“Lies, Damn lies and Statistics…”

The website https://www.phrases.org.uk suggests that the full saying “There are three kinds of falsehoods, lies, damned lies and statistics” is from Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, as quoted in the Manchester Guardian, 29th June 1892. No matter, but worth noting that the public has been very wary of government for at least 120 years on its choice of statistics to use to back its decisions or blow its own trumpet.

Screenshot Stats

Screenshot Stats2

It is no surprise to any of us in Education that the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has now chosen to write to the Department for Education (DfE) for the fifth time; it has already done so on four occasions in the past year about its use of statistics, it said in a letter to Damian Hinds, the education secretary. It is now investigating this fifth complaint, on international comparisons of school funding. Sir David has called for a meeting with Jonathan Slater, the DfE’s permanent secretary, and sought reassurance that the DfE would “observe the statutory code of and sought reassurance that in future the DfE would observe the statutory code of practice for statistics.

What worries us all in Education is that whenever we hear the parliamentary representatives with responsibility for Education, such as Damien Hinds, Secretary of State or Nick Gibb, Schools minister, they speak with great authority and confidence of a state education sector that none of us actually recognise, in terms of funding, teacher recruitment and curriculum matters.

And the DfE, having used statistics to further their own aims, continue with their general standpoint that investment in UK education is amongst the highest in the developed world. This fact may indeed be true, in much the same way as the house prices in the UK are amongst the highest in the world, but does that make ‘housing’ per se better than similar countries in the developed world? Or does the investment by UK PLC in the railways make our railways amongst the best in the world too. Here’s an OECD graph that highlights the sheer cost of childcare in the UK:

Given the high level of anecdotal evidence that funding has been slashed to the bone arising in individual schools throughout the country, highly visible in news bulletins and indeed Court decisions highlighting the same, I really don’t know how the DfE or indeed its master, the elected government finds it in their water to sustain a conversation using statistics for which there is no integrity, and for which its own watchdog has called it out.

Here’s another internationally renowned statistician on the matter: “For a department that is in charge of the nation’s numerical skills, this is getting embarrassing,” said Sir David Spiegelhalter, president of the Royal Statistical Society. “Ministers need to get a grip!”

Indeed they do Sir David, indeed they do.

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Open Days – a celebration of school life

Thursday 28 September 2018 saw us open up our school for the first time this year for Open Day, an occasion which provides for us an opportunity to ‘showcase’ what we do during the day.

Across the 3 sites today, we had some 100 visitors, including current parents looking upwards at the next stage in education we offer, external visitors for the first or more time, and perhaps loveliest of all, former pupils who are now parents in their own right, coming back to check whether we are the school they remember.

I’ll add to this blog over the next few days, to pick up further colour from today’s visits.  It must be said that the conversations our current pupils started always seemed informative and on occasion hilarious.

What’ is certainly worth doing is visiting schools when they are normal.  Open evenings are of course showcases, but frankly, the ‘warts and all’ can only be seen during ‘normal’ service.  And also of course worth doing is having a look at their weekly communications as well – I have just finished reading our weekly blurb, and the newsletters make a great read indeed. https://www.clairescourt.com/page/?title=Bulletin&pid=298

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Into the twilight zone -when school statistics cease to make sense. Go figure!

I am an avid listener of the Radio 4 statistics programme, More or Less, in which its presenter Tim Harford challenges broad sweeping statements made on the media that might not actually be true. Last week (14 Sept) was entitled “Male suicide, School ratings, Are female tennis players treated unfairly by umpires?” You can find the broadcast here,  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bh8vpd and the section I ask you particularly listen to is from 6m50s, when Tim turns his attention to the claim of the chairman of the Conservative party, Brandon Lewis this August that “Since 2010 the number of pupils in good or outstanding schools had risen from 66% to 86%”.  To be honest, Mr Lewis is just quoting the DfE’s own recently statistics, so how could his claim be exaggerated?

