Sunday, May 20, 2007

Creativity, risk and the audit culture

On Radio 4's Learning Curve last week the most interesting point made was one that none of us managed to address properly. Loosely paraphrasing, Libby Purves said "in a world in which everything must be assessed and graded in order to keep everyone safe, the less safe everyone feels." A succinct summary of a major problem. Likewise, a number of recent reports are questioning what is the point of all the assessment to which young people are subjected. Is it for their benefit ("assessment is for learning", as they like to say in Scotland), or to keep track of how the school is performing in comparison to others and in comparison to national 'norms'? So who is being assessed? The learner or the institution? The answer, surely, is 'both' - but there is very limited evidence that all this assessment, and even worse, testing, is having much effect on anyone's ability to learn, or on teachers' ability to teach effectively.

So, at worst, does the obsession with measuring student attainment in order to compare institutions (the apparatus of institutional comparison) actually divert teachers' attention from meeting the needs of individual learners? Who is all the assessment and audit for? OK, so there's a need to know whether public money is well spent, hence the intense scrutiny of public services. But the audit industry around education (and other public services) creates a culture of performativity which certainly feels something like a straight-jacket to those people who are working in it. Someone recently said "the English spend millions trying to prove that the system provides value for money". Creativity in this context is heavily circumscribed by regulation, bureaucracy and hierarchy. This is a tension that creative practitioners have to address all the time.

The literature on public sector innovation doesn't really address the profound tension between the conditions needed for innovation and the conditions imposed by a normative audit culture. But in the business world, some companies do seem to manage to innovate products and services - and balance regulation and accountability. The difference, broadly, seems to me to be that the public sector isn't generally very good at learning and that it's not just a business - it's not ruled by relatively straightforward goals and objectives, i.e. to sell things or services and make profits from doing so. The 'products' and 'services' of education are complex and contested. The public sector is also very distracted from learning, by the huge burden imposed by reporting, audit and inspection. Can reporting and inspection be used to promote reflection and learning, rather than appearing to be non-negotiable judgements handed down from higher authorities?

And is the obsession with 'raising attainment' just creating a culture of conformity? Essentially does it encourage schools to 'select out' the learners that represent the most risky proposition? It certainly forces institutions to compete for the students that they think will improve their position in the output and attainment tables. Why would schools or universities want to admit students who might adversely affect their performance in the educational 'bottom line'? Who might be costly to support and difficult to teach, or might challenge normative versions of what education is about or what it is for? As I said in my book "a climate of performativity is likely to create a risk-averse management culture in which teachers retreat into standardised and normative versions of teaching and learning."

Surely the issue is more to do with how risk is managed (and who is doing the managing), rather than the idea that risk can be eliminated completely. And narratives of risk are not without their own racialised, culturalised, ethnic, class dimensions. As Stanley Aronowitz says, we should be asking "What is at risk here? Who put these students at risk?" When 'experts' say that it might be 'too risky' to adopt a new or experimental approach to teaching and learning, perhaps the first step is to question the status and perspective of the expert. Too risky for whom? The students or the underlying cultural values/norms of the institution? Postcolonial theory has something to say about this.

Supporting creativity necessarily involves a leap into the unknown. Equally, just talking about encouraging 'risk taking' in an understandably risk-averse public sector culture without differentiating between acceptable and unacceptable risk isn't too smart either. Institutions need values and 'missions', and quality assurance and planning systems, although mechanical and normative, have a place. There has to be a clear ethical framework for work with learners. And curriculum planning is the cultural architecture of learning. However, these cultures need to be open to question, debate, reformation and reinvention. Isn't that why we suggest that public servants should be professionals and employ professional judgement? Isn't that why we maintain the idea of a teaching profession so that there are appropriate values and ethics to underpin these kinds of professional choices?

