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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Who will rid us of this turbulent Brexit?

Earlier in the week David Cameron again refused to accept any responsibilty or display any remorse [1] for our omnispasmoid political system. Would someone kindly introduce him to the definition of 'hubris', preferably forcefully with the full hardback edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I'm sorry if that metaphor was a little violent but isn't pride supposed to come before the fall....?

The supreme arrogance of the man. Does he have no doubt? Or shame? I think one thing that most voters would agree on is that any attempt by either Blair or Cameron to return to the politcal scene should be met with pitchforks and withering sarcasm.

It must by now be abundantly clear to all bar the most extreme medically maintained remoaner or pre-frontal Brexiteer that we are fucked. Like the James Franco charcater in 127 Hours, we know we are not getting out of here intact. So now is the time to bite down on the leather and start sawing off an appendage. But which one?

For [insert deity of choice]'s sake, please let's not have another referendum. If David hasn't realised yet, which is odd given that he allegedly studied PPE, referenda are the tools of demogogues and dictators. Morevoer, you tend to get answers to questions that weren't on the ballot paper. And I'm really sorry but if you don't understand that point, then you don't really deserve to have a vote. It will only exacerabate the divsions and no-one will agree on the question(s) let alone the answers.

This is up to parliament. We have a parliamentary democracy for a reason. It is,

"The worst form of government... Apart from all the others" - Winston Churchill, Nov 1947

but it balances a professional political class who are supposed to 'get it' with a popular vote that doesn't. Which is the ultimate check and balance.

So, what's it to be?

Hard Brexit. Buckle up this one will be bumpy. There would be a delicious schadenfreude in watching Johnson, Fox, Rees Mogg and Davis realise just how unimportant Britain now is on the world stage. The trouble is that they would not be the ones to suffer. The poor and already disenfranchised will bear the brunt of this and it will will be medievally severe.

Rescind Article 50 altogether. No, not the John Major's stop the clock and pray that someone comes to their senses version. Just cancel it. The majority of MPs are still pro-Europe, they just say they 'respect the will of the people' because they are terrified that it might be directed straight at them. Go on just cancel it. Tell Juncker and co. that we were only kidding. The problem with this is that although the next general election is not till 2022 and it is quite possible that many people will have forgotten by then it is just as likely that this might lead to the complete disintegration of our society. It is entirely possible that a party that doesn't currently exist to either extreme (left or right) could be formed in time to romp home on the lowest turnout in UK election history.

Lop off the appendages. Set Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales (and Cornwall if they so desire) free. The absurdities of the backstop are largely responsible for the current chaos. This is extreme surgery to save the patient (Mrs. May's "Best Possible Deal"[2]). Because it might make the English finally wake up and realise what the rest of the world actually thinks of us.

Or Bloody revolution? Well were it not for the fact that as part of "The Establishment" I would probably be one of the first against the wall, this might be quite an attractive proposition.

Which leaves me in the throughly unpleasant situation of being a died-in-the wool European who probably supports a hard Brexit. Europe will be better off without us and we, quite frankly, deserve it.

[1] Please note I have used The Sun as the source so I can't be excused of liberal metropolitan bias
[2] Does anyone else hear Kenny Everett's Cupid Stunt everytime someone says 'Best Possible Deal'

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Uses and abuses of data in the era of the scapegoat

An article in Schools Week yesterday framed comments I made to the reporter in light of 'intervention' which is an emotive word at the best of times. My fault for telling Jess that she didn't need to check her quotes with me before publishing.

First, let's establish the real issue, which is how do we lessen the cognitive load on teachers? This is the intention behind the government's latest comments. Basically they are saying, "Don't just measure for the sake of measuring" or "Stop just weighing the pig and concentrate on feeding it a little more". And in this I wholeheartedly support them rather than oppose them as the article implied. There is absolutely no point in asking for data that doesn't inform or lead to improvements.

Unfortunately, we still operate in a high stakes low trust system and simply reducing the reporting burden doesn't mean that things will magically get better. But the difficulty with any data is that it should never be used away from the context in which it was gathered. 

I was trying to point out that the context of the relationship between the data provider and the data requirer has a massive impact both consciously and unconsciously on the data provided. To put it simply, if as your boss I ask you to provide me with data on how you are doing, the first thing you will do is wonder what I will do with this data. If you think you are not doing as well as you might but that I will not provide any help or support and will merely punish you for failing you will spin your data in a positive light. If you think I am an idiot with no understanding of your environment you will also attempt to influence the data. Only if you genuinely trust that I will be understanding and provide support, will you provide information to me that might make you vulnerable.

