Monthly Archives: March 2012

In a recent Guardian article, Mike Baker suggests the reintroduction of norm-referencing for ranking exam students: this is, after all, how we judge ‘the best restaurants, the swankiest hotels, the top football teams, the fastest athletes’. I suspect he might be mistaken if he thinks rank order in those named cases can be happily compared to each other, let alone made to correspond to the way norm-referencing would differentiate between students who have just taken an exam; and I think he is mistaken in his subsequent view that norm-referencing would undermine the obsession with targets. But no matter: I want to draw attention to his assumption that norm-referencing would restore public confidence in standards.


Here, standards is inseparable from exclusion; and the exam system is dysfunctional because too many students are avoiding exclusion through exam failure. Baker mentions in passing that norm-referencing ‘could prove demoralising’ for students who now have to settle for low grades, or even no grade at all, although he fails to point out that, previously, 30% of candidates automatically failed an exam: one might easily imagine the response from those middle-class parents of students who have benefited from the expansion of higher education.


In the Robbins Report (1963; available here) we find the following:


… we have assumed as an axiom that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so. (8)


In the early-1960s, of course, very few students took A-Levels and had the opportunity to become ‘qualified by ability and attainment’, that is, achieve two passes. Further, that minority would become smaller once the 30% who automatically failed each exam were excluded. Nonetheless, the above quotation from Robbins invokes a principle, that higher education should be inclusive; and the role of the A-Level, in those circumstances, would be to confirm the suitability of candidates, not justify their exclusion. That an elitist system managed effectively to exclude so many students from participation might be ignored, which meant that the A-Level, as a qualification – as opposed to certification – was never brought into question. Only in the 1990s would this arrangement be threatened by increasing numbers of A-Level students achieving passes when norm-referencing was replaced by criterion-referencing and the apparent failure to differentiate by ranking students against each other as Baker suggests.


Yet those who doubt that the A-Level system still differentiates effectively should consider the following references. In 1996, Dearing’s Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds, from the outset, insisted that ‘our most able pupils [should be] stretched and rewarded for excellence’ (1). Implicitly, that reward is tied to the construction of another group of less able or even least able students. Then, 14-19 Education and Skills (2005), the white paper response to the Tomlinson Report, contained the following paragraph:


In 2004, around 3.5% of the age cohort achieved 3 or more A-grades at A-Level. We believe that there is more that we can do to stretch and challenge our brightest students. We also want to help universities to differentiate between the highest performing candidates. (63)


In the space of a few lines, then, we find (i) recognition that a small minority of students achieve the highest grades for a three-subject combination; then (ii) the claim that we still need to ‘stretch and challenge’ the members of this elite; and then (iii) the claim that universities still find it difficult to differentiate between so few students.


One might point out that a system allowing no more than ‘3.5% of the age cohort’ to achieve so well already provides ‘stretch and challenge’. Further, given that observation, the final sentence does rather beg the question: why is it necessary that universities differentiate quite so rigorously? Why are those responsible for admissions so concerned to identify the best student?

Thomas Pynchon published Against the Day (AtD) in November 2006. At that time, the response from reviewers was mixed; and some, perhaps, did not bother to finish reading the novel. Perhaps the best review was written by Bernard Duyfhuizen (2007) and published some months after Against the Day appeared. In his opening paragraph Duyfhuizen notes that he has now read the novel twice; this careful approach was in marked contrast to the dismissive attitude of many other reviewers publishing at the end of 2006 (a selection can be accessed here). Since 2007 there have been papers by Ickstadt (2008, details here) on Against the Day’s relationship to earlier novels; Kohn (2008/2009) on idiosyncratic writing; Aghoro (2009) on identity and bilocation; and Staes (2010) on the writing of time. Furthermore, Gilles Chamerois (2008) has edited an issue of Graat devoted to Pynchon. In addition, there are now two full-length collections. Pöhlmann (2010) edited Against the Grain; Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (AtG); and Severs & Leise (2011) edited Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide (CPG; available with the usual omissions at Google Books here).

Alert to the way critical discourse is being constructed, we should note that A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, the most recent collection, contains references to only one of the papers listed above: Ickstadt’s (2008) paper, published in Pynchon Notes, is cited twice. Given that we are discussing an emergent field in studies of Against the Day, one might anticipate some recognition of less traditional web-based sources. Leise’s introduction mentions in passing and that is it. Without doubt, the timing of A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide might have precluded any serious consideration of papers by Aghoro (2009) and Staes (2010); however, the Graat issue was seemingly published in good time and might have been acknowledged. There is, of course, no mention in A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide of Against the Grain. One of my purposes, then, is to consider Against the Grain and A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide as, to borrow Against the Grain’s subtitle, counternarratives.