For what it's worth, this somewhat lengthy abstract gives a sense of where my thinking on the notion of creative partnership, as an emergent form of new, collaborative, networked 'curriculum architecture', is at the moment. Interestingly, conversations with my partner Jackie about the constraints on innovation within the health sector throw up similar issues. There's an article to be written, when we manage to get round to it...

On the other hand, perhaps the issue is as much to do with the ways in which individual managers and practitioners internalise the audit culture, and use its techniques to constrain innovation and disempower others, as it is to do with trying to change structures and systems. When you're trying to manage a situation on the ground, there's inevitably a sense of some tension between the idea of providing a public entitlement, maintaining quality and standards in services, and the need to experiment and take (managed) risks in order to innovate. What is needed is imaginative and intelligent funding and management regimes that don't treat the people 'delivering' public services as technicians to do the bidding of the centre but rather partners - experts - in improving and developing the quality of what is 'delivered.' So professional learning, research and development and professional dialogue becomes critical. Interestingly, even the National Audit Office says in a recent report:"Government departments should build stronger partnerships with local bodies and come to a better understanding of the challenges they face."

The introduction to Bob Jeffrey's recent book summarises some of the issues pretty intelligently: performativity as "a principle of governance that enables strictly functional relationships to develop between a state and its inside and outside environments over and against the older policy technologies of professionalism and bureaucracy, through the institutionalisation of new management techniques and the development of 'mutual instrumentalism' (Ball, 2003). Performativity is a technology, a culture and mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as a means of incentive, control and change."

So my anxiety is that creativity discourse, harnessed to an uncritical performativity culture, constructs learners - and even teachers - as if all they are is individual 'creative entrepreneurs'. It maintains the idea that schooling is fundamentally about the needs of the economy - everyone is then a competitor - and downgrades the social, cultural, civic, interpersonal aspect of learning. What about the education of persons? We need to get beyond the idea that school is just the education of workers and is only about improving economic productivity (for whom?). Entrepreneurship should be one component in a balanced educational diet, but not the only ingredient. The rationale for education is as much social as it is economic. And even with all the rhetoric about personalised learning, the dominant discourse is still one of the learner (and parents) as consumers of educational services rather than participants...and teachers as 'deliverers' rather than 'designers.'

So where is this debate going? Thoughts, anyone?


generalpraxis said...

This conference, currently happening at Queen Margaret Colllege, Edinburgh, looks like it might address some of these issues. Here are four of its key questions:

Can vocationalism become a critical engagement with the demands of citizenship rather than "employability" or the constraints of a professional body?

To what extent does student centred learning challenge students rather than individualising a competitive experience of accreditation?

How can education be used to critique rather than react to policy?

"Financial accountability" absorbs time, creates bureaucracy and engenders managerialism. More dangerous still, the ideology of cost-effectiveness infiltrates and corrupts critical education. In this context, what can be done to pursue education as critical dialogue rather than commodity?

Well, I tried to address quite a lot of these issues in my book...

generalpraxis said...

Stanley Aronowitz writes (in the introduction to Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of Freedom: ethics, democracy and civic courage): "The relationship between the credentialled 'experts' of 'at risk' populartions and the oppressed 'at risk' individuals has less to do with a democratic society than with a colonial society, although we are not allowed to call it so. If this colonial legacy remains unexamined and the 'at risk' students are denied the opportunitiy to study and critically understand their reality, including their language, culture, gender, ethnicity and class position, for all practical purposes the 'at risk' students will continue to experience a colonial existence. Instead of becoming enslaved by the management of the 'at risk' students, which enhances the economic interests of the 'at risk' functionaries, educators need to reconnect with our historical past so as to understand the colonial legacy that may undermine the democratic aspirations of 'at risk' programs." This just underlines the importance of arguing for critical pedagogy within creativity discourse.

generalpraxis said...

