Monthly Archives: July 2015

Performance Management is Nonsense: Stop Meaningless Appraisal in Schools


The Head of Accenture, Pierre Nanterme has said: “We are not sure that spending all that time in performance management has been yielding such a great outcome.” Many companies are abandoning the process saying that it is time consuming and has the opposite effect to the desired one, instead of motivating employees it encourages disengagement and restricts people’s ability to improve. According to the Independent: ‘research has shown that even employees who get positive reviews experience negative effects from the process.’

Some people, however, seem to do well from performance management, they approach it with great enthusiasm, the type of enthusiasm that breeds resentment in their colleagues, as reported in the Independent:

“Employees that do best in performance management systems tend to be the employees that are the most narcissistic and self-promoting,” said Brian Kropp, the HR practice leader for CEB. “Those aren’t necessarily the employees you need to be the best organization going forward.”

The hours spent trying to justify how you have fulfilled targets, often targets you have completely forgotten about during the year and only recall them during reviews or appraisals should ring alarm bells, clearly this is having little effect. Yet schools embrace this idea to help them justify performance related pay increases and other such ways of dividing and ruling their staff.

The whole process of a hierarchical management appraisal system can be a power play by which managers can show off their superiority to their mere underlings, in ‘How People Evaluate Others in Organizations, edited by Manuel London, it states: “Although it is implicitly assumed that the ratings measure the performance of the ratee, most of what is being measured by the ratings is the unique rating tendencies of the rater. Thus ratings reveal more about the rater than they do about the ratee.” These ‘idiosyncratic rater effects’ can tell us a lot about the prejudices of those doing the judging and their preconceptions about the person in front of them.

Nanterme said: “The art of leadership is not to spend your time measuring, evaluating… It’s all about selecting the person. And if you believe you selected the right person, then you give that person the freedom, the authority, the delegation to innovate and to lead with some very simple measure.” But what if you think the person in front of you is ‘the wrong person’, then you use the whole system to justify your view, ‘See, I told you all along she was a wrong un’

Staff need to be given the freedom to grow and I don’t mean that old management trick of giving them enough rope to hang themselves, freedom should be about nurturing and building strong, supportive relationships throughout the school, and encouraging ‘openness’, no closed classrooms, no big event reviews, just conversations between professionals, encourage the informal ‘professionalism’ that can drive dynamic organisations rather than sterile formal procedures that can do so much to tick a box as the dynamism grinds to a halt… Er, sorry, as the opportunity to reflect on practise… gets in the way of doing it.

It is not just staff who are subjected to such nonsense, in classrooms up and down the country children are subjected to third rate performance management targets and appraisals, taking a huge amount of lesson time. Big data, give us lots of data, is the cry! Managers justifying their pay scale chasing teachers for DATA, MORE DATA! Instead of teaching and learning, a bureaucratic monstrosity in the name of improving performance is inflicted on pupils preparing them for the 21st century skill of wasting time in pointless form filling. Here is what every teacher should do to resist this peculiar pastime:

  • Stop setting target grades for your children.
  • Stop setting meaningless target statements.
  • Stop children from wasting their time reviewing the targets that you have set them or they have set themselves.

Instead teachers should:

  • Spend the time saved by teaching, supporting and nurturing their pupils so that they do better in the day to day.

These simple steps might annoy a line manager or two but they’ll probably help your children do better than they would wasting their time on the second rate managerialism of performance management appraisals that even big businesses like Accenture, Gap, Deloitte, Microsoft, and a number of other companies, where this nonsense began, are abandoning.

Who Put the Ass in Assessment? Exams vs Education.


“You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and, indeed, are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.”

