We have a new God and his name is Quality Assurance

Ball, S. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18 (2) p215-228

In this article Stephen Ball explains how market, managerialism and performativity are replacing professionalism and bureaucracy in education, making the public sector more like the private sector in its methods, culture and ethics. While this may or may not be an explicit preconditioning for privatisation as seen with the health and transport sectors, it exemplifies a ‘culture and a mode of regulation that uses judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change’.

I accidentally caught a Lib Dem cabinet minister on TV the other day saying he believes their ‘huge mistake on tuition fees’ has actually turned out to be good for students(!), because universities are now more accountable for the quality of their education. Yes, students should have a good educational experience – no-one is disputing that – the question is; quality by whose definition? And what about the quality of the teaching experience? Ball explains that teachers – particularly, I think, in the compulsory sector but increasingly so in HE – are finding their values being challenged and displaced by other agendas; the ‘care of the self’ being set against the ‘duty to others’.

The quotes from UK school teachers at the bottom of p216 raise strong emotions because I recognise how much tenacity these individuals must have/have had to have lasted so long. I bailed at the close of my PGCE year, my confidence and creativity shattered by a persistent, crushing assessment of my own teaching, and the relentless focus on teaching to the test. Later on, when I found my home in HE, I was initially guilty of pushing some of the kinds of changes Ball alludes to here; particularly the use of IT to cut back on ‘inefficient’ personal contact. My views on this have undergone a seismic shift.

I am probably naive (definitely lucky), but I don’t feel like managerialism and performativity have completely taken over in HE. The structures are certainly there; appraisal, accreditation, the NSS… but I do feel in most cases we are free to interpret them in a way that dovetails with our own values and beliefs. One example is the scheme we have at UAL to work with courses with low NSS scores, which at first glance screams ‘performativity’, but our department – who were given the responsibility of developing it – designed the scheme with a genuine focus on building and rebuilding relationships in course teams. The fact that it does appear to actually raise NSS scores is seen by those who facilitate the scheme as a convenient side-effect. A small victory for the academics perhaps; that we have found ways to negotiate these structures without resorting to meaningless fabrications (although fabrications do abound… it is easier to fabricate than to reconcile). I do accept that my particular context of an academic development unit in a creative arts university is probably going to have a good degree of self-protection.

Thinking again about the Professional Standards Framework – which I need to talk to my students about tomorrow – the PSF is a professional technology, but it is at risk of being used for performative ends by universities, especially those in a weak ‘performance position’ (elite institutions of course having less to prove). Ball’s paper lends a rather grim perspective to the recent shrinking of the HEA’s activities down to accreditation, recognition and competitive reward (e.g. the National Teaching Fellowships). It also threw into sharp relief the amount of time I have spent in the last week putting samples of work and feedback together for external examination; time that I could have spent on catching up with my students’ projects and exchanging advice and encouragement. Like them, I also find these activities are too easily squeezed out now they reside online.

It’s hard to argue against external examination (provided it knows its place), but it takes a ridiculous amount of effort these days – when students’ work and feedback is spread across blogs and forums and a range of other channels – to get a sample together that makes sense to an outsider, particularly when some of it is of a sensitive nature and not easily sharable with external parties. I see aspects of this process that are prone to at least some kind of fabrication, and I doubt, where the students and myself are concerned, that it is the best use of my time. But worse than this – as Ball says, it is not that performativity gets in the way of academic work, but that it’s a vehicle for changing it. The online systems we use for collaborative peer and self assessment make perfect pedagogic sense, but for external examination they are utterly useless. Twice a year I tear my hair out getting this sample together, and seriously consider returning to a physical box of plastic folders. Yes, really – I would consider rolling the clock back on what I see as my biggest success, for the sake of a happy external.

Was it Heidegger who said we needed a new God? We have one… and His name is Quality Assurance. I don’t think he’s going to save us, though.

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