One of the interesting features of living in Oxford is that although we are known as a city of learning we also have a thriving car industry. We celebrate 100 years of car production in the city this year. Car production locally has mirrored the fate of the industry nationally. When I arrived in Oxford in the late 1970s the car plant was suffering, along with much of British manufacturing industry, from a range of ills. Nowadays, the Cowley plant is producing the world-beating mini, and once again on top form.
One of the changes in production methods, along with the extensive use of robots and just in time ordering during the past 30 years, has been a change from quality control to quality assurance. At one time a car was checked for defects at the end of the line, and those defects were rectified. It was said that in the worst cases the car had to be virtually rebuilt. This was the quality control approach. In the worst cases what it lacked was any feedback to change procedures. With a quality control approach faults still arise from time to time, but the reason for them is investigated and, if possible, preventative measures are put in place to avoid a re-occurrence. As a result, fewer cars need remediation, and more cars go straight to the consumer rather than back to the factory.
Now, education isn’t a production line, and pupils aren’t components to be bolted and welded together to create an artefact. However, I do think that we can learn from these two approaches. I have been in two different meetings this week where output measures, and specifically, the GCSE output measure, have been discussed. This felt like a quality control approach, with a focus on improving the output.
My preference is to spend more time on what is happening with much younger children. After nearly 150 years of state involvement with five year olds we have a lot of information about those children that fall behind and often why. But, we may need to be more systematic in our approach to what works. Although I am not a fan of synthetic phonics for all because it was a one size fits all approach, it should have persuaded schools and policy-makers to tackle this question of what works. If a pupil arrives at school from a background where the printed word is largely absent, they may well have a different attitude to books and the alphabet than pupils from homes where both the printed and the spoken word are commonplace parts of daily life. If one group is then absent more often than the other we need to work out as educators how we overcome those disadvantages to allow all children to learn effectively. Early failure is costly to the whole education system, and too often results in a ‘cannot do’ rather than a ‘can do’ attitude to learning on both the part of the learner and those responsible for their learning.
So, a quality assurance approach that asks the question, why are this group not learning, and seeks appropriate approaches to overcome this challenge might move us away from the censorial ‘you failed’ view of both the learner and the teacher towards a more challenging but cooperative approach. The move at both the DfE and Ofsted towards looking at progress of all pupils over time is a start, but we still lack a mechanism for communicating what works, and also for schools to ask for help without seeming to be failures. The best Children’s Services, dioceses, and academy chains do provide this support, but one of the problems of the lack of a effective middle tier to support primary schools in particular is that it is less easy to arrange than before. As holders of the purse strings, this is an issue all Schools Forums might like to consider next year when reflecting on budget priorities for their system as a whole.