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Quick Tips for New Education Bloggers

July 23, 2014

My considered advice for education bloggers (complete with explanations of my opinions and discussion) can be found here.

However, below you read my quick tips. Some may be similar, but these were ones I posted on Twitter a few days ago, and as a result are based mainly on blind prejudice, no justification and little thought.

Hope they are helpful.

  1. “Musings” and “Ramblings” are massively overused in blog titles. Try “meanderings”. (Or maybe not)
  2. Use WordPress. Hosted on WordPress. Really.
  3. Pick an unambiguous title. I’m still justifying and explaining mine almost 8 years later.
  4. If you use the words “learning” or “teaching” in your blog title make the other words memorable. eg. Learning Hippo. Seriously, these two words are much overused. There are actually two different blogs called “Learning Science”.
  5. You don’t have to write only about education, but set out your stall early. Don’t start write about dieting 6 months in. (Or your children, pets or favourite songs).
  6. Tweet. (I organised a curry for bloggers a few months back. The one person that almost everybody asked “who’s he?” about was the one person who doesn’t tweet. It has to be done.)
  7. Don’t call yourself a “guru”, “expert” or “leader”. There are more fun ways to make everyone hate you. Hours of “fun” can be had on the internet arguing over who is actually an authority about teaching and who a) has too little classroom experience, b) has left the classroom too eagerly or c) is now a vested interest who can no longer be trusted.
  8. Try to keep blogposts usually under 1000 words, mostly under 1,500. Split into more than one post when necessary, even if you post them in rapid succession. I swear there are bloggers out there whose first paragraphs are read by thousands, but you can’t find anyone who ever got to the end.
  9. A picture is worth a 1000 words, but after the first picture it starts to feel like reading 1000 words too. Or, at the very least, it starts feeling like watching a Powerpoint presentation. Assume blog readers can get through several consecutive paragraphs of text without having a panic attack.
  10. Criticising people without naming them is not politer, it’s just cowardly.

 

 

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Spot The Difference Part 3

July 22, 2014

I’ve commented previously on the difference in Tristram Hunt’s views before and after he became part of Labour’s education team. So far I’ve commented on:

However, these are pretty small issues compared with the one that most often leads middle class Labour politicians to fail their own supporters. This is the issue of whether working class kids should aspire to the same levels of academic achievement as middle class kids, or whether other people’s children need to take a “non-academic” route, perhaps one that involves working with their hands.

On this issue, Tristram used to sound almost Gove-like in his views. From “The forward march of Labour restarted?” in November 2011:

What then are the contemporary sociological forces that the left needs to understand and seek to grasp? … I would highlight four in particular… [the] [t]hird [is]: the crisis of educational attainment. Despite major strides in improving educational standards after 1997, we cannot be satisfied by Britain’s slide down the international rankings. In 2000, British 15-year-olds ranked fourth in science, seventh in reading and eighth in mathematics. By 2009, those rankings had slumped to 16th, 25th and 28th respectively. Unsurprisingly, this crisis is most pronounced among those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2010, only 16 per cent of pupils achieved a grade C or above in the subjects that will become the English baccalaureate. For children eligible for free school meals, this figure falls to a staggering 4 per cent (House of Commons 2011). This could have major long-term implications for the Labour movement. It is not hard to see how a lack of educational attainment could combine with the decline in living standards and the decline of skilled or semi-skilled manual work to form a toxic cocktail of entrenched disadvantage.

So back then he thought that it was a “crisis” that more students, particularly FSM students, didn’t study Ebacc subjects and a decline in the importance of manual work made neglecting this problem a particularly great risk.

However, the Tristram Hunt of 2014 has a completely different attitude to the importance of academic qualifications and the importance of manual work. From a local newspaper article entitled “Shadow education minister Tristram Hunt: It’s vocation, vocation, vocation for Labour” in May 2014:

Mr Hunt, who is MP for Stoke on Trent, believes many of the region’s young people will benefit from a more hands-on approach.

