Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Measuring an education

Over the last few millenia there have been many debates as to what constitutes "a good education". The Greeks had one idea, the Romans another. Through the Renaissance and into the Age of Enlightenment, learned men and women struggled to define just what we mean by "education" and what makes one type of education better than another. Her Majesty's Government are racked by no such doubts and concerns. They know that a good education is one which results in the passing of at least five GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and Mathematics.

I would imagine that few home educators subscribe to such a narrow view of a good education as does our present government. We are left with a slight problem. How do we know if a home educated child has received, or is receiving, a "good education"? This is a question of more than academic importance. The suspicion is that if the Children, Schools and Families Bill is passed, then some home educated children will as a result find themselves compelled to return to school. If some of the less restrained parents are to be believed, this could end with nervous breakdowns and even suicides. That being so, the search for a definition of a "good education" could conceivably be regarded as a matter of life and death!

Many home educating parents speak glowingly of what one might call the intangible benefits of home education. The leisurely and stress-free pace of the process, the empathy and compassion which they see in their children, the freedom to develop as who they wish to be, rather than mindless robots taking the same string of GCSEs as the other thirty kids in their class. All this is well enough and I am sure that such parents have a point. However, Kindness and altruism are traits which most parents see in their children; these characteristics need not be limited to those taught at home. There is also an effort to allow children a greater choice in which examinations they will take, so that the children in a class of thirty might all have what are known as individualised learning plans. In other words, some of the supposed benefits of home education are, at least in theory, being extended to the state school system.

If parents of home educated children wish to persuade everybody else that their children are actually getting some benefit from home education, then they are going to have to come up with a demonstrable, objective measure of just what it is that those children are getting. This might prove relatively easy for children with special educational needs. Relaxed, one-to-one tuition and activities designed to stimulate the child can often be provided better at home than in a crowded and understaffed unit. Similarly, those whose children were bullied may well be able to make out a case on safeguarding grounds, although it remains to be seen how this will be viewed under the new laws. This still leaves the great mass of home educated children. Those of normal ability whose parents simply prefer having them at home. I am wondering what, if any reasons the parents of such children will be able to give for not coaching and entering their children for examinations, assuming of course that all the recommendations of the Badman Report are implemented and that access to GCSEs is assured.

In short, how will these parents show that their children are receiving a good education, at least as good as that offered by the local schools? If five GCSEs is not the preferred measure of education for such people, what is? What do most home educating parents mean by an education? How will they define it in such a way that the local authority will readily be able to distinguish the child at home who is not taking GCSEs and is never the less receiving a good education and another child who is not taking GCSEs because his parents don't want to go to all the trouble of teaching him? What is the defintion of a good home education, if not five GCSEs?

I am not the only person asking such questions and musing about this subject. If the Children, Schools and Families Bill does become law, then every home educating parent in the land will need to be considering this very question before too long. It might be as well to start now!


  1. Do you have any idea why five GCSEs are considered as indicative of a good enough education? Why not seven GCSEs, or three A levels? Or a degree? Or being able to run one's own business? Or hold down a job for two years?

  2. Ah now, there you have me suzyg. At a guess, and it is no more than that, I would say that this is based upon a folk memory of the time thirty or forty years ago when having five O levels was the minimum requirement for certain jobs; Clerical Officer in the civil service, for example. Many banks used to see five O levels as the standard of a good education as well. I would not be surprised if somebody has a hazy memory of this and has hit upon five GCSEs as the best modern equivalent. I may be quite wrong about this. It is possible that this standard was devised after much rigorous research and that the whole five GCSEs at grades A*-C thing is firmly evidence based. Tell me, which do you find most likely?

  3. Surely that would be a standard of a barely adequate education then, not a good one, unless you're suggesting that being a clerical officer in the civil service is something to aspire to?

  4. Well, to become a Clerical Assistant in the civil service, one only needed two O levels. To become an Executive Officer would have require A levels. The five O levels business was pretty common in the sixties and seventies. Bear in mind that at that time, many children only took CSEs. Five O levels at GCE were the minimum need to get into college or sixth form as well. As I say, this may not be why the present administration have fixed upon five GCSEs. I'd be interested to know if anybody else has any idea where this comes from?

  5. The thing is, education is the responsibility of the parent, not of the state. Neither the LA's nor the DCSF are under any obligation to demand proof that a child is receiving a good education. Suitable and efficient are already defined in case law, and if LA's have reason to suspect that any child is not getting an adequate education at home they have these definitions to guide them.
    Even supposing they did have to get proof, how would 5 GCSE's help them to assess the educaton of any child under 16?
    Bit of a red herring, I think.

  6. I agree that 5 GCSEs probably has historical roots. Gordon Brown's view of Tony Blair's view of John Major's view of Margaret Thatcher's view of Winston Churchill's view of what he would expect. But then so does the entire education system. What we actually need to do is set up a number of pilot projects to see which approaches work best, but that presumably wouldn't get past the ethics committee because it would be seen as advantaging the children who did well, and disadvantaging those who didn't.

  7. It seems to me that five GCSEs could be an excellent achievement for one child and a terrible failure for another. I can't imagine why anyone would even consider using such a thing to measure the quality of an education. In fact, I have trouble understanding the mindset that thinks you can measure it at all.

    Here are a few random thoughts on things that might indicate a good education:

    1. A love of learning that continues throughout life. Many people stop learning altogether when formal education stops. Arguably, they stopped loving it when formal education started. A love of learning is not something promoted by the school system, if you ask me, due partly to the bizarre culture that exists there - there are plenty of names for the usually unpopular children that enjoy learning in school. For further evidence, note the fact that so many adults show no embarrassment at having forgotten everything they supposedly learnt at school, and proudly announce their incompetence at even the most basic of subjects such as maths.

