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Saturday, 29 August 2020

Rip it up and start again

Earlier this week, on an innocuous phone call, I vocalised what I realised I had been thinking for a while; it's time to get rid of the Department for Education. In the immortal words of Orange Juice, "Rip it up and start again". The government as a whole has not had a good Covid but No. 10 and the DfE are the bottom of of a particularly sticky pile escaped, perhaps only, by the treasury and Rishi Sunak.

One of my colleagues asked me yesterday, "What would be worse if the DfE ceased to exist tomorrow?" Neither of us could think of a single thing and that is why it is time for a reboot. By releasing this evening at 8pm on a Bank Holiday weekend their latest guidance, and then at 9.30pm amending their previous guidance, they have jumped their own blame shifting shark. 

The lion's share of the work of getting children back into schools during Covid has been done by Multi Academy Trusts, Local Authorities and by schools themselves. Covid has starkly revealed that government and the DfE in particular no longer even understand, let alone have any control over, what goes on day-to-day in most schools. It has been revealed as the most cavalier of absentee landlords who has let the entire building rot without realising or caring. It is clear that it cannot be shaken out of its self-defensive and bureaucratic torpor. Education needs to be completely reimagined from first principles. 

Whatever replaces the DfE needs to re-learn and re-examine the system for which it is accountable; so that when it speaks it does so with an earned authority. It needs to listen to the profession and give the impression that it cares in order to rebuild a modicum of trust without which it will achieve nothing. It needs to invest in its own people and trust them so that they can speak truth to power, when power needs to be told it is talking out of its arse. It will be helped greatly if it refrains from issuing guidance without first asking itself, "How will this help children and schools?". Then and only then when it has an actual understanding of what goes on in schools and the spaces between them (because the education system is much much more than just the sum total of schools) coupled with an informed, motivated, self-confident and self-critical staff can it think about redesigning structures of accountability, which are its current sole obssession. The fixation with accountability is easy to explain; if you have someone to blame for failure, you don't actually have to do anything difficult or expensive. But we should aspire to more for our children.

I have written here and elsewhere about the pernicious consequences of the fragementation of our education system over the last decade, which has bordered on vandalism. But the gap between education policy makers and practioners must be addressed as a matter of national importance. Society is formed at the gates of primary schools but teachers can no longer bear the burden of maintaining a civil society on their own. I

Any half decent school improvement professional will tell you that all successful schools prioritise their children and familes and most failing schools prioritise their senior leadership and staff. The first of the seven Nolan Principles is "Selflessness" and yet I would be amazed if a member of the current government or indeed any preceding government could spell that let alone live it. Governments prioritise the pursuit of power. Most schools prioritise the wellbeing of their children and families.

Who would you rather trust?

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Treated with contempt

"Primary pupils do not and have not needed to be kept apart in the classroom" From 24 June – Coronavirus – Daily update to all early years, children’s social care, schools and further education providers

With the 15 words above in an update email today, the DfE has shown in just how much contempt it holds the teaching profession. As a Chief Executive of a Multi-Academy Trust, I am not trusted with details. So I cannot tell whether this contempt originates from Downing Street or from Gt Peter Street, although I suspect the former.

To get the detail out of the way early, the innocuous clause above contains an outright falsehood. The DfE is trying to suggest that it has always maintained that social distancing was not necessary in Primary Schools. This is not a cock-up, this is a re-writing of history (one of my colleagues has pointed me towards a good SchoolsWeek article highlighting exactly this). When challenged, it is going to fall back on the only sentence in the hundreds of pages of guidance it has issued to schools over the last 15 weeks that contains anything even close the idea that it does not want and has not repeatedly asked for social distancing measures to be implemented in primary schools. 

That sentence, issued on June 1st says,

"We know that, unlike older children and adults, early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff. In deciding to bring more children back to early years and schools, we are taking this into account."

Acknowledging that something is probably impossible amongst hundreds of pages of encouraging people to strive for it nonetheless is not the same as pretending that you never asked for it in the first place.

What follows is speculation but as this is a blog, I am allowed to speculate. I encourage anyone who can correct errors in my guesswork to point me towards evidence that I am wrong.

I am told that SAGE, when modelling the scenarios for Covid, always assumed that social distancing in primary schools would be impossible. This is not an unreasonable assumption. Small children like physical contact. But if this were the case, it would have been nice for them to tell us. Conversely everything that issued from the DfE over the Covid lockdown was about the paramount importance of 2m+, islolation, test and trace, 72 hours to leave contaminated spaces, PPE and all the rest.

The stress under which the primary school system was placed was immense. I would not be surprised if headteachers have died from the stress, although I must be clear that I do not know that this has happened. 

Behind all this lies a really difficult political choice. Whilst the impact of allowing the Covid virus to progress largely unchecked through the UK will cost tens of thousands of lives, it is also possible that keeping the UK economy locked down might cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The UK government has a choice to keep schools closed and society locked down to contain the spread of the virus and with that condemn this country to a recession it has not experienced since the Black Death in the 14th century. Or ease the restrictions to allow the economy to recover and by doing so allow people to die.

There is something really terrifying in that phrase, "Allow people to die". It has echoes of WWI and "Lions led by donkeys". But the greatest good of the greatest number is the principal responsibility of government and no-one said it would be easy. But if hundreds if not thousands of dead teachers and support staff, of which many BAME, is the price that we need to pay to avoid hundreds of thousands dying through a terrifying recession, then the very least we can do is tell them the truth about the risks they are taking.

