Monthly Archives: June 2010

Farewell Pencilandpapertest

In a deplorably vain attempt to attract a few more readers, I’ve put Pencilandpapertest to the sword. But, fear not, my blog is re-born as ‘Teacher Talks’ and continues along the same track of education-themed political musings over at Think Politics.

Many thanks for reading and particularly to all those who commented. I hope you’ll join me in the new place!

You can still follow on Twitter @TeacherTalks


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I agree with Nick

One hundred and fifty five words from Nick Clegg at the Yorkshire Post Question Time Event on 19th March 2010:

“I would say this, look: the decisions about how we govern this country shouldn’t be decided by fear of what markets want. Let’s say there was a Conservative Government and they announced, in a macho way: ‘We’re gonna slash public spending, slash this, slash that. We’re gonna do it tomorrow because we have to take early tough action.’

Just imagine the reaction of my constituents in south-west Sheffield. I represent a constituency that has more public servants as a proportion of those working than any other constituency in the country – lots of people working in universities, hospitals and so on. They have no Conservative councillors and no Conservative MPs as far as the eye can see in south Yorkshire.

People like that are going to say: ‘Who are these people telling us they are suddenly taking our jobs away? What mandate do they have? I didn’t vote for them; no-one round here votes for them.'”

Yes Nick, I agree: that’s precisely what they’ll say.


Filed under Clegg, Lib Dems, Politics - general

Gove’s ‘Free School’ dossier is bad science

I’m a big fan of Ben Goldacre, the journalist who sniffs out ‘bad science‘ and exposes the way research is misused to justify ridiculous claims. He should take a look at Michael Gove’s dodgy dossier which sets out the case Free Schools. Buried right down the bottom of the page, after the press release, is the Department for Education’s interestingly titled ‘myth-buster‘ on Free Schools. It’s an unusual mix of hand-picked international comparisons, the Department’s own statistics, apparently solid research and some seriously questionable evidence.

Unfortunately what first grabs the eye is the sheer inconsistency of font (and font size) – it’s worth reading for this alone. How did such a sloppy document – on a subject so important – make it into the public domain? It suggests this document was chucked together with some haste – a blur of Googling and cutting and pasting – by a bureaucrat with only rudimentary computing skills: Times New Roman here, Arial there, a touch of size 12, then a smidge of 13. (It’s ironic that funds from the school technology budget are being diverted to pay for the ‘free schools’, perhaps they could be best spent showing our friends at the DfE how to use Word. If a student in my class had done this, I would have done my ‘teacher-frown’ and asked him to go and do it properly. We have standards, you see. Or maybe it’s an act of sabotage by an anti-free school pen-pusher – perhaps we should be grateful).

On the substance, the document does a remarkable job of conflating ‘Academy School’ with ‘Free School’, to the point where the two different school structures are apparently interchangeable. It does the same for ‘Charter School’ – the autonomous schools in the U.S. – and the U.K version of ‘Free School’ (there are of course similarities but international comparisons should be heavily qualified and, in this document, they are not).

This conflation allows the DfE to claim that ‘Free schools are in demand’ because a) Charter Schools in the U.S. are over-subscribed, b) On average there are 2.6 applications a day for Academy status (in the U.K.) and, c) Polling by the Confederation of Swedish Business found that Swedish parents scored free schools more highly than their public equivalents (this last one, incidentally, comes from a ‘Policy Exchange’ report – a right-wing think tank). Is it just me or does that fail to convince?

Elsewhere in the document, a positive report by the National Audit Office into attendance at Academy schools results in a claim that ‘Free Schools improve discipline‘; statistics which show there are more ‘free school meal children’ in Academy schools are used to ‘debunk’ the myth that ‘Free Schools will only benefit the well-off’; we are reassured that ‘Free Schools‘ won’t neglect SEN pupils because Academies have a higher proportion of SEN children than the national average.

One, two, all or none of these findings may be meaningful in some other context, but one things for certain: they do not make the case, as DfE is seeking to do, that ‘free schools are in demand/improve behaviour/improve attendance’. It is simply not possible to say the introduction of one variable (an Academy school, or a Charter School in a different country) will result in the same effects when an different variable is applied (a Free School). This is pretty shoddy stuff for such a weighty topic. Imagine a new medical intervention being introduced based on such an amateurish, convoluted evidence base.

