The Crater Good: what counts as evidence of improvement in education?

Rupert Higham's picture
Sometimes, all that’s required for nonsense to become common sense is repetition. A case in point is the assumption by politicians and the school inspectorate that examination grades are the ultimate test of quality in education. Indeed, education policy in the UK over the last 30 years, and increasingly across the world, has been founded the notion that improving grades equates to improving education. And yet, uncommon sense – supported by a considerable weight of research evidence – recognises the many ways in which the pressure to increase grades decreases the quality of education even when, as in the UK, those grades have risen dramatically.

If teachers are put under enough pressure to increase grades, many will, however reluctantly, teach increasingly to the test, provide inappropriate assistance with coursework and detailed writing frames, drill students with model answers, and focus on learning exam specifications rather than valuable content. This is in turn supported by textbooks that focus closely on those exact specifications rather than the broader subject, and by expensive courses for teachers run by members of examination boards on how best to prepare for their exams. In addition, this process distorts the value of equality in education as some students – say, those identified as on the borderline of achieving particular grades – become more important to the school than others. As Marilyn Strathern commented, “A measure, once it becomes a target, ceases to be a useful measure”.

The consequences for children and adults can be dire: the school may relate to them as a means towards their own end of high performance in league tables; they may spend a two year course being relentlessly prepared for examinations rather than exploring a subject openly and in depth; the notion of education for its own sake fuelled by love of learning and intellectual curiosity can become a distant dream. Education thus becomes a game schools are forced to play to satisfy the desire of those in power over them for visible numerical results; children can become pawns in this game, as can staff – perhaps with a greater risk to newer entrants to the profession who have had no experience of other approaches either as adults or children. Many can become profoundly disempowered and demoralised if they do not understand the purpose of education beyond attaining the next target. Children are fooled into thinking that their examination grades will be the principal determiner of their life chances, when in fact their range of life experiences and achievements outside school, their networks of friends and acquaintances, and their personal maturity, convictions and values will be at least as important in shaping their near future, and far more so in shaping their life course.

Education, at its foundation, is a moral activity. It differs from ‘training’ by retaining the right to question and redefine its aims and principles, rather than fixing a narrowly-defined outcome as its goal. Tony Booth, author of the Index for Inclusion, has framed these aims in response to the questions: “how should we live together?”, and “what do we need to know to live together well?” To be well educated is to have developed the capacity to live well with oneself and with others, and to be in a position to use knowledge and skills to understand and transform the social and physical worlds around us to our mutual benefit. To be educated is to become more fully human. We can agree on this definition without agreeing on all our values, goals, priorities and methods. Perhaps we can even agree that engagement in dialogue around these different perspectives is a vital element of our education.

Uncommon sense also prevails on us to define education so that it cannot be measured on a linear scale. The thought of measuring a human being’s value on a scale of 1 to 10 at the end of his or her education violates fundamental principles of human rights and equality. The logic of our current system, however, is that we do almost precisely this – be it through SATS, GCSE results, UCAS points or classes of university degree. This score is then taken to reflect people’s overall worth as potential employees, often more than their particular motivations, aptitudes and experiences that relate to each job. The unexplored assumption is made that a higher score makes a better person, incrementally more deserving of future success. Because we cannot measure what we value most, instead we have chosen to value most what we can measure.

Ironically, other organisations looking to bring about greater equality in education find themselves in a position where they also asked to focus on measurable outcomes in order to fund their work. The most common term for this is ‘impact’: literally, the damage done or crater left behind by a particular collision. Following this analogy, student recipients of any education improvement initiative should brace themselves. In relation to the relentless drilling, close coaching and target-group pressurising outlined above, the impact on them and their education is all too clear – regardless of the grades they achieve and their questionable worth.

