Friday, 22 August 2014

The Coalition's crop...

It occurred to me this morning that the Year 11 cohort of 2014 are the Coalition's crop. They were in Year 7 when this parliament began and are leaving Year 11 as it draws, leisurely, to a close.

I was a Year 7 student in a comprehensive in the north of England on the day that Mrs Thatcher resigned in 1990. It was an English lesson (we were probably tackling a whole class reader under the direction of our enemy-of-progress in chief) and I vividly recall the door being flung open by a gleefully excited Head of Geography. 'She's resigned!!!' he shrieked. And we cheered, all of us, throatily and mightily with what felt like a collective, visceral understanding that this was joyous news to be shared and savoured*.

Point of the story is that I suspect many children currently in schools will remember Michael Gove as a similarly significant folk villain of their school days. Like Thatcher, indeed like any radical, his legacy is significant because of the amount that he managed to get done in the time he had. He did so much that he can't help but have done some good. History (and the fiscal and moral balance sheets of several Academy Trusts in ten years' time) will be the judge of that.

But those tremulous Thursdays in August are when we teachers and school leaders are judged. And the reckoning can be rather high; this year higher than ever as the 'outcomes' handed down to our students are for the first time explicitly linked to pay progression in the Autumn. The government's shameful abrogation of responsibility over the implementation of that particular piece of professional vandalism will haunt schools for years to come. The lack of guidance, oversight and direction on precisely how and against what 'performance' should be measured and judged on or by was as deliberate as it is revealing. Teachers around the country working in less enlightened professional environments will find themselves being censured and financially penalised for a perceived failure to reach statistically pantomimic targets that nobody properly understands. The 'turbulent' (for 'turbulent' read manipulated and farcical) movements in GCSE results we saw yesterday are the result of the combined stupidity of knee-jerk political tinkering and the imposition of 'comparable outcomes' on what had hitherto been a criterion referenced examination. Only 'resilient' schools, children and teachers can successfully navigate such conditions.

Which brings me to the constructive point I wanted to make. Resilience is a word you hear a lot more these days than you used to. I like it as a word and as an attribute actually, although it is an abstract noun used liberally in a very concrete world. Reports yesterday talked about how schools that had a culture of re-sitting or that had been 'gaming' the system would be most heavily affected by the changes. In reality, those most harmed when goalposts are shifted are those for whom it is always hardest to score. They need the most training and guidance and have a tendency to give up or go home without the certainty and direction of a confident manager. The resilient children and schools will find the net, the fragile and less robust will miss or fall away.

Don't blame schools for doing their best to thoroughly coach and train disadvantaged children or those lacking in the support of confidence to imagine a well educated and qualified future for themselves. Don't be surprised when a profession with the moral purpose, intellect and drive that teachers possess does everything it can to understand how, when and why you want to assess their students. If gaming the system means doing everything I can to understand the criteria and maximise my students' ability to meet that criteria, then pass me the dice and pour me a bourbon.

What the government have done with their most reductive and underhand reforms (such as the removal of Speaking and Listening as an assessed element of GCSE English) is seek to change the rules at half time. It is they who have turned assessment in England into a game and it has been done precisely because they believe standards will only be seen to have risen when more people fail. More people failing means that only the most resilient and resourceful will pass.

In this country being resilient too often means being wealthy or possessed of parents with ambition and aspiration for you. The 'reforms' we saw playing out yesterday harmed most those without these gifts of fortune.

Those possessed of aspiration often develop strong resilience and that is a worthwhile lesson for schools: there are many examples of schools doing extremely well not because they have discovered a magic pedagogical formula (although sometimes they seem to have been drinking their own snake oil and believe they have) but principally because they are excellent at breeding a sense of confidence and resilience through their systems, rhetoric and competence. Through their leadership.

I'd far rather we had a reliable, stable and criterion referenced examination system free of political interference. I'd like assessment to be tougher; I want children to gain deeper knowledge and be possessed of finer skills when they leave school. But we don't have that. Instead we have a tatty, tinkered with and tired mess of a 'game'. And as long as the government continues to treat assessment like a political game, wise, ambitious and resilient schools need to behave like players.

* If that anecdote makes you sneer and think less of the people in that classroom then you probably didn't grow up in a coal mining area of the north of England in the 1980s. If you did and you still sneer then my blog probably isn't for you. It was a big deal - she'd done nothing for us and we were right to celebrate. Game of fistycuffs to anyone who wants to disagree.

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