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Newsnight, and the Dark Arts of Exclusion

Did you see Newsnight? DID YOU SEE NEWSNIGHT on Monday? It had a feature about Academies, and how they are linked to the DARK ARTS. Not, as you suspect, a reference to the Hogwarts curricular black hole into which new staff would annually tumble (sorry, that was DEFENCE against the Dark Arts), but a way to describe how academies seem to exclude a lot more strudents than LEA controlled state schools, with the implication that there’s monkey business afoot.
The presenter said that, ‘The most vulnerable pupils’ are at risk of being managed out of the system, sacrificed for the league tables. It’s funny that when people outside of education say the phrase ‘vulnerable’ they often seem to mean the kids who write C*NT on the corridor walls and spit on each other. Vulnerable. Yeah, that’s what I think when I see them. They’re vulnerable. What bizarre dimension are these people from? When I hear non-teachers use words like that I feel a bit awkward, like when someone you think is nice uses a racial slur, or like when a child says, ‘Is fire hot because it’s angry?’ and you go ‘Aww, they don’t get it, but it’s sweet.’
It’s a great story: we have a favoured government initiative; we have a desperate need for that initiative to appear successful; and we have evidence that in order to obtain this evidence, such schools are prepared to sacrifice children on the altar of self-advancement. The BASTARDS.
But the whole piece was as empty as the inside of an atom, completely without substance. It was one of the oddest, and least informed pieces I have ever seen on Dame Newsnight. Let me be clear, I have no pro-academy axe to grind; they have advantages and disadvantages, like any initiative. They are neither the solution nor the cause of education’s ills. But this was Hogwarts-wash.
‘When shall we three meet again?’ ‘Depends on the grading’
Here are the home truths about this situation; this is what really goes on in schools, not the partial perspective of the dilettante:
1. Schools hate to exclude pupils permanently. Why? Because it makes them look terrible. One of their success criteria, expressed through the medium of Ofsted, is how low their exclusion rates are. This is based on the idea that a school with high exclusion rates must have really bad behaviour OR be really bad at dealing with behaviour. Of course, this is the exact opposite of the truth. A school might have high exclusion rates because it has really difficult children in its locus, and in order for the school to function, there might be a high number of exclusions;  imagine an area of high crime- you’d expect more arrests, more sentencing, etc. It isn’t pretty, but that’s the way the world is.
Except that’s not the way some people see it. High exclusions bad, they bah, which means you’re a bad school. So the most obvious things that schools now do to improve their AAA rating with Ofsted is…they don’t exclude. It’s as simple as that. If excluding kids gets them into hot water with the LEA or Ofsted, then exclude they jolly well won’t. If this sounds brainless, it’s because it is. It is not unlike tutting that crime rates are awfully high…so let’s get those bloody figures down by not arresting people. Crime rate down, job done! Oh dear, someone appears to have stolen my car. Doctor doctor, it hurts every time I do this; well, don’t do it then.
2. Permanently excluding is nearly impossible. Do you know how much paperwork has to occur before a child can be permanently excluded? LET ME TELL YOU IT IS A LOT. It is nearly impossible to exclude a child. Let me assure you that if a child is anywhere near being permanently excluded it is usually not because they have been misunderstood by a system that didn’t care. You have to tell a LOT of teachers to go fuck themselves to even get close. We are not talking about angels with dirty faces. You have to bring a whole drawer of knives in to start building up a charge sheet that will get you more than a few days out. Believe me.
3. If you can’t permanently exclude, what can you do? Well, you could temporarily exclude them. Much safer, and much easier to give them a few days in the ‘internal exclusion unit’ or whatever you call your isolation panopticon. Basically it means another room, out of regular classes, or perhaps a separate part of the school building. It’s part punishment, part rehabilitation, as they usually receive more one-to-one supervision and coaching.
4. What if you have a kid who hasn’t quite hit the permanent exclusion mark yet, but looks likely to get there? The ‘managed move.’ This is the Dark Art being criticised. It is VERY common in many schools- and I am setting my phasers to the whole state sector here-  as a way of nudging the process along- rather than a family and school fighting each other in the courts, or facing an exclusion on their record, the parent is persuaded that the child isn’t doing well at school, and might be better off having a fresh start somewhere else. It isn’t an admission of failure, it’s an admission that things aren’t working. If you want to attach blame to that one, I’d start with the one pissing about in every lesson and telling their Head of Year to go f*ck themselves. I know, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Now, academies are in an interesting position. They don’t have to report to Ofsted for chocolate buttons so much. They’re freer to do as they please. SO OF COURSE THE’RE GOING TO EXCLUDE MORE THAN OTHER STATE SCHOOLS. I certainly would, if I had a school that wasn’t judged by such things, and the pupils deserved it.
