I don’t believe I’ve ever registered on the Richter scale, but I’ve come close. It was a first-aid course, and my mandible had hit the floor with such force that I looked like a real medical emergency to Jim, my resuscitation partner. Being teachers (secondary in my case, primary in his) we’d been discussing reading recovery: you know, that doohickey schools are supposed to provide when they find that students’ reading abilities are markedly lower than most in their age group. A recent career-changer into education, Jim had done a lot of research on reading recovery programmes and enthused about one in particular, before telling me that his school would not be investing in it. Prohibitively expensive, I assumed.
No and yes. Financially, the scheme was affordable. However, Jim’s headteacher had decided not to buy the programme because of one, overriding fact: eleven year olds need not be entered for the SATs exams that mark the end of their primary education, if they are working below National Curriculum Level 2. A primary school’s position in the league tables rests, to a considerable extent, on how its Year 6 students fare in these tests, and the government’s expectation is that they will have reached Level 4 when they take them.
Children working above Level 2, but unlikely to reach Level 4 by the time the SATs come round – those who have fallen behind in reading, for instance – are, therefore, potential blots on their schools’ statistics. Safer, then, to ensure that they do not reach that crucial Level 2 threshold, and can be excluded from the number-crunching altogether. To put it more succinctly, league tabling led Jim’s headteacher to actively deny the most needy students additional support. This was the point at which half of my teeth declared independence from the rest of my face. In his first year, Jim is already regretting his career switch.
Looking across the Atlantic, we should have seen this coming. In 1996, the Chicago Public School system introduced its ‘high-stakes’ testing regime, under which schools with low reading scores would face probation or closure – naming and shaming with the added oomph of imminent unemployment. Data gathered from Chicago schools showed a marked surge in cheating around 1996, particularly by teachers with low-scoring classes. With the passage of 2002’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ laws, the pressure on American schools to produce results increased. And so too did the frequency and variety of staff malpractice.
In response to a comparably punitive regime of floor targets, league tables and politicised Ofsted inspections, many British schools now boast huge and rapid leaps in pass rates, and confidently commit themselves to “year-on-year improvement”. A cursory glance may suggest that accountability measures are achieving the intended results; a closer look, and a few awkward questions on how some schools manage these extraordinary turnarounds, may not. Are these apparent successes really due to the saintly ministrations of ‘superheads’ and the efforts of inexhaustibly boingy teachers, happily working ever-longer days, weeks and terms? And what do the methods employed in pursuit of improved results bequeath to other parts of the education system, and beyond?
Imagine a staffroom populated by cadavers one year, and live teachers with discernible pulses and functioning respiratory systems the next. In such a case, an astounding reversal of fortunes might not stretch credulity so thin. But, having worked in several secondary schools known for their fantastic exam results, I’ve developed a nose for the scent of rat. Following the first-aid course and Jim’s revelations, I switched to working in the primary sector – driven to do so by curiosity about the gap between the gleaming SATs levels with which increasing numbers of Year 7 pupils arrive at secondary school, and their demonstrably more modest abilities. Suffice it to say that I detected a familiar odour.
As with secondary schools, senior managers and local authority figures are most willing to play the targets game – largely to enhance their career prospects and the likelihood of being noticed by those who stride down the corridors of power. Where members of the headship team invigilate Year 6 exams, they often do so in order to tell the students the answers, with unsurprisingly spectacular results. This practice, witnessed in a London school, is not an anomaly: in spirit, it’s no different from that in a West Country primary school, where Year 6 ‘lessons’ start an hour earlier than usual on the days of the tests, so that the headteacher can spend this time going through the exam papers with the class and telling pupils the correct answers in advance of the official start times. It’s also just a step away from establishments not unlike Jim’s school, where less able students are given the day off when the SATs circus comes to town. Whichever form of ‘statistical management’ is employed, its impressive outcomes are reported as the fruits of honest toil and visionary leadership.
The conjoined twin of cheating is buck-passing. Inflated grades at the end of Key Stage 2 become a weighty burden to secondary schools, whose competence is judged by the progress made from these fabricated benchmarks. Even secondary heads who know these figures to be little more than misleading toot will cite them as gospel truths when expedient. Because it really doesn’t matter whether league tables record simple grades or ‘value-added’ ones that take account of contextual factors and their potential effect on academic performance: the incentive remains for schools to reach for the highest outcomes available, so that they can appear to be more successful at meeting – or, preferably, exceeding – targets than the rest.
