Maximising cleverness – but for whom?

How overwhelming would the research evidence need to be for you to give up your most strongly-held beliefs about education, teaching and learning?

What would it take for you to abandon the setting of children by academic ability?

Would you stop using fixed-term exclusion if it was shown to have no effect, or was detrimental to improving children’s behaviour?

This is a big test that we need to pass if we are to consider ourselves a research-informed profession.

I’ve recently been talking to teachers about inclusion and I’ve been trying really hard to engage with the research evidence that I can find (where to find it is a skill I am learning slowly). I’ve learned that in our profession you can probably find some research evidence to support whatever position you choose to adopt. For instance, when looking at segregation and mixing by gender I found some research showing how much better girls fared in girls’ schools. The research was commissioned by an American association for girls’ schools.

The research evidence on inclusion that I can find is enlightening.

Inclusion and Pupil Achievement by Dyson et al (2004) from the University of Newcastle, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) as was, documents a large-scale study (rare in inclusion research, it seems) looking at the effect of inclusion (defined as the proportion of children in the school with special educational needs) on the achievement of all pupils. In summary they found:

We found no evidence of a relationship between inclusion and attainment at LEA level. An LEA’s policy in terms of the proportion of pupils educated in mainstream schools seems to have no bearing on overall levels of attainment in schools in that LEA when other variables are taken into account.

We found a very small and negative statistical relationship between the level of inclusivity in a school and the attainments of its pupils. The possibility that this is a causal relationship cannot entirely be ruled out, though this seems unlikely.

They also found a positive view of inclusion from teachers and pupils, who observed the positive effects on the wider achievements of all pupils. And they noted that their findings were in line with the international research evidence. Most studies find few if any negative impacts of inclusion on the attainments and achievements of pupils without SEN.

Would it encourage you to reconsider your approach to inclusion? Would it prompt you to think again before you ask me to consider the other 29 when I talk about meeting the needs of the one? Or perhaps you are influenced by some other research that contradicts Dyson et al? If so, I’d like to read it.

Heresy?, a recent post by Dave Aldridge (@zudensachen), has really got me thinking, though, about the cumulative effect of all the different ways we organise our systems, both on a school level and in the individual classroom.

The jury is largely out on mixed ability v. setting. There are probably small gains for low ability students from mixed ability teaching and small losses for high ability, and it’s the other way round with setting. The question, from a ‘what works’ point of view, is how all of these small gains and losses stack up overall. To put it another way, the question is how to maximise cleverness for the aggregate of students? And this is certainly an empirical question.”

It got me thinking about society’s priorities. Inadvertently or not, our system prioritises ‘maximising cleverness’, to borrow the phrase, of our highest academic attainers. The terminal written exam, the characterisation of vocational subjects as poor illegitimate cousins, grossly disproportionate use of exclusion for kids with SEN, Oxbridge entrance as a measure of success and the positive correlation between socio-economic status and Ofsted success are all factors that are entirely within our control. They could be changed tomorrow.

As long as we ‘maximise cleverness’ for our highest attainers we, as a nation, are content for others to do less well. Why is it not the other way round? Our highest attaining children are likely to be best prepared to do well as adults. The same cannot be said for our children with SEN. Their life outcomes are dire*. A small improvement in these sickening statistics would make a big difference to the lives of many.

A measure of our maturity as a nation – and boy do we need that now more than ever – would be to commit to improving the life outcomes of our most vulnerable, even if it meant that the rest of us fared ever so slightly less well. I fear that we are light years away from that. Just as we ‘maximise cleverness’ for our highest attainers, so we prioritise maximising richness for our most wealthy. We demonise benefit claimants, we use blunt policies like the bedroom tax that affect parents of children with disabilities and we go out of our way to smooth the path for the wealth creators because, so the lie goes, the money will trickle down to the rest of us. Tell that to the 90% of adults with learning difficulties who are unemployed.

* They will die at least 15 years younger than you.

They are twice as likely to be bullied at primary school.

They are nine times more likely to receive a fixed-term exclusion from school.*

They are nine times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion from school.

They are seven times less likely to work than you.

If they do work, it will probably be part-time. It will probably be poorly paid.

They are twice as likely to live in poverty as you.

They are over four times more likely to have mental health problems as a child.

They are more likely to have children with their own learning difficulties.

They are at least three times more likely to end up in prison.




If only we didn’t have experts

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” proclaimed Michael Gove, our school’s constituency MP, in an EU referendum debate on Sky recently.

He was referring specifically to economists and their views about what would happen to Britain in a post-Brexit or post-Eurin vote, but to me it summed up neatly the views of some who attack the public services in this country and reminded me of his time as Education Secretary.

Mr Gove led the DfE through a four and half year campaign to improve schools in this country. No-one can argue with that aim (the method of delivery is a different question), and no-one in our cherished profession seriously wants anything other than the best for each and every child. Yet many of us were characterised as getting in the way of progress, of being part of the problem – we were The Blob.

Schools could be better. If they could be better, then they are not good enough. If they are not good enough it must mean that those who teach in them and lead them are not doing a good enough job, ergo the professionals (so-called) are the problem. If they are not doing a good enough job, despite their training and years of experience then that must be a major cause of the problem. They don’t even realise that they’re not doing a good enough job, goes the logic. The extension of that is that it must take someone with a fresh pair of eyes, someone who hasn’t been institutionalised to show us the errors of our ways.

The NHS, one of this country’s most impressive achievements, gets hammered because of a perception that it has a bloated management and bureaucratic culture. Not that it is chronically underfunded to fulfil its duties. The criticism in this case is reserved for managers, not clinical professionals who, rightly, retain high status in this country.

The police service has coped with eye-wateringly large budget cuts in recent years. I feel sick every time I think of my budget, yet my pressures pale into insignificance by comparison. Despite this, front-line police officers and their operational leaders, of which my brother is one, continue to make big dents in recorded crime. The British Crime Survey which, despite its many flaws is the best indicator of crime trends that we have, shows major reductions in overall crime over many years. This is not considered good enough and resulted in the abolition of Police Authorities (a second cousin to school governing bodies) and the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners – one person who can back or sack the Chief Constable.

We’re not immune to this ourselves. There is nothing more satisfying than sticking the boot into ‘SLT’. I regularly read on Twitter criticisms of senior leaders that the reason we’re so bad at our jobs is that we’ve lost touch with what it’s like to be a full-time class teacher, forgotten what it’s like to talk to kids, that we’re obsessed with numbers and spreadsheets and Ofsted. We’re getting in the way of schools being better, of teachers just getting on with their job. I can take constructive criticism and feedback, but I have a very thin skin when it comes to lazy stereotypes.

It’s this approach of mistrusting the expert (as Michael Gove would say) or the experienced that is slowly strangling parts of the public sector. I’m proud to be a public servant and I was proud to be a public service volunteer when I was a Special Constable with Thames Valley Police and a British Army reservist. How long I continue to enjoy, and therefore how long I can remain, being a public servant is another matter. It’s difficult to feel that you’re doing anything other than a mediocre job, at best, in the current climate.

I know absolutely nothing about running a hedge fund. Perhaps I’ll give that a shot instead.