A Further Word on Educational Inequality

Yesterday I explained why inaccurate use of the term “educational inequality” makes me uneasy. But then I started thinking about a gross educational inequality that is hardly ever mentioned, and it made me madder and madder.
Here is the school building that the teachers and pupils of Rugby School see when they arrive to learn:
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Here is the school building me and the pupils I taught saw:
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Spot any differences?
Here is a corridor at Westminster School:

Westminster School by Ruggero Rossi (ruggaugga)) on 500px.com
Westminster School by Ruggero Rossi

Here is the corridor my classroom was on. In one direction and then the other:
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Yes the bucket was necessary for a roof leak.
Here is a classroom at the very expensive St. Paul’s School:
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Here is the classroom I taught in during the second year (and a later year):
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This second one looks great, until you realise that three of its wall are surrounded by the playground where students are doing PE, and it has a plastic roof which means if it’s raining you have to shout at 100 decibels before anyone can hear your instructions.
Here are the 45 acres of sporting fields that St Paul’s School in London has:
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Here’s the…oh wait…we don’t have any fields.
Here’s the library at St Paul’s Girls’ School:
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Here’s the….oh no…wrong again. The library was taken over by the exclusion unit.
Here’s the drama studio at Eton which has a flying system, orchestra pit, revolving stage, make-up studios, a stocked wardrobe, dressing rooms, a full-time designer and a fleet of technical staff.
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Here’s our drama studio that had plants growing through the walls.
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IT DID NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.

People often ask: Why didn’t the school look after its buildings better? It did. They ploughed thousands into  keeping it together and resolving issues, but they almost invariably reared their head again and again because the school needed knocking down and redoing. In 2003, even Ofsted concurred, reporting in their inspection documents that the building had “reached the end of its useful life”.
The period I taught in was after this as the school waited patiently for a new site to become available. Then, when it did, the school was six weeks away from beginning its new BSF school and the money was cut. The site of the planned new build was given to a Free School. Only after a lengthy battle – which has meant the school has been in unsatisfactory condition for a decade – the school has finally been granted Priority Schools Build money and thankfully building works will start this summer even if progress is going to be slow.
But it doesn’t resolve the fact that THIS is educational inequality. Living in a country where some children spend 5 hours a day in freezing classrooms, with plastic leaking roofs and mould growing through walls while others are not just in ‘comfort’ but are fully surrounded by facilities beyond the imaginations of most is inequality of input – it is giving children a fundamentally different experience. Yet it’s never what I hear challenged, and it certainly isn’t going to be changed merely by ‘improving teacher quality’.
And if anyone tells you that “buildings don’t matter” or “kids in other countries learn in mud huts” then ask them if they want their child to grow up, day-in day-out, in horrible physical conditions. I’m fairly certain I know what the answer will be.

A Word on "Educational Inequality"