It has been well publicised that Ofsted no longer has the resources to do everything, so its current focus is on moving schools from the bottom 2 categories of ‘inadequate’ and ‘requires improvement’, inspecting them quickly to move them upwards, rather than reinspecting ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding schools’.  ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ schools are not expected to be inspected in perhaps less than a ten year period, so inevitably, there is going to be a ratchet effect lifting standards, with there only existing a one way ticket upwards!  Even more confusing is that some 700 failing schools have been ‘closed’ and reopened, which ‘erases’ their ‘inadequate’ rating and they won’t be inspected for a further 3 years – in the meantime they enter that twilight zone of invisibility.

Education journalist and researcher, Laura Mcinerney helps put sense to the statistics in the broadcast, and is challenged to explain why the changes in the exams structures at GCSE and A level damage the research base further. Regular readers of this blog will have read me bang on about this before, but I love the fact that McInerney (whom I have admired since her days writing on Twitter as a Fulbright Scholar back in 2014) is affirming my thinking. Every GCSE and A level has been so substantially changed now, that there is no way we can compare the statistics of the past with pupil performance now from 2018 onwards. For any research to be of value, you need at least 5 years of data,  so it’s fair to say we will not know whether the changes that have been brought in have raised the standards of education in England as the DfE (led by Mr Gove at the time of initiating these changes – back when McInerney was stateside 2014) until 2023 at the very earliest, given that the new style GCSE exams only hit Bus Stud and Tech in 2019.

In practical matters, such as running a train set, when the ‘Fat controller‘ decides to change the train timetables, almost at once when they are implemented, we learn whether they are going to work. On 20 May 2018, the new England train timetables were introduced, chaos ensued, and we know just 4 months later the reasons why (from the report by the Office of Rail and Road).  The ORR  said that:

  • Network Rail was best placed to manage the risks relating to delays with Network Rail’s electrification work, pushing back the development of the timetable and gave train operators less time to prepare for the introduction of new services but did not take sufficient action
  • Neither GTR or Northern were prepared for the disruption that arose, nor did they do enough to provide accurate information to passengers
  • Both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the ORR itself failed in their duties to oversee the industry

Almost exactly the same set of circumstances have preceded the changes to the public examination system in England.  The Education departments in both Wales and Northern Ireland were able to ‘stay’ the changes, and have reflected more carefully on what is actually needed in their jurisdictions. It’s quite one thing for maniac politicians to insist on changing the content and style of examinations within its schools, but you’d think as a profession we could have caused some restraint so that the outcomes of such change could be tested and unforeseen circumstances made more visible prior to final implentation?. McInerney concludes “The amount of change that has gone on over the past eight years makes it almost impossible to compare anything.  Even these Ofsted grades have different marking criteria since 2010… We can’t even take a small group, for example pupils that are on free school meals, because the criteria for a child qualifies for free school meals has changed over the last few years…”.

As a school principal within the Independent Sector, untroubled by Ofsted grade criteria or free school meals, you might wonder why I am bothered by this ‘education crash’ of epic proportions in the state sector?  The reality of course is that we share the same broader education ‘environment’ and our politicians and public consider all schools together in their thinking and conversation. There is an incredible clamour from the Education Secretary and his acolytes within the DfE that Independent Schools should be doing so much more to assist our state partners, and also be tring much harder to widen access and improve social mobility.  DfE has dramatically ramped on the pressure on its own schools, who have seen reduced per capita funding, coupled with an ever increasing population of children set against a declining population of teachers. The growing evidence from the state sector and its inspectorate of the narrowing of the curriculum, accountability measures forcing teaching to the test, the diminution of co-curricular activities coupled with staffing and resource crisis has resulted from the direct actions of the DfE and this government’s financial and budgetary decisions. Here’s the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman writing three days ago: “School inspectors in England have put too much weight on tests and exam results when rating schools.”

