Forget boycotts, get PARENTS to 'opt-out' of tests for 4-year olds

Tomorrow the National Union of Teachers will debate whether teachers ought to boycott the government’s proposed ‘tests for 4-year olds’. But the NUT are missing a trick. Instead of pushing teachers into looking like work-shirkers, why not encourage parents to opt-out of the tests?
The opt-out strategy is currently being used, with reasonable success, across the US in response to a country-wide policy requiring students to sit various tests and have the results be reported to the state and federal government.
From the US government perspective, wanting to know pupil progress over time is not an unreasonable desire. How can you evaluate if children are progressing, or teachers are performing well, or taxpayer money is being spent effectively if you don’t have a ‘baseline’ figure from which to check progress? (And ongoing results to see how the cohort is improving?)
But the test opposers have been smart. Even if wanting data is sensible, tests make parents nervous. It’s their kids they are handing over – the thing they hold most precious. If you can make parents not want their kids to sit the tests, what the government wants pales into comparison.
So how did test-opposers make parents want to ‘opt-out’ of government tests?
First, they got organised. Facebook groups, twitter, and blogs were all used to create letters for parents to send to schools saying they were removing their child from exams. The OptOutOfStandardizedTest wiki is packed with this sort of info.
Second, they stoked concerns about data protection. Would a child’s score ever be leaked? Could it be used to deny them provisions? Could it be asked for many years later and used against them? (Sounds crazy, but there are examples of this kind of behaviour that makes me think it’s nowhere near as unlikely as we would think it to be in England).
Third, they repeated the use of the phrase ‘standardized’ tests and all the grungy ideas of ‘measuring children’ that comes with it. No one likes to think of their child being ‘standardized’. Mention the cattle-market, Brave New World-ness of it often enough and you can basically creep parents into opting-out.
Fourth, they played on nostalgia. “Remember when you were four/seven/ten and played in the sunshine for hours? Well your child will be locked inside revising”. Cue pics of exhausted children sleeping on textbooks while pristine swing sets sit abandoned. *sob*
Could this work in England?
Potentially. Even just going for a more straightforward line would likely do it: “Parents, if you don’t want your child to have to sit onerous tests that the government will record and keep on file about your child forever please send this letter”
After all, how are Conservative politicians going to argue that parents shouldn’t have such power? The whole premise of Conservativism is that the family should have as much autonomy as possible. With increasing awareness of Data Protection, plus recent outrages over the sale of NHS records and people’s tax information, it’s possible the records angle would have traction too.
Should the unions follow this line?
Ultimately, I don’t know if tests for four year-olds are a good idea. I’ve never really dealt with that age group. But what I do think is that parent opinion is more powerful, and likely more important, than teachers on this one. If they really don’t want this, it will be hard for the government to argue. If they don’t care, if they think “this would be quite useful”, then the teaching profession should probably let it go. The public pay our wages and send us their children. If they’re okay with their children doing the test, I’d likely trust their judgement.
Either way, though, if I was leading a union wanting to oppose the tests I’d absolutely be starting with parent boycotts before teacher ones. It’s easy to spin teachers as being lazy and difficult. But get the Parents’ Army onside, and politicians may well find themselves facing a group who are impossible to defeat.

What Academies should and shouldn't do with their cash….

After the recent Guardian story about academies paying millions of pounds to private firms for educational services there has been a surge of interest in the way schools are spending taxpayer money. It is important to remember that academies are not alone in spending tax-cash with private firms. Every school will buy items from private companies – whether stationery, or textbooks, or computers. What matters much more in the case of academies is who the money goes to and whether or not there is a dodgy link between the people operating the school and the people they are paying out to.
For example, as the Guardian article notes:

Grace Academy, which runs three schools in the Midlands and was set up by the Tory donor Lord Edmiston, has paid more than £1m either directly to or through companies owned or controlled by Edmiston, trustees’ relatives and to members of the board of trustees.

This is more problematic than your local school handing a hundred quid to whsmith for post-it notes because it suggests that decisions on how money was spent might have been based on nepotism rather than the best interests of students.
Of course, the academy founders could rightly argue that monies paid to family members did represent the best use of cash. To prove this, they should be meeting the standards described by Edward Timpson in a recent Parliamentary Question answer:

Ed Timpson Answer

So, if journalists really wish to see what is going on with academy expenditure they need to look and see if (a) the processes for procuring items/services were competitive, and (b) if  amounts paid were above market rate. If academies are not following the processes as outlined by Timpson then there is a problem.
In fact, it is worth all of us in education taking note and keeping an eye on this. Being a teacher soon tells you that people tend to behave better when they know a monitoring eye is watching.

