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.
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?
This is Figure 1 from the 2013 CREDO Study Executive Summary. Get used to seeing it. I suspect it will soon become a new classic reference in education debate.
By matching every student in a Charter School with a similar student in a nearby school, CREDO aims to see if there is a difference to reading and maths scores depending on the type of school a student attends.
If you read all the Parliamentary debates about Free Schools in the UK & New Zealand (as I did) you soon realise the enormous power of the Stanford CREDO studies. The 2009 CREDO was the most referenced study in the debates and not just by free school advocates – it is referenced by everyone.
The reason why both sides like CREDO is that it presents a mixed picture, manipulable to fit one’s long-held views. Back in 2009 CREDO showed that about a 1/3 of Charter schools were doing brilliantly, and about a 1/3 not so brilliantly. Advocates for the policy talked, constantly, about the first statistic; its opponents carped on about the latter. (For a great read about such behaviour, I heartily recommend Henig’s “Spin Cycle” which forensically examines education stakeholder’s preference for point-scoring over proper debate).
From what I’ve read of the study so far, this 2013 study also presents a mixed picture. Students from groups who have traditionally received less good schooling and have been ‘underperformers’ look to be doing better in the new charters when compared to their “twin” in a traditional public school. This picture differs dependent on state, and dependent on the company running the school the student is in.
No doubt much commentary will start to pull these issues out. Until then, Figure 1 is likely to be the hit home message.
New teachers quickly learn that demanding behaviour from students that you’re not willing to demonstrate yourself is entirely pointless. Calmness, courage, patience, thoughtfulness – you want them? Model them. Over, and over, and over.*
Gove is often a pro at behaving courteously. He compliments question askers in Parliament, charms speech audiences with anecdotes, knows his brief in Committee sessions. But when it comes to hiding what comes across as a deep dislike of most teachers, he struggles. Reminiscent of a teacher who speaks sweetly to the top set but turns nasty when facing slow, lumbering set six, it sometimes comes across as if he believes that lowering himself to the level of understanding an ordinary teacher somehow means they’ll infect him.
Such irrational arrogances stop otherwise outstanding teachers from being any use at all with lower sets. And, if not careful, acting in this way will stop Gove making lasting changes – even ones that are important and useful.
Last November Nansi Ellis wrote an excellent piece pointing out the problem of Gove asking for teachers to behave in certain ways:
Gove’s call for openness is all one way: teachers must be open to the government’s ideas. A government that really believed in openness wouldn’t start a consultation on the biggest exam shake up for decades by asking whether it’s given the new exam the right name.
One can highlight countless other areas where openness hasn’t happened – the EBacc, disapplication of the curriculum, academy takeovers, the push to SchoolsDirect over PGCEs, AS Level reforms.
It is of course unreasonable to expect any Secretary of State to beat his drum solely to the rhythm of professionals. He works for the public, not the profession. But Ellis suggests a middle way:
True openness requires the humility to realise that you might be wrong, an ability to listen to people with different ideas, and an acceptance that people with different views might also want what’s best for children and young people.
The U-turn on GCSE reforms was one example of this. But it’s not enough. If Gove, like any educator, wants calmness, courage, patience and thoughtfulness, then he – like the rest of us – needs to model it over, and over, and over again, until he gets the behaviour he wants and need.
* NB: I don’t think youjust need to be calm, patient and thoughtful to get students to behave. Would it were that easy! You also need things like clearly and firmly enforced rules (see here or here for more on that). But as a teacher you need to be clear and firm, while also modelling the behaviours you want. As annoying and difficult as that is, it really is the only way.
So I’ve finished re-reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mindand 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.
Last week I presented a poster at the Comparative & International Education Conference 2013 of some tentative findings from a discourse analysis of education policy implementation in England and New Zealand. The purpose of the analysis is to see what were the reasons given for the policy and whether their use was justified. Finding out how rhetoric is used by a government is important for advocates wishing to provide an opposing viewpoint (they can then address the rhetoric being pushed), and it is also useful to uncover ‘successful’ rhetorical pattern so that future policymakers will know paths through which they can promote additional policies.
