Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Is this plagiarism?

So I noticed some similarities between my earlier blog on today's PISA results and Wednesday morning's Times leader column.

Below I've quoted the leader column followed by the similar line from my blog in italics.

Plagiarism or sloppiness?

"Economies such as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey are starting to educate their populations better too, especially in reading."

"The charts below show the countries that have consistently improved in reading...what stands out is the number of "emerging economies" in this group like Brazil; Indonesia; Mexico and Turkey."

"The same is true of many of the former Warsaw Pact countries such as Estonia, Poland, Russia and Hungary, all of which are improving quickly."

"We can also see big improvements in many of the former USSR/Warsaw Pact countries like Estonia, Poland, Russia and Hungary."

"The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points out that nations in the Far East do well because they have a cultural fixation with hard work rather than any innate ability."

"The OECD argue that the single biggest reason why the Far East does so well is that they do not have the fixation with innate ability that many Western countries have."

"Many of the most improved nations, such as Estonia, Mexico and Israel, have recently been making their entry criteria to the teaching profession tougher."

"Many of the most improved countries like Estonia, Mexico and Israel have been toughening entry criteria to the profession"

"The countries that do well have, without exception, what the OECD calls “system stability”.

"Most [successful countries] have "system stability"

That last one's a bit of a giveaway - I use the phrase "system stability" but it doesn't appear anywhere in the OECD report...

10 Things You Should Know About PISA


1. PISA isn't precise but isn't useless either. No methodology designed to compare countries with completely different cultures and education systems will ever be perfect. The OECD acknowledge that their rankings aren't exact and it makes more sense to look at buckets of countries who have similar scores:

It may be that they're underplaying the statistical issues with the tests (see Professor David Spiegelhalter's concerns here). But that doesn't mean that PISA is worthless. In fact it's far more reliable (along with the other global tests - TIMSS and PIRLS) than any other method of comparison. While we shouldn't rely on the exact rankings we can look at broad trends - especially over time.

2. PISA tests something quite specific. The questions PISA uses are applied - i.e. are focused on using literacy and numeracy in "everyday" situations. Some education systems focus their curriculum more on this type of learning than others. By contrast TIMSS tests whether pupils have mastered specific knowledge and skills which, again, some systems focus on more than others. The UK and US do much better in TIMSS than PISA - and always have.

So with those caveats...

3. The UK is very very average. In Maths and Reading there's no statistically significant difference between the UK and the OECD average. Even on each individual question type (subscales) in Maths the UK is bang on average. Only in Science is the UK slightly above average - as it was last time. There is also no real change from the previous round of PISA. The UK's science score is exactly the same as last time; while Maths and Reading have seen a fractional but not significant improvement. As the graph below shows the UK is one of fairly large group of countries that have seen no meaningful change over the past ten years. All those policies; all those rows and  - at least on what PISA measures - no change.

4. The Far East is dominant. Far Eastern countries have always done well in PISA but they are moving away from everyone else. The top seven jurisdictions in Maths are all Far Eastern (though four of the seven are cities or city-states). Shanghai's 15 year olds are now a full three years ahead of the OECD average - and thus the UK - in Maths (40 points translates roughly into one year of learning). Also look, in the table below, at the number of "top performers" in Shanghai compared to the OECD average:

It's worth noting that there are some question marks about Shanghai's performance. For instance they exclude the children of migrant workers. And of course Shanghai is not China. If you plucked London out of the UK it would almost certainly do better than the country average.

5. Scandinavia is in decline. One of the big stories from this PISA dataset is Finland's significant drop - especially in Maths. They've actually been declining over the past few iterations but the drop this time is much bigger. In fact they're one of only four countries where Maths scores are falling at an accelerating pace (see chart below on the left). But something broader is happening in Scandinavia. If you look at the chart on the right you can see Denmark, Sweden and Iceland have been falling steadily over the past ten years too. Norway has remained static over the same period. Given these countries have fairly different policy environments there may be demographic factors at play here - for instance increasing immigration could be making these countries less socially homogenous.

6. The emerging economies are on the rise. The charts below show the countries that have consistently improved in reading since 2000. While there's a mix of different countries; what stands out is the number of "emerging economies" in this group like Brazil; Indonesia; Mexico and Turkey. These countries are starting from a low base and still do considerably worse than the UK and other developed nations but their rapid improvement is encouraging from the perspective of global prosperity. Often the improvement in these countries is a result of getting more children into school and keeping them their longer. Between 2000 and 2011 the number of children not in school, globally, fell by almost half. We can also see big improvements in many of the former USSR/Warsaw Pact countries like Estonia, Poland, Russia and Hungary. The former two are now among the best performers in Europe.

7. National scores hide huge regional variations. Some countries run the tests in such a way as to allow sub-regions to be given separate scores. The differences are often startling. For instance the Trento region in the north of Italy would be in the top ten globally for Maths if it was a country but pupils in Calabria in the south are around two and half years behind. Likewise in Australia pupils in the Capital Territory (i.e. Canberra) are almost two years ahead of those in the Northern Territory (where many indigenous Australians live). And Flemish Belgium does miles better than French Belgium. In the next PISA we'll be able to see England by region and we can expect to see London and the South-East outperforming other areas. We can already see Wales significantly underperforming the rest of the United Kingdom - the gap's got fractionally larger since last time.

8. There are some policies that many of the "rising" countries seem to share. One of the trickiest things about PISA is making causal links between specific policies and changes in countries' scores. It's very hard to not just cherry-pick examples that support one's existing views. There do seem to be, though, some strong themes around the most successful and most improved countries. One is selection - Germany and Poland are both reducing selection in their systems and have seen improvements and a reduction in the impact of socio-economic status on performance. Singapore is really the only high-performing country to have any selection in their system. A focus on the status of teaching does also seem to be important. This has always been true in the Far East but many of the most improved countries like Estonia, Mexico and Israel have been toughening entry criteria to the profession; raising teacher pay and improving access to professional development. Most successful countries also seem to give a reasonable amount of autonomy to schools. And most have "system stability" - i.e. they have planned reforms backed by much of the system taking place over an extended period of time; rather than constant, uncoordinated, changes.

9. High expectations are absolutely key. The OECD argue that the single biggest reason why the Far East does so well is that they do not have the fixation with innate ability that many Western countries have (yes I'm looking at you Boris). As they put it:

"The PISA 2012 assessment dispels the widespread notion that mathematics achievement is mainly
a product of innate ability rather than hard work. On average across all countries, 32% of 15-year-olds do not reach the baseline Level 2 on the PISA mathematics scale (24% across OECD countries), meaning that those students can perform –at best – routine mathematical procedures following direct instructions. But in Japan and Korea, fewer than 10% of students – and in Shanghai-China, fewer than 4% of students – do not reach this level of proficiency. In these education systems, high expectations for all students are not a mantra but a reality; students who start to fall behind are identified quickly, their problems are promptly and accurately diagnosed, and the appropriate course of action for improvement is quickly taken."