He told The Journal: “One thing Labour would change quickly is the current lack of focus on technical and vocational education. That means decent apprenticeships and a more flexible curriculum that suits the needs of each region and its young people going forward…

“I think a lot of young people begin to get bored by their learning environment and that is why a one-size-fits-all curriculum simply doesn’t work from region to region. We need to make education relevant and interesting. It’s about raising young people’s aspirations, not putting them off.”

Labour’s reforms would also involve greater responsibility being placed on schools to track what their pupils go on to do, whether it be further education, training or work.

Schools that fail to ensure pupils progress in this way would face losing funding, with the money used to transform careers guidance in those schools and going to local employers to develop partnership programmes offering structured careers advice…

He said the proposals would address the talents of the “forgotten 50%” of young people who want to pursue vocational routes through education.

And perhaps even more disturbingly in an interview in the Guardian last month:

So we do talk for a while about vocational and technical education, where Labour proposes “a revolution in apprenticeships, putting business in the driving seat” and new Institutes of Technical Education to provide “gold-standard delivery” of a proposed technical baccalaureate. The latter would be one of two optional streams – the other would be a general (presumably mainly academic) baccalaureate _ within a national baccalaureate for 14- to 19-year-olds.

Would these supersede GCSEs and A-levels, as many teachers wish? Hunt replies – to my complete lack of surprise – that they wouldn’t. “But GCSEs and A-levels won’t be the be-all and end-all. We’re trying to get away from the exam factory model.” He explains that the new Bacc will have four components: the established exams, including those that lead to vocational qualifications; an extended project; maths and English for all; and “personal development skills”

There’s something of a myth that Hunt has done badly as shadow education secretary because he has failed to disagree with the Tories enough. This is mistaken. When it comes to the key controversy of recent years, the debate over the idea that an academic education is the best option for all children, Hunt has not just disagreed with the Tories, he’s disagreed with himself. Is Labour really going to go into a general election telling aspirational working class parents that Labour’s top educational priorities in government will be concentrating resources on non-academic options for children who are “bored by their learning environment” and on assessing “personal development skills”? I could see this happening when Stephen Twigg was shadow education secretary, but Hunt is capable of so much more if he was just encouraged to follow the convictions he held when he got the job.

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Towards a Blue Labour Agenda on Schools Part 2

July 20, 2014

As I mentioned here, I recently attended the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar. Obviously my motivation was as much to do with being a Labour activist as it is to do with being an education blogger, although one of the main reasons for attending was to hear from a couple of people I have met through education blogging. That said, given the subject matter of this blog, I only intend to reflect here almost exclusively on those aspects of discussion I thought are relevant to the education debate.

I consider myself to be, ideologically, Blue Labour. I like it when Labour politics are broad enough to be presentable in churches, mosques, factories, shop floors and on the doorstep in deprived areas, rather than the preserve of life-long political professionals, journalists and under-achieving members of the middle class who get very angry while watching Question Time on a Thursday night. I like it when people’s politics are shaped more by their workplace, their parents and their neighbours than by a university education or what they read in a newspaper. I like it when you don’t have to apologise for not following the latest ideological fashion (you noticed?) or dismiss the mass of the population as brainwashed by the Daily Mail. There’s probably very few who like the label “Blue Labour”, but a lot of the grassroots of the Labour Party, particularly in the heartlands, combine an affinity to the Labour Party with a conservatism about the power of politicians or public servants to determine values or culture for the rest of society.

