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Closing down creativity and standardising knowledge in education

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Amongst the well-drilled headlines that define what is happening inside the British education system in the 21st century, one might be forgiven for not noticing what happened to freedom, the space that once existed for individual creativity and personal goals. It is not that in bygone times the system ever aimed to create that space where those values could take root - a state education system was never going to do that - rather, it is the way a space that existed by default has been progressively and ruthlessly closed down.

Increasingly, those who run the system are actively on the lookout for any space where their writ does not run. Under the corporate flag of improving the quality and performance of everyone involved in the education process, an increasingly intrusive multi-headed bureaucracy has been quietly transforming the place where it is embedded into the behaviour and units of performance that it alone specifies. As its language and systems become the lingua franca, the values that were once possible to realise within state education, irrespective of its overall purposes, have fallen by the wayside and with them, the integrity of what is being done in the name of ‘education’.

This article offers an insight into the backroom of a part of that bureaucracy – a private company that sets and assesses subject knowledge and understanding in examinations. These are the companies that tell the public, the schools, the parents, the kids and their political masters that they are providing high quality professional assessment of academic ability. Ultimately, it is they that validate perceptions of the performance of players in the education market place and everyone dances to their tune: those who write the text books, those who teach using those books, and those who rely on them in the classroom for their subject knowledge and exam performance. The impact on intellectual freedom should not be underestimated.

A space for creativity

A year or so ago, I learnt of the death of a former colleague of mine, a well-known local historian and archivist. There was much to remember of him: certain personal idiosyncrasies not manufactured by the high street – his beret, the wispy-white pony tail, the bicycle with the basket at the front in which he transported his shopping – and his voracious appetite for knowledge of the minutiae of the local history of the city where he lived. Occupying a spacious off-the-beaten-track back room on the middle floor of the old Victorian building where he and a team of volunteers quietly catalogued huge volumes of local information, his raison d’être could be summarised in a single word: ‘knowledge’. This was not knowledge for the purpose of enhancing the reputation of the college, increasing pass-rates or furthering his own or other people’s the career destinations; just knowledge, without qualification.

Tucked away at the end of the corridor in a building that housed the school of humanities, the local history unit might have been some uncharted island in a distant sea especially as the site manager, wedded to spreadsheets, operational plans and statistical analyses rarely ventured out around the warren of corridors. When he did, it always felt like an invading army appearing in the village streets. One afternoon, as I disappeared into his sanctuary to use his photocopier and pass a few minutes with him, the site manager appeared close on my heels from a nearby office. Relating this to my colleague who was busy examining an ordinance survey map, he looked up at me and said quietly: ‘I wonder if they know I’m here?’ Built on love and maintained by devotion, this curiously enigmatic and audacious existence had, it seemed, escaped the managerial gaze that was ploughing across the rest of the college, converting people and places into numbers and targets. This was the time before we were all systematically linked into IT report, ‘support’ and surveillance systems, when teaching and learning involved the risk, creativity, spontaneity and imagination of the artist rather than the fascistic conformity expected of the apparatchik executing the detail set out in the training manual.

Today, teachers are rapidly becoming knowledge operatives, space within the system for other-orientated, other-motivated behaviour being closed off - not just where it occurs (in lesson plans, how students are questioned, what they read or how they respond) but in anticipation of where it might occur. Quantifiable processes and outcomes, axiomatic to the establishment of a bureaucratic reality have become the Holy Grail. The packaging defines the product. The paranoia of control that once was embryonic is now everywhere.

Ostensibly on the grounds that it was not using space cost-effectively as measured by the external funding body, but doubtless because it had a strong local culture within the overall college set-up, not long after this conversation above, the school of humanities was rounded up and dispersed onto four floors of a tower block where even funeral rights could not be discharged.  It was the equivalent of a local community being extracted and moved from the place where it had evolved a collective identity built on shared experience into new housing estates where an identity constructed by the planners awaited them. Inevitably, of course, they did catch up with the local history unit, and it was not long after his expatriation that my friend died. A Dr Who without a Tardis, the work that he and his team did was a timely reminder that at the root of knowledge are the twin values of freedom and love, yet every day, they burn less brightly in the educational firmament as they are mangled by bureaucratic technocracy. A decade or so later, the idea that anyone working in an educational establishment could ask whether ‘they knew I’m here’ is inconceivable.

Performance targets, standardisation and deviant knowledge

Part of my notion of ‘space’ refers to the freedom of learners to respond to learning in ways that are not pre-decided and plotted along a continuum of validating indices of performance.

