Tag Archives: #education

Embarrassing Uncle Nigel

If politics is some kind of dysfunctional family, then UKIP are definitely the slightly embarrassing uncle at the party, the one who slaps you on the back, drinks more than he should, rants about bin collections and mutters slightly dubious things about foreigners.

But, of late, rather than looking disdainfully at Uncle Nigel, it seems that more and more people are turning to UKIP as the party of truth and common sense.

With this popularity, however, comes greater scrutiny and a close look at their education policies reveal the extent to which UKIP are high on rhetoric and low on ideas. They are far from the political solution in what is a mightily complex world.

You can read a summary of UKIP education policy here here. Much of it is fairly straightforward, old-school, right-of-centre thinking (the term ‘thinking’ is used loosely) – scrapping paperwork, building more grammar schools, protecting rural schools. This is relatively progressive; no mention of the cane at least.

Best of all, they plan to ‘insist’ schools teach the 3Rs’ – as opposed to the current situation, presumably, where schools barely bother with all that reading and ‘riting nonsense.

Most intriguing though, is how they plan to pay for all this. New grammar schools don’t come cheap that’s for sure. Their answer, as dismal as it is predictable, is ‘to let schools sack bad teachers’. It’s a mystery how this will generate even a few quid, let alone the megabucks needed to build new schools.

What this does reveal is the extent to which UKIP unthinkingly buy into and promulgate the view that schools are full of ‘bad teachers’. As ever, evidence for this is non existent. But UKIP, like the embarrassing uncle, have no need to sully themselves with such things as evidence or facts.

All they need is an enemy to attack – immigrants, or bad teachers, it matters little.

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Return to Planet Gove

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had time to blog. Years and years in fact. How time flies. I’m afraid to say life has interrupted the flow. Children, work, work, children, lack of sleep, children, work, lack of sleep.

Of course, there’s been no shortage of subject matter and more than enough piffle from Gove and the gang to justify a bit of cathartic spleen-venting. The real problem is that much of what passes for policy at the moment is so utterly disconnected from the real world it has become dangerously easy to step away from the debate.

At times, the discussion has seemed other-wordly, preposterous even. All that gumph about behaviour, saying teachers should get children to pick up litter and tidy classrooms as a consequence for unruliness. What on earth does he think we do all day?

Then the ridiculous comparisons between private and state schools. Great for headline grabbing but, come on, really. It was a classic public school debating tactic to box in opponents – who could possibly say they wouldn’t want children in their local school to have even a fraction of the experiences of your average Harrovian?

The challenges the children in my school face, growing up with the childhood-sapping complexities of mental health, domestic violence and deprivation, warrant a bit more than clever-clever point scoring.

So, time to return to the fray. Children, work, work, children, blog, lack of sleep, children, work, blog.

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Cameron’s privatisation plan is big society by coercion

For those of us who think this Government’s direction of travel on public services is the political equivalent of going for a midnight drive the wrong way down a dual carriageway with car lights turned off and eyes scrunched firmly shut, the prospect of David Cameron’s latest initiative presents an intellectual challenge, to say the least.

It seems the new plan emerging from the Conservatives is to privatise just about everything. Intriguingly, he does mean literally everything – except where, according to Cameron, it wouldn’t make sense (he cites just national security and the judiciary as the sacred turf to be kept out of private hands).

Remember that this comes from someone who, just days ago, said the Government had been gung-ho when planning to privatise large chunks of woodland, yet with this new plan he now seems to have said it’s all up for grabs. The grounds for deciding what constitutes ‘sense’ seem to be entirely his.

This doesn’t feel like steady ground on which to hurl our public services violently into the air. Beyond what Dave tells us, it seems there’s no clear basis for establishing what should best remain in public hands, let alone asking the public whether they are up for a revolution of this kind. Certainly there’s nothing so vulgar as whacking the idea in your manifesto and asking people to vote for it. Heaven forbid!

It’s hard to view Cameron’s intention as anything other than a dismantling of the welfare state as we know it, wrapped up in the cosy, ‘fear not’ language of localism (he skips over how having my local school run by a multi-national with a HQ in a different time-zone serves to increase accountability, but there you go).

Rising from the gut, the instinctive reaction from many who describe themselves as being a bit to the left of things is to condemn and oppose. And quite right too.

Never before has there been such an assault on our public institutions. They are correct to ask what this gross social experiment will actually mean, particularly for those that actually rely on the services that will be thrown into the free-market melting pot. Hurrah for those that swim, but what about those that don’t?

Beyond this, as the bile settles, there is a greater challenge for those who disagree with the Conservatives. It involves the acceptance of a grim reality, imagining a scenario in the not too distant future where Cameron gets his way; the presumption that public services are public is completely inverted so that private ownership of schools (and hospitals etc) is the norm.

What then? Opponents could stick to the barricades and man them to the end. The big worry for me is that, while flags are being waved and tubs being thumped, the corporates (and the creationists) move in and sweep up all the schools it likes the look of and those that don’t fit the bill are left to wither and die.

Perhaps a wiser course of action is to not only oppose, but also to conspire: what if, when these schools are placed on the open market, they were taken over by parent and teachers and run not as free schools, but still as part of a maintained sector. That, at least, is the suggestion made here.

Contentious stuff, no doubt, as it effectively means engaging with a much-despised Conservative plan for schools. However, if Cameron does get his way, those who believe in the values and principles of state education may have to face this unpalatable truth.

The result of Cameron’s plan, in effect, is big society by coercion, making a mockery of voluntary local action being the catalyst for change. Yet, when the state is forcibly removed from education, parents and teachers may have to fill the vacuum; unless, of course, we are happy to see the letters ‘PLC’ on our local school signs.

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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.

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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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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.

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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).

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