    2. The ability to learn independently. Autonomously, if you like. I despair when people seem unable to learn the simplest of things these days without having to go on a 'training course'. What is wrong with picking up a book? I appreciate that perhaps different people have different learning styles, but I still feel the whole idea of schooling is responsible for this state of helplessness.

    3. Proper social skills, useful for functioning in the modern workplace. This involves showing initiative and anticipating needs, for example, and the ability to interact efficiently and respectfully with people of different ages, abilities and backgrounds. It definitely bears no relation to some kind of Lord of the Flies/law of the jungle kind of scenario played out amongst only other children of exactly the same age, and overseen by a handful of authoritarian adults who insist on being called Sir. If anything, perhaps that would be useful for those intending to join the army, but nobody else. Luckily, most people eventually unlearn the behaviours and attitudes they learn through this side of 'education', but some never do.

    Needless to say, none of these things are measurable.

  8. Hello, i've not commented before. I'm interested in your experience of participating in home education with your children. I've known various parents using different approaches, such as different positions along a continuum between autonomous and school-like education, with different perspectives on what constitutes a curriculum, including none, the Trivium, anthroposophical stuff and so on. I know families with lots of different motivations for home educating, including philosophical objections to the school system, a belief that their child is underachieving, religious misgivings and concern about bullying and special needs. Among all of these, i've never encountered a parent who would sympathise with your views. I am myself a maverick in various ways with respect to home ed, though not in the way you are. How did you arrive at your present opinions?

  9. You are quite right Erica. To anybody unaware that Diana Johnson the Schools Minister is using the five GCSEs as the benchmark of a successful home education, this is indeed a red herring. Similarly for those who do not realise that the DCSF is actively engaged in planning a definition of a suitabel education which will be imposed by Statutory Instrument, thus rendering all the previous case law such as Bevan v Sheers, obsolete. It is also largely a red herring for those home educating parents who inhabit a parallel universe where the Labour government does not have a substantial majority in parliament and will be unable to pass its flagship education bill. For the rest of us, this definition is a bit of a problem!

  10. I hope that I did not give the impression Mark, that I myself think that five GCSEs is the one and infallible hallmark of a good education? Your question suggests that I have given this impression, for which I apologise.

  11. Yes, I think that I would agree with what you say about a good education CiaranG. I was amused by your third point about proper social skills. When my daughter started college a few months ago, she came home amazed that people her age were calling the lecyurers "Sir". She had never heard anybody addressed this way in real life befor!

  12. Sorry, i didn't mean that. I've read your blog before and i was referring to your general ethos. I do wonder to what extent things are measurable. Supposing there is a single intelligence (don't want to get into the controversy about Gardner) which it's desirable and feasible to measure. It seems there are then various factors that come into play. For instance, the vicious circle of underachievement which children labelled as gifted often enter may make any measurable achievement inaccurate. Children who are understood as having special educational needs in the sense of learning disability along with children labelled as gifted may both express a desire to retain control over their work and their own assessment of it by underperforming and destroying their work. There may also be peer pressure to achieve less in a particular subject or across the board in academic terms. A particular subject area may have emotional overtones for an individual which allows them either to identify with it as something they find easy or which makes it too hard for them to pursue effectively, perhaps due to previous academic experience in that area. It may be possible to measure congruence between a marking scheme and a child's output, but i don't feel this is an adequate measure, partly because i would reject positivism.

  13. Yes, I see what you mean Mark. Children often start subscribing to a family mythos about their talents and character. John is practical, Mary is a dreamer, Peter is good at maths; that sort of thing. Most families have myths of this sort and they often spill over into school. The result is that children approach some activities with the subconscious thought, "I'm no good at this sort of thing!" I have seen this happen with art, maths, all sorts of things. I have certainly known this sort of attitude lead to children deliberately doing badly and, as you say, destroying work. I think that strict attention to marking work and the resultant feeling by the child that he cannot do this subject or that well, can lead to problems.

  14. I think that can happen with learning styles, both internally and externally, though i think that particular problem is biassed by the emphasis on semantic knowledge which seems to be introduced by some academic education. I doubt that kind of bias can be avoided completely and i'm aware that everyone would have their own biases, but i think the issue is partly down to qualitative versus quantitative approaches to the human mind. The other thing is, we do all use inductive logic, which is faulty.

    I'm about to go to sleep here, so this is going to have to be brief and may also be quite rambling, but i think the question is really, does a parent generally have a better understanding of their own child's aptitudes or a professional working with that child in an institutional setting? There is an intuitive understanding that can give a parent, or for that matter someone else with a more informal connection with them, the upper hand in that respect. It can't necessarily be articulated, and it may not be desirable to do so.

    Basically, i think the problems with schools are frequently to do with scale and their nature as institutions, though not entirely because a big fish in a small pond can introduce problems.

    OK, i want to nail my colours to the mast here. My history is complex. I was once fervently against home education and am now fervently in favour of it for reasons i've not adequately explored. I personally approach things in a semi-autonomous way but i also think autonomy is a bit of an illusion because the culture of a family is inevitably going to influence how children experience things and what they end up getting to experience. I also think different approaches suit different children and it's easy to become attached to a partiuular approach and think it'll work for every child. Consequently, i'm not going to say that i'm completely opposed to anyone having a non-autonomous approach. Having said that, because i can look at what my children have done retrospectively, one of my problems with the CSF Bill is why, if their stated reasons are real ones, assessment couldn't itself be retrospective in the same way. I can in theory treat the National Curriculum as if it's a "bingo card" and fill things in as the children cover them autonomously. Clearly i would be biassed, but others would also be. I don't think it can be avoided easily.

    I don't really know where i'm going with this and i should probably sign off now because it's been a long day and i'm supposed to be writing about radioactive toxicology rather than this!