‘No come to me wid them aagiment deh. Chah!’
Because what’s at stake here is something more fundamental than just ‘are academies in league with Goody Gove’- what are exclusions for? And the answer is, to assist behaviour in schools. If a child has exhausted classroom behaviour management, and routinely exhausts the senior staff repertoire of tricks to avoid further mayhem, then the school must- MUST- reserve the right to say to the child, OK; we’ve tried everything we can. This isn’t working. Your behaviour is disrupting not just your education, but the education of scores of other children. You want to know what the single biggest problem in schools is these days? The thing that prevents your child from learning the most? Let me tell you: 70% of the teacher’s time is taken with 5% of the kids, because they muck about and cause trouble for everyone. Not content are they with sitting relatively still and getting on with work in a pleasant way. Oh, no, they were born for greater things; like storming out of rooms, ruining lessons, and bullying smaller kids. If someone stole something valuable form me, I’d call them a thief. When a kid does it in a classroom, by depriving others of education, they’re called troubled, or vulnerable.
 Give me a break. How vulnerable do you have to be to tell a teacher they’re a dickhead? To punch a kid in the classroom because you’re in a bad mood? To screw up a worksheet, throw it at the teacher and say, ‘You’re a cunt- and a shit teacher.’? Make no mistake- this is what classrooms are like for many. These are the children who get permanently excluded.
We had a lovely example on the Newsnight clip-  a charmer called Chloe and her mother Donna. You’d like Chloe. We first see her, playing with her Christmas present. A Kindle? No. 
A Stripper’s pole. In her BEDROOM. 
I AM NOT F*CKING WITH YOU HERE SHE HAD A STRIPPERS POLE. She described how a teacher DARED to try to confiscate her phone (which is their right to have and use in the classroom, as defined by the Geneva Convention), so she assaulted the teacher in the classroom. ‘But it weren’t that bad, because she didn’t fall over,’ she opined, wise as Socrates. This, it seems, was the girl we were supposed to feel sorry for. She attacked a teacher. And there was pressure to exclude her. I am NOT shitting you here. I would have excluded her twice, and then watched the reruns on More4.
Burn her!
One problem that Newsnight emphasised is that Chloe had been identified as having Special Educational Needs (SEN). Which sounds serious, as if she had a disability of some kind. But being identified as SEN only rarely involves being diagnosed as suffering from some legitimate problem. In most cases it means the child has been observed as behaving badly regularly, and then labelling them as having Emotional And Behavioural Difficulties. Which is to say, it’s a description of their behaviours rather than a metaphysically existent entity like a limp or a cataract. So to describe some one like her as vulnerable because they have a problem is the greatest piece of ontological sleight-of-hand possible, similar to the claim that people are obsess because they have a fat gland, or possess a gene that makes them talk during the quiet bits in films. It isn’t a condition; it’s character.
There are plenty of people willing to make this kind of argument in education, and unfortunately Newsnight just got on the bus. I don’t blame the parents of these children making excuses for their children. Actually, I do, but it’s their job description. It’s unforgivable that trained professionals often make the same philosophically bankrupt claims to determinacy. Vulnerable my righteous ass.
You see, it’s not that an exclusion is a desirable outcome- it isn’t, it’s a bad end to a mess. But it is the best bad end. If you don’t exclude, if you don’t have some terminal sanction, then what’s to stop a pupil just entirely ignoring all detentions, sanctions and deterrents? Deterrents don’t deter without some kind of teeth. Deterrents need to be uncomfortable; they need to make you uncomfortable. Once children see that misbehaviour won’t lead to consequences, then the meaner ones will reason, quickly and correctly, that there is nothing- NOTHING a school can do to them. So not having the option to exclude trickles backward into every classroom, and the charmless children can do as they please. The only ones that suffer are…well, everyone else. The kids who want to learn. The teachers. Everyone else.
There are a tiny minority of kids like this- whom exclusions are aimed at. But there they are. Prisons aren’t pretty either, but we need to have them. You don’t solve crime by banning prison. And with just a fraction of children experiencing the ultimate deterrent, the other children will realise that there are consequences in school, and life, and learn a valuable lesson. That schools are there for their benefit, not just as a holding pen where they can exercise their whims. That they are springboards for human ambition. Not everyone can see that.

