Well, that’s the only conclusion I can come to. I have decided to measure people’s worth as human beings, but I found things like selflessness, generosity of spirit, honesty and solidarity very difficult, nay impossible to measure. Height on the other hand is very easy to measure. I might even make the league table fairer by multiplying the height score by foot size.
A ridiculous idea, of course. But the idea that the quality of services or work be ascertained by measures and targets mean that only those factors that can either be quantified or judged to have been met or not, is ingrained throughout society. In the public sector, this manifests itself in school league tables and targets for hospitals to reach.
What is the effect of this? In schools, where exam performance is the key measure used, the whole culture is one of teaching to the test. This is usually by pressure from above. The Headteacher will feel pressure to improve exam results from the Government and the school governors, and also from parents. The importance of school league tables lies in attracting pupils to the school (thereby securing more funding), and winning various grants from the local authority and the government, so the position in the league table is also a strong driver. The head passes on these pressures to the heads of department, who are made accountable for their own department’s results.
The squeeze is then put on individual teachers, set in competition with each other, with future promotions and pay rises at stake, to push their pupils to the highest grades possible. The effect of this? In subjects like English, maths and science, deemed most important as they are ones prioritised by league tables, only subject matter that it is thought will be in exams is taught, and usually in quite a shallow way, so that the key facts are memorised, but no real understanding or appreciation can be developed.
In some cases, parts of the National Curriculum are skipped over in year 9, so there can be greater concentration on those areas more likely to be tested on, and for endless practice tests. Some children are taken out of lessons such as geography and history to attend ‘booster classes’ in the ‘main’ subjects.
The bulk of this activity takes place in the final year of primary school, and in years 9, 10 and 11 of secondary school, when the children are aged 13-16. In some schools the final year of primary school has become preparation for the SATs exam at 11. Children are arriving at secondary school put off by education because they are not learning or enjoying their work, rather they are undergoing tedious coaching. Tedious coaching for an exam which does not affect their future in anyway (it is not used for entry to grammar schools in the areas that still have them) and whose results are generally disregarded by secondary school teachers because they don’t think they are reliable indicators of talent or ability.
In secondary school, the teaching to the test occurs at the same time as when children become disaffected with everything anyway. The tediousness and pointlessness of much of the schoolwork in this time in their lives is not going to have a positive impact on their view of education or their inclination to take it seriously. We have many problems in society that have led to serious disaffection amongst young people, namely rampant inequality, lack of respect from other generations and a dearth of decent jobs, but the increasingly poor educational experiences must contribute.
I don’t seek to blame teachers, heads of department or even headteachers. I know that most of them work very hard and usually have the best interests of children at heart. But a rotten system, based on assumptions by a neo-liberal establishment that teachers and other public servants cannot be trusted and must be controlled with strict targets and statistically illiterate measures, means that acting rationally within the bounds of the system leads to irrational and adverse results.
Targets in the health service are another matter entirely, and the disgraceful former regime at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, where hundreds of people died due to inadequate care, while the Trust was rated ‘Good’ by the Healthcare Commission, for ticking the right boxes designed by some clueless career bowler-hat, speaks more of their uselessness than any couple of hundred words I can spill here.
But both the examples prove that if you cannot accurately measure the quality of something, don’t choose some half-arsed proxy measure like meeting targets or getting X% of pupils to get above grade C. It only results in distorting what the workers on the ground know to be best practice. The secret behind a good education system is a dedicated (and expanded) workforce, and real decision making and power in the hands of teachers, support staff, and pupils themselves.
It also requires much more investment in facilities and activities for pupils, the promise of a decent future, and the philosophy that school is about learning for its own sake and learning so that you can serve society in the future, not that school is a place to go to get qualifications to improve your chances of getting what may be non-existent jobs.
The secret of a good healthcare system is prevention first and foremost, mainly through the eradication of the vast inequality in society. In prevention and treatment, there needs to be an increased number of well-motivated healthcare workers, who again have control over their own work, and democratic influence over the work of the hospital or surgery, and the system in which it is a part.