Roll up for the annual jamboree: stick a number on that child

Posted on May 11, 2023

The evenings lengthen, birdsong trills, the air is milder. All of which means that it’s time to classify our children. Time to distil everything they are and what we want them to be into a set of numerical or alphabetical indices.

Educators agree that it’s essential to find out what young people know, understand and can do. Once we’ve established this, it’s our duty to use this knowledge to discover ways of developing their talents and abilities. Assessing their capacity and needs is vital: the cruel shame is that we are hobbled with a regime of tests and exams that is hopelessly unsuited to doing so.

Using pretty much the same narrow band of subjects as we have done for over a century, we tell all children that they must be tested all together in the same way at the same time. To keep it  nice and simple, these exams and tests are designed for ease of assessment, meaning that privatised companies can use non-specialist labour to apply rigid mark schemes, unencumbered by any application common sense, nuanced judgement or, heaven forbid, plain old knowledge.  The generation of that final grade is all that counts, after all.

The upshot of this reduction of school to a thin, measly diet of exam preparation is that significant numbers of our children are unhappy with their lives and even more are unhappy with school. The UK’s children rank 16th of the world’s 29 richest countries in terms of wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, there is a clear correlation in levels of discontent with school and social deprivation.  Along with everything else it’s failing to do, the testing regime is most definitely not achieving any levelling up.  

It can hardly be a surprise when young people cotton on to the fact that they’re fodder for the sausage machine. When they pass through the school gates in the morning, they’re likely to be confronted with a banner displaying images of shiny, happy pupils, delighted to be basking in a school bearing Ofsted’s seal of approval. This crude, inaccurate method of the simple stamp has always been despised by anyone with knowledge of pedagogy or child development. The recent tragic consequences of its careless bungling prompted no rowing back from the zealots in high office.

As with all practically all public servants, teachers have been forced into industrial action in the vain hope that their political masters might finally understand the mess they’ve created. Postal workers, nurses, doctors, ambulance staff, civil servants, university lecturers and a whole range of others working for the public are trying not just to look after themselves and their working conditions: they are attempting to protect and preserve the very service they provide. Unfortunately, the tin ears of those they’re trying to convince are attached to the heads of a different sort of species.

It’s not just that the reaction of Sunak and his lame coterie is to reach for a gimmick in place of a policy. With education, this peaked with the daft suggestion that everyone do maths to the age of 18 when most schools were scouring the globe to find a single specialist. This imperviousness stems from looking at the world in a very singular way.

Let’s start with the notion of delivery. Successive Tory and Labour governments have promised the delivery of services as if those services were pre-packaged, ready-made, off-the-shelf commodities. If, as they have done, they apply this thinking to education, then the goods need to be pre-prepared and, once ready for delivery, poured into the waiting receptacles in the form of children. It’s best not to make the goods too varied or complex. Doing so would make life difficult for the manufacturers – the publishers who knock out the homogenised textbooks as well as the privatised exam boards who are charged with devising quick and easy assessment.

Along with the notion of delivery, goes that of acquisition. Education becomes a private good to be acquired and to be used for the promotion of the self. This means that the grade becomes the sole purpose of the enterprise: anyone expressing surprise or disappointment that students – at any level – are disinclined to engage with the actual content of what happens in class, might need to keep reminding themselves of this.

While we chivvy our children along this relentless, unforgiving production line, our universities also look to the ‘pile ‘em high, teach ‘em cheap’ model. The notion that the undergraduate student is anything other than a customer, deserving of value for money and agreed outcomes, has been fully entrenched for over a decade.  Value for money – honest taxpayers’ money – is the driving force behind these attitudes. What, our political masters ask us, could be more justifiable than that?

Because you’ll want to know, there is an alternative. We could have a teaching profession charged with oversight of a varied, multifarious model of assessment. As it happens, the growth of AI will accelerate the need for this, particularly, but not exclusively, in higher education.  For such a system to work, and to avoid squeals about malpractice, we’d need to rethink the way in which a child’s ‘score’ becomes a commodity to be traded in a competitive market.  We could focus on how we nurture talent and address need because, goodness knows, with a burning planet and withering democracy (just think of arrest for unloading a placard) our young people face a bumpy future.

Or we could keep churning out the numbers, depressing our children and making money for the edu-business magnates. After all, it seems to be working so very well, doesn’t it?

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