Now, the state has clearly set out its stall here. We are in a world of 'high autonomy and high accountability', never mind that the first part of that statement is utter hogwash. And this leads us to the problem if you don't have freedom to innovate because you are paralysed by the impact of multiple accountability regimes you are highly unlikely to thrive.

I wouldn't be so bold to assert that my school leaders Trust me. What I am trying to do is build an environment in which they Trust me and each other more than the system as a whole. If we can achieve that then and only then will the flow of data be unpolluted by its context.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

What the F & F?!

This morning the House of Commons Education Committee published its report into exclusions and alternative provision. It is quite lengthy and I have only skimmed it but Martin George at TES does a summary in his article here. He picks out for his first paragraph the accusation from the Committee that, 
"There appears to be a lack of moral accountability on the part of many schools"
To which my immediate response is how very dare they!!!

The rise in fixed term and permanent exclusions is an entirely predictable consequence of the fragmentation and funding (or lack thereof) of the English school system!

  • Local authorities who have the statutory duty for safeguarding and ensuring sufficient school places have been eviscerated by the chaotic and unplanned rollout of academies
  • Multi-academy trusts are not paid anything to meet the system costs of running their schools
  • MATs and LAs are often set up as adversaries in the system fighting for resources that neither has access to, rather than collaborating in the interests of children
  • Advances in obstetric science have meant a massive increase in survival rates of premature babies (up 33% for babies born between 22 and 26 weeks between 1995 and 2006), these children have a significantly higher incidence of SEND and behavioural issues that schools are often unable to cope with
  • There is a creeping preference for a command and control approach to education that prejudices against the disadvantaged, dehumanises children and puts society at risk (see previous post about Hannah Arendt)
  • It also only favours those children who are lucky to have informed advocates (pushy parents) who fight for them
Fragmentation and Funding (hence the title of my post) are the causes of this problem and oddly the former is not even mentioned in the report. Don't have a pop at schools, LAs, MATs or anyone else who is doing their absolute best to mitigate the damage of this extended experiment in self-harm.

Some suggestions:
  • Consolidate the system into fewer entities (either by turning LAs into MATs or merging MATs) but 1,370+ different legal entities more than half of whom are non-viable in the medium term is just a waste of time and money
  • Create a mechanism for mediating between schools and LAs on referrals to places in AP to address the degree to which fixed term exclusions and permanent exclusions are chips in a high stakes gamble that benefits no-one
  • Embed more specialist provision units in main stream school to support children with medical and other needs and fund them properly: this will cross pollinate specialist teaching practice into the mainstream profession 
  • Attempt to understand the massive and often unreasonable efforts made in mainstream schools to retain children often to the detriment of other children because of the moral purpose they are accused of lacking
  • Understand that this is a problem that starts in Primary schools not a Secondary one. Experiment with a more fluid approach to behaviour management provision that resists labelling a child 'excluded' or 'failed' when it is the behaviour not the child that is the issue 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Rehumanize ourselves: what is the threshold of materiality for society?

I was at city hall this morning with the Deputy Mayor for Crime and Policing and a number of other MAT CEOs and Chairs to discuss knife crime. The event was in part to discuss issues and in part to raise awareness of the Mayor's 'London Needs You Alive" initiative for schools.

I may have mused in this blog before about Hannah Arendt's theories on the dehumanising effects of bureaucracy which are a precursor to totalitarianism. But it wasn't until this morning that I made the connection with the rise of the internet.

Freud said, "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness". Arendt in the 'Human Condition', took issue with Karl Marx over the difference between 'labour' and 'work' and explored the impact of automation removing the sense of purpose from work. Both were addressing the very essence of what it is to be 'human'.

The difficulty when applying complex philosophical ideas to the messy construct of reality is that they often don't fit.

People want to matter. But it is increasingly clear that many, indeed perhaps most, feel that they don't. This sense of disenfranchisement is behind Brexit, Trump and the rise in knife crime. If you feel that you don't matter, you are going to struggle to create an identity.

I have railed in these pages before about the depressing and negative impact of bureaucracy upon people and society. As Arendt explains if you reduce a person to a statistic, it is much easier to do terrible things to them.

But the parallel dehumanising process is our move via our devices into alternative unreal spaces that are very different from the alternative realities of books and films. New spaces in which we can kill and violate others under the pretext that trolling, hate-speech and violent gaming are somehow only metaphorical they do not have very real consequences. In doing this we normalise the abnormal.

It is therefore easy to see how an inner-city minority ethnic youth or indeed your child may be so convinced of their own worthlessness that they cannot be expected to value the lives of others.

