Monday, July 02, 2007

‘Education by Numbers’ by Warwick Mansell

The tipping point for Warwick Mansell, the moment when he asked himself the question, ‘Is it me, or is this not absolutely outrageous?’ came in mid-November 2005 at a £200 per head seminar for French GCSE teachers, organised by one of the examining boards. Over the course of five hours, teachers were given a demonstration of how to cheat their way through coursework, to ‘script’ oral exams and advised not to teach much grammar (there are only a few marks for it). Throughout the day there were references to ‘grim kids’, this from a senior examiner.

‘Education by Numbers’ is a detailed and meticulous demolition job on the ‘exam industry’, which has blighted education in England – schools currently spend £610 million a year on them. The most dispiriting sight in bookshops are the shelves groaning with the revision booklets, as though knowledge can be distilled into that one volume.

Where has high stakes testing led us? Imagine you are an eleven year-old girl called Michelle and you are taking your exams in Maths, English and Science, on your results depend the future of your teacher, headteacher, local authority chief education officer, directors of the various national strategies and ultimately the Education Secretary. No pressure there then!

Chapter by chapter Mansell examines the grisly evidence-

· The narrowing of the curriculum – according to a study by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in 2003 primary schools were spending on average over ten hours a week from Christmas to May cramming children to pass tests in English, Maths and Science (equivalent to almost half of curriculum time).
· Frequent testing reinforces failure for lower ability children, as the London Institute of Education noted, it gave them ‘constant evidence of their low achievement.’
· Grade inflation – a study by David Jesson found that 1 in 6, equivalent to 100,000 children, had higher-level results at Key Stage 2 tests than their teachers believed they deserved.
· Concentration on ‘borderline’ children - close to Level 4 at Key Stage 2 or Grade C at GCSE. Mansell believes there is a good case to answer under Human Rights legislation for other children who don’t receive the same intensive support.
· Use of GNVQs (worth four GCSEs) to inflate results, no one can answer the question why a GNVQ is worth four times more.
· The sheer predictability of tests with the same type of basic questions reoccurring and exam boards colluding with schools to ease pupils’ route to success.
· The scandal of ‘coursework’ where students are spoon-fed information by teachers desperate to keep their department’s scores up to scratch.
· Reliability of results as test scores vary widely between certain exam boards.

Mansell details how it isn’t just the teacher unions that want a change to high-stakes testing, the QCA want modifications, even Ofsted, and the GTC (which has spent years proving there is death after life) has belatedly added its voice to the call for an end to league tables. When he asks the Department for Education what independent evidence there is that ‘standards have risen’ they can’t supply it, they are reduced to the tautology that ‘standards have risen because results have improved and the rise in results show that standards are improving.’

In one chapter Mansell interviews Blairite ideologue Julian Le Grand who advances the notion of ‘producer capture’ to justify accountability and that public servants can be divided into ‘knaves’ and ‘knights’. This chapter is at the end of the book and is a significant weakness. What under pinned the high stakes testing regime that emerged from the 1980s and 1990s?

In this era the myth of ‘falling standards’, the ‘failure’ of comprehensives, professional incompetence and lack of ‘basic skills’ was used to undermine public confidence in education. In its place the proponents of ‘school effectiveness’ promised a technical fix with value for money and ‘accountability’. In education there was the creation of a market with parental ‘choice’, Local Management of Schools, privatisation and the destruction of Local Education Authorities. The audit culture erected common standards (the National Curriculum) targets, performance indicators and gradings for schools. Teachers were now functionaries judged solely by common results and de-skilled and deprofessionalised. The final part of the jigsaw was the creation of Ofsted, with its notion of a ‘zero defect’ guarantee, taken from ‘Total Quality Control’ in private enterprise.

The 1980s and the 1990s ushered in the decline of welfarism and social justice. Both Blair and Clinton extended and widened the attack on public education, the trite slogans ‘Zero tolerance of failure’ and ‘Poverty is not an excuse’ became the campaign catchphrases. Everything was reduced to simple measurable ‘outputs’ that could be mapped on a graph – just read Michael Barber’s account of his time in the Department for Education.

The evidence shows that the Emperor is not just stark naked, he has no moral credibility and has been exposed as a liar, cheat and fraud. Faced with this conclusion Mansell retreats somewhat calling for longer Ofsted inspections and for the retention of the dire National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies for Key Stage 3. The book doesn’t explore how teachers could stop testing, there is no mention of the NUT ballot in 2003 when 86% voted for a boycott, but the turnout was only 34% and it had to be over 50% before action could be sanctioned by the union.

Despite the theoretical limitations ‘Education by Numbers’ chips away brick by brick at the tottering edifice that is high-stakes testing and brings it crashing to the ground. There is an old cliché in education book reviews that ‘every teacher should read this book’. Every teacher should read this book and ask himself or herself the question – How the hell did we let it happen?

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