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Stephen Ball looks at the NIF and gives Scotland a few warnings about the future

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a seminar by professor Stephen Ball at Glasgow University. He was talking to an audience of educators, academics and others, and was there to share some of his reflections on education systems that might be tempted to be driven by assessment, and some concerns he had for the current direction of travel in the Scottish system.

As he laid out the aspects he wished to consider he was keen for us to understand that assessment in itself was not a problem. He did caution though that assessment in Scotland, whilst 'not a bad thing may be a dangerous thing.' He explained why this might be so. He firstly thought it was right that Scotland, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, should look to other countries and their education systems in order to learn. He did have some concern however in where she had been looking, and what she had been seeing and hearing. He had detected in the recently introduced National Improvement Framework (NIF) a move in Scotland away from from reform focused on inputs into our education system to one focused on outputs. He mentioned Pasi Sahlberg and his criticism of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that has taken hold in many countries across the globe. Key characteristics of GERM are standardisation, a narrowing of focus onto core subjects, a search for low risk ways to reach learning goals, the use of corporate management models and the introduction of test-based accountability procedures. All of these features are the antithesis of the approach taken in Finland, where the focus is on high confidence by all in teachers and school principals, encouraging students and teachers to try new and innovative approaches to put imagination, creativity and curiosity at the centre of learning, and seeing the purpose of education and learning as the development of the whole child and the happiness of learning. What Ball saw was the introduction of the GERM agenda into Scotland through the NIF. He said it was wrong to think of assessment reform in isolation from all the other factors that impact on the system. It needs to be a single part of a whole range of interventions, and these need to considered collectively over a period of time.

Professor Ball talked about what he called 'the policy ratchet' that occurs in education systems that are following a GERM agenda. These are manifest in a continuous and relentless stream of small changes and interventions, something that sounded very familiar to myself and many others in the audience. What he felt was happening in Scotland was too similar in many respects to the Task Group on Assessment and Teaching (TGAT) programme in England and the National Assessment Programme Language And Numeracy (NAPLAN) in Australia. In both of these there was a lot of talk about 'teacher professional' judgement' being key at their outset. Move on a few years, and this had all but disappeared as the focus had moved entirely on to high-stakes testing and other accountability measures. Professor Ball felt that the NIF being implemented in Scotland looked very much like these two programmes and he was afraid of similar outcomes would begin appear fairly quickly.

He considered the new 'policy actors' in education including organisations like McKinsey, OECD (through Pisa) and Pearson and the emergence of a new 'science' or 'quasi-science' of reform suggested by Michael Barber and others. Organisations such as these were driving system agendas in many countries and gave messages that said you could simply lift what was happening in 'successful' systems and countries and drop them into other countries and expect improvement. He saw this view reflected in some of the language used in the NIF and by the First Minister when talking about the NIF. He noted that Nicola Sturgeon was claiming that the NIF was going to enable us to evaluate teaching and learning and close the attainment gap. He questioned the validity of such statements. He was to contend later on that all the evidence showed that it was more likely that the NIF would instead have the effect of widening that gap. Michael Barber had coined a term 'deliverology' to describe how organisations and companies could develop an infrastructure for reform and future business opportunities. This involved the development of a 'delivery chain' for reform which soon saw the attractiveness of targets and benchmarks by which to measure the performance of teachers and schools. This mimics a very successful system of performance management found in business and the private sector. Ball thought this could be dangerously effective in controlling the system from a distance. It could also lead to a belief in a logic of reform based on a global race for test ranking and economic advantage. Such a reform logic saw a linear connection between economic performance, competitiveness and governance and the quality of teachers and schools, measured by international testing regimes. Such beliefs saw pupils as an asset of the system. The people who really benefit from such systems are the companies and organisations such as those mentioned above and for whom education reform has become a lucrative and self-perpetuating market. Patricia Burch had looked at the No Child Left Behind programme employed in the USA and had noted that the standardised tests alone were worth $517million per year. This is now a global market for such companies and organisations, who all have obvious vested interests I their continuation.

Professor Ball then spoke about the claim that the NIF would bring about a closing of the attainment gap. Firstly, he noted that this aim did not sit comfortably with the other aims and aspects of the NIF. He questioned why all the language and rhetoric around closing the gap was very much focused on schools and teachers. Various pieces of research had demonstrated that schools account for vey little of the gap, between 11% and 15%, and the rest is attributable to other factors in society, including deprivation. He felt it was inevitable that if the gap failed to close then it would be easy to make the case that this was the fault of teachers and schools, leading to even more reform and control, and so perpetuating the problems. This scenario had been played out in countries across the globe. He advised Nicola Sturgeon to speak to President Obama who realised that the introduction of similar policies in the USA had completely failed. In late 2015 he acknowledged that children in the USA were over tested, attainment had gone down and the gap had grown.

When such reforms fail, it often leads to more reforms and we only need to look to England to see what these might look like. There we see the marketisation of schools, the growth of other providers and other models like Free Schools and Academies. The model for some of these came fro USA and Sweden and both countries have been moving further down the international rankings their introduction was supposed halt and improve. Such systems are based on a flawed logic of reform that links teacher performance and assessment policy. This leads to changes in practice, clashes with personal and professional ethics, and what it means to be a teacher. Instead of collaboration and co-operation it promotes competition between schools. A focus on standards becomes paramount and it leads to the narrowing of the curriculum and the opportunities for learning. What has been demonstrated time after time is that high-stakes performance requirements force teachers to focus on those pupils who will have a positive impact on results, at the expense of those who need most support. It can lead to care for the student being replaced by care for the data, and can lead to manipulation or gaming of the data and the system. The introduction of high-stakes testing is changing what it means to be a teacher and only promotes the widening of achievement gaps.

Much of what Professor Ball spoke of last night echoed the thoughts of Gert Biesta that I spoke of in my last post. I think both are a timely and appropriate reminder and warning to all in Scottish education that we may be sleep-walking into unintended consequences that could have dire consequences for our learners and the system. As a headteacher commented last night ' this is quite depressing and we have been here before. I am going home for a glass of wine!'


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