What’s worse is that Spielman knows what its teachers have been doing: “Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it.  We saw curriculum narrowing, especially in upper key stage 2, with lessons disproportionately focused on English and mathematics. Sometimes, this manifested as intensive, even obsessive, test preparation for key stage 2 sats [national curriculum tests] that in some cases started at Christmas in Year 6.”  She also knows what her schools need to to better, which is to have a much richer and deeper curriculum at the heart of each school.  “The content, structure and how it is developed is down for school leaders to decide. It should depend on a number of factors relevant to a particular school’s context and the knowledge and expertise of curriculum leaders.”

And therein lies the rub, because far from worry about how we can share facilities or aid social mobility, schools like mine really do understand how to build deep and rich curricula and we would willingly share our knowledge and expertise. The trouble is, government simply won’t fund it.  We are indeed entering a Twilight zone for some schools, where the light does not shine brightly, and the urgencies are so immediate, and where there is little statistical evidence to draw upon to identify quite where the schools and the pupils are currently at. As the Americans are won’t to say – “Go figure!”

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Extreme v Expected – why normalising real effort and creating opportunity are essential for learning.

The American journalist and author, Hunter S Thompson said “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.” He certainly wasn’t the first, and it’s a constant surprise to modern man when they uncover the work of our ancient predecessors and find paintings and craft work to be so incredibly well done.  We’ve seen a real resurgence in the development of craft skills amongst our society and a real market growing for craft articles and foods that had perhaps almost disappeared. There is a problem though, that of the growing reluctance of our ‘mind-set’ to engage with deep learning and extended practice.

Our Head of English, Luke Wespieser has shared with me this article from the Guardian, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound” by Maryanne Wolf. I am not surprised teachers are alarmed by the growing evidence that innovation and our adoption of new technology may be moving too quickly for developing brains to keep up!  Wolf writes: “As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.”

We may be seeing the same happen in other areas of skill acquisition in schools, such as hand-writing too.  Evidence from the exam boards is showing an increasing number of candidates are being authorised to use laptops for their public examinations, because their writing is not up to the speed required.  In addition where spelling, punctuation etc. are a real problem, then spell-checking can be enabled. Such access requirements to ensure those with such disabilities used to only each down from A levels to GCSEs, though now include children down to 11+ entrance tests and other primary school assessments too.

Wolf continues: “This is not a simple, binary issue of print v digital reading and technological innovation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating. In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it.”

There’s a whole host of skill-sets that can only be learned through patient practice and deep absorption in the process, and we’ve seen these disappear over time in a whole host of human activities. From lead glass work for windows, to the use of slide-rules for calculations, some of these skills were acquired during the interim stage of technological development, no one for a moment now would suggest we should go back to glazing all windows with fragments of glass, or dispense with the calculator.  The real problem with the change in reading habits is that “as UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.”

The challenge for those involved in education, be we teachers, learners or parents is to provide enough space for the development and retention of both sets of skills, analogue and digital. It’s perhaps no wonder that sixth form and university subject disciplines as diverse as Languages and Humanities which require deep reading and reflection, philosophical thought and re-examination of past actions and writings are proving to be less attractive than those disciplines that don’t require a set of skills built around such an interconnected set of neurons in our brain.

What does this mean for us at Claires Court? Expect lots of technology still to roll out, with AI and 3D arriving through the year. But also expect us to continue to work on real reading, writing, and inspiring children to take pride in the acquisition of the physical and craft skills throughout primary, and to keep the school open long enough to ensure the hours of practice as well as the breadth of study can be put in.  Hunter Thompson  2018-19 looks to be an exciting year for us all, with much happening in these fields of learning every day, so I’ll keep you posted with a new blog every Thursday of course!!!