Imagine a small child who has never seen a tree being asked to find and make a drawing of one. You provide her with a mental picture of what it is she is to look for. ‘It’s tall, made of wood and has branches’, you tell her. Away she goes and upon her return, she presents you with her impression. To your astonishment, you see that she has drawn a telegraph pole. Promptly, you tell her that she has got a hold of the wrong thing. You explain that what she has drawn is not living and, in any case, it has no branches. ‘What does ‘living’ mean?’ enquires the child. You explain that to be ‘living’ means to be ‘growing’, evidence of which can be seen with the appearance of leaves along the branches. The child thinks for a moment before replying ‘perhaps the tree I found died and the branches fell off?’ Although she has not found a tree, she has found something that used to be a tree and because of her own independent thought processes, offers an explanation for what has happened that is not only logical but also demonstrates a creative imagination. Ironically, it is also fairly accurate.  Learning, it seems, can be a messy, unpredictable matter. In fact, it should be.

Yet in today’s education system, only children who perform perfectly in line with what is expected of them are regarded as ‘able’ – intelligent children follow instructions and provide evidence that they have done so - whereas children who do otherwise are not. There is no reward for those who become entangled with the instructions because the latter are incomplete or faulty, far less for those who openly say so or who don’t want to play by someone else’s rules in the first place. Idiosyncratic responses to learning produce deviant knowledge and now that schools are moving ever deeper into the hinterland of the market place where performance is everything, the penalisation of deviance has reached angst proportions. In such a system, messy, unpredictable learning threatens the ideology that how we think and what we are asked to think about involve objective processes and outcomes that can be reliably measured and rewarded. Moreover, if non-conformist thinking can be discouraged at source, that, too, becomes desirable.

The way exams are marked by the private companies that are responsible for designing and assessing the curriculum provide direct insight into this process. Let us take A Level Sociology as an example. Once the examination has been taken by candidates, the Principal Examiner, in conclave with senior examiners meets over several days to interpret the marking scheme.  This involves negotiating and agreeing a set of prescribed modes of expression, or answers, and associated rules concerning how specific words and phrases in the questions will be interpreted - and therefore how students’ responses will be evaluated - which assistant examiners are then trained to apply to scripts. Judgements are made about what these instructions mean and, in general, how they will be used to assess ‘ability’.  

This process, known as ‘standardisation’, is designed to achieve a high degree of confidence in the reliability and accuracy of the assessment, and therefore in the qualification, and, by implication, the company that manages the curriculum.  In practice, this means that the assessment of students' comparative ability is partly based upon a ‘content analysis’ or ‘reading’ of the exam scripts that is dictated by these prescribed modes of expression and formulaic answers that have been decided after the exam was taken. Cognitive skills are deduced from students’ answers and then distributed along a defensible or politically acceptable curve of ‘ability’.

In this way, the student script becomes a resource to be refracted and reconstituted as if he or she had been aware of these rules when the exam was taken. Of course, students at some schools are well trained in anticipation of this process, or ‘prep’ed’, and told in advance how their scripts will be interpreted and graded, but rather than acting as a valid indication of the cognitive skills that this system is supposed to be testing, the results will therefore be more indicative of differences in students’ level of trained conformity to the rules of expression.

These rules are defined by the senior examiners, and information about them can be found in the text books they write that are endorsed by the exam companies. These senior examiners are not specialists in their field nor researchers, and, the Editor of CrimeTalk assures me from his direct experience, have usually never encountered a specialist professor in their standardization meetings, have no answer to criticisms of formulaic model answers, or questions about competing interpretations of facts and ideas or about answers that question the exam questions. Sumner’s experience of one such standardization meeting was that creative answers were very likely to obtain fewer marks than answers that conformed to the expected formulaic package, even if they offered more individual understanding of the subject. In such a system, students can succeed purely because their words and phrases have fortuitously drifted onto the hallowed ground blessed by the high priests of the curriculum, and yet are rewarded as though this was evidence that their own independent thinking skills had led them there.

In this way, the all-important ‘standardisation’ procedure functions to maintain a façade of ‘academic rigour’ and ‘objective assessment’ without which it is believed the public would lose confidence in the results. However, it is a process which has a huge impact on teachers and learners alike, given the current pressure on schools to maintain and improve pass rates at A Level (qualifications in the UK for 18 year olds). The gravy train of text books assumes the status of holy scripture defining not just what is to be known but the manner in which it must be known. This can be seen in the high degree of dogmatic prescription in the textbooks, not just about the linguistic configuration of knowledge but also about the way in with which knowledge should be assessed.  Students are taught formulaically what to say and how to say it to such an extent that most of them dare not think autonomously of the set texts nor most of their teachers approach their subject from a different perspective. 

