Self-organisation in complex systems

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Here we go again – back to the future with the TEF

Back in 2004/5 I remember the first iteration of the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) when I was a head of geography at a large secondary school. At the start of the year the whole staff was informed of a new system for tracking how well academic departments were ‘performing’, and from this, how good teaching and learning was. As a head of department it became my responsibility to carry out an ‘informal’ observation on each teacher in my department, complete book scrutinies, write reports about curriculum provision, assessment, and play a role in an expanded school improvement plan. In each case, there were plenty of forms to fill in, paperwork to send back to those running the system. At the time it seemed to me that the rapidly expanding bureaucracy was actually the focus of the system – having pieces of paper to legitimise the existence of managerial positions, and also to act as the ‘evidence’ for how well each department was doing.

In some ways the system which was created by the school was a very good one. It provided evidence for all the elements of the SEF, and as such, the school was later commended by Ofsted for collecting ‘robust’ evidence of all its activity. However, I also remember thinking (and still maintain) that the SEF was an act of evil genius. In one move Whitehall gained the ability to micro-manage schools. If a particular policy was developed, the SEF could be tweaked, and schools across the country would change the data they collected in response. There were, however, four large downsides to creating a system of data capture as a proxy for quality of teaching and learning. The first one is the most obvious, the data collected was all too often a dull proxy of what it professed to measure – teaching and learning processes were rarely, if ever, part of the data collection routine other than through the results of observation (since somewhat discredited for this purpose). Secondly, it became all too apparent that what was most important was the paper rather than the process it related to. As long as you created a positive narrative and said you had done lots of interesting things there was far less interest in testing that – in fact it was impossible to do so as the resources required were not available. Therefore, a gap started to emerge between reality and the fairy stories which were spun for those higher up the food chain. Thirdly, at a time when what we needed to do was focus on teaching and learning, we were focused on bureaucracy. This is frankly idiotic in itself, but also, it led to a dynamic where professionals found themselves constantly reacting rather than leading and opinion forming, a situation which is not predisposed to innovation and often leads to feelings of stress. Finally, and for me most importantly, this generation of paperwork led to a large amount of time being used to feed the new accountability systems. In that first year I kept a time sheet. At the end of the year I was told at a meeting that my department had been assessed as extremely strong. In response I said that whilst this was nice, the 120 hours I had spent on bean-counting was 120 hours I had previously spent on curriculum and resource development. Therefore, the new system was actively stopping the very activities which had made the department a success in the first place. The next year I moved on to work in higher education.

Now, in 2015, we have the best guess of what the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will look like for universities. We already have a situation where there are more non-academics employed in universities than academics (in 2013/14, sector-wide 194,245 academics to 201,535 non-academics, HESA: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/stats-staff) and the TEF threatens to make this ratio even worse, with the TEF having a similar impact on HE as the SEF had with English schools. Any quality assurance system produces lots of paperwork, and in turn requires administrators. The HE sector already spends a huge amount of money on quality assurance, the THE reporting £1 billion per year and when the TEF comes in to existence, the early anecdotal evidence is that this will increase. I and others I talk to are already noticing the need to fill in pieces of paper to prove that we are doing things we have always done. As a result, we are already doing less of the things that make a positive difference to students, and also push research time further into a distant third place. My greatest fear is that HE is sliding into the same Kafkaesque bureaucracy which took hold in schools, and from which only part of that sector seems to be emerging from, slowly, at present. And like the SEF, the TEF as currently outlined will manage to measure everything other than what it claims to measure. Be under no doubt, as with the SEF, the TEF is not a framework for capturing and improving teaching and learning quality, it is a bureaucratic cudgel aimed at beginning the Whitehall takeover of higher education.