School Exclusions down: This is supposed to be a good thing?

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.

British Children ‘bad losers’, claims survey by people who want to sell you something.

‘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.

Atten-HUT! Troops to Teachers sees battlefield promotions lauded- but is the science solid?

 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,, 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.

New study shows that something is possibly true but it might not be: the Fog of Social Science.

‘Kill me.’

These are apocalyptic days for many school schemes; in the present age of neo-austerity, it seems like anything not related to life support and child protection is being pared down to the marrow. I’m not sure people are aware yet of how much is on the way out, thanks to a cartel of financial hucksters and their sub-prime lending habits that made the lifestyles of termites seem modest and restrained. Some of the things on their way out were definitely dirty bathwater: the GTC, for example. But some were babies. As the FT comments:

‘The schools resource budget, which covers day-to-day running costs, will rise in real terms by 0.4 per cent. But a rise in the number of pupils will mean current spending per pupil will be cut by 2.25 per cent…The education department’s budget for buildings, which is almost entirely spent on schools, will be cut from £7.6bn to £3.4bn – a real terms cut of 60 per cent….Michael Gove, education secretary, admits that many schools will enter a tough period.’

Which means we’ll be holding wet hankies on the platform as we watch many extra-curricular schemes, clubs and so on  wave at us through the steam from the train now leaving the platform. This, to be fair, isn’t news any more, although many in schools still have to adjust to this reality: if it can go, it will. I’ve been reading professional Dear John letters from LEA consultants and liaisons all week, wishing me well as they pack their belongings into  red handkerchiefs tied to sticks as they set out for London with their little black cats.

One of many, many schemes teetering on the end of the gangplank is Sing Up, (click on the link while you still can), an organisation that, unsurprisingly, believes that ‘Every child deserves the chance to sing every day.’ While you could greedily take issue with the origins of this alleged right (is it intrinsic? Divine? Legally prescribed?), I would never antagonise such a well-meant, noble cause. If I were Educational King for a Day (it keeps me awake at night sometimes, plotting and dreaming…) this is the kind of group I would give money to; I want schools with choirs; I want schools with voice coaches and singing lessons; I want parents to set up Papparazi Nests on Talent Nights, weeping and filming, weeping and filming. This is the world I want.

But for Sing Up, it’s the last scene in Casablanca, Braveheart, Butch and Sundance, Angels with Dirty Faces. It’s curtains; the scheme will be funded up until 2012, and after that, all is silence. (I presume that after everyone has gone home from the Olympics, Britain will dramatically revert to Blitz-sepia, rationing will be reintroduced, and Park Lane will become a gated community. I suggest you buy bottled water and plenty of tinned goods otherwise you’ll be eating your hands or something.) From looking through their website, this appears to be an event we should genuinely regret. Plus ça change.

Do not approach these men.

But where there’s a cause, there’s a claim. In this case, a report was released this week by the Institute of education, which claimed that projects like Sing Up were enormously beneficial to the well being of children.
This was reported on the BBC, presumably from a news release via agencies such as the Press Association,  and was obviously proudly trailed on the Sing Up website. Now I don’t wish to put the boot into what, to me, appears to be a fine and meaningful project. But the way in which this research has been positioned has a lot more to do with marketing and a lot less to do with authentic science. And incidentally, I’m not taking issue with the people who conducted the survey, either, and least of all with Sing Up. But it’s a perfect example of how social science is misused to justify values and interests in education.

For a start, the report was commissioned by Sing Up themselves:

‘The Institute of Education’s independent three-year study, commissioned by the Sing Up programme, is based on data collected from 9,979 children at 177 primary schools in England.’