All too depressingly, the outcome is that if you invite even the most ‘able’ students to make connections beyond the narrow context within which their text book knowledge has been deployed, they will ask you why they need to do so. Almost like the caged bird that can make sounds recognisable as ‘language’, no cognitive inferences should be drawn from this apparent ability other than that it attests to successful conditioning by its owner. In short, what we are constructing is an inflexible mechanistic learning concealed within a linguistic façade of autonomous rationality that the perennial debates about the quality of education never exposes. On the contrary, these debates serve only to provide the educational bureaucrats and politicians with further grounds to extend their writ to ‘improve’ the performance of teachers who become seen as the people holding up the upward march of progress. Failing schools, ironically, are those where the pupils have yet to be incorporated into the lingua franca. They may well be more accurately understood as ‘deviant’ schools, and, contrary to their public image, may often facilitate higher levels of creativity as well as adding more value to the abilities of their students.

As you might expect with a bureaucratic approach to learning, the texts on offer have been cloned to such a degree that they have become dull, ritualistic rehearsals of trite phraseology, larger academic textbooks recast into smaller training manuals that the teachers rely on to maintain their own and their schools’ statistically measured performance. Those who write the rules of assessment and the training manuals, it is decide the value of a child’s thinking. Yet they are amongst the least creatively inspired people I know. Detailed course specifications create the illusion of highly demanding intellectual endeavour that in practice really reduces to the formulaic content of scripts. Exam scripts that are described as ‘lacking depth’ are missing a sufficient quota of words and phrases for which the examiner is on the look-out and, needless to say, fare badly.

As the companies responsible for setting and marking exams operate in the public domain, schools can challenge results where they feel that something is wrong.   The process is governed by a Code of Practice that allows marks to be reviewed, and if still dissatisfied, appealed where the reliability of the process of assessment can also be scrutinised. Experience of this sheds light on the brittle semantic structures working behind the scenes to hold everything together.   During standardisation (before marks have been notified to schools), scripts may well have been second-marked by a team leader, someone who has achieved a high degree of reliability in applying the rules that give expression to the marking scheme. Where a review of marks is requested, a senior examiner, someone with even more impressive credentials in this respect, re-marks them making any adjustments thought necessary. Beyond this, appeals are handled by senior examiners and potentially, the principal examiner, and it is at this point that schools may see detailed, specific explanations of the basis upon which marks have been awarded.

Where a school remains dissatisfied and does appeal, it is quite feasible for scripts to have been marked six times by people trained to apply the rules of assessment before a mark is finally agreed.   The reader may be quite astonished to learn that it is equally feasible for the marks to be changed, and sometimes radically, at each stage of this process provided that a dogged and undeterred advocate engages with the company – especially if he or she has subject knowledge extending well beyond the set texts, those who write them and those who did (or review) the assessment. What might appear to be a highly robust, reliable process is revealed as underpinned by rather pragmatic interpretations justifying particular attitudes towards deviant forms of expression communicated by some students. In short, examiners’ attitudes to deviant answers will determine the grade.

When defended on appeal, complex rules of assessment degenerate into simpler, more practical yardsticks that translate whatever the learner has written into ability bands and grades that register within the company’s lexicon of value. This is reflected in annotation appearing on scripts such as ‘focus?’ and ‘confused!’ to indicate where the student has departed from the prescribed mode of expression or expected knowledge content yet which have very tenuous or no philosophical or subject currency beyond that.  In Sumner’s experience, neither the flower of creativity nor the reality of competing interpretations is permitted to bloom: knowledge must be in black-and-white blocks. Such assessment may be workable for those well paid to accept its parameters and its hugely negative implications for knowledge. It is far less robust when challenged by outsiders, or the authors of real academic work, with all its rough edges, conflicts and uncertainties.

The experience of appealing grades can also be enlightening. Those who challenge assessment outcomes that have been rubber-stamped at the review stage can expect responses from the company that include re-affirmation that since their assessors have had so few complaints about their work, they must, therefore, be accurate and reliable; – that those who challenge grades are themselves a deviant minority – or are trivialised as picking over entirely voluntary annotation as though it was an optional extra that had no bearing on the value placed on knowledge and understanding appearing outside their world.   Here we note that examiners are not usually paid extra for making detailed annotation and making many such notes in the margin can slow down marking considerably and thus reduce pay rates similarly. Companies are so grateful for these notes that they are loathe to hold examiners to account because of them.