I have said for years that communities are built at the gates of primary schools. But we cannot leave Primary headteachers to carry this burden alone. We need to show them that their children, staff and schools matter to us. As how else will they create this construct in our young people? This is as important if not more important than teaching children how to read and write. Because if children do not feel safe or valued they will learn very little.

As we head into the accounting year end for academies, conversations will be held with auditors about the 'threshold of materiality'. How can we as a society have a broader conversation with those people who are completely convinced that they don't matter?

If you do anything today, make someone else believe they matter to you and to others.

P.S. Apologies to the Police for the mangling of their song title.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Echoes of the past and judging fishes by their ability to climb trees...

One of the things that I've always had difficulty articulating is the size and scale of the unknown unknowns that are the unintended consequences of structural reform in our fragmented education system. 

Taken together with the fallacy of understanding (i.e. just because I think I understand the problem doesn't mean that I do; just because I am clear about what I think I said doesn't mean that you understood me; just because you say you understand etc. etc. ... you get my drift)

There's an adage used in education circles which is often misattributed to Einstein
"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." 
The 'quote' is rolled out when discussing the utility or lack thereof in testing children. But I think there is more mileage when thinking about the system as a whole. I spent a significant portion of the 1990s living and working in Moscow when the former Soviet Union was completely reinventing itself under Yeltsin. I have made comparisons before on conference platforms between this period of furious making-it-up-as-we-go and the ongoing process of structural education reforms in this country.

The contrasts I drew were that in a self-reinventing system, control and oversight is often knee-jerk and self-contradictory. But the analogy also works elsewhere.

I remember with great fondness the introduction of Western financial services products to Russia when Russian citizens had absolutely no concept of what 'insurance' or 'bank loans' were in much the same way as a fish lacks the construct of what a tree is and whether it should climb it. Russians would take out a loan to buy a car and then refuse to make any repayments and be utterly bewildered by threats from hastily invented bailiffs who lacked the legal authority to proceed.

Turning a school into an academy is entirely analogous with this in that both the headteachers to whom we are entrusting the management of the system and the self-multiplying central bureaucrats who are running to keep up with the inevitable chaos that ensues lack the constructs to deal with it and often lack an understanding of each other's behaviour. So genuine mistake begets overreaction begets mistrust begets centralisation and control begets waste...

Oddly this though rhymes with another conversation I had last week with a fellow linguist about Allophonia. We were talking about synthetic phonics and the weaknesses of separating sound from meaning in the teaching of language. I remembered with fondness Anthony Burgess's book, "A mouthful of air" which I had loved when I was young. In it Burgess explains the problem of Allophonia as being unable to distinguish between two phonemes because one does not know how to make them in one's mouth.

He describes the classic English speaker's complete inability to distinguish between the French words 'dessus' and 'desous' (above and below... which is kind of important). And then explains how to make a French 'u' sound by using English phonemes. First arrange your lips teeth and tongue to make the sound 'ee' as in bleed and then keeping the tongue and teeth in that position round your lips to make an 'o' as in blow. Practise that for a bit and you will start to hear the difference between 'dessus' and 'dessous'.

This fundamental weakness of blaming people for not being able to distinguish between things of which they have no experience and then overreacting to their failing plays itself out across the sector daily. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Not with a bang but a whimper

When I started blogging almost exactly seven years ago, I did it as a commitment to reflection and self improvement. The idea was that there would be a twofold benefit:
  1. By writing down my ideas and opinions, I would be forced to think a little harder and more formally about them
  2. By publishing them openly and accepting and adapting them in light of criticism and challenge, the ideas get better
If I am honest, as I promised to be in my first blog, I have had lots of benefit from the first point but less from the second. This is mainly because I have never really been challenged. I suspect that this is not because people agree with me but simply because nobody knows I am here. The internet is a big place…

However, it is entirely in this spirit that I write today's piece as I genuinely don’t know if this is right and I am feeling for something.

The new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds has today published an advance copy of his vision for education which is interesting. It is more interesting that the NAHT appears to be endorsing elements of that vision.

