Crisis? What crisis?
Criticism has been made that the term ‘attainment’ often is used and interpreted in too narrow a fashion. This view suggests that it is construed as applying primarily to measurements arising from formal assessments in traditional curriculum areas as language and literature, mathematics, social subjects and the sciences. There is no suggestion that these subjects are unimportant; simply that, if and when they are over-emphasised at the expense of other key constituents in education, evaluations made on the competence of many learners may be misjudged or undervalued. For these reasons, all-embracing phrases such as ‘potential, attainments and achievements’ have come to be regarded as more appropriate by many educationalists.
Some media outlets seem to take to an open delight in distributing news about falling standards and highlight what they perceive to be a general decline in the overall accomplishments of young people. Given the manner in which various assertions are made, they may well reflect a lowering in the quality of research and reporting among sections of newspapers and social networks. To justify the claim of deterioration in any subject, it has to be convincingly established that the current position is being compared with an equivalent benchmark using relevant criteria. Instead of conjecture and speculation, unambiguous and valid verification has to be presented to the public. Too frequently, damning comparisons fail to convince. However, despite their usage and analysis regularly being highly misleading, there is a positive aspect to data on results being so eagerly awaited and cited in the press and internet. It is that appraisals of students’ abilities and talents are clearly matters of repeated concern and worthy of further investigation.
There numerous reasons as to why contrasting measures of the past with those of the present are extremely hard to substantiate. They cover:
- using flawed or differing sampling techniques;
- the adjusting and modifying of methods of assessment over a period of time;
- altering and amending the contents which are taught in a particular subject making it nigh impossible to compare like with like; and
- the evolving demands from commercial businesses concerning modern skills-based training as witnessed in science, computing, technology and engineering.
Contemporary industrial societies expect leavers from schools, colleges and universities to possess a range of knowledge and expertise which is dissimilar to that of previous generations. Of course, these observations do not assert that current achievements are as elevated as they could or should be; only that references to discrete cohorts can so easily be unreliable or invalid. There is a crisis but it is a continuing challenge which is twofold in nature, namely that: (1) the urgent requirement for more inclusive and effective improvements in educational provision is forever with us; and (2) standards have never been deemed by politicians or the public to be at sufficiently high levels.
Fake news, league tables and misuses of statistics
Areas of disquiet are publications and ensuing disagreements which arise with regard to ‘league tables’, based on published results for educational establishments. At times, these procedures can amount to heralding a series of nationwide humiliations! Once again, there are many occasions when scrutiny and analyses ought to be undertaken in a more cautious, honest and professional fashion. On closer inspection, judgements sometimes have to be treated with suspicion or simply not be given credibility. Educational statistics are an illusion if they do not take full account of social and environmental factors influencing school populations.
Inappropriate conclusions can be drawn when, for example, differences and contrasts are made of results from comprehensive schools with other institutes which rigorously select their pupils. The use of statistics to highlight the so-called benefits and merits of selective and private schools or, for that matter, ‘elitist’ state schools can be downright dishonest. Such schools are generally associated with high academic results. Nonetheless, a breakdown of the data can demonstrate that in fact a so-called higher achieving school should be doing much better when other features, for instance deprivation rates, are taken into the reckoning. Moreover, some schools serving impoverished neighbourhoods are succeeding remarkably well, given the tasks which they are expected to undertake and the resources available to them.
Another case in point relates to conditions concerning the organisation of national examinations. It has been well known for many years that local authorities and schools vary in the percentages of their pupils who have special arrangements in place when they sit tests. Schools serving more affluent localities and private schools are in a favourable position to make use of assessments to identify pupils experiencing dyslexic conditions or other additional support needs. Consequently, the pupils may well have extra time allotted to them in exams and/or scribes to help with writing. How then can these schools be evaluated fairly against those in more deprived areas where pupils with similar difficulties have been less likely to have had comparable support and assistance? Some divergences are so extreme that the comparisons make little sense due to the advantages gained by the more privileged pupils.
