This feature of the blog is a continuous exchange of correspondence between Graham Birrell and Sam Freedman. For previous articles in the series, see the Shifted page.
You seem to be wanting to take a rather, if I can borrow a phrase, Apollonian or Dionysian path with your latest piece. To clarify my position on accountability, along with all Head Teachers I’ve ever spoken to, I’m more than happy for schools to be accountable to the children and families that they form a community with. Nevertheless, no doubt there will be pretty clear disagreement between us on how to judge when accountability becomes punishment. I also don’t see forcing schools to become academies and creating a climate where Head Teachers are in fear of their jobs as being particularly ‘collaborative’; furthermore, it’s also not clear that the type of punitive ‘turn-around’ model the government advocate is of long term benefit.
My point, and apologies if I’ve not made this clear enough, is the highly detrimental effect the high accountability and data-driven regime is having on schools and on education. I’ve looked at ways this is happening in my other pieces, but for the rest of this one, I’d like to look at a process that I think is particularly damaging. The process comes from the constant need for schools to show ‘progress’ and for pupils to take a childhood-ignoring upward path to ever greater scores on tests. It comes in three parts:
- Fear because schools are scared of what will happen the next time Ofsted come calling (keeping them in perpetual sense of anxiety about when this may be is also a contributing factor). This effect has recently, in my opinion rightly, been labelled as having a toxic effect on schools and education and is having a highly damaging impact upon staff. This constant anxiety then leads to:
- Safety First teaching and learning, where the quickest and safest paths to ‘guaranteed outcomes’ are taken. Any teaching that may be deemed as ‘risky’ and with the slightest chance of failure is discouraged or eradicated, when what is valued are lessons with short-sharp doses of easily digestible (and testable) nuggets of knowledge. Teaching becomes dominated not by what is right, but what will be tested. Unfortunately, research suggests this is especially the case in schools with children who are less likely to do well on national tests and thus are even less likely to take risks. A constant diet of highly structured, technocratic, numbers-obsessed teaching then leads to the final part of the process:
- Dehumanisation – after all if the process is robotic, then what you need aren’t fallible humans, you need machines. Either you get humans to be more machine-like in their teaching (eg item 2) or you actually replace them with machines full stop. Reducing the role of universities in teacher education and removing the need for QTS are part of this process (after all, teaching’s not that hard is it?), but the bigger story here is the slow, but inexorable rise of Taylorism in education. Modern schooling resembles a production line, because in too many cases it is a production line.
As I said in my last post, used wisely, data, especially qualitative data, can drive learning. However, used poorly it is also the oil that drives a scientific management approach. If the system is all about analysing data, the production of that data takes priority, and above all else the data must go up.
So in summary, I’m not saying we should remove accountability and I’m not saying we should remove data. But I do think we need to find ways to lessen the damaging effects that I’ve described, which unfortunately have quite a long history now. I want my children taught in schools with climates of confidence, with teachers who are constantly innovating and who are above all human – I’m sure you do too.