Following up on Free Schools & Transparency

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My Guardian column this week explained why the current lack of transparency around Free Schools is unjustifiable. Several of the best US states have thoroughly transparent systems where the applications and school-granting process is publicly available and publicly consulted upon.
Opponents to transparency argue that making the Free School process more open would mean it getting knocked off course, but groups using cash paid in taxes by working people to inculcate those same people’s children during their limited educational time should at minimum be expected to stand their ground in a public hearing. Winning the right to that money and time means taking the heat, and explaining over and over again why you are planning what you are planning.
Concerns about transparency rippled through my conversations this week with New York-based education reformers. People looked genuinely concerned when they heard England has academised 60% of secondary schools in three years – faster than any US state has done over twenty years. They are bemused that Free School applications are shrouded in secrecy. They are mortified when they hear we have no clear guidelines on academy closures or take-overs. And these are New Yorkers – they do not frighten easily.
So far, 13 Free Schools have been inspected: 1 outstanding, 7 good, 4 need improvement and 1 inadequate.  The second cohorts of schools were allegedly subject to a more rigorous assessment, and so the feeling is that these schools will do better. Wouldn’t it be better if that rigorous assessment was also public, so that we can see the process is rigorous, rather than having no information about the decision-making process and waiting two years after a school opens before knowing if the deciders were laying their bets wisely.

“The man who can keep a secret may be wise, be he is not half as wise as the man with no secrets to keep” –E. W. Howe

Rationalising The Blogging

“Have nothing in your house that you do not believe to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” 
William Morris

Blogging can be fun but exhausting. With upcoming work schedule changes it’s time for me to rationalise. So the plan is less random blogs on this site and instead I will share….

Things I’ll Write Regularly

Monthly Guardian Education column – Third Tuesday of the month, taking a pragmatic look at education policies

LKMCo Education Committee Round-Ups – On issues related to schools/teaching/learning

LKMCo ThinkPieces – New data, policy recommendations, and analysis of reports

#BlogSync – This monthly blogging collective asks teachers to write on an assigned topic, alternating policy themes with pedagogy. Sharing ideas about the classroom is why I started my first ever public blog and this sort of blog venture is what helps us learn more from each other. No doubt (shame!) would have been a lot better with input from others.

Freedom of Information Stories –   Transparency matters – especially in an increasingly fragmented education system that relies on ‘market forces’. Hence, I will continue blogging about FOI updates as they unfold – whether mine, or by others, on Free Schools, or wider issues.

Things I’ll Write Occasionally

When  burning ideas fit elsewhere, or when people commission writing, then you might see me write for (but not solely): The TES, EdaptLabour Teachers. I’ve also got a few ideas for guest blogging on other sites. Finally, my PhD studies are still ongoing so when something is pertinent to those, I will share on here.

New Thing!

Great Edu Secs is now online in embryonic form. This site will chronicle my aim of reading the autobiographies of every Education Secretaries since the 1940s, with blogs/tweets sharing progress. Why? Because it’s no good teachers complaining that politicians don’t understand our profession if we don’t try to understand theirs. Quid pro quo, and all that jazz.

The books are ordered, a stack already haunts my living room, and work began in full force on 9th July. It will continue until….well….the stack is done.


It's not "scientific evidence-based policy" until….

A super blog by Jack Hassard describing yet-another-think-tank-report on Science Education, points out that if anyone in an argument says “all the scientific research shows” then it is worth ensuring that what they are pointing to really hits the standard they are claiming.
This is not a new point, but what Hassard does give is a handy “Is this scientific?” checklist based on the criteria supported by the American Education Research Association.
To be considered ‘credible & valid’ education research should include:

  1. The development of a logical, evidence-based chain of reasoning;
  2. Methods appropriate to the questions posed;
  3. Observational or experimental designs and instruments that provide reliable and generalizable findings;
  4. Data and analysis adequate to support findings;
  5. Description of procedures and results clearly and in detail, including specification of the population to which the findings can be generalized;
  6. Adherence to professional norms of peer review;
  7. Dissemination of findings to contribute to scientific knowledge;
  8. Access to data for reanalysis, replication, and the opportunity to build on findings.

My caveat to this list is that if you are falling short somewhere with your evidence – do not panic. It still matters. What I saw each day in my classroom with my eyes is evidence and I will use it when I am arguing with people as a way of demonstrating a point. But what I cannot do is claim that my anecdote is ‘scientific’ nor that it is is ‘credible and valid research’. Stories are useful and we should still debate their merits and meaning. Reports of people’s opinions, the gathering and critique of data, the pointing out of logical inaccuracies in a policy: all of these are useful. But they are not science.

Let The Private Schools Take 25% At Random

The FT’s Helen Warrell today ran a piece suggesting that momentum is developing behind a campaign to subsidise the cost of private school tuition for the poorest pupils.
She wrote:

Under the programme, the government would divert the average £6,000 spent on a pupil in the state system to a child from a lower income family entering an independent school. Since the estimated £180m a year public grant would not cover the full cost of the private school places, richer parents paying fees would provide cross-subsidy.

This policy also existed in the 1980s, known as “assisted places”, but was stopped by Blair in 1997. This time around it is being branded as “open access” which is a bit odd given that it won’t be open to everyone. Private schools are not suggesting they will waive the entrance exams pupils must take to enter their hallowed halls. Hence, even if the places are paid for, all the policy really achieves is taking us back to a system of more selection .  (Not as good an idea as people like to believe).
If private schools really want to help the poorest, why not learn from India’s “25% Rule”?
In 2009, India’s “Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act ” made it compulsory for every unaided private school to admit 25% of their intake via a random lottery of disadvantaged students.
Unsurprisingly, the policy has caused quite the stir, with many people trying desperately to stop its faithful implementation. Of the Indian teachers I’ve spoken to some argue the private schools are not right for the poorest students because they are made to feel like ‘outsiders’; others argue that while the policy provides a good education for those who win it doesn’t help those who don’t.
Either way, it is a radical policy. And it shows how much more imaginative private schools could be if they really wanted to help. Taking in the “poor-but-bright” is yawnsome and risks repeating the grammar school problems of the past.
If India can come up with something more interesting, surely the masters of our top private schools can do so too?