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Drowning in Numbers

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This feature of the blog is a continuous exchange of correspondence between Graham Birrell and Sam Freedman. Graham is a Senior Lecturer in Primary Education at the Canterbury Christ Church University; Sam is Director of Research, Evaluation and Impact at Teach First, and before that a Policy Advisor to Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education.

Graham and Sam first started talking on Twitter (@tothechalkface and @samfr) where, although it was always evident they had clearly contrasting philosophies, there was no doubting either’s principles or genuine commitment to creating the very best education system possible. In extending their conversation into a longer form Graham and Sam want to discuss their viewpoints in more depth, not necessarily to entrench their positions, but to see if through dialogue it is possible to reach any consensus or shared outlook.

So much of education debate is polarised – would our whole education system be improved by people and groups who take very different perspectives starting a conversation to see if there are ways forward that everyone can get behind?

(Sam and Graham are writing here in a personal capacity and their views do not necessarily represent those of the University or of Teach First.)


Dear Sam

The current education system has an overload of numbers.

Numbers in a pileEverywhere you turn, there they are: from the percentage of passes at GCSEs, to SATs results, to Ofsted grades, to PISA scores, it just goes on and on. The amount of numerical data published on each school is mind blowing, if not mind numbing. The other day I downloaded the glossary for the different categories of data that are available for each school – it came to five pages. Five pages. This was just the labels of the data, not even the data itself.

I have a large number of concerns about the use of numbers in education, but let me focus here on just one – how a very large percentage of the numbers are generated: tests.

Has the use of testing to generate data become so pervasive that we now only value what we can measure in them? Does this in turn mean that we place more emphasis on an accumulation of bite-sized information than we do on concepts such as originality, criticality, independent thinking, lateral thinking, creativity and investigation? Where do working with others, questioning and leadership come into it?

In their submission to the DfE on the call for evidence ahead of the new national curriculum, the Cambridge Primary Review team wrote that: ‘while England’s best primary schools will always provide both breadth and excellence, an unacceptably large number will reduce the curriculum to what is required and/or tested.’ I am quite sure the same is also true for Secondary schools.

Sadly there is also clear evidence that pupils have been significantly affected by the focus on tests as the be all and end all of education. In a systematic review of nineteen studies on the effect of high stakes testing it was found that an increase in testing reduced pupils’ intrinsic motivation and re-orientated their desire to ‘performance rather than learning goals.’ Furthermore, the study found that high stakes testing was having a significant impact on teaching, with highly-structured and transmissive approaches becoming more common.

The consequences of a high stakes testing regime are revealed in classrooms around the country in what are perhaps the six most depressing words a teacher can hear: ’will this be on the test?’ These six words are a damning indictment of the damage our testing and accountability system has done to what ‘an education’ means.

As well as restricting ‘an education’ to what is on a test paper, we are limiting it to which subjects in particular are valued most. As Wyse et al (2008) put it: ‘the current intense focus on testing and test results in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science is narrowing the Curriculum and driving teaching in exactly the opposite direction to that which research indicates will improve learning and attainment.’

I think that for schools to facilitate ‘an education’ they should encourage taking risks, push boundaries and be innovative with teaching approaches; but it takes a very brave school to take risks when such an approach might imperil their bottom line. Resorting to teaching to the test is a natural response in this situation.

Education by numbers is about as effective as painting by numbers: everything is roughly in the right place, but there is no real artistry, no flair, no imagination, no individuality, no independence, no depth of colour or shade or texture. It’s not really ‘an education’ at all.

I think it’s time to start rolling back on our use of numbers and start recognising that they have done significant damage to our education system. However, with ever higher floor targets I fear the very opposite will happen and schools will resort even more to a safety-first approach where the rising numbers may suggest a better education, when in truth the very opposite has happened.

Best wishes,



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