Throughout, selective data from the U.S. is used to ‘prove’ that free schools in the UK will be a force for public good, as if our social, cultural and economic contexts are identical. Ignoring the research into education published by RAND (best known for military research and the nuclear strategy, known fittingly as MAD: mutually assured destruction), here’s just one example of why this is not the case:

I took a look at one of the research documents cited. This one was put together by a team including staff from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. The methodology seemed sound, it was well-written and claims were cautiously made; I have no complaints about the research.

But when the researchers set out what distinguished Charter Schools from their public school equivalents they found the former were effective because: they required students to wear a school uniform; students took on average two ‘evaluations’ each year to track student progress; parents of students in Charter Schools sign a ‘parent contract’; teachers get paid for taking on additional duties.

This, they claim, contrasts them with public schools and hence raises standards.

What’s the problem? Well, based on a sample of one (my school): we have a school uniform; our pupils take three (not two) internal evaluations each year; parents sign a ‘parent contract’; and teachers get paid for taking on additional responsibilities. Moreover, this is common practice in schools in the UK. So, in these cases, Charter Schools have fixed a problem that simply does not exist in the UK.

This does leave the other distinctive features of Charter Schools: longer school hours and a longer school week; and performance pay for teachers. That’s the nub of the issue: train more teachers so schools can provide a longer day and pay teachers well when they are successful. This should be focus for the debate, the main attraction: more quality teacher time for children.

Free schools are a side-show. If they want to persuade us otherwise, the message for the Department for Education is: must try harder.


Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools

Gove forgets to mention the ‘c’ word

I’ve been a bit unkind to Michael Gove in a previous blog (or two), but he turned up a few surprises in his first major speech since becoming Education Secretary. Addressing the National College for Leadership of School, his message of greater school autonomy and more power for the top bods was well-designed to win over his audience (others were impressed too, such as Conor Ryan, former adviser to David Blunkett).

It was a substantial speech and there’s much to pick over (and – gulp – a fair bit to agree with). His words were well-crafted and pleasantly lacking in endless criticism of what went before (Gove seems to do ‘new politics’ much better than his Lib-Dem colleagues – he could teach Clegg and Alexander a thing or two).

No mention of ‘free schools’ (two reasons for this: one, he was keeping his powder dry for today’s announcements; and, two, businesses setting up schools is completely at odds with his message that ‘Headteachers know best’, so he must have wisely decided to keep schtum).

But the biggest surprise was the complete absence of the word ‘cut’ (or ‘deficit’) from his speech. It seems his reforms are taking place in a vacuum, shielded from the grim fiscal realities every other Con-Dem Minister is trotting out to justify wince-making cuts.

Refreshing stuff, in many ways. But odd.

This lack of economic context places Gove out of step with his Con-Dem colleagues. And David Willetts, in particular, who has earnestly begun his task of cost-cutting, with some painful cuts to higher education and talk not of the benefits but the ‘burden’ of providing university places.

So while Willetts is busily pruning expectations, Gove seems to be doing exactly the reverse.

He (Gove that is) says that difficult economic times are no reason to ‘scale down ambitions’; he draws attention to the ‘brain-boom’ emerging from Chinese and India universities, and suggests we need to match them; he waxes lyrical about US Charter schools where children from the ghetto are getting to elite universities; and he wants ‘more teachers’ to get masters and doctorates.

All this suggests more university places – and therefore (significantly) more investment, not less.

This is a bit of a mystery. If I was Danny Alexander I would be straight on the phone to ask Gove: what gives? And if he can’t get through, I expect it’ll be because David Willetts got there first.

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Filed under Funding, Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools

Lib-Dems, damn Lib-Dems and statistics

Ok, they’ve gone and done it. The Lib-Dems have outdone Spinal Tap. If you haven’t seen the film, the guitarist has a special dial which ‘goes up to eleven’. On the newly configured scale of bare-faced political audacity, the Lib-Dems have hit eleven already. Now, though, they’ve gone beyond…

Take a look at Ed Davey’s blog. If you don’t know Ed’s political patch, he’s a Lib Dem in what twenty years ago was Tory-land. He’s carved out an empire for himself by presenting himself, over many years, as a palatable alternative to the boys (and girls) in blue.

Now, there have been all sorts of remarkable justifications from the Libs for jumping into bed with the Cons, but Ed Davey’s is the most audacious. In a truly remarkable piece of political number-shuffling he claims ‘87% of voters’ in his constituency ‘chose’ the coalition Government.

