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Thursday, 27 February 2020

The Endarkenment II: Ideological trench warfare

One of the things that working with Dr. Caroline Whalley has taught me is the value of revisiting old ideas. The below are ideas for a think piece I put together for the Times Ed just over a year ago that got forgotten about and never saw the light of day. Although the angle on the ideas is now 'out of time', in that the parallels with WWI don't work, the ideas are still relevant.

Ideological trench warfare
December 2018

More than a century after the end of the, “War to end all wars” it is alarming to note the increase in trench warfare. Although today’s trenches are metaphorical, the degree to which political debate has descended to the defence of positions in defiance of reason is entirely analogous. We no longer sacrifice the youth of a continent in the mud of no man’s land, we merely sacrifice truth and morality in the grime of ignorance, dishonesty and self-interest.

That’s a grandiose opening. How the hell am I going to relate this to the UK’s education sector? Well, if we wish to save the enlightenment, we need to get out of our trenches. To get out of them, we need to recognise that we are all digging them.

Ideological Trench #1 - There is never enough money
There will never be enough money to provide the quality and diversity of education that most educators believe all children deserve. But if the noise in the sector is anything to go by, we are about to compound this problem by having a big fight about funding when no-one has any money.

It is disingenuous of the government to maintain its current position that we currently spend more on education than we ever have or that per pupil funding is more than twice what it was in 2010. Yes, we do spend more in total but only because there are more children in school than ever. Yes, it is true that we spend more per pupil than in 2000 but unfortunately it is also true that we spend less per pupil in real terms than we did in 2010.

But for the unions to choose now to fight this battle is equally disingenuous. The impact of Brexit is guaranteed to be negative on the public purse, the only thing that is unsure is how big the ensuing recession will be. This is a pointless fight unless someone wants to make a big political leap and reallocate money from the Defence, Environment or Justice departments to education, which I suspect is not on the cards.

If we reframe the question as, “Can we find efficiencies in education without sacrificing pupil outcomes or breaking teachers?”, then we might get somewhere. And in the spirit of getting out of my trench I will venture that this is what Lord Agnew was trying to say, albeit failing gloriously, when he recently bet the profession a bottle of champagne that he and his team could find savings in any school. But it should go both ways, I bet I could find efficiencies in the DfE and ESFA and I wouldn’t need a team to help me find them. You could start with regulatory overlap and the duplication of audit and ESFA costs.
  

Ideological Trench #2 - Burn the straw men
If I may be permitted to mangle a metaphor, ‘The Blob’ was a straw man. Together with ‘the enemies of promise’ it was the exaggeration of an opposed position for rhetorical purposes. The Blob didn’t actually exist any more than evil Tories slashing funding for education exist. The problem with using straw men in debates is that we end up fighting enemies who simply aren’t there. They also antagonise those with whom one might otherwise work to improve a system.

Despite my disagreements with politicians to the right and to the left, I do not doubt their commitment to improving outcomes for children. But we often expend too much energy being angry at people with whom we don’t entirely disagree.

Your enemy is not your enemy.
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” [Hamlet 2.2] 
Improving outcomes for children is hard work. In disadvantaged communities it can feel like a Sisyphean task. Every September the boulder has rolled back down the hill and each of us is 'another year older and deeper in debt'. It can be easier to bear if one has someone to blame for this unfairness. I’ve lost count of the times when I have railed against a faceless bureaucrat-jobsworth and found some comfort in the idea of an evil plan to frustrate all the good I have convinced myself I am trying to do.

But that evil plan does not exist either. Between cock-up and conspiracy, you should always favour cock-up. It is simply more human. Even if you don’t get the satisfaction of self-righteous anger.

Ideological Trench #3 No battle plan survives contact with the enemy - Nothing is that simple

I don’t know Nick Gibb MP, although I have met him once. My instinct is that his mental model of the education system is oversimplified. In my head, his persistent championing of synthetic phonics and Singapore maths is an oversimplification of a terribly complex problem. My Nick Gibb homunculus is on a grail quest for the perfect text books. Get these text books right and he will scaffold weak teaching in a way that all the CPD and training in the world could never achieve. He has copied and pasted approaches from Singapore without understanding the context in which they appear to work. Consequently, he mistakes better practice for best practice and stretches it beyond its domain of applicability. This will only lead to an absurd concentration of power and risk at a ministerial level that ultimately fails the poorest in society. Because when the minister choses the text book, what happens when he picks the wrong one?

