Testing Times

the wireThere is an episode in the American hit TV series The Wire (Season 4) which will resonate not only with teacher-viewers in the USA but with many in the UK as well. Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski, a former officer in the Major Crimes Unit, has left the force after inadvertently killing a fellow officer in Series 3, and has re-trained to become a maths teacher in inner-city Baltimore. Initially, he struggles to come to grips with the job despite his best efforts, and the kids refuse to play ball no matter how many approaches he tries, including the introduction of card games into his lessons. The less than subtle message is that teaching is tough, no matter how ‘tough’ a guy (or gal) you think you are. Eventually however, Pryzbylewski’s hard work starts to pay off and most of the kids are beginning to recognise that – hey – he really is in this with them, when all his efforts are suddenly undermined. The district authorities have announced that their literacy scores are too low, and for the coming session the focus will be on raising attainment in literacy. For Prez and his colleagues, what this means is reading directly to a group of kids who are not listening, and administering tests which even he doesn’t understand. Not one person in the school, including the headteacher, believes in what they are doing, but the future of the school depends, literally, on their going along with it.

Watching this scenario play out, you find yourself laughing uneasily at the absurdity of the situation, while realising that perhaps that it isn’t so far from the truth – an education system where statistics and targets rule, and teachers are forced to abandon their better instincts and teach to the test.

lifeRoland Pryzbylewski’s plight came back to me this week as I finished reading  The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Professor Richard Pring, former Director of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University. A refreshing analysis of the state of education in the UK, with a particular focus on England and Wales, the purpose of the book is, in Professor Pring’s own words, ” to advocate a secondary education for all which embraces a wider vision of learning, a distinctive role for the teacher in providing the cultural basis for that vision, and a provision of opportunities through which all young people (however modest their circumstances) might have a sense of pride and fulfilment.” In Pring’s view, ‘education for all’ is still a viable goal, but only if we are prepared to address the fundamental question of its purpose, rather than simply accepting many of the assumptions of the past fifty years. The key question as far as he is concerned is, “What counts as education – or, more accurately, an educated person – in this day and age?” According to the author, those who doubt the viability of a genuine ‘education for all’, including the current Secretary of State Michael Gove, rarely address that question, preferring instead to examine how they might do the same things better:-

“However, ‘reform’, so-called, too often begins with qualifications, examinations, institutional provision, paths of progression. All those are very important, but their value lies in the support they give to learners and to their sense of fulfilment. We need to start with what it means to learn (practically, theoretically, morally). We need to question critically the value of that learning. We need also to respond to the many different needs of the learner and of a democratic society into which they are entering.”

I would wholeheartedly recommend The Life and Death.. to anyone involved in secondary education, including, and perhaps especially,  Michael Gove. The key themes for me are these:-

  • There needs to be less top-down control from government and local authorities, not more; teachers and schools are reluctant to innovate for fear of failure
  • There needs to be greater opportunities for teachers to work together in planning the curriculum and their own professional development
  • There needs to be a redirection of resources to those most in need; the single most significant factor in the success or failure of an individual in the system is poverty
  • There needs to be less reliance on performance targets which lead to a ‘teaching-to-the-test mentality’
  • There needs to be a re-evaluation of the purpose of education which has personal development at its centre
  • There needs to be a more robust debate on what it means to be a ‘citizen’ and the concept of the pursuit of the common good
  • There needs to be a greater role for practical learning and knowledge for all – not to be confused with vocational skills or learning for so-called ‘non-academics’
  • Finally, while developing the individual is important, learning to live and work fruitfully in groups is essential to quality learning

“The curriculum, therefore, is not the means to a fixed outcome, but the engagement, assisted by the teacher, with a body of knowledge (theoretical and practical) through which learners come to understand and act intelligently within the physical, social and moral worlds they inhabit.”

In wishing you all the best for 2013, I leave you with a letter from this week’s Guardian, which sums up admirably much of what is currently wrong with secondary education in the UK, and which frustrates the lives of the many dedicated professionals working within it. May Professor Boyle’s wishes also come true.

Letter

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6 thoughts on “Testing Times

  1. Excellent blog post, Bill (as always). I am cautiously optimistic that we in Scotland are moving in the right direction in terms of assessment (and one of its subsidiary purposes, qualifications) although constant vigilance will be required. I would disagree with Professor Boyle, however, when he refers to Gove ‘tinkering'; in my opinion, Gove is deliberately and systematically undermining the very basic principle of free state education, with the aim of privatising all aspects of it in England. Another powerful reason for maintaining the independence of the Scottish education system.

    • Thanks Gordon – much appreciated. Pring himself actually singles out for praise the principles of Curriculum for Excellence but tempers it somewhat by expressing a dislike for the ‘outcomes’. In terms of ‘teaching-to-the-test’ syndrome, I do agree that we are making progress, up to a point, the point being somewhere around the middle years of secondary school when in most schools the focus on examinations and grades becomes all-consuming. In that respect I don’t think we are (yet) very different from the rest of the UK, although I agree entirely with your comments about maintaining an independently Scottish approach.

  2. Fascinating, Bill. Almost three years ago I wrote a piece, stimulated by the same series of The Wire, on exactly the same issues: http://www.alexwood.org.uk/2012/04/lessons-in-hope-from-a-world-on-the-wire/
    What is also true is that judging schools by test results can lead to a variety of forms of cheating: excluding students who are unlikely to boost a school’s exam resultsand directing students to subjects with high pass rates and plain; moreover, what has also become apparent is a narrowing of the curricular content so that coaching for exam technique becomes the substitute for teaching.

    • Wow. Thanks Alex. You know, I can honestly say that your article was not even in my sub-conscious as I haven’t read the TES for at least four years now, so ‘great minds’ and all that! As you rightly suggest, the issues touched on in the blogpost are only the more obvious ones but the list is endless. I’m convinced we have the right curriculum on paper here in Scotland now but translating it into reality in the secondary sector remains a major challenge.
      Love the website incidentally – all the best and hope to bump into you again soon.
      Bill

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