It’s all just a little bit of history repeating

Below are the results of testing in basic skills, over three years, in a group of English primary schools.

“[Of 25 000 children entered for tests] the total rate of failure which two years ago was 13%, rose last year to 14.46%, but declined this year to 11.3%. Of last year’s failures 20% were in numeracy, 7.7% in writing and 6% in reading.”

We need to know more about these tests (of this more later) but the results sound quite good. They were trumpeted by the government as proving the success of government policies. There were, however, some very familiar and very serious problems that those involved in the testing identified. For example:

 “It is found possible by ingenious preparation, to get children through the tests without really knowing how to read write and calculate.”

“[In preparation for these tests] the teacher is led to think…not about teaching their subject but about managing to meet targets. They limit their subject as much as they can and within these limits try to cram their pupils… the ridiculous results obtained by teaching under these conditions can be imagined.”

“[A system of targets has led to] a game of mechanical contrivance in which the teachers will and must more and more learn how to beat us [the test setters].”

“The circle of the children’s reading has thus been narrowed and impoverished all the year for the sake of a result at the end of it, and the result is an illusion.”

“…the more we undertake to lay down to the very letter the requirements which shall be satisified in order to meet targets , the more do managers and teachers [claim reaching these targets equates to successful teaching]”

Harsh words but sadly these observations on the impact of perverse incentives on actual educational standards are only too familiar. Many similar criticisms have been levelled at our modern education accountability systems.

Except that these words weren’t written recently. They were written in an inspection report on primary schooling from 1869. Yes, in 1869 Her Majesty’s Inspector Matthew Arnold put pen to paper and what I have written above (with very few minor alterations) is what he wrote. At that time it was not actually ‘targets’ as such that schools were chasing, instead individual schools were funded depending on their results on some very narrow testing in arithmetic, writing and reading, known as ‘paying by results’. Arnold set out to highlight the damage of this accountability system to the quality of the education the children received.

I’ve been dipping into Arnold’s writing on education this holiday. He is now best known as a great poet but it was his work as an HMI which earnt him his bread. While many education issues and structures he describes were quite different in the second half of the nineteenth century, what is most striking is how far the Victorians were actually grappling with the same problems, engaged in the same debates, attempting the same hotly debated solutions and driven by the same good intentions.  The prescience of some of Arnold’s commentary is at times startling.

I can’t help thinking of the damage done by the 5A*-C metric when I read:

“It is just the weakness of a system which attempts to prescribe exactly the MINIMUM which shall be done, and which makes it highly penal to fall short of the MINIMUM”

And that

“ Admitting the stimulus of the test examination to be salutary, we may yet say that when it is over-employed it has two faults: it tends to make the instruction mechanical and to set a bar to duly extending it [the instruction]… performing a minimum expressly laid down beforehand – must inevitably concentrate the teacher’s attention on the means for producing this minimum…the danger is the mistake of treating these two [the minimum and the good instruction of the school] as if they were identical.”

He seems quite familiar with the resultant problems of grade inflation…

“This is a hard comparison to make with accuracy, so as to be sure that the improvement in questions has actually taken place”

And the paucity of a primary education focused on narrow testing in the basics:

“…government arithmetic will soon be…remarkable chiefly for its meagreness and sterility.”

Arnold wrote a pamphlet critiquing education reforms in 1862 called ‘The Twice-Revised Code’. In this his criticisms of practices in education range more widely. I was particularly amused by his explanation of why he felt it necessary to write a pamphlet for the general reader. It seems he appreciated just how big a challenge Justine Greening will have mastering her brief:

The system of our Education Department bristles with details so numerous, so minute, and so intricate, that any one not practically conversant with this system has great difficulty in mastering them, and, by failing to master them, may easily be led into error.”

And he was just as cross as teachers today when politicians imposed flaky policies – SATs retakes and the planned academisation of all schools spring immediately to my mind:

“Concocted in the recesses of the Privy Council Office, with no advice asked from those practically conversant in schools, no notice given to those who largely support schools, this new scheme…by which they abruptly revolutionize the system…has taken alike their friends and enemies by surprise.”

The following quote made me think of the impact this year of government policies cutting places for university based teacher training:

“But we could wish some better means had been originally devised for accomplishing this limitation, by processes which the training colleges might have accepted, and which would not have abruptly deranged all their operations; by processes which their inventors might not have been, after all, forced to abandon.”

Arnold is particularly derisory of education reform led by political economists, forced to admit they had:

“…pushed their principle too far when they proposed to examine infants under six years of age!”

He reserves particular scorn for the way HMI were forced to look narrowly at a school’s test results when they visited:

“In fact the inspector will just hastily glance around the school, and then he must to work at the ‘logbooks’…as if there might not be in a school most grave matters needing inspection and correction.”

Finally I don’t know whether I am more amused or saddened by discovering clear explanations, written in 1862, as to why policies we still pursue today are doomed to fail. We have been pursuing criterion based marking in our schools for decades. There are now voices such as Daisy Christodoulou’s explaining why level descriptors don’t work. Here is Arnold, in 1862, explaining the obvious problem with descriptions of quality:

“…the terms ‘fair’ and ‘good’, when applied to the reading, writing and arithmetic of our elementary schools, are not always used in precisely the same sense, and do not carry to the minds of all who hear them used, precisely the same impression”

Most tragic in my mind is the way in the modern age we continue to pursue enormously damaging approaches in our efforts to teach good reading. Such approaches were so obviously wrong to a commentator on education in 1862 but still we persist. Arnold explains that to ensure good results in reading (and thus funding) schools began to focus on teaching basic reading to the neglect of teaching a wide ranging knowledge of the world around them. He observes that:

Commissioners themselves quote the case of a school at Greenwich, in which backward readers, kept to reading-lessons only, were found to make less progress even in reading than others equally backward whose lessons were of a more varied cast. The most experienced inspectors, too, declare that the schools in which the general instruction is best are precisely the schools in which the elementary instruction is best also.”

“[It is their progress in studying] civilisation which will bring them nearer to this power (of good reading comprehension), not the confining them to reading-lessons not the striking out of lessons on geography or history.”

The research of a whole field in cognitive psychology has been necessary to persuade many that it really is important to know lots of ‘stuff’ to have good reading comprehension but in education we are so keen find short cuts and justify them by claiming we know a lot better than people who lived long ago. Arnold wonders:

“If [for] good reading, cultivation in other subjects is necessary, why cut of all grants for these subjects in the hope of thereby getting better reading?”

Good question! Why do we focus so much time and priority on English teaching given the importance of learning lots of other subjects for comprehension?

Perhaps if people had studied a little more history they might be less dismissive of the idea that we can learn from the past. Perhaps the reason we often don’t learn from past wisdom is because we rather arrogantly think we must know better.

You can find Arnold’s ideas on education here:

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating

  1. Thank you for this. So good to see the history of education invoked. Better history of education scholarship is urgently needed at this time. It seems to me to be getting progressively worse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s