Friday, 26 April 2013

The Internet is Flat

Yesterday Michael Gove made a speech to headteachers praising a number of favourite bloggers - including Oldandrew; Tom Bennett; David Weston and others.

The reaction amused me. A lot of people seemed to think he couldn't possibly read the blogs himself. Perhaps, it was suggested, he has a minion who presents him with occassional supportive blog extracts to help him feel in touch?

Nothing could be further from the truth. He reads dozens of education blogs, including many he didn't mention yesterday. And while he's a particularly voracious reader (he is a former comment editor after all) he's not alone.

There's a very common misperception that politicans and advisers of all parties don't listen; that they have no interest in what practioners or ordinary people think about their policy area. In my experience the opposite is true. They're all desperate for information and feedback from the outside world. That doesn't, of course, mean they agree with or act on the feedback but they certainly want to know what people think.

It's difficult to convey how claustraphobic working in a Ministerial private office is. As a Minister or adviser you are swamped with material from your department. During my time as one of Michael's advisers I received an average of 200 emails and 100 pages of policy submissions a day. That's on top of constant internal meetings. It was a struggle to see anyone from the outside world. Even when you did they usually wanted something. Schools visits were, normally, carefully stage-managed. When the Minister visits you don't take them to see bottom set year nine being taught by a supply teacher...

So twitter and blogs are a lifeline; a way to access at least some unvarnished truth about what people really think. And while I don't want to overdo the impact of the blogosphere - policy is still primarily driven by the traditional internal processes - I do think its rise is having quite a profound effect.

Suddenly an insightful classroom teacher like Tessa Matthews, Laura McInerney or Joe Kirby has a direct line of communication to the Secretary of State and his advisers. Anyone can make a case against a policy and if it's strong enough to be picked up and retweeted a few dozen times there's a good chance it will be read by the people who matter. I can think of a fair few changes to nascent policy ideas off the back of a particularly perceptive blogpost which raised points that had been missed during internal discussions - and not necessarily from the bloggers you'd expect.

None of this means we don't need more structured ways of ensuring teacher's voices are heard. In yesterday's speech Michael joined the bipartisan chorus calling for a Royal College of Teachers - and plans are advancing. Work also needs to be done to build research networks through Teaching Schools.

But I still think it's exciting that for the first time ever any teacher anywhere can sit down and write something that could shift national policy.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Race, Culture and Education

I woke up this morning in a good mood. The sun was shining. My twins had chosen to wake me through speech rather than the usual method of jumping on my head. Then I turned on my phone and saw a link to this article ("Race row Tory town tells Gove super head we don't want inner city pupils here").

Durand is an outstanding primary in Lambeth. The headteacher Greg Martin, an extraordinary and ambitious man, wants to continue providing an excellent education for the young people in his care up to the age of 18. He wants to do this by opening a boarding school in Stedham, West Sussex which would be the first entirely free state boarding school in the country. (There are 36 existing state boarding schools but they charge most parents for the boarding element).

A group of local residents are unhappy about this plan. Not because they don't want a school nearby - the proposed site is a former fee-paying boarding school - but because the majority of the pupils will be from ethnic minorities.

Some of the quotes from those opposed are just bizarre: "When you’re a teenager, isn’t it too late to start appreciating the countryside? I don’t know if it’s the right environment."

But the comments from local councillor John Cherry are breathtaking:

"Ninety-seven per cent of pupils will be black or Asian. It depends what type of Asian. If they’re Chinese they’ll rise to  the top. If they’re Indian they’ll  rise to the top. If they’re Pakistani they won’t. There are certain nationalities where hard work is highly valued. There are certain nationalities where they are uncertain what this hard work is all about. If the children are not allowed out of the site then it will make them want to escape into the forest – it will be a sexual volcano...Stockwell is a coloured area – I have no problem with  that. To be honest, I would far rather Durand took over a secondary school in London rather than  shoving everybody here."

These comments have been roundly, and rightly, condemned. After reading them it took me a little while to calm down and stop throwing things. But then I started wondering why Mr Cherry holds such astoundingly ignorant views and started to worry about the wider discourse around education, race and culture.

It got me thinking about the many conversations I've had over the past few years about the very noticeable difference in performance between ethnic groups (or "national" ones - all of this terminology is ill-defined and slippery). Often these conversations focus on "culture" as the primary driver of difference; rather than race or nationality per se. In some cultures (e.g. Jewish or Indian) - so the argument goes - education is highly valued. In others (e.g. Pakistani or white working class British) it isn't.

Is this, though, really much less reductive than Mr Cherry's comments? Indeed was he simply reproducing a garbled, and more overtly racist, version of that type of argument?