I like to believe that my approach is better. Keep expertise, money and decision making as close to children as possible. Manage education as a complex adaptive system....

But here’s the thing. People whose opinions I respect have told me that Nick Gibb is not like this at all. This is deeply inconvenient for my mental model. Maybe I’m the one who is oversimplifying, projecting my own bias onto someone who is equally committed to improving outcomes for children.

Monday, 20 January 2020

At the bottom of the box

I wrote this a fortnight ago but forgot to hit 'publish' 

I had an interesting exchange with an old friend at Christmas, who wished me "hope and optimism" for 2020. I told him that I hadn't found the hope at the bottom of the box yet as I was too busy dealing with the demons unleashed by Pandora's Brexit.

But on reading that blog post by Dominic Cummings, in which he sets out his plans for the revolution in the Cabinet Office and invites assorted weirdos to come and join his team, perhaps I discern the first glimmer of hope.

The blog post is classic Cummings, confident, opinionated, vigorous and chaotic. I have long worried that given the keys to power, he will do as much harm to the country as a whole as, together with Gove and other SPADs, he was allowed to do to our education system in 2010. 

In his non-traditional job advert, Cummings appears to highlight a decline in civil service capacity over the last decade, which he is addressing with his call for, "wierdos". The slant towards maths, programming and AI post-grads who will push forward evidence-based decision making should be welcomed. We have seen the damage that overconfident and superficially competent PPE graduates can do. 

Provided that it is genuinely evidence-based decision making that is sought as opposed to massively complex post-hoc data taken into the basement and beaten until it agrees with the ruling narrative. 

I remember many years ago being taken into the confidence of the stats team at the DfE who told me that any time they had to 'retire' a statistic as being patently untrue, they were under standing orders to 'produce' two stats that sounded at least as good. All of which goes to support the old adage that you can get statistics to tell you anything you like if you torture them long enough.

But as the transparency on education data has significantly improved over the last few years both with the compare schools and the financial benchmarking sites, I am going to chose to believe this is a sign of hope.

The trouble is that there is a whole world of difference between being able to identify a problem and being able to solve it. This is what happened in 2010 when identifying an ineffective and inefficient education system, the half-implemented solution was to blow it up and start again.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Raising the debate (or trying to)

I started writing a response to a post on Facebook this morning about the election but it got a bit long so it turned into a blog post.


The bit about truth and belief:

Ah Danny and Paul, here lies the problem. Elections are not about truth. They never have been. Elections are about what you can get enough people to believe enough. And as you both know, “A lie told 1,000 times becomes the truth.”

So, I’d like to politely challenge some of the beliefs in this thread and elsewhere on social media. For each challenge below, I will submit evidence and indicate where there is also challenge to that evidence. If you would like to persist with your beliefs because they make you feel better, that’s fine.

But at least I tried.

  1. Uncontrollable and uncontrolled immigration is not and has never been the problem
  2. Labour didn’t break the economy and the Tories haven’t fixed it
  3. The Tories' election promises are as financially unreliable as Labour’s
  4. Brexit did not receive the biggest mandate in UK electoral history
  5. Brexit is not even in the top 5 problems currently facing the UK

