I’m chair of governors (= school board in US) at Bushfield primary school in Wolverton. This has been one of the most interesting things I’ve undertaken in recent years, very much in tune with work at OpenU since the debates about the future of learning in school and university are pretty much the same. When you read the complaints about the current systems, and scenarios of future, you can more or less swap the nouns school/university and it still all makes sense… but the earlier we start to fix the system, the more profound the impact!
So, at Bushfield we just got a letter from the Minister of State for Schools & Learners, congratulating us on being one of the top performing schools in England. Your critical eye will, of course, be asking so what does top performing actually mean? The letter is quite precise:
“Your results show that you are amongst the top performing schools based on the most sustained year-on-year improvements in Level 4+ aggregate performance from 2005 to 2008.”
Hmm, sounds good. That sounded like they were congratulating us on how much progress children make, which in the glorious world of school league tables is called Contextual Added Value (CVA), a “performance indicator” that was introduced as a more rounded way to assess the quality of education than raw attainment levels in SATS, which take no account of the level at which children enter, your socio-economic context, how many special needs pupils you take, etc.
Well on closer inspection it turns out that no, this was all about our improvements in raw attainment levels. While this has some meaning, and we’re proud of the result, we feel CVA is much more meaningful as an indicator of our philosophy to learning than an absolute league table ranking. And we’re even prouder that we’re amongst the top schools in the city and nationally on this front. No matter where you are in formal academic terms, at Bushfield School you’ll make better than average progress from when you entered to when you leave, than you would in almost any other comparable school. You might score higher if you went to a selective, private institution right at the top of the league tables, but that’s only accessible to a few. For everyone else, this is as good as it gets in the public system. Something for pupils and staff to be very proud of.
Here we are in the 21st Century, gauging learning, and very publicly ranking schools, via a few very selective measures (exam results — scored this very week in May — on literacy, numeracy and science, though science SAT is abolished from next year as an inappropriate way to assess the subject. Hmm…). With the introduction of Contextual Value Added, the indices have grown a little sharper from the initial very blunt instrument of absolute scores, but there is so much more to learning that is left invisible by these categories. To paraphrase Geof Bowker, organisational memory systems are systematic ways of forgetting, since the categorisation systems they employ choose what to erase.
And this is why I love working with the Bushfield staff team, because they’re up for embracing the new conceptions of learning around the skills and habits of mind that the next generation needs to survive, and thrive, in a very fast changing world. In the end, I wrote a summary of my thoughts about our approach to learning, and after some improvements by the Headteacher and other governors, it feels satisfying to paint a much broader, richer picture of how we see learning.