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Warning: Rant levels contained in this feature- Gale Force 8 on the Daily Mail Beaufort Scale.
I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Why? Because I’ve just read the latest data, hot off the spin cycle, that suggests expulsions and suspensions in England have fallen AGAIN in the last year, by 12% in 2009-10, with suspensions down 9% for the same period.
‘Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said there was no evidence of weak discipline in the statistics.
“Fewer and fewer schools now need to resort to the ultimate sanction of permanent exclusion, a fact that should be celebrated, ” he said.
“Clearly the existing powers on behaviour have been good enough for major progress to be made.’
BBC News Website, 2011
In fact, I got through the whole article, shook it upside down like a cereal packet, and still couldn’t find anyone saying the obvious thing, the true state of affairs behind these figures. So I’ll say it: the reason why schools now exclude far, far less than before is because a school’s exclusion rate is now considered in its assessment by OfSTED inspections and by the LEA. There is an enormous pressure on schools not to exclude these days, and the simplest way of achieving this is by..well, by not excluding. Simply not doing it. Keeping kids in more and more detentions; giving kids ‘time-out’ in coolers and ‘special’ rooms up and down the country, off the books and off the Self-Evaluation Form.
That’s it; that’s the simple explanation behind these figures. Every teacher knows it; every senior teacher knows it. The problem hasn’t been solved, it’s been magicked away by legerdemain, effortlessly, mathematically proven not to exist. It is the educational equivalent of seeing no ships. It is the natural result of a monitoring system that lends itself, begs itself to be gamified, because doing so is a faster solution than actually solving the problem, which is big and messy and difficult to execute.
Using this as evidence to prove that behaviour has improved is like shutting down the 999 service and claiming that crime has dropped because no one’s called. What did they expect would happen? When you make the observational criteria extrinsic to the property being observed, you lay the system WIDE open to all of a school’s energy and resources being diverted to adjust and improve the external performance indicator, in this case, exclusion rates. It doesn’t mean behaviour has improved; it just means that less pupils are being excluded, which means that more kids who deserve to be excluded are being kept in classrooms, disrupting lessons, making life Hell for teachers, and just as importantly, not learning anything. You want to know why we’re (apparently) falling behind in literacy, numeracy, STEM subjects in every international survey? Look no further than the behaviour crisis. If even a tiny percentage of children want to wilfully disrupt a lesson, they can; it only takes, as Hobbes said, ‘one thief in a community for all men to bar their windows.’ A well-behaved learning environment is spectacularly easy to destroy, and they are, they are, I assure you.
This is a howling, howling, mad-dog scandal, and I am furious that statistics like these are allowed to pass into the mainstream without comment or criticism. From my Behaviour Column in the Times Educational Supplement, I think I get a pretty fair view of the national picture, and I stand by this: behaviour in schools is often appalling because of this tendency to negate exclusions rather than tackle the behaviour itself. If you have a disciplinary process in a school then there has to be a terminus to that process, an ultimate sanction, a point of no return, otherwise the whole process falls apart: if a child misbehaves, a sanction (say, a short detention) is set. If this is missed, the sanctions escalate; if the child still fails to cooperate, or fails to attend, then the school must, must, must reserve the right to suspend its duty to teach and care for that child. If they won’t obey simple, reasonable instructions hen we can’t guarantee the child’s safety- or the children around.
But if the child knows- and some do- that sanctions can simply be ignored, and little will happen if that ignorance is sufficiently strong-willed, then why on earth would they cooperate? The misbehaviour then becomes entrenched; other pupils notice that the penal system lacks teeth, and start to emulate the behaviour. And then teachers start to give up trying, certain that their efforts will result, in the long run, with no support or success. It is the dry rot that devastates a school from the ground up. It is the bullet in the gut to a school’s behavioural boundaries, a slow and awful demise to watch.
And it is entirely preventable; we have to admit that our sanctions need somewhere to go; somewhere we don’t want, but somewhere we need to know exists. Exclusions should be the last resort. But by God, without them, we’re like a society with judges, policemen, laws and lawyers…but no prisons. Anyone fancy that?
|‘My pills are all gone.’|
Schools aren’t only run on boundaries of course; they need compassion and rigour. But boundaries are what define them, and us. That’s why any society run on altruism and trust has lasted for less than a heart beat. To be civilised requires restriction; the Hobbesian social contract that ties us together so that we may be even more free. Trying to run a school without boundaries is anti-intelligence, anti-love, anti-civilisation. It is brainless, craven and bureaucratic. It is a victory of data over reality.
