Education and evidence

I used to work in education, and nowadays tend to avoid any discussion about it if at all possible.  Rush to the radio to switch off any phone in, refuse to buy the Guardian on Tuesday because it’s the day of the education supplement, switch over when Newsnight decides to delve into education.  The reason is not so much painful memories – I enjoyed my work, was moderately successful, and left at a time of my own choosing.  Nor that the important bits (like vocational training) are completely ignored.  Nor that the ‘experts’ they interview tend to be public school heads with four times the money of state schools to educate privileged and well-supported kids (see Radio 5 this week).  No, my difficulty is listening to the vast amount of nonsense that is spoken and written on the issue.  The problem is that almost everyone has been to school, so everyone thinks they have a right to an opinion.  Education becomes an area where evidence is not apparently needed to support policy, and where gut feeling and nostalgia trump calm assessment of the facts.

Not only no, or flaky, evidence.  You can be sure that no actual numbers will be attached to any policy change.  We are told that we must be more like business in our planning and management of the public sector, but no business would surely make an investment without saying how and when the pay-back will come.  But what is the planned pass rate for free schools ?  How will academies raise the staying on rate, by how much, and when ?  What are the anticipated trajectories of pass rates for the new GCSE (=”O” levels) that Gove is introducing?

I wrote about this at length in one of my consultancy reports.  You can also add the problem of what has become known as ‘policy tourism’ – picking on one currently successful education system somewhere in the world, without any consideration of context or cost, and insisting that it shows what we in Britain need to do.  No matter that your proud hosts do not show you the failing bits of their system, or introduce you to those that dropped out.  Under Thatcher the Tories introduced TVEI, a pretty expensive scheme, on the basis of what Lord Young saw on a visit to Israel.  A Labour scheme was supported by evidence from Nova Scotia, or was it New Brunswick. Policy tourism, of course, does not take on elements which are ideologically unacceptable to the party in power.  You may admire the achievements of the Finns, but please don’t ascribe it to their well-paid teachers, no inspectorate or neighbourhood comprehensives.  Oh no, it must be free schools.  Interestingly, a recent example of the perils of taking policy from abroad is shown by the stumbling of the Swedish system after introducing free schools.  We no sooner decide they’re marvellous than they go bust or otherwise start to cock up. Reminds me of when Japanese economic policy and management techniques were the future of capitalism; you remember that, it was just before their twenty year slump.

And then there are academies.  Stephen Twigg MP, when Education shadow, described their success as ‘incredible’, and it was the first time that word had been honestly used in the House of Commons for a long time.  The claims are pretty unbelievable, yet both parties think they’re the bee’s knees and cat’s pyjamas. In fact, there is precious little unbiased evidence for the success of academies: they do about as well as other schools, and remember they cost more.  Of course, if you close a crap school, bring in a capable new head teacher in modernised buildings, things improve.  But, as the young people say, “no shit, Sherlock !”.  Once again, the basic problem is ideology – and a bizarre admiration for the US charter school system that (given its very flaky record) has as many critics as friends.

And as for selection … well, don’t get me started.  The sure way to get a round of applause on the vacuous discussion programmes on TV is to call for the return of grammar schools.  The man at the back with a blue sweater, no, not you sir, the man behind you, assures us that doing so will raise standards and increase social mobility for the bright poor student.  The problem here is that we have years of evidence on this topic, and grammar schools do not do either.  That radical journal the Financial Times recently showed that overall performance in those areas which retain selection – Kent, Hertfordshire etc – remains very average.  And the impact on those who do not get sent to grammar schools is particularly poor: for all the nonsense about how these students would do better with a technical education, NIESR research quoted in our CfBT report showed selective areas have a worse rate of qualification in vocational courses for this group than counties with the excoriated bog-standard comprehensives, and markedly worse than those with tertiary colleges for those over 16. Recently, Germany and Poland have decided to reduce the selective elements in their education systems.

You may say “well, we need something to reform our schools – after all, we are falling down the international comparisons”.  In fact, international comparisons are very flaky, and PISA is useful but no exception.  The Finns have realised that what you absolutely do not do is chase the latest international fad, least of all the idea of atomistic competing schools.  Interestingly, some UK research recently suggested that the older generation had better maths and literacy skills than recent school graduates – i.e. those who had bog-standard local authority school education did better before the days of autonomy, Ofsted and the national bloody curriculum.  Maybe we need less urgent reform, not more.

There is a point behind all this, which is that schools should be part of a local system.  The moves we have at the moment – academies, free schools – decouple institutions from their colleagues, from their local communities.  I know of one academy which refused to work with the careers service because their pupil information was ‘commercial in confidence’.  The danger is that when you become isolated and atomistic, and are judged by results, you start to select those pupils who will make you look good.  Church schools have done this for years, and now others are following.  It’s certainly easier than working to raise standards with better teaching and learning, but it helps no-one to cherry-pick kids who would do well anyway.  The main cause of educational under-achievement is inequality and poverty, and one thing that you can guarantee with a whole lot more academies and free schools is that they will take no account of that.

So – “I know what you area against, what are you in  favour of ?”.  The answer is a national drive to raise the quality of teaching and learning, alongside an end to structural reform.  When this approach was tried in the Success For All initiative for further education at the turn of the century, it was triumphantly successful.  Success rates for students increased by 50%, drop out plummeted.  But that makes no headlines, and it was pretty soon replaced by another dose of, you’ve guessed it, choice and competition.

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