Zimmer-framed educationist that I am, I was delighted to discover Schools Week’s new column on the history of education.

So delighted, in fact, that I promptly (foolishly?) proposed a contribution of my own on a subject that is close to my heart – and that of the illustrious 19th-century poet and (which is less well known among the wider public) schools inspector, Matthew Arnold.

My topic is the policy introduced in the 1860s, known as “payment by results”. Its main purpose was to ensure that schools receiving government grants met minimum standards. Inspectors assessed schools on an annual basis, with payment of the grant determined in large part by the number of children in a school achieving the expected standard.

Although many inspectors commented on the deleterious effects of this policy, arguably the most trenchant comments came from Arnold himself.

And while I will not go so far as to draw direct parallels with the present (this is a history column, after all) I have taken the liberty of translating Arnold’s words for a modern audience – a process that has been rather illuminating…

Here, he warns of the dangers of setting floor targets:

“School grants earned by the scholar performing a certain minimum expressly laid down beforehand must inevitably concentrate the teacher’s attention on the means of producing this minimum and not simply on the good instruction of his school. The danger to be guarded against is the mistake of treating these two – producing of this minimum successfully and the good instruction of the school – as if they were identical” (MA 1869).

Which may be translated as:

“Focusing on getting the maximum number of pupils meeting ‘threshold’ requirements ‘measured’ by national tests/examinations has concentrated teachers’ minds wonderfully, but has distracted them from wider consideration of the overall quality of education in their schools. The danger has been one of equating the meeting of targets with successful education. The two have not proved identical.”

Arnold also comments on the constraining effects of results-related pay on creativity:

“The mode of teaching in schools has certainly fallen off in intelligence, spirit and inventiveness. It could not be otherwise. In a country where everyone is prone to rely too much on mechanical processes, and too little on intelligence, a change in the department’s regulations… inevitably gives a mechanical turn to the school teaching and a mechanical turn to the inspection, is and must be trying to the intellectual life of a school” (MA, 1867).

Or, in the 21st century:

“Teaching in schools is not as creative or as lively as it once was. The government’s insistence on ‘driving up’ standards as measured on pencil-and-paper tests of dubious validity and reliability has led to too much mechanistic teaching and inspection, where judgments of standards by inspectors have been determined far too much by test scores rather than by professional judgment. All this has adversely affected the intellectual life of the schools and the intellectual vitality of their teachers.”

And finally, on teaching to the test:

“In the game of mechanical contrivances the teachers will in the end beat us . . . it is now found possible, by ingenious preparation, to get children through the revised code examination in reading, writing and ciphering, without their really knowing how to read, write or cipher”(MA, 1867).

No translation required. Plus ça change…

Justine Greening and Amanda Spielman, please take note.

Colin Richards is emeritus professor of education, University of Cumbria