10. There's loads more interesting stuff. The above points are all taken from Volume 1 of the PISA report. There are another five volumes that will need to be trawled for further insights. Volume 2 is particularly important because it looks at the impact of socio-economic status (SES) on performance. Again SES seems to explain an average amount of the UK's variation but in the most successful countries it plays much less of a role.

Here's the link to the full report:

Sunday, 24 November 2013

What next for Ofsted?

Ofsted isn't going to be abolished (nor should it be)

A few weeks ago Old Andrew wrote a typically incisive, and popular, post explaining why he felt Ofsted are now beyond redemption and should be abolished.

That isn't going to happen. Ofsted is absolutely essential to the regulatory model the coalition Government have constructed. Failing academies and free schools can only be shut down on the basis of a poor inspection - there's no other legal mechanism (unless they mess up their finances or do something illegal). Likewise the Teaching School / National Leader of Education processes rely on Ofsted identifying outstanding schools.

And as Andrew notes in this post there's no indication that Labour would behave differently. If anything they envisage a bigger role - in recent weeks Tristram Hunt has argued for separate inspection of academy chains.

But even if the politicians were arguing in favour of abolition - and some way was found to deal with all the structural problems that would create - I'd be opposed. One of the OECD's clearest findings from PISA is that the worst type of education systems are those with high autonomy and low accountability (conversely the best are high autonomy and high accountability). While it may not feel like it to classroom teachers we have one of the highest autonomy systems in the world. Most secondary schools now have control of their own curriculum; nearly all funding in the system is passed directly to schools; teacher training is increasingly run through schools too.

So while I think there are lots of ways we can make our accountability system smarter I don't think we should be removing a key mechanism for holding schools to account. If we did then we'd be left with exam data as the only basis for accountability. Yet we know that schools can game test-based accountability by choosing easier options; focusing on certain pupils; or simply spending a lot of time cramming. While I've never been to a great school getting bad exam results; I have been to bad schools that get decent results. We have to have a way to check the quality of education on offer that goes beyond gameable data. There's a reason that most countries have some form of school inspection (and many of those that didn't have introduced inspectorates over the past decade).

That doesn't mean there isn't a problem

Although I think Ofsted needs to be an important component of our regulatory system I recognise the validity of many of the criticisms (and wrote about them here). This is not just the standard whinging you'd expect from any profession about its regulator.

There are two separate but related issues.

First a percentage of inspectors are not following the framework. They are insisting on seeing certain types of teaching in lesson inspections. It's unclear how large this percentage is but there are enough "rogue" inspectors to leave school leaders uncertain about how to prepare for inspections. That means many schools are doing things that are not required by the framework - and go against the spirit of that framework's intentions - because they don't know what "type" of inspector they are going to get.

Secondly lesson observations have limited validity - even if being done properly. Professor Rob Coe gives the technical details in these slides. But it's actually pretty obvious that in most cases it won't be possible to accurately tell how good a teacher is from a single 20 minute observation - even if it's done well. It's also hard not to let prejudices slip into judgements.

Katie Ashford explained here how teachers should approach an inspection of their lesson - and a good inspector like Mary Myatt will respond well to that. But it's understandable that many feel this is a risky strategy and end up teaching to what they think Ofsted wants to see rather than what's in the best interest of their class.

So what needs to change?

The first, fairly obvious thing, is to stop grading individual lessons. It's not clear at all what the benefit of doing this is given the lack of validity.  It would be possible to build greater validity around observations but would require multiple observations by people rigorously trained in the same scoring system. And that's too expensive and complex for Ofsted to introduce.

Scrapping individual lesson judgements would significantly reduce the problems Ofsted causes. Teachers would feel under less pressure to deliver a specific type of "outstanding" lesson; they wouldn't feel unfairly judged when their lesson gets a grade 3 or 4; and schools wouldn't feel so bound to using Ofsted grades in their own lesson inspections (and could move away from scored observations all together).

It wouldn't reduce the validity of the overall inspection as the lesson judgements aren't particularly valid anyway.

Instead inspections should focus more on systems. Essentially Ofsted should be looking at what the school is doing to ensure consistent good teaching. They should be inspecting the school's quality assurance not trying to do the quality assurance themselves in the space of two days (good inspectors will see this as their role already - but it's nowhere near explicit enough).

In their observations of lessons they should be checking the leadership know their teachers and understand how best to support their future development. They should be checking that they have thought about professional development and about performance management (which shouldn't have to involve performance-related pay). They should be seeing if the behaviour policy is being enforced; and if the school curriculum is actually being used. This blog does a good job of showing how that might work in practice.

I'm not sure there even needs to be an overall grade for teaching. After all if the leadership's good (because there's consistent practice across the school) and the attainment is good then the teaching will, almost by default, be good too. Likewise if the leadership is poor then the school isn't good even if there are pockets of excellent teaching (as there nearly always are in bad schools).

In addition to this simple, if bold, change Ofsted should make use of their new regional structure to announce a full reset so that everyone in the system - inspectors and schools - have a shared understanding of the purpose of inspection. This could involve, for example, retraining all inspectors alongside representatives from local schools; licensing inspectors through published exams; banning lead inspectors from acting as consultants and, as Rob Coe suggests, introducing transparent and independent processes for quality assuring inspections. This would need to be communicated via a major campaign from Ofsted, DfE, and, ideally, Head's associations.

Perhaps this wouldn't be enough to restore everyone's confidence in inspection but I'd much rather try to improve what we have than push the system into total reliance on test data.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

75 education people you should follow

One of the most frequent conversations I have is people asking me who they should follow on twitter. This is my attempt to answer. It is, of course, a highly subjective list based on people I enjoy following. But the people here represent a wide range of views / opinions. Follow this lot and you'll get a feel for the debate; as well as a good stream of useful links and some great blogs.

The list is ordered alphabetically in categories. The * indicates they also have a blog that's worth reading.


Academics and Writers

Annie Murphy Paul: Author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter

Becky Allen*: Reader in Economics of Education at Institute of Education. Quant wizard.

Becky Francis: Professor of Education and Social Justice at King's College.

Chris Husbands*: Director of the Institute of Education

Dan Willingham: Cognitive Psychologist and Author of Why Don't Students Like School?

Daisy Christodolou*: Research and Development manager at ARK, Author, super-smart.

David Weston*: Former teacher, Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust

Dylan William: Professor, expert in assessment and curriculum

Gifted Phoenix: (Not his real name) Education policy analyst specialising gifted and talented

Graham Birrell: Senior Lecturer in Education at Christchurch Canterbury

Laura McInerney*: Former teacher, blogger, columnist, complete genius if a bit too Fabian.