However, I also have an educational agenda. I think that the disastrous involvement of the left with progressive education may have stemmed from a wider ideological failing of seeing state education as a tool by which an enlightened middle-class could deconstruct and re-engineer culture and society rather than as a way to meet working class aspirations. I think this has resulted in two terrible ideas. Firstly, the idea that the working class needed to be protected from the bourgeois culture of the educated by not being taught the same content as those in private or grammar schools. Secondly, the idea that while (with middle class supervision) the lot of the working class as a whole could be improved, the individuals within that class must be told to “rise with your class, not beyond it” (in the phrase I heard from Scottish educational David Cameron late in the 43rd minute of this video). Both attitudes, while left-wing on the face of it, have helped restrict education to an elite. I do see Blue Labour ideas as challenging the paternalism of these attitudes and potentially challenging Labour’s intermittent but frequent lapses into signing off on the ideas of progressive education.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the Blue Labour seminar was a relatively small affair, despite being advertised online, it seemed fairly exclusive. It was actually a bit disconcerting to be greeted personally by the key people on arrival, which doesn’t tend to happen at any political events (or for that matter education events) I normally attend. A lot of the people there already knew each other and there was far more of a sense of it being about like-minded people sharing ideas with each other, than the building of anything larger or an attempt to reach a wider audience. Even though there was a Twitter hashtag for the event it often looked like I was almost the only one tweeting, and part way through there was a warning to be careful about tweeting names as well as ideas. I will, where I’m not quoting something already public, try to follow this advice in this blog, although I suspect it might be an over-reaction to a past history of Blue Labour people being condemned for various forms of political incorrectness when expressing utterly unremarkable opinions.

Whatever the limitations of the event’s structure for reaching a wider audience or prompting productive action, it served as almost constant mental stimulation for me. It seemed like every speaker and  every member of the audience had something interesting to say. A fair number had implications for education even if they weren’t directly about education. The key note speech by Ruth Davis, which can be found here, raised the question of the role of science in politics, in a way that reminded of the debate over research in education, warning against both the extremes of “classification, measurement, and codification” hollowing out other methods of understanding, and “the mad, the bad, or the silly” believing that “we make our own reality”. Remarks from Lord Glasman about the word “progressive” (and how it is not something you want to hear from your doctor) probably amused me as a teacher (and critic of “progressive” education).

A session about “Challenging Left Orthodoxies” with several different speakers also touched on issues relating to education mainly because some of the worst orthodoxies on the left have been used to justify progressive education. One speaker identified “anti-authoritarianism” as such an orthodoxy, and directly connected that to the rise of “child-centred” education. Another identified the rhetoric of “challenging orthodoxies” as something of a recurring narrative in the Labour Party, something I am also familiar with from education (see here, particularly the comments). The other speaker identified “post-modernism” as the worst of the orthodoxies that limit the effectiveness of the left, observing that it makes academic discourse a problem as it assumes relativism. He quoted an unidentified university lecturer as advising him that “you never see a poor post-modernist”. Obviously, I don’t endorse the use of an ad hominem argument, but hard to miss how in education a post-modern scepticism about science, tradition, morality or reason is remarkably often used by those with power in institutions to resist calls for a change in the status quo, rather than to challenge privilege.

After lunch there was, and this was the major reason I’d wished to attend, a panel on “Education, Community and Family” which included my fellow education blogger Michael Merrick (who writes Outside In). He was the only panellist to talk mainly about education (although another spent time explaining why he has sent his children to private and faith schools despite pre-existing convictions to the contrary). Michael’s talk can be found here and is well worth reading. His argument that a belief that education was for employment led to a belief that academic education was not for all, and to reinforce class segregation, went down particularly well. Another panellist’s response to this seemed to suggest that some assumed that he was asking for more respect for vocational qualifications, where as I assumed he was suggesting that they might be part of the problem. He also questioned the focus on social mobility:

For social mobility effectively means, in contemporary parlance, the ability to move away from those you know and love. With the heavy implication that failure to do so somehow represents a mournful loss of potential and indeed choosing to do so is itself a signifier of success.

And again, another panellist seemed to assume that this was a reference to Michael Young’s critique of meritocracy as anti-egalitarian, rather than, as I took it, a criticism of a narrow view of what the well-educated should aspire to. Finally, his most controversial point was to suggest that free schools and faith schools served to build a stronger sense of community, which is not really something I’d ever considered about free schools. It is certainly worth considering whether complaints about an “atomised” school system on the left actually reflect a concern about an atomised bureaucracy rather than atomised communities.

