Testing quality with a cheap trick

Writing a poem every day for Lent has proved difficult – which should not be surprising mathematically, as the sum total is roughly the same as I wrote in the whole of last year.

But it’s not just the maths. Some would say that writing a poem is an inspirational thing, triggered by a spur-of-the-moment insight or observation. Can you really write poems to order, one a day, like taking pills?

Obviously you can, in the sense that poems are just words on a page. You write them, and there they are. The real question is: are they any good, or are you just filling a quota, reaching a target, ticking off data, like Ofsted?

In the poetry league table, am I outstanding, good, requiring improvement, inadequate or – the latest worry – coasting? Count my words and you won’t have much idea. But is there another way?

The question of quality is a serious one, because it is difficult to settle. Counting is much easier, and so politicians and journalists prefer it. If there is an easy way of doing something, most of us prefer it, even if it does not give such useful results. The fact that it gives some results, and they can be counted, is what matters.

If we set targets, we can see if they have been met. If we create a league table, someone will be at the top and bottom. If we set tests, we can easily work out whether someone has passed or failed.

But it’s all a cheap trick, really. You can no more measure the quality of education by counting data than you can measure the quality of poetry by counting words. Education is much too complicated for that. It requires inspiration and insight, every day.

And yes, that is possible. Teachers and head teachers do it all the time. They would do it even better if we could get rid of all that counting.