Wow, you might think, that’s virtually everyone. Hurray for the Lib-Cons!

Or you could think: how on earth did he get this figure?

It wasn’t by interviewing a random sample of constituents and asking them the question: did you, with your single vote, choose a coalition Government and, in particular, a Conservative-Liberal coalition with the Conservatives as the majority party?

Oh no, of course he didn’t. Davey went further.

He devised a whole new branch of mathematics: LibDemAddition.

This allows the total Conservative vote to be added to the total Liberal Democrat vote. The new total, according to LibDemAddition, is precisely equal to those in favour of the coalition. So even ‘votes against’ are now actually ‘votes for’

I know the election was a few weeks back, but where was the box marked ‘coalition’? Where, indeed, was the box marked ‘Lib-Con’ coalition? How can it be possible, in any kind of poll, to combine two separate responses and claim them as an endorsement for a third, previously unspecified, option? (And this remember is the party of ‘new politics’, who were supposed to be above this kind of thing).

It’s like a drinks company saying 50% of people like beer, 50% like lemonade…therefore everyone loves a shandy.

Although, come to think of it, shandy is pleasant enough; unlike the Liberal Democrats who are starting to leave a nasty taste in the mouth. A taste which resembles naked political opportunism.

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Gibb v Hattie: The Verdict

After Nick Gibb’s pounding at the hands of Professor John Hattie in Round 1 of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge’, its time for a more sober analysis of the other strands of the School Minister’s ‘vision’ for schools.

In an interview with Mike Baker, Gibb identifies certain ‘imperatives’ which he expects schools to follow (it’s not too difficult to spot the tension here between a stated aim of freeing up schools to teach how they want and, at the same time, prescribing what teachers must do).

Alongside ‘setting by ability’ (which has been addressed in ‘Round 1’), Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ are: first, for schools to adhere to a policy of ‘strict school uniform’ and, second, for teachers to teach reading using the ‘synthetic phonics’ method.

One wonders at the process by which these seemingly unconnected ideas have become central to Gibb’s world-view. Even taken together they fail to constitute anything approaching a vision for primary education. But, let’s put that to one side, and deal with them on face value and scrutinise their worth using the ‘Hattie test’.

(For those who can’t face reading my last blog, you have my sympathies. Put simply, this is a ‘Hattie test’ : the Professor from Auckland analysed – meta-analysed to be precise – over 50,000 different studies into almost every imaginable area of school life. This analysis was then computed to give something called ‘effect size’ which tells you whether a given variable – e.g. teachers adopting a particular questioning style – is worth doing or not. It’s very clever, meticulous work, giving some clarity to the confusion and complexity of classroom life and the still-intriguing process of learning).

Let’s start with school uniform: does a crisp shirt and a throat-throttling school tie help children to learn?

The evidence here mainly comes from the United States which has traditionally had a more relaxed approach to school attire. President Clinton introduced a rule allowing public schools to require students to wear uniform. Interestingly, not many did (about one in four), but enough to carry out a large-scale analysis of achievement and attitudinal data. And the conclusion?

Bad news for Gibb: school uniform had no effect on academic achievement in elementary school and a ‘significant negative effect’ in high school; no effect on attendance, or self-esteem or behaviour incidents. Overall, the impact was ‘close to zero’ (keep in mind that, the way ‘effect size’ is calculated, almost anything has an effect – even, say, a teacher standing still, smiling. So, a score ‘close to zero’ is really, really bad). Hattie describes highly-visible ideas, which are shown to achieve nothing, as ‘coats of paint’; look pretty, but pointless (assuming your measure is improving academic achievement).

So: round 2 to Hattie.

Round 3? Synthetic phonics (a process of teaching reading by breaking down words into the smallest sounds and ‘blending’ them to assist reading; children are then taught these sounds as part of a planned programme, building their knowledge of phonics day-by-day and/or week-by-week. Typically, synthetic phonics is used in this country very early in a child’s school life – infant school – and as an intervention for struggling readers later in school).

This has been an area of some contention, after it was introduced with much enthusiasm by the last Government. It was presented as a panacea; critics suggested the research base was weak, arguing the most effective method for teaching reading involved the development of different strategies (e.g. reading a whole book, using visual clues to predict words, learning words by sight – as well as a phonetics etc), rather than the adoption of a single strategy as the way to read.

But does synthetic phonics work?