If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.” Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist

We suppose that if pupils work under the direction of their teachers they will be well educated and that exam assessment will reflect the qualities inherent in the child, his teacher, and the institution he attends. Exams should be the cherry on top of the trifle of education, a celebration of learning rather than a precise calibration. Amanda Spielman, the Chair of the exams regulator Ofqual, is quoted in the Times as saying: “There is more to life than grades,” which she calls “a thin measure of real ability”; and she is absolutely right when she says: “Don’t let curriculum thinking collapse into qualification thinking. Curriculum comes first.” But, exams distort our education system, they are there to serve the needs of utility – precision measurement to sort out the sheepish ones from the goats and, too often, curriculum comes a distant second. In some secondary schools GCSEs are now taught over three years, some English departments teach the same text over and over, at key stage 3, GCSE and even onto A level if they can; too many teachers are prepared to narrow the education of their pupils to suit the precise needs of exam assessment and what it supposes they need to know.

This is a thought that came to mind when I read about the extraordinary story of Nigel Richards, a New Zealander, who has just become the ‘World Champion’ of the French version of Scrabble. The astonishing thing is that he is not a French speaker, apparently he knows the word ‘bonjour’ and can say the scores in French but that’s all. The French Scrabble association call him ‘the Chris Froome of Scrabble…’ Richards says about his strategy, “I try to score points. The goal is to score more points than your opponent.” His technique is to memorise the French Scrabble dictionary and to not overburden his memory with meanings but to ensure he focuses on ‘high-scoring combinations of letters.’ Something akin to this is afoot when children are spoon fed to pass exams, it is possible that the subject knowledge can suffer in the pursuit of measurable success. Richards is also a recluse who loves cycling and clearly can spend a lot of time revising and committing things to memory, though with no overarching need to know the ‘subject’.

The word ‘Scrabble’ was coined for the game and given the definition: ‘to grasp, collect, or hold on to something’ and it could be argued that Richards has done this with French except that he has missed out the whole point of French and that is the ability to communicate in it. Now Scrabble doesn’t purport to make you conversant in a language nor is it an exam, if it were a primary mode of language assessment it would be an Ass indeed but how many other exams or forms of assessment get in the way of learning about something?

As a drama teacher I would always tell my students ‘don’t worry about the exam grade, just make and learn about great theatre’ the subject was more important to me than the grade. For some children this might mean they got a B instead of an A because, as I told them in cases when I thought it might be true, ‘the examiner is not as good as you’. What they had written or produced on stage was the work of real interest, scholarship, talent and enthusiasm and some of those for whom this had occurred are now involved in the world of theatre making, teaching and/or writing about it. Many would get A grades which, of course, was delightful to see but my attitude was to treat both those imposters, the A and B, the same; bugger the grades it was the quality of the work, the art and the scholarship, that mattered.

Michael Gove said: “There is nothing wrong with teaching to the test, as long as ‘the test is right.’ But was he right? If we teach the subject right which would include how to communicate knowledge and argument in a thoughtful manner, then an exam would be a way of expressing a joy of learning a subject and rather than involve the student in learning exam speak the examiners should be aware of how to award ‘subject speak’. The examiner needs to be spoon fed by the subject.

In Trivium 21c there is an interview with Daniel T Willingham in which he says: “A cognitive psychologist would tell you that if your goal is for kids to know things, a terrible thing to do is to give them a disjointed list of things to know and ask them to try to memorise it.” Clearly Nigel Richards has shown, in the context of Scrabble, the disjointed list approach can work except, of course, he has worked out in the context of the test how to ensure, mathematically, he is capable of winning the game and good for him! However, as teachers, I think we need to remember that for us the subject should be more important than the assessment and for students it should be the experience of studying the subject that opens their eyes to the world rather than trains their eyes towards a mere grade.

Does Nicky Morgan Really Value the Arts?