And the fact that it is trumpeted by the Head of the NAHT fills me with despair; the fact that Alison Ryan from The ATL echoes this as a victory for hard-working teachers everywhere makes me wonder when the unions stopped giving a shit about education. And then I see that the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb said that ‘behaviour was still a significant problem,’ and I realise that he knows more than two representatives of two of the biggest teaching unions.
And I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
|‘Leave me! Save yourself!’|
An article on today’s BBC Education portal highlights the no doubt vertiginous decline in the average school child’s ability to lose gracefully or, indeed, to win gracefully. I wonder how they came up with a sufficiently large data set to arrive at this conclusion, given that school sports days appear to have gone the way of the Daily Sport and vanished from most school’s year planner, on the basis that the very rumour of competition will have less physically able children curled up in a foetal ball of misery and self-loathing akin to a diabetic fit.
But given that they actually found enough children who were allowed to actually compete with one another, the findings seem, on the surface, to be a cause for concern.
‘Two-thirds of parents of eight to 16-year-olds said their children reacted badly when they lost, the poll found.
A further two-thirds of respondents said parents behaved badly when watching children’s matches.
Some 1,008 parents and 1,007 children aged eight to 16 were questioned for the survey by Opinion Matters.’
How awful. And, I’m sure, quite true, quite true. Still, it always gets my whiskers twitching when I see survey findings being posted slavishly as headlines, despite the cowardy-custard get-out of putting it in between two lazy apostrophes to indicate a possible lack of veracity. Try ”David Cameron wears tights,’ an unnamed source claimed last night.’ The writer gets the neon headline, the reader gets mauled by a grisly, unforgettable image, and all is well, except for the reader’s orientation to any actual truth claims. So, how firm is this piece of educational news?
|‘After you.’ ‘No, after you.’|
Well, it’s been conducted by Opinion Matters. Who they? Well, if you’re Marks and Spencers, or Vitabiotics (‘where nature meets science!’) you’ll know all about them. They’re an ‘independent’ market research company (what does independent even mean in this kind of context? It seems to mean, ‘will work for money’) who, as their website proudly says, ‘make it our priority to aid our clients to generate headlines and create coverage that highlights and reinforces their branding and key messages in media.’ In other words, they conduct research that will get their clients into the press. You’ll have seen this kind of thing many, many times before- have a look at the Vitabiotic link above, where they advise the client that a survey or two- a bit of science- will get lazy journalists writing about the product, even though the survey in question relies on ‘perceptions’ and subjective opinions. So they’re used to dealing with sensitive subjects with impartiality and rigour. So far, so good. Have a look at the website. How do they sleep? (As Don Draper would say: ‘On a bed of money.’)
And who commissioned the research from these paragons of objective investigation and veracity? Surely not the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Cricket Foundation? It certainly was. One might reasonably ask why such caryatid columns of sportsmanship and integrity are interested in finding out how badly Britain’s youth react to winning and losing. Perhaps they’re just curious.
Or perhaps not. As we discover buried away in the legendary bowels of the article (which you get a chocolate biscuit if you’re still reading by that point) is the golden nugget that these august bodies have recently started ‘offering sportsmanship lessons to state schools’. So, no financial or commercial interest in this research at all. Still, at least the researchers were independent. Somehow.
|The data says ______.|
So there we have it: a story based on research commissioned by bodies who have a vested interest in the findings, conducted by people who are delighted to make sure that the findings are found, and published uncritically as fact by a public body funded by the license fee. The sad thing is that I probably have a lot of love for the Cricket Foundation. (I mean, it’s the Cricket Foundation, for God’s sake.) And the idea that children should be more sporting. And the idea that engaging kids with good role models in sport might be a good idea. It’s just as charmless as Liberace to see it all stirred into the same cauldron, sold as fact, and served up as news. I think we all deserve a bit better than that.