The Index for Inclusion Network, in its work with Norfolk schools which supports values-led school improvement, is also asked to demonstrate ‘impact’. We maintain that there are forms of evidence that are rigorous, descriptive and insightful, and that can capture what we value most, without resorting to self-justification against linear scales. We use collections of interviews, observations, stories and images, critically analysed, to create case studies. A case study can gather relevant background detail, methods, empirical evidence and outcomes to examine an intervention in a particular case. It can balance risks and possibilities, costs and benefits; it can try to balance what is unique about the particular situation against what may be relevantly similar elsewhere. It looks to fully understand a process of improvement, contribute to it and learn from it. The process is ‘evaluated’: measured against the shared inclusive values of those involved. A case study, then, looks to have impact according to its most benign definition: of leaving a lasting impression that has helped give shape to the object at hand.

The drive for statistical measures which compare attainments across the education system has been self-defeating: in its own terms it has hopelessly skewed standards and results; in terms of others it has inflicted defeat on countless students and teachers by marginalising the intrinsic valuing of education in favour of a system where the ends justify the means. It reminds me of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture, ‘The Rock Drill’, created 100 years ago on the brink of war to warn against the creation of a system too powerful to be controlled – and a premonition of the collective disaster to come.

It is time to reject more openly any consensus that educational improvement can be measured on a linear scale, and to expose the fact that placing such high value incentives on achieving targets based on those measures jeopardises the inherent quality of education. Instead we need to be ready to undertake the hard work of case studies to understand schools in their own contexts, and their improvement in relation to shared values, to determine how they can be improved.
In the broader picture, there are three further implications.

Firstly, if we choose to believe that student examination results have intrinsic lasting value, we must unlink them from all systemic incentives and disincentives such as school takeover and closure, Ofsted evaluation and performance-related pay. In this case, inspectors would then only assess the quality of the teaching and learning environment and support improvements, not base the view of its quality on students’ results in tests. This would additionally restore a large measure of responsibility back to students, encouraging them to take a more active and self-critical role in their learning.

Secondly, we must stop making shallow and invalid statistical comparisons between schools that promote competition in which many must lose and suffer as a result. Instead, a case study approach encourages cooperation between schools by evaluating them individually and providing rich information that they and others can learn from. Furthermore, such an approach is more likely to raise morale and engender improvement because it relates to the shared values and aims of the school community.

Finally, we need to re-evaluate what constitute appropriate indicators of a student’s progress at school. We need to find ways to reflect their diversity and uniqueness – and are thereby far more valuable to universities and colleges, prospective employers, and to themselves. A good start might be to consider a portfolio detailing students’ aims and values, experiences, achievements with examples, results where appropriate, and citations and evaluations from others. These are analogous to case studies in that they seek to give situated accounts of unique human beings on a trajectory into adulthood. The response that this would take longer to compile, and for colleges, universities and employers to assess, is negligible given that our current approach is fundamentally flawed, costly and inefficient. Asking students and teachers to engage in compiling such a portfolio over the course of their education would bring the focus back onto the way the school can support the child, rather than how the child can support the school.
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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 05/08/2014 - 11:50

Thanks Rupert, this is an important post. There is an increasing groundswell of opinion that England's exam system is unfit for purpose. Yesterday the BBC reported how Tony Little, head of Eton, thought "Too much focus on grades means exams can eclipse an all-round education."

This in turn echoes OECD concerns made three years ago that there was already too much emphasis on exam results in England which risked teaching to the test, "gaming", ignoring other important skills and creating perverse incentives.

It's time England moved towards the exam system in most of the developed world - graduation at 18 via multiple routes that value much more than grades in a sudden-death test.

And, as you say, it would put the emphasis on children and their education (in its widest sense) instead of valuing children merely for what their results bring to the school and the wider system.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 10/08/2014 - 09:24

Sod it. I have spent 10 years writing a shortly to be published book making all these points and you sum it up in one brilliant post. Very well done Rupert.

Rupert Higham's picture
Tue, 12/08/2014 - 07:38

Thanks, Roger - I hope to write a book next year with Tony Booth on our work with the Index for Inclusion to approach things differently. Case studies of schools that have done so are available at

I look forward to your book!

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