On Not Ignoring Ofsted

This month my column in the Guardian Education looks at Ofsted and the problem of being a teacher trying to meet  standards when they seem to be constantly shifting. Writing about Ofsted when you’ve never been a headteacher is a little tricky, as I didn”t want to downplay the nightmares leaders say they go through, but the intention was explaining the classroom teacher experience. Hopefully I achieved that.
However, one line caused some consternation:

Ignoring Ofsted is not an option, and neither should it be.

Some people got upset at me saying this because they think teachers should ignore Ofsted and focus on the students. That’s fair comment, if you think I’m saying teachers should only think about Ofsted, but that was not my original intention. Actually, the original sentence was longer but because the piece goes in the physical paper I am constrained by a word limit so the line was eventually trimmed which maybe meant I sounded more curt than planned. Before cutting, the full sentence read as:

Ignoring Ofsted is not an option, and neither should it be. When you are a pupil stuck in an awful school you would rather have an imperfect system for externally checking teaching quality than not have one at all.

Having studied at a school on the decline we prayed Ofsted would come and see its real light, and I’m grateful that they did. Floating on without inspection is not good for pupils who need someone to see the mess a place is in and stick up for them. This is particularly true in communities where parents are unaware of what should be offered by the school and who don’t have the skills to advocate for better. That’s why I believe ignoring Ofsted is not an option. But I also believe that the scrutiny of teachers that Ofsted undertake must clear, shared widely in advance and contribute to professionalism rather than anxiety. As yet, there is too much of the latter over the former, and with just a little effort it could be sorted. This is not a terminal case.
[NB: I was very grateful to the people who did point this stuff out to me. The only way those columns will stay fresh is if people help me learn about their responses to them].

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.

The "Political Spectacle" of England and New Zealand's Free and Partnership Schools

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:

What Might Stop Excellent Academy Chains From "Scaling Up"?

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.

Freedom of Information Request regarding GCSE English Coursework Marks

I recently put in a Freedom of Information Request for the distribution of marks in the 2012 GCSE English Controlled Assessments. I did this because I read the @deevybee blog on the Phonics Test data with some interest and wondered if the GCSE English marks had shown a similar pattern.
Unfortunately Ofqual have turned down the request. Their reason is shown in a letter here (and below)
The main reason seems to be that they have the information as part of the Ofqual investigation into the GCSE English fiasco and therefore cannot currently release the information.  There also appears to be an undercurrent of ‘it wouldn’t be in the public interest’..
I have written back asking them if the information will be disclosable once the investigation is complete.
UPDATE: 16/10/12 Ofqual have said that once the English GCSE Investigation is complete and the report is published then I can discuss with the statisticians the possibility of releasing controlled assessment information.  They also said the Ofqual report is due to be released before the end of October. My bet is on a half-term release date.

Making the Government Account for Accountability

In a recent LKMCo article I suggested that ‘accountability measures are eating themselves’ as the DfE are poised to introduce a new performance measure designed to correct errors in a previous (yet-still-to-be-published) measure.
The problem for the new measure is that they didn’t heed the advice of Dr Rebecca Allen who told the government that if they wanted to report on ‘low, middle and high’ ability groups of students then those groups should be comparable across schools.  The DfE did not listen.  In my blog I made the case that this means comparisons across schools are unfair.
Several journalist colleagues therefore declared they will not misuse the stastics. Unfortunately the Telegraph did not comply and wrote a story making the exact mistake I warned against prompting an outcry on Twitter from people using the initial LKMCo blog as evidence.
To further support my point Rebecca Allen ran the figures comparing the DfE’s version of her measure to her more accurate one. The results are fascinating and can be found on her website here, showing that the DfE figure vastly favours schools where students have a high ability profile on entry.
The initial defence was that this was because the data was not readily available to the DfE. Rebecca Allen disagreed. The Department are now reviewing the case. I am slightly concerned somewhere a statistician is about to be shot.