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Education by Numbers

The best piece of art I managed to produce was part of a painting by number kit; my mum and dad bought it for me one Christmas.  The idea was simple; a line drawing where each part had a number, corresponding to a paint colour, you completed bit by bit.  It was mechanistic and whilst leading to a reasonable outcome it wasn’t a masterpiece. 

I enjoy working with other schools when time allows.  It has always been an enriching experience, so far.  Schools I work with tend to be in a bit of difficulty and school leaders are often mandating many things to staff.  Lessons must have this many, think of a number, elements.  Staff must do this or that.  Performance matters; performance is managed and performance is rewarded with pay or lack of it punished with procedures. 

Feeding back to one school, I was delighted to confirm to leaders that I thought they had achieved exactly what they had set out to do; the school was adequate, nothing more and nothing less.  You can’t produce great teaching by numbers; mandating – learning from evidence and others – is what we require at the start of our teaching journey.  Once the basics are in place, we need the space and trust of others to journey to greater heights.  Compliance gets you compliant people not great ones; adequate delivery rather than enriching experiences.

With 75% of pupils to be following the EBacc by 2022 and entered by 2024; 90% by 2025 and entered by 2027, we are entering, or more exactly continuing, the world or education by numbers.  The issue for me is not simply about a one size fits all curriculum; though that concerns me greatly.  It is also one of quality; being required to follow and then being entered says nothing about the lived class room experience.  The appropriateness and rationale of the EBacc defined curriculum, for 90% of pupils; never mind the staffing of it, is too important a debate to be controlled by a few from Westminster.

The main secondary school number provided by Progress 8 is likely to undergo changes.  Whilst it is still the best accountability measure I have experienced as a school leader; outliers, a lack of contextualisation and schools being proportionately responsible for pupils they have educated all need addressing.  Once done, though improved; Progress 8 will only ever tell you about a small part of what an education should be.  It will do it with a measure of statistical reliability; pupils on average made this much progress <gives a number and upper and lower limits of significance> compared to their peers, in eight subjects – some double weighted, certain subjects must be included – from Key Stage 2 SATs at age 11 to GCSE at aged 16 in this academic year.  The inferences drawn need to be precise, limited and tentative; converting the above inference into one that gives the value of a school as “good” or “inadequate” is where the problems start.  Numbers will only ever tell us so much; their purpose is important but will always be limited.  We seem uneasy with this as an education system; the good we do must be measured!  I wonder whether it all has to be; I’m pretty certain it can’t be.

Painting by numbers was never going to lead me to artistic excellence.  Walking in to see Guernica was awe inspiring; the sheer scale of the painting, the detail of the story it told and the emotions it generated was breathe taking.  So it is with a true education.

The current mandating obsession of the few; using accountability to drive their agendas won’t create a great education system.  The canvass on which they can paint is too limited; structures and systems.  Guiding hearts towards service and minds towards the vast richness of human experience is the work of people in schools; you do it so well.  Try as people may quality in the class room cannot be mandated by numbers; it is built on trust, responsibility and integrity.  It is achieved by people.

For the year that has been “thanks; for the year ahead “yes” (paraphrasing an old prayer).  Before that I hope you have the time, space and energy to paint this summer’s canvas red with things that you love to do; with people you love to be with and who loved you and sustained you over the past year.  Thank you C x.



2 thoughts on “Education by Numbers

  1. This is really interesting. Thank you, Stephen. I think my interest comes from the ‘improvement’ angle. I totally agree that the product might be ‘dead’ if it’s made – I can’t even say created – to such prescriptive guidelines. Under such regulation, there’s no room for individual flair, different approaches or risk taking. But that’s the point, I think. Do these schools feel the need to be ‘tight’ before being ‘loose’ in their acceptance of how things are done? I’d be really interested in your thoughts… Is it bad to have consensus, or conformity, if it’s an ‘enforced’ one, if it ensures that things that weren’t being done, and needed to be done, get done? I’m sure in an ideal world, there’s a lot of value in the Austin’s butterfly approach…but schools and teachers, and children, and communities, maybe don’t have the time to develop in a slow, deep way. When you go into schools with your advice about the adequacy of the prescriptive approach, what happens next?

    Posted by misslisa67 | July 22, 2017, 7:49 am
    • Sorry for the delayed response Lisa; I think consistency rather than conformity is key. The former has a quality dimension that the latter lacks but that may be simply how I choose to define the words. The loose/tight thinking is spot on. I’m beginning to wonder whether this is irrespective of Ofsted category and is more to do what staff in schools should collectively do/deal with (collaborative curriculum planning; key assessments; behaviour; attendance come to mind) as opposed to leave to the individual member of staff (pedagogy (as long as it’s effective); minute by minute assessment). It’s in these decisions leaders show their wisdom and lack of it.

      What happens next would be the decision of the school leaders; my purpose is merely to offer a reflection and potential ways forward for consideration. Hope this makes some sense.

      Posted by LeadingLearner | July 25, 2017, 8:42 pm

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