Loic Menzies*: Researcher, Author, Blogger, Teacher Trainer.

Martin Robinson: Author and teacher trainer

Rob Coe: Professor of Education at Durham



Duncan Spalding: Norfolk Headteacher

John Tomsett*: Headteacher in York

Geoff Barton: Head in Suffolk. Frequent tweeter, occasional blogger, not a big fan of Ofqual.

Liam Collins: Head in East Sussex

Rachel de Souza: CEO of the Inspiration Trust; a forward thinking academy chain in East Anglia

Ros McMullen: Principal of David Young Community Academy in Leeds.

Tom Sherrington*: One of the best blogging heads


Ann Mroz: Editor of the Times Education Supplement

Greg Hurst: Education Editor at The Times

Helen Warrell: Covers education for the Financial Times

Jonn Elledge: Editor of Education Investor Magazine. More left wing than that makes him sound.

Michael Shaw: Director of TESPro

Nick Linford: Editor of FE Week

Reeta Chakrabati: BBC Education Correspondent

Richard Adams: Education Editor at the Guardian

Sanchia Berg: BBC education specialist; currently on Newsnight

Sean Coughlan: BBC online education correspondent

Sian Griffiths: Education Editor at the Sunday Times

Toby Young: Free School Founder, columnist, provocateur.

Warwick Mansell*: Guardian Education Diarist, freelancer, blogger.

William Stewart: Reporter at the Times Education Supplement

Policy and Politics 

Andrew Adonis: Former education Minister and Author

Brett Wigdortz: CEO of Teach First and my boss.

Conor Ryan: Former adviser to David Blunkett and Tony Blair. Now at Sutton Trust.

Dominic Cummings: Former Special Adviser to Michael Gove

Fiona Millar: Columnist and campaigner for comprehensives; former adviser to Cherie Blair.

Gabriel Sahlgren: Research Director at the Centre for Market Reform of Education.

Gerard Kelly: Former Editor of the Times Education Supplement.

Graham Stuart: Chair of the Education Select Committee

Jonathan Clifton: Senior Research Fellow at IPPR, working on education and youth policy.

Jonathan Simons: Head of Education at Policy Exchange. Ex-cabinet office.

Michael Barber: Chief Education Advisor at Pearson. Former Head of the PM’s Delivery Unit.

Pasi Sahlberg: Finnish education expert - author of Finnish Lessons

Robert Hill*: Former adviser to Charles Clarke and Tony Blair. Currently advising Welsh Govt.

Stephen Tall*: Development Director at the Education Endowment Foundation

Tim Leunig: DfE Director of Research

Tom Richmond: Policy Adviser to Nick Boles

Tristram Hunt: Shadow Secretary of State for Education


Alex Quigley*: Subject Leader of English & Assistant Head. One of my favourite bloggers.

Alex Weatherall: Science / Computer Science teacher

Andrew Old*: Anonymous teacher; caustic, brilliant, blogger and Man of Mystery

David Didau*: Teacher, Author and one of the most popular teacher bloggers.

Debra Kidd*: AST for Pedagogy, formerly Senior Lecturer in Education, MMU.

Harry Fletcher-Wood*: History teacher and CPD leader at Greenwich Free School.

Harry Webb*: Ex-pat Brit teaching in Australia. Great, analytic, blogger.

Katie Ashford*: Secondary English teacher

Keven Bartle*: Senior Leader and entertaining blogger

Kristopher Boulton*: Maths teacher at ARK King Solomon Academy

James Theobold: English teacher. Funny.

Jo (readingthebooks)*: Head of English in a London school.

Joe Kirby*: English teacher + prolific blogger

John Blake*: History teacher and Editor of Labour Teachers

Lee Donaghy*: Senior Leader at Parkview school, Birmingham.

Michael Merrick*: Teacher of many subjects and professional contrarian.

Michael Tidd*: Sussex middle school teacher (KS2) and blogger

Micon Metcalfe: Business Manager at Dunraven School. Edu-finance queen.

Red or Green Pen?*: Anonymous Maths teacher and great blogger

Stuart Lock*: Deputy Headteacher

Tessa Matthews*: Pseudonym for a English teacher + super blogger.

Thomas Starkey*: FE English teacher

Tom Bennett*: Teacher, Blogger, Author, ResearchED Founder, Scot.

And of course...

SchoolDuggery: Queen of Education on twitter; unclassifiable. Must follow.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Why are London's schools doing so well?

London's secondary schools have been doing better than those in the rest of the country for some time now. They were already ahead in 2003. But the gap has widened over the past ten years to a chasm. Chris Cook - when he was the FT's education correspondent - was the first to analyse this trend in detail. And he realised that the official Government metrics of performance were actually hiding how far ahead London is.

Since then there's been a growing debate amongst policy wonks about why this is happening. But I think most people - even those in the education sector - still don't realise quite how far ahead London is now; especially for poorer children.

In this post I'll give some stats on how big the gap now is. I'll then question whether this is down to policy or socio-economic change. Finally I'll look at whether - if policy has driven some of this change - what that might mean for the rest of the country.

The size of the gap

The gap between London and the rest on the Government's main measure, 5A*-C including English and Maths, is negligible - 59% nationally and 62% in the capital. But that's actually quite surprising given how many more children on free school meals live in London compared to elsewhere (23% vs. 14% at secondary). When we look at just those children on free school meals we start to get a sense of the difference. In London FSM kids get 49% vs. 36% elsewhere. When you dig into LA level data the extremes are startling. Almost two thirds of FSM pupils achieved the 5A*-C benchmark in Westminster last year compared to less than a fifth in Peterborough (the lowest scoring authority).

But because 5A*-C is a simple threshold measure it obscures how much better London schools are doing for the very poorest. The graph below is taken from the recently published Milburn report on social mobility (in fact it's a variant of a graph Chris Cook did a while ago). It shows that children in London do better at GCSE and poorer children do a full grade better - across all their GCSEs - on average. The rich/poor gradient is much less steep meaning that, while London is one of the most economically unequal parts of the country, the education system is producing more equal results.

The next table is from some internal analysis we've done at Teach First. Here we've looked at only those schools that are eligible for Teach First i.e. those where at least half the pupils are in the bottom 30% of the IDACI (Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index).

Nearly all secondary schools in inner London meet this eligibility criteria. In other areas- like the South East just a small percentage do. We've compared the GCSE average points score in eligible schools in different regions (excluding all GCSE "equivalencies" and doubling the value of English and Maths). This shows eligible schools in inner London 100 points ahead of the worst performing regions (the South East and South West) which is equivalent to the difference between 6 D grades and 6 B grades.

