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What is education for?

What is education for?

The lunchtime break at a conference can be so much more revealing than the conference itself.

At one such lunch, I found myself sitting next to a recently retired headteacher. He told me about the day he had received a phone call from his boss in the local authority to congratulate him on the improvement made by his school in the Government's league tables.

My new acquaintance's response was to point out to his startled boss that the percentage improvement in the school's results was well within the margin of error for the tests on which they were based, so he wasn't planning on celebrating his school's recent rise in the tables. Nor was he intending sinking into angst if, next time round, the results were down.

I found our conversation refreshing. A climate of performance managerialism has overtaken many schools. Head teachers' careers are made or lost on the scores of pupils' progress that supposedly give an objective measure of a school's education standards. Anecdotally I have heard of headteachers who insist that their teachers divide each of the current ten levels of attainment into three, thereby giving them thirty levels with which to fine tune the measurements of pupil progress. No doubt there is great celebration in heaven when a child moves from 3a to 3b in maths. Certainly it seems that some school leaders skip home when it happens. So it was good to meet someone who accorded this nonsense the respect it deserved.

Professor Alan Smithers, one of the architects of school league tables has, according to the Times Education Supplement, recanted. He is reported as saying that schools should test children for their benefit, and not so that the schools can build a reputation or the Government bask in rising standards. Probably he too has heard about primary schools where borderline pupils are extracted and coached intensively to ensure their grade is in the higher required category or secondary schools where pupils are entered for subjects which are likely to achieve the best results profile for the school irrespective of their own interests.

Why do we do this? The answer is simple: GDP. If Britain wants a world class economy, it needs a world class education system. And if it wants a world class education system, it needs to be able to measure it. As long as school standards are growing, so will the economy. A rigorous testing system insures the future growth of our GDP. As Bill Clinton once famously said, "It's the economy, stupid!"

Have we missed something somewhere? My lunch companion was not a failed head with a nostalgic yearning to return to poor standards and unaccountable teachers. He would have been horrified at the primary head who, twenty years ago, told me, "I don't like science, so we don't teach it much in my school". He and I both celebrate the fact that our current system is producing the best newly qualified teachers we have ever had.

But what became patently apparent to me as our conversation progressed over dessert was that it was the general well-being - the GWB - of his pupils that he primarily cared about. GWB certainly included academic success, academic success that might, one day, have helped secure financial health and job satisfaction. But education for GDP?

It would be absurd to suggest that teachers do not care about the general well-being of their pupils. They patently do. Indeed schools are often the most wholesome institutions that pupils experience in their lives. And the majority of teachers realise that academic success is dependent on the well being of their pupils (surely one reason why so-called faith schools generally perform well).

But teachers are human. If their lords and masters, especially those responsible for performance reviews, show significant interest only in those outcomes that contribute to performance data, then that is where they will invest their energy.

Things might be different if school leaders were, for example, to use some of Jesus' Beatitudes from the beginning of chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel in staff reviews. "Can you give me examples of how your teaching this year has encouraged pupils to hunger and thirst after righteousness?" That would make an interesting performance target. It would certainly underline the important contribution that teachers make to combating the toxic childhood that many pupils experience today. Unfortunately league tables don’t include success in GWB, and it is the hard data of test results that actually count. It is these that secure the metaphorical pat on the back that is the measure of professional success.

Researchers, like David Hay, who investigate spiritual development report that spiritual experience and GWB are intimately related. Unfortunately no-one seems yet to have created a convincing way of converting spiritual values into measurable outcomes that could contribute to league tables. But maybe to do that would be to destroy the values.

What I am convinced of is that as long as politicians continue to yearn for hard data of rising standards, they will continue to miss the point of education and distract teachers from their true spiritual task. Is it too much to hope that there might be a refocusing on GWB instead of GDP?

Trevor Cooling is Director of the Transforming Lives Project based at The Stapleford Centre, Nottingham.

Trevor Cooling

Trevor Cooling

Professor Trevor Cooling is Professor Emeritus of Christian Education at Canterbury Christ Church University UK, and Chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC). Previously, Trevor worked as a secondary school teacher in biology and religious education, a university theology lecturer, a diocesan adviser and CEO of a Christian Education charity. 

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Posted 10 August 2011

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