Nicky Morgan

‘Nothing matters but life’   DH Lawrence: Women in Love

Nicky Morgan has made a speech that supports the arts in education. She begins with an understanding of what it is to be British, ‘from Shakespeare to One Direction,’ she trumpets: “This small island country has, throughout its history, punched well above its weight as the cultural capital of the world.” She talks, genuinely, of the contribution the arts have made to her life, then talks about how the Government has made arts education more rigorous:

“Our commitment to rigorous arts qualifications is also a reflection of the significant and ever increasing contribution that the creative industries make to our country, bringing in £77 billion a year, outpacing growth and job creation in many other industries. And that’s why I firmly reject any suggestion that I or this government think that arts subjects are in any way less important or less worthy than other subjects for study in school. On the contrary, for all of the reasons I’ve outlined so far, a young person’s education cannot be complete unless it includes the arts.”

She goes onto say that:

“We need to inspire a love of art, design, music, drama and culture from the very first day of young person’s education and keep it going throughout the rest of their life.”

I take her at her word, she values the arts, she sees them as a vital part of the British Values agenda and that they are important for social justice and our creative industries. I’ve no idea why she can’t make the arts a compulsory part of the Ebacc, it would be the most obvious way to show that the Government values the arts but this seems to be a step too far. Morgan goes on:

“So I hope I’ve allayed the myth that the arts, or the creative industries are in anyway held in low esteem by this government. To the contrary, my ambition is to ensure that every pupil gets a rich cultural education. Because access to the arts is the birthright of every child, regardless of background.”  

I don’t think she has ‘allayed the myth’. Morgan mentions that the Ebacc is about career choice for poor children and it is clear that the arts do not fit with this utilitarian instrumentalism. Her view seems to be that the arts are about secondary utilities of British values, creative industries and One Direction which shows a huge lack of imagination… What if she thought that the arts were “The primary mode of coming to grips with the mental and moral essence of the universe…” what if she thought the arts were about investigating the metaphysical sense of what it is to be human in all its flawed possibilities? There are physical aspects to being human, of course, and without these aspects there would be no humanity at all but what makes us aware of these aspects is our conscience and the arts help us be alive to the possibilities of what this conscious human being might be and also to the possibilities of ‘being’ no longer. To be or not to be?

CP Snow declared in his famous lecture: ‘The Two Cultures’ that scientists had ‘The future in their bones’ and that, ‘literary intellectuals’ were ‘natural luddites’. Snow saw: “Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.” Near the end of his talk he said: “Closing the gap between our cultures is a necessity…” He wanted us to look at how we educate the young with fresh eyes, saying: “The second requirement, after capital, as important as capital, is men. That is, trained scientists and engineers… Here, unless and until the Americans and we educate ourselves both sensibly and imaginatively, the Russians have a clear edge.” He spoke in 1959 a time when the USSR was ahead in the ‘space race’ and even their dogs seemed more technologically advanced.

The time when science was looked down upon by a cultural elite has been reversed. We are now faced with an ‘elite’ in positions of power who fetishise science and technology to an almost Soviet level and see it as the way to ensure future prosperity but now instead of the Soviets we look to Singapore and the Far East  as the countries to emulate.

Our scientific age, all technology, measurement and data, has lead to a need to deliver strong Science and Maths outcomes, measured and tracked by high stakes tests:  ‘A measurement agenda is essential to an innovation and improvement strategy in education’ trumpets the OECD, Science boosts girl’s future earnings says Nicky Morgan. The argument goes that education should be delivered efficiently with the output measured by results and ultimately by economic performance. Even philosophy has to be justified by how it impacts on Maths!  Philosophy shouldn’t need to be justified it should be included in a curriculum because it is philosophy! Plato didn’t write the Republic to improve Maths and Literacy scores, he wrote it to help us out of the cave, not to keep us there staring at dubious data shadows.

Education is being based on the idea that all young people need is a good career, measured by high earnings. This means pupils study the subjects that are ‘proven’ to have more worth than others, as Morgan puts it: “What limits career choices and holds people back, is not being given the information and advice to pick the right combination of subjects, that will open doors for their future and let pupils pursue the career of their dreams.” So we must measure our educational values by children’s dreams, well those dreams that are shaped by the Ebacc.  Beware of this measuring… we could end up in a situation akin to the famous tractor counting at Red Square: Brezhnev watches the tractors as they drive past and sees that all is good, then later, out of his sight, many of the tractors fall apart… but rather than improve the quality the Soviets just built more tractors and counted ‘more’ tractors and compared the numbers to other countries and saw that they were building more and therefore all was good. Education should be about qualities of life not about numbers and the State’s idea of what a child’s dream job might be.