The policy being looked at was the introduction in both countries of state-funded ‘independent’ schools that can be opened by applying to a government-led organisation. Based on US ‘charter schools’, in England the schools are called ‘free schools’ and in New Zealand they are ‘partnership schools’.
By analysing the newspaper articles, policy documents, ministerial speeches, parliamentary debates and press releases about the legislation in both England and New Zealand I sought to find out how evidence about the policy in other countries (particularly the US) was being used. The theory of ‘political spectacle’ argues that governments often employ two techniques – symbolic language and rational illusions – in order to pass legislation that if talked about more frankly might not be palatable to the electorate. The data showed that both governments used symbolic language, although in quite different ways (England more directive, New Zealand more concilliatory). The main ‘rational illusion’ however was the use of ‘achievement gaps’ as the reason for the policy. In England ‘free school meals’ pupils were continually referred to as the group who would most benefit from the change. In New Zealand, Maori and Pasifika students are labelled as those most in need.
The “evidence” used to show that the change to state-funded independent schools would close the gap tended to rely on international ‘example’ rather than anything more substantative. The US chain KIPP were regularly referred to in both countries. In the UK Harlem Children’s Zone was occasionally referenced as a school which had closed gaps, however across the documents very little evidence was considered. The Stanford CREDO study was commonly used by people opposing the policy, and in the UK an article by Caroline Hoxby was referenced to show the difference charters had made.
The poster presentation can be viewed (in very tiny writing!) below, or is available for download here:
The Coalition’s education ministers seem convinced that academy-chains are “the next big thing”. Money is available for academy sponsors to take over failing(ish) schools, and chains are an increasing player in upcoming ‘Free Schools’. Theoretically, ‘successful’ chains will deliver the economies of scale and quality assurance of LEAs, while also being free of unions, pesky “regulation”, or requirements to go and account for oneself among local government representatives. You can see why Conservatives like the idea.
The problem? Evidence from the States suggests that really successful academy chains tend not to ‘scale up’. KIPP, the most-discussed, incredibly successful US chain, operates 125 schools. In a country of 100,000+ schools. Not because it “needs time to grow” – the chain started in 1993. No, smallness is a conscious choice.
Why? Steven Wilson, former Harvard fellow and CEO of a charter school chain, argues that chains are constrained by finances and human capital. Education reformers too often believe money and talented people are sitting around waiting to be found and used in a new school venture. But sadly, it’s not so.
After interviewing 10 chain leaders, Wilson found 5 things that limit school chain size. They’re here, along with how they might influence the UK:
(1) Political risk – This is less of a problem in the UK as Labour seem unlikely to reverse academy policy. But aggression at local government level still exists in some areas, particularly towards academy chains, and it can be off-putting.
(2) Unrealistic business plans – This has hampered almost every US chain. Again, it’s down to that false optimism about money and people.
(3) Start-up skills requirement – Opening schools takes a lot of skill and not every chain can afford in. In a country where schools have regularly been locally planned it’s also unlikely there will be enough people with these skills to share around.
(4) Undisciplined client acquisition – Chains take on schools without really knowing what they are getting themselves in for. Then they bomb. And then they get frightened off from ever expanding again.
(5) – Uneven design implementation – The chain takes over a school without a clear plan for explaining how it will change the school so it reflects the chain’s image.
So far I’m not hearing conversations about these barriers. Instead I’m hearing more and more of the false optimism: “Of course academy chains will spring up”…”There’s definitely enough talented people”…”The government has plenty of capacity money”… But it’s not true. There’s no definitely, plenty or ‘of course’ about this. Like a rebellious elder sibling, the US made these mistakes already so we don’t have to. If England wants academy chains it must work to get them and the sooner we get past fantasy and into detail the better off we’ll be.
In his book “So Much Reform, So Little Change”, Charles Payne introduces his chapter on implementation failures with a pledge that every school reformer should take. I wholeheartedly agree:
I will not overpromise
I will not disrespect teachers
I will not do anything behind the principal’s back
I will not take part in any partisan personal feuds
I will not equate disagreement with ‘resistance’
I will not put down other programs
I will not expect change overnight
I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine
I will not try to scale up prematurely
If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what the field workers tell me
I will give school people realistic estimates of how much time and money it takes to implement my program
He then follows this with an incredibly wise chapter on the failures of reform implementation, explaining the all-too-often lament “It was a good idea badly implemented” At some point I might try to summarise his arguments but for the meantime here is the most important part:
“So many efforts continue to proceed in innocence, as if implementation were just a matter of bringing good ideas and clear thinking to the benighted.”