It's also important to note that this isn't just a GCSE phenomenon down to - perhaps - better gaming by schools in London. Our initial analysis of the DfE's post-16 destination data shows the pupils from Teach First eligible schools in London have about a 9 in 10 chance of going on to further education - around the national average for all schools - compared to about 8 out of 10 in other parts of the country. Poorer students from London are also much more likely to go to university.


Why is there a gap?

For me the big question is whether this gap has been driven predominantly by policy or by socio-economic changes. If the former then it's good news because. if we can work out which policies and how best to transfer them elsewhere, we can help schools in other parts of the country improve. If the latter then it's good for London but worrying for everywhere else as the gap will continue to grow.

There have been a number of policies over the past ten years that have disproportionately benefited London:
  • The Labour Government significantly increased school funding across the country but it increased by a higher proportion in London (which was already well funded - albeit with higher salary costs).
  • The academy programme started in London and the best sponsors, while not exclusively in London, seem to be concentrated there (e.g. ARK, Harris, Mossbourne, Haberdashers).
  • Initiatives like Teach First tend to have started in London even if they were later rolled out to the rest of the country. (If you're in a challenging school in London you won't find it difficult to find a charity nearby offering tutoring or mentoring - in Clacton or Peterborough it's a different story).
  • And the one that people talk about most - the London Challenge - a programme launched by Labour as an umbrella for a number of schemes but which was, primarily, about brokering support between stronger and weaker schools. (See this Ofsted report for a good summary).

At the same time the socio-economics of London have changed massively. Essentially London has got a lot richer while much of the rest of the country hasn't. To illustrate here's some startling stats from a BBC article:

"A recent study estimated that the value of London's property had risen by 15% - or £140bn since the financial crisis began. That increase - just the increase - is more than the total value of all residential property in the north east of England. London's top ten boroughs alone are worth more, in real estate terms, than all the property of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, added together."

And here's a scary infographic from the ONS:

Not only has London got richer. It's got richer in precisely those areas where schools have improved the most. Look at this map discovered by Economist journalist Daniel Knowles. The red areas are those which have gentrified the most over the past ten years; the blue areas have gone "downmarket".

The areas that have seen the biggest change in socio-economic status - Westminster, Southwark, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney - are also the areas which have seen the greatest gains in school performance.

This certainly isn't the whole story behind London's improvement but it's an interesting correlation. The secondary schools in these areas haven't suddenly filled with yuppies' kids, they're nearly all still eligible for Teach First, but many have become more mixed. Moreover, the children in those schools are exposed to very mixed communities, unlike some of the worst performing parts of the country where communities are much more uniform. And those areas have become a lot more attractive to teachers - especially young teachers.

So has policy or economics driven change? Given the lack of in-depth research on the topic all we can is it's a complex mix of factors. The extra money available in London probably helped but it wouldn't have been worth as much without the increased supply of bright young teachers heading towards the capital. Yes lots of charities like Teach First started in London but they did so because that's where recruitment is easiest.

London Challenge is perhaps the most interesting. Many headteachers who were involved will argue it was a hugely valuable experience - though there is little in the way of hard statistical evidence (e.g. comparing improvement in London Challenge schools with other schools in London that weren't part of the programme). But if it did work it was in large part because there was already a supply of excellent headteachers and advisers to provide mentoring and support.

What might it mean for the rest of the country?

The complex relationship between policy and non-policy factors in London mean we have to be very careful about drawing simple conclusions about what might work elsewhere.

It would be easy to say - and many have - let's roll out "challenges" in other regions. But they were tried in Manchester and the Black Country and weren't nearly as successful - perhaps because the necessary concentration of existing expertise wasn't there to make it work. And if it isn't there in Manchester it certainly won't be in coastal towns or dispersed rural areas where we have the greatest problems of underperformance.

Likewise there'll be little benefit to changing the funding system to switch funds from London to elsewhere if other schools can't get access to a ready supply of talented new teachers and the types of mentoring/tutoring initiatives that are so prevalent in London.

That doesn't mean regional placed based strategies aren't worth trying - I believe they are - but they need to be bespoke rather than just attempts to recreate London Challenge.

I get the impression that Nick Clegg's unfortunately named Champions' League of Headteachers is the beginning of an attempt to do this; but busing in new heads won't be enough. If regional strategies are going to be tried in the places that need them most there will have to be a concerted effort to create a sense of collective mission. Existing heads and teachers in the areas of focus will have to buy in; successful heads and teachers from other areas (and especially London) will have to recruited to provide support; charities will have to be encouraged to venture out of their urban hubs and, ideally, educational change will be linked to wider community projects and economic regeneration.

Change happened in London but it already had a lot going for it. Making it happen elsewhere will be a lot harder.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

What do the opinion polls tell us about support for free schools?

Opinion polling is a valuable but dangerous tool. Dangerous because superficial analysis can lead to badly misjudging the public mood. And because so few people understand how polls actually work. This weekend I saw people tweeting puzzlement at two polls; one showing Labour with a 3% lead and one with a 11%. But with a margin of error of 4% and very different methodologies between the two polls it's not surprising at all. (The trick to reading voter polls is to look at trends across multiple polls over time).

These two polls happened to both contain questions about free schools after an eventful week for the policy. There isn't really much polling on free schools for such an important policy (politically at least) so it's worth unpicking in some detail. 

First ComRes for the Independent on Sunday asked:

Parents, teachers and charities should be encouraged to set up new state schools, even if there are already schools in the local area:

Agree 27%
Disagree 36%
Don’t know 37%

So free schools are unpopular? Not so fast... This is a badly designed, and so misleading, question. The problem is it asks two different things in one question. First should non-state providers be allowed to set up schools and then should they be allowed to do so even if provision already exists. It doesn't tell us how many like the idea of non-state providers but not the "waste" of surplus capacity. And it's confusing- as can be seen by the high number of "don't knows".

Meanwhile Opinium for the Observer asked some much more detailed questions. First they looked at general support for the policy:
"Like state / comprehensive schools "free schools" are schools that are funded by the government but, unlike state / comprehensive schools, they are not under the control of the local authority. They can be set up by parents, teachers, charities or businesses and are free to attend."

44% believed that "free schools" are generally a good thing for education in the UK while 22% said they are a bad thing; with a further 22% saying neither good nor bad and 12% don't knows.

Here the focus is on the "free" part not the surplus places and that bit of the policy seems popular; even among Labour voters who were 39/30 in favour (Lib Dems were even more pro - 50/18).

On the specific issue of whether such schools should be allowed to hire unqualified teachers respondents were asked:

"While teachers hired by state / comprehensive schools have to have a PGCE or equivalent teaching qualification, "free schools" are free to hire whoever they choose, as private schools do. The advantage of this is that they can employ people who have more experience of the world outside teaching while the disadvantage is that it may risk children being taught by under qualified teachers."

