Sunday, 7 May 2017

Education: more than just a numbers game

Before he became the world's favourite football pundit, Gary Neville actually played football. Quite well. And I remember reading an article in which he said that, the morning after every game, he always looked in the papers to see what score he'd been given. If you're not a football nerd, you might not know that sports journalists often rate player performance in a game out of ten. And Gary loved it. Even though he knew it was nonsense. He knew it was impossible to look at his performance over 90 minutes in one match and come to a definitive conclusion as to how good he was at football. Yet, still he was desperate to know that score. He knew it was weird, but he couldn't help it. 

Now, arguably there's no meaningful comparison to make between this and educational assessment. I mean, football is a complex, multifaceted endeavour, requiring, as it does, players to not only run, but also kick and even occasionally head the ball. It's understandable that someone might question the validity of reducing that to a single digit score. However, let's indulge the conceit and pretend that the charge of oversimplification can be applied equally to 11 years worth of formal education as to a football match, and think about what that means. Gary Neville knew that score out of 10 didn't validly represent how well he had played in that game, let alone how good a footballer he was. It was no use to him as a means of understanding his strengths or weaknesses. It was of no benefit to an opposing manager who might be interested in buying him: "I need someone who's really good at heading a ball, I'm not so bothered about running. How about Gary Neville?" " He's an 8." "What does that mean?" "He's an 8. Or, at least he was in one game, last week."

It is time to be honest: it is stretching credulity further than I'm stretching this nonsensical football metaphor to think that a list of numbers on a piece of paper represents somebody's education. It is of no benefit to the child, to a university or an employer. It says nothing about what a person knows, what a person can do or what a person could perhaps do. Yet we can't let it go. Read any research into assessment and you'll see: as soon as a teacher puts a grade on a piece of work, the child ignores any comment, despite the fact that it's the comment which will actually help them improve. It's almost as if it's impossible to imagine any other way. 

But there is another way. My son is two and a half and goes to nursery near where we live. The wonderful people who look after him there have a sheet they use to tell us how he's getting on: the EYFS standards. I don't know much about it, but it seems to broadly set out a load of things under different headings which he should be able to do between 12-36 months. They colour in boxes when they see him doing stuff and they give us a copy and, because I'm a pushy middle class parent, I force him to do all the stuff they haven't coloured in at home, colour in my copy and tell them they need to update theirs. It's awesome. And, when he wasn't walking at 15 months when heaps of babies walk much earlier, it calmed me down to see his sheet had lots of coloured in boxes in other areas. It also meant that they could say to me that I shouldn't worry, that everyone develops in different ways and at different speeds and that he'd work out walking in his own time. Which is lucky because, if they'd told me he was "below target" or "working towards target" in walking, I might have renounced a lifetime of pacifism and punched someone on the nose. 

I'm not sure it is such a stretch to imagine each subject area coming up with a sheet of things you need to know to understand that subject, or to imagine a way you could use that to assess people. You don't need a number to know what you can and can't do or what you do or don't know. We need to change the focus of our system from one obsessed with numbers to one obsessed with what children know and what they can do. To stop it being an examination system and start it being an education system. Until the question stops being what did I get, and starts being what do I know and what can I do then the system is doomed to gaming, stress and hysteria. Gary Neville knows, but he isn't going to be Secretary of State for Education any time soon. So we need to find someone to do something about it. Only, it can't be me: I'm off to find an 11+ tutor who doesn't think it's too late to start training my son.