Sunday, 30 January 2011

Is our culture's obsession with educational grading a sign of its democratic deficit?

This post connects with an earlier one questioning the view that 'Talent is Scarce'. Educational systems, particularly those in Britain and America, are more and more focussed on, and driven by, the awarding of grades for every kind of achievement. The key success indicator for secondary schools here in the UK, the one that decides how far up the comparative league tables they come, is the proportion of students who gain 5 GCSE passes (including English and Mathematics) with grades of A*, A, B or C. Passes at D and E actually count against the school, even though they are passes for the individual. For sixth forms and colleges it is A level successes, measured not just in passes, but in grades. Primary school children are assessed in English, Mathematics and Science as being at different levels, some being seen as 'below the average for their age', others as above. Educational providers in the post-compulsory sector following OFSTED inspections are awarded a complicated array of grades, including 'outstanding', 'good', 'satisfactory' and 'unsatisfactory'.

Now, no one would disgree with the idea that we need systems for assessing whether or not individuals are suitable and qualified to work as plumbers, brain surgeons, solicitors, airline pilots, car mechanics, teachers or gas engineers, but it is not immediately obvious why within those systems we need a range of different grades. What is wrong with simple pass or fail outcomes?

One possible answer is that grading provides a reassuring justification for the obsessive 'over-selection' that our system engages in, as pointed out by Richard Sennett, referenced in my earlier post. The numbers project a veneer of objectivity to relatively subjective, unreliable and sometimes invalid assessment and marking processes, and thus assure us that the selection processes for which the grades are used - getting into or failing to get into university, or getting or being rejected for a new job or promotion, or in the case of educational institutions the chance or not to access special funding streams, are also objective and so seem to have been fair.

'Fairness' is stated by all parties to be a key objective of current political activity, but as it is not a well-defined category, it needs an apparatus which dresses up these imprecise processes as objective and not subject to potentially partial judgements by individuals, however expert or distinguished. It is felt that without this apparatus, these decisions would depend rather too clearly on the decisions of individuals and return us to a system of patronage, bribery, corruption, etc, in which to look for any notion of fairness would be beside the point. The argument therefore goes: we need fairness or at least an appearance of fairness, so we need a technical apparatus - examinations, grades, rubrics, transparent assessment criteria, etc - to eliminate as far as possible favouritism, any form of prejudicial discrimination or corruption, so that we can all be satisfied that access to jobs and professions is (a) fair and (b) only admits people with the requisite competences and skills.

A system in which access to all professions, jobs, exam success, universities, was governed entirely by 'pass/fail' outcomes, would be one that demanded trust in the systems and the people working within them. And for me this is the connection with the democratic deficit. Onora O'Neill, in the Reith lectures she gave in 2002, demonstrated clearly how systems characterised by bureaucratic accountability assume low trust and actually intensify low levels of trust between individuals, and by individuals in public institutions and in the society as a whole. This lack of trust breeds the cynicism which leads first to democratic inertia and then increasingly to loss of faith in the democratic ideal itself.

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