The evidence bit


  1. Uncontrolled immigration is not and never has been the problem
    • Research commissioned by the current government demonstrated that EU migrants are net contributors to the UK and they contribute more to our economy per head than native UK citizens
    • So they aren’t coming over here stealing our jobs and services they are coming over here and propping up our economy, paying our taxes and keeping us alive as anyone who works in the NHS knows (where 1 in 5 doctors come from outside the UK – although I accept that other sources cite this as lower)
    • The idea that EU migration is uncontrollable is a myth. The UK already has the power to repatriate EU nationals if they don’t find work within 3 months. It doesn’t use this power because it knows a) and b) above and also because it would cost too much to implement
    • Despite having this power, the current government and its coalition predecessor have done nothing to limit immigration and net migration has risen. 
    • If you follow the evidence above you should be asking yourself why. The simple answer is that EU and the perception of uncontrolled immigration was a convenient stooge on which to blame all the ills in society
  2. Labour didn’t break the economy and the Tories haven’t fixed it
  3. The Tories election promises are as financially unreliable as Labour’s
    • Most people, even die hard Momentum members, will realise that John McDonnell’s £400bn spending plans represent the “moon on a stick’ to get you to vote Labour
    • But even though his rationale that borrowing that much money to spend in order to grow the economy sounds like going on a credit card binge and expecting it to increase your salary. There is significant evidence that public sector borrowing for infrastructure investment does promote GDP growth
    • At the same time Sajid Javid has laid out plans for £300bn but his sums are as creative as McDonnell’s economics is optimistic. He is not spending anywhere near that much as he has compounded multiple years. Moreover, the promised education spending is going mostly to Tory marginal seats and not to the most disadvantaged communities
    • Bluntly they are as bad as each other
  4. Brexit did not receive the biggest mandate in UK electoral history
  5. Brexit is not even in the top five problems facing the UK at the moment

Because you know that it isn’t. And you know that Brexit has nothing to do with those problems whatsoever. It’s just because you voted for it and you think you should get it. All the rest is noise.

Brexit is simply not important. 

But this election is... and I’m buggered if I know who I’m voting for.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

False dichotomies and false premises

Reflecting on a number of recent conversations with people in the education world I rediscover the importance of starting points in debate and just how much opportunity to improve a system is lost by failing to examine the premise.

The challenge is best illustrated by Andy Zaltzman joking about Brexit on BBC Radio 4's News Quiz recently

"Is reducing massively complex political and economic issues to oversimplified binary choices right or wrong?"

But this is not a blog about Brexit, I've done more than enough of them. It's about solving social problems and getting beyond everyone's initial endowment bias and confirmation bias - the entirely natural human traits or [1] overvaluing your own beliefs and ideas when compared to other people's and [2] tending to notice or even look for data that confirms your existing beliefs rather than challenge them.

What this means in practice is that we often start discussions in the wrong place. I start with my prejudice and lived experience and you start with yours and we take an average between the two positions and then have at each other. When this happens often, between lots of different people, we create argumentative habits. We repeat these short-cuts (or tropes) over and over again to the extent that they become worn paths in our minds and they prevent us from properly listening to each other.

One of them exists in the academy space and is a revisiting of the old Keynesian dilemma, can the private sector be trusted to deliver a public good? It's also known as the "Free rider" problem.

This plays out as follows:

A) Those who swing to the left:
There is no place for profit in education. Business can't be trusted to deliver for the vulnerable and the poor. Greedy fat cats will fill their own pockets and cut services siphoning money into offshore accounts and their friends' pockets. Those that most need support from the system will get none. Teachers will be forced to fill the gaps without proper funding or support.

B) Those who swing to the right:
How long can you keep pouring taxpayers' money down the drain without delivering any improvement? Government cannot be trusted to improve education because all civil servants do is create endless regulation and red tape that achieves nothing. If you want to improve outcomes all you need is robust accountability.

Group A see the academy sector as confirming all their worst fears about the sell off of public assets and the undermining of support to the needy. They see education being taken over by business people who know nothing about teaching. They see increasing high profile cases of misuse of funds as proof of endemic corruption and moral vacuum. They see Group B (and most of the academy sector) as heartless, greedy Neo-Cons.

Group B see the academy sector as a breath of fresh air bringing energy, conviction and purpose to a sector desperately in need of reinvigoration. They see long term under-performers leaping ahead and negative vested interests being challenged. They see group A (and most of the previous education sector) as moaning Marxists uninterested in children and pursuing their own narrow political aims.

Although both groups are partially right, they are also significantly wrong in what they chose to see. Consequently as their mistakes compound each other nearly all debate is in the wrong place. To whit:

Academies introduce profit to education:
No they don't. It is illegal for multi academy trusts to make a profit from their charitable work. They are also tightly bound to proving they spend public money properly

Business people who know nothing about education are taking over
No they aren't. The vast majority (probably >95%) of Trust Leaders are serving or former headteachers.

