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.





7 thoughts on “Maximising cleverness – but for whom?

  1. Hi Jarlath. Thanks for all your thoughts on Inclusion recently. Sounds as if it is at least getting an airing.
    I have a number of concerns about the direction of travel, having spent 10 years helping to develop the Inclusion Quality Mark model, moving it from the integration start point, based on SEN into mainstream, to an overview ethos of every child mattering.
    The past 20 years have seen a massive move back to whole class teaching, where previously it might be more group based challenge. This, I would suggest, is where the tension arises. How does one fit with/into the collective? It becomes easier to exclude, with the excuse of the “majority”, removing the need for teacher adaptation. Setting and streaming simply reduce the range of need, but still are effectively mixed ability.
    I can see the tension between your necessary personalised approaches and whole class mainstream. I have, fortunately, visited many schools that have a personalised core. They have well thought through, strategic thinking, clearly communicated to everyone.
    As for cleverness, I’m an advocate of children who achieve, sharing what they’ve done and how they did it, so that others get an insight into deeper thinking. Also makes it peer, not teacher challenge.
    There is always a way.

  2. As a parent of a child with SEN, this obviously doesn’t make for happy reading. Wholeheartedly agree that culture and mindset change is what is so desperately needed, but are we just calling out to those with no morals who will never listen? How do we change things so that there are more of us than them? Cleverness doesn’t always equate to fairness and doing the right thing, sadly. The idea of all children attending their local school,with all the support they need, with no league tables, just seems a stretch too far though… 😦

  3. Pingback: Maximising cleverness – but for whom? – Ed Blog Reader – A digest of interesting writing on educational issues

  4. Thanks for this Jarlath. Can I ask why you don’t think the system should strive to make the children you’re writing about cleverer? There’s corrrlational evidence that raising IQ could decrease the alarming probabilities you list and there’s also reason to think that getting these children to know more wipuld have a positive effect on their crystallised intelligence. Maximising cleverness might be the best way to achieve the aims you want.

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I wasn’t arguing that we shouldn’t strive to make children with SEND cleverer. You are right to point out that improving attainment for these children would most likely help improve the dire life outcomes quoted. I was trying to make the point – perhaps not clearly enough, I guess – that structures such as setting and grammars seem to lead to lower attainers (and there will clearly be an overlap with children with SEND) faring comparatively less well. This doesn’t seem to exercise people too much given that grammars are a popular move amongst a decent proportion of the electorate and most teachers I’ve spoken to (and almost all parents) regard setting as blindingly obviously the right thing to do for everyone. ‘Holding back the most able’ is also seen as a big problem and one of the main angles of attack against comprehensives.
      Thanks again.

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