I begin here with the two introductions and consider the ways in which they construct the critical field for Against the Day. In Against the Grain Pöhlmann (2010) begins by suggesting we should ‘reconsider the postmodernism of Pynchon’s writing’ as Against the Day ‘significantly transcends the limitations of that concept’ (9) or ‘exceeds the conceptual framework of postmodernism’ (11). A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, however, begins with an introduction by Leise (2011) that considers the early reviews with which I began this post, concluding that ‘the scale and intensity of so much disappointment deserve consideration’ (3). For Leise, the central debate is that between a critical approach devoted to characterisation and (psychological) realism and one that dwells on, and draws attention to, the writing of fiction.

In particular, Pöhlmann (2010: 17) introduces a ‘[p]ostnationalism, which I define as the theory and practice of challenging the hegemony of nation-ness’. For Pöhlmann Against the Day ‘dismantles the myths and symbols that work to transform the narrative of nation-ness into a metanarrative’ (19). Here he refers to the Chums passage on the Fourth of July (AtD, 111-112, cited in AtG on 19-20) and one is reminded of Chapter 8 when ‘Dynamite’s National Holiday’ (AtD, 81) is the occasion for a retrospective account of Webb Traverse’s family life (88-96): Webb’s career as a bomber is inseparable from his career as a husband and father, and we might see how the (at the very least) ironic renaming (and reorganising) of the Fourth of July is juxtaposed to the genealogical (specifically, I would argue, in the Foucaultian sense) account of personal history.

Pöhlmann also suggests that reading Against the Day should also affect the way we (re)read earlier novels: ‘instead of making the [new] novel fit the oeuvre, one does well to read the oeuvre anew and see how it is changed by the addition’ (10). This is a key point and, for my own part, for example, returning to Vineland after Mason & Dixon emphasised the importance of that novel as a transitional text mediating between Mason & Dixon and the earlier Gravity’s Rainbow. Not least, that we might challenge the ‘author-function’ (10) explains the presence, in Against the Grain, of chapters that do just that by scarcely, if at all, mentioning Against the Day. By way of introduction to A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, Leise also considers the way in which the reception of Against the Day was shaped by perceptions of a Pynchon-text. Here, with regard to, specifically Mason & Dixon, Leise juxtaposes one approach to reading Pynchon, looking for ‘a presumed trajectory of more believable, even likeable, characters’, to another, aware that Against the Day ‘follows the track of generic exploration’; hence, ‘its highest genius lies in the ability to occupy so many genres of American ideological indoctrination to dramatically repurposed effect’ (4). This is not so far removed from Pöhlmann’s concern with postnationalism.

According to Leise (2011: 5) Pynchon is interested in ‘not just the history but also the literature that composed the narrative of America’. By way of response I would frame the argument a little differently and say that Pynchon has always dealt with how we know what we (think we) know, as opposed to, more simply, what we know. As an illustration of how Pynchon dramatises this concern there is the frequent use of the tourist as a figure in Against the Day, or tourism as a way to position the reader (see in particular Chapter 40 with Dally in Venice, 568ff). This has been a feature of Pynchon’s writing from the outset, and early examples include the story ‘Mortality and Mercy in Vienna’ (1959) and the essay ‘A Journey into the Mind of Watts’ (1966), which should always be read alongside The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).

Since becoming Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has outlined plans for a change to A-Levels, beginning here with ‘fewer, more rigorous exams’ and the end of modular courses; and a new ‘national ranking system for students, here. Such policy statements, of course, depend on the assumption that standards have declined and must be restored, as in his aim ‘to make exam questions harder … [and] restore confidence in the system’, here. In this post I wish to dwell on this article in the Daily Mail, an attack on ‘crude social engineering’ in the form of a plot by ‘the Left-wing education establishment’, ie ‘the deluded notion that background matters more than ability’. In defence of standards Gove challenges what has now become a ‘bizarre notion’, the view that, having ‘attended a poor school’, one ‘should be able to automatically leapfrog students who possess stronger A-Levels in the race for university places’. Weaker students, as a matter of course, have been allowed to use inferior schooling as a form of certification. By implication the ‘stronger’ candidate has had the misfortune to attend a good school.

Most obviously, Gove’s article should be read alongside Sutton Trust research that outlines the advantage one receives from attending one of a small number of schools; or, more recently, fall-out from the decision to raise tuition fees. However, I shall go back to the so-called Bristol Affair in 2002, when admissions tutors were accused of discriminating in favour of students from state schools, at the expense of students from private schools (and this account by Melanie Phillips suggests that Gove has merely conformed to hysterical Daily Mail house style). In response, Bristol University pointed out that ‘traditional admissions criteria’ were inadequate: ‘We are … adopting a more sophisticated approach to identifying academic potential. Excellence exists in schools of both kinds, and we have a duty to find it.’ (This argument, of course, should be familiar to students who have had to sit an entrance exam because the university in question insists that exam results are ‘inadequate’ as a means to selection; but that is a topic for another time.) Then, in 2005, the Times Higher Education claimed a scoop in exposing the admissions policy at Bristol: ‘Admissions tutors have been told to apply two filters to ensure that the system is weighted in favour of bright but disadvantaged pupils.’ In essence, the ‘two filters’ approach meant that Bristol was using a form of affirmative action (not, so far as I am aware, their wording; and not, of course, the same as positive discrimination, which is what Gove bemoans, above). Subsequently, Hoare & Johnston (2010) studied admissions to Bristol University, finding that, even though private school students had better A-Level results upon entry to degree courses, ‘students from state schools with such high scores are more likely to achieve the highest degree grade than are students with similar scores who attended independent schools’ (18). A similar conclusion was reached in the Milburn Report, Unleashing Aspiration (2009, 92-94).