Some high profile cases of fraud are proof of systemic corruption
No they aren't. They are the product of a higher regulatory standard than that which exists in maintained schools. So more people get caught. This is evidence of system working not failing

Local authorities were failing children for too long
No they weren't. They were dealing with immensely complex issues at the same time as dealing with massive funding cuts.

Academy reforms have introduced freedom and energy to a stagnant sector
No they haven't. They have massively fragmented a sector that was largely successful (if inefficient in some areas). There is almost no freedom as the programme is excessively over-regulated due to the concerns of group A above

Academy reforms have led to significant improvements in long term under-performers
It is far too early to say whether the improvements delivered are sustainable or scalable or significantly above normal regression to the mean. There is some evidence that the sector has become marginally more efficient but most of the savings have been taking in reduced government spending rather than increase in performance.

The challenges are not addressed by Group A and Group B screaming at other across a divide. The system is much more complex than that. And if the last two years are anything to go by, the less politicians are involved in education the better.






Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The burden of optimism

Teaching is an optimistic profession. The endeavour is predicated on a construct that things we do today will yield a better tomorrow for all to enjoy. It is not easy. For those working in challenging communities September is difficult because we have to start again all the way back at the beginning. Children, many of whom will have been malnourished and neglected over the holidays, arrive back at school behind where they were at the end of July. And deprivation is writ large across the rising percentages of children who start their reception year non-verbal and still in nappies.

Teachers and school leaders who confront these challenges with optimism and positivity, who don't blame the parents or the wider society for the extra work, deserve better from their politicians. It's hard enough already in education to build a better tomorrow without the fault-lines and fissures in society being nakedly exploited to the pursuit of power.

I would like to think that I have some empathy but I simply cannot compute how anyone could watch Boris Johnson on the news and not see him for the shameless, deceitful opportunist that I perceive him to be.  

At the same time I understand just as many others look at Dominic Grieve, Yvette Cooper and John Bercow and see the 'enemies of the people' as they are portrayed by the tabloids. I also know that these divisions are being deliberately exploited to allow smaller and smaller extremist groups at the right and left of British politics to drown out the reasonable centrist voices.

I wonder if to help us that there may be a political equivalent of Occam's razor - which simply states that where there are two possible explanations for something you should prefer the simpler. 

Where there are two politicians suggesting contrasting ideas we should prefer the more selfless.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

First as farce then tragedy...

Today, with my family I visited Amiens Cathedral; a rainy day activity for our short holiday in Normandy. As we entered the square I noticed a hearse parked at the western entrance surrounded by Gaulloise smoking undertakers.

The cathedral itself is one of the largest gothic structures in France and was built in the 13th-15th centuries. But it was its twentieth century history that made an impression on me today. You notice immediately that very little of the medieval stained glass remains which is unsurprising given the proximity to the front line in WWI and probable WWII bombing from both sides. Indeed given the fate of Le Havre and the cathedral at Reims it is surprising that the cathedral still stands at all with or without glazing.

On this subject, one of the guides explained to me that it may have been the Pope who intervened, via the links between  the Catholic Church and Nazi high command, to save the building following intercession from cardinals in France and Germany. An interesting parallel with the recent fire at Notre Dame and the desire of the rich and powerful to protect beautiful symbols of power and tradition while at the same time millions die in squalor and barbarity.

As I wandered round the cathedral,  I noted the memorials to the son of a British Prime minister who died in battle, to French colonial armies, to Canadians, to Marshall Foch who relieved the city and to the 600,000 British soldiers killed at the numerous battles of the Somme.

These gargantuan slaughters across Europe were the crucible in which was forged the idea of multilateralism. Surely Blackadder Goes Forth adequately pilloried the donkeys who led the lions and their elitist stupidity. Can’t anyone see the parallels between General Melchett and Boris Johnson or Captain Darling and Michael Gove?

Do we really need to condemn another generation?

Monday, 1 July 2019

Get a grip...

The Public Accounts Committee has waded into the education debate according to a SchoolsWeek article last week that claimed the DfE now tops the PAC's list of concern. This may be the right conclusion but for entirely the wrong reasons. 

