Thursday 29 March 2012

Punishing failure

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.


Unknown said...

You are right about the approach to quality control. Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar delivered consumer goods to the market at affordable prices by doing away with quality control. They both let the customer do it. If it didn't work, they sent it back, and got another one. Perhaps that is the way schools are operating?

Anonymous said...

Eh? But isn't the whole point of this initiative to ensure that there are no 'defects' in the first place?

That is, I assume the Japanese company had some system to ensure that there were no defects in the end product and had built up a process to ensure this. This could have been in creating better work systems which may also have included an element of 'punishment' if staff didn't work to the system - let's say, a member of staff consistently making sloppy mistakes or not turning up for work. So, there may have been an element of 'punushment' in the system which ensured the product was perfect.

Of course, the ultimate punishment for the company would be to lose contracts - 'failure' in educational terms. That is the ultimate 'punishment' for failure in business and is a very strong incentive.

From knowing Japanese society only from hearsay, it seems to me that there is a strong element of 'punishment'; workshy taboo or enforced work ethic which would account for their systems being better.

The whole point of instigating a 'punishment' regime like this is not to use it but more to send a strong message. A strong message to the school, to teachers and to pupils. The message is that failure has short term as well as long term consequences and that people have to take responsibility for themselves and others and that the state and society can't afford to tolerate failure in such an important part of society, economy and well-being.


John Dixon said...


I think you've missed the point.

I don't claim to be an expert on Japanese quality control, and I did say that I thought the story was probably apocryphal; I was simply using it in the sense that I first heard it used, namely to identify that there are different approaches to managing quality. One is to accept that there will be a level of failure and design systems and processes to trap failures and punish transgressors; the other is to build systems and processes to ensure that there are no failures in the first place.

There are those who start from the perspective - which seems to be yours - that failure is prevented by deterrent; by the use, or the threat of use, of punishment for failure. And I don't doubt that those starting from that view sincerely believe that such a regime is "to ensure that there are no 'defects' in the first place". I just think that it is neither the only way, nor the best way. Investing in ensuring that no-one ever leaves school unable to read and write may be harder and may cost more time and effort than punishing schools every time someone leaves unable to read and write but is surely prefereable both for society as a whole and for the individuals.