Let’s start with a general knowledge quiz:
How many secretaries of state for education (i.e. Ministers for Education) in the UK in the last fifteen years have professional (and not just personal) experience of school? One. The rest have been, prior to entering parliament, an accountant, a lawyer, a journalist, a political scientist, a trade unionist, an economist, and a local government councillor. I’m not saying that they’re clueless by any stretch of the imagination, but none of them are educational experts. Yes, I know, experts are not really the ‘in thing’ in our supposed post-truth society, but I’m still partial to People That Actually Know Things About Stuff. We have a situation where People Making Big Decisions about actually teaching pupils/students almost invariably don’t have much/any experience of what the job really entails. Genius. We might see these ministers, then, as People Who Pretend They Know About Stuff But Don’t.
One of those who seems to a pretending type is a slightly more junior education minister – like his boss, he’s an accountant. He was in the papers recently saying that we really need a test that you can’t train people to pass. He’s digging himself a hole here. The background to this is that the government is seeking to resuscitate a more or less dead donkey known as the ‘grammar school’. Grammar schools were supposed to offer a more rigorous, university-oriented, education. You had to take a test called an ’11+’, and those who did well got superiority complexes and places in grammars, went to top universities, and ruled the country/world alongside (or slightly below) those who’d been to private schools. The rest were sent off to ‘comprehensive schools’, with inferiority complexes, in time to be ruled by their ‘betters’. The idea was that children, regardless of background, had an equal opportunity to better themselves as the brightest rose to the top of the churn.
What actually transpired was that middle class parents were very good at playing the 11+ game, and rather than grammar schools selecting the brightest, they selected the best prepared. The figures show that the people who went to these schools almost invariably came from more affluent backgrounds. Unless you live in the Middle Ages and think that people are successful through the simple alchemy of natural ability and application, this grammar school thing doesn’t make sense. There is also a powerful but – strangely unpopular – argument that combining pupils of differing attainment in the same class helps everyone. This is because the pupils who understand something might be able to explain it to their peers and would clarify their own thoughts in the process.
Anyway, apart from a handful of bastions to inequality, grammar schools were closed or converted to regular schools some time ago. Why the current government want to bring it back from the (almost) dead is beyond me. One argument is that they’re trying to restore The Good Old Days, when actually it’s widely accepted that those days were pretty crap. Perhaps, as someone wittily pointed out in the Twittersphere recently, this policy is largely supported by those who are struggling to afford private fees.
So this is where we come back to the tutor-free test. It may look like I’ve gone on a bit of a meander, but you can see that the background is important. Just about everyone who knows anything about grammar schools has pointed out that they’re socially regressive. Really, I’ve not seen a single sensible expert being in support of this policy. Every way you crunch the numbers, it’s a dead end. So the Minister is looking for an 11+ that identifies the brightest, regardless of background – they’re dreaming up an escape clause that justifies their idiocy. Nothing out there supports our policy? Really, nothing? Okay, let’s invent something. The problem is, they’re trying to invent something which can’t exist.
What he’s basically looking for is a test of education that is immune to any form of education. When you put it like that, it looks silly, right? People thought they’d ‘found’ this when they first devised IQ tests, and within a short space of time they’d identified (or so they thought) that Afro-Caribbeans were less intelligent than whites. In fact they were just being racist and/or socially blind – it’s just that whites were more likely to have had the kinds and/or levels of education that enabled them to negotiate IQ tests.
This all connects with one of the most problematic words in education – ability. The problem is, there is so much that gets in the way of identifying what someone’s ‘true ability’ might be, that we can’t be sure that there is such a thing. Who you’re taught by and how, what individual school cultures are like, your home environment, your neighbourhood, how you’re seen/treated by others, what you eat, the state of the economy, and so on – all of this adds ‘noise’ to the signal of what our natural ability might be. We might be able to accept that some have mental talents in the same way as physical ones, but at the same time, for anyone to reach the top takes time and the right support. A lot of people try and don’t make it for all sorts of reasons, and a lot of people out there simply aren’t given the chance. Some people aren’t very good but are still successful, so the whole ability thing is a bit of a mess, really!
So they want a test which you can’t game. It makes sense at first glance, but not at all beyond that. As soon as you devise any test, people will pull it apart and see how it works. You need to do this to look for faults and improvements – that’s the nature of testing. Unless there is some kind of biological measure of ability (like midochlorians), any form of testing is always going to be something you can train for – or cheat. As we’ve seen over the last few years, even the most stringent tests can be sidestepped, as Volkswagen or the Russian Ministry of Sport, among others, have proven time and time again. You can’t take society out of education (or education out of society), and you can’t take education out of an educational test. What we really need is appropriate investment in education that gives people more equal opportunities. In order to do this, you need people making educational policy who know what they’re talking about. Even if the policy-makers aren’t experts themselves, they should at least be listening to (and incorporating) the views of People That Actually Know Things About Stuff, rather than forging ahead blindly with ideas that have little relationship with the reality. Controversial, I know…