 

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Sweating, not Testing, the Good Stuff…

The recently published report on St Olave’s Grammar School by Bromley Borough Council provides a damning indictment of the toxic accountability culture that some headteachers have encouraged in their schools. The Daily Telegraph newspaper leads the story with the headline:

Grammar school superhead left students feeling suicidal with policy of exclusion for getting B grades

and continues: A “superhead” of an ultra-selective London grammar school left sixth-formers feeling suicidal and staff feeling bullied with a “constant emphasis” on perfect exam grades, a report has found.  The article finishes with “St Olave’s has promised to judge future performance against a broader range of criteria”.

Russell groupThe trouble  with the concept of judging performance for 21st century school leaders is that almost all the desirable outcomes required in good schools are immeasurable for the purposes of judging performance; as with all elite performance, you must concentrate your resources on looking after the individuals in the team, treating them as individuals and managing their needs accordingly.  The outcomes for students leaving the Sixth Form are going to be very different to the needs the pupils had identified on entry in the school at age 11, and  dependent too on the emerging skills and talents the children display as they rise up through the school’s many channels of provision.  If a school chooses to measure itself by Russell Group University admissions, then it is then requiring of its Sixth Form leaders and Careers guidance counsellors to put destination more important than career choice.  One of our own staff’s son revealed to me the other day (attending Sixth Form elsewhere), “the anger on the face of the Headteacher was all too palpable when they heard I was choosing Oxford Brookes over Russell Group for my chosen degree course”. No wonder such schools are shutting down A level Art, Drama, D&T, Music and Sports as subject choices, because such subjects point at Art School, Drama or Music College or worse still, a career in these and Sport rather than  the pursuit of a degree.  Unsurprisingly, all the above routes are open in our Sixth Form, and whilst all the above is true, I do actually feel we are serving the individual students best this way as well.

My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment in this regards happened as we were making the decision to leave the National Curriculum. Increasingly, we were finding that we could  get the best NC outcomes at KS1, 2 and 3 through teaching to the test, but that ‘encouragement to focus on English language, Maths and Science’ was doing nothing for reading, Literature, the wider arts and languages, let alone the practical disciplines, and the effect on children was a narrowing of their ambition and wish to risk choice far too early.  By way of example of my own non-national curriculum, I still have exercise books from my years as a pupil here, and from the age of 8 to 13 we read Chaucer,

Chaucer

Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to name but 4 of many.  All of these made their living be selling their stories to the masses, to entertain the troops so to speak; the inspiration we drew as children from the Knight’s tale, Macbeth, Christmas Carol and the Woman in White led to the creation of tabloid press articles, cartoon storyboards, versions with alternative endings as well of course as  derivative versions, and on occasion, wholly new writing and poetry of our own.  Undertaking the research last decade on what had been lost during the ‘nationalisation of the core curriculum’ brought some pretty terrifying evidence to the surface; not only had the volume of engaging and inspirational activities been reduced, but too much exploratory work was being replaced with rote learning and worksheet, and for no good purpose.

 

Teachers wondering where their source material for exploring challenging issues and raising the resilience of the children in their care need look no further than the classics, and most teachers recognise that they include all the same arguments that suffuse parliament, the press and the entertainment media today.  We welcome the challenge to ensure that children are engaged by the history and writing of the past and highlight that the issues are all still very much alive and entertain us all.  Whilst not a avid viewer of Love Island, I understand Dani and Jack are the bookies’ favourites to win the programme’s £50,000 prize (Monday 30 July); I haven’t missed the supporting story either, that more people applied for Love Island this year than to enter Oxbridge, nor that Love Island Competitors can expect to have higher life term earnings as well than Oxbridge graduates.

Reality Show Fame Is More Lucrative Than an Oxbridge ...