If you want to have moral authority, you must first have morals.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

The endarkenment chapter IV: a new hope

How intriguing that I haven't blogged for four months... [1] It's almost as if there have been some unforeseen events that society has had to deal with. I trust my reader will forgive me. Although he or she may not forgive me jumping from, "Endarkenment II" to, "Endarkenment IV" just so I can make the weak Star Wars gag in the title. Shall we assume that III would have had too much Jar Jar Binks in it and leave it at that? [2]

I was talking recently to my rather wonderful and unlawyerly lawyer Nick Mackenzie for a Podcast, in which he asked me to find a positive from the Covid-19 crisis; to look for hope at the bottom of the box. I answered that maybe the pandemic would finally dispel the myth of control. I know it doesn't look possible now, as we are globally beset with moronic 'alt right' leaders who demand our fealty above everything. As their incompetence and bluster is exposed, they clutch tighter to the idea of of command and control as the only solution; banging the drum of flag, tradition and tribe. Let's pray it crumbles to dust in their ever tightening grasp.

My hope is that if we can help the scales fall from enough people's eyes, then maybe we can make education and society better.

What most people and still too many educators are yet to grasp is that whilst the requirement for social distancing remains our schools can probably only receive 44-51% of pupils back into classrooms, depending on school size and staffing. This means that education as we understand it will fail. We will simply not be able to get enough children back into schools in the traditional 30 bums on 30 seats way. This in turn will force us into some form of innovation involving digital technology. Whether it be splitting years groups into A & B cohorts for week on/week off schooling with the off weeks supported by virtual lessons at home, or the extension of the school day and school year into holidays and weekends to allow for catch up, or exam year groups being prioritised back to schools, while others learn from home. All of the options require a massive contribution from Ed Tech.

If we are moving to a space where the average pupil to teacher ratio in school is going to drop from just over 20 to just over 10 (in the primary sector with and without social distancing), then this can only be solved by a massive influx of teachers or a significant re-imagining of how pupils can learn when they are not in school.

I use the verb "learn" deliberately because when children are not in school we cannot "teach" them. However upsetting this will be for the starched collar, new-Edwardian, uniform, discipline, Empire and repetition brigade. We cannot metaphorically throw a board-rubber at a child at home who has got bored of the tedious video their teacher has sent them and is looking out of the window. We have lost control...

Likewise headteachers, who have been ground into submission by decades of accountability without authority, clinging to their false 'autonomy', need to realise that the only way we can make the system work is by children from their school having access to subject matter specialisms from teachers in other schools. And I don't mean the wet superficial collaboration that our sector bleats about where 'experts' with a badge drop in on another school for a day or two to lord it over their less fortunate peers. I mean genuine co-innovation at a system level. 

We need to start thinking seriously about the creation of inspirational learning environments outside of school that draw on the deep knowledge held by teachers about their pupils but also look for efficiencies in content creation and curation. We must avoid absolutely the 21st century equivalent of plonking the children in front of the TV to watch an 'educational programme', even if that programme is high quality and based on a curriculum sanctioned by Minister Gibb himself.

The problem with all virtual learning is it spends too much time and money at the curriculum end of the challenge and almost none at the delivery end. If the only reason that children were learning in classroom is because you've metaphorically locked them in, how are you going to cope if they can play Fortnite instead?

Unfortunately, as a nation we are in about the worst possible place for this to happen having blown up our school system into the structurally incoherent mess it is today. If ever there was a moment for school trusts, groups and cooperatives to step up and show how the creation of a learning environment goes way beyond sitting up straight in class and listening to teacher but into the minds of each child, it is now.

'Education is the lighting of a fire not the filling of a pail'

Let's start building learners.


[1] I started writing this blog before the rant I published on Friday

[2] Yes, I know that Jar Jar Binks only had one line in 'Revenge of the Sith' but that was one line too many.

Friday, 5 June 2020

How bad does it have to get to change your mind?

In a week when one day the UK "Covid deaths exceeded the whole of the EU put together" and President Trump plumbed new depths stoking racial tension in the US, I am forced to wonder just how bad does your leader have to be before you disavow him (or her)?

I know that it is only human to believe that one makes good choices. In exactly the same way that nearly all of us believe that we are better than average drivers. This is ordinary cognitive bias. I also understand the most of our political opinions are emotional rather than rational. We retrospectively allocate reason to defend positions we instinctively already 'feel' are correct.

But surely there comes a point when you say, "OK this is nuts, that's enough" 

For those still clinging to the idea that Boris Johnson is doing a good job, how can you read that headline above (specially selected from a rabble rousing right wing red top) and not have your brain try to escape from your head? 

You can't read that and hang on to, "It's too early to make international comparisons" or, "You can't compare as the UK's population is much denser" or "We're the only people accurately recording our death rates, the others are hiding things".

That's some fairly extreme mental gymnastics. If you have to create an alternate universe in your head where simple rules of mathematics no longer apply and the entire world is engaged in a conspiracy against the plucky Brits, who are the last bastion of truth and decency...

Then you deserve this bloody shambles of a government. Better still, why not buy some cammo gear and an assault rifle and move to America. You'll fit right in.

I gave up on Labour less than a week after Corbyn took over and he never saw power. These guys are letting people die.

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.