Search This Blog

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