Joseph Conrad wrote: “…Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential–their one illuminating and convincing quality–the very truth of their existence. The artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts… [Scientists] speak authoritatively to our common-sense, to our intelligence, to our desire of peace or to our desire of unrest; not seldom to our prejudices, sometimes to our fears, often to our egoism–but always to our credulity. And their words are heard with reverence, for their concern is with weighty matters: with the cultivation of our minds and the proper care of our bodies, with the attainment of our ambitions, with the perfection of the means and the glorification of our precious aims.

It is otherwise with the artist.

Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal. His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities–like the vulnerable body within a steel armor. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring–and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition–and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation–and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity–the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

Up against the desire to prepare children for the world of work, the wooly liberalism of ‘art’ where words like ‘delight’ and ‘wonder’ are bandied about, things get a bit fuzzy and difficult to measure. Some people in the Arts echo Morgan’s words and try to make their subjects sound tough and relevant saying that studying the arts will get you a job in the ‘cultural industries’ and also that the CBI want people who can sing in a choir, paint with watercolours and dance a pirouette, but cultural industry is an oxymoron, education in the arts should not be the servant of industry but the bedrock of culture.

At one level universal experiences of being human are the same – birth, death, sex, love, but it is the expression of our lives that makes us who we are, the world presents itself to us and is, as Roger Scruton put it: “Imbued with our way of knowing it.”  Our conscience is shaped by opinions, feelings and artefacts that attempt to understand it.

We understand and communicate through a glass darkly with each other because each of us and the way we think about our world is flawed, and those who shout ‘one direction’ the loudest may sometimes be the most flawed of all. The arts are an essential part of the study of ‘the best that has been thought said and done’ but this idea will always involve conflict – because the best is diverse and in that diversity we have contradictions, between and within disciplines. We ought to introduce children to the conflict across the two (or indeed more) cultures and the best schools do.

Man makes his different ways of being and education is one way of handing that culture on. If someone were to say: ‘No! That is not the best way to hand that culture on because it is does not lead to children getting jobs in global finance and waving the Union Flag whilst whistling One Direction songs,’ then we have a problem. The gentle philistinism of Nicky Morgan is so ‘common-sensical’ that people can easily slip into the world of scientism, thinking that the outcome of a ‘great’ job and improving Britain’s place in a global competition are the purpose of schooling.

Arts education must be experienced in an inefficient and humane way. Morgan is right when she says that: “A young person’s education cannot be complete unless it includes the arts,” but not because they are an articulation of British Values, a way of making money through Creative Industries, or a way of boosting Maths scores. Rather the arts should be central to the curriculum of every school because the discussion about what it is ‘to be human,’ is our flawed attempt to understand our conscious selves, and long may we find this aspect of our lives impossible to quantify.

Is Mindset on the Wane?

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

Mindset seems allied to the idea of cognitive behavioural therapy. The NHS classes CBT as: “…a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.” If we accept that mindset theory is born from this notion, that by changing the way you think and behave you can manage your potential and over come problems, then a comment piece in last Friday’s Guardian might give us a moment for pause:

 Why CBT is Falling Out of Favour

In this article Oliver Burkeman refers to a paper citing findings that show CBT is roughly half as effective as it used to be. The reasons that this might be aren’t known but some educated guesses are: due to its popularity the number of inexperienced and/or incompetent therapists is on the increase. Another is ‘the placebo effect’, Burkeman puts it like this: “…if I believe that CBT, or any therapy, is likely to work, and it does, who’s to say if my beliefs were really the cause, rather than the therapy? Beliefs are an integral part of the process, not a rival explanation. The line between what I think is going on and what is going on starts to blur. Truly convince yourself that a psychological intervention is working and by definition it’s working.” And then convince yourself that it isn’t working, or the theory isn’t correct…

Burkeman points out that: “Every era needs its miracle cure…” that is, he adds, “until research gradually reveals it to be as flawed as everything else.”