There is no place for teachers and students who stray from the path of sound-bitten, pre-packaged knowledge unless is it fought for – an open attitude towards learning is not favoured in a system that grinds out and expects a formulaically specified end product.  Privatisation and commoditisation go hand in hand, along with all that disturbs the rapid, mechanized, process of cost-efficient but politically acceptable grade allocation and distribution.

Commoditised knowledge, conformity and the delusion of success

Although the schools are players in this theatre of success/failure, the fault-line is to be found in the way in which capitalist culture conceptualises education as a commodity, a product like any other to be produced and consumed, around which a whole network of institutions and their vested interests has evolved gradually distorting knowledge into the grotesque bureaucratic game that it has become.  Within this game, lives are ruined and families condemned to generations of poverty, low self-esteem and a variety of survival strategies that are then used as evidence of their innate worthlessness as human beings. 

Ironically, education really is the anvil on which class destinies are forged whilst parasitical expert reputations and lucrative careers flourish. What of Joe Public? Alas, society's 'common-sense instincts' have been successfully arranged against the idea that young people can emerge into society without their physical, intellectual, moral and political fitness being placed under close surveillance and measured from day one in the nursery by these very institutions. 'Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone!' (Pink Floyd, The Wall) are great lyrics, but they sold the album not the idea.

What I have endeavoured to describe here is part of the general destruction of freedom of thought in our education system – and this in a subject area, sociology, where you might expect the greatest freedom or at least flexibility of awareness of conflicting interpretations of society.

If there is to be space for intellectual freedom within the education system, as within any other context where the human spirit struggles to find expression, it must be fought over, especially given the paralysing and deadening impact of a creeping bureaucracy that threatens it in every corner of our existence. Their vision of ‘education’ and ‘ability’, the latter a class-erased, liberal euphemism for the value placed on the human being, only holds sway insofar as we commune with it.

Although they mend their broken windows, we need to keep breaking them if the system is to be successfully challenged and freedom of thought to flourish within what we call a system of education. ‘Education’ has become a highly valued consumer product that has significant resource, status, and social mobility implications. The learning experience in a state education system is always sensitive to the market place and a learner’s class position. Students themselves ask ‘why do I need to know this?’ and ‘how will this help me to get a higher grade?’ The functionality and usefulness of knowledge is everything, so the textbook as manual is welcomed not rejected by them and by many who teach them.

When head teachers, politicians and parents talk about a ‘good’ school, they cite statistical data that confirms a march of progress along the yellow brick road of GCSE and A Level results. Schools have become retailers providing a product that others will deem either high, average or low quality (‘scores on the doors’) where managers are constantly on the look-out for ever more ingenious ways of moving students around a curriculum that is diversifying not to recognise or encourage difference, but rather to promote a statistically manufactured illusion of successful learning. Targeted manipulation of access to different courses within the curriculum based on rigorous historical tracking of performance indicators, combined with increasingly prescriptive and performance-orientated regimes governing teaching practice may please those who wish to subject learning to bureaucratic measurement, but they represent the choking off of creativity and spontaneity even for those running the system whose own creativity is wed to the next government inspector’s visit.

The river runs fast but it does not run deep. Where they are successful, the effect is rather like turning on the lights on the Christmas tree – magical, alluring but ultimately meaningless unless you buy into the story. The status-motivated, me-and-the-moment-are-everything citizen who emerges from this process self-actualises in consumer culture, the citizen who expects somebody else to pick up his McDonald’s wrapper from your garden wall and who regards his bodily functions as something to be communicated to a world-wide audience. The is the freedom to be ‘yourself’ in consumer culture, with all the significance of the butterfly that can go anywhere it chooses and land wherever it pleases, as long as it remains in the garden and feeds on the flowers that others have grown there for them.

For me, learning has been the perennial unpredictable struggle to acquire a satisfying rational basis for understanding what is, what ought to be, what has been, and what could be. Nothing is protected and knowledge has always presented problems in terms of its epistemological and ontological foundations, yet the will to journey towards it has never been diminished by the attractions of the fast fix (religion, dogmatism, etc) nor bounded by the specific social, economic and political mores of my time.  It’s hard to communicate this to anyone woven into the mesmerising tapestry of Disneyland. It’s even harder when that tapestry is guarded by an entrenched and determined bureaucracy that may successfully place the blame on those, like me, who are attempting to resist it.

Trevor James, Head of Sociology in a very large comprehensive in the East Riding of Yorkshire.


For more on the failings and weaknesses of ‘school sociology’, see

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