Leaving nothing to chance, the head of a school in which I worked for several years routinely created his own target grades. Sure enough, the pupils sat independent predictive tests, against whose judgements progress was supposedly measured. However, those judgements were then secretly adjusted by senior managers using a special formula: “Think of a number, treble it, add a zero to the end, then divide it by one”, I believe it was. Toned and buffed, the revised target grades would be delivered to those charged with their achievement – students, teachers and parents – as if they were the real thing. Progress was rigorously monitored against these criteria, as was the competence of the teachers for whom these fictitious grades became the standards against which they would be appraised.
Students trying their damnedest to meet these expectations (which, at this school, they were required to do a year before taking their GCSEs ) were told that they were lazy underachievers if they fell short of the mark. Capable teachers were labelled as incompetent, as they tried to lead befuddled mites through the syllabus by both hands and, possibly, a leg or two, in pursuit of grades far beyond their abilities. Should the fictional grade still prove elusive, the teacher would face considerable pressure to do the work for the student. Literally. As in “Write the essay, but submit it as if it’s the student’s work”.
Pupils suffering chronic inertia in the face of schoolwork had, therefore, little to fear. Their carefully structured support programme consisted of telling them – correctly, this time – that they were lazy underachievers, and then forcing teachers to write the essays for them. Step two, involving hands and feet, was removed to ensure that the support programme was personalised in accordance with the students’ needs. The stagnating waters of staff morale were rendered even more odorous by the threat of the sack, if the teacher failed to reach those attainment targets.
I cannot emphasise strongly enough that what I am describing is not fiction. It is common, if covert, practice in a number of schools, including some that have been garlanded with the highest plaudits – occasionally, by no less a figure than an education secretary. In such institutions, ‘revision sessions’ and ‘booster classes’ are code for various forms of malpractice – most often, intervening in the production of work to an extent that most would recognise as cheating. Nor is the introduction of controlled assessments, written under supervision in school, a guarantee of honest practice as they only exclude the possibility of assistance from parents and private tutors. As is the case at an outstanding high school in London, they don’t prevent headteachers from instructing staff to ignore any – in some cases, every – control within which assessments should be produced.
At best, cheating is that to which the principal turns a blind eye, relieved that staff are demonstrating the “whatever it takes” specified in so many job adverts to help the school appear to meet its targets. At worst, it is an institutional norm or, indeed, expectation. None of the teachers I know agrees with such practices, although many feel forced to collude by silence, fearing dismissal from their posts. Little wonder, then, that employers and tertiary teachers, like their secondary counterparts, find significant gaps between the knowledge and competence promised by impressive grades, and the actual capabilities of those bearing them.
A system based on insufficiently demanding work, that teachers are pressurised into all but typing for the students, bodes and does ill: significant numbers are leaving school with fistfuls of good grades and some appalling life-lessons under their belts. If the workshy believe that someone else will (be forced to) fill the effort gap they have left, it’s a lesson that many will have learned at school. ‘A’ level students and undergraduates passing off the work of others as their own have been encouraged to do exactly this with their teachers’ ‘interventions’. Are they really to blame if they see plagiarism as an offence of degree, not of kind? Others have never been permitted an accurate picture of their abilities because of the ‘support’ they’ve received, only discovering that higher education is not for them several thousand pounds later, when expected to produce work entirely by themselves.
So, bad news for those inheriting students who aren’t what they were led to believe. And, most of all, bad news for the students themselves. But what about the genuinely able? Surely their chances can’t be scuppered by their schools’ complicity with league table tyranny? I could blather on about the use of ‘equivalent’ qualifications to boost GCSE points, but you probably know about this already. Instead, let’s put a face to the practice: a student of well above-average ability, at a school run by an academy chain that Michael Gove idolises. With forgivable pride, the student’s mother believed that her child had achieved fourteen GCSEs, because that’s what the school told her.