To stop myself from letting any of my own prejudice or cynicism leak into this too early I will repeat his key message verbatim from the DfE press release:
Accountability is vital. Children only get one shot at an education and we owe them the best…where they are being let down we need to take action quickly – so no one ends up left behind. But what I’ve found from speaking to many of you these last few months is that there is also real confusion within the sector… I believe school leaders need complete clarity on how the accountability system will operate. I’m clear that Ofsted is the body that can provide an independent, rounded judgement of a school’s performance. This means we will not be forcibly turning schools into academies unless Ofsted has judged it to be Inadequate. I believe strongly that becoming an academy can bring enormous benefits to schools. Hundreds of schools every year voluntarily choose to become academies and I want this to be a positive choice for more and more schools as we move forward. We must also have a system that does more than just deal with failure… But we will do so in the right way, and there will be a single, transparent data trigger for schools to be offered support – which we will consult on. I intend this to replace the current confusing system of having both below the floor and coasting standards for performance… I have a clear message to schools and their leaders: I trust you to get on with the job.”
Now to the exploratory bit. What does this really mean for the education sector? And in order to be a fair as possible I’ll look at each statement in turn.
“Accountability is vital. Children only get one shot at an education and we owe them the best…where they are being let down we need to take action quickly – so no one ends up left behind.”
I won’t dwell on this bit as, oddly, I blogged about the problems with ‘accountability’ as a buzzword in complex spaces very recently. It sounds good, everyone instinctively agrees but it lets you off the hook of actually understanding the most difficult problems as you can simply find a scapegoat for failure, not solve the problem and save money too.
“But what I’ve found from speaking to many of you these last few months is that there is also real confusion within the sector… I believe school leaders need complete clarity on how the accountability system will operate.”
Very true. Lack of clarity is the only defence a scapegoat can provide to prevent their own sacrifice. If you tell me to do three mutually contradictory things, you can’t really hold me to account for any of them. School and MAT leaders are under no illusions that they are accountable but the problem is to whom (OfSTED, ESFA, RSCs, LAs, Governors, MATs, EAs, Charities Commission, NAO,HMRC, PAC…?) and for what (KS2 and KS4 attainment, Good or better judgements, above floor, above coasting, compliant to AFH,
“I’m clear that Ofsted is the body that can provide an independent, rounded judgement of a school’s performance.”
Ofsted is definitely the most capable body to judge schools’ performance in the round (although it still has much to learn about MATs, their governance and other constraints of being governed by both company and charity law). But the interesting thing about this statement is that it seems to hint to a massive reduction in the role of National and Regional Schools Commissioners. The current situation is that Ofsted judgements are only  one of the many inputs to RSCs who then decide with their Head Teacher Boards (HTBs) under authority delegated to them from the SOS whether a school should be forced to become an academy or be re-brokered from one MAT to another.
“I believe strongly that becoming an academy can bring enormous benefits to schools. Hundreds of schools every year voluntarily choose to become academies and I want this to be a positive choice for more and more schools as we move forward.”
Well he can hardly say that the academies programme and everything that has come with it doesn’t yet appear to have achieved much. But this is a massive change for the clear government policy of 18 months ago that all schools would become academies. Why? Simply, because I suspect government has finally worked out what it should have known 10 years ago that massive structural change costs more, takes longer and delivers less than most people think. They now know that they simply do not have enough money or political will to make all schools academies. Nor the money to roll the programme back.

Of the roughly 12.5k primary schools in England that are not academies, 9.5k have fewer than 400 pupils (so effectively non-viable over the long term) and almost 7k have fewer than 250 pupils so completely at the mercy of fortune.

Drawn from author's own analysis of National Primary Dataset 2016-17
"We must also have a system that does more than just deal with failure… But we will do so in the right way, and there will be a single, transparent data trigger for schools to be offered support – which we will consult on."
The response to the speech from the NAHT General Secretary (which has obviously been pre-approved by the DfE) gives more light to this line.
"It’s absolutely right that there should only be one agency with the remit to inspect schools. Clarity about the standards that are expected is just what we’ve been calling for. Removing the coasting and floor standards will do much to address the confusion felt by many school leaders. It will be important that the new support standard is set at the right level and helps direct rapid, high-quality, funded support to the schools that need it most."
This appears to suggest that if a school falls into category 4, currently labelled, "Inadequate" but possibly about to be renamed, "requiring support" or "requiring intervention" then it will be forced to become an academy. Much reduced in scope and authority Regional Schools Commissioners will be required to make this happen. Less system leaders and much more Public Executioners.  And the National Schools Commissioner has already signalled that he is leaving at the end of this term, which might be because he has seen this coming.
"I have a clear message to schools and their leaders: I trust you to get on with the job.”
This appears to shift the whole system away one which labelled itself as aiming to improve outcomes for all children to one which says very clearly to all schools, "There is the line. Stay above it and you will be masters of your own destiny."

This looks like good politics as it reframes the debate with targets that are likely to be hit in the short term. But I am completely unsure as to whether it will be good for the system as it looks like kicking a lot of risk down the road for someone else to worry about.

It clearly signals smaller, simpler government, which is a political choice. It may also signal an end to creeping, contradictory bureaucracy. Putting things in boxes and arguing about the labels rather than looking to improve the whole, which is a good thing.

