Saturday, 7 February 2015

Numbers Rule OK?

“Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.” Albert Einstein

A head teacher friend of mine has a problem. The government in Wales has decided that the results of the Year 5 tests in mathematics, reasoning and reading for each child should be plotted on a continuum and sent home to parents. The continuum has 100 in the middle – the average child. Average apparently spans from 85-115, below 85 is below average and it follows that above 115 is above average. Each parent gets the printout with three crosses placed on the continuum to represent their child’s position in relation to all the other children of their age in Wales. So now each parent knows – their child is ‘above average’, ‘average’ or below average’ and by how much. Where would you like your child to be placed? As you might expect a number of parents are worried about the place on the continuum that their child, on the basis of three tests, sits. Especially as these are high-stakes tests, these numbers will be a major determiner of which set they are placed in when they go to the secondary school and research tells us that once placed in a set it is very hard to move out of it.

Numbers are not like words, which require interpretation. Numbers are a source of authority that purports to reveal truth. Never mind whether they actually do so or not, the way they are presented gives them the status of certainty, of factual information, of reliable evidence. And such ‘truth’ surely cannot be disputed. Unsurprisingly the majority of parents think the numbers assigned to their child tell them something factual about that child.

Stop for a moment and reflect – do you believe that the most important things in life can be measured? How about friendship? Could we assess our friends and assign them a number according to how good a friend we thought they were? What about our parents? Our closeness to our children or other loved ones? If we did decide to measure such things against a set of criteria and come up with a number surely it would make us feel uncomfortable. It would undermine the human feelings that are so dear to us.

On the other hand the pursuit of excellence does require some form of assessment of quality.  It is true that if you can’t measure something you can’t improve it and measuring is a fundamental component of human life, to reject measurement would be impossible. So we need to measure – but there are many things we refuse to measure and for good reasons. We would, for example, find it odd to measure the beauty of the natural world and then decide which is better by assigning them a numerical value – the Grand Canyon or Victoria Falls, maybe the Lake District. Or using numbers to decide which has more value, a painting by Picasso or a sculpture by Henry Moore. Such measurement is nonsensical and we immediately see that.

Could it be that we are so obsessed by measuring in education that we are confusing what we can measure with what we cannot?  Confusing what we truly value about human beings with what we can measure? We need to sort that out. Then, having decided what we can measure, it is only too easy to be seduced by numbers and forget that there are good and bad numbers. Remember the saying, ‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics’? Numbers are influential; they shut down arguments and stifle political and social discussion by claiming to provide incontestable facts. We all trust people with numbers – even when we recognize how easy it is to fudge data for all sorts of purposes, even though we know numbers can be manipulated and misrepresent the world they seek to describe, even though we know there is widespread cheating on the tests by school leaders – numbers, simply because they are numbers, are taken to be correct.

First, we need to sort out what can and cannot be measured, and secondly we need to look carefully at what we decide to measure and make sure the numbers we use are valid. Perhaps most importantly we need to consider how the presence of numbers, good and bad, influence how the stakeholders in schools – the pupils, parents and teachers – behave and what they believe. Numbers have the power to affect how we carry out education in our schools. In an era of data-driven decision making it is important to question the data we are collecting and the status we give to it.

Let’s get back to my head teacher friend. She has to deal with the parent who demanded to know why their child is ‘above average for mathematics and reasoning, but only average for reading’. They want to know where the school has gone wrong – he is clearly a ‘bright’ boy, this result must be the fault of the school.

Unfortunately this illustrates only too sadly that in education numbers influence everything we do and this can negatively influence the educational lives of many pupils and their teachers. What about the self-fulfilling prophesy of telling a child she is ‘below average’ and the impact this might have on her self-efficacy and self-esteem?

To help me think about this I turned to Professor Lorenzo Firamonti, a leading political scientist whose latest book, ‘”How Numbers Rule the World” draws our attention to the fact that measurement, expressed as numbers have become the driving force behind our social, economic and political decisions. Numbers, whether they are right or wrong influence our behaviour and that of the people around us. If we apply his arguments to education we can see how it has become dominated by the production of numbers to assess the quality of our children, our teachers and our schools and to guide the placement of children in ability groupings. Numbers drive school policy-making and guide development plans. Numbers have increased bureaucracy for everyone in schools. It’s time to unpick the impact of numbers on our educational system and ask if it helps improve the quality of education for all our children. At the moment it is numbers that decides what makes a good school and activities designed to improve those numbers dominate the thinking of all involved from the parent complaining, to the head teacher to the Director of Education in the Local Authority.