Closer inspection revealed that the student did not have a single bona fide GCSE: all of the passes were in equivalent qualifications. As many of these count as multiple GCSEs, they can inflate the numbers of students deemed to have cleared the high-jump of five passes – hence the school’s policy of entering pupils for them wherever possible. The student concerned is now at a college, taking real GCSEs at the time when A levels should have been on the cards. Meanwhile the problem of equivalents persists. A recent report showed that, in many schools, learners are still being shooed towards poorly-regarded and inappropriate courses, if they are conducive to the appearance that more GCSEs have been passed.
As knowing as the electorate can be about the motives of politicians, the fact that the combined effects of targets, league tabling and Ofsted inspections are so rarely the objects of cogent debate testifies to the power of political platitude and the collusion of the press. Rather, all three accountability measures are represented as guarantees of institutional probity and educational quality. For those on the inside, bearing daily witness to how they distort schools’ priorities and erode their integrity, matters are somewhat different. Replace claims of transparency with the fact of opacity and we may be able to talk.
Like many of my colleagues, I’d hoped that some truth would trickle out when The Daily Telegraph devoted page after page, day after day, to the ‘help’ exam boards give their client schools. No such luck. A few scattered observations about the pernicious effects of targets were outnumbered by miss-the-point analyses that blamed examiners for desperately courting customers. Certainly, the laws of the marketplace have something to do with what The Telegraph uncovered: those pesky varmint exam boards are in fierce competition with each other to secure and retain the custom of schools.
As a result, they are, arguably, the third element in our unholy trinity, alongside governments and headteachers. Examiners’ reports often lament the uniformity of coursework produced by highly prescriptive and narrow teaching-to-the-essay-title. However, they do so in general terms, with little active challenge to such practices at local level. When a headteacher of an outstanding school in London instructed staff to engage in malpractice, she was reported to the relevant exam boards. Their response? Leaflets on correct procedure, sent to the whistle-blowing teachers. Nothing else. If neglect is tantamount to complicity, it’s unsurprising that Mick Waters, a former director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, described the exam system in 2010 as “diseased” and “almost corrupt”.
Enticing the buyer with promises of undemanding syllabi, tip-offs about upcoming exam questions and blind-eye policies towards malpractice are not habits that emerged unbidden. They are direct responses to customer demand; and customer demand has been shaped by a knowing fidelity, in political circles, to league tables and targets. It’s a loyalty that seems to be as tenacious as ever. Even Katherine Birbalsingh, poster girl for Tory education policies (when she remembers to be), characterised targets and tables as obstacles to education in her rapturously-received 2010 conference speech. Cheating may have been an unintended consequence when league tables were introduced but, two decades on, I doubt we can still be so disingenuous. What are we to make of those who still profess faith in this flawed measure?
Without tables and targets, teachers will kick off their shoes and leave the kids to watch Cbeebies or Celebrity Big Brother until the bell goes. Or so we are led to believe. I entered teaching before the introduction of league tabling, and I didn’t notice staffrooms heaving with lazy curmudgeons, concerned only with bumming fags and knitting elbow patches for each other’s jackets (and, contrary to what some would have you believe, nor was the wallpaper designed by Socialist Worker). I recall being mentored by teachers who made sure I cared that my students were intellectually stretched, that they acquired knowledge, skills, responsible attitudes and – crucially – the ability to think for themselves. Surely the sine qua non of any education system?
So, let’s be wildly fanciful for a moment and imagine a Britain in which there are no education league tables. A robust and supportive inspection system, certainly, but no league tables. How might that look? A richer curriculum? Topics included because they stimulate and challenge? No more “You don’t need to know that, it’s not tested in the exam”? Vocationally-minded students with a choice of proper vocational courses, rather than bowdlerised equivalents? Fewer teachers leaving the profession demoralised, patronised, bored out their skulls (and skills), and half-dead from a seventy-plus-hour working week? It’s a frightening prospect, I know.
League tables serve no student’s best interests. They do, however, serve Whitehall, furnishing it with the figures it needs to dupe us into believing that all is well under the watch of the (insert name) party. They also serve ambitious headteachers, for whom impressive numbers equal fat salaries, more executive power and ministerial gratitude. Our children, in short, have ceased to be people; they’re now simply pound signs and statistics waiting to happen.
“You don’t have to be morally elastic to work here, but it helps.” Has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?