Grown Up Policy

The difficulty with a view of education as simply a process of churning out qualification sausages is that learning is just not like that. Too frequently politicians adopt an infantile attitude towards education. Students are viewed as the passive recipient of policy sanctioned knowledge. The teacher is not there to teach, but to usher students towards predefined outcomes. Success is a simple pass / fail countable concern.  The task of the college is to produce exam-hardened students pre-packaged and ready for consumption by employers. This is what the rage for accountability demands of education; mindful of their jobs, this is what teachers and managers provide.

But those of us who work in education – who have taught, managed, studied and spent a great deal of time trying to understand how students learn know too well that this easy straightforward effective teaching = objective outcome is a fabrication.  It is administratively convenient, but does not capture what and how education works.

I am most interested in post 16 students. These students register for classes for a wide range of unexpected reasons. The final qualification attached to a course is one of their many motivations. On course their learning does not always travel in smooth, easy, predictable straight lines.

The issue of retention illustrates this quite well. College data on retention and achievement is central to defining what is meant by Outstanding, Good or Requires Improvement – according to OfSTED. Institutions are graded according to how many students who register for a course achieve a prescribed learning outcome attached within a set period of time. If a students gets a job midway through, or gets pregnant, or realises that they are actually more interested in something else – the college loses out. Their income, retention and reputation suffers. Teachers and managers will do everything and anything to secure a positive outcome. But retention is a completely institutionally based measure of quality.

The student who gets a job – partly on the basis of having studied for a few weeks – is surely a success in their own terms even if not for the institution. The student who has a child, returns to study, achieves an outcome after a few years break is surely a success in their own terms. The student who having ruled out one vocational possibility and instead joins another course – perhaps at another institution – and achieves (despite a few false starts along the way), should surely be viewed as a success.  The student who changes their mind and decides studying is not for them, at least not now, surely achieves a worthwhile – successful – outcome.

The attraction of the learning objective = qualification outcome measure  of quality is that it enables easy counting; capturing the somewhat chaotic movements of real life student is complex if not impossible.

But what’s the point of counting if what you are counting does not accurately measure the enterprise at hand. The French educationalist Philippe Meirieu has characterised the policy approach towards education as infantile. It is an attitude that operates on the assumption that the world— practical, social and natural— is at our disposal and thus should obey to our whims. It is unwilling or unable to  acknowledge that as natural, practical and social entities aspects of teaching and learning disrupt the learning objective = qualification outcome equation because they exist independently – with flagrant disregard for our preferences (Meirieu, 2008, p.12).2

Teaching and learning do not unfold in the ways policy demands, simply because policy demands.


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