Driving Up Standards – To Where? by Maurice Holt

Managerial talk has become so embedded in education that there’s always some minister or local councillor telling us that the task for schools and teachers is “driving up standards”. The message is crisp, with no explanation – whatever is meant by standards, they are there to be driven up, all the time. There’s no limit to the amount of driving up that teachers and schools must do.  No longer is there talk of improving standards – improvement is much too vague, a matter for nerdy committees to argue over. Where standards are concerned, straight talking is needed.

Until now, I’d always assumed that “driving up” is something a farmer might do in a field with a herd of cows.  It’s clearly all about applying force, urging the weak to yield to the strong.  Educational standards are the stick which teachers must apply to students, beating out of them the results of crude tests – which, thanks to the dire 1988 Education Act, now define educational progress. Numbers are the link with the harsh world of management. No more woolly nonsense like “considerable improvement” or “steady progress”, and if a comment is needed, it is readily harvested from predigested computer programs. Value judgments are vague and imprecise. The only hard currency is numbers.

You might take the view that putting school results in the form of numerical “league tables” will always identify winners and losers, and there could be good contextual reasons why school B is   lower down than school A: it seems unreasonable  to insist that school B must be “driven up”. Not so: this is to misunderstand the government’s concept of a school. The school exists by courtesy of the league tables; it’s essential that students choose the right answer on  multiple-choice tests. If you drive in the basic information, up will come the correct response.

It’s not difficult to see what’s wrong with all this.  The point was made back in the 1960s, in John Holt’s admirable book How Children Fail. He identified “right-answerism” as the prime cause of student failure – a disease that afflicts classrooms where education is seen simply as learning things in order to regurgitate them.   Because if our concern is with understanding, we have to dig deeper. In fact for teachers, wrong answers often reveal what the student has failed to grasp. Students succeed by learning from their mistakes, not from memorising Mr Gradgrind’s inert facts.

Note, too, that “driving up standards” implies urgency as well as force. There’s no time for reflection, for pursuing contingent questions. Yet this is precisely what we seek in the concept of the slow school, where understanding is the cardinal object of education. Once the real horrors of test-driven schooling are exposed, the case for slow schools is irresistible.

And suppose the tests are themselves unreliable.  Suppose the exam boards, which are privately owned, compete with each other for business by supplying hints and tips to schools about the content of the exams. Then, at a stroke, the whole concept of standards becomes corrupt.  It now appears that something like this may have been happening in England; that not only might the tests have been dumbed down, their subject-matter might have been implied. If so, it is not surprising: as American experience has shown, the more emphasis given to high-stakes tests, the greater the temptation to massage the results. The whole approach puts professionals under threat, creates a distracting element of competition, and gives schooling a mechanistic character.  But of course, manufacturing tests is a very profitable business.  The only losers are schools, teachers and pupils.

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