A resounding 60% were concerned that "free schools" are able to hire teachers who may not have a PGCE or equivalent teaching qualification while 30% are not. Amongst all three parties' voters there were more "concerned" than "not concerned". So that bit of the policy doesn't seem very popular.

But perhaps most interesting Opinium asked about what respondents wanted a future Government to do about free schools. Here responses were divided. 23% wanted the policy to continue as is (this was the most popular for Tory voters).

27% wanted what is - in effect - Labour's current policy- to allow them to continue but only in areas where there aren't enough places and if all teachers are qualified. This was the most popular option for Liberal Democrats - just beating leaving the policy as it is - and the equal most popular amongst Labour voters.

Just 12% wanted to prevent any further free schools from opening while leaving the existing ones alone and 20% thought that all free schools should be taken under local authority control (this was equal most popular with Labour voters).

What does all this tell us? It seems the majority of voters like the idea of non-state providers being allowed to set up their own schools but that they really don't like the idea of unqualified teachers. Most people want the policy to continue in some form but those that do are pretty split between allowing them in areas that already have enough places. So Labour's current policy is probably most in tune with the public (if they could explain it clearly...)

I expect, as we approach the next election, more polling companies will look in detail at this issue so we should be able to see if these hypotheses hold as people learn more about the policy.

Thanks to Daniel Boffey at the Observer for sending me the Opinium numbers. When these appear on the Opinium website I'll add a link.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Thoughts on the OECD survey of adult skills

The first OECD survey of adult skills (PIAAC) was published this week. It's a fascinating - and, at almost 500 pages, immense - report. As England comes close to the bottom of the league tables - especially amongst 16-24 year olds - it has been presented as a condemnation of our education system. And you'd have to be remarkably complacent to read the report and not be concerned about our apparent global weakness in basic skills but it's worth highlighting some things that a superficial reading might miss:

1) The report isn't really telling us anything we didn't already know from PISA - the OECD's existing international comparative test for 15 year olds. It looks worse than PISA because we're at the bottom of the league table rather than somewhere in the middle, and our scores are below average rather than average, but that's a bit misleading. Far fewer countries participated in this survey than in PISA and most of those that did also do better than us in that test.

2) Those countries that did better than us in PIAAC but not PISA (e.g. France, Sweden, Czech/Slovak Republic) all have compulsory literacy and numeracy for those in post-16 education. As do pretty much all the other countries that participated. As a majority of our 16-18 year olds don't study English or Maths it's not really surprising that even countries we're marginally ahead of in PISA do better than us in PIAAC. If we were to increase the numbers of 16-18 year olds doing these subjects (as both the Government and Labour want to do) I'd expect to see us rise up the tables a bit.

3) The questions PIAAC uses (like PISA) are very applied - i.e. are focused on using literacy and numeracy in "everyday" situations. Our education system doesn't focus on applied skills in the way that others do; especially post-16. By contrast the other big international comparative test for 15 year olds, TIMSS, tests whether pupils have mastered the specific knowledge and skills outlined in curriculum content common amongst participating countries. We do much better in TIMSS than PISA so it's fair to assume our post-16 issue is also with applied skills rather than curriculum skills. All of which seems to support mathematician Tim Gowers' proposal for post-16 courses in real-world maths.

4) This difference between applied and curriculum skills may go someway to explaining how it can feel to so many people that our system has improved over the last 15 years despite our PISA results flatlining and our PIAAC results showing our 16-24 year olds doing so badly. We may have improved a lot in things that PISA/PIAAC don't measure; while making little progress in things they do. Another factor may be that the politics/media world tends to focus on London where the system almost certainly has improved while ignoring continued underperformance in other parts of the country.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Why I changed my mind on for-profit schools

Back before the last election I wrote several reports arguing in favour of profit-making schools.

In 2009 I wrote:
"The question of profit is one the most emotive aspects of [school reform] and has been the focus of discontent on the left of American and Swedish politics. There seems to be little basis for this, or for the queasiness over potential profit-making schools in the UK, beyond an intuitive dislike of the idea that money could be made from educating children."
I never thought it was key to reform
"We do not believe that the inclusion of for profit firms in any reform is essential to making
making reform work – and reformers may consider the additional opposition it creates not worth the trouble."
But I did think that it would create extra incentives for people to develop federations of schools (which I've always thought is key to the success of any school reform movement):
"However, for-profit groups are much more likely to have the scale and ambition necessary to create multi-school federations. Larger charities with a national or regional focus, such as Harris and ARK in the UK or KIPP and the other CMOs in the US, are also able to do this, but such groups are relatively few and far between, especially during an economic downturn."

So why have I changed my mind?

Well I haven't had a Damascene conversion to Marxism. I still think that the intuitive horror many on the left have to the use of for-profit companies to provide public services is irrational. There are plenty of existing examples where for-profit companies fulfil a need at least as well as alternatives. It perhaps works best where services are simple and easy to measure (rubbish collection; maintenance etc...) but the NHS uses for-profit companies to buy-in treatments; many parents spend their nursery entitlement in for-profit nurseries. And so on. In parts of the developing world for-profit schools are the only chance many children get to have a decent education.

The question for me isn't "are for-profit schools inherently good or bad" it's "would for-profit schools improve the education system as it currently is". And there my answer is no - for three connected reasons.

One: the incentives that I thought allowing profit would create exist anyway

I failed to predict, back in 2009, how many natural entrepreneurs existed in the education system who would take advantage of the Academies Act to quickly develop chains and federations. When I left the DfE back in February there were around 150 schools that had not only converted to academy status but started up their own federation. I expect that number is now closer to 200. Some chains have grown very fast (some have grown too fast).

In some cases I guess this surge of entrepreneurship is linked to desire for personal gain or status (you don't have to run a for-profit company to make a lot of money yourself). But I think in most cases it has been motivated by moral purpose - successful school leaders wanting to reach more children than they could do by running a single school.

Two: allowing for-profit wouldn't in any case create much extra incentive because it's not a profitable industry

As many a CEO has found to their cost in America and Sweden it's very hard to make any money out of running schools. 80% of a school's costs are staff; without good staff you can't have a good school so offering lower salaries isn't really an option. There are only two ways you can make any money. First employ fewer teachers by using blended learning approaches. To put in kindly there's not a huge amount of evidence for these approaches (the for-profit "virtual" charter school sector in the US is an absolute scandal). Secondly, run so many schools that you make your money by cutting back-office costs. But the number of schools you'd need to make much profit make this pretty undesirable too. Most of the reputable firms that have run the numbers on schools have backed off pretty quickly.