This struck me as something that could be said about, what is fast becoming ubiquitous in education, ‘Mindset’. Although Burkeman points out mindfulness I feel that is still hovering around the edges of education, whereas Mindset is centre stage, our ‘miracle cure’ if you will. I wonder if it will, like CBT, soon start to be on the wane. And if this were to happen would it be because our children convince themselves that nothing is really changing as mindset is a placebo and really they aren’t that good at stuff no matter how hard they try, so why not give up? Or, because it is everywhere, will all the teacher ‘therapists’ know what they are doing and will they all be as effective as each other?

I don’t know. The premise of this piece might be completely flawed, just because there is some evidence that the effectiveness of CBT is on the wane it does not mean that Mindset is or, indeed, ever will be. I just thought I’d ask the question.

Linear A Levels: Love Them or Loathe Them?


Linear A levels, love them or loathe them, are on their way back. A number of people are pointing out all the problems that may arise with their re-introduction, including some worried folk from universities who use the AS grade in determining whether to make an offer to a potential student or not. In schools some are worried about the decoupling of the AS especially those with smaller sixth forms, where teaching AS alongside A level might be continued. I have heard that some teachers will use the AS as a mock exam in year 12, which I believe will be a disaster, and others who want students to then make a choice as to whether to continue their studies in a particular discipline or not and think that by taking the AS they will be able to decide and have a qualification to their name if they give up; Ah well, they are not designed with this purpose in mind. If you must test, a little one, to keep the bureaucrats in your school happy, should suffice.

In today’s Times Richard Harman, the chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference and head at Uppingham School, complains about the way the changes have been introduced with a ‘mixed economy’ of old modular A levels and new linear ones running side by side. He is right, the introduction seems to have been rather rushed and will, I expect, lead to an amount of confusion, not least for parents trying to work out which exams are best so that they might advise their child. Harman is also right when he criticises the introduction of these exams at the same time as the changes being made at GCSE, he says it would have made more sense if the changes were introduced one after the other. Harman goes on to point out that for a good number of teachers teaching the new linear A levels this will be a totally new experience because they would never have taught them and in all likelihood never studied linear A levels either.

So here we have a perfect storm: chaos and inexperience, and who do we need to sort it all out? Older teachers, those who remember teaching the linear A levels, that’s who! They might have been banished to a dusty cobwebbed corner in the staff room, but dust them down and polish their brogues, their time has come! Hello Mr/Ms Chips!

Linear A level teaching is a fine art, it is not suited to a mock exam in year 12, at that time the students should still be pondering and wondering not deciding and revising. Great A level teaching is slow, covering a wide range of texts and/or ideas, in year 12 (or can we say lower sixth?) the teacher can go beyond the confines of the exam curriculum and teach lots of content, context, recommend wider reading, even link to subjects and ideas beyond the immediate discipline they are teaching. Pupils should have a whole year without worrying about an assessment, a blessed relief for one and all! Older teachers know the rhythms that are needed, they will know there is a moment when the penny will drop with the students, they will know not to panic when all in their classes seem lost. The secret of the linear A level is to ensure the students can cope with not knowing how it all works too soon. You need to teach in a way that keeps returning to parts of the exam rather than completing them for a module. Interleaving and revisiting is the way forward.

Whatever you do don’t teach the new A Levels in the same way as before, oh and listen to the older voices, for they are wise. And, some will agree with me, that despite all the worries, trials and tribulations the linear A level is a great improvement on the modular one, why? Because there is the opportunity for some proper educating to be done, trivium teaching no less.