We like to think we are very good at holding to account companies and organisations that let us down. Just look at how the supermarket chains are squirming under the outcry over dodgy dealings in the food chain. Hospitals that kill more than they cure are named and shamed. Banks are pilloried at every turn. Organisations that make excessive profits while delivering lousy public services under government contracts become a laughing stock.
But take a second to look after a few months have passed. The systems that allowed these catalogues of disasters to happen remain in place, often with the same people in charge. A public enquiry, a tinker here, a tinker there, a gentle re-brand and it’s business as usual.
Once upon a time a minister or chief executive would resign if something happened on his or her watch, however remote the chain of responsibility. No longer!
Now, confronted with 1 million unemployed and in many cases unemployable young people, the products of our schools, we launch a consultation on school accountability. The focus here will be on accounting for that which can be measured, not for that which should be despised by a civilised and humane society – the waste of young lives in a cycle of unemployment and despair. 1 million unemployed young people is a scandal of epic dimensions. And we don’t have the same excuses that account for the 60% levels of youth unemployment found in Spain and Greece. Their excuse is a combination of massive incompetence, fraud and financial profligacy. Ours is primarily systemic – our system is failing.
We have a narrow and shallow view as to the real value of an education system, and more importantly of the real potential for growth in a young person, and his or her ability to contribute to the wider community.
Let’s start here, at a school near you. All state schools are local schools. They exist in your community; they draw in leaders, teachers, ancillary staff and young people from your community. Many of those young people will seek their first career steps within your community. So why don’t we measure that school’s contribution by how it engages with your local economy, by the proportion of young people engaged in meaningful work within your community? Instead, the accountability that continues to drives school policy will be determined by virtually meaningless league tables. We measure the forces that should shape a young person’s life by his or her performance on a single day in June, not by the enduring contribution that an education contributes to a young person’s life chances -- chances which will mainly start right on your doorstep.
What is an education then, and what should we measure? --- and I question if measure is even an appropriate concept. I go further. I suggest that reducing assessment to the mere measurement of that which is conveniently measurable is a process with which only those of mediocre minds could possibly conceive. Such a process would be laughable in the arts. We’d end up measuring the length of a symphony or book!
Great education is about great learning, and great learning is that which leads towards outcomes that can surprise, shock, amaze – but which are always life enhancing, transformational, as against predictable and mundane. Great education therefore is virtually immeasurable.
So here’s my definition of great education, with outcomes than should be assessed, valued and enhanced through time -- if only we could make the effort.
A school is a series of doors, doors almost without number. Each one is called “My Life”. Each, when opened, represents a pathway rich in both challenges and opportunities, and along these pathways can be found devices, mechanisms, agencies, and even individuals that will support you on your way to a fulfilment of your potential. We don’t close doors. We don’t measure that potential by your class, wealth, colour or ethnicity. We don’t restrict your access to support. As far as you can go, we will support you.
Let’s try measuring that, and then we will be on a worthwhile journey. And it is happening in schools where brave leadership, and the support of their communities and employers, combine to create these pathways. Let’s celebrate these rather than persist with those insidious league tables and those who perpetuate and pander to them.
Only closed minds close doors. And according to the Edge Foundation report published recently, 60% of schools are busy slamming doors by planning to cut the provision of vocational qualifications, as a result of the changes to the school performance tables.
I leave you with the voice of a year 10 student in Salford who I’d asked about the impact on him of the choices he had to make the previous year.
“They took away from me an opportunity that might have changed my future”.
Close the door behind you when you leave the room Mr Gove.
After 30 years in education, Peter Cobrin s still an active and very vocal campaigner on behalf of young people through his social enterprise company, Employment Pathways -- organisers of the March 26th Conference, "Pathways to Employment".