Thursday, 24 March 2011

Rewarding outputs

Attempting to manage school improvement by financial reward, league tables and targets has entirely predictable side effects as Headteachers cynically, unconsciously or reluctantly allow budget, public reputation and specific measures of ‘success’ to skew their planning. Measure which are intended to (and may often succeed in) ‘driving up standards’ will also be skewing what is perceived and delivered as quality education.

So a standard was set by the previous Government of what proportion of pupils achieve ‘5 GCSEs at Grades A-C including English and Maths’; a laudable aim to see how many achieve good quality basic qualifications in literacy and numeracy and at least some width in other subjects. But you then discover schools abandoning a rounded education in English by putting pupils through an early GCSE so that if they achieve a Grade C they can stop teaching them the subject to make room for extra intensive tutoring in Maths. Or you discover schools abandoning a breadth of education and concentrating on what are perceived to be easier subjects and on some vocational qualifications which ‘count’ as multiple GCSEs.

Now a new Government sets a different standard: a new combination of GCSE passes at Grades A-C is set (with what may be a misnomer as ‘the English Baccalaureate’); humanities (limited to ancient history, history or geography), science (not BTEC) and a foreign language is required. The aim is explicitly to make it easier to identify ‘those schools which succeed in giving their pupils a properly rounded education’. But straight away there is wide publicity about aspects of a genuinely properly rounded education (from art to religious education) where there will be sharp declines in GCSE entries and where the teacher redundancies necessitated by declining budgets are likely to fall.

I continue to wonder what behaviour by schools would be prompted if money, praise and box ticking was to be linked to ‘contextual added value’ in core subjects along with at least something imaginatively extra to them?

This is at the front of my mind because I attended a briefing yesterday from the Skills Funding Agency about developments in funding Further Education Colleges. A chill went through me when the official spoke of a possible shift towards funding ‘outputs’ rather than ‘inputs’ - paying Colleges in the future for how many qualifications are achieved rather than for how many students are taught. I could see the point - part of a ‘relentless’ (I’m sure the word would be used) ‘commitment to drive up standards’ so that the Colleges would only be financially rewarded for achieving qualifications. But, if this does turn out to be the direction of travel of Government policy, it is inevitable how some Colleges (most of whom are already having to take increasing care over appropriate advice and guidance about recruitment to the right courses) will behave by beginning to restrict recruitment even further to those who are certain to succeed. I simply can’t see that being a gain for the more vulnerable in our society.

An illustration of a Public School may be an unusual accompaniment to this post, but I took the picture of the chapel at Berkhamsted School (in which I was Confirmed) when I was there on Saturday for the Memorial Service for a former Second Master of the School; Peter Gibbs was a kind and witty man, a close friend of my father’s from the days when they were at the school together in the 1930s, and my House Master when I was there in the 1970s. The school taught me well enough to get good A-levels and a place at Oxford (and provided a wealth of extra-curricular activity) but the present Government wouldn’t label my education there as sufficiently rounded since my only Science O-level was in joint sciences which doesn’t count towards the English Baccalaureate.

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