I enjoyed Panorama tonight; I always do. There’s something so intuitively respectable about the BBC’s venerable investigative magazine that I would default to unqualified admiration even if it were to tell me that spaghetti grew on trees. This week: Troops To Teachers (TTT)- Michael Gove’s drive to inject a bit of military discipline back into classrooms by aggressively recruiting and retraining ex-military servicemen. It apes the Troops to Teachers program in the US, launched 18 years ago after the first Gulf War, and since then it’s seen over 15,000 men and women swap green berets for cardigans with leather patches (or whatever the symbolic equivalent is in America).
If you watched the program you would be forgiven for assuming the the program is an unqualified success; we were treated to the example of Lordswood Boys’ School in England, which entertains no less than 1 in 12 staff from military backgrounds, which shouldn’t really be a surprise seeing as how the smallish Birmingham comprehensive has an assistant head who used to be in the Infantry, an ex-Sergeant from the Territorials, and a former sergeant major acting as a shooting instructor. Quite. Still, variety is the spice of life, and one thing that schools have to be praised for is diversity of strategies, trying different things, and adapting tactics to meet the needs of the local community. Looking at the prospectus and the Ofsted report, it seems a bit of a success story. Students like Hakeem Nawas spoke proudly of how it had transformed his self-esteem and motivation to be involved in Cadet activities, and Neil Macintosh, the aforementioned Assistant Head proposed that ex-military were ‘more resilient…less down-hearted…and more robust.’ As Mandy Rice Davies, said, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he.’
Actually I have no issue with this: in fact I admire many of the principles that inspire it. I particularly liked how the servicemen spoke about how they maintained order- they didn’t have to raise their voices, they said. The students agreed. ‘They just look at you,’ one said. I know what he means. Screaming your head off is usually a sign that you’ve blown your stack, and for most kids it’s better than telly. Speak silently, they say, and carry a big stick. I couldn’t agree more. Who do you respect more- the small dog with the big bark, or the silent dog with the claw hammer behind his back? Exactly.
|Troops to Hogwarts|
Then we were off to Huntingdon Middle School, in Virginia’s Newport News City (honestly- I wouldn’t make up a name like that because you wouldn’t believe it), where a clutch of ex-military had taken over their classes like Desert Storm. The story here was the same, it seemed- lines of biddable, disciplined and enthusiastic students queued up to enter classrooms, and we were presented with crocodiles of marching students who were noticeably not selling crack pipes to grandmothers or auditioning for The Wire. Glee, maybe.
Geoff Lloyd, the poster boy for this school’s TTT project spoke proudly about bringing ‘discipline into an undisciplined world,’ and frankly, I couldn’t agree more. His robust, direct attitude to being a responsible adult in a classroom full of students who need clear boundaries and someone they can rely on was more inspirational than a dozen Dead Poets’ Societies or Dangerous Minds. I would put him on my fictional Heroes of Education list, but unfortunately he’s a real person, so he’ll have to content himself with a notional award instead.
So far, so good. As I say, I actually applaud many of the aims of this program. I think that what many of the ex-servicemen said made perfect sense- courage, responsibility, discipline and carrying your own water. Amen to that, brother.
And then- with the inevitability of the Sun rising- came the research. Because that’s what we do whenever we want to justify something: we wheel out the academics who biddably endorse whatever is being flogged to us. And that’s when it got interesting for me. William Owings of the Old Dominion University sat in an agreeable, respectable setting and enthusiastically waved the flag for the TTT program, his eyes twinkling as he did so. He twinkled a lot. ‘Ex-military stay in the profession twice as long as non-servicemen,’ we were told. ‘Troops in the T2T program outscore all other teachers,’ it was said. Owings also provided my favourite quote of the show- T2T had provided a ‘stellar performance,’ he said. Twinkle, twinkle.
Now that didn’t strike me as the careful, cool, neutral perspective of the scientist, I thought. And as soon as someone starts to mention educational research, my spider sense starts to tingle, and frankly I start to sweat a bit. Because, as regulars to this blog will be painfully aware, I’m allergic to the way that some educational research is used to hustle strategies and big ideas that are composed, it is eventually seen, of equal parts moonshine and optimism. As a teacher of some years, I’ve been making a list of the Initiatives and Great Ideas that the hucksters of education try to flog us, and my hackles start to mambo whenever someone calls along and says, ‘Hey, you guys! I have a great new idea for turning schools around! I just need your credit card number and your uncritical commitment…’ I’m just funny like that.