The words ‘independent’ and ‘commissioned by the Sing Up programme’ placed together in such close proximity must indicate some new, alternative meaning of the phrase independent that I haven’t yet heard of, unless they mean something else.This by itself doesn’t exclude the research from the realms of credibility, but it should at the very least allow us to reposition the findings in a different context. In much the same way that homoeopaths and cigarette manufacturers are fond of quoting from research that supports their products, it trips alarms when you find out that research has been carried out by vested interests. (‘Getting up early is dangerous’, a new report commissioned by the National Union of Students warned today. That kind of thing.) This doesn’t mean that there is actual researcher bias in this case, simply that the choice to publish or not publish becomes a political decision based on a utilitarian assessment of benefits.

Go on- I dare you.

Secondly, there’s the issue of the report itself:  try as I might  I can’t see it anywhere. And the only  link from the Sing Up website to an IOE  report takes us to a paper published on the their website, in which I can’t find any specific reference to the Sing Up program at all. Oh, there’s plenty about singing, and lots of claims for the benefits of a musical education. Which means that either I’m looking at an old report, or it hasn’t been published yet. Or maybe I just can’t find it. Like I say, I might be wrong, but that suggests to me that it hasn’t been published in a journal and exposed to peer review and assessment by the academic community. And if that’s the case, then mere mortals like myself have no purchase on the information- we rely, of course, on the weight of a community assessment to judge if such material meets the standards of rigour and academic ethics. Until that happens, it’s about as authoritative as an opinion piece.

Again (and I know I’m stressing this a lot, but this isn’t meant to be a criticism of the report itself, or the project, and I’m at pains to be civil), for research to be meaningful in a public sphere, it has to be subject to public scrutiny. There are a lot of people out there with PhDs. Some of them are Gillian McKeith. One of the first thing I learned at university was that there are plenty of opinions out there, and none of them have a guaranteed  copyright on certainty.

Then there are the claims, or at least the claims as reported.

a) Singing in school can make children feel more positive about themselves and build a sense of community I bet it can. So can chess clubs, being in a gang and joining a cult. So can just about any other activity in the right context.

b) There is ‘a clear link between singing and well-being’. Could you define clear? Can you define well being? Pupils that sing feel better about themselves; even assuming we have overcome the definitional challenges of such a subjective term, how on earth can one draw a clear causal relationship between the two, and disentangle that relationship from a million other factors that could accompany the proposed cause and effect? Perhaps being part of a group promotes well being, and the singing is incidental. Perhaps if you’re the sort of person who likes to sing then you’ll also be the type of person on average, feels better about yourself. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I’m still not getting a causal relationship here.

c) ‘Children who took part in the programme had a strong sense of being part of a community.’ I don’t wish to be churlish here, but the idea that people who participate in communities feel like they’re in a community doesn’t exactly sound like headline shattering stuff. But thank you, science. I look forward to your assessment of what the effect of punching myself in the pipes feels like.

d) “A clear inference may be drawn that children with experience of Sing Up are more likely… to have a positive self-concept,”  What’s your point caller? It sounds like this means that x causes y, when in fact it shows no such thing, at least by itself. They may be more likely for other reasons. Maybe y causes x, and having a positive self concept causes people to join Glee clubs, I don’t know. But that’s the point. I don‘t know. Nobody does.

e) ‘Sing Up children were up to two years ahead in their singing development than those of the same age who did not take part in the programme’. Sorry, I thought we had finished with tautologies. Are they seriously implying that children who are involved in singing practise actually improve at singing? You’ll be telling me that people who climb ladders get higher up, next. Honestly, it’s an open goal.

This may sound petty, because at least on the surface, who can disagree with the idea that singing lessons are a great thing for children to be exposed to, and to made available for as many as want or need them to flourish? I enjoyed singing at school. Others hated it, in much the same way I didn’t enjoy the ritual humiliation of rugby in December, where your alleged friends would barrel into you at full tilt in a manner that would provoke charges were they to be repeated off the field. And I certainly would mourn the loss of any scheme that promoted such activities (singing, not assault).

Helen Goddard. Not an ideal role model, to be fair.

