One of the suggestions made this week in the wake of last year’s riots is that schools should be fined for every pupil who leaves school illiterate. It sounds like a politician’s answer: find a problem, criminalise it, and punish the transgressors. No, they’re not, as I understand it, actually talking about the use of the criminal law in this case; but the thinking is very similar.
There’s a danger, of course, in generalisation and stereotyping. I don’t accept the simplistic response which has been used by too many politicians that poor educational performance is the result of inadequate resourcing. I think we can say, though, with a reasonable level of confidence, that taking resources away from those schools with the highest levels of illiteracy is unlikely to be the most effective way of targeting resources to where they are needed.
Admittedly, the current approach on targets and inspections isn’t working; but that doesn’t mean a system of penalties for failure is any more likely to succeed.
I’m reminded of a story I heard on a training course many years ago. A UK company, it was said, had ordered one million microchips from a Japanese company, specifying a defect rate of .1%. When the order was delivered, a small package of chips was separately packed along with a note saying that they didn’t understand why the customer wanted 1000 defective chips, but they’d packed them separately so they could be easily identified.
It’s almost certainly apocryphal, but it does highlight a difference in approach to quality control, where the Japanese company had built quality into its processes and procedures from the outset to ensure that the system as a whole succeeded, whilst the UK company accepted a level of failure as a given.
Schools are not factories and pupils are not coming off production lines. Nevertheless, there is surely something to be gained from the idea that we build systems and process to ensure that pupils do not fail, rather than identifying failure at the end of the process and then punishing the schools.