Apparently the Committee Chair, Meg Hillier, criticised the lack of accountability and transparency and highlighted the DfE's 'lack of grip'. She then went on at length about Bright Tribe in that classic politician manner of extrapolating from outliers to create an absurd straw man.

It is depressing that almost total ignorance of the complexity of a situation no longer precludes people from strongly held opinions. Absurd oversimplification appears to be a prerequisite for high office in politics. I'm afraid the committee has got the situation completely arse about face.

The problem with the education system at present is that there is too much grip from too many agencies without any actual control. All of which stifles the system and prevents teachers and school leaders from acting in the interests of children.

Allow me to reproduce a briefing note that I prepared for a civil servant the other day:


Current status of the education system
  • Massively fragmented school system 152 LAs, 740 MATs, 1,651 stand alone academies
  • Stuck with a multi-provider system where the biggest MAT is smaller than the smallest LA
  • Average size of primaries not in MATs is 279 (VA-VC average 189) which is basically non-viable in long term

Impact of problem
  • MATs aren’t big enough to survive and LAs are left with the least viable schools so will get even weaker
  • RSCs have an impossible job to manage an average of 90 MATs and 200 stand alone academies each, whilst working with roughly 20 LAs
  • Most LAs have almost no school improvement capacity left
  • Overly defensive approach (to avoid PR disasters) leads to overlapping and contradictory regulation that bleeds what little capacity remains in the system 
  • Just because top line indicators are not going South now does not mean this is not happening. The system is basically being held together by hyper-productive individuals in small organisations who do not have the time or often the inclination to succession plan. When they leave or trip up inadvertently through overstretch their organisations fail behind them
  • RSCs do not know this because they do not have the capacity to ‘know’ the system they run. We have lost much of our tacit knowledge.

Possible solutions
  • Raise the average number of pupils per organisation to something like 20,000 by any means possible (creating LA MATs, merging MATs, merging MATs with LAs) to reduce the management pressure on RSC and other points of failure
  • Separate funding from oversight. If you want a self improving system we want to encourage self-reporting and at present this is disincentivized by lack of trust in system (ESFA cannot be funder and regulator)
  • Change the legal status of Academy Trusts so that regulation can be simplified, cheapened and made more effective 
    • Schools as companies and charities just leads to extra work that the sector does not have the skills or funding to address 
    • You could let framework contracts for audit for each RSC region which would build relationships between audit providers and RSCs thus growing tacit knowledge and reduce cost of audit 
The main issue in the education system isn't the odd stupid, corrupt or venal senior manager getting caught with their fingers in the till. This has always happened and there is no more of it now than before. Indeed my primary school headteacher went to prison 40 odd years ago for fiddling his expenses. We're just better at catching people as we have much more transparency about the management and funding of schools than we have ever had. The example the PAC Chair gives is one of success not failure.

It also shows a misunderstanding of regulation as a process. Regulators are NOT responsible for failure in a system they are responsible for highlighting failure and prosecuting it where appropriate. The knowledge that if you break the rules you are likely to be caught and punished is what keeps those who are actually responsible for failure on their toes. The regulator cannot and must not manage; separation of powers 101. Unfortunately this is something that many regulators do not understand [1].

The problem is elsewhere and much much bigger. It is that the system is so fragmented and fractured that it is on the verge of breaking point. And nobody is talking about it. The issue isn't school budgets although that is where it breaks through to the public consciousness. It is that we no longer pay for the system costs of education. Or indeed think about it as a system.

We are stuck with a multi-provider system for the time being because no party has a joined up plan. Labour's National Education Service will fail spectacularly and expensively because there is no longer the capacity to run schools through their reimagined LAs nor the money to roll the academy project back. The Conservative approach appears to be the spouting of platitudes and ensuring that someone else is to blame for failure i.e. not having a plan at all because they know they haven't got enough money to pay for it.

Frankly it is time to take the education system away from politicians. They can't be trusted with it because they don't think things through thoroughly enough.

____________________________
[1] I exclude Ofsted from this criticism as my experience of them is as an agency who are very aware of their role and very reflective and self critical