Quantitative Easing and Asset-stripping

What is so wrong with making decisions about exam specifications based on track records of delivering good results? On the face of it, this seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do, particularly now that everyone is supposed to be everyone else’s customer. If schools are simply the customers of the privatised exam boards, then one could argue that it makes sense to look at the efficacy of the ‘product’ one is thinking of buying. After all, you wouldn’t intentionally buy a car that didn’t work well – and you simply assume that the parts used are suitable for the job.

But there’s a problem: in choosing an exam course, we not choosing a machine for our own use but a cultural-intellectual legacy, the benefit of which is neither clearly defined, nor intended for us. One of my main concerns about shopping around exam boards is that it comes perilously close to admitting that the ‘customer’ is really the school and not the pupils at all.

While it is pupils who will (hopefully) go on to achieve good grades, (and form the future corpus of the discipline) the aggregate effect of grades is really of little interest to anyone except schools, inspectors and politicians. In this case, my recent experience suggests that less attention will be paid to the actual educational experience offered to pupils and more to the outcome desired by the school, even if it is dressed up as being in the pupils’ interests. For example, I struggle to accept that it is in pupils’ educational interests to have less opportunity to explain themselves at length simply so that they have a higher chance of scoring a good grade.

In a nutshell, this is the problem inherent in having a system that is over-interested in results for their own sake: the intrinsic purpose of intellectual furtherment is all too easily overridden by the extrinsic aim of achieving exam targets for their own sake. I would argue that this is a far greater betrayal of pupils’ interests than any amount of vaguely lacklustre classroom teaching. It has far-reaching potential for sending pupils out from their schooling equipped with nothing more than the sound-bites of information that teachers required them to know in order to pass exams, rather than a deeper understanding of a field of human endeavour undertaken for its own inherent and wide-ranging value.

Furthermore, pupils will very likely have their own extrinsic temptations reinforced at the expense of the more challenging and scholarly understanding that a thriving mind just is, and is not ‘for’ anything in particular. (I would go so far as to say that a genuinely thriving mind cannot come about for anything other than  its own sake).  It also risks depriving them of the intrinsic fulfilment to be had from learning, since it becomes nothing more than a means to a fairly vacuous end, each topic nothing more than another box ticked on the exam spec.

In my view, this is selling children massively short, and worse than that our entire society too, as we seem to be heading in a direction where learnedness and intellectual self-sufficiency are seen as having little inherent significance for the average person. So where are the pioneers and thinkers of the next generation going to come from if we empty the intellectual pool so drastically? Such people tend to emerge unexpectedly from the ether, not from some special target-beset initiative. If we ask what learning is for and the answer comes back, ‘passing exams’, that is not ultimately very helpful.

It is perhaps easy to caricature my position as being ‘anti exam’ but this is most emphatically not the case. I am not for one moment suggesting that exams should not exist, or that they are not important. Just as many musicians find that the presence of a performance or examination focuses the mind to achieve great things, we do of course need some focus for schools’ work – and high fallutin’ abstractions about the innate value of learning are unlikely to wash with immature minds.

But musical performance is often not an end in itself – it is a catalyst for more profound action. There are major differences in the way exams can and should be used. Exams are effective when used as a retrospective validation of learning that has been undertaken for its own sake – a means of calibrating the level achieved against an expected canon – of what pupils can do, not what they should do. This is fine, because it places the emphasis firmly on the learning for its own sake, and being retrospective it removes or at least reduces the temptation by teachers and pupils to try to game the system. It frees people to think about the subject matter in hand in its own right.

By comparison, using exams as anticipatory objectives tends to do all the opposites. It devalues subject content and risks limiting the amount (and breadth) acquired to that supposedly ‘needed’ to pass the exam. It also diverts pupils’ real attention away from understanding the subject towards understanding exam strategy – not unnecessary, but surely not the crux of what we are trying to do. It also alters the balance between what one might expect of the pupil and the teacher. The relationship with the subject becomes an arm’s-length one rather than full involvement, and in the process this may inhibit any real curiosity or ‘love of subject’ (a.k.a. scholarship) that might develop.

I am not sure, either, that sending the message that education (or life in general) is all about how well you game the system is really very desirable.

It is true that teachers have always had to make choices about which syllabus to follow, but I am long enough in the tooth to remember such discussions from years ago. Before the days of extreme exam pressure, discussions were about the impact that the choice would have on pupils’ understanding of the subject – and to some extent, its match with the expertise of the staff on hand. Courses – and entire subjects – were offered more for their inherent educational and intellectual value, and not simply the results that they could deliver.

There is a massive difference between a school system that aims to educate people and one that aims simply to qualify them, but the emphasis seems to be shifting ever further towards the latter – what is important is not what you know, but the bit of paper that you have at the end.

In economics, printing money that is not backed by real assets – quantitative easing – is an empty gesture and risks being inflationary; qualifications – pieces of paper that allow the holder to move to the next stage – that are not backed by real learning and ability are worth  little more. The effect also tends to be inflationary – but this emphasis is perhaps not surprising from an education sector whose mentality increasingly resembles the high-risk, quick-buck world of high finance rather than a long-term socio-cultural investment.

This is a significant shift of mindset on the part of some (many?) in the teaching profession. My concern is that those making such decisions are not aware of the pitfalls of a contingent approach, that they have not really thought about the ‘structural’ educational damage that is being done by sacrificing long-term intellectual and cultural investment for the quick but shallow buck of ‘results’ – and my even greater concern is that even if they have, just like financial speculators and corporate asset-strippers, they may not care.

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