Let's start by looking at a classroom situation closest to an ideal: there should be an emphasis on delivery which is aimed at the level of each student and allows that student to move forward at his or her own pace; there should be a balance of class-based lessons where needed, with an emphasis on drilling so that things which needed to be learned rotely, like spelling or times tables, were learned; there should be a ‘value added’ phenomenon occurring, with subjects consistently getting acceptable to good exam results despite, perhaps, starting with challenged students to begin with. A good teacher can usually take low graded students and get them lifted by at least one grade in the exams, in the time allowed. This is ‘value added’ at work.
A ‘model lesson’ for schools should end up being based on individual progress, adding value and containing lots of interesting material and actions for a range of students.
This model tends to work from when children are sufficiently able to understand the principle of a checklist of assignments and to work through them, and in subjects which have an emphasis on replication of already existing knowledge and set procedures (Maths, Sciences, English Language, History, Geography, other languages) and where there isn’t quite so much of a Time arbitrary.
BUT (and it’s a big But) in school-based education there is a Time arbitrary, and it’s a fundamental one: how are you supposed to get all the children through all of the curriculum to full understanding in the time allowed? One way is to focus on central principles and basics and put aside ‘peripheral’ aspects of the curriculum because there just isn’t enough time. But even then, there are children at the lower end of the spectrum who will struggle to get through to full understanding or even to complete the basics. It’s the nature of the schooling beast: if we had a fully self-determined public who were willing to spend as long as it takes to get through one totally aligned and straightforward subject to 100%, we would be fine. But schools have a non-self-determined public, only at school through social convention and parental determinism, who have only a very limited time-frame (again by social convention) to get through a whole range of subjects, studied in a mishmash of a timetable which is wide open to disruption of various kinds.
And that’s just talking about the ‘simple’ subjects which only require replication and understanding.
Then we have the other subjects, based on aesthetic engagement, which require students to be involved and which bring into play such subjective variables as natural talents and predispositions: Art, Music, English Literature, Drama and Film Studies (not to mention Sport). These subjects are a different kettle of fish altogether. And yet schools are accountable to parents for the results in them too.
Johnny may be great at painting, though he’s not so hot at sculpting; meanwhile he’s fantastic with stories, but has no musical ear at all. Billy may hate Art, but boy can he make things with his hands; he may hate reading, but can knock out a tune after one hearing. All of these things come into the picture at the end of school when they are examined and private schools have to justify taking thousands of pounds from parents for a product.
And there are other factors to consider too.
For very young children, the job is more or less getting the kids able to function in the environment and getting some basics into them before they are up to being able to handle assignments of work. This requires lots and lots of action, lots and lots of patience and repetition, and careful spotting of major problems like phonics issues. Teachers are working in the laboratory of Life itself, calling upon supreme skills of patience, affinity and control. And what they do is vitally important because if they mess up at this level, they can wreck the foundation of a child’s education for years to come, if not forever. And they have limited time to do it in before child just has to move upwards based on the arbitrary called ‘age’.
Then, starting in Key Stage 2, we have the lessons for subjects like Maths, Sciences, English Language, History, Geography and other languages, and schools have that model as workable from roughly then to the end of the Key Stage 3. In this bracket there is slightly more time flexibility (though not much). And there is the mix of abilities and talents mentioned above.
Then we have Key Stage 4. That’s a different game altogether. Here the exam clock starts ticking in Week One of Year 10 and doesn’t stop. Schemes of work and lesson planning have to be precise; there is literally not a second to waste. Already schools have the problem of some subjects ‘overspilling’ the time allowed, leaving no opportunity for revision or exam preparation in Year 11. The great arbitrary of Time means that ‘working at your own pace’ has to match the year’s schedule of material or the individual will simply fall behind and fail at the final hurdle of the exams in May/June of Year 11. It’s a completely crazy system - but schools are playing this game because of the social and parental expectations that are out there. One day, there may be a school which is strong enough or big enough to step outside those social and parental agreements and just deal with the small body of parents and students who don’t want to play that game, but for now most schools are stuck with it and so must work out how to make the best of it.
So we come to ‘Value Added’.
Schools need to accurately measure where each individual child is at in a range of subjects, skills and abilities - and then they need to be able to show that they have added value to that individual child, no matter where that person began and no matter what others are doing in his or her class.
It has to be about workability, not perfection. Perfection would only be attainable if schools had a mature, self-determined public willing to do whatever it takes for however long to learn a single, straightforward subject to 100% application. Schools have an immature, other-determined public operating under serious time constraints set by society, compelled to study a wide range of subjects with different sources and levels of texts, all at the same time.
‘Doing the best we can’ = ‘value added’. How can schools add value to each and every individual’s educational experience so that they can demonstrate to parents that they have accomplished something no matter where they started from and no matter all these arbitraries?
That is the struggle schools face.