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.