The phrase ‘educational inequality‘ has crept quietly into England’s edu-policy lexicon and displaced the previously much-used phrase ‘educational disadvantage‘ – but we need to be careful. There is a crucial difference between the two and I’m concerned that the first is being horribly misused.
Educational inequality is a salient concept in the US and rightly so. Schools in the US are predominantly funded via local property taxes. Ergo, schools in poor areas harvest far lower amounts of funding than in wealthy areas – e.g. in Chicago the richest area provides $24k per child, in the poorest just $7k. Given that schools in poorer areas usually serve more complex populations and need to pay higher wages to recruit quality teachers, it is quite ludicrous that the poorest areas get the lowest amount of funding because it means inequality begets inequality.
In England the inequality is not the same, at least in terms of inputs. Schools with the most complex needs have typically been given the largest amount of funding, and since the introduction of the Coalition’s Pupil Premium students from lower income families go to schools that are systematically given greater amounts of money. The inequality is therefore in favour of poorer students.
None of this means that inequality of outcome does not exist in education. When students in poorer families are still achieving significantly lower GCSE results than wealthier counterparts it is clearly the case that there is a difference. But the phrase ‘educational inquality’ makes it sound as if poorer students are getting a worse education which isn’t necessarily true.
It is this kind of language issue which partly* caused the upset over TeachFirst’s recent charity campaign. The US sister company, TeachForAmerica, uses “educational inequality” in its funding drives because in the US it makes sense. Some areas really do have far less funding and struggle to recruit and retain excellent teachers given the low salaries they can pay. In the UK, when you say that students are ‘suffering educational inequality’ it makes it sound as if some schools in poor areas are merely ‘choosing’ to do a terrible job even though they have the same funds as others and that TeachFirsters are going to swoop in and try harder. Which isn’t true, and I honestly don’t believe is what the organisation intended to portray.
The second problem of the term “educational inequality” is that it seems to set groups against each other and conjures an image of poor children being ‘saved’ from a poor education at home by their school, even though a growing body of evidence shows that many poorer families do a great job of supporting their children’s abilities and aspirations. The term ‘educational disadvantage’ isn’t as easy obvious to grasp because there isn’t the ‘inequality’ visual, but for me it meant I thought about the disadvantages that individuals or groups faced. For example, a student may come from a reasonably wealthy family but if her mother is an alcoholic and her father doesn’t believe in girls learning, say, maths or science – then that child has educational disadvantages in a way that ‘educational inequality’ doesn’t seem to capture. Arguably coming from a home where your family is not supportive of you is a type of educational inequality, but somehow that nuance has been lost in an argument about ‘poor’ and ‘wealthy’ families when the reality is more complicated.
I will end by again pointing out that I do understand inequalities of educational outcome exist. Inequalities in educational input also exist. Some students will have less access to books, the internet, parents who talk to them, etc,. But we need to be careful that we don’t use ‘educational inequality’ as a shorthand for ‘poor children go to worse schools’ which is what that phrase can fast be taken to mean, and which isn’t useful at all.
* I know this is not the totality of the reasons why people are upset about TeachFirst. Those are too numerous for here. What I will say on the matter is that I was a TeachFirster between 2006 and 2008. I have also worked on numerous projects with the organisation ever since, and I know the phenomenal work it does providing extended CPD for its ambassadors way after the programme has finished and for providing mentoring/extra-curricular/internship opportunities to the students in the schools that TeachFirsters work in. It was those projects and CPD that kept me excited and involved in education and I think the charity is an important, useful, pathway for people who want to get into teaching. For those who disagree I am happy to answer any questions on this matter in the comments below, or on twitter.

Progress: How I know it is made

The topic of this month’s #blogsync is “Progress in my classroom? How is it made and how I know it?” This post doesn’t really tackle the philosophy of progress but I am going to give my best tip for ensuring you and your students know they have learned all the essential facts on a topic.
When I taught A-Levels I devised a one-page photo system. I would list out all the topics students needed to know in a unit. Then I would write out 4 or 5 “key facts” for each of those topics. In Psychology and Sociology if a student knows those facts they at least have the foundational knowledge. (If they can then add studies that support the facts they will do even better, if they can evaluate different study outcomes and methods then even better.)
I would then make a picture sheet representing each of the things they needed to know. Here is an example for the Anomalistic Psychology unit:
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Each student got an A3 copy of this page. On the first lesson I would get them to try and guess what the pictures represented and figure out the topic. Usually they were awful at this. As each lesson would go on and we would learn about the information for each topic I would get them to add words, notes, etc, to the pictures based on what we had learned.
By the end of our lessons on the topic the aim was that they could be given a blank sheet with the photos on, point at any picture on it, and tell me (a) what the topic was, (b) the 4/5 key facts about it, (c) 2-3 studies related to it, and (d) ideally some evaluations (on this picture the circled items actually help give ideas about evaluation so you can point to something in the circle and one of the other pictures and get the to evaluate the topic using the evaluation style).
You can be quite statistic-y about it. You can measure how many pictures students can remember each week for example. You can also build these up over time and bring them back out periodically over the year and make sure students are retaining knowledge. But crucially students see what they have learned. They are very aware that the first time they looked at that picture nothing made sense and by the end they have lots of key knowledge.
That’s a type of progress that both I, and they, can be certain about.