Another note to myself:

Here's an article with various policy and strategy people talking about the constraints on public sector innovation, including the same debate about risk, being risk-averse and the difficulties of not having the 'space to fail' in the public sector. Their conclusion is a little different to mine: "We need to try to grow the interaction between private and public by creating more of a sense of marketplace." Yes, but this problem of competition doesn't go away. As I said in my book, in whose interest is the marketplace? I guess being a flea rather than an elephant makes life rather easier to operate in the marketplace (to use Charles Handy's metaphor).

Secondly - "innovation occurs when policy entrepreneurs 'sieze the moment'". Again, the question is - who gets to be a policy entrepreneur, and when are they allowed within tight institutional hierarchies to seize the moment? My work on teacher professional identity, for example, suggests that all teachers need to be more mobile and adopt more flexible spaces between the 'inside' and 'outside' of schools.

Well, there's much more to be written about this, I suspect.

generalpraxis said...

More conversation with myself:

This article from Michael Apple looks relevant. Here's the abstract:

"In this article I discuss some of the ways in which certain elements of conservative modernisation have had an impact on higher education and education in general. I point to the growth of commodifying logics and the audit culture that accompanies them. In the process, I highlight a number of dangers that we currently face. However, I also urge us not to assume that these conditions can be reduced to the automatic workings out of simple formulas. We need a much more nuanced and complex picture of class relations and class projects to understand what is happening. Finally, I point to the importance of not simply defending existing institutions, since there may be elements of good sense as well as bad sense in the neo-liberal and neo-conservative criticisms. The issue is not whether or not we need accountability, but the kinds of logics of accountability, and the question of accountability to whom, that tend now to guide the process of higher education. An alternative to the external imposition of targets, performance criteria and quantifiable outcomes - but one that still takes the issue of public accountability seriously - can be built. I point to some criteria that can be used to judge it."

generalpraxis said...

Another recent article from the 'school improvement' stable makes a similar point to mine - i.e. that risk should be actively managed, not avoided at all costs! (it's much more risky to go down the path of blind audit than it is to really see what is going on and try to adjust and adapt the educational systems accordingly.) I suspect Peter Senge and his lot would agree.

Risk, error and accountability: improving the practice of school leaders

"This paper seeks to explore the notion of risk as an organisational logic within schools, the impact of contemporary accountability regimes on managing risk and then, in turn, to posit a systems-based process of risk management underpinned by a positive logic of risk. It moves through a number of steps beginning with the development of an understanding of risk, the risk society and the logic of risk derived from the seminal work of Douglas (1992, Risk and blame: essays in cultural theory, London: Sage), Beck (1992, Risk society: towards a new modernity. London: Sage) and Giddens (1990, The consequences of modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press). Second, the paper juxtaposes this understanding of risk with the rise of accountability imperatives and an “audit culture” [Strathern (1997) European Review, 5(3), 305-321] in public institutions, including schools. It then moves to consider how a systems-based approach to risk management, drawing on Reason's (1990, Human Error. New York: Cambridge University Press) model of human error minimisation, could be usefully developed for schools. Such an approach would be built on a positive risk logic which maintains the flexibility, innovativeness and adaptability so necessary in education and avoids the more deleterious effects of many current forms of accountability and risk management which reflect avoidance, conformity and rigidity."

generalpraxis said...

Here's a paper which critiques management and audit from an explicitly Marxist perspective. Conclusions in particular, on "values, the struggle over measure and the production of commons" are interesting...

generalpraxis said...

Another piece from McKinsey on 'applying lean production in the public sector'....production of what? That's the question.

"Governments instituting lean processes must tackle challenges such as the absence of a profit motive, a lack of competition, and civil-service rules that may limit the flexibility of the workforce.
Lean programs can succeed, but only if public-sector managers align the interest of government workers in holding meaningful jobs with the need to accomplish more things with fewer resources".

Anonymous said...

A report from Global Business Network, "New Realities of Risk:" explores a range of perspectives on rish as - "the emerging and accelerating sources of uncertainty and the risks they create in the market and organizational environments to different lenses on the psychology of risk to the importance of reperceiving risk, as an opportunity for real advantage as well as a downside to be managed". See