So I did a bit of, rooting around on t’interweb. Just what IS the Old Dominion University, anyway? It sounds awfully grand. And it is, I am sure, a paragon of academic vigour, rigour and propriety, even if its mission statement does say that ‘Our philosophy is simple: Knowledge should be productive. Research-driven solutions that make sound business sense.’ Which isn’t really a philosophy, is it? More of an admission that if something is worth something, it has to be worth money. Ah, it brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? .
As I say, I’m sure it has the noblest intentions. It also has an interesting link to the Troops to Teachers program, as its website says: ‘The state office for Virginia TTT is located on the ODU campus.’ That’s the state office. Of course, that doesn’t suggest that the Old Dominion University might be a less than partial witness to the efficiency of the TTT program. I’m just saying, that’s all. Isn’t that a marvellous coincidence, though?
So I did what few civilians have done before: I had a peek at a couple of the papers quoted on their website as showing terrific, supportive data that confirmed the TTT program as a winner, and the ones that William Owings was quoting so freely on Panorama. You can find two of them here and here. They are, as most social science papers are, a thrill a minute, and I heartily recommend you print them off and read them on the way to work tomorrow. Unless you drive. Or listen to Coldplay while you read them.
The 2005 study was, broadly speaking, a survey of Teachers who had gone through the program, and of their supervisors. It asked if they felt that they had been appropriately trained to approved standards. It also asked supervisors of these teachers if they felt they were as good as, or better than teachers of similar experience who hadn’t come through the program. The answer was strongly in favour in both cases. How many were surveyed? A fair few. Over 2000 teachers and their supervisors were sent surveys. That’s not a bad study by any standards. Except that the response rate was 65%. We don’t know why the other third didn’t reply. We don’t know what attempts were made to convert those no-shows. We don’t know on what basis the surveys were sent. We can probably assume that surveys weren’t sent, or at least answered, by teachers who had dropped out of the program.
And it’s details like that, that make this kind of research so hard to value meaningfully. Big numbers are good, but without transparency about who answered, what their motives were, and show inaccuracies were avoided, the purity and reliability of this kind of data is always going to be hard to measure, let alone accept. I’m certainly not impugning William Owings, or any of his co-writers, but these are substantial, significant impediments to the development of social scientific research credibility.
Another problem is that this paper relies on perceptions- ‘how well do you feel …’ questions. These questions fall short, IMO of the clinical precision and neutrality of the genuinely inquisitive, and stray into the territory of market research. When did you stop beating your wife? Who’s to say that the TTT candidates were actually trained properly? What’s to prevent the supervisors betraying their own inclinations, preferences and prejudices through their own opinions. Nothing. Nothing at all. This isn’t the same as measuring the temperature at which mercury boils- it’s like interviewing a series of marathon runners at the finishing line and asking if they feel out of breath.
The paper does acknowledge some of this. Actually, it seems to acknowledge all of this:
‘the study does not provide evidence of T3’s self-reported or actual teaching behaviours. Neither does it provide empirical observations of school administrators watching T3s’ actual teaching behaviours. Nor does it provide evidence of students’ learning gains as a result of working for a period of defined time with T3s as compared with other teachers of similar experience. Further study of the actual teaching practices from T3 self-report or assessment of their students’ measured achievement, although very complex and difficult studies to undertake, would provide important information about T3s’ quality as well as feedback about how to strengthen T3 preparation.’
In other words, we know it’s all just opinion and self analysis. But we don’t think it’s a problem. Of course, opinion and subjective experience have a place in analysis; but it’s not the same place as objective, viewer-independent data. It doesn’t prove anything more than the people who responded felt the way they felt. It’s not corroboration that these teachers are better: it is what it is.