You might be thinking (though you probably aren't) that it's worth a try anyway. You might get some really innovative companies that come up with a way of running great schools and making some money at the same time. But...

Three: allowing for-profit would require a complete overhaul of current processes
One of the big misconceptions about the Government's reform programme is that it "paves the way" for profit-making schools. In fact the system only works because all academies and free schools are not-for-profit. Back under the last Government anti-academy campaigners judicially reviewed the decision to allow UCL to sponsor an academy in Camden. They argued that it broke EU law because there wasn't a public procurement process where anyone could bid for the "contract". The judge ruled for the Government but only on the grounds that academies were all sponsored by not-for-profits. Had the Government handed that academy to SERCO they would have lost the review.

That means if the current Government wanted to allow for-profits they'd have to run a full procurement exercise for every sponsored academy and free school. The Swedes get around this by giving licenses to run free schools to any provider who meets a certain threshold. But that means losing any real control over who can set up a school. And as it precludes handing out capital (because you don't know how many will be over the threshold) it also pushes not-for-profits out of the market. There are no big not-for-profit chains like ARK or KIPP in Sweden. In any case that model wouldn't work for sponsored academies.

So that's why I changed my mind. We don't need them and the cost of overhauling the system is completely disproportionate to any potential benefit they could bring. For these reasons I can't see any Government going down this route for the foreseeable future.





Sunday, 8 September 2013

ResearchED 2013

About six months ago Ben Goldacre and I were having a twitter conversation about how one might mobilise the burgeoning collective interest in research amongst teachers. We'd agreed that a grassroots conference would be a great thing...but that sounded like a lot of work. Who would be crazy enough to take on that kind of a challenge in their spare time? I half-jokingly asked Tom Bennett on the grounds that he was a) a teacher b) had written a lot about research c) is well liked across the political/policy spectrum and d) is just about crazy enough to take on a project like that...

To be honest I didn't actually think he'd do it.

Anyway fast forward six months to yesterday and I found myself watching Tom presenting Ben to an audience of 500 expectant educationalists - most of them - uniquely in my experience of attending research conferences - classroom teachers. Taking that germ of an idea to reality in such a short space of time has been a heroic effort by Tom and his small team of volunteers; especially Helene Galdin O'Shea. They deserve all the praise they're getting.

The event itself was the best I've attended on the topic. Partly because of the speakers but also because of the shared sense that this was a real tipping point for the profession. There are now enough teachers engaged in research to make a conference on a Saturday at the beginning of term viable (with another 400 on the waiting list). This movement is only going to get stronger....

As for the speakers Ben Goldacre summarised his DfE report with great humour. I particularly enjoyed his caricatures of the sort of people who will try to put teachers off research (especially the smug git who once read about a methodological problem with RCTs and now thinks it's smart to dismiss them completely...)

I stayed in the main hall to watch Amanda Spielman talk about the ways in which ARK schools use research for school improvement. As usual when listening to Amanda speak I found myself wondering why more schools aren't just copying ARK given the strength of their systems and the robustness of the results to date.

After that I rushed over to another building to listen to Joe Kirby and Becky Allen talk about Teach First. Joe's excellent presentation is here and I've already blogged about Becky's research here. I did think Becky's presentation was masterful in its careful use of caveats and refusal to make overblown assertions about the findings. There were lots of questions at the end but no time left to answer them. I did, though, see Becky furiously scribbling them down so I'm hoping for some more analysis in the future.

Then it was on to my favourite presentation of the day from Laura McInerney. She challenged us to think up 7 "touchpaper" problems for education that were focused on cognitive development, would of direct relevance to classroom teachers and would have a clear end point. She had a couple of interesting ones herself including (I'm paraphrasing) "if you wanted a class to learn 20 chunks of knowledge between two lessons what's the most effective homework you could set"? She's promised me she has thought up seven and will be blogging on it shortly. I think it's an idea that the DfE or a education foundation should pick up and run with.

I missed the next set of sessions to compose myself before my own talk on evidence-based policy-making. I had a decent crowd who seemed receptive to my musings. It was filmed so I'll post a link when I have one.

I then really wanted to see Katie Ashford talk about her views on teacher training based on her own experiences and subsequent research. Unfortunately the door was physically blocked because there were so many people in the room. I'm told it was fascinating.

After the event finished a large group of us went off to the pub. I met many tweeters I'd only known virtually before and had some fairly spirited debates...

I got back home at 11:00 after a great day wondering what I should ask Tom to do next...

Anyway my proposed slogan for ResearchED 2014:

"The geeks shall inherit the earth"

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Teach First boosts GCSE grades

Today sees the publication of the most comprehensive quantitative analysis of Teach First's impact to date.

The paper - by Dr Becky Allen and Jay Allnut - uses several different methodologies to see whether schools and departments with Teach First teachers achieve better GCSE grades than similar ones that don't. Their two key findings are:

1)    That schools using Teach First see an improvement of around one GCSE grade per pupil across their "best eight" GCSEs. If this doesn't sound like much bear in mind that most secondary schools involved with the programme have only a couple of teachers from Teach First out of a staff of 80-100. Furthermore the researchers only looked at Teach Firsters in their first three years of teaching.

2)    That subject departments containing at least one Teach First teacher see an improvement of about 5% of a grade in that subject when compared to other departments in the same schools. As the authors note given that only 1 in 6 of a department's teachers (on average) will be Teach Firsters this means that if all of that 5% is being generated in their classrooms they will be improving their pupil's results by 30%. Which is a very significant increase. As the authors put it:

"Our estimate of impact of the order of at least 5% of a subject grade could be as high as 30% of a grade if we assume no spillovers of participation to other teachers in the same department. This implies that Teach First participants are highly effective, on average, compared to those they have displaced."

These are really encouraging results but like all good research the paper raises some interesting questions for further study - many of which are noted by the authors in the text. For instance:

1) How much of the impact found is due to Teach First's highly selective recruitment model? The authors think most of it but the effects of recruitment can't easily be separated from the different training model and the sense of mission inculcated during this training. If these things are partly responsible for the impact what could other teacher training programme learn?

2) How much of the departmental impact is down to the Teach Firster's own teaching and how much is it do with the knock-on effects of them joining on the rest of the department? The authors think knock-on effects (or spillover effects as they call them) are important. If this is right then it raises some interesting questions about the validity of value-added models for individual teachers.

3) Are there knock-on effects between departments? So - for instance - does an improvement in the English department also help the Maths department? If it does then the methodology will have underestimated the impact of Teach First teachers (as it compares improvements in departments with Teach Firsters with those without them in the same school).

4) What are the long-term impacts on schools who stay with the programme over many years? Do Teach Firsters who stay in teaching continue to have a strong impact? Do they make particularly effective leaders?

