It was at the start of this year that Ruth Perry, the headteacher of a primary school in Reading, took her own life after being informed that the school she led (and attended as a child) would be downgraded by Ofsted from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. This story, tragic on many levels, prompted widespread anger against the government’s regulatory body and its inspection system. Among the features criticised was the four-point scale used to summarise the whole report into a single word: ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. And while there may be many areas where the Ofsted system itself requires improvement, I want to focus on this four-point scale. I want to argue that a Christian understanding of the world might draw us away from such brash simplifications.
Using a single word to describe the rich, multifaceted reality of a school, a community where perhaps hundreds of children and dozens of staff live out significant parts of their lives in complex, intertwined relationships, is clearly unable to do much justice to anyone or anything. If parents were asked to give one-word summaries of their child’s school, their responses might well be termed ‘subjective’, strongly reflecting their own particular experiences, and no doubt many different terms would be offered across a set of parents. An inspection, however, involves the use of a standard method – an ‘instrument’ – that can be replicated from school to school to generate data from specific aspects of the school’s functioning, as perceived by trained, presumably unbiased inspectors. The method, devised on scientific principles and honed over time, is intended to give some kind of ‘objective’ output.
I’ve thought a good deal and written1 about the concept of objectivity, thanks to Dick Stafleu, a Dutch philosopher who proposes a simple definition. Objectivity, according to Stafleu, is what we get when we represent something complex in a simpler relation-frame. What do we mean? ‘Relation-frames’ are the distinct, complementary ways in which reality functions, and we assume a sequence of them, from numerical (the simplest) up to the ultimate, or ‘faith’, relation-frame. Stafleu’s philosophical companions mostly call them ‘aspects‘, but ‘relation-frame’ here is helpful. Going back to the school example: a school is full of relationships: social ones, obviously, but also relationships of trust, care, duty, play – and also ownership, reference, cognition, and many others. Now, we can objectify this rich reality with its many simultaneous relationships by representing it in terms of simpler relationships. Perhaps the headteacher writes a report of school life at the end of each term – using words with nuanced lingual relationships, to captivate and inform busy parents. Maybe a pupil brings along a camcorder and captures something of the school’s life in moving images, or an architect takes a drawing board and objectifies the school using the spatial relationships of lines on a map. Or maybe we could even represent the school just using numbers. This, of course, is what a modern inspection may end up doing. An Ofsted report starts with written text, based on layers and strands of careful assessment of teaching quality, pupils’ personal development, leadership, and so on – but eventually it spits out a final word, essentially standing for one of four numbers: something like -1, 0, 1 or 2.
What’s a Christian angle on this? Stafleu’s approach arises from the conviction, held among Reformational philosophers and others, that the world, God’s good created order, is so rich and dynamic that no academic discipline can give a final account of anything in it. Disciplines specialise in using one or more relation-frames, and many sciences have developed ingenious ways of measuring what they study, and portraying it in a relation-frame. Scholars of geometry seem to have been among the earliest doing this1, although the forbears of economists have long been able to measure utility value using money. With the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 16th Century, physicists became adept at quantifying things, and other sciences from biology to psychology have followed in their path. Now, in our own time, human ingenuity has achieved the once unthinkable: the use of 4 or 5 -point scales to quantify the goodness of schools, research work2 and other public goods, not to mention books, restaurants, holiday destinations, and so on. The tragedy I referred to above might give us cause to reflect on whether this is a good thing. Certainly, simplistic summaries and brash quantification seem to be highly prized in a managerial culture.
In a discussion with another scholar, I realised that Stafleu’s view of objectivity can point out a particular problem in systems that grade rich and complex realities like schools. This is what we might call ‘far-fetched objectivity’. Mostly, people are happy with putting numbers on children’s abilities in certain subjects using exams, whereas we’d be unhappy with using a single number for overall educational achievement, because people have diverse abilities and aptitudes. We’d probably also balk at the idea of putting a number on the beauty of a school building, the fairness of a teachers’ pay settlement, or the virtue of a headteacher. These concepts derive meaning from the later relation-frames such as aesthetic and moral. Far-fetched objectivity means representing something about a later relation-frame using a very early one, such as the numeric frame. This is difficult to do consistently, but even if it can be done, as by an inspection system, it may not be good to do. Moderate objectivity (measuring simple things) can be very helpful; distant objectivity perhaps isn’t. It seems to violate the many-sided wisdom of creation, and may even lead to awful consequences.
At any rate, this is a topic that surely merits further attention. Please share your comments!
1 Gunton, R.M.; Stafleu, M.D.; Reiss, M.J. (2021) “A General Theory of Objectivity: Contributions from the Reformational Philosophy Tradition”. Foundations of Science. Please contact me for a copy!
2 The UK’s Research Evaluation Framework attempts to quantify the quality of research outputs, concerning their originality, significance and rigour, using another 4-point scale.