The Labour Teachers website has reblogged my post “A Further Word on Educational Inequality” . I know the piece has caused some division. Quite a few people have been offended at me comparing my school only to independent schools, with one person arguing that I should have compared it to the “minimum expected standards” for a school. But, my point was about inequality – and showing that to its fullest extent requires us to compare the ‘top’ and the ‘bottom’. That’s what I did. I hope people can see why.
I am an avid notebooker. Last week I re-read my 2009 notebook and found this. Back then I didn’t blog, so I thought I’d share this week. Seems even more relevant after Gove’s speech yesterday.
At the focus group tonight I invited four ‘average’ students to give their views on homework to our Sixth Form Teaching & Learning Group. We had chosen homework because many of the teachers relentlessly complained that the students were “wasting” free time rather than studying, but we also knew that homework was not routinely being given out by Sixth teachers. The meeting was interesting, for a number of reasons.
First, it was ages since I heard teachers so openly asking pupils’ opinions and being interested. Second, because the students were distinctly chosen because they are the ‘middle kids’ that rarely ever get selected for prizes or punishments there was a refreshing honesty to their words. They weren’t trying to suck up, nor were they trying to irritate. They were just…honest.
Third, it was interesting to watch the teachers grapple with the fact that the students’ expectations were different to theirs. For example, students said they preferred highly structured homework activities because they felt they learned more yet many teachers argued (with them) that this was “dumbing down”. Many staff appeared morally outraged at the fact that the students were expressing difficulty with vague homeworks, with one student giving “read around your subject” as an example.
Afterward I asked the staff how we could reconcile explicitly and with our class the difference between our expectations and the students’ expectations. But there was more outrage. I agreed that as professional we do ‘know’ what activities are best for students, and how to structure learning, but we do also have a duty to move to where the learners are – at least initially – if we do not want to alienate students. Our job is to walk over the bridge, grab the students by the arm, and guide them back over it. Not stand on the far side of the stream compelling them to jump. After all: if I thought that jumping involved the risk of drowning I don’t think I would chance it either.
So, what do I do? When Janie says she needs super-structured homework in order to learn and Mrs F says “Janie needs to get over herself and grow up” – what do I do? Should Janie step up, or should Mrs F step down?
NB: Four years on and I still don’t know the answer to this question. I can see the logic in making students jump. I can also the logic in a student who decides not to bother. But I still can’t bring myself to leave a student stranded if all it would take from me is one or two attempts at meeting them at a level with which they are uncomfortable and then dragging them into new terrain.
So I’ve finished re-reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and I still cannot recommend it enough. He writes in a style similar to Malcolm Gladwell and masterfully curates easy-read summaries of psychological and political research.
Thankfully Haidt also summarises the main principles of his book. They are:
- Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second – i.e. we decided what we think by gut feel and then we cast about to find the reasons and evidence to support it
- There’s more to morality than harm and fairness – Left-wingers tend to think only in terms of these two things, right-wingers tend also to add in ‘loyalty, authority and sanctity’.
- Morality binds and blinds – We like people who think like us and we stick to them. This is not necessarily a good thing as we then develop huge blind spots. Whether the Left wants to admit it or not there is loyalty and authority can be beneficial – we probably all just need to realise that.
These three ideas struck me hard given many conversations of late about curriculum and classroom behaviour. Both conform beautifully to Haidt’s principles:
Curriculum – ‘Traditionalists’ tend to talk about the ‘sanctity’ of the classics and a belief that a single traditional core will bind the nation together. Haidt argues such beliefs are typically held by people who see humans as naturally tending towards evil unless steered away. On the other hand ‘Progressives’ worry less about this authority, tradition and sanctity and instead concentrate on ‘fairness’, particularly the ‘fairness’ of teaching a canon – i.e. whose voice will it reflect, what messages will it send – or they worry about the ‘harm’ to teacher autonomy or student identity if the only things read reflect a ‘dominant patriarchal’ voice.
