The footballing world was talking about Ravel Morrison before his eighteenth birthday. Training field videos of mesmerising footwork fuelled fevered internet forum discussion, which soon spilled out into the wider press. He was described as, variously, the next Gascoigne, the English Zidane and the Manchester Messi.
But it wasn’t long before cracks began to show. A troubled background and an apparent nasty streak resulted in a move to West Ham. He didn’t thrive there either and ended up on a succession of unsatisfying loan contracts before finally being sold to Italian side Lazio, for whom he’s played three times since 2015.
Ravel Morrison is twenty-three now and, although he’s still young for a footballer, nobody is calling him an English Zidane. Nobody expects him to be in the England team. Few fans would be particularly excited to hear that their club had signed him. The brutal truth is that he was a good eighteen-year old but hasn’t developed. He’s now an average twenty three year old and has been overtaken by initially lesser talents.
Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy is Ravel Morrison’s polar opposite. At eighteen few expected anything significant from him and six years ago he was playing non-league football. Yet, at nearly thirty, he’s now an England international and Premier League Champion. Vardy worked and, as a result, overtook more highly rated younger players.
Lazy analysis might cause some to say that Morrison never fulfilled his talent and that Vardy exceeded his but this simply isn’t true. “Talent” means nothing in isolation. Nobody expects Morrison to suddenly produce world-class performances for Lazio and nobody expects Vardy to suddenly regress to a Sunday League standard. This is very clear when we look at footballers but a lesson we seem unable to learn in education.
A child achieving three level sixes in their SATS is a clever eleven year old, but this does not mean they will automatically become a clever sixteen year old. If their teaching is poor, or they experience poor health, or if they choose not to work hard, they will stagnate and those who achieved less well will overtake them. These children will be more knowledgeable, more skilful and more confident. By my definition, they have become cleverer.
Many tracking systems in our schools seem unable to deal with this. They imply that a child who is falling behind is doing so against the target generated for them up to five years ago and that ‘interventions’ should be able to make good this gap. This just isn’t true. If a child fails to learn in Year 7, then their target for Year 8 should be lowered because it is no longer realistic to expect them to achieve figures based on their better achievement in Year 6. Conversely, if a student learns at a faster than expected rate in Year 7, their target for Year 8 should be raised, because they are now cleverer than when it was first generated.
To me this makes absolute sense. To go back to my footballer analogy, if Ravel Morrison was to go on to play regularly for a mid-table Premier League table in the next three years he would have made better than expected progress given the difficulties he has experienced and the time he has lost. It would be unrealistic and demoralising to tell him that only being the superstar he was predicted to be at eighteen is success and all other outcomes are just different levels of failure. Again, conversely, if would be absurd to tell Jamie Vardy that he should probably retire now as he’s achieved more than ever could be expected. Yet, it seems to me, this is what happens to thousands of children in our educational system.
This has been borne out by our results this year. The correlation between Year 6 attainment and eventual GCSE results is, at best, loose. Students who were assessed as ‘high’ ability who didn’t work as hard as ‘mid’ or even in some cases ‘low’ ability students did not do as well. Our Ravel Morrisons have been overtaken by our Jamie Vardys. And let’s not make the mistake of believing that the Ravels just need a small push to outperform the Jamies at their colleges. The Vardys are no longer ‘mid’ or ‘low’ ability, just as the real Jamie Vardy is no longer a lower division footballer. They’re high ability now and will continue to be just as long as they keep working hard. The Ravels can, of course, improve but this will be from the point they’re at now, and most will struggle to meet projections generated by data half a decade old
In an educational world again dominated by the idea of selection on ‘intelligence’ I find this really heartening. If we work hard we all have the capacity to become better just as, more unfortunately, we all have the capacity to regress through either laziness or misfortunes beyond our control. Nothing is definite and the figures floating above the heads of almost every child in England can be as meaningless as they are invisible. The positive message, one I share with the children I teach, is that their grades are firmly within their own control.