Sometimes, in an idle moment, I have looked out at a class of 30 students and wondered if, as a result of some mishap, I were to be stranded on a desert island, which six students would I want to have survived the shipwreck, and hence become my companions in adversity.
Sometimes I identify students who are doing well academically – but by no means always, since there are young people who would be good companions because of their personal qualities, dispositions and skills. There is the boy who is cheerful and often cheeky, but without malice. There is the girl who can always be relied on to come up with a practical solution to a problem in distributing resources. In short, in making these hypothetical judgements, I am recognising that what matters in society goes far beyond those attributes measured by current assessment methods.
Many years ago, when I was the rector at Bankhead Academy in Aberdeen, we were talking to a young lad who was seen as having little chance of success in the forthcoming examinations. In the conversation, he mentioned that he spent his weekends motorcycle scrambling. It transpired that he had won many trophies for his racing. 'Why didn't you tell us?' we asked. 'I didn't think you would be interested' was his reply.
We arranged for him to bring in his trophies and take over the school trophy cabinet, with an enlarged photograph of him on his bike in mid-air clearing a jump. It would have been wonderful if this recognition, however delayed, helped his examination results, but that is not the way things are. And why would we expect all roads to lead to examination performance? The boy had different talents from those assessed in examinations and, seeing little interest in the school system for these talents, found his recognition in all the trophies he had won.
One of the dogmas which is often proclaimed in management books is: 'If you can't measure it, you can't manage it', a quote often attributed to W E Deming. This attribution is true in part but when you read Deming's book, The New Economics
, you find that what he actually said had the opposite meaning: 'If you can't measure it, you can't manage it – a costly myth'. Is it possible that this costly myth has distorted ostensible secondary school outcomes for years? Do we really believe that if we can't measure it by putting it on a numerical scale, it's not worth assessing?
Well, there is education and there is schooling. Education is what we want for young people, schooling is what they get. This is no criticism of teachers who are so often at the sharp end of a 'who is to blame?' culture. A survey, admittedly carried out some time ago but which I suspect would yield the same results today, showed a significant mismatch between what teachers would like to achieve and what they spent most of their time doing, which was preparing for examinations.
Trying to specify a 'good education' is probably as variable and controversial as specifying a 'good meal'. But we can give some advice to commercial cooks – use fresh ingredients, combine them in a creative way and present the food in a manner which is inviting for the customer. This later point is important since we may tempt those who are not sure whether they will like what is offered, while recognising that some customers may simply not be hungry and for whom the idea of a good meal is simply irrelevant. Perhaps the good meal gives us clues to a good education? Since negatives are often more powerful in defining something, perhaps we can suggest what will be present in 'bad education'?
Many prospectuses claim that their school is 'educating the whole child'. This claim is rarely elaborated, and would be difficult to do so as it is false. The distinction is between seeing something as an integrated whole and seeing it as the consequence of a number of subunits. It is this distinction which draws a line between biology (which looks at the behaviour of the organism) and physics (which in its search for the ultimate particle is reductionist in approach). So what do secondary schools do for the whole child? They adopt a reductionist approach with many different subjects. Indeed, as I pointed out in my last article
, they make a point of claiming that the subjects are different – which then leads to another false claim, that you have to study certain subject combinations to be educated.
Hardly a day goes by without headlines of fresh disasters facing humanity. We are killing off all the insects by intensive farming – and poisoning the rivers by fertiliser run off into the rivers. We have recently discovered that daily life can be brought to a standstill by a novel virus. And, of course, of most immediate concern there is climate change. In dealing with such crisis situations, we will certainly need the contribution of people with expert knowledge, but we also need a general population motivated to understand what is happening and sufficiently prepared by their school experience to appreciate the often complex and interdependent issues involved.
So schooling would provide good education by demonstrating the intimate connections between all areas of human knowledge, not by teaching in self-contained subject silos. Schooling would provide good education if it formally acknowledged a wide range of talents and capabilities – a point made so eloquently in the 1947 report I quoted in my last article. Schooling would provide good education if it gave students a hunger for learning about society and its problems. Schooling would be good education if it built on curiosity, encouraged creativity and taught criticality.
The Curriculum for Excellence, for all its structural faults, did initially provide some scope for development along these lines. It was a half-open door to change. Unfortunately, there were strong shoulders on the other side of the door which quickly ensured that the door was firmly closed again. Just as the universities closed the door on the 1947 report.
If someone were to say to me, 'The purpose of the sun is provide light', I would think it an odd use of the word 'purpose'. Yet people will talk about the purpose of education as if the concept of education had some inherent volition of its own. This is not the case. In a society, education for the young is delivered in the form of schooling. It is society, expressed as the will of the ruling elite of that society, which determines the function of schooling in that society. As J K Galbraith put it so memorably, 'the voice of the rich and powerful being so loud and clear it is often mistaken for the voice of the people'.
Of course, nature being the contrary thing it is, there may be unexpected consequences which determine the final outcome of that expectation of schooling. But however it has come about, what we can see as the two main functions of schooling today are: to look after the children during the day while the parents are at work, and to legitimise the rationing of privilege by assessment techniques which discriminate against the poorer members of society.
While well-intentioned, the 'closing the gap' policy of the government, which aims to improve the examination results of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, simply cannot work as long as examinations essentially place student performance in a 'rank order'. In this context, closing the gap is the same as saying that we want all students to be above average, which given the meaning of average is unlikely to be achieved any time soon.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University