Sunday, 2 February 2014

The menace of the measurers.


Edward Skidelski's Guardian review of Philip Roscoe's "I Spend, therefore I am. . ." contains the telling warning: A measure is a dangerous tool, for it tends to take  the place of whatever it measures.

Add the maxim: What gets measured gets done;

and Goodhart's Law: When a measure becomes the target it can no longer be used as a measure;

and we begin to see the danger of our current obsession with subjecting professional activities to what Skidelski calls "scoring systems."

In my view these systems, especially as they are applied in  health and education, have five major disadvantages:

  1. They distort outcomes;
  2. They take time and energy away from doing the actual job;
  3. They are demoralising;
  4. They divert resources;
  5. The competent inspectees rather than the competent practitioners get promoted and so perpetuate the system
These disadvantages  were first brought home  to me as a teacher in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s.  There, to my astonishment, all teachers were regularly inspected and given a mark out of 10. 10/10 meant eligible for promotion by two grades, 9/10 by one grade, 8/10, satisfactory at the present level, 7/10, serious  weaknesses.  There could have been lower marks, but even 8/10 caused quite enough disruption.


1.  Outcomes were distorted because there was inevitably more emphasis on  teachers' paperwork than on the quality of the teaching. All marking had to be signed and dated; preparation  for each lesson, and post-teaching evaluation, neatly kept; and these were evaluated, as were the quality of the observers' reports on lessons observed.

2.  Head teachers were required to observe lessons by each teacher in the school three times a term, write a report in triplicate (one for the teacher, one for the file and one for the inspector) and discuss it with him or her. Heads of department had to observe lessons as well (copies in triplicate, one for the teacher, one for the department file and one for the head), along with ensuing discussions; copies of minutes of departmental meetings kept  along with annually revised schemes of work for the department.  The amount of time and emotional energy taken up by all of this was enormous. 

3.   The inspection system was demoralising in two ways:

a)  The observer was more or less obliged to say at least something critical in very lesson report, or s/he would be criticised by the inspector as not up to the job and therefore denied further promotion. However mild and constructive the comment might be, on receiving the copy of the report the teacher observed  would search for it and defend himself/herself vigorously.  Great tact was need to avoid bad feeling.

b)  I didn't learn about this until long after I'd left PNG, but it has universal application.  Research (I can't remember the source) has shown that, whatever their occupation, about 70% of practitioners think their performance is "above average."  This is of course statistically impossible, so telling people that they are only average or below average is a blow to self estimate to a goodly proportion (perhaps a mathematician can kindly work can work out what ) of the cohort.

4.  Clearly an inspection system has to be staffed and resourced.  I have no idea what additional actual eduction  could be provided if the resources devoted to  OFSTED, plus the private firms who've seen a commercial opportunity and prepare schools to be OFSTEDed,  were converted into doing the actual job.

5.  See above: speaks for itself.

OFSTED was created in 1984, an appropriate year.  Sadly, rather than regarding it as intrusive and counter-productive arm of the state devoted to "watching you", after 30 years teachers regard it as part of the natural order of things and purr on receiving its approval.  According to The Times (Leader 11th January) the Labour Party, if it wins the next election, is going to further enhance its powers by introducing a Licence to Teach, renewable every five years, and "invigilated" by "colleagues working at other schools."  So who's going to teach their classes whilst the go gadding around playing Big Brother?

There's an opportunity here for the Liberal Democrats to tear up the tick box tyrannies and restore supportive systems which,  as Alexander Pope puts it; "Survey the whole, nor seek small fault to find." 
 ( Essay on Criticism)

Post Script (added 6th February)

It was reported in yesterday's paper that the  "appraisers" of the top civil servants in the UK government's Revenue and Customs Department (HMRC) have been instructed to classify 10% of them each year  as "under-performing."  It is hard to think of anything  that could be more illogical or demoralising.  The First Division Association, which represents these "mandarins" has called a strike for St Valentine's Day.  All power to their elbow.


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