Until 1999, when you went to school, you were a person; you had a name. After 1999, you were a number – a unique pupil number (UPN) admittedly, but a number nevertheless. The purpose of said number was to facilitate data transfer between schools so that pupils could be tracked. But it was also a tool for raising standards: Local Authorities access the data for target setting and monitoring, and central government uses it to evaluate and monitor policy. I was told once, when working with a DfE Primary Strategy Team, that modelling allows analysts to project GCSE outcomes from early years data with reasonable accuracy, and also to predict probable A level and Higher Education potential.
So far, so good. Until, that is, we inhabit not just a culture of measurement which subjects children to a relentless testing regime, but also a system which has annexed education to the singular purpose of economic growth. The latest plan, whether or not it is best for the child, is to encourage parents to put children in school nurseries shortly after their second birthday to get them ‘school ready’. Tony Blair’s administration is responsible for starting this, with his view that ‘education is the best economic policy there is’. What he started, the current government is continuing, with unadulterated enthusiasm. Everything, but everything, is servant to the economy, as beleaguered teachers stand by their corporate conveyor belts awaiting performance related pay judgments.
Take character education – when it first entered the arena, many of us breathed a sigh of relief that common sense was finally starting to prevail; that policy makers were showing some realisation that pupils are people not production units, and that schools are communities, not exam factories. The relief was short lived. Extolling the virtue of hard work, the DfE declared that: ‘Knuckling down and succeeding in school puts an average of £140,000 in a young person’s back pocket’. One of the schools in receipt of a Character Award was recognised for the improvement of its pupils’ job prospects through developing ‘resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, reciprocity and respect’. At the award ceremony, Nicky Morgan finally came out with the unambiguous statement: ‘Character building remained a priority for the government … This is all about building a strong economy.’ So not about building better people for the common good, then.
The Prime Minister joined in, too, telling the Institute of Directors that ‘children need to know how money is made and to turn a profit’. Addressing BETT, the education technology show, in January, Ms Morgan sang the praises of a future technology that could ‘link qualifications to tax data, in order to demonstrate the true worth of certain subjects’. Conclusion: money making subjects worthy, all other subjects worthless (and as someone with an apparently worthless arts degree, this one made me cross. Very cross). She’s already well on the way to achieving her aim, as she used the data from a commissioned report on ‘the earnings and employment returns to A levels’ to issue a press release announcing that ‘Science and maths send girls’ future wages soaring’. Note the emotive language. Boys not included.
You might, like me, think that at least pupil premium was about enabling and enriching the lives of disadvantaged children. How naive could I be? David Laws was happy to demonstrate that participation in arts or sports can put a pupil two months ahead in the three Rs. And the value of a school trip? A three month boost to academic performance: enrichment and joy value unknown. But here’s the real kick – £200 per disadvantaged student per year could raise achievement by five PISA points. The only problem is, education should be about peoples’ lives, not a vanity project rating for the government.
Contrast this with a Christian perspective. The Bible says that we are created in the image of God; we are unique in his creation. Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. Anyone who works with children and young people knows this. They are funny, quirky, smart, curious and above all, individually and uniquely human. Each one is different. Each one is special. Education, if it is about anything, should be about nurturing each and every person; about helping them to flourish; about contributing to the common good. That involves academic learning, character building, social development and the modelling of values. It involves playing a part in their preparation for adult life. If we get that right, fulfilment of potential will follow.
So, do we want to enter each unique pupil number on the DfE spreadsheet that measures value only in economic worth? Or do we want to nurture each unique, special person, regardless of their future economic value?