Evidence based decision making – 1854-2013

The return of Sherlock Holmes in the modern idiom, as characterised by Benedict Cumberbatch, has brought this Victorian sleuth back into the limelight.

I am certainly not the only viewer of ‘Sherlock’, the BBC series, to be moving my status to ‘can’t wait’.  How on earth he survived the Reichenbach fall quite escapes me, but we know he did, so I want to find out.

‘It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important’ is a Holmesean expression we should learn to cherish, as is ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’

I teach in a remarkable school, with amazing teachers and extraordinary children. That view of where I work is normal for me and for my approach to education more generally.  What’s the point of saying anything else? Now Sir Arthur Conan Doyle occasionally made his sleuth deeply pessimistic, but most of the time, it’s Sherlock’s energy to win through that makes the man exceptional.  Remember – it’s about the little things, all adding up that make the big picture!  It was our school’s Open Day today, and the sites were filled with visitors, gathering evidence, to make informed choices based on such first-hand research.

Research is key to validating decisions about policy and for future planing. Academic centres of excellence across the country have gone into overdrive, as educationalists responsible for such work seek out the basis for the current ‘urban myths’ on failing education, propagated by the Daily Mail, the DfE and Mr Gove. You have all of course heard that A levels and GCSEs are way too easy – today’s nonsense propagated from MrG that respectable school history is regularly dumbed down by using a Mr Men approach just another example.  Such views are not evident, it must be said, in the impressions of either parents or pupils currently sitting public exams at Claires Court.

The Oxford University centre for Educational Assessment has published a report entitled “Research evidence relating to proposals for reform of the GCSE”, and it makes interesting reading.

You can find that here:  –   http://goo.gl/YPWvY

In summary (from the TES+), the Oxford team casts doubt on ministers’ assertions that GCSEs have been “dumbed down”, that England is underperforming on international measures and that the reformed GCSEs will improve standards. Standards in Maths have not declined over the last 20 years, and actually, Britain gets what it deserves, spending what it does on education.

The Oxford academics write that “most young people in England have high aspirations”. They add that the proposed changes to GCSEs are “unlikely” to improve aspiration because they will raise demand, reduce resits and lead to “fewer routes to success”.

The academics also dismissed claims that breaking down GCSEs into modules had made exams easier. Research showed that end-of-course exams led to a “narrowing of the curriculum” and rote learning, they added.

Another great Victorian writer, Charles Dickens was appalled at the working conditions he saw developing in England for children at school.  He saw the prevalence of utilitarian values in educational institutions promote contempt between mill owners and workers, creating young adults whose imaginations had been neglected, due to an over-emphasis on facts at the expense of more imaginative pursuits. Drawing upon his own childhood experiences, Dickens resolved to “strike the heaviest blow in my power” for those who laboured in horrific conditions*.

Dickens wrote his shortest novel, Hard Times,  to highlight the emerging misery of those who held by such Utilitarian ideas.  His lead character was Mr Thomas Gradgrind, a notorious headmaster and father of 5. His academic approach was to treat children as pitchers to be filled with knowledge, and that artistic cognitive development for example, were mere fancies and conceits. He didn’t do much better with his children, for example persuading his daughter Louisa to marry his boss for money. There’s more to the story, but take it from me, it all ends in misery, for his daughter and pretty much everyone else – except for Mr G, who rather too late in the day, accepts the errors of his way. Oh, and some hope surfaces too for the children who managed to escape his school, and found better ways to learn!

Dickens and Conan Doyle in their writings shared a common mission to elevate humankind from the corrupting, nay criminal influences of their times.  They wrote in serials, attracting a mass readership drawn from the ‘penny’ press and more worthy magazines. They used the evidence of their eyes to populate their stories and they told the truth as they saw it, and in Dicken’s case he really saw a moral purpose in so doing. That’s why the Authors are so well known still, despite the passing of years, and why their stories are compelling and stand the test of translation into the 21st century vernacular.

The evidence is that we tend to forget Education secretaries quite quickly, as their works are almost always overturned by the next incumbent, responding more to political whim, it must be said, than evidence-based research.  And shame on those who run education if they don’t use evidence, for the ill-informed choices they otherwise enforce upon a nation’s children can easily and dramatically affect the life-chances of those involved, even if it is for but a few years of implementation, before wisdom prevails.  I wonder whether the similarities between our MrG and Mr Dickens’s creation will continue to grow.

+Times Educational Supplement

*Thanks Wikipedia


About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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