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We might have the data, but have we got the answers?

I recently viewed a YouTube clip of Gert Biesta talking about 'Good Education in an Age of Measurement' from 2010. In this Biesta, who has worked in the Netherlands, England and Scotland and is now in Luxembourg, talks about the challenges faced by schools and systems to concentrate on providing a good education for their learners when we are very much in the middle of what he calls 'an age of measurement.' He traces the a real focus on measurement in schools back to Blair's Labour government of 1997, and notes how this was accompanied by the 'name and shame' culture of league tables and quite punitive inspection regimes. Though Blair was fond of saying his priorities were going to be 'education, education and education', Biesta and others were unable to detect any real concern for education as the focus became more and more about measurement and learning, at the expense of real education.

This measurement focus produced a global industry focused on measuring and providing data on schools and their systems, and saw the growth of various rankings like PISA from the OECD as well as others by The World Bank, McKinsey, Pearson, et al. Linked to these rankings came a focus on competition between schools and systems. Few countries could resist the lure of PISA, though Biesta noted that in the UK both Northern Ireland and Scotland opted out. This not only demonstrated their confidence, but also saved them a lot of money. The countries that bought into this culture of measurement and ranking seemed to display little regard or consideration for a good education system but were more focused on command and control features that would allow them to impose their preferred model. Linked to this, through punitive inspection regimes, was fear. Politicians were scared of being seen to be getting left behind by countries at the top of the rankings, like Finland and South Korea, without really understanding what such rankings could and could not show. Biesta notes the host of writing and research that shows fear as not being an ideal motivator for making decisions about what, and what not, might be found in good education systems.

He notes that there is not a problem with measurement in itself, the problem lies in how it is used and how it is interpreted. He identified the two biggest problems as;

1) The sheer volume of information generated can make people feel they know what is going on in a system and also tells them what to do about the issues identified. In fact, such information cannot tell you what to do, a point reiterated by Andy Hargreaves recently. Biesta argues that such measurement and evaluation needs to be under-pinned by values and we need to question and consider the validity of the data produced in two ways. Regarding what he calls 'technical validity', are we measuring what we are supposed to be measuring? Then, in what he describes as 'normative validity', are we measuring what we value, or are we valuing what we measure? Two important questions for us all to ask about the data that our systems are awash with. He particularly focused on PISA and the very narrow focus it has in terms of what it measures and who it collects that data from. This can, and has, led to what Biesta and others have described as 'the tail wagging the dog' syndrome, where governments and systems become so focused on improving their rankings this leads to a narrowing of the curriculum and a skewed vision of what a good education system looks like. It has also led to 'performativity' agendas where indicators of quality soon become seen as the definition of quality.

2) The second problem with all this focus on data and measurement is the way in which it can lead to changes in the processes and practices of accountability. Biesta recognises accountability processes as being crucial in any democracy, and sees how it is important for public bodies and organisations to be open and transparent in any such democracy. However, the focus on measurement and data collection has been accompanied with a change of approach from one concerned with democracy and more to one that is more technical and managerial in focus. This leads to systems where instead of being accountable to the users of the system the focus becomes about being accountable to the inspectors of the system, and their view of what constitutes a good system or a good school. Sound familiar?

Biesta then goes on to talk about what he means by the deliberate use of the phrase 'good education' and why he specifically doesn't want to talk about learning. To me, most of what he says makes complete sense, and I hope that you will find the time to watch the full clip from the link above. I agree with him that we have lost our focus on what is important in our education systems and schools as we have become fixated on improving data and are driven by the fear of consequences and repercussions of not improving our data, all at the expense of our learners. He talks about the question 'for what purpose?' as being one we have lost sight of at times, or are afraid to ask because of the climate so many of us are operating in. I think we need to have that debate again in Scotland, and elsewhere, of what we believe education should be about and, perhaps more importantly, ask ourselves do the policies and practices within our schools and systems help us to deliver that, or are they deflecting us onto another agenda?

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