Assuming that the new line is drawn somewhere above a current Ofsted Inadequate judgement and somewhere below national floor standards; probably bisecting schools judged as coasting, what does that mean for schools that are struggling [1]? You won't really get any help until you've properly crashed... Or we set the rules of the road, it's your job to drive the car.

I am interested in why the NAHT has endorsed this as I suspect that it has only looked at the short-term impact on its members, which is less chaos, confusion and stress. Rather than the long-term where it may have marched its members to the scaffold.

When I designed the business model for the Elliot Foundation with my co-founders in the winter of 2011 we considered three issues: 

1. How much does is cost to keep the plates spinning? What are the business as usual costs for keeping a normal distribution of schools safe, solvent, structurally sound, legally compliant and educationally improving?
2. How much does it cost and how long does it take to turnaround a school that is seriously struggling?
3. What tolerance is there in the ratio between schools that are broadly good and in need of significant support before the system fails?

The biggest challenge was that if you don't get enough to keep the plates spinning then everything fails. Only time will tell if this new direction is an end to unnecessary, expensive and fruitless intervention or the abandonment of a generation of children on a lonely Spartan hillside.


[1] I am completely aware that Ofsted judgements and floor and coasting standards are not on the same continuum but for the sake of simplicity let's assume that they are as the approach is to have a single measure

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Era of the Scapegoat

I was interested in the NAHT's position on the 'high stakes, low trust' system as it coincided with a thought that was angrily buzzing around my brain. Perhaps best illustrated by the possibly apocryphal response of Zhou Enlai to Richard Nixon when asked for his opinion on the French Revolution..., "Too early to say".

The education system appears to be utterly fixated on accountability. The problem with accountability is that if you make someone accountable you no longer need to understand the complexity of the problem they face. If the accountable person has failed to deliver, you remove them and replace them with someone else. This is pragmatic and seems mostly fair.

It is why in many situations markets work. By substituting knowledge with self-interest, you can save money. In commercial markets this is the 'Greed is Good' mantra espoused by neo-liberals. Allowing people to keep the gains they have acquired through taking risks is to the benefit of all in society, goes the argument. People don't need to know everything they just need to know what it is in their interest to do and get on and do it [1]. This can lead to reasonably efficient systems where many benefit.

However, this approach does not suit all situations and when rolling it into new spaces needs significantly more thought that appears to have occurred thus far in education. One of the many errors it throws up is an over-focus on the hero leader. Just because a leader has been successful in money terms does not mean that they understand or necessarily deserve the benefits that have accrued to them. There are multiple examples of unworthy individuals who appear to possess little more than a Nietzschian 'will to power' and have simply ridden to power on the backs of other people's misfortune. People who have simply to be confident, greedy and lucky... you can insert your own exemplars.

If those are the two extremes of the philosophical problem, "Can the private sector deliver a public good", how does this play out at the delivery end?

Well, the thing that was annoying me was the overfocus on the leadership qualities of successful MAT CEOs, not least because it panders to their already inflated egos. Mostly, however, because it is WAY TOO EARLY TO SAY what actually works. 

I have written elsewhere that I heard an academic at the DfE explain the job of a MAT CEO being to "find what works and make it scalable", which is insufferably glib and mostly wrong because most of what goes on in schools is unscalable (there are no discounts for volume in recruiting teachers). So you have given an insoluble problem to a bunch of naive fools (including me) with the knowledge that you will fire them when they fail and thus be able to claim you are improving outcomes for children when you have simply shuffled the deck.

Likewise a recent piece on the key qualities required of CEOs suggested that we should focus on: 
  • Shaping strategy
  • Training our people
  • Improving outcomes for all children
This is a significant oversimplification and lacking in any reflection or consideration of whether what is being done is actually working. It smacks of General Patton's line, "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week". 

I would suggest a lot more enquiry needs to be added to the mix but without falling into the analysis paralysis at which Patton was taking aim. On the whole I would recommend the following as part of a self-improving approach.
  1. Know where you are and what state you are in - ANALYSIS
  2. Formulate options - SYNTHESIS
  3. Select strategic direction(s) - DECISION MAKING
  4. Tell people - COMMUNICATION
  5. Train your people so they can do it - DEVELOPS
  6. Make sure it happens - JFDI
  7. Stop to think, is it working? - REFLECTION & ADAPTATION

[1] This psychological contract between the citizen and society, play by our rules and you will be looked after, is currently more vulnerable than it has been for a very long time. Why would young people follow our rules when they can see that they are very unlikely to benefit?