5) What impact will the expansion of Teach First have? This research covers a period when we were recruiting between 200-500 teachers a year. Will be able to maintain that impact when recruiting 2000 - as we plan to do in two years' time? We certainly hope so - and have no intention of consciously dropping the quality bar.


Sunday, 1 September 2013

On Memory

Probably the most enjoyable book I read over the summer was "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer. In it he describes his journey from covering the US memory championships in 2005 as a science journalist to winning it the following year; with the help of various gurus including UK memory grand master Ed Cooke. Along the way he offers multiple digressions on the history and science of memory.

Foer wins the Championships by learning a series of well established memory techniques like the Method of loci, or Memory Palace. This technique, also popularised by illusionist Derren Brown, enables the user to memorise long lists of items or numbers by coming up with a striking visual representations and then placing them on a route around a well-known location. It is effective because it taps into our much more powerful visual and special memory rather than relying on standard rote learning.

Foer also picks up some more advanced tricks such as the PAO system for remembering six digit numbers. This works by assigning an arbitrary Person, Action and Object to every two digit number; so 38 could be David Cameron eating a kebab; 47 might be Ed Miliband bouncing on a space hopper and 98 Nick Clegg talking to a toddler. After encoding all two digit numbers any six digit number can be remembered by combining the person from the first number; the action from the second and the object from the third. So 384798 is Cameron bouncing on a toddler.

While PAO and some of the other more complex systems are unnecessary unless you want to baffle your friends or win memory championships, the basic techniques actually have quite a lot of utility for people who do need to remember a lot of information such as schoolchildren preparing for an exam. Dan Willingham includes a list of such mnemonic techniques on p.59 of "Why Don't Students Like School?"* And nearly all of us will remember at least one or two mnemonics passed on during childhood (for some reason I always remember how to spell "necessary" by thinking "never-eat-cake-eat-smoked-salmon-and-remain-young").

Foer includes a fairly cursory discussion of the potential education benefits of more systematic mnemonics citing Bronx schoolteacher Raemon Matthews who became nationally known for his startling success with students using memory techniques and won several teacher of the year awards (before being stuck off - after the book's publication - for sexual misconduct).

This isn't much to go on but I did find myself wondering whether many teachers in the UK systematically teach their pupils how to remember more easily (as opposed to using the occasional mnemonic). It's not something I've seen widely discussed despite the seemingly endless debates on the value of memorised facts over generic skills. It would certainly be fascinating to run an RCT to investigate the value of memory techniques. The potential irony is that learning a set of skills might enable children to remember a lot more facts.

There is a deeper question, of course, as to whether the sort of memorising still required for exams is actually useful at all. Foer acknowledges that, of course, memorising masses of information does not make a person intelligent - indeed many of the memory champions that turn up in his book are almost comically unsuccessful in any of their real-life endeavours. And he includes a poignant meeting with the late Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man, who remembered the complete content of over 9,000 books yet could do absolutely nothing with the information but party tricks.

Despite this Foer ends up taking the E.D. Hirsch line that memory is essential in providing the conceptual framework for the further development of ideas. As he puts it:

"It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory...but memory and intelligence to seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There's a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded in the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world."

And not only is memory a facet of intelligence it is also vital to our shared sense of humanity:

"How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humour in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character."

* Willingham says he's not a fan of method of loci because they are "hard to use for different sets of material" - e.g. if he uses a walk around his house to memorise the periodic table can he use the same walk for French verbs? Foer makes it pretty clear in his book that you can't use the same route for two different sets of information so have to have multiple routes available to you (your house; your parents house; work; the park etc...).

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Why are young people today so sensible?

Earlier today the Home Office released some eye-catching stats on drug use. Since 1998 the number of 16-24yr olds self-reporting drug use has halved.

Interestingly all the articles I've seen on these stats have chosen to focus on the numbers using Nitrous Oxide - reported for the first time this year - with the overall fall in drug use buried down the story. This is not an accident. All newspapers (and even the BBC) systematically under report good news and will nearly always look for a negative angles.

This tendency means that the extraordinarily positive trends in social policy data are largely hidden from the public. Did you know, for instance, that:

Teenage pregnancies are at their lowest level since records began in 1969. (Look at how that stat is buried beneath a supposedly negative story).

The number of 11-15 year olds who drank alcohol in the previous week has more than halved from 26% to 12% since 2001.

The number of 15 year olds smoking regularly has almost halved from 20% to 11% since 2002.

That the number of crimes reported in the Crime Survey have halved since 1995.

And it's not just the media's fault. These trends don't really fit with narratives of either the political right ("broken society") or the left ("austerity Britain") so they don't get talked about. It's also not particularly in the interests of groups that campaign on these issues to play-up the positive trends. It's much easier to raise money for drug prevention schemes if people don't think the problem is diminishing.

It seems to me that understanding why this is happening is pretty important. For a start it does seem to be generational. The drug stats, for instance, show use amongst 25-39 year olds rising. It's also unlikely to do with any UK specific issues or policies as these trends are manifesting across the developed world.

One journalist who has tried to focus attention on this phenomena is The Economist's Daniel Knowles. In an article last year he suggested a number of causes:

"Whatever has happened to carefree youth? Public-health campaigns, better education and more hands-on parenting have no doubt had some effect. Some young people are probably staying inside watching television and playing video games instead of smoking behind the bike sheds. And Britain’s population is changing. The proportion of 15- to 24-year-olds who identify themselves as “white British” has fallen slightly in the past decade, to about 80%. Among the groups filling the gap are British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who are less likely to drink or take drugs than their white peers."

I'd add a couple more suggestions to the list including the increasingly negative portrayals of drug, cigarette and alcohol use in TV and films. Another suggestion that arose in twitter discussion today is that these are the children of a generation that were the highest users of dangerous substances; and there's nothing less cool than being like your parents...

Of these the change in social behaviours seems particularly important to me. Young people are just spending much less time in the physical world and much more time in the virtual. Even since 2007 there's been, according to Ofcom, a 25% increase in the average amount of time 12-15 year olds are spending online (to 17 hours a week). And girls in that age category send a frankly mind-boggling 221 texts a week on average.

Whatever the reasons the trend poses some interesting questions about how these shifts might affect the next generation of children. We know that young people whose parents are teen Mums, drug or alcohol addicts or in are in prison are much less likely to do well in school. If there are fewer such parents in the future it should have a significant knock on impact on education (as well as other public services like health and prisons).

It also means that jeremiads about "young people today" can be safely ignored. A narrative of decline around young people has been commonplace throughout history (though that famous Plato quote about children disrespecting their elders is sadly not genuine). But now more than ever we can safely say that young people are much more sensible than their elders were at their age.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Why structures and standards are inextricable

Earlier this week I was on a conference panel. The question was "Do academies improve teaching and learning?" It wasn't a great discussion - there were too many panellists and not enough time - but speakers from both the panel and the floor kept coming back to "standards not structures".

