Return of Game Theory

It has taken four weeks to achieve, but my post summer holiday irritation level has, at last, reached the stratospheric heights it was at in July. Three weeks of family learning in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies helped reduce the pressure significantly, but it seems that the DfE and various tweeters have set their sights on stimulating that throbbing vein in my forehead!

Yesterday, Sunday 29th September 2013, saw The Gove sink to new depths of imbecility with an announcement regarding GCSE results and which ‘sitting’ would count toward the school performance tables.

Now, I don’t claim to be expert in the workings of the civil service or the DfE, but I assume that the fact the model for the 2014 performance tables was released two years ago is, at least in part, to allow for intelligent planning. School’s know what and how measurement will take place and can plan strategically – seems eminently sensible even if I don’t agree with the purpose or philosophy of such measures.

Announcing a change to those measures, which will affect the results of schools in about 10 months time, seems extremely insensitive and, one might even believe; malicious. So that is quite irritating (the sister programme to Stephen Fry’s QI). Add to that the subsequent twitterlanche of depressed school leaders combined with the smug ones and yours truly ends up in the foetal position under the dining table, cuddling a blankie and sucking my thumb!

What really grates are the increasingly frequent references to some sort of fantasy, where what I have committed my life to is, in fact, a game. Gameplaying, cheating – terms deliberately used to define what schools are doing as unfair, against the rules, not on, when, in reality, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those behaviours, in law or anywhere else. Gove constructs a discourse which paints the education establishment as in a contest with his Department, where he is a virtuous and skilled gamesman being constantly thwarted by the shifty, anarchistic and wrong minded behaviour of schools. However, in order to support his thinly constructed and derisive discourse, he has to change the game itself to fit the claims he makes – much like the sullen 10 year old who hates losing at Monopoly and who tries to claim that everyone else is cheating before walking off in a huff. How dare such ‘common’ schools attempt to compete with the glorious institutions of the Tory faithful – they must be taught a lesson, what?!

Of course, those of us who work in schools feel that what we do is far too important to be reduced to a weak and overtly political Metaphor. Trying to motivate students to achieve of their best in an area where attitudes to learning can be challenging and where many students will struggle (based on their prior attainment) to achieve “expected” progress; is far from a game. Spending every year trying to work out what else can be done to give those hard working but weaker kids a chance to achieve success and to progress, is draining and incredibly stressful even without having to keep one eye on league tables that can affect recruitment for school places and new staff.

The goalposts keep moving, the Inspection frameworks keep changing and always, it seems, in a way that benefits the preferred institutions of Tory members (grammar schools) and works against the non-selective community school. To add insult to injury, the very body which is supposed to act as independent arbiter of educational standards has, by dint of power held by the Secretary of State; become a lapdog of a policy police service, allowed only reflect the sanctioned and politically acceptable discourse of Michael Gove. Abuse of power has never been more overt and yet poorly challenged by the opposition.

“Well, we are all in the same boat” is the undertone of some Tweets from school leaders who really should know better. No, we really are not! How can a school with 100% level 5+ on entry ever appreciate the pressure on a school significantly below average on prior attainment, where everyone has to work extremely hard just to look average? Where even looking average feels like an achievement?

“Perhaps,” whispers the lesser spotted inference “you just aren’t good enough?!” and that is a fair point. Perhaps we’re not good enough to meet measures constructed by a hostile government and rooted in an assessment system riven with problems and statistically manipulated to prevent real improvement from being made visible.

If we are in a game it is one where the deck is loaded, the government owns the bank and the dealer and we don’t even get a card, let alone a decent hand. Just as the socially deprived find themselves pushed further and further away from any sort of equitable existence with the chattering classes, some schools find themselves pushed further and further away from equitable treatment with the academically and socially privileged schools. Our society has created the monster of increasingly segregated education but, in shame and embarrassment, tries to place the blame on those who they are failing.

It upsets me greatly that Heads of “successful” schools can, at times, be so blasé about their privileged position. Any school has its challenges and I am not trying to suggest that running a Grammar School is easy, but – let’s be honest. The risk of OfSTED censure and exam catastrophe is significantly less of a stress than in a school where 60% of students fall within the C/D borderline category and where an OfQual mouse click can wipe 10% off baseline results in a millisecond. Seeing a decrease in your proportion of A* grades will be devastating for such schools and they risk that horrible label ” coasting”, but they are unlikely to be graded as ‘requires improvement’ or find themselves bullied and harassed into giving their assets to a Tory party donor and their pet Academy chain.

So the game goes on. Gove will continue to make up the rules as he goes along looking for any green shoots of improvement that undermine his discourse of failure and ineptitude, and stamping on them, while giggling in a high pitched tone of sheer insanity. Stephen Twigg continues to stand to one side, picking at his fingernails in boredom and only occasionally looking up to ask ” is it my turn yet?!” And thousands of teachers and school leaders will continue to try and focus on their charges, offering them support, guidance and care while simultaneously worrying about their jobs, their homes and their futures.

There has to be a fairer and better way because a great many people are getting tired of playing.

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