In a recent BLOG, Sam Freedman commented on a speech made by Professor Robert Coe and described the possibility that standards are not improving in education. I must admit some scepticism about the data used to justify that view, however, it is an important contribution to the educational debate.
The concept of, “improved standards” is value-laden; however, you cannot ignore the fact that few teachers I have met believe that the “year in, year out” increases in qualification success achieved prior to the current administration was being matched by a similar improvement in knowledge or cognitive development.
Grade inflation is a problem. My main concern is that it has a negative effect on the status and professionalism of teachers. Our work with learners is trivialised by it and it also facilitates institutions to marginalise the role of the teacher. Quite simply, if everything is improving why pay teachers more and seek better methods of teaching and learning.
Interestingly those issues which do contribute to improving standards but are less easy to measure such as non cognitive skills; behaviour, attendance etc have shown some improvement. The question posed is whether there is something wrong within educational institutions.
So to make it clear I am not passing comment here on whether standards have stagnated, or otherwise, rather on the issue of increased qualification success not being matched by improved standards; grade inflation.
Here are a few reasons why it happens and the problem it causes:
1) The marketisation of assessment and curricula: the producer – consumer model
Marketisation of exams boards and curriculum development has left both assessment and curricula weakened as the companies that develop exams have been left to manage their own customer relationships with schools and colleges. Qualifications have become unreliable methods of assessing standards. In the Producer – consumer model there is no incentive to improve teaching and learning. The link between qualification and standards does not exist.
The educational market is based on qualifications not improving educational standards.The qualification has the social capital not the knowledge, or skill, it represents. How do market mechanisms work to improve esoteric issues such as improved standards? The product that has been commoditised are qualifications not improved standards.
This has led many organisations that are the consumers of the skill, or knowledge, as opposed to say the qualification such as business organisations, to question the validity of the education system.
2) OFSTED has simply not delivered quality assurance or enhancement
The obvious solution to the problem outlined in point 1 is the implementation of quality enhancement systems and an effective sector watchdog. The sector watchdog, OFSTED, is constantly under pressure from politicians and as a consequence it has become a heavily managed, and politicised, organisation. It is very convenient for politicians, and OFSTED, to claim improved standards when all that has happened is grade inflation. In fact OFSTED, and the observation culture, is partially a tacit acceptance that no one really trusts the data.
OFSTED is a quality assurance mechanism, as opposed to quality enhancement, often citing its own data as a reference to improving or diminishing standards. Without some kind of objective way of measuring the link between qualification data and improving standards it is difficult for watchdog’s like OFSTED to be held accountable.
The qualification data of individual institutions impacts upon the grades awarded to it by OFSTED. The question is, if there is no meaningful way of measuring improved standards, just what does an OFSTED grade mean?
3) The ineffective nature of hierarchical institutions
As previously stated hierarchical institutions can be ineffective. Functions such as quality and professional development can become conduits of institutional process, focusing on generating data institutions need for external bodies like OFSTED rather than improving teaching and learning. Quality systems do not feed into practice they simply strive to generate the data required to second guess OFSTED. Teachers and students become victims of an alienating process that they regard as serving little purpose.
Educational institutions have been playing the OFSTED game but what does that game mean when it’s not clear that the OFSTED grades awarded have any relationship with improving standards?
4) Government policy has not delivered better teaching and learning
Recent government policy has fractured the system rather than focusing on teaching and learning. Structural change does not deliver better teaching and learning. Previous governments conflating education with social provision has not helped either.
Neo-liberal ideology has over simplified the problems and policy makers have not put in place appropriate systems to ensure that qualification success equates to improving standards or alternatively accepted that it’s not possible and laid out an alternative vision for education.
Government policy sees education as a conduit for ideology and not teaching and learning. The problem is now too big for one party to resolve; grade inflation simply vindicates policy and, of course, ideology Politicians are happy enough not to shine too bright a light on their own policies and whether those policies are, in fact, really improving standards.
5) An institutional knowledge deficit
There is a knowledge deficit in education, quite simply too many people do not know enough about pedagogy. This hampers any attempts to improve teaching and learning. Hierarchies of the knowledge-less don’t deliver in the learning environment they just create cultures where personal status and ambition has little correlation with improving standards.
In any case there has been no need. Institutions have been game playing with statistics for a long time. The vocational qualification “opt out” in secondary schools was a useful tool to manage border line cases to success. Vocational qualifications do not have any external exams and whilst it’s not clear that external exams have any relationship with improving standards there was at the very least some oversight.
Admittedly it’s harder now the vocational qualification “opt out” has been removed but there are many ways to improve the statistics. As a big fan of vocational qualifications it was sobering to see them used for the purpose of data management. And for many schools in good catchment areas achieving “good enough” was easy enough anyway.
In education being good with data is an easier and cheaper way of being successful than the long haul of improving standards.In other words there is a knowledge deficit because there has been no need to resolve it.
6) The institutionalised cult of compliance and unprofessionalism
The education system for long periods, particularly under the last government, focused on managerialism and process losing sight of it’s core business, teaching and learning. Grade inflation meant that there was not enough scrutiny of leadership or institutional processes.
Often the responsibility of teachers has simply been to supply senior leaders with the data to manage OFSTED. The energy of leadership and funding has not distributed down the hierarchical chain because the relationship between OFSTED and the institution usually resides at the top of hierarchies.
This has led to a culture of compliance where replicating the hierarchy has become more important than teaching and learning. There is little respect for the role of the teacher because teaching is seen as a process driven consumer model whereby knowledge is simply transmitted to learners.
This attitude has been facilitated by the fact that educational institutions have been able to rely on grade inflation and have not had to improve standards.
7) The Gap between research and practice
The well documented Gap between research and practice says much about the problems of teaching and learning. Educational research is now an “institution in itself” seemingly divorced from policy, teaching and the educational institutions they serve.
The reason why the investment in education may not have contributed to improved standards is due to the fact that education does institutions, it doesn’t do teaching and learning. Energy and investment ebbs away down a hierarchical chain. Policy responses have usually involved changing the name or status of the institution in some way.
A market ideology which regards the institution as producer, the teacher as factory line worker and students as the customer has exacerbated the problem by trivialising the importance of the teacher-student relationship. This is not a problem that chains of academy institutions will improve, it just creates more vested interests.
Like Professor Rob Coe I remain hopeful but investment needs to be made directly into the teacher and student relationship. Questions should be asked about those functions, which cannot demonstrate value to the learning environment and whose commitment is to institution, or institutional value, and not improving standards.
In the end any sector that can delude itself that it is improving product when it clearly isn’t, or at least isn’t to the degree the claim is being made, has serious questions to answer. If you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth.
It isn’t a co-incidence that qualification achievement has not been matched by improving standards. It’s not been in anybody’s interest to highlight it. In a system where data is used to hold institutions to account it is problematic that often the data is completely meaningless; the cynic might say conveniently so.
The question still remains as to what, if anything, all this measuring and quantifying is achieving if, at the end of it all, no one is any the wiser?