In reality the relationship between ethnicity, culture, geography, socioeconomic status and exam performance is incredibly complex. It cannot be reduced to simple rules of thumb.

Take, for example, the performance of poor Bangladeshi students in GCSEs. Last year 58.6% of Bangladeshi pupils on Free School Meals achieved five good GCSEs with English and Maths. That's bang on the national average for all pupils. In comparison 30.9% of white British pupils on FSM achieved the same benchmark.

What does this tell us? It's tempting to assume (as I've done in the past) that this is because Bangladeshi "culture" values education. But then remember that over half of the Bangladeshi population lives in East London and a third in Tower Hamlets alone. Then remember that London has seen much greater improvements in exam performance than the rest of the country and Tower Hamlets has been a particular success story.

Last year FT journalist Chris Cook looked at the extent to which London's higher performance was driven by higher performing ethnic groups and found that the effects were complex. Or in his words:

"Is the capital so good because it has these children, or do they do so well because they are in London? Well, the answer is “both”."

This is reinforced by conversations I've had with LA officials and headteachers who have been involved in the transformation of education in Tower Hamlets. It took - they will tell you - a significant amount of hard-work to engage parts of the Bangladeshi community in the schools' work. It wasn't automatic that pupils from these communities would perform well - indeed they weren't until fairly recently. Even since 2007-08 the Bangladeshi students on FSM achieving five good GCSEs with English and Maths has improved by 17% compared to 11% for white British.

The contributions of heads; teachers; community leaders; parents and the pupils themselves can't be easily separated. Reducing high-performance to ethnic or national "culture" is dangerous for two reasons. First because it can lead to Cherry-style reductionism. Secondly because it implies there's only a limited amount schools - and individual families - can do. The example of Tower Hamlets (or of, say, Park View Academy in Birmingham - which gets phenomenal results in a predominantly Pakistani area) shows this simply isn't true.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

What Happens Next?

Last week I asked people what I should write about now I've started blogging. I got some great suggestions which I’m going to follow up over the next few weeks. But I particularly liked an idea from headteacher and all-round wonder woman Rachel de Souza who asked me to look ahead and make some predictions about what happens next in education.
So here we go, four predictions for the next ten years, and I hope this sparks other bloggers to respond with their predictions.

1.       Within ten years the majority of schools will be in an Academy chain or other kind of formal federation.

There has been significant growth over the past three years in the number of schools in chains/federations (somewhere between 1,250 and 2,000; no one’s quite sure). Four things will accelerate this growth:

·         Reductions in local authority services leaving schools looking elsewhere for support
·         A continued squeeze on revenue funding (especially in richer areas) which will start to make standalone primary schools in parts of the country less viable
·         Incentives from central Government + local authorities to encourage more schools into federation
·         Continued use of peer-to-peer support to help underperforming schools leading to formal federation either forcibly or voluntarily.
What’s less predictable is how big the average chain/federation will be in ten years time. Some groups are already quite large or have plans for major expansion. But most headteachers I speak to prefer the idea of smaller, more localised federations. There is a tension between the (potential) efficiency and scalability of larger chains versus the flexibility and community-focus of smaller groups. I think the most likely position in ten years will be a mixture of 25-50 large national chains; 100-200 regional chains of between 5-20 schools; and large numbers of smaller local federations.

2.       The National Curriculum being consulted on at the moment will be the last.

At least it will be the last in its current form. My guess is that we will eventually move to a system which allows a variety of different curricula to be linked to a shared assessment framework. This would allow some Government control over a “common core” (via assessment) while also recognising significant autonomy over pedagogical approach. The shift to this kind of model will be driven by organisations with enough resources to develop their own curriculum (as, for instance, the Future group of Academies is doing at the moment); as well as new technological platforms that will make delivery easier (though not easy).

3.       Within five years school-led initial teacher training will become the dominant model.

At some point in the next few years School Direct will overtake PGCEs at universities as the most common way into teaching. Higher education will continue to have a major role in supporting the delivery of training but the greater involvement of schools will mean profound changes. For a start schools will begin playing an active role in recruiting people into the profession. It seems likely to me that more organisations “selling” the profession (especially chains with resource and some brand awareness) will mean even more high-quality people coming into the profession.

I think it will also mean a welcome erosion of the boundaries between initial teacher training and continued professional development. Both because more trainee teachers will stay at the same school for their training and their NQT year and because teachers will become more involved in the delivery of training which will help their own development. If the Teaching School policy really works this should tie into an increase in bottom-up research-led activity.

4.       GCSEs will still exist in ten years time

During the past year of debates over the future of the GCSE many people, from across the political spectrum, have argued that we should be scrapping exams at 16 altogether in favour of some kind of progression test at 14 followed by a 14-19 curriculum. These proposals usually argue that the raising of the education leaving age removes the need for exams at 16.