Why Teachers Leave

Last month the excellent @edutronic_net #blogsync topic for education bloggers was: “Why do teachers leave?”  As someone who recently ‘left’ teaching (at least temporarily) I wanted to take longer to answer this question than allowed by the group so I didn’t join. But here’s my belated thoughts. Apologies in advance for the bad photography.
Teaching is personal. When you start, people will tell you that it’s not, but they lie. Not only is your person (i.e. your mind and body) the thing that you teach with, but you – like everyone else – only get one go on your current personhood’s merry-go-round and if you don’t like the job that you are doing then you are going to feel that, personally.
At the weekend I finally got my hands on a copy of Christopher Day & Qing Gu’s “The New Lives of Teachers”. Day’s work was partly what led me into teaching; I first came across it when studying for an OU degree in Social Science while working in my first graduate job for KPMG. Day had sat teachers down and asked them to draw out graphs of their teaching careers that look like this:
graph of teaching
These graphs fascinated me. As a fresh-faced graduate I suddenly realised that (a) working life was a marathon, and (b) it wouldn’t inevitably get better. (At which point I decided that if being a management consultant wasn’t inevitably going to get better, I needed to leave).
In Day’s latest book he added some other graphs. These show the negative and positive influences on teacher’s lives across different stages (e.g. 0-3 years in the job, 4-7 years, up to 30+ years). They look like this:
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What is particularly noticeable is the creeping importance of personal issues to a teacher’s job satisfaction. Only ‘practice setting’ (i.e. workload, leadership, etc) has a more important influence. So even if you argue that teaching itself isn’t personal, but the personal certainly gets in!
We know that 50% of teachers leave the profession within 7 years, just about the time when personal matters are interfering the most. Intuitively this makes sense – at 7 years in people are at ages/life stages where they may be married, having children, looking after parents. Day also hypothesises that at 7 years you start deciding whether or not to “cut your losses” if teaching seems untenable.
From my own perspective I agree that practice settings made the biggest difference to how effectively I could do my job and how satisfied I was with it. The personal, however, mattered too. I’ve written before about the impact of an illness on my job; and – in part – my decision to take a break from classroom teaching and pursue a Fulbright scholarship was due to considerations around my other half and how our lives and careers were going to work together (his career has a US dimension).
People will argue that every professional needs to consider their family but they don’t all leave their jobs – what makes teachers different? Simple: our job’s lack of flexibility.  Unlike most other parents or partners we can’t take an afternoon off to attend a school play, we can’t go on an inexpensive mid-September break to Spain, we miss out on family weddings and reunions and funerals – all of which are deeply personal issues. One of the reasons why the 190 days are so fiercely protected is because it provides some flexibility for working with the other people in our family who are very often put slightly ajar during term-time. For parents that’s a particularly difficult thing as it means seeing less of one’s own children in order to better help someone else’s. Many times it is this precise personal dilemma that I’ve seen colleagues ponder before either quitting or emotionally withdrawing from their work and instead saving 10 or 20% of their energies for their own children.
Day argues that for some the commitment to teaching is so strong it can overcome this issue, but I also believe that this overcoming relies on your relationships. If you have people around you who are able to forgive your constrained timeframe; who are equally passionate about your work, or at least at supporting you, then it can be done. But when something in this framework falls apart –  perhaps through death, divorce, illness – it can  be incredibly difficult for people to stay effective in their teaching or to stay teaching at all.

Why Learn?

