I read with interest the article in The Guardian, titled ‘Quarter of a million children enter secondary school without basic maths and English’, which yet again painted a ‘doom and gloom’ picture of the state of our education system and student progress, (this time year six, but it feels like it could be any year group at the moment).
The article stirred a heady mix of thoughts within me – and it has continued to do so, even 48 hours on.
In fact, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Tees relatively soon after the publication of the piece, but even in the hours since, I’ve had cause to reflect further on what this truly tells us about the education landscape – and what it says about how we should learn to assess and analyse statistics in respect of schooling.
In my view, this article and the statistics embedded within it, as with so many prior occasions, highlights the juxtaposition between setting targets and reality.
Since I started teaching, back some 20 years ago, we seem to be more obsessed with tracking the life out of education. Constant monitoring and target setting is making education feel finite, when in fact it’s arguably one of the most infinite things we have.
In game theory, James Carse defines a finite V’s infinite games as:
“Finite games are defined as known players, fixed rules, and an agreed-upon objective. An infinite game is defined as known and unknown players, the rules are changeable, and the objective is not to win—the objective is to keep playing, keep perpetuating the game."
In our target driven education system, are we applying finite rules upon an infinite game?
As soon as a target is applied, you’re playing a finite game, aiming for an arbitrary statistic, rather than truly focusing on a long-term sustainable solution, which should be any government’s aim.
Less stats and more sustainable long-lasting solutions.
What if...what if the statistics stopped?
We're tracking and analysing things in such detail, which we've been doing for so long that we’ve forgotten what we're here to do.
What would happen if league tables went? If progress measures went? If all ‘end point’ assessments, apart from GCSEs, went?
What if we stopped judgment? Ofsted is finite.
On the day Ofsted arrive you achieved x and that achievement sticks with you for a year, two years, five years, and then what?
At each change in government or cabinet reshuffle comes with it the inevitable change in education focus.
Whether it’s exam reform, curriculum changes and countless other things which not only detracts attention for a moment in time but lessens stability and makes our education system finite. Surely, we need to be focusing on a long-term sustainable solution that outlives which ever party happens to be in charge.
So rather than asking, what’s going wrong and why aren’t students achieving, and rather than pointing the finger of blame to the classroom, let’s consider the entire system.
Perhaps the answer is revisioning, reimagining and remembering what education is for and about.
Every time we stick arbitrary stats and targets on education, we're plunging it into a finite game. We're changing the goalposts and goals all the time, whereas education is infinite.
We're trying to solve an infinite game with a finite solution, and worse than that, it's a finite solution which shifts at every change in government or education minister or curriculum offer.
This recent revelation about year six progress speaks of reading, but all humans develop reading at different paces. Reading development is infinite and human beings don’t just get over a milestone because we’ve decided that they should be ready for it.
Yes, schools and teachers should intervene, and yes they should make sure they have the right tools and programmes to hand to do that, and teach the need rather than the label, or in this instance the statistic.
And then there's the blame across phases. How is that helping?
We’re all united by purpose, so if certain targets and measures were removed, could that lead to more professional collaboration across phases?
There are also the current workforce concerns. Students need energised, highly skilled and educated professionals in front of them, not folks who feel exhausted and brought down by the very system they bought into and desire to sustain.
The targets are the problem, not the teachers. What would happen if we were brave enough to strip all the recording back and just focus on teaching our subjects and our expertise and truly just had the mantra that no one should be limited because they can't read?
Am I an optimist? Yes, of course I am, but not woolly Polly Anna optimism. It’s real optimism embedded in experience, professionalism and a belief that we can create a world leading education system, but we’re not going to do that if we keep playing the finite game.
I’d welcome your comments as we’d like to open this up for wider debate. [email protected]