Education, not ‘attainment’.

I clearly remember two separate, but similar introductions to the new year from teachers at my junior school, though the identity of the teachers has now faded from my memory. On both occasions, something was written in chalk, on the board and obviously with enough dramatic impact for me to recall for 40 years. One of these was the literal translation of the word ‘educere’ as ‘to lead/draw out’ and the other was the old catechism ‘wissen ist macht’ translated as ‘knowledge is power’ but conveyed to us as our knowledge would give us power (to think for ourselves, to make informed decisions, to resist negative pressure). I’m reminded of these when I am witness to educational debates and particularly those that focus on the purpose of education. Of course, like so many of us, I must be strongly influenced by my early experience, which in this case leads me to question some of the current assumptions about teaching and learning and to wonder what happened to the idea that education was about education as opposed to being about attainment.

What is wrong with attainment?

I think the issue is less with the notion that we can ‘strive to attain’, but rather with what it leaves out, or shoves aside, and the perverse incentives which it generates. I’m concerned, currently, that there has been a recent surge to embrace, in England, the ‘freedom’ afforded by the removal of levels alongside a new, unquestioning fandom for ‘mastery’ and the idea that all primary pupils in a certain year, learn a certain body of knowledge in order to be ‘meeting’ the requirements of that year. I would worry about the assumptions behind what that body of knowledge should be, whether it was appropriate for all pupils within a year, regardless of their age and experience, even without the high-stakes ranking tests at the end of KS2. But this should be a matter for concern. Attainment has moved from being a step along a continuum and has returned, very much to a comparison of a pupil’s worth against other pupils of the same year, within school and within the country. You can only attain highly, if you are well above the average score. Teachers can only be very successful, if they achieve the impossible and somehow push their students to the right of the bell-curve. This, like the drive to achieve ever higher levels in the old system, is high stakes indeed. Unfortunately, if we focus so highly on attainment, we increase the incentive to cheat – examples from education and sport abound. The focus on doing it well has been replaced by the focus on doing it better than everyone else. I’m suggesting that is a corruption of the purposes of education.

But I’m concerned not only with the focus, but also our failure to question the presumption of what ‘doing well’ means. I think it would be true to say that we don’t all agree on this. The polarisation of the debate about skills v knowledge is only one example of difference in views and of the pendulum swing of ideology in English (US?) education. This matters, because it affects what is valued and what is taught.

Primary science is a classic victim of ideological meddling having an impact on what goes on in schools. It goes briefly like this: science is seen as having too low a status. It is given ‘core’ status and tested at the end of KS2. The tests are seen to be inadequate in assessing ‘real science’ and are having a negative ‘backwash’ on the teaching of science. The tests are scrapped. Teaching is supposed to focus on science skills, but without the tests, science loses its comparative status. Subject knowledge resurfaces as crucial. Teachers are given dozens of knowledge-based objectives against which to assess pupils, but as of yet, no effective means to do this. (I would predict the return of some form of testing). International comparisons (PISA) historically place England above average, with little change from 2006, in terms of science (pdf), but the impact (or lack of) of scrapping the SATs in 2009 has yet to be measured.

But what of PISA, anyway?

I confess, I love data. I want to see trends, graphical representations of percentages, comparisons, etc. and I crave evidential bases for actions. However I’m not alone in questioning the validity and reliability of the use of data in the day to day business of education, especially in the form of international comparisons which have a major impact on what we do in English schools: ‘PISA says xxxx and therefore…’ My issues are this:

  • How do we measure attainment?

As yet, we are still dependent on conventional testing as the reliable method of measuring attainment. PISA write at length of the limitations of this, but ultimately have no alternative. Reliable, however does not mean valid, hence the arguments in favour of alternatives such as teacher assessment, which I argue strongly against as a means of reliable measurement.

  • What are we measuring, exactly?

Although I’m a massive fan of tests and exams for their impact on personal learning and as an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, we have to accept that they are selective and limited in what they test. PISA represents a view of what should be tested, but what is left out, is necessarily vastly more than what is included. What exactly does a high score in PISA represent? It represents something but is it the thing that we most want out of our education system or is there something that we haven’t measured? We necessarily have to cherry pick our criteria but these relate to attainment in very specific curricula and not, we could argue, to the overall education of a population. Extrapolation is also a problem. If we look at high attaining countries, do we really know what it is that makes the difference and can we really just extract that and apply it to our own, even if we think this measure of attainment is valuable?

  • Who is it for?

This is an important question and a political one. PISA represents an OECD idea of what to measure for attainment. We might agree with much of this and we might recognise (as I do!) that national curricula map quite closely with each other. However, there is room for doubt, particularly when one’s own government can make a political decision, for example, to leave out any mention of climate change in its new curriculum! PISA was set up, apparently, with a view to improving education policies and outcomes, which seems laudable, but which outcomes and for whom? Are we talking about a future of a reasonably competent population, capable of contributing towards the ‘economic success’ of their country, or of a highly informed, analytical, thinking population that has the wherewithal to solve problems and question policies? Or, is there something else, too?

So what then?

I will continue to argue for something rather more idealistic than an attainment model of education. Although competition can be some kind of incentive, and I have used it myself in the class, education, in my view, is not about being better, higher up the tree, earning more than the other or, dare I say it, consuming faster and causing more destruction. Education is really big. It’s too big to consign to the ‘mastery’ of a handful of objectives and it’s not measured by the attainment of a high score in a set of tests at the end of a Key Stage. Really good teaching is useful but insufficient and, I have to say, not essential (had it been, I would never have passed ‘O’ level Chemistry). Any single source, such as one teacher, is not enough. Without learners taking responsibility, it doesn’t happen. Maybe ‘character’ is what that drives people to the top, but ‘the top’ can be a very destructive place and it’s not everybody’s idea of fulfilment. Education doesn’t require ‘character’ it requires a kind of craving, not for attainment but to know and to be able to do and to understand more than before. By all means, learners should be given opportunities to challenge themselves in chosen areas, marked by assessments of various types, but these shouldn’t be hurdles; they should be available when wanted.

Some views of attainment

Here are some models of pupils within the system in relation to attainment of objectives. The question is, who is doing better? Who is attaining higher? Who is likely to get a lot less teacher attention and why? (apologies for the blurriness – I’ll get back to that but wanted to get this posted while I have time)

p a



My curriculum that isn’t in the curriculum

I thought I’d just end with some examples (we could all come up with these and please feel free to add yours) of some of the ‘important’ things I’ve taught so far this term:

  • Talking politely gets a better result
  • The large spider is called Tegenaria and he is a male – look at his clubbed pedipalps
  • The environment won’t change to suit your needs
  • Using a back loop when you’re sewing means the thread stays in
  • Slugs have a right to live, too (and by the way are related to to the octopus)
  • You’ve just used an example of the ‘pathetic fallacy’, without knowing it
  • Excel needs numerical data
  • What you learn in class time is not enough
  • Poems work better if the strong rhyme comes in the second line

5 thoughts on “Education, not ‘attainment’.

  1. Just come across – excellent read. I agree entirely with your analysis here – particularly about education being big and the role of the individual teacher being over-stated. That is part of the personality-cult/ halo effect mentality of our time. There is much out there to suggest that even talented individuals rarely have as much impact as they are credited with.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s