Behaviour – Again, traditionalists prefer a deference for authority, a strict approach without deviation for any kind of behaviour they would not agree with and demand absolute loyalty from students (i.e. “it doesn’t matter that you think the lesson is boring, you must behave anyway if you wish to get on”). Progressives, however, tend to promote ideas of ‘fairness’ rather than a hardline equitable approach – e.g. should a student who is undergoing traumatic issues at home be reprimanded severely if misbehaving when compared to a student who is having expectations positively modeled in a firm and loving home environment?
The fear then is that having decided which principles we feel matter most all we do next is cast about finding evidence to shore up our own side. If that happens then as @oldandrewuk has often said, all we have is a never -ending educational battleground from which any government, institution, policy is only going to work for the purpose of supporting its own inbuilt biases.
Back in November I collected the vision, aims and ethos webpages of all the 2011 Free School cohort to analyse as part of my PhD. Most of them are unbelievably monotonous but I always enjoyed West London Free School’s:
After all: Who doesn’t want their child to grow up to be a world-beater?
So imagine my sadness when today I was triangulating other information from the WLFS websites and I noticed this:
A “classical Liberal Education”? As opposed to being able to overthrow the world? I feel so shortchanged. Guess you just can’t get the superhero role-models these days…..
Following Up on Free Schools & Transparency
When We Get Bored of Free Schools Will We Focus On The “Achievement Gap” Instead?
New Zealand are bringing in US-inspired “Charter” and UK-inspired “Free” schools. For a conference earlier in the year I had to create a timeline of the events leading up to its introduction. It was ridiculously quick.
August 2nd – First announcement of policy. Hekia Parata, the Education Minister, makes a speech announcing that groups will be able to apply to open new schools. They will not follow the same regulation as other schools, the % of teachers who will need to be qualified is negotiable, they will be run by “private entities” and are based on international “best practice”
In the ensuing months campaigners focus on four main concerns:
- The schools might teach creationism (They won’t, says government)
- What about students with disabilities? (They will still be treated same, govt)
- Hurricane Katrina campaigner warns that the way New Orleans was ‘invaded’ by Charters has been divisive among the community
- KIPP’s Mike Feinberg visits NZ and says he does not think charters are a silver bullet – they require more hard work than that!
October 4th – Teacher’s Conference, condemns move
October 15th – Education Amendment Bill first tabled
Nov 25th – So far no “for-profit” schools have registered interest
Dec 21st – Treasury releases official advice outlining concerns about the programme, but also a pathway for going forward
Feb 16th – Chief Ombudsman raises concern that the Education Amendment Bill will put the new schools (by now called “Partnership Schools”) beyond the Freedom of Information Act
Feb 28 – Government announces that the new school application and contracting process will be managed by The Independent Partnership School Authorization Board. There is a mini sigh of relief that they are independent. Then the ex-chief of the ACT Party, Catherine Isaacs, is installed as its chair.
April 13 – Select Committee reports back giving views on amendments
May 3 – Labour have tabled a series of amendments for the Bill’s next reading, due in the second week of May
Of everything in the process the thing that bothers me most is the Freedom of Information move. It is unprecedented, and on the basis of things that happened in the US when Charter Schools were first developing it is a really horrible idea. We’ll have to wait and see how it goes.
Some opponents to vocational education suggest that tracking students into vocational pathways early in school life increases educational inequality. Are they correct? Yes. At least according to a new study by Bol & Van de Werfhorst.
What did they do to find this out?
Using the data for 29 countries (including the UK) the researchers scored each country on three things:
- Level of ‘tracking’ (or setting) – This score included the age at which students are first selected academically/vocationally, what % of the curriculum was selected, and the number of different pathways
- The level of ‘vocational enrollment’ – This score was based on the % of students doing vocational studies in upper secondary school, and
- Level of vocational course ‘specificity’ – i.e. did courses include work experience, were they highly job-specific in their content etc.
The researchers then looked for correlations between these three variables and of certain ‘outcomes’ which included:
- Youth unemployment as a ratio of adult employment, and
- Average length of job search
- Inequality of PISA scores in the country
- Educational attainment adjusted for social origin
What did they find?
