The DCSF and the Arsene Wenger school of management

 

Followers of the Premiership will be well-versed in the post-match professions of Arsene Wenger, esteemed manager of Arsenal Football Club and someone whom I generally have a great deal of time for.

Yet if there is one phrase guaranteed to raise a smile among those familiar with these things, it is when Mr Wenger utters the words “I did not see the incident”. This usually passes his lips when one of his players is alleged to have committed an indiscretion, or a dodgy penalty is awarded to his team. It is his way of avoiding any controversy and playing it down, and trying to escape from blaming any of his players.

This came to mind after I read recent pronouncements from the Department for Children, Schools and Families in response to articles which, to be charitable, raise further questions about the unintended consequences of exam statistics-driven schooling.

The first concerned another story I researched and jointly wrote for the Daily Telegraph. This related to guidance backed by the Government and made available to schools by the London Challenge, the National Challenge and the Secondary National Strategies. This clearly advises teachers to concentrate their efforts on the crucial C/D “borderline” pupils at GCSE, whose grades are central to the school’s performance in league tables.

But when asked for a response, the Government’s spokesman said: “We have no evidence that this practice is widespread.” Well, like Mr Wenger they clearly haven’t been looking hard enough. As a head teacher put it to me, there are very few schools in England who are not now aware of this practice, and there are mountains of evidence that it is going on. Teachers, for example, routinely refer to this group of pupils as “C/D borderliners”, without need for further explanation. There is a debate to be had about whether it is good practice, but there should be little doubt that it is happening.

There was a similar reaction after the Guardian reported, when the league tables were published, claims that pupils were being “hothoused” towards exam success. An exam board, Edexcel, was reporting a 67 per cent rise in the number of pupils entered early for a whole GCSE, while the number retaking modules to improve their results had nearly doubled. There was some discussion about the merits of this, but John Bangs, of the National Union of Teachers, said that league tables and parental anxiety about exam results were driving this behaviour. He said: “Examination result-driven decisions to hot-house kids into taking an exam early are damaging.”

In response, the DCSF spokesperson said: “We are not aware of widespread issues with students being unduly pushed to take GCSEs early.”

This person is clearly another fan of Mr Wenger.

You could see this as DCSF spin doctors simply playing down damaging stories. But there is evidence that this approach is being adopted at a more serious level. Last year, David Bell, the permanent secretary at the DCSF, appeared in front of the Children, Schools and Families Committee. He was being pressed by MPs on the extent of teaching to the test in schools, which was an issue of concern to them.

Mr Bell said: “I just want to make the point that a number of the folk in this room spend quite a lot of time visiting schools… You do hear people saying that the pressures on youngsters get greater at year 6. People often tell you that they are teaching to the tests, that all of the imagination is gone and that there is no room for anything else. However, on talking to them further and on talking to the children, you will hear about the huge range of activities that are going on. That somehow gives the lie to the argument that the curriculum has become completely narrowed as a result of testing.

“On this issue it is quite hard to get to what people actually do, as opposed to what they think. It is very unusual to go to schools where everything has been turned over for a large amount of time to focus just on the tests. I can speak from very considerable experience, having visited hundreds of schools.”

Yet Mr Bell omitted to mention that, three years previously, as head of Ofsted, he had published reports which highlighted the focus that many secondary schools place on teaching to the test. In the English section of his annual report for 2004/5, for example, he said: “Many teachers spend too much time preparing pupils for the [key stage 3] tests; in most schools, the whole of the spring term, and often time before and after, is devoted to explicit test preparation.” An Ofsted report on maths teaching in secondary schools, also published during Mr Bell’s time as head of the inspectorate, said: “Most schools have an enhanced focus in year nine on test questions and revision sessions.”

In the past year, Ofsted under Christine Gilbert has commented regularly on the incidence of test-driven teaching, most recently in a report on music which said that this was denying some children access to the subject in year six, as schools concentrated on the tested subjects.

For me, Mr Bell’s pronouncements to the select committee fall short of the standards of honesty one would hope for in a public servant. This is a serious issue, whose implications on the ground need to be understood in their entirety. And Mr Bell’s words also illustrate the failure of the Government to accept that, if it is going to set up complex systems for monitoring  public services, it has to take seriously the possibility of unintended consequences.

In the Government’s defence, there have been some more encouraging signs recently. Recent proposals on new developments in school accountability  include some acknowledgement  that not all is right with the current regime. For example, they accept that the focus on certain headline measures of school performance, such as the proportion of pupils gaining level four at key stage 2, can lead to an “undue premium” being placed on the performance of pupils around that level. In other words, the Government’s system can encourage schools to prioritise the learning needs of some  children over others, because the former are more important to the school’s figures. So the spokesman commenting on the focus on C/D “borderliners” at GCSE was not completely in line with what his own department has been saying recently.

However, there is a long way to go in terms of ministers truly taking seriously the possibilities that their monitoring regime might come with side-effects. The most glaring at present, to my mind, concerns the proposed Single Level Tests, a new form of assessment which could replace the Sats tests within a couple of years. The results of the new tests are not “high stakes” for the schools which are trying them out, even though they are likely to be so when and if the tests are introduced for real. So there is no way, with this trial, of investigating the most likely unintended consequence, that these new assessments encourage even more teaching to the test than the Sats.

The brief handed by the Government to an expert group which is looking at ways forward on testing and accountability, now that the key stage 3 tests have been scrapped, looks equally problematic. The group is considering the impact of testing at key stage 2. But its remit has been limited to, in effect, advising teachers how not to teach to the test. Given that these teachers are held to account, through league tables, Ofsted inspections and the rest, mostly on their ability to raise test results under a regime which the Government has set up, this is bizarre, arguably naive and, again, smacks of a refusal to face up to the implications of its own policies.

The spirit of Arsene Wenger, then, is alive and well at the DCSF in a sense that extends beyond the pronouncements of spin doctors. And education policy is the worse for it.

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