Thursday 12 December 2013

Why testing seven-year-olds will backfire

A generation ago, the former Bank of England director Sir Charles Goodhart developed what is now known as ‘Goodhart’s Law’.

It was originally a principle in macro-economics, but it is now more usually used about the distortions of public service targets.  The principle is that numerical measurements will always be inaccurate if they are used to control people.

The reason is that, however incompetent staff may be, they will always be skillful enough to make targets work for them rather than against them. 

Take for example, the original response – more than a decade ago now – to the rule that patients shouldn’t be kept on hospital trolleys for more than four hours.  In practice, some hospitals got round it by putting them in chairs.  Others bought more expensive kinds of trolleys and re-designated them as ‘mobile beds’.

What I don’t think those of us who were talking about the impact of Goodhart’s Law understood, even then, was how deep the effects would be – and how devastatingly wasteful.

I got a clue a few years ago watching a documentary about airport security staff.  It was quite clear that most of their energy, by a long way, was dedicated – not to seeking out terrorists - but trying to spot the inspectors posing as members of the public.

Now imagine that same situation, turbo-charged by targets and payment-by-results contracts, in nearly every corner of public services, and you begin to see why they have become so ineffective – and so expensive.

It is, I believe, the great disaster of our services, and it may still bring about their demise. Let’s hope not.

So when the chief inspector at Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, says he wants to bring back exams at the age of seven, we ought to separate out the laudable intention – to bring rigour to the crucial first few years of primary school – but we also need to look at the likely effects.

Goodhart’s Law says nothing about testing in itself.  The problems come when the results of that testing are used to control the behaviour of teachers.

Then I think we know enough to be able to predict.  Primary education will become dryer, more narrow, more suited to the results of the test.  It will become more alienating.

That is not to say that schools don’t need rigour or that teachers shouldn’t be held to account – or that they shouldn’t pinpoint the children who are being left behind (a symptom of a dysfunctional system where the schools and classes are too big).  Nor that these side-effects will happen in the best schools, as Wilshaw said.

The question is this.  How can you do that without hollowing out the system which is supposed to be inspiring children with the idea of knowledge and reading and the possibilities of life?

What we do know is that, so far, testing as a means of controlling the teachers leads to a technocratic approach that tends to leave some children behind.  The cure may well be worse than the disease.

And I also know this.  We desperately need to get beyond the current stand-off in education.  It turns children into pawns in a greater battle and future generations are likely to curse us for failing to notice the only possible solution – closer personal attention, more investment in people and relationships, and using the pupil premium for than, not more generous dollops of iPads.

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