At university I studied a course on India under British colonisation. Seventeen years on I don’t remember much of what I learned, but something a professor taught me in a tutorial stuck. We were looking at sources written by East India Company Officers who’d been posted to obscure positions in rural areas. The sources were records of pretty mundane events; disputes between servants, descriptions of envoys, reports on the construction of roads and bridges. Everyday, procedural stuff.
In modern eyes the content of some of these reports is of course, at times, troubling and perhaps they should never have been written at all. But, if I may, I’d like to put aside questions about colonisation in general to focus on the quality of the writing, in the same spirit in which we can appreciate Kipling’s ‘Kim’ while recognising some of his views wouldn’t be tolerable today.
The reports written by these officers were, quite simply, beautiful. Written in cursive copperplate script, full of rich description and allegorical language so full of life, so colourful, so well-constructed and so measured.
And at the time nobody read them. Nobody cared about the petty squabbles of merchants. Nobody cared that the jute delivery had been late because a donkey had died. The reports were sent off and then largely ignored by senior bureaucrats, politicians and big decision makers who cared only about the headline figures.
So why did the officers bother? It can’t have only been because they were stupid enough to think anybody cared about what they were writing; after all, these were some of the smartest, best educated people in England.
Our professor taught us that these officers were typically northern English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish who had been well educated but lacked the nepotistic connections that meant they’d be able to ‘get on’ in England. They’d taken jobs for the East India Company because there were opportunities there. But this wasn’t why they produced beautiful reports. They produced beautiful reports because of their education. They wrote simply because they’d learned to write well and loved doing it, because their schooling had so automated the process that it had become almost as natural as eating or sleeping.
This story has nagged at me recently because it’s got me wondering whether, at least to an extent, whether in attempting to evaluate the quality of our education system we’re actually asking the wrong questions.
Our accountability measures are all built round exams, and, up to GCSE level, the ability of our children to meet somewhat contrived rubrics. If a child is good at meeting the rubric, they do well. If they aren’t, they don’t. As I wrote in this post, this has caused distortions in many subjects but, within a system in which meeting the rubric is the aim, these distortions are understandably of little concern to school leaders. If exam results go up, then we are doing better. If exam results go up, schools are succeeding.
But are they really?
It seems to me that the measure of a good education system should not be so much what happens in final exams, but what happens after formal schooling ends. Do the children who do well continue to write for pleasure? Do they write beautiful emails to their far away friends? Do they write poetry for their lovers? Do they work out maths problems for fun? Do they paint? Do they join amateur dramatic societies? Are they in choirs or in a brass band? Are they members of reading groups?
If the answer to these questions and other similar ones is ‘no’, then I’m not sure we can safely say our education system has succeeded, even if grades are good. Failing to recognise this runs the risk of missing the point, at least partially, of why we bother educating our children. Of course exams are important and I would accept that, as unpalatable as it may be to some, part of the role of an education system is sort children into groups
But this should not be THE point. If we lose sight of why, ultimately, we school our children, then we create a reductionist and technocratic educational landscape in which nothing we teach has any intrinsic value. This is really sad. I don’t, for even a second, believe that any of the East India Officers wasted their time in writing their beautiful but ultimately pointless reports. I think they derived joy from writing them. I think their lives were enriched by carefully watching the world around them and then expressing what they saw in accurate, lovely prose. I think writing these reports made them happier. This should be our aim. While, of course, there is some satisfaction in meeting criteria well, such rewards are fleeting and won’t sustain.
This isn’t some liberal, wishy washy call to stop testing children. If anything, I believe we should test children more. And, of course, while exams remain in the format they do then the primary job of a teacher should be to make sure their students succeed in these even if this means mechanically teaching “PEE” or “on the one hand, on the other”. But in doing so we run the risk of losing sight of why we teach our subjects. We don’t teach just because exam results provide extrinsic rewards in the form of money, power or prestige. We teach our subjects because through them lives are made better because they are worthwhile in themselves. I’d like an examination system that doesn’t make this more difficult.
I have some hope this might be possible if Daisy Christodoulou’s work on Comparative Judgement comes to fruition, and if this means we can move past set, formulaic exam questions as Michael Fordham has proposed.