This must be one of the most commonly espoused views in education at the moment and usually goes along the following lines:

"What matters is great teachers and leaders, with moral purpose, who are committed to improving the life chances of young people. Governments always fiddle around with structures because they can but it never makes more than a marginal difference. The quality of teaching and leading is key."

For me this is the equivalent of saying:

"What makes a good cricket team is excellent players and a great captain all of whom are committed to the team's cause. The only thing that matters is how good the players are and how well they're trained."

On one level this is obviously true. Banally so. But it's also incomplete. Do teams of great cricketers just emerge by chance or are there different ways of structuring a country's youth teams and domestic leagues that give a greater chance of having a good team? It seems obvious that the latter is true. Indeed one reason for the renaissance in English cricket over the past ten years was the introduction of central contracts for players in 2002. Prior to that the English Cricket Board had to negotiate with county sides to give their players time with the national side, not only for playing, but also training and analysis. A structural change led, over time, to a better side.

The same is true in any sector. Would you ever find a businessman arguing that the structure of their organisation had no impact on its performance?

And it's no different in education. Obviously the immediate driver of a school's performance will be the quality and motivation of staff (and, relatedly, the young people in it). But the idea that the wider structural system in which these staff work is irrelevant seems myopic to say the least.

My answer to the conference question was that academies can lead to improved teaching and learning because they offer scale. There are many excellent schools in England - some academy, some maintained, some foundation, faith or grammar. What the academy model has driven is much faster formal federation between some of these excellent schools and other less successful schools.

Outstanding schools that convert to academy status are strongly encouraged to bring other schools into their chain. Around 150 have now done so. Most of the so-called "forced" academies are now being partnered with local outstanding schools. The academies policy isn't the only way this could have been achieved but it is the easiest legal mechanism in place at the moment. As a result of these structural changes many schools are coming into the orbit of sustained excellent practise for the first time. (Of course there have always been less formal collaborations between schools but they have usually relied on personal relationships rather than governance and accountability).

To take just one example: Sir David Carter was head of John Cabot Academy in Bristol for some time. He and his team made it into a great school. Because of the academy programme Cabot has grown into a chain of eleven academies, with Sir David as executive head, and the other schools have seen significant boosts in performance since joining the network. Those improvements have, of course, been driven by excellent teachers and leaders but they wouldn't have been in a position to do so without the initial structural reform.

Of course there are reasonable questions as to whether the academies policy gets structural reform right. Is the regulation of chains strong enough? Is the complete elimination of the local authority link the right thing to do? Should academies have control over their own admissions policy? But these are all structural questions. Their centrally to the debate only proves the point.

As Tony Blair put it in his memoirs:

"We had come to power in 1997 saying it was 'standards not structures' that mattered. We said this in respect of education, but it applied equally to health and other parts of the system of public services. In other words we were saying: forget about complex, institutional structural reforms; what counts is what works, and by that we meant outputs. This was fine as a piece of rhetoric; and positively beneficial as a piece of politics. Unfortunately, as I began to realise when experience started to shape our thinking, it was bunkum as a piece of policy. The whole point is that structures beget standards. How a service is configured affects outcomes."

I wonder if "structures not standards" is still a popular piece of rhetoric in the education debate simply because most English schools have so much autonomy - be they academy or maintained - already. It's easy to say structures don't matter if you're broadly happy with their existing configuration. I wonder if my fellow conference attendees would have thought structures didn't matter if their budgets were still controlled by local authorities as they were before 1988? I expect not.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

What the spending review means for schools

The 2010 spending review was one of the most gruelling experiences of my career. It's difficult to express to anyone who hasn't been through it how emotional SR negotiations can be. I felt a huge weight of responsibility for squeezing the best possible deal out of the Treasury.

So I have a lot of sympathy for what my old colleagues in the DfE have been going through over the past few months in preparations for today's announcement. Perhaps this makes me prone to being overly sympathetic but I do think they've done a pretty good job.

But what does it mean for schools?

"Protection" for schools

The headline is that the "schools budget has been protected in real terms". What this means in practise is that the revenue budget for pupils aged 5-16 has been held flat taking inflation into account. As there is a rising number of pupils that will mean a (small) per pupil reduction. It doesn't cover the 16-19 budget so school sixth forms aren't included in the protection. There's no news yet on what will happen to this budget.

Now they'll probably be some political debate about whether this picture constitutes genuine "protection" but it doesn't really matter. The reality is schools will feel that budgets are tighter but won't find themselves facing big cuts. They will be in a much better place than other public services (including the NHS as, while, that budget has also been protected costs are rising at much faster rate than in education).

National Funding Formula (NFF)

The Chancellor also announced that a NFF would be introduced. This is a big win for the DfE as it has been in the pipeline since 2010 but neither the PM, DPM or Treasury have previously been prepared to commit given the political risk of big changes to the distribution of school funding. It is badly needed as the current distribution of school funding makes no sense. At the moment LAs simply receive what they got the previous year (per pupil) - and this has happened every year since 2005. There is no account taken of demographic changes since then at all. There are a couple of things to look out for as details start to be unveiled over the coming months:

  • What factors are used? The, probably fair, assumption is that a NFF would see inner-city LAs lose out in favour of schools in rural and suburban areas. However, the distribution of funding is entirely dependent on which factors one decides to prioritise. If you up the amount attached to each EAL student, for example, inner cities will do better. If you up the amount for small schools then rural areas will benefit. There's no right answer.
  • Will Local Authorities be given any discretion? There are two ways to implement an NFF - give money direct to schools and bypass LAs altogether or publish indicative figures for schools but give LAs some discretion to take local factors into account (e.g. high levels of migration into a particular part of the Authority). Both ways have pluses and minuses.

Update: I understand that the NFF being considered would be at LA level. Authorities would still decide school level budgets but would only be able to use a limited number of factors (as per changes introduced this year).

Education Services Grant (ESG)

The ESG is what academies get in lieu of services they would previously have received from local authorities. Maintained schools get the same amount but their money goes to the LA rather than them directly. This budget - which is around £1bn at the moment - is being cut by £200m. So academies will lose roughly £20-£30 per pupil and LAs will lose the same amount for any maintained schools in the Authority. The DfE press release also says £150m will be saved from efficiencies to the academies process. I assume this will mean reductions to the start-up costs sponsors receive when they take over a new academy.

And that's it really. There's no detail about any of the other big DfE budgets like childcare and teacher training but we can probably assume they will not be protected in real terms given the overall cut to the DfE budget (of around 2%) and the relative protection given to schools.