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Tuesday, August 6, 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, July 1, 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

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

If only it were that simple...

One of the frustrations of getting older is as your knowledge of what tends to work in different situations grows, so does your awareness of your inability to impart it to other people. You can't live other people's lives for them or change their behaviour. At best you can influence, nudge and cajole; all the while aware that your recommendations may be misunderstood and misinterpreted with occasionally disastrous consequences.

I am worried by Toby Young's latest unevidenced assertion that we can now dispense with innovation and choice in our school system and simply, "roll out to scale what we know works". 

Jacques' 'Seven Ages of Man' in "As You Like It" is one of Shakespeare's better known soliloquies and I am sure those who have seen Toby's performances over the last ten or so years will recognise his fourth stage 'the solider',
"Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation"
But after the soldier should come 'the justice'
"Full of wise saws and modern instances"
However, we simply do not know yet what works. Not from the examples cited and anyone who claims otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.

If one takes overall Ofsted judgements over the last 5 1/2 years as an evidence base, whilst there is some evidence that sponsored academy chains (and not just the ones that Toby likes) have significantly improved school effectiveness [1]. It is equally true that LA maintained schools have also improved school effectiveness, although not perhaps as much [2]. The counterbalance to this is that for many converter academies there has been a slight erosion of effectiveness [3].

Now before we get too carried away in any direction this was entirely predictable. Regression to the mean and the impact of fragmentation in closed system must be isolated before we take to the rooftops to proclaim a new Jerusalem.

I have remarked here before on the ironic echoes of Stalinism in the academy programme. For all its trumpeting of 'Freedom', it is more centrally controlled and bureaucratic than anything that preceded it. Working in the sector sometimes feels like living in a hybrid of Owell's and Kafka's dystopian futures. And if it feels like that to me, imagine how it feels to a school leader or a teacher.

[1] Of 863 sponsored primary academies that were nearly all RI or below at the point of conversion 619 are now Good or better
[2] 2,753 LA maintained primaries that were RI or below in 2014 that figures is now 1,291 Although of course 863 of these have become academies that is at least 700 LA maintained schools that are now Good or better
[3] Of 3,489 converter primary academies most of which were Good or better at the point of conversion 352 are no RI or below

Source for all the above calculations 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Abyss Gazes Also...

When I started this blog over a decade ago and named it after a quote by Nietzsche, I was probably trying to appear more intelligent and well-read than I actually am.

Today however I am genuinely reflecting on his aphorism from "Beyond Good & Evil",
"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.  And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into thee"
I find the behaviour of our Prime Minister and of the Leader of Her Majesty's opposition beyond the pale. I am angry and upset by what appear to be their joint efforts to manipulate a genuine constitutional crisis to their own shallow political ends. However, in the spirit of the quote above I shall attempt to moderate my language. Intemperate language leads inevitably and inexorably to inhuman behaviour such as Friday's events in Christchurch.

1. We live in a representative democracy. This means we elect MPs whom we charge with exercising their discretion in forming and running a government. If we don't like what they do we get to change the cast of MPs at a general election.

2. We had a referendum in 2016 that narrowly approved leaving the EU. Please don't believe all the nonsense of the "biggest mandate in history"; 51.9% to 48.1% is marginal. We have had higher voter turnouts in nearly all the general elections between 1945 and 1992 (we just have a bigger population now and general elections are not binary choices).

3. The referendum was not constitutionally binding.

4. Since the referendum we had a general election explicitly called by Theresa May in 2017 to give her a mandate to deliver her version of Brexit. The British public did not give her that mandate.

5. The 'government' and its 'opposition' (and those inverted commas should drip with sarcasm) have utterly failed to govern or to represent over the last two years. Whilst I had some sympathy for Theresa May at the beginning of her tenure and some time for Corbyn's 'man of the people' act, I find them now both beneath contempt. Neither has shown any leadership. This is not the MPs fault.

6. MPs now have a choice:

  • Sail over the cliff edge into the abyss of No Deal
Or seize control of the order paper and find a motion that has the support of a majority in the house which will be either:

  • Some form of customs union with the EU (Norway+ or whatever)
  • Or repeal Article 50 entirely and remain
The trouble with these two is the EU is under no obligation to accept any deal other than that which Theresa May has already obtained and had roundly rejected multiple times. So to propose a new deal at this stage risks no deal. We can only unilaterally repeal Article 50, we cannot unilaterally amend or postpone it. 

I don't think that a general election would help as the two main party leaders are inept and there is no adequately funded alternative. Likewise why have another referendum unless you agreed to have another one again after that. The trouble started by having a referendum in the first place with a massive complex set of issues absurdly reduced to a binary choice.

So the choice is not "deal or no deal". It is slightly less catchy "no deal or repeal"

Sadly I suspect that the former is more likely.

What a fucking mess!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Scapegoats R Us

I have often wondered over the past decade just how much more responsibility we are prepared to heap upon our school leaders before they snap? It would appear that we remain happy to keep adding to the pile...!

This morning I heard the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan on the Today programme appear to imply that schools in general and academies in particular were responsible for the rise in knife crime.  He suggested a link between the rise in 'off-rolling' (a practice where schools and academies are alleged to informally exclude children who are perceived to be a threat to their academic standards) and the rise in knife crime. By extrapolation he shifted the blame onto school leaders whom he implied were dodging their moral responsibility as a result of government's education policies.

First and foremost, he is making a causal link that doesn't appear to exist. But the thing that really gets my goat is that I am convinced that he understands that this is a deeply complex piece of socio-politics that he ought to be reaching out to address not jumping to blame.

I think it is reasonable to assert that we are living in a period of social upheaval. The notion of society itself may even be in decline. The purpose of government is to foster and maintain an interconnected set of norms and laws by which we all agree (directly and indirectly) to abide. Government then protects, educates and nurtures those inside its borders. In return its citizens agree to respect the laws and pay the taxes. But if government fails to protect, educate or nurture, why would anyone respect the laws or pay taxes?

The social contract between government and citizens is one of delayed gratification. If we all do this, then we will all be better off in the long run. Well, if your lived experience is that there is no benefit whatever coming to you or your family, why wouldn't you start to challenge the whole system? And you can challenge in any number of ways.

Politicians appear to be distancing themselves increasingly from practitioners, the people who actually do the work. This has to stop. If our instruments of government were inspected by Ofsted today they would be placed in Special Measures. The "leadership" (and those inverted commas should be seen as dripping with sarcasm) is completely disconnected from the people that it purports to serve and equally dismissive of those its employs to serve its people.

The rise in knife crime was predictable and was predicted by many. Its multiple roots lie in the massive fragmentation and defunding of the education system, the absence of properly funded Alternative Provision, the underfunding of the police force, the collapse of inter-disciplinary co-operation between education, social care, health and justice. This in turn was a predictable impact of the global financial collapse and ensuing depression that hurt the poor but didn't seem to touch the rich.

If we are going to address these problems, we have got to get out of our individual bunkers and stop lobbing stones at perceived enemies.

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.