A London teacher speaks about their own experience of the use of assessment as a form of social control in schools. From the spring 2010 issue of The Leveller.
Assessment is a normal and sometimes valuable part of education. There’s nothing wrong with checking whether some sort of training or education has achieved its goal of helping someone learn a new skill or a piece or knowledge. Indeed it is a necessary and vital part of many aspects of education. This article however, focuses on the reactionary uses of assessment in schools. It effectively has dual-purpose - a) establish a pecking order from the early years onwards, and for pupils to ‘know their place’ throughout their educational life, and b) monitor worker performance. The examples refer specifically to experiences in England but may be of relevance to education workers elsewhere.
The language is encouraging; ‘getting the most out of our learners’, ‘levels in the air’ and ‘adding value’. The rhetoric within many schools now is that in order to achieve such goals, we need to be quantifying the learning every step of the way, checking that those incremental gains in ‘knowledge’ are being maintained. In effect what this means is pupils, learners, students, whatever terms is in-vogue now, being overtly conscious of their place in the school pecking order at all times. Not only being aware of their own place, but that of every other pupil they share a class with, and the pecking order of each class.
Labelling pupils from the earliest years of school is now common practice. By the end of primary school, pupils are expected to have a firm grasp of what ‘level’ they are in core subjects (maths, science, English), and those levels are increasingly used to ‘stream’ or, as has been common practice in core subjects for a long time, at least ‘set’ pupils depending on ability. Streaming is a more divisive version of setting where pupils are not just set within an individual subject, but effectively separated for the whole of the school lesson time into different ability classes. This effectively creates schools within schools, enabling the establishment of hierarchies within supposedly comprehensive schools.
What does ‘levelling’ mean? In England, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), sets out the levels within subjects, from level 1-8 in most subjects. These levels map onto what’s known as Bloom’s Taxonomy – a classification of learning objectives, which is supposed to progress through basic skills and sounds a bit like this – recall, describe, explain, analyse, evaluate, synthesise. They roughly translate to levels 3-8 of the QCDA’s descriptors.
If this all sounds boring, it’s because it is. It relates little to the content of the subjects kids are learning, and is more a process of quantification that suits micromanagers who want to easily monitor performance of staff and students. The effect on pupils in the classroom is tangible. In the days when tests were measured in As, Bs, Cs etc in early secondary education, pupils of course had awareness of who was a the ‘smart kid’ and who wasn’t. But they didn’t wear that label for every minute of every lesson, of every day of every term. The new ‘levelling’ in its most extreme forms means that pupils must be labelled at intervals throughout the lesson, and may even be divided within lessons in ‘level 3 tables’ and ‘level 6 table’ and so on. Thus the hierarchy is a constant, throughout all lessons.
Depressingly, the overt and pervasive form of academic labelling is internalised by many students, who will refer to themselves and their own abilities negatively. Many underestimate the degree to which pupils internalise the labels we assign them, and unfortunately some don’t care, because they’re genuinely only interested in generating graphs to show their departments are ‘performing’.
The impact on students is very real, and should be of deep concern to anyone genuinely interested in education.
Monitoring the staff monitoring the students.
Beyond labelling individual students, the overtly quantitative forms of assessment that now exist in most schools are used directly, and openly, to monitor staff performance. Most schools have a computerised record system that monitors everything from attendance, to test scores, to behaviour management. But the scope of these systems, and the uses to which they are put, may vary from school to school.
In its most pervasive guise, these systems are a tightly quantified form of both pupil and staff monitoring. The data from these systems can be used explicitly in ‘performance management’. Performance management amounts to bosses monitoring staff to check they are doing the job. In some instances, provided your line manager isn’t a jobsworth and simply is in their position for a bit of extra money, it can be supportive – it can identify areas for improvement, and suggest ways to move forward and make teaching and learning better.
However, increasingly, the data is used to identify ‘underperforming’ staff. Performance management does not apply to trainee teachers or NQTs (Newly Qualified Teachers i.e. those in their probation period) – it applies only to teachers in their second year in the profession and onwards. I have seen instances where data from pupil monitoring has been used to build cases against so-called underperforming staff. In those that I have witnessed, it has been where a line-manager is an ‘aspiring leader’ – someone who wants to get out of the classroom and into school management. They will use the data to openly criticise colleagues and show quantitatively how they ‘aren’t doing their jobs well’.
What does this data involve? Ok, say you give a class an assessment. You mark it, record you marks, and enter it into the computer system. So far, it’s no more than a glorified version of the old fashioned mark-book, those folders you see teachers carrying around (most still carry the old ones too, so effectively work is duplicated, but most of us like to have a paper copy of marks).
But further to that, the mark is then mapped against a pre-determined ‘target’ for each pupil. At key stage 3 (11-14yrs) this target is usually based on the scores they come from primary school with, and mapped across the three years of the curriculum. These projections are often wrong – perhaps the pupil has a ‘good day’ on the assessment day, perhaps they had a ‘bad one’, but for the next three years, every test they take will be matched against that yardstick, and both the pupils performance, and their teachers’ will be judged in that light.
At this stage, each mark can then be flagged as ‘on’, ‘below’ or ‘above’ target. And here is where the managers come in – they have access to this data for every member of staff and can use it in their ‘performance management’. In some schools, such data has been used to ‘get rid of dead wood’.
“Driving Licence for Teachers”
So this overt form of easily-quantifiable assessment can be used as a stick to poke both students and staff with. Teachers have some the highest stress levels in any sector. The already excessive demands of many performance management procedures and Ofsted inspections are potentially to be made worse with the government’s proposed ‘Licence to teach’* being put forward last year. Under the proposed licence, teachers would have to ‘renew’ their ‘teaching licence’ every five years or face the sack. Speaking to experienced classroom teachers, it’s clear that most view the proposal as nothing short of cretinous and an insult to their integrity. Teachers are already subject to an ever-mounting degree of invasion into the professional life and with the prospect of more of this it’s no wonder than retention of workers in the sector has been so difficult.
Education is a mess at the minute. Higher education is facing a total collapse, with £900m to be cut from the university budgets and 14,000 jobs to be cut, despite 20,000 more university places being announced - less staff, less money…. but more students – I’m no mathematician but something doesn’t add up. The examples of a fightback in the form university occupations at Sussex, London Met, Westminster, and the London College of Communications, and proposed strikes at Leeds are encouraging, but workers in the secondary and primary sectors need to wake up.
Quantification and the growing meddling in our working lives, both from micromanagers and bureaucrats is just one problem we face. The march of Ofsted, as well as the growth of academies and the increasing involvement of private investors in schools should be of grave concern to us all. Workers in schools need to stand in solidarity with the counterparts in universities, and to learn from their experiences. The attacks facing higher education at the minute are unlikely to stop there, and workers in schools need to be ready to fight back.
By a member of the London Education Workers Group
NUT’s campaign against ‘Licence to Teach’ - http://www.nut.org.uk/notolicencetopractise
* - the License to Teach plans have been dropped since the author wrote this piece