Dear Policy Makers – never act on the presumption that teachers are the benighted. They will eat you; and your policies.
One of my few creations in education policy is something I like to call the ‘Quantum Leap Theory of Education Reform’. It’s based on the idea that people reforming education are constantly trying to ‘put right what once went wrong’ just like Dr Sam Beckett. It’s not necessarily bad and perhaps it is inescapable as we are all creatures of our own histories. But it does mean we often see reformers failing to focus on the real problems currently facing educators and learners, and instead they focus on creating policies based on their internal needs and desires, perhaps imposing order, correcting a past mistake, or exacting revenge.
Take an example: Horace Mann was was the first leader of a State Board of Education in the USA, and today when I was reading about him I noticed his own Quantum Leap tendency. Mann took the position after moving from law into education because law had not satisfied his desire to reduce social disorder (a desire borne out of several earlier parts of his childhood). In a letter to his friend he wrote:
“Having found the present generation composed of materials almost unmalleable, I am about transferring my efforts to the next. Men are cast-iron; but children are wax. Strength expounded upon the latter may be effectual, which would make no impression upon the former.”
Mann’s need to make people do something is so important to him that he gave up a law career that he had studied at length to achieve. Being able to manipulate seems an inherent urge for him and if he couldn’t do it with men he would focus instead on children. Thankfully Mann used his motivation to do mostly good things, although some of his dodgier policies on social morality probably stemmed from this view.
Watch for the Quantum Leap tendencies in politics – once you start looking you will see them all the time. They’re not always bad, but do examine them to see whether they are leading the person down a path that exists very strongly in their unconscious mind but doesn’t bear any resemblance to reality at all.
Reading the Hansard publications of education debates from the past is a glorious habit to get into (the best links are pointed to via the Living Heritage website). Not are the debates frighteningly like those ongoing today, but they provide a welcome sense of reality into political debate. In 1918, unafraid of being picked on by the media, MPs seem to speak more candidly about what they see around them, and do so in ways that are less combative and much more concerned for children. The same concern is evident today, but far too often it sounds phony in comparison to the genuine alarm raised in the past – possibly because so many MPs genuinely had no idea about poverty but the only way they could find out was going out and meeting people, not hiding at photo opportunities and reading about ‘the average man’ on Twitter.
One of my favourite quotes comes from a debate on the 1918 Education Act, a very important Act that raised the school leaving age to 14 and provided some, very patchy, provision for 14-18 education. It also attempted to ‘raise the status’ of the teaching profession by providing teachers’ salaries more centrally and at higher rates.
However, the quote that made me nod so furiously did not raise any of these. instead the speaker discusses why schools needed to be improved, and it is still pertinent today. It is amazing how often the debate in education concentrates around ‘saving’ the disadvantaged or ‘dragging them from a horrible life’. What this forgets is that many people in limited economic situations are not unhappy, nor do they wish to become ‘posher’ nor take part in ‘higher culture’. Their issues are ones of poverty not of ignorance or misunderstanding of the beauties of, say, Latin or Opera. To confuse the two is to misunderstand how poverty feels or what its consequences are. In general, life is not significantly upset by not understanding Wagner if you have other music you find comforting; in contrast, it definitely is worse if you don’t have enough to eat.
And so to the quote from the echoes of time:
“This Bill, at any rate, does recognise that education is a social problem, and, like all social problems, is interdependent with other social problems. You are not going to make the best of education if children live under adverse physical conditions-and in the moral atmosphere of slums and of poverty. I desire every child to have a fair opportunity, and I am quite sure that education is going to play a great part in that regard. I do not want that chance to be given to the child in order that it may escape from its class or get the better of other people, but in order that it may become a better citizen and be able to give greater service to the community.”