No one can doubt that the numbers we attach to students are powerful and exert enormous influence on the behaviour of schools. Schools are rated on the basis of test and examination results; in a market economy they have to compete with one another for pupils, it takes a brave school not to focus on preparing children for the tests. Test results are seen as key indicators for a ‘good school’. This has some predicted and unpredicted side effects. Schools are expected to show progression for each child and in primary school the magic number is Level 4B in English and Mathematics in year 6. These targets inevitably influence how teachers respond to the pupils in front of them leading to extra focus on those children who are borderline in the desired grades. A focus on some students inevitably means the neglect of others as research on secondary schools has established.

Secondary schools are judged by the percentage of GCSE A*-C grades, including mathematics and English, their students obtain. In this context it is the C/D borderline students have more money spent on them and their teachers spend more time planning interventions to maximize the number of C grades. Teaching becomes strategic as teachers teach to the test; learning becomes strategic as pupils are encouraged to only do what is necessary to pass the test – what becomes of deep learning in this scenario? What matters is passing those examinations, no matter if the knowledge gained is short-term and surface learning, that students acquire information rather than understanding.

When numerical reasoning is systematically applied to the world of human interactions in this way it has all sorts of unintended side effects. What about the impact on teachers whose stress levels and unhappiness are linked to the loss of autonomy, social status and professionalism? Many teachers are leaving as a result of the increased monitoring, evaluation and sheer bureaucracy

Firamonti laments that, ”The complexity of social relations is lost through the cracks of mathematical algorithms.” My head teacher friend is not prepared to sacrifice her commitment to social relations, to the quality of interaction between the children and teachers in her school, to prioritizing the understanding of each child as a unique human being with multiple interests and talents to the demands of numbers. The children to her are not merely a set of crosses on a sheet. She wants her school to be an ethical institution where the people in it listen to each other, where relationships are nurtured, where differences are valued, creativity is encouraged and thinking is promoted. And that means mixed ability teaching. This is not an either/or – her results are also good, but I believe such results arise from the creation of a happy, productive environment where children are encouraged to think their own thoughts and come up with their own ideas and as a result love learning and are not made to feel judged by a number.

When parents are sent the continuum and see where their child has been placed it almost inevitably shapes their perception of their child. They believe the number has something real to say and they forget all the intangible capabilities their child is acquiring. The presence of the numbers reduces debate – parents see them and think they say something real.

It is time to ask ourselves what we want for our children – do we want schools that put all their energies into the micro-management of the production of measurable and uniform outcomes so we can rank and categorise, compare and contrast, group and set the children in our schools or, do we want schools like my friend’s that nurtures questioning, dialogue, respect and responsibility and seeks to fully acknowledge each child’s uniqueness and difference because that is what makes them human? Numbers can’t do that.


  1. Well said Sue, I totally agree. Children are no more than workers in a statistic factory. Not on my watch!

  2. Numbers are fascinating as they appear in history, Maths, astronomy, photography, biology, and almost every attempt to study our physical universe. But to use linear sequence rating scales to measure behaviour, effort and performance is re-enacting the story of the blind men describing the elephant as a fan, a rope, a pillar, etc. We need, maybe, a verbal, multi-dimensional measure, if we wish to compare, relate and rate learning behaviours.

  3. Excellent, Sue. It is true, we are living under the dictatorship of numbers... Poor numbers, they do not know... they are pure, simple... it is the people who give them such role. Thanks for this opportunity to think about this.

  4. Sue, you've really hit a couple of nails on the head with this. Very well said. I've shared it, along with a few of my own observations to spread it to a wider audience:

  5. Hi Sue,
    I really enjoyed reading this. In fact, I thought I'd written a response once already and posted it but it seems to have disappeared into the ether, so here goes again!

    I think you have expressed something very profound and important about the effects of numbers in situations such as this. Your head teacher friend is caught in a bind by this instrumental discourse of numbers and measures. If she were to ignore it - well- she'd be viewed as somehow 'incompetent'. By going along with it, she is made to appear as though she is endorsing this practice as 'meaning something' which - as you have so elegantly expressed - it clearly doesn't.

    As for the parents and their children, they are left to fret and blame: themselves, their child, their child's teacher or 'the school'.

    And this culture of individuated blame is so reducing and pernicious. We all become just a little less as a consequence.

    I will share this piece - if I may - with my lovely group of post-graduate teachers studying here in the UK from Kazakhstan. Like us they are caught within the global audit culture of numbers. I will let you know how they respond.

    Thank-you for sharing this: I'd say you were 'above average'. Rebecca

  6. Thanks for the response, it's good to know this little blog isn't flying around the ether alone! Would love to know how your Kazakhstan teachers respond!

  7. At the moment it is numbers that decides what makes a good school and activities designed to improve those numbers dominate the thinking of all involved from the parent complaining, to the head teacher to the Director of Education in the Local Authority.
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