In a recent email chain with the ever-thoughtful Harry Fletcher-Wood he asked me to write something short, building on a comment I’d made on Twitter, about why I believed in education. First I pointed him to David Foster Wallace’s speech about education, as it is similar to my own feeling. But Harry wanted something to share with his Year 7s, and Wallace’s speech is not really made for 12 year olds. So I wrote this shorter version of my sentiments with a personal example included. Possibly it’s a bit trite, but it is entirely what I believe about the importance of, and reasons for, learning.
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When you live somewhere boring – and we all live somewhere boring -then we have a choice about the way we will see that place. We can spend our days thinking like everyone else, seeing the same things over and over, and never once wondering about how they got that way, or why they stayed that way, or how they could be better. Or, we can learn. And if we make the choice to learn, and to be curious about the things around us, then we are essentially making the choice never to be bored again.
As an example: While I was at college and university I worked at McDonalds. During the daily breakfast shift I might break and cook 400-plus eggs, one after the other. Smash, crack, sizzle, remove. Repeat! Smash, crack, sizzle, remove. Doing that every day is soul destroying. But when you learn that eggs cook because of coagulation; a remarkable process that involves protein becoming so excited with heat that it changes its soluble nature as it lays down in defeat and says “it’s too hot, I’m staying here”; then suddenly we are looking at something quite different. Suddenly, I saw those eggs as mini-battlefields where proteins fought heat warriors. I began observing which soldiers lay down first (do you know which part of an egg cooks first, the outer part or the middle?), and I began thinking about better ways of getting the proteins to become solid more evenly, or how they could hold off the heat for the longest time. On other egg-cracking days I would think about different lessons about eggs. I’d think about history class where I learned that due to hyper-inflation in Germany between the world wars the cost of an egg rose from a quarter of a Reichsmark (think 25p), to 4 billion Reichsmarks in just 5 years. Imagine: that would be like having to pay 4 billion pounds to buy an egg by the time you left school. Sounds stupid, but it happened. And whenever I remembered that story I would treat the eggs as if they were precious jewels aware that at any moment their price tag might start rising.
On other days still I would I look at the eggs and think about morality, and what people had taught me of right and wrong. If I was feeling particularly miserable, I would become angry: Why are we stealing another creatures by-products and eating it? What if this egg had been fertilised, and had become a baby chicken? Would it have been happy to have survived, or did making it available for eating now simply save it from becoming a chicken nugget later down the line? And like many philosophers before and since I wondered: am I happier than a chicken? How could I even know?!
But worse than the fate of the nugget-bound chicken were the fates of people around me who never asked these questions. The fate of the people who saw how terrible our town was – with its power station, and shoddy buildings, and terrible unemployment – but they didn’t ask why, or how, or imagine what could be. Instead, day-by-day as we worked in that dingy kitchen for hours at a time, and as my mind danced with protein soldiers, hyperinflated eggs, and sad chickens, instead they looked down and simply saw each egg as…. an egg. A simple, boring – really boring – egg.
And that’s when I decided I had a choice. I could spend my life learning or I could spend it being bored. If I chose learning I would get to think, do, see, go wherever I wanted – hopefully in all of life, but even if I failed at that, at least I could go anywhere in my own head. But if instead I chose not learning, if like so many other people I chose boredom, then an egg …would only ever be …an egg, and that seemed like a truly terrible waste of a really quite amazing world.

My Mum's Perspective on Card Sorts

Tonight on Twitter, Tessa Matthews, of the incisive blog Tabula Rasa Education wrote:


Now, given that learning styles have been ‘debunked’ I sympathise with the viewpoint. There’s simply no evidence that students only learn while moving, singing, running, jumping, etc. HOWEVER! I, unlike most teachers, was not raised in a house full of people who loved learning. My mum is distinctly anti-learning (and she won’t mind me saying that). Not only did she fail to turn up to a single one of her exams at school (in fact, she told me to say that bit) but I have known her over the years to purposely NOT learn – indeed  to REFUSE to learn – on training courses/workshops, etc, she’s attended.
She does, however, occasionally get won over to learn. The common theme is when she is involved either verbally or with moving things around. For her I can imagine that a card sort might work if the subject was akin to it. Tessa was rightly sceptical as cognitive science suggests people aren’t so shallow with their learning. But cognitive scientists generally don’t have my mum – or some of the other kids I have taught – up in their face and refusing to learn.
Tessa asked: “What do you think explains your mum’s preference for this kind of activity?”I didn’t have a clue. So I rang her. And here’s what she said (and was very happy for me to write):

