Wednesday, August 19, 2009

School League Tables

Is assessment in schools fit for purpose? asks the UK Teaching and Learning Research Programme. (Full report pdf, press release pdf, BBC News)

Obviously the answer depends on what you imagine the purpose to be. The report identifies a wide range of possible (and sometimes conflicting) uses, and politely pours scorn on the view expressed last year by David Bell, who as permanent secretary at the Department for Children, Schools and Families told MPs:

“While I hear the argument that is often put about multiple purposes of testing and assessment, I do not think that it is problematic to expect tests and assessments to do different things.”

As the report points out, the reason that this expectation is problematic is that assessments have two different effects: they provide information and they influence what people do. These effects generally conflict: measurement (especially targets) distorts performance.

Using Stafford Beer's POSIWID principle to determine the real (de facto) purpose of assessment, we can identify four real purposes, one internal to the educational establishment, and three external.

For head teachers and bureaucrats, assessment is a way of competing for resources. Assessment results are used to allocate funding to schools, and to cost-justify a wide range of innovations and initiatives, and are therefore subject to strong vested interests from various stakeholders within the education system.

For politicians, assessment provides a way of claiming that education standards have improved monotonically since records began, with especially good progress during the current regime. (I don't actually know anyone outside the "system" who takes these claims very seriously.)

The schools at the top of the league tables can attract the best teachers and the best pupils, and therefore should be able to maintain their position at the top of the table in perpetuity. (A bit like professional football.)

Therefore, for ordinary people, assessment provides a way of selecting the "best" school for your child, and helps to increase and maintain property prices within the desirable catchment areas. (Obviously this effect is viewed differently by those families who can afford these property prices and by those who cannot.)

In summary, despite an official Government agenda for innovation and change, the league table system helps to maintain an unsatisfactory status quo. POSIWID.

As a champion of systems thinking, I find it encouraging that so many ordinary people (almost everyone except politicians and bureaucrats) understand the problems with target-setting. One of the effects (and therefore the POSIWID purpose) of the target-setting regime may be to encourage people to embark on real system thinking. And by "systems thinking", I don't just mean the John Seddon approach to service design but holistic joined-up thinking. I live in hope.

See also

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