‘Love Island’ is more lucrative option than Oxbridge – link to the Financial Times 

 

Whether D&Js story will be as sad or compelling as Romeo and Juliet only time will tell.  I am not suggesting that schools should focus their charges on careers requiring such vanity and plastic surgery of course.  What I am recommending is that schools should set out to educate as much of each child as they can, collaborate as much as possible on a whole host of common enterprises and cause the children to ‘sweat hard on the good stuff’. Testing is of course one of the requirements to build up the perspiration but only that, and not too much of it early on – all the other components need to be in place as well.

 

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Football, the Prime Minister, our sportsman, Leadership and me…

The nature of a school year, and indeed the success of putting learning under test, inevitably means we will have a lot going on this time of year!  Sports Days, Speech Days, Prize Givings and Activity Weeks all play their part in enabling opportunities for competition, collaboration, risk-taking and leadership. There will be successes for some, failures for others too, though for the vast majority, we hope a real sense and pride in achievement, whatever the results.

The story of the English football team fits this pattern, achieving far beyond expectations and clearly not quite ready to win the World Cup…yet. For all the disappointment visible for England, the bigger football story across the world has been the remarkable rescue of the 12 boys and their coach, where they had been entombed in the Luang caves in Chiang Rai, Thailand.  The incredible skill and expertise of the professional divers had been built up over years, enhanced by an incredible willingness to trust each other to work as a team.  Both examples prove to be an inspiration for our own pupils, a reminder that hard work coupled with meticulous planning provide the gateway to success in life.

Our country’s leading public servant, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, has faced her fair share of challenges recently, and it’s amazing that over her Chequers summit and cabinet resignations, she had time to pen this lovely letter on Sunday 8 July. That is a priceless example of the meticulous attention to detail Theresa has become famous for here in RBWM, sending congratulations to our athletes aged 8 to 16, who could indeed be our future stars.Letter from PM

More are on their way already, with the J16 coxed quad selected to race for Great Britain v France this week. Look out for the names of Toby Stubbs, Alexander Getley, Leo Griffiths and Jake Wincomb, delighted of course at their first taste of international competition, though not quite so pleased with their result, losing by two lengths in Paris. Please turn your eyes towards the Women’s Hockey World Cup taking place later this month at the Olympic stadium in Stratford, where our own Ellie Rayer (1999-2015) will be representing England, first game against India on Sunday 21 July.

To conclude, very many thanks to all  pupils and parents for their wonderful support this year.  In addition, I thank the headteachers and their staff for their amazing work, without which our school could not thrive. We bid farewell to Andy Giles, Head of Sixth Form, to Penny Hawker, Deputy Head Senior Girls, both of whom have been remarkable leaders in office and we wish them well as they move on to new challenges. I look forward to Justin Spanswick moving into executive headship alongside me, and continuing to work with our other heads to ensure that the pupils, parents and families of Claires Court are at the forefront of  what we do.

Have an excellent summer break , I feel sure we all deserve it!

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Whither Integrity…

When we set out to establish a post-faith based values 12 years ago, we didn’t seek to lose contact with the best of Christianity or indeed other faiths and belief systems. We used the whole community as a ‘sorting hat’ out of which came a mix of concepts, ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ that needed further honing.

Responsibility for ourselves, Respect for others, Loyalty to our school and Integrity above all. The strap-line shortens this further:VALUES strip
The current headlines, for both historic reasons and current breaking news don’t bode well for our society, it would seem, highlighting that ‘thought leaders’ in England act in every but showing Integrity.

The above are just 4 from Thursday (28 June) news and they each tell a different story, core though to the message is the straightforward lack of integrity shown therein. The reader can work three of them out, though the 4th headline, on teacher numbers, might take a little more figuring.  Anyone seeking to recruit teachers in most areas of the country face a bleak prospect, because there simply are not enough to go around. In part, though no-one ever says it, there is a ‘good news’ spin on this. Across the world, it seems that the English curriculum, with a very good deal of help from the British Council, is one of our great world export winners, with over 400 English curriculum schools opening abroad every year.  English curriculum schools require at least some English qualified teachers, so we have a significant ‘Brain Drain’ abroad.  In addition, there are thousands of International Baccalaureate schools abroad (over 1500 in the US alone). By way of example, check out the Council; of International Schools https://www.cois.org which has over 1300 such institutions in its membership.

