Standardised Standards

I visited City Hall the other day, the seat of London’s mayor. On entering the building I had to go through an ‘airport-style’ security procedure with an X-ray machine for my bag and a walk-through metal detector. Having done this, overseen by a couple of security guards, I walked into a lecture hall and waited around for a while until a cleaner came in and told me there was nothing on in this room; I then went into a lift that would only take me to three of the ten floors. After a while of this aimless wandering I was lucky enough to meet someone who could help me find the room I needed to be in. The official control systems were in place but there was no receptionist (like at the primary school where I work) so I was lost. This made me think of the English education system where centralised control and measurement have priority over actually helping teachers find their way i.e. develop their practise.

‘The New Few or A Very British Oligarchy’ (2012) by Ferdinand Mount, a former policy guru of Margaret Thatcher, describes the increasing centralisation of power in the UK in a chapter entitled ‘Closing the Local’.  In doing so the author draws on Professor Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith Lecture (A Question of Trust). Here are some quotes from ‘Closing the Local’:

“…hitherto, the judgement and experience of professionals had been the guiding force in their field. Now the professionals were to be second-guessed at every turn by a small number of central bureaucrats. Was this really the path to excellence?…Their overriding aim was to eliminate unevenness of provision so that standards would be uniform everywhere…But if you eliminate unevenness, you eliminate diversity, often the most precious quality in any field of endeavour since without it there is no room for innovation. It is best practise from a diversity of practitioners that is the motor of improvement.”

Here are some quotes from O’Neill’s 2002 lecture:

“For those of us in the public sector the new accountability takes the form of detailed control…Central planning may have failed in the former Soviet Union but it is alive and well in Britain today…The idea of audit has been exported from its original financial context to cover ever more detailed scrutiny of non-financial processes and systems….This ‘audit explosion’, as Michael Power has so aptly called it…Managerial accountability for achieving targets is also imposed on institutions although they are given little institutional freedom….I think that many public sector professionals find that the new demands damage their real work….Even children are not exempt from the new accountability: exams are more frequent and time for learning shrinks….But underlying this ostensible aim of accountability to the public the real requirements are for accountability to regulators, to departments of government, to funders, to legal standards. The new forms of accountability impose forms of central control-quite often indeed a range of different and mutually inconsistent forms of central control…the new culture of accountability and audit makes professionals and institutions more accountable for good performance. This is manifest in the rhetoric of improvement and rising standards, of efficiency gains and best practice, of respect for patients and pupils and employees. But beneath this admirable rhetoric the real focus is on performance indicators chosen for ease of measurement and control rather than because they measure accurately what the quality of performance is…If we want a culture of public service, professionals and public servants must in the end be free to serve the public rather than their paymasters.”

Of course this is much the same as previous posts quoting Stephen J. Ball on ‘performativity‘. The particular point of this post is that heavily formalised systems of control and standardisation do not help educational systems flourish. Quite the opposite is true! Diversity is a strength. Standardised standards weaken.