‘Closing the gap’
In recent years a great deal of political debate has been concerned with what is commonly referred to as ‘closing the gap’. Issues on this important matter are generally considered and conveyed in terms of academic subjects rather than the much wider range of capabilities and personal qualities required in daily living and employment. A recurring mistake by policy-makers and the media has been to deliver their announcements as if there is only a singular gap. In the real world, within different social groupings in urban and rural communities, there are multiple inequalities in prospects for intellectual growth, academic qualifications and training options. A restricted focus on the outcomes of formal appraisals presents both a handicap and a disservice to learners. Moreover, it curtails a central aim of education, namely, to develop and establish a truly unbiassed, flourishing and mature society.
An institutionalised, rigged system exists and must be unravelled and reconstructed. If the powers that be are serious about closing gulfs and expanding opportunities, they can start by ending child poverty which is continually at scandalous levels. How can impoverished families focus on future advancement in the here and now of a ‘postal lottery’ when they are struggling to survive?
Addressing various disparities, while raising standards, will give rise to a host of predicaments which demand a sequence of appropriate, evidence-based interventions. After careful deliberation on the circumstances and specific drawbacks existing within schools and their locations has been undertaken, suitable resources need to be supplied and well-targeted strategies implemented. If weaknesses are to be fully remedied, attention has to be given to the needs of all learners which implies that ‘within-school’ fissures also have to disappear. After all, neglect of even a small number of learners creates an unwelcome gap. Efficient and connected approaches, along with the on-going belief and commitment of staff and students that ‘together we can do it’ are crucial in advancing towards increased success rates. Levels of quality across the curriculum can be raised but, like many other desirable purposes, collective endeavour and willpower are essential.
Reasons to be cheerful?
Educators from nursery to university have a sense of duty and resolve to promote long-lasting satisfaction and happiness within learning processes. A continuous prominence on the love of learning and on fulfilment through personal progress provides a firm foundation on which norms and outcomes can be upgraded. When students experience sensations of immersion and total involvement in learning, sometimes referred to as ‘flow’ by advocates, they are enabled to map out pathways for steady improvement and to constantly add to the sum total of what they have already accomplished. Nonetheless, at times, there may be too much stress on positivity. Hopes, alas, are not synonymous with dreams; optimism and high expectations need to be balanced alongside pragmatism and moderation. Pupils usually are aware that it is best for them to be well prepared for arduous times and unexpected circumstances. They realise that it is advisable to give some consideration to possible outcomes which might not be as good as previously had been anticipated and that, if this turns out to be the case, to remain composed and geared up to forge ahead.
The impetus for advancement in knowledge and applied skills can be found in some key ingredients which are already present in current practices. These include students: feeling confident and well supported; being sufficiently involved and challenged, but not overwhelmed, in their studies; and having a genuine belief in the usefulness of selected curricular activities. Involving them in regular, sensitive and insightful checking of their endeavours and contributions is one proven means of fostering success. Passing on greater responsibility to self-evaluate and monitor progress is an integral component of a thriving learning environment. Effective ways of doing so take account of: (1) constantly enabling students to participate in making decisions on their individualised targets; (2) ensuring that they are well acquainted with the goals which, with sufficient effort, they can realistically achieve; (3) establishing confidential feedback mechanisms, including the use of up-to-date technologies, which are easily accessible to them, their parents and guardians; and (4) encouraging them to draft and analyse a model curriculum vitae and then to decide on what curricular route they need to follow towards fulfilling their well-grounded aspirations.
Towards an agenda for improvement
Most would agree that governments should strive to adopt and implement improvement policies which endorse a desire to learn, the expansion of skills, creative thinking, and open and flexible mindsets from infancy to old age. The promotion of an abiding and authentic culture bestows real benefits regarding human capital, prosperity, health and wellbeing.
Prerequisites change considerably as learners grow older and move along distinct steps from nursery through primary and secondary schooling to vocational programmes, college or university and beyond. Moreover, prospects associated with further tutoring and professional enrichment for workers and adult students have to figure in any far-reaching innovations. The quality of recording evidence of progress is important all the way through these inter-linked phases and is critical in the embellishment of existing capabilities and proficiencies.