The problem with this argument is that while the education leaving age is rising (though there aren’t any sanctions in place against individuals who leave education) the school leaving age isn’t. Around half of each cohort will still leave school at 16 to enter apprenticeships; FE colleges or work-based learning. These young people still need accreditation for their academic achievements up to 16. The only way round this would be to move to the sort of model proposed by Ken Baker which would see students moving on to academic or vocational paths at 14 rather than 16. Even if one wasn’t worried about the effects such a shift would have on social mobility the expense of such a shift makes it highly unlikely to happen.

Inevitably, because of the job I’ve been doing for the past few years, these predications are “system-level” and tend towards the structural. I’d be very interested to see predictions from people with different viewpoints; especially teacher bloggers.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Thatcher: Education Secretary

"We construct simple images of politicians but look carefully at the records of Thatcher, Reagan, Carter, etc. and those images dissolve."
Canadian author Dan Gardner on twitter earlier today

For a conviction politician Baroness Thatcher's could be extremely pragmatic. Nothing shows this side of her political character better than her time at the Department of Education and Science (1970-74).

Her own views were typical for a Tory at that time: a supporter of selective education with a traditional curriculum; concerned that universities were full of time-wasting hippies and so on. Yet she abolished more grammar schools than anyone else; defended the right of teachers to define their own curriculum and secured funding, against the Treasury's wishes, for a significant expansion of Higher Education.

Her first act as Secretary of State was more in keeping with her reputation. She scrapped the requirement that Labour had placed on LEAs to move to a comprehensive system. This, though, had little effect as most council's plans were too far progressed.

(Nevertheless the press - including most of the Tory papers - thought she had gone too far. The Sun wrote "it is wrong to abandon the target of making all state secondary education comprehensive...Mrs Thatcher's idea of leaving everything to local choice - or local chance - won't work.")

She was unable to convince many councils to retain selective education and ended up signing through 3,284 schemes for comprehensivisation. Under her stewardship the number of children in comprehensives doubled from 30% to 60%.

There was, perhaps, little she could have done to halt the flood but it's interesting that she didn't really try to fight. She could, for instance, have tried to persuade cabinet colleagues to legislate to give her more power to stop structural reform. Until her final years she had a good eye for the fights she could win and she knew this wasn't one of them.

Her views on pedagogy were solidly traditional. She had a strong dislike of what she saw as "value-free" child-centred teaching. But again she did nothing to challenge the standard view of the time that politicians had no business interfering in the classroom. Indeed soon after taking office she gave a liberal defence of the status quo: "A Minister should not have power over ideas...I would not like to see over here a system as in France where all schools keep to the same curriculum". (Of course she changed her mind as Prime Minister - though she thought Ken Baker's curriculum was far too long.)

Her major achievement as Education Secretary was to use her legendary stubbornness to win significant extra funding for her department. Her 1972 Education White Paper ("A Framework for Expansion") promised a 50% increase in spending over the next ten years - which puts the £9 million saved from her infamous school milk cuts into some perspective. This spending led to further increases in numbers going to Higher Education; new primary school buildings and a large increase in the number of teachers. Even more ambitious plans for free nursery places were scrapped as the economic downturn gathered pace.

These proposals were so popular that she won over many educationalists who had initially scorned her as a right-wing Tory. She even won a standing ovation at the 1972 NUT conference.

Her own memoirs suggests she was somewhat embarrassed by her record at the DES describing the 1972 White Paper as "all too typical of those over-ambitious, high-spending years..."

Nevertheless she accepted the praise at the time and her comparative success set her up for a long-shot leadership challenge....

(Quotes taken from John Campbell's biography)

Friday, 5 April 2013

What the public really thinks of teachers

Over the past few decades insights from behavioural economics have become commonplace. The age of the rational actor is dead; everyone knows now that we're all afflicted with cognitive biases. We are "predictably irrational".

One highly predictable bit of irrationality is the "negativity bias". Our propensity to give significant additional weight to negative information or experiences is now well documented. It seems innate. Even three month olds seem to give extra weight to negative social interactions.

This negativity bias can make can make us overly defensive and prone to missing positive opportunities.

(I'm getting to my point now)

One of the most common themes in edu-land at the moment is the "denigration" of teachers by the media - sometimes on their own; sometimes reporting the views of politicians. It dominated the recent teacher conference season and is something that worries many of the teachers I talk to; they feel as if the regular stream of invective - especially from the misnamed "middle-market" tabloids but also from supposedly higher-brow outlets - must be diminishing them and their profession in the eyes of their friends and the wider public.

