One recent Wednesday, a planned lesson in which my year 9 class would have been spotting the persuasive techniques in a past editorial of Solidarity had to be postponed when I was told at very short notice that I had to attend a meeting of a group called PiXL.
PiXL is a so-called not-for-profit educational consultancy organisation based around its guru-type leader, Sir John Rowling, a former headteacher with links to the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, whose academies got into trouble a few years ago for teaching creationism in science lessons. PiXL is dedicated to helping the schools in its “club” (members of which pay it thousands of pounds a year) improve their GCSE results.
Rowling opened the meeting, which was for secondary school heads of maths and English, by asking us to think of what one thing we would want our schools to achieve if we were feeling really ambitious. My colleague and I came up with something like “our school should be an environment where every child can reach their potential”. This was the wrong answer, but Rowling assured the meeting that whatever percentage figure of A–C passes we had come up with, it was achievable!
The PiXL approach to improving results was revealed as the meeting went on. Far from being the advised opportunity to share ideas, we got a long lecture-cum-rally from Rowling and one of his protégés, a young headteacher from Sutton.
PiXL believe in a focus on C/D borderline students, via excessive data management techniques to see the “progress” students are making toward passing the exam; overworking teachers by endless lunchtime and after-school sessions targeting a very small number of pupils (what about all the others?); and stressing out students by re-entering them over and over again, at every possible opportunity, during year 10 and 11 in the hope that their results will improve. This is supposed to be all about the students and their best interests, but their learning needs are never discussed, only the need to “diagnose” the reason they can’t pass the exam and then offer them the “therapy” they need — not the most helpful language!
What PiXL really represent is the pathetic if understandable desire in schools to carve out an extra 1% of the available “pie” of GCSE passes as individual institutions.
At one point Rowling said that his view was that as 60% appeared to be the figure “allowed” to pass this year, we should be assuming that only 59% will be allowed to pass next year and we should be guessing grade boundaries, etc, on that basis. It was both frustrating and depressing to see ranks and ranks of qualified teachers sitting in the hall listening to this without questioning the horrendous assumptions behind i: that it is OK for the government to set a quota of children allowed not to fail each year and the best way we can deal with this is to pump money into groups like PiXL, and personally work ourselves and our students into the ground to ensure that more of the kids at our school rather than the school down the road get into the “not a failure” category each year.
Teacher trade unions and the labour movement in general are a long way from leading a proper public discussion of these issues and it is vital that we fight for them to do so. I feel that an immediately winnable demand to campaign around would be the abolition of exams at 16; especially as not all students are expected to remain in full time education until 18, writing 40% of them off as failures at 16 should be obviously unjustifiable to almost everybody in society.
PiXL’s slogan is “whatever it takes”; socialists in schools should do whatever it takes to break the hold of the vile set of ideas they represent, and present an alternative based on caring about the development of students as learners and human beings.