During the infant, primary and early secondary years, children generally experience broad play and/or learning programmes and often work on integrated topics which cover a variety of subjects; there is a tendency to concentrate on developing their knowledge and understanding across curricular areas. Towards the end of secondary education, they can begin to focus on and specialise in specific subjects of interest. For those who wish to undertake commercial or industrial training, while the value of some traditional skills and trades has diminished, new avenues have become accessible. At college and university, openings to follow distinctive routes abound. Through all these stages, objectives will be reached if learners are given worthwhile opportunities to take advantage of the serendipitous breaks and options which come their way. At the same time, society needs to acknowledge the folly of excessive usage of computational schemes when assessing individuals. There is an urgent necessity for better methodologies to be initiated through applying a greater significance to more eclectic and value-based approaches.
The ‘measurement agenda’, when it dominates the comments and observations of evaluators, limits perspectives and fails to place a spotlight on the numerous hidden but valuable abilities and attributes of many young people. Alternative recording routines for transitional phases need to be introduced to provide more accurate and holistic profiles. As indicated earlier, an over-emphasis on quantitative analysis risks accentuating unnecessary competitive attitudes and dubious, judgemental conclusions. They also have a propensity to nudge some examination boards towards resembling number-crunching accountancy firms using dodgy data and superficial algorithms. Additionally, education authorities must continue to beware of suspect inter-school comparisons and their deleterious effects, particularly if based on unfair suppositions. Crucially, teaching staff deserve to have a more direct say and responsibility in relation to the content of courses of study and on the types of qualifications and post-school destinations which are most meaningful to their students.
The following quotation which often is attributed (though probably incorrectly) to Albert Einstein seems apposite when discussing quantitative and qualitative assessment procedures. ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’
Learning communities together with their students must remain at the centre of all deliberations. Educators are fully aware that, in addition to reflecting on how well their educational establishments are functioning, it is imperative never to ignore the abilities, aptitudes and development of every student. Each one has the capability to move forward and it is the accumulation of individual endowments which generate overall performance. (In fact, simply encouraging pupils from more deprived environments to turn up for examinations has been found to boost the degree to which a secondary school has progressed!)
A clear benefit of targeted support and guidance for learners from diverse social backgrounds is that, as participants, they can profit through becoming more engaged, responsive and forthcoming. Attempts to upgrade benchmarks must include all concerned, including young persons who appear disenchanted and/or rebellious. They may feel that there is little possibility of them fitting in with any kind of ‘culture of excellence’ – whatever that might mean to them. Fairness and inclusiveness demand that a thorough account is taken of the feats of those experiencing difficulties relating to physical or mental health. Acceptance of, and commitment to embrace, those who are profoundly neglected or in need of assistance will greatly enrich society as a whole. Everyone matters!
Undoubtedly, the prospects for learners, regardless of social background, can be enhanced in many ways. A key factor is to ensure that there are first-rate chances for both young and old to have authentic ownership of and control over their futures. We only have to note the remarkable transformation which has occurred due to greater female emancipation and the subsequent entitlement to studies from which girls and women were previously barred.
- accomplishments and successes are about much more than results in tests; there should always be appropriate consideration given to other relevant factors such as aptitudes, interpersonal skills, giftedness, practical know-how and participation in sporting and cultural activities
- thoughtful analysis and scrutiny must be assigned to the use and reporting of statistics, especially when the outcomes seem to be sensationalist or melodramatic; in particular, caution is necessary when contrasting current learners with those of previous generations or when one educational establishment is compared with another
- there are many reasons to be optimistic as to how advances can be taken forward so long as inspiring programmes of study and suitable resources are made available to enable all learners to follow their aspirations and augment their talents
- the recognition and celebration of potential, attainments and achievements, when coupled with efficient independent governance by a national agency, are extremely significant and advantageous not only for individuals but also for families, local communities and a state’s cultural and economic growth.
(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)