The other paper I looked at, from 2010 (and also by our hero from Panorama), focused on TTT candidates who went on to become Principals. This time it was 107 subjects; ah, boo, much smaller. Their supervisors (I didn’t even know Heads had supervisors) overwhelmingly (90% plus) said that they thought such principals were better on a variety of scales than similar, non TTT Principals. Yes, you may also find it unsurprising that supervisors, who I assume are involved in the selection and support of these principals, overwhelmingly thought that they were doing a jolly good job, and hadn’t they made excellent decisions hiring them? Again, we don’t know the conversion rate, the response rate etc.. I’m sure it was fabulous, given that 107 is a very small number. Still, the data comes out rather well, doesn’t it?
So is there nothing concrete at all to support the view that TTT candidates have a, if you will, tactical advantage over their civilian counterparts? Not a bit of it. Here it is:
‘In a 2008 Florida study comparing measured academic achievement of elementary,
middle, and high school students taught by TTTs, results indicate that compared to all
teachers, students served by Troops teachers performed about equally well in Reading and
achieved a small but statistically significant advantage in Mathematics. In comparisons
where each Troop teacher was individually matched to another teacher, teaching the same
subject in the same school, with approximately the same amount of teaching experience,
students served by Troops teachers achieved substantially and statistically significantly
higher in both Reading and Mathematics (Nunnery, et.al, 2008; Nunnery, et. al., 2009).’
Call me a gutless limey cynic, but ‘equally well in Reading’ and ‘a small but statistically significant advantage’ in Maths doesn’t exactly strike me as cause to start popping the champagne for the cause yet. Incidentally, the Nunnery paper mentioned above by Owings is co-written by…..yes, William Owings. And it wasn’t published in an academic journal, but, as the report says, ‘submitted to ‘Educational Administration Quarterly
October 2008′. I can submit a poem written on bog paper to the Sunday Times. Does that mean I can say it was printed? Have a look at the front page. It’s got a lovely ‘Troops to Teachers’ logo all over the front. I’m don’t have a Ph.D. in this exact subject, but I suspect that means they might have something to do with the report….
(I stopped reading it at that point, because I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I value every precious minute I possess.)
In fact, so do the previous two papers I mentioned, both of which are prefaced by the sentence, ‘A Report Prepared for Mike Melo, Director, Virginia Office of Troops to Teachers,’ and ‘Report to Dr. William McAleer, Executive Director, Troops to Teachers, Pensacola, Florida.’ So all of the reports mentioned were written for (can I presume commissioned?) the TTT itself. Hey, waitaminute…..
It’s not that I’m against the idea of ex-military training for schools: good luck to ’em, I say. And I think that there might be something in the idea that men and women who have experience with leadership, developing self-discipline and oiling rifles might have something useful to teach children (sniping, for instance). But it doesn’t do anyone any good to use research like this that seeks to support proposals with empirical claims that can at the very least be contested as meaningful or verifiable in any real sense. Michael Gove needs to look elsewhere for better arguments, and maybe we might start to take research based policy more seriously.
An investigation by the Saudi Arabian Panorama has spotlighted concerns about the levels of fundamentalism and racial intolerance in British schools based in mainly English areas of busy multicultural areas like Riyadh.
‘We’re worried,’ said Faisal, an investigator for the program. ‘We have evidence that many of these schools have high levels of unchecked disrespect, swearing, vandalism and general rudeness. In some cases, we are led to believe that these children, rather than being excluded, are kept in the classroom, where they are free to run riot. And teachers are punished for children misbehaving, by a process the Europeans call ‘Ahf-sted’. It is a very terrible and medieval torture, with teachers having their pride cut off.’
But it doesn’t end with that. ‘It gets worse,’ continued Faisal, ‘These schools are guilty of the ugliest intolerances; they claim to value every child, but the reality is an evil prejudice against well-behaved children who work hard; they are punished by not having any targeted interventions available to them. Teachers are terrified of the worst children because they know that they will be on the next interview panel they go for. Truly, these are signs of an extremist and fundamental culture that has no place in our current modern age.’
The Saudi education minister, Salman Gove, vowed last night to ban any books that contain such medieval ideas as ‘SEAL‘ and ‘Learning Styles‘. ‘Children shouldn’t be exposed to lazy, idiotic ideas like this,’ he said. ‘And the British Curriculum is full of loathsome prejudices, asking children to list all the things that are wonderful about Citizenship. This is plainly brainwashing.’
Tony Blair is 65.