Wednesday 17 July 2013

Ranking children at 11 - what a waste

The plans announced (leaked?) today about testing 11 year olds are about 'ranking' children. It seems as if the aim is to find the 'top' and 'bottom' 10 per cent.

The idea behind ranking is trying to put human beings, with all their many characteristics, talents and quirks into 'order'. Why? Ultimately, it is in order to serve people with power rather than the totality of those being ranked. That's to say, those in power say that they want or need to select people according to their abilities to work for them. Clearly, if the state (ie our money) pays for the cost of testing everyone, this relieves 'business' of having to do some of this work.

However, ranking ultimately tells a person very little about ability, capability and experience. By its own definition, it's about relative worth: how one person stands in relation to another. Even then, this relative worth has no quantitative measure as it is only 'place' that is recorded. The analogy is a football league where we know who is first, second, third and so on, but we don't know the points difference between. In other words the differences may sometimes be 'significant', at other times they may not. The absurd thing about government or anyone else putting any weight on ranking is that this crucial aspect of testing (in their terms, not mine) is submerged or downgraded.

Then, the key behind any ranking is the question of what is being ranked. We've been told that the focus will be on 'core' subjects - English and Maths. I'm not clear whether the scores in the two subjects are to be amalgamated but I suspect so because that's what this kind of yardstick testing has done time and time again. Clearly, the success rate of students in subjects outside the core when doing GCSEs has irritated the right wing lobby as if doing well in any subject should be something to lament and decry rather than celebrate!

So, what does it mean to focus on the core and amalgamate the results when talking of pupils aged 11? It's been known that one consequence is that it results in a slewing of the results when trying to use them as predictors. We should remember that the history of education is littered with the failure of trying to label pupils at 11 with a view to using their scores as predictors of outcomes at 16 or beyond. My own education - and that of my peers - was heavily disfigured and distorted by that - slotting children into different kinds of schools and fixing people's destinies for years afterwards. Only last week, we had the statistically challenged head of Ofsted misunderstanding what a stat to do with variations between 11 year olds' and 16 year olds' test scores actually signified. He seemed to think that there should be exact correspondence between these test scores whereas the evidence suggests that there is no reason to think that there should be.

One of the reasons why there is variation and non-correspondence is a fundamental misunderstanding about what a human being is. You don't have to go along with everything that Howard Gardner says about 'multiple intelligences' but as a basic sense of how human beings are different, how these differences tend to 'clump' around certain capabilities surely there is something important here. Of course, I would say (wouldn't I?) that the job of education is most certainly not to fix these characteristics as all-defining and permanent, and I would say (wouldn't I?) that we have got nowhere near regarding people's capabilities as having parity of esteem.

In fact, this ranking (and the ranking of secondary schools according to English, Maths and Science scores, is an effort to push education in precisely the opposite direction: downgrading students, teachers and schools in regard of their abilities to do anything well outside of English, Maths and Science.

So, at the heart of this matter of ranking - quite apart from the pernicious element of labelling - is an enforced focussing of education on certain specific capabilities. To tell the truth, I don't think that this is all coming directly from 'business'. Much of this is motivated by feeble-minded electoral opportunism. It sounds 'tough' and 'rigorous' unlike all that other wishy-washy stuff outside of English and Maths. I mean to say, who wants people who are strong on compassion, curiosity, interpretation, invention and co-operation? I mean, when has civilisation ever needed such useless qualities? No, civilisation has advanced through focussing on learning by rote and performing fixed procedures accurately ie doing what you're told. And that is precisely how the enforced emphasis of ranking - based on this particular core - will impact on education.

I'm looking forward to reading how Clegg and Gove are going to explain (in their terms)  how 'Britain'  or 'this country' (when they mean England) is going to progress with the emphasis on the 'core' distorting education so much.