!”

The conversation with the pupil was briefly, and vaguely, along these lines. This Year 7 pupil, having achieved very pleasing end-of-year exam results, was worried that their propensity to fidget and stare out of the window during lessons was having a detrimental effect on their learning. They are particularly concerned that, as they have quite a high MidYis score, that they were not going to meet their potential. While the maturity of this sort of comment coming from a Year 7 pupil is laudable, what worries me is precisely this: that this is a Year 7 pupil. This particular child, a bright, sparky and energetic student, is already feeling the pressure to match up to their data after just one year at secondary school.

What I fear for all pupils is that they will experience the ‘complete meltdown’ described by the NUT, as quoted in the Guardian article (link above). I am blessed to teach a great group of students who care deeply about their learning and are anxious to do well, but I do have concerns that this anxiety is just a fraction of the sort of pressure that we can expect pupils to feel in times to come. We desperately need to see a radical culture change before our ‘assets’ are dangerously out of containment. And way before that, we need to stop seeing them as assets, as little data-generating robots. I don’t really think it’s any more helpful to call them students or pupils. They are children and young people, and this shift in culture must start from the top of the chain.

In a commendable bid to improve standards, the government are putting forward various benchmark measures to ensure all schools are of a high quality in the UK. So far, so good. As several commentators have pointed out, however, there are some issues with the government’s definition of what is considered ‘good enough’, and a failure to understand that, due purely to the nature of what an ‘average’ is, someone will always be in danger of being ‘below average’. That’s how maths works. Those schools whose data does not show a ‘sufficient’ number of pupils gaining 5 good GCSEs are in danger of a damning Ofsted report and forced academisation.

Of course, this filters into the public perception of what goes on in schools. I would hazard a guess that most of the commenters below the line on the Guardian article linked above have not been at school since they took their last public examination. Their views may well (and I’m in danger of falling into the ad hominem trap, I know), be tainted by rosy-tinted memories of their own school days and assumptions that much is the same today. On the contrary, the quality of research into teaching and, as a result, what we know about effective learning has meant that the quality of teaching is often excellent. But even excellent teachers sometimes have to face the suspicion that they are lazy, incompetent, the ‘blob’, militant and dangerously liberal whenever they open their mouths to defend a professional decision they have made. Unfortunately, the trust in the teacher’s professional opinion has evaporated.

The result of this pressure from above? A need for schools to be accountable, and the only possible way to do this, realistically, is through exam results. So we test the children when they get into school, test them every step of the way, make the assessment criteria really obvious so that the children know exactly what they need to do to get higher marks, measure their progress, add extra points onto their predicted grades so that they are required to aim even higher. Hundreds of numbers fill dozens of spreadsheets and databases, while children no longer bother to read my comments on their work, and only focus on which number they have achieved that week. I remember talking to one student about her work, which I had marked formatively without giving a grade: she asked me what mark it ‘would have got’, following that with ‘I know you don’t like giving marks out but…’. After a little more probing it was revealed that she did not pay any attention to the fact that I had corrected a number of spellings and made clear, concrete targets for improvement. All she wanted was the number.

Most of this, I’m sure, is preaching to the converted. These points have been made elsewhere, and probably far more eloquently. But I’m going to put forward my manifesto for data use in schools.

  1. By all means test students when they start secondary school to get a sense of a benchmark. MidYis, Alis and Yellis and similar systems all provide very useful indicators of how well we can expect students to achieve.
  2. Do not set too much store by these indicators. They are indicators only, pointing towards a possibility. They are not a prophecy or guarantee of what will happen.
  3. While it is impossible to fake a high score, it is easy for students to be apathetic and lazy on the day of testing and do rather badly. We should have high expectations for all pupils, but perhaps view all data with a pinch of salt.
  4. This is perhaps one more for the government: set limits on the number of high-stakes tests before public exams start, and particularly at primary level. They are children, not data-sausages. If extra high-stakes testing is unavoidable, perhaps we should take care how we present it to children, and perhaps also the manner of assessment. Testing doesn’t always have to take place in an exam hall after all.
  5. Perhaps we should reserve the term ‘students’ for university students – in German, for instance, the word ‘Student’ refers to university students only while there is a specific term for school pupil – ‘Schüler’. Perhaps by going one step further and habitually calling our charges ‘children’ or ‘young people’ we might just remember that this is what they are.
  6. Remember that these children have a multitude of other things in their lives beyond school. For some children, we have very little idea of what they are having to contend with at home. Some children have to cope with unimaginable pressures outside the world of school. I’m not, of course, denigrating the importance of what they do in school! I do, however, feel that it perhaps needs to be tempered with an appreciation of what else is going on.

These are small things and they won’t, probably, do much to affect the culture shift needed higher up the chain. My sincere hope for the future is that a modicum of trust might be restored to teachers and their professional judgement, and we might just begin to feel that we don’t have to use the children in our care as ‘assets’ to prove our capability.

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