But this story nicely summarises many things that are wrong with the use of scientific research in education, and especially social science. Humanities research is commonly used to promote a myriad of causes and interest in schools, and almost always in the advocacy of a new initiative or in an attempt to convince headmasters and teachers that they should be teaching in a particular way, or running a school to a particular model. And that has led to a suffocating number of ideas and initiatives drowning the practise of teaching for decades, each one justified by a clutch of optimistic, hand-picked research and statistics.

And the problem with this is that social science research just doesn’t provide anything like the level of probability that the physical sciences, however problematically, offer. If someone asserts that water boils at 100 degrees at sea level, then I can comfortably and easily assess that theory by testing it to my heart’s delight. But if someone then claims that they have shown that children learn best with a three part lesson then I run into an enormous number of problems:

1. How do I check that their progress wasn’t down to some other factor? Isolating a causal point of origin is almost impossible in an environment as wild and complicated as human interaction, with its plethora of reasons, internal causes, external, invisible factors, and unknowns.
2. How do I create a control to provide the above?
3. How do I know I’m not biasing my own research with my own intentions, however implicit?
4. How do I know my participants aren’t skewing the data by some form of bias on their part?

And so on. Social science is not, and never can, offer predictive powers. The pursuit of certainty in the Humanities is a fool’s errand, because we can barely claim such a principle in the natural sciences. That isn’t to discount social scientific research, but merely to contextualise it appropriately. As the MMR non-scandal showed, even the biological sciences can be subject to misinterpretation, especially when an arbitrary bundle of studies are offered as representative when in fact they are not. Social science is an invaluable commentary on how we live, who we are, and the exploration of meaning in the human sphere. But what it isn’t, is science, at least not as Joe Public knows it.

And that’s the shame of it: that education has been drowned in pseudo science, in the name of progress, when what it really represents is the justification of the values of the educational policy makers. The policy is decided for a thousand reasons, and then research is selected or created that justifies the decision.

If you want to say that singing programs should be exempt from deletion in the next rounds of cuts, then you should do so by dwelling on the intrinsic value of the activity itself- singing is an art form, a pleasure and one of the ways in which we express ourselves as humans. You value it or you don’t. But what you shouldn’t do is try to justify its value by reference to an extrinsic factor- ‘it improves well being’ and so on. That’s the argument of the boardroom and the abacus (‘What use is singing?’), and should have no place in our consideration of what is and isn’t a valuable part of a child’s education. (But of course I get the feeling that the values have already been decided: what does the economy need?) And we certainly shouldn’t rely on one piece of social science research to provide justification for a proposal, no matter how well intentioned. Because as teachers, I think we’ve had quite enough of that.

Saudi Arabian Government ‘very concerned’ about British schools

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.

Nights in White City: How I learned to love the Beeb

Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home. ~David Frost

And today, Matthew, it was my turn. If you snorted Cheerios through your nose, I can only advise you to upgrade to a less lubricious brand of cereal. I spent another three minutes in Tellyland today, as a guest of Auntie Beeb’s hospitality, which for me is a novel enough experience to be worth talking about, although to the magic elves behind the curtain, I’m sure it’s as commonplace as custard.

They sure move fast in Tellyland: a phone call on Friday for a slot on Monday (somehow I’ve sneaked onto a last resort Rentagob Rolodex under ‘S’ for schools, or ‘O’ for opinionated), and the machine sparked into life. And it’s slick, like the Vatican. When they say ‘the taxi will be outside the front door at 6:20’, then Shazam– there it is at 6.15, accompanied by a text telling you what car and where. The cars are agreeable without being ostentatious, as if to say, you are important, but we are not profligates. The drivers are conversational without ever actually tipping over into intrusively racist or aggressive. The cab is deodorised but without the Alpine Forest Little Tree dangling from the rear mirror. And so on.

BBC White City is as familiar as every episode of Blue Peter, like a film set of Children in Need; it is, to be honest, a utilitarian and oppressive looking structure, no doubt much loved by the kind of architects who swoon over post-modernism and high rises, but wouldn’t actually live in one. Stalin would feel affection; Hitler would find the brickwork shabby. But it is what it is, and what it is, is an icon. And walking into an icon is always exciting. Ask Ray Charles at the Oscars.