I just hate being talked to when I’m supposed to be learning. I hate it. I pretend I’m listening but I’m not. I just look out the window instead or daydream.
Why? Well, either because I think, “this person isn’t interested in me and what I’ve got to say”, and their voice is doing my head in, and so I just think that I’d rather daydream about other stuff. Or it’s because I get lost with what they’re saying – and I don’t understand it – and I think there’s no way of asking questions because they’re busy listening to their own voice, so I just stop listening and start daydreaming. But either way they’ve lost me.

I then asked her if it matters that there’s a consequence for not listening (thinking about exams, or getting in trouble because you can’t do work):

No. You can show them my schoool certificate if you want. A in everything. For Absent! It gets EVEN WORSE if people start shouting at me. Then I think I’m really not going to listen now.

I asked her what does help with learning:

I want to know the person is interested in what I have to say, and also that I am following what they are saying. Like, I like activities where I can do things and get feedback. Next week I have to go for training about chairing meetings, but if when I get there they talk to me for an hour then I’ll switch off. But if they get me involved, maybe practice a meeting, then I’d like that because they could tell me what I’m doing wrong – or I could tell for myself.
But I can’t bear it if they just talk at me. I always think, “just give me the stuff to read and if I don’t understand it I can just ask questions”.

I then asked about a card sort, and whether she thought that sounded useful:

I’d like it because I could see if it was right. Because at the end I’d know if the bits matched right. And I’d also like to be able to talk to other people around me to see what they got. I like doing things because it makes me feel involved, and not like it’s just the other person going on about things.

Finally she told me something she’s said a lot:

Of course, if you were up there talking about people and their lives, then I’ll listen. Or if you’re funny, or if you tell a story. Then I’ll remember it.

At this point I suggested that what she was describing sounded more like entertainment rather than learning:

Well, yeah. I like to be entertained. But that’s because learning’s harder isn’t it? And if it’s hard and I don’t know if I understand it, and no-one cares if I’m listening or not, then I might as well just look at the window.

And that was pretty much it. In essence: unless she feels like she’s involved she will just pretend to listen but tune out as an act of defiance. The problem of science is that it often forgets about such acts of free will.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Tessa should do a card sort. There are many reasons – practical and pedagogical – why it could be an inefficient or pointless exercise. But do I believe that for some students it helps? Definitely. My mum may not love learning, but she is honest to a fault.

Nothing More Important

I wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Education supplement this week. It’s about the welfare reforms. While we in education have rightly focused on our own battles – Ofsted, the GCSE Fiasco, curriculum, budgets, free schools, academies – and though there is still more to be said about these, I simply couldn’t write about education alone when what I am hearing of the welfare reforms is stinging so hard.
Both of my parents are currently local councillors and are already seeing the effects of the reforms on families and young people. Both of my parents also lost their jobs in the early 1980s, six weeks after I was born and just after the mortgage rates rocketed. There were weeks when my parents starved so I could continue being warm and fed. By the early 90s our town was in such desperation that I distinctly remember sitting in my French class as we learned how to say “Mon pere est sans emploi….My father is unemployed”. I remember watching what policies designed to ‘break’ our town did and I can promise you that it hurt. And it will hurt again.
So I wrote about it.  Unfortunately I only get 700 words so it had to be concise, and – even more unfortunately – I couldn’t even think of a pragmatic solution or an optimistic ending. I also promise that this isn’t going to become my ‘typical’ fodder. My passion in life is education policy and research, it’s teaching, it’s being in the classroom and making a difference. But sometimes, when things are so very wrong, you have to stand up and say so. Today was that day. Normal service will resume shortly.