The first three findings showed the benefits of vocational education
#1 – academic setting has no effect on the youth/adult employment ratio. Putting students with others of an equal ability doesn’t influence employment likelihood.
#2 – where vocational education is work specific it reduces youth unemployment. If you train people to do specific jobs, they go on and do them.
#3 – young people spend less time looking for jobs in countries with higher levels of vocational enrollment. So, the more vocational education available the less the amount of time young people spend casting about for work.
The next three findings show the problems of the academic selection that occurs in countries with strong systems of vocational education
#4 – In a more tracked (or ‘set’) educational system, where lower ability students are ‘tracked’ into vocational classes, variation in student performance across all subjects is more strongly based on social class background.
#5 – Academic tracking enhances the importance of social origin for reading performance. I.e., in countries with setting, social origin increasingly appears related to reading performance.
#6 – In more tracked (‘set’) educational systems, social background is a stronger determinant for an individual’s opportunities in school than in non-set
HOWEVER – it is very important here to note that what appears to be causing the problem is setting and not the vocational element. The trade-off appears to be that when countries ‘academically select’ certain people to go down an academic route and give others a vocational one there is then an inequality.
HERE’S A THOUGHT: Why can’t academic and vocational studies both be available to anyone of any calibre? What would happen if you simply said that there were no entry requirements for any subject at GCSE, and that all subjects were GCSE/A-Levels, even if they were ‘vocational’ – what would happen then?
It seems to me that you would then get people selecting by interest, and getting the skills required for the workplace, but you wouldn’t get the downside of the inequality and social class tracking. Or am I missing something here?!
A few people have recently asked about the books I would recommend to get an overview of education policy making. Below are the ones I have found most helpful. I would love for people to add their own recommendations in the comments as I’m always looking to read more on this topic.
Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teachers – John Bangs: This was the first ‘overview’ book I read. Bangs ran research programmes at the NUT so some might argued that he’s biased however I found this an absolute tour de force of a book, looking at policies over the last 20 years from several different angles and highlighting the processes that go on ‘behind the scenes’. If you want to understand education policy from 1997 onwards this is where I would start.
Education Policy – Abbott, Rathbone & Whitehead: This reasonably thin book reads like a university textbook taking us from 1945 through to the modern day. It profiles each Education Secretary, their policies, the politics of the time, and it also takes sideways steps to look in detail at other groups – e.g. unions, LEAs, curricular groups, etc. It’s quite expensive so you might be disappointed when it arrives and it looks thin but it has lots of detail and is well laid-out. Its simple chronological order makes it a great reference point when someone says “but back in 1973 we did….”
Education, Education, Education – Andrew Adonis: I’ve mentioned before that this isn’t my favourite education book but I put it here because everyone else bangs on about its brilliance. Adonis does a good job of describing what was going on in the 2000s with Labour policy, particularly academies. If you’re interested in finding out how a person pushes through a specific policy which is meeting lots of resistance then it’s a good read.
The Great City Academy Fraud – Francis Beckett: The antidote to Adonis’ relentless positive view of the academies programme is Beckett’s detailed timeline into the policy and his investigations about cost. This is not a simple book – you have to pay attention. But for someone like me who didn’t really know much about what was happening with academies during the 2000s it was good for getting me up to speed. Now that academies are commonplace in the secondary sector it’s worth knowing this stuff.
Does Education Matter? – Alison Wolf: On matters of vocational and higher education Wolf is my absolute recommendation. This book is sensible, pragmatic, extensively evidenced and was a precursor to the government’s vocational reforms. It’s also ludicrously difficult to buy as new – I can only presume this is because it sold out and no-one who does own it will part with their copy.
Doing Politics – Tony Wright: Finally, this book isn’t about education policy, it’s about the way the House of Commons works – e.g. what an MP does, how Select Committees function, etc. I found it a useful way of getting my mind around what politics looks like and what it should look like. Wright has been a relentless advocate for changing Parliamentary structures to make MPs work harder on policy scrutiny, and he does a great job of explaining those structures to a lay audience.