The foyer was unmanned; in fact the whole building is surprisingly empty at 7.30 in the morning; perhaps I was expecting Terry Wogan delivering the milk, and Brucie scarecrowing through the corridors. At the desk I saw a box of poppies, which I had worried about in the cab: Poppy or No Poppy? Being of a generation that never learned its manners, I couldn’t tell if Remembrance Sunday marked the beginning or end to the season. What a minefield. So I grabbed what I assumed was a complimentary memorial flower, and left a guilty quid in the box.

Ted showed me around. I have to say, everyone there at that time was charming; exceptionally so; charming in an early morning way that I have never experienced, but given that my sole experience of early shifts has been opening restaurants, I expect that bin men, fishmongers and alcoholics aren’t a fair comparison. The Green Room (which is so tiny as to suggest that I had swallowed a tart with the words ‘Eat Me’ hand piped in icing on it) was, licence hawks, Spartan but agreeable; coffees and pastries, rather than the Champagne Trolleys that Clive James memoirs had led me to believe. There were a succession of friendly, youthful looking people dressed in shabby-chic who all looked enthusiastic, intelligent and glad to see you. It must have been their superpower.

After the greetings and the thanks, they sit you down (where I met my other participants, a lovely woman campaigning for more anti-bullying legislation), and we watched people from the Plasma Screen TV on the wall magically turn into real people as they walked off the set and back into the room. Honestly; it’s like watching a cartoon come alive, and you find yourself doing the double take that famous people presumably get all the time. Then I was taken into make-up, which for a man is an uncomfortable experience at the best of times and frankly, I can’t even imagine what that time would look like. Let’s say it’s odd to be powdered and brushed, and simply understand that without it, I would give the cadaverous appearance of Dot Cotton and my flesh would glow with Celtic waxiness.

Ten minuets before show time, I nipped off to the loo. Staring at the porcelain wall, a manly whole urinal away from the only other user, a well known face from the box stepped in, and placed himself between me and Barrabas. ‘It’s busy in here!’ he said, in a way that would have brought him nothing but pain in a Glaswegian pissoir. Telly folk! ‘Perhaps we should form a Barbershop Quartet,’ I said, trying to respond in kind. Fortunately it got a Mexican chuckle that I believe is rare in such situations.

Then we were led through to the studio. Have you ever seen the set of the Today show, or Tonight with Jay Leno, that kind of thing? Well it’s nothing like that. This is the British version. There’s about five people including the presenters and the sofa, and if there is a producer somewhere holding one finger to his ear and saying, ‘Camera five go to the profile in six…five…four…’ then I have yet to see him. This is the austerity Beeb; this is the Beeb facing off to a belligerent coalition of Murdoch-fanciers. The lining might be Damascan silk and ermine, but the top cloth is most definitely Yorkshire cotton.

Just as I sat down and the floor manager carefully threaded a mike onto me, she looked down at my lapel: ‘Bill and Sian aren’t wearing poppies. You can of course do what you like, ‘ she whispered, ‘But they’re not wearing one.’

I took mine off, lancing my thumb seconds before the camera cut to us.

Almost alone in the studio, it felt like we were having a chat in someone’s front room (were that someone Chris Tarrant, or Philip Schofield). The minimalism was a blessing, because it clears all nerves. Bill and Sian are, giving them both their due, flawless. It makes me realise that ‘broadcaster’ is actually a professional job, rather than just something that ex-Big Brother contestants claim to be once they’ve done a few live spots down the Inferno (Clapham North’s premier nightspot). If you saw it, then you’ll know it was over in a flash; we got bumped later and shorter because some Somalian pirates decided to release two hostages on the same morning I was on the sofa, rather selfishly I thought, but then as pirates I suppose they know no decorum or sense of occasion.

Two minutes after the interview, I’m stepping into a taxi and it’s all over. The amount of thought and planning that goes into that short slot was boggling; some people put less into planning a wedding. And as I pulled off, I noticed something tucked away in a corner of the forecourt that warmed my heart in all four chambers: a police box. An old fashioned blue police box. This was the BBC, you see. A seven year old child inside me hooped and whooped as we drove away.

Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar. ~Edward R. Murrow