Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Educationís Holy Grail?

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The way educational success is measured is important if we intend to be serious in eliminating self-fulfil lling failure, says Tim Brighouse. The new 'balanced report card' presents an opportunity to get it right.

It all started with an unwelcome phone call. It was the Smith Institute. Could I possibly write 4,000 words by the day after tomorrow? Even for someone who is bad at saying no, the answer was easy. No, I couldn't. But the topic, I was assured, would appeal to me: education without failure.

Yes, you've guessed: I couldn't resist, not least because by writing it I would discover what I really thought about the topic. That was a year ago. I wrote the piece but I find I can't quite let it go. So you are forewarned. My reasoning so far has gone something like this:

First, it is necessary to set out what we mean by 'educational purposes' and the 'failure' we might aim to eliminate. The moral argument for trying to minimise failure and optimise individual educational success was well expressed by William Temple whose words powerfully affected R.A. 'Rab' Butler in the production of the 1944 Education Act:

"Are you going to treat a man as he is or as he might be? Morality requires that you should treat him as he might be, as he has it in him to become; business on the other hand requires that you should treat him as he is. Raising what he is to what he might be is the work of education. "And so you can have no justice at the basis of your social life until education has done its full work... and you cannot have political freedom...nor...individual freedom, for...there exists a mental form of slavery quite as real as any economic form. We are pledged to destroy it....if you want human liberty you must have educated people."

To this moral imperative for successful education can be added an economic one. There is a general political consensus that ever higher standards of education and training are necessary for countries to thrive in a rapidly changing and technologically driven world.

In addition to these moral and economic imperatives there is a cultural one, of both the individual and of society collectively. We owe it to our future citizens to ensure they are initiated into the essential culture of a society and are capable of shaping its development.

Finally, society expects its schools and colleges to reinforce those values, such as honesty and truth, which are the bedrock of most societies' moral norms. This might be expressed as a social purpose.

Defining 'failure'

It is really against these four - the moral, economic, cultural and social - purposes that we ought to measure educational success or failure.

But what do we mean by 'failure' in an educational context?

I am not talking here about the sort of failure that arises when an individual or group fails to understand a concept or demonstrate a skill. Frequently that sort of failure is an inevitable and useful part of learning which prompts more endeavour and leads to ultimate success. It is associated with what is now called 'formative assessment' or 'assessment for learning'.

Carried out well, this allows the learner to see exactly what s/he has to do to overcome the difficulty and embark with a clear idea of the next few steps on the learning journey. It involves the student, like a successful athlete, always trying to improve on their previous best.

But what of the student who never 'gets it' or succeeds in anything that is overtly valued?

This last point reaches the heart of the matter. Repeated failure can become so embedded that it convinces the individual or the group that it is impossible ever to be successful.

Researchers say that it is very apparent in children as young as seven or eight when they perceive they are falling behind their contemporaries in learning to read - a capability they see as highly valued by their teachers, their parents and the more successful members of their peer group.

They start to see themselves as 'failures' in every other sphere of highly valued activity and perform accordingly. Schools soon recognise them and know that, unless they quickly crack the issue, they will be the youngsters who leave education doomed to a life of self-fulfilling failure.

Repeated embedded failure is also a collective phenomenon. It can be seen every week in the performances of consistently unsuccessful sports teams as their 'heads go down' and their self-confidence becomes so low that they lack the psychological strength to break the habit of losing. Failing schools and colleges are like this.

It is this sort of failure that the educational system could do without. I believe there are a few steps which could be taken to reduce, if not eliminate, this sort of 'unnecessary failure' at the levels of the individual student, the institution and the system respectively.

Beyond academics

The emphasis on academic attainment as the main means of establishing a student's or an institution's success is well noted but also widely contested as being at the expense of other sorts of achievement.

Certainly, Ofsted inspections and the publication of exam league tables, for example, encourage a focus on a few key assessments - such as five or more higher GCSE grades including English and maths - with the probable result that disproportionate attention is given to those students on the borderline at the expense of others who are unlikely to achieve that level. And these 'expendable' students include, of course, the very ones most at risk of the sort of embedded failure we want to reduce.

The more narrowly and normatively that student and institutional academic success is drawn the more likely it is that there will be embedded failure for some.

Therefore, the way we measure success is important if we intend to be serious in eliminating self-fulfilling failure. Included in such a more desirable and wider definition of schools' success might be the way schools and their students can demonstrate improvements in:

  • participation and average performance rates in various sports

  • annual 'health fitness' measures

  • participation in a wide range of arts activities, such as music

  • participation in a wide range of other defined student activities and experiences - for example, day visits and residentials as well as extended curriculum studies

  • staff professional development activities

  • staff and student absence rates

  • defined student leadership and management opportunities

  • student voluntary contribution to the wellbeing of the local community

  • encouragement of opportunities for family learning

To these would be added evidence of other success measures such as continuing improvements and developments in organisational practices and belonging to a learning partnership so that the resources of more than one institution can assist students whose needs one school or college alone cannot meet.

One final piece of evidence that a society and school/college serious about reducing unnecessary failure would consider is the regular collection of the views of students, staff and parents through attitudinal surveys.

Such a practice could reveal the wellbeing of students and the extent to which they really are making progress across the four purposes - the moral, economic, cultural and social - I outlined at the beginning.

That's why I am delighted to be a member of the so called 'expert group' advising Ed Balls on a better way to report on school progress. Your views on what should happen would be most welcome.

Students at risk

But whatever we achieve in change at the system level to reduce unnecessary and embedded failure, there is much that can be done within schools and colleges.

Let's remind ourselves again of the students most at risk of embedded failure. They come predominantly from homes where they face apathy or even violence from parents or carers who have lost hope and are simply not 'good enough'. These children are surrounded by what we might call 'negative or at best neutral aspirational role models'.

As teenagers they frequently spend time in a community characterised by sporadic violence, crime and drugs and where it is especially difficult to grow the resilience needed to avoid becoming ensnared.

In school - a particularly precious time for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds - organisational practices such as vertical or year group teaching, setting or streaming, formative or normative assessment and marking, behaviour policies and practices that achieve a positive weighting on the rewards and sanctions spectrum, the use of language, and the experiences offered all will have a positive or negative impact on individual students.

An institution may be successful for many, some or few students. Existing evidence is that most schools are less successful with children from apparently disadvantaged backgrounds but that a few buck that trend. I think one of the reasons they do is because they have looked at their organisational practices and changed those they think are more likely to lead to some youngsters feeling like failures.

So what are those practices that help all students to succeed? If pushed to select just four I would argue for:

  • 'vertical' as well as 'horizontal' student groupings for teaching and other purposes

  • more team and less individual activity, assessment and tasks

  • guaranteed residential experiences

  • maintaining an annually reviewed list of students 'at risk of embedded failure' and agreeing interventions for the next year which increase their resilience

Along with Mike Tomlinson, I chair something called the 21st Century Learning Alliance. Last year it ran a national award to celebrate those schools which could claim to be really pushing the boundaries in some aspect of what they do in terms of their use of space or time or people and resources or in the way they approach teaching, learning and assessment.

This year we intend to run it again but with the added twist of asking schools to demonstrate how, and what they do to reduce unnecessary failure.

Why not join in?

Tim Brighouse is a government adviser and formerly comissioner for London schools. He can be contacted via info@21stcenturylearningalliance.com

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