I am currently re-reading Jonathan Haidt’s A Righteous Mind. The book considers why people on opposing sides of the political spectrum fail to see one another’s point, and also why they tend to interpret evidence favourably toward their own views.
An example given on p.293, however, caught my eye with regard to its importance for schools. My particular research interest is new schools – how they are planned, created, sustained, until they become old ones. I was therefore intrigued by this paragraph outlining a thought experiment by Richard Sosis who studied the success, or failure, of nineteenth century communes:
“Let’s assume that every commune was started by a group of twenty-five adults who knew, liked, and trusted one another. In other words, let’s assume that every commune started with a high and equal quantity of social capital on day one. What factors enabled some communes to maintain their social capital and generate high levels of prosocial behavior for decades while others degenerated into discord and distrust within the first year?
“Let’s assume that each commune started off with a clear list of values and virtues that it printed on posters and displayed throughout the commune. A commune that valued self-expression over conformity and that prized the virtue of tolerance over the virtue of loyalty might be more attractive to outsiders, and this could indeed be an advantage to recruiting new members, but it would have lower moral capital than a commune that valued conformity and loyalty. The stricter commune would be better able to suppress or regulate selfishness, and would therefore be more likely to endure.”
Haidt points out that the Left often dislike the idea that moral capital matters – but it does. Keeping out free riders is important for sustaining a commune, in the same vein keeping a certain behaviour check on staff and students is important for sustaining a school. BUT as Haidt also points out:
While moral capital helps a community function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities. High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.
Hence, schools that keep strong moral order have a good chance of survival. But does that make them morally or psychologically healthy schools? Not necessarily.
This week I wrote a piece for The New Humanist about attending anti-abortion rally in Missouri. This is the first published piece I’ve written as an adult about anything other than education. Though it is still about learning. I attended the rally as part of my studies and, as with most things in my life, it was coloured by my experiences of a teacher and the damage we do when we limit children’s questions. Normally I stick rigidly to secondary education (often being reluctant even to veer into primary) but the experience was so heady I wanted to share it with others.
The second piece was for Edapt and is about ways we can stop politicians tearing up prior education reforms. Nothing is more demoralising for teachers than having their hard work on one education initiative insulted, torn up, and then unthinkingly replaced with something else while also being told that you must smile and put in maximum effort on this second, third, twenty-fifth ride on the merry-go-round.
I therefore suggest 3 reforms (possibly via the proposed Royal College of Teaching) that might help stabilise education:
- An independent curriculum review board
- Independent reviews of policy documents
- A “education reformer’s manifesto” with agreed guidelines for future reform
All three are widely optimistic but I refuse to bow to people who tell me that there’s no way of imagining a better future. I never bowed when my kids told me that certain grades were impossible, or that something was too hard for them to learn, and I’m not about to start listening to education reformers who say they hold that same standards for their kids but refuse to hold such aspirations for political change!
Wilson’s Learning on the Job is the best book for learning about academisation as it has been realised in the US. Once a CEO of an academy chain, Wilson’s book functions as a history of the Charter School movement in the US but also looks closely at the successes and failures of each provider.
One of my favourite sections is about the huge promises that all new school chains give, and how these are particularly audacious given the demographics the schools are often forced to serve. He notes:
At each school, the organizations’ executives promised parents clients, boards and regulators that students would outperform their peers in surroudning schools. What gave education entrepreneurs confidence that they could achieve a level of academic performance that eluded traditional public schools? In short, what would they do differently?
What Wilson reveals is that there isn’t a simple answer to that question though the eight most common things are:
- certain types of grade/class/ability grouping
- better use of time (e.g. longer days)
- give more parental choice
- have better school management
- detailed and well thought-out curriculum and pedagogy
- use new technology
- give teachers lots of professional development
- hold teachers accountable through rigorous and continuous data checking
It’s not a bad list. But it’s not particularly innovative either. Very many schools who aren’t academies in England were already (are already) doing this. And there are also – I would suggest – many not-so-good academies (and not) who purport to be doing these things yet are still failing horribly.
Still, it’s a start. And at least Wilson is clear about it. I love my (very much second hand) copy.