Gibb is in unusual territory here: he’s backed up by the science! Hattie is enthusiastic about phonics instruction and concludes it is ‘powerful in the process of learning to read’.

The only reason this is not a clear win for Gibb is that nowhere does Hattie argue that ‘synthetic phonics’ should be used in isolation. So, teachers still must use different strategies to encourage reading (not least enthusing about books and encouraging children to love reading). But, let’s give the man some credit: Gibb ties Round 3 with Hattie.

It looks like the message from Hattie to Gibb is this: put less emphasis on ‘setting’ children, it doesn’t make a difference; loosen the old school tie, it’s purely cosmetic; and keep going with the synthetic phonics, but it’s not a panacea.

To finish, one other of Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ is worth a menion. Gibb, believe it or not, thinks children should stand when a teacher enters the room. In his meticulous study of the effectiveness of interventions which have an impact on educational achievement, Professor John Hattie makes no mention of ‘standing up’ or, indeed, ‘sitting down’.

This could be because he thinks it is of no educational significance. Or he could be saving his really big, knock-out ideas for a later volume. You decide.


Filed under Conservatives, Curriculum, Nick Gibb, Policy, Schools

The ‘Improving Schools Challenge’: Nick Gibb v John Hattie – Round 1

Ladies and Gentleman – welcome to the first round of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge!’ This is no physical fight, but a battle of minds: who has the best ideas to improve schools? Lets meet our contestants:

In the Blue corner: put your hands together for former accountant, Conservative MP for Bognor and now Schools Minister, Mr Nick ‘The Disciplinator’ Gibb. He will be fighting tonight using arguments based on hunches, prejudice and a desire to precisely replicate the grammar school education he experienced way back when.

In the Impartial corner: a big welcome to the little-known Kiwi boffin, all the way from the University of Auckland, Professor John ‘The Synthesiser’ Hattie. He will be counter-punching with arguments based on sound research, an analysis of 50,000 studies involving millions of children and the objective application of reason and evidence.

Who will win?

Please settle down for Round 1.

Nick Gibb starts the battle of the brains with an interesting proposition. Drawing on a tactic from a previous fight (on the Politics Show), he dives in with:

“I visit schools every week and I’ve seen some very high quality comprehensives in very deprived parts of Britain…and what they do is they set their children by ability so that children are taught in similar ability group, whereas in a lot of comprehensives under this government, only about 40 % of lessons are set. So that’s a key priority…then you’ll see the grammar school type of education existing in the comprehensive [schools].”

Hattie looks stunned. He never thought he’d have the old “put ’em in sets” argument chucked his way. He reels, turns and reaches for…what’s this? Yes, it looks like Hattie is going to go straight for Gibb’s weak spot and use empirical evidence.

‘The Synthesiser’ goes technical. He says that you can measure something called the ‘effect size’: this tells you, in precise terms, the impact of almost anything on a child’s achievement. He fronts up to Gibb: ‘I’ve got it all in my locker: whether giving homework makes a difference, or the size of the school, or teaching phonics, or the degree of parental support. You name it!’

Now it’s Gibb that looks dazed. He digs deep, drawing on his experience of the handful of schools he has strolled round. He swipes wildly: ‘Some were really good’, he says, ‘and they had their children in sets – so let’s have children working in sets everywhere. Take that, logic-man!’

Hattie knows what to do. He goes for the kill. Calmly, he reels off the findings of over 300 studies (carried out by clever people who know what they are talking about) into whether grouping by ability works.

He unleashes a fierce flurry of blows: the overall effects of grouping by ability are ‘minimal’ and in some cases ‘profoundly negative’; across three ability groups (top, middle and bottom) ‘no-one profits’; those in low-ability groups can have their educational experience ‘deadened’ and, as a result, are ‘alienated’; this negatively affects ‘low-income’ groups more than those on higher-incomes.

What matters, says Hattie, is the quality of teaching, not how children are grouped: it’s the teachers, stupid.

Gibb stumbles back to his corner, clutching his old school tie, mumbling ‘Well, I was in top set and it worked for me.’

Looks like it’s Round 1 to ‘The Synthesiser’, Professor John Hattie!

Will ‘The Disciplinator’ recover?

Round 2 coming up soon…

(If you would like to read Professor John Hattie in the unfettered form, his extraordinarily comprehensive findings can be found in his book ‘Visible Learning’. Not as read-able as a Grisham I’ll admit, but it’s a gem all the same).


Filed under Nick Gibb, Policy, Schools