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Evidence Ping-Pong and “The Three Pillars of School Reform”

It was good to hear the Secretary of State for Education, whose “policy tourism” approach has occasionally seemed a little pick and mix, presenting his thoughts in this structured way and I was pleased to hear something that began to sound much more like a program for government.

He began by describing the benefits of autonomy. He quoted studies that “proved” that autonomy delivered results and referred to Westminster Academy’s own success in tripling 5 A-C rates since it became an academy. Interestingly he didn’t use the 5 A-C including English and Maths figure which is normally his preferred measure. Perhaps this is because the academy gets 45% on this measure, significantly less than comparable non-academies in the area (including at my own old school, St. George’s which scores 60% on this measure).

But there lies the problem. I’m falling into unhelpful inter-school competition and an annoying game that I think I’ll call evidence ping-pong: as soon as the speech was over critics began quoting contrary studies and outstanding improvements by ‘non-autonomous’ schools. I’ve been known to participate in these exercises myself but I’m getting a bit bored of this tiresome routine: the DfE trot out one set of evidence proving the worth of academies and the anti-freeschools/academy counter with their own. A lengthy and inconclusive game of evidence ping-pong ensues whilst the more fundamental questions end up neglected. For me, one of these questions is whether schools really should be autonomous from government and local authorities.

Stop me if I’m wrong but representative democracy works like this right? – We elect the government which we think will best represent our picture of what the country should look like. Now, if education is key to shaping this picture, does it make sense to say that schools should be autonomous? Surely not. Surely we should expect the state to ensure that our children are safe in school? Surely we want to know that the billions of pounds we hand over to head teachers’ are in capable hands? Surely we expect the state to take a role in ensuring that pupils are shaped into the type of citizens whom we would like our society to be composed of? Of course, that’s different to saying that the government should heavy handidly be intervening in day to day teaching and school management but if the demands that we make of schools are such that schools need to be freed from them, then there’s something wrong with the demands, not the fact that we make demands. We should be looking at what the demands are rather than radically uncoupling the state and education.

From there we moved on to teacher quality. Nothing very new there, more praise for Teachfirst and an interesting casting of teachers as the “guardians of the country’s intellectual life”, (plus an ode to systematic synthetic phonics -primary teachers I leave you to judge the wisdom of this).

Then we moved on to quality external testing. The highlight of the speech for me came in this section with the argument that we “need to stop seeing academic rigour as somehow incompatible with enjoyable teaching”. I wonder if Gove has been reading my blog on learning and fun? Here Michael, I’m definitely with you.

We then heard more about the new English Baccalaureate. This is where inconsistency crept in again. Pillar one was autonomy from the government. Remember? Yet the Secretary of State believes that traditional subjects have greater value than others. These are, specifically: English, Science, Maths, a Modern or Ancient Language and Humanities (defined as History, Geography, Music and Art, not sure if RE was in there, Citizenship certainly wasn’t). Therefore, although we apparently need a whole new type of school and hundreds of academies so that they can be free of the curriculum, Gove has decided to get involved in qualifications in order to push (Nudge?) schools towards his particular favourites. I am convinced of the value of the IBs and can therefore understand why he might like this idea. However, if he is taking on board the lessons of the IB, I’m not quite sure why he has picked this particular set of subjects. Two great features of the IB to my mind are the Theory of Knowledge and the Project element. When I asked him about these there seemed no plan to tap into the benefits of these. He did re-assure us though that that the baccalaureate would not stand in the way of other GCSEs or vocational qualifications. The thing is, the type of intervention in the running of schools which Gove decries rarely spawns from intentional interference. The process is more subtle and with this new announcement he risks becoming an agent of it. Here’s the process:

1. Headteacher seeks “superhead” accolade
2. DfE have target for take up of new qualification (baccalaureate, diploma etc)
DfE get in touch with schools and big up the new qualification –> Head begins to picture DfE back-patting and “superhead” accolade that will come from newspaper headline of “90% of pupils at school x achieve new superqualification” –> Head shifts teachers and budgets to focus on newly emphasised subjects –> Teachers moan about interference from above, target-itis and disruption to “getting on with the job of teaching” and there you have it.

…So maybe I take back my earlier comment and we should have more autonomy…


  1. Avatar
    Laura says:

    On the ‘ping-pong’ front, a useful read is http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/ – Bruce Baker is very good at cutting through all the evidence bull-shit. His basic point is that, in the end, all types of school have similar normal distributions to all other types once you control for things like EAL, social background, etc. Some academies will be extraordinarily good; others will not. Some non-academies are extraordinarily good; some are not. And most schools of either ilk bulk around ‘the middle’, or sometimes self-evidently titled as ‘the average’.

    Therefore, worthwhile reforms are only really those that pointedly move the quality of this ‘average middle’ upwards. But there is no evidence whatsoever showing charter schools or other ‘autonomous’ policies do this. If Gove can show that the introduction of autonomy moves the mean score then ping-pong would stop. Until then he is relegated to speaking at fancy schools (of which there shall be NO MORE given his BSF cuts) and hoping that single examples will be enough to overcome most people’s reasonably limited grasp on statistics and inference.

    On this bacc thing: A “modern OR ANCIENT language” – why? I’m also most perplexed that ‘music’ counts as an integral humanities subject but citizenship is being canned. I didn’t see people on the tv tonight complaining their fundamental human right of voting was being supressed because they don’t know what a ‘concerto’ is. They did suggest it would be good if we all knew ‘a bit more about PR’ though….

  2. Avatar
    loic_admin says:

    Yes! Ancient language! Intriguing eh. Apparently it’s something to do with a “part of your brain” which is developed by learning a language (?) and the Music and Art inclusion was interesting, I’m not sure how many schools include Art and Music in their humanities faculties, but maybe that’s just semantics.
    Was a day of wow- new buildings for me- went to see my old school’s new building. Will definitely transform the school experience so shed a little tear for BSF.

    On the stats I also like Stephen Gorard on this – see my blog “lies damned lies and statistics” (http://lkmconsulting.co.uk/article/lies-damned-lies-and-statistics-20082010) and his article “Is Secondary School Re-Modelling A Red Herring” (http://www.teachingtimes.com/news/stephen-gorard-red-herring.htm ) You’ll definitely like that one if you haven’t seen it before.

    Thanks for the comments , keep it coming!

  3. Avatar
    loic_admin says:

    This morning at the RSA’s 2020 Public Service Trust Education Launch, Julian Astle gave four principles which seemed to me good guidelines for how government should be involved in schools and which I think link to what I was saying about the demands that need to be made of schools:
    He thinks government should:

    1. Define “what we believe it is to be educated”
    2. “Act as a guarantor of academic standards”
    3. “Ensure through the admissions process that hard-to-reach children are not unfairly discriminated against”
    4. “Take active steps to ensure that children who are disadvantaged… are given the additional support they need to reach their potential”


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