The ‘Bad News’ is that qualified teachers face a limited shelf-life in state schools, worn out after only 5 years of service, as this article from the Independent from February 2017 makes clear:

“Government recruitment targets have been missed in the majority of subjects, including physics (by 19 per cent) and mathematics (by 16 per cent). Design and Technology only reached 41 per cent of its recruitment target this year.

Meanwhile we’re shedding existing teachers from our schools at record rates: 10,000 departed the profession between 2010 and 2015, and the pace of that loss is speeding up as disillusionment grows. Another £3bn cut to budgets is anticipated in the coming years – likely to be confirmed in Philip Hammond’s Budget next month – meaning that spending will reduce by 8 per cent per secondary pupil within the next three years.

In short, there simply aren’t enough teachers to educate our young people and it’s a crisis that is entirely politically manufactured.”

Here is Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders on the matter: “The government spent too long in a state of denial about this situation and, having finally woken up to the problem, has simply not done enough to address it. Teacher workload is a major factor and has been driven largely by an endless series of government reforms which are still working their way through the system. This has to be a salutary lesson for the future in ensuring that reforms are managed in a better way. ”

I precis the rest of the ‘Independent article’: “In 2014, half of teachers said they were considering leaving the profession. At that point, …they were also being insulted each morning on the radio, in the press or in parliament by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove …spent his days inventing some very creative names for teachers: “the blob”, the “enemies of promise”, “soft bigots” with “low expectations”.

 

Teachers aren’t uniquely sensitive creatures; they are experts in their field and, by voting with their feet and leaving their vocation, they are sending a warning to the Government that something is seriously wrong. And it’s easy to discover what, because they have been talking about it openly for years, unreasonable workload, the apparent ignorance from the Government of what teachers are actually trying to achieve, the forced academisation programme, which gives businesses influence over young people; the truly chilling effect of year-on-year pay freezes (the clue’s in the name);…”

…and my words now, and an almost unbelievable lack of integrity by 2 of the elected ministers at the helm. Whenever they speak, be they the Secretary of State or his minister Nick Gibb, they will state black is white, or worse still ‘soft soap’ their audience with ‘possibilities and maybes’ and then rely on the DfE teleprinter to email out ‘computer says no’.  If 16 year olds fail to gain a level 4/C grade (higher tier pass) in their Maths and English, they are required to resit the subjects until they gain a higher tier pass in the same GCSE or they leave education at age 18. As soon as this was ‘required’ (by Michael Gove – 2013, you could have guessed of course), the challenge became obvious – ‘where on earth would all the extra teachers come from?’

Our current Secretary of State has once again been pressed on this matter this spring, ‘promised he would  look at it’ and … eventually, when quizzed by Parliament’s Education Select Committee on Wednesday, Dominic Grieve broke the news:

GCSE no

So that’s that then – having been presented with all the evidence by as many of the education-based pressure groups, colleges, employers and so forth, that there simply are not enough English and Maths teachers around, and that ‘any way’ this is the wrong exam to test Adult literacy and numeracy by, the Honourable Member of Parliament for Beaconsfield fobs everyone off with hopeful words and then announces in parliament this somewhat ambiguous way of stating, ‘no change’.

Apart from this ‘rant’, what might the long suffering reader take from this post?  Within schools throughout the country, we have educators of principle highlighting the need for education above all to embrace ‘integrity’. It’s a much used word, indeed some Universities such as Surrey are under the scrutiny for offering 1st’s a little too cheaply it seems (41%) – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40654933. In my opinion, we can use Integrity where we see it as a ‘torch’ to shine on situations that clearly lack it is a virtue. And that will be a good thing for all.

 

 

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