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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?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Small changes in closed systems... catastrophic consequences

One of the problems of continued education reform in the country is the gap between the practioners and the policy makers. Since neither talk to each other very often or very efficiently, the feedback loop is broken and mistake is built upon misinterpretation upon overreaction upon error of judgement. Rather than seek to solve problems or improve systems almost all parties and stakeholders seek simply to defend a position.

There was a piece in TES a couple of weeks ago drawing on an interview with the CEO of the RSA academies which suggested that, "Schools should be allowed to leave MATs after five years" and "Creating fixed-term rather than permanent relationships would change the dynamic for all schools working as part of a MAT"

There seems to be a connection between this idea and and Sir David Carter's recent concept of "try before you buy"

Now before I go any further I should declare loudly that both of these pieces may have been taken out of context and if this is the case then I apologise in advance and if challenged with evidence I will review my position but...


An academy is simply a location in an outsourcing contract between government and a limited company with charitable objects. When a school becomes an academy it closes. What replaces it are a complicated set of contractual obligations.

Let's say there is a school called X in location L. School X's governing body decide to become an academy and to join Multi-Academy Trust Y. The government in the person of the Regional Schools Commissioner (acting under authority delegated from the Secretary of State) enters into a contract with Multi Academy Trust Y to provide education to children at location L in perpetuity.

This is a very one sided contract. The government gets to determine what 'education' looks like and what is and isn't good. It gets to determine how much it will pay. And it gets to change the rules whenever it likes at any time by adding additional responsibilities which Multi Academy Trust "Y" cannot refuse.

The only thing that MAT Y can do if it doesn't like the changes in its contract is that it can give the school back to government as long as it provides seven years notice.

The problems with allowing a school to leave the MAT after five years are multiple but the two biggest ones are these.

1. You need to confer legal rights onto entities that don't exist

2. If you confer those rights they can only really be exercised to a negative purpose

So (1), as explained above when a school becomes an academy the responsibility for its money, its staff and its children passes entirely to the MAT. The school, the governing body and the headteacher have no powers other than those that the Trustees of the MAT chose to delegate to them. And just to be clear that means the MAT can take these powers away again.

If the school does not like the MAT and wishes to exercise the opportunity to leave then who has this power and how do you give it to them. Is it the headteacher or the governing body? If either is to have these rights then you need a mechanism in the contract (which is the Supplementary Funding Agreement between the MAT and the Government) to confer these rights and the timings. Which in turn would require primary legislation.

But the bigger problem is (2) even if you get round the problem above you would confer a right that could only be used to undermine an entity that only exists to improve outcomes in schools. If headteachers or local governing bodies can opt out of a MAT then no MAT is ever going to invest in schools.

It is equivalent to a home owner deciding unilaterally to stop paying their mortgage and the bank not having the power to repossess the home against which the loan has been made. 

To be absolutely clear I am not suggesting that MATs should not be held to account for the performance of their schools, they must be. But the mechanism for doing this exists already it is the RSCs and their powers to pursue a MAT for breach of contract and take a school away from them.

To those who would counter this by saying schools can opt out of Local Authority control to become academies why shouldn't they be able to opt out of MATs, I would suggest that you have misunderstood the argument. It is the complex hinterland of the political buzzword 'choice' which is only ever presented as a good thing and a driver of markets. But for there to be a 'choice' there must be someone with the power and the ability to choose and something to choose between. If there is no power to choose or no choice, merely the perception of choice then you get disenfranchisement from the political process and ultimately Brexit, Trump and other forms of self-harm.

So as politely as I can, this is a really really silly idea.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Zero sum game

Behind all the kerfuffle over the weekend about TeachFirst inviting Toby Young to write a blog and then deleting it because it was "wrong" there are some important issues.
Here is Young's piece, "Are there any limits to what schools can achieve" that caused offence.

The upset came in large part because those taking offence detected a whiff of eugenics. Eugenics is the idea that some people are born stronger, smarter, and easier on the eye and we should aim to have more people like that and fewer weaker, stupider, uglier people. The methods used to achieve this “improvement” of the gene pool in recent history have included economic and political disenfranchisement, forced sterilisation and ethnic cleansing or genocide. This is why the debate got heated.

Eugenics was not limited to the Nazis nor can we glibly claim that it is entirely discredited as some of Francis Galton's hypotheses are now being supported by research evidence. [1]But before we get too hot under the collar, what did Young actually suggest? He pointed to a reasonable amount of research that children's life chances are more likely to be influenced by their social and genetic inheritance than their schooling.

Whilst I may not agree with all of Young's argument or conclusions [3], the idea that a child's parents and their overall social capital (money, level of education, network of connections etc.) have the greatest influence on any child's likelihood of life success is well established and evidenced [2]. Give a moron several hundred million dollars, a sense of entitlement and an address book and he can become leader of the free world... 

Equally established is the construct that schools should do their best to counter the unfair disadvantage of those children who are born without. Less clear is what schools can actually do about it. If money were no object then you could spend significantly more on disadvantaged children and help them catch up. This is the highly creditable idea behind pupil premium funding.

The difficulty is that there is not enough money in the system (and never will be) to give all state educated children a chance to catch up with those whose parents pay to educate them privately. And don't even think about listening to those who say it can be, because the The average fee for top boarding schools now exceeds £30,000 a year whilst the average funding for state primary education is less than £25 a day (or £4,670 per year).

This leads us, painfully, to the realisation that the only way to achieve greater equality is to hold those more fortunate back. And this is not a palatable idea - which in turn is one of the reasons that successive Labour governments have discussed, but ultimately pulled back from, abolishing private education. It is also the only intellectually robust defence of Grammar schools [3], "We don't have enough money to give every child a great education. But we only need 15% or fewer of them to be really well educated to keep the country running. So let's select the best and brightest and spend more on them." The moral difficulty with this position is how do you decide which children get the better education and at which cut-off point(s) do you decide.

The debate becomes even messier once we add in innate differences between children. I think one of the difficulties Young brought upon himself is using the term IQ as the measure of intelligence. Although an IQ score is understood as a measure of intelligence it is as susceptible to coaching as an 11 plus exam. Moreover, IQ is a limited set of attributes that could be explained as 'intelligence'. 

Whether one goes broader and accepts Howard Gardner's model of nine different Multiple Intelligence(s) or narrower to the 'g' model (a measure of general cognitive ability) we are setting ourselves up to fail by drawing the line in the wrong place. And that is before we consider the risks associated with labelling children, in that the children become the labels they are given whether the labels are accurate or not.

I hope that the debate now seems fuzzy, treacherous and probably destined to be unfair.
The discussion should be about how we provide the greatest possible equity of opportunity for all children for the money that society is prepared to pay. But not to pretend that this is excellence and certainly not for all...

....the best we can, given what we have and who we are. We should  aim for transparency about what is and is not possible and that will involve telling some difficult truths both to power and to the people.

[1] The podcast library of In Our Time and The Infinite Monkey Cage are as good a place to start as any
[2] See the Rowntree Foundation, Hutton Trust and UNESCO research into the educational impact of child deprivation
[3] My personal view is that singling out people for 'special treatment' in education is as sinister as it sounds; whether it is via Grammar Schools, Free Schools or North Korean reeducation camps