The tendency to accentuate the negative though means the big picture is easily missed. Take the following:

  • A YouGov poll last Sunday found that teachers were the second most trusted group in the country - behind doctors but ahead of judges and policeman. 74% said they trusted teachers (with no difference between Conservative and Labour voters). This compares to 25% for trade unionists; 19% for politicians and 17% for Mail journalists.
  • Last year the Teaching Agency's annual survey of undergraduates found that 81% agreed that teaching had real status and kudos – up 4 per cent since 2010. 72% thought their friends and family would react positively to them becoming a teacher – up 6 per cent since 2010. And 71% thought the image of teaching is improving.
  • Last week Teach First (who I work for) came third in the Sunday Times Top 100 graduate recruiters. For undergraduates teaching for two years in a challenging school is now more attractive than almost any other career option.

It seems to me that the status of the teaching profession amongst the public is growing not diminishing and that tabloid "denigration" is having no meaningful impact on popular opinion.

I'm not suggesting that some of the rubbish written by Britain's lazier columnists isn't challenged (yes I mean you Kelvin) but I am suggesting a sense of perspective is needed. There is a real risk that by emphasising "denigration" rather than pointing to the positive we could needlessly damage morale in the profession.

Moreover the defensiveness that feeling under attack creates can lead to a refusal to acknowledge genuine issues that need to be resolved (this is a huge issue in politics too - people think U-turns will be far more damaging than they usually are so don't make enough of them).

And perhaps most importantly there's a risk of getting caught on the back-foot - worrying too much about challenges to make a positive case for change. I am hopeful though that initiatives such as the Royal College of Teachers and ResearchED will help the profession get on the front foot.

A couple of people have said I should mention there is an existing College of Teachers who hold a Royal Charter. Happy to do so. I believe they're involved in discussions about the new Royal College initiative.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

On Elites and Social Justice

So this started when @miss_mcinerney re-posted a blog by @sturdyalex. It's a very well written polemic which comes down to the assertion that there are too many posh boys running the country who don't have a clue.

I don't disagree with his conclusion that we need more diversity in politics - but was mildly piqued by his implied assertion that you need to have experienced poverty to understand it; and to want to do something about it....

Anyway I replied that "most effective progressives in history have not themselves been poor". This led @HFletcherWood to send me one of his blogs that quotes US teaching guru Steven Farr:

"No movement for social justice has ever succeeded without leaders who have suffered that injustice".

This is a great line. It's also wrong. And it was at this point I needed more than 140 characters to explain my point.

So here are my two counter-contentions:

There have been successful movements for social justice led almost entirely by elites.

There are few - if any - examples of successful movements for social justice that have not required the support of elites.

To support my contentions here is a very crude typology of "movements for social justice"

Type One: movements led almost entirely by elites

The obvious example here are the campaigns to end the slave trade in Britain and slavery in the US. These changes had to be driven by white elites because slaves themselves were almost completely disempowered. A small number of ex-slaves like Equiano in Britain and Frederick Douglass in the US played key roles in the respective movements but change was primarily driven by rich white people with a social conscience. Another example might be the labour reform movement led by Lord Shaftesbury in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Type Two: movements led by social elites with strong non-elite support

An example here would be the post-war introduction of the welfare state in the UK. While there was clearly a strong groundswell of support for better welfare/health provision (just look at the 1945 election result) the movement for change was led by wealthy liberal reformers like William Beveridge; Beatrice Webb and Henrietta Barnett. Most of the key reforms were introduced by the Atlee Government packed with similarly wealthy reformers (Atlee himself; Hugh Dalton; Stafford Cripps etc) alongside trade unionists like Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Another example would be the rise of the Republican-Democrats in post-revolutionary America. Again the movement tapped into a strong groundswell of support but was led by wealthy plantation owners like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.

Type Three: movements led by "sufferers of injustice" but supported by elites

A good example here would be the civil rights movement which was undoutedly led by Martin Luther King and other great civil rights advocates like Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis. Without them it would have taken much longer to introduce any meaningful rights for black Americans but they needed the support of elites to make it happen. In the third volume of Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Johnson "Master of the Senate" he narrates the extraordinary machinations LBJ undertook in order to get the 1957 Civil Rights Act passed. Continued support from the Kennedy brothers; Johnson and incredibly dedicated government officials like Nicholas Katzenbach was needed to get the much more significant 1964 Act passed. When the movement stopped engaging with white elites after King's death it drifted into black panther-style separatism and opportunity for further progress was significantly reduced. Another example here would be the suffragettes who needed support from the Lloyd-George administration to win their fight.

I can't think of any examples of movements for social justice in democracies that were successful without support from elites. Those who have sought to actively alienate elites fail. The poor need the rich.

I now expect to be monstered by some proper historians...