Given that Hoare & Johnston (2010) provide a statistical analysis, one might investigate the validity of their results (and that too is a topic for another time). Nonetheless, the Govean dilemma is clear. Firstly, he wants a system that can measure students’ achievement in crude, positivist fashion without disturbing the status quo. Secondly, as elsewhere in education, we are asked to believe that social class no longer matters; there are ‘good schools’ and ‘failing schools’ defined solely by the competence of teachers. As Gove writes in the Daily Mail article, ‘excellent teachers’ are those ‘who [don’t] make excuses about their pupils’ backgrounds’.

The A-Level system has always been elitist, catering to the needs of a small minority of students; and this elitism hides behind the contradiction inherent in any meritocratic project, that effort must be reconciled to innate ability. Effort, in short, should simply confirm natural talent, otherwise it is mere compensation. Gove writes of ‘the simple and old-fashioned expedient of giving the most able students the highest grades’; and this is code for norm-referencing, when achievement was defined in terms of one’s place in relation to others in the hierarchy. A few lines down he is sympathising with those ‘hard-working students’ with ‘a string of great passes’ who then find their results do not ‘mark them out from the crowd or guarantee a cherished college place’. Here, to make sense, ‘hard-working’ can only mean ‘most able’, that is, those who should stand out on the basis of innate ability. He then complains of the lack of differentiation and the numbers walking off with a clutch of A stars’ (an award he thinks should be based on norm-referencing, of course). Only a small minority can, or should, ever be successful; and only a small minority should see their effort rewarded. Gove dreams of a return to the 1950s. His deception (borrowed, of course, from those times) is that any other scenario for higher education must result in a dilution of standards, the inevitable consequence when working-class students benefit from positive discrimination.

This is a response to another blog post here. The point is well made, that teachers should have access to academic journals so they can follow ongoing research. Open access for researchers is a topical issue, of course (see here and here); and there is no reason why teachers, who are often research subjects, should be denied access also. Moreover, as a teacher who is also a researcher, a researcher who is also a teacher, I have never been able to regard my teaching and research activities as inseparable. I would encourage any teacher who wishes to do research (not an easy undertaking with a teaching workload, of course, but likely to be rewarding). It is often said that education policy should be evidence-based (see eg Biesta, 2007; and, more recently, this article and this article, both in The Guardian); however, if ‘evidence’ is one of those words we have been taught to take for granted, I would rather say that teaching should be(come) a research-based profession, perhaps another matter entirely.

What interests me, then, is the possibility that the culture of schools might be transformed. I suspect that many, even most, education researchers have stories to tell about the difficulties of gaining access to schools, and I am no different; I shall always be grateful to those schools (and individuals in schools) who have made my research possible, and I have willingly helped researchers who have applied to the school I worked in. Consequently, that teachers should have access to research is inseparable from the access that researchers should have to schools, if only because it meant that schools and teachers welcomed them. It is now almost 20 years since Stephen Ball (1995) pointed out that education researchers, by explaining the processes that lead to differential achievement, had effectively given the government ammunition to use against teachers. Rereading this paper now, one is struck by its prescient nature. Ball notes that ‘the reproduction of unequal social relations were discovered to be lurking stubbornly in every classroom nook and cranny and every staffroom conversation’; and ‘[t]he teacher as cultural dope was now the subject of derision from all sides’ (257-258). Research, in Foucaultian terms, had a disciplinary function (260-261) and, consequently, teaching ‘changed from being an intellectual endeavour to being a technical process’ (266). One should aspire less to being an intellectual than to being a professional. Moreover, as Reay (2006) has noted, effectively updating Ball’s account from the previous decade, teacher-training might currently ignore the sociology of education and, in particular, ‘social class as an educational issue’ (302); this knowledge is no longer relevant. Hence, if this description of teacher-training is accurate, an ignorance of theory might be seen as one feature of professionalism (301-303).

As Ball was writing in the mid-1990s, Ofsted inspections had just been introduced, of course; my first inspection was in 1994 and my recollection is that teachers and inspectors were, at that time, unsure of their roles. In the years since we have all been disciplined. Not least, teachers have had to get used to being judged by inspectors armed with evidence, usually but not always in the form of statistics. Such judgements often lack validity; and there must be many teachers for whom the term ‘data’ is inseparable from a painful Ofsted experience. One might readily understand if teachers are wary of outsiders about to judge without understanding. However, given the absence of a grounding in education theory, do they also fail to see the point of research, even when it would allow them to challenge those discourses of accountability and self-evaluation that have been used so effectively to discipline them? If this is the case, access to academic journals might turn out to be another imposition, one that merely confirms an existing antipathy to research.