While there was further discussion around education, most of it reflected fairly conventional debates. At one point a Birmingham City Councillor claimed that the creation of free schools had created the perfect situation for “Trojan Horse style” problems, which, given the irony of the source, will probably stick with me as the best possible evidence that debate over Trojan Horse is largely about allocating blame according to the opinions one already held. Perhaps the only other point to make me reflect on education, was when it was suggested that a symptom of the modern condition was people who hate their parents. It made me wonder whether that forms the motivation for many who (in R.S. Peters’ phrase) see schools as “orphanages for children with parents”. Do people who want schools to take over more and more of the parental sphere in providing values, compassion and guidance in life, have the faults of their own parents in mind?

I realise the two posts on Blue Labour may have wondered into some fairly obscure territory, and I do intend to let it drop here, but I thought it worth sharing some of these reflections. Education politics is fundamentally about values, but it is staggeringly rare to find outlets in politics where one can discuss values explicitly rather than assuming them. Too often in politics moral superiority is to be assumed, but never justified.  Even the most obviously ethical components of political discussion are treated as purely technical matters where the underlying principles are already agreed, and only the mad or depraved would doubt them. At the very least, Blue Labour has been willing to challenge that type of thinking.

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Will everything really calm down after Gove?

July 18, 2014

I was quoted in an article in the TES today:

Academies became a fixture of the school landscape under Mr Gove, with around 60 per cent of secondaries now independent of local authorities and the number of primary academies still growing. Free schools, too, are proliferating, and changes to league tables and accountability measures in general will continue. Newer reforms that are yet to be formalised, such as those to initial teacher training, appear more vulnerable to being watered down or shelved.

Not all teachers are in favour of a period of calm, however. Education blogger and classroom teacher Andrew Old said Ms Morgan should explore the reforms to teacher training, although he doubted that the changes would ultimately happen.

“The whole education bureaucracy is so complex; unless a politician has been paying attention for a very long time it is impossible for it not to fall apart”, Mr Old added. “The same happened after David Blunkett left [in 2001]. One policy after another slowly gets replaced, people in certain jobs change and there is just a return to the normal routine of what they’ve always done.”

There does seem to be a remarkable consensus in comments on education politics around the belief (which I expressed myself last time) that in replacing Michael Gove with Nicky Morgan there is an attempt to quieten down the controversy over education and avoid the confrontation that inevitably results from having a minister ploughing onwards with his own project over many years. Not everyone agrees with me that this will cause a backwards shift. I may have been unduly pessimistic about the chances of a wholesale change of direction, given that Nick Gibb has returned as a junior minister.

However, I do not believe that it is possible to have a stable period in education. The education system is too complex and has too many players. Change has become normal in education, even when the politicians seem to be showing little initiative. The bureaucrats and the establishment figures in the system will always want to dismantle changes, and to make new ones of their own.

On top of that, there are plenty of issues that are about to flare up that would try any politician, particularly one newly in place. Here’s where I think controversy will still occur.

1) The requirements for some of the new GCSEs have been interpreted by the exam boards in remarkably counter-intuitive ways. The greater breadth asked for in English literature appears to have resulted in fewer set texts. The newer emphasis on fluency in maths has not prevented every exam board from opting for an overwhelming emphasis on calculator exams. Ofqual will need to confront the exam boards over any attempt to ignore the broad requirements of the new exams, while complying with only small details. Rumours are flying that they have already acted, but the regulator is likely to need the support of the politicians.

2) Schools are in a panic about assessment. While private schools seemed to manage to assess without levels, they also had a far more sympathetic regulator. Nobody knows what OFSTED want regarding assessment, so schools are terrified to make decisions about assessment. This is a particular problem for free schools with no historical results to be judged by, and academies who are not being judged on their historical results, only results since conversion. I despaired when Tristram Hunt started saying Labour would support a return to levels;  but without some guidance from the DfE or OFSTED about what is or isn’t acceptable, this will become more of an issue.

3) Speaking of OFSTED, it’s not gone away. A new Civitas report out today raises some of the issues with it, particularly the extent to which the OFSTED teaching and learning grade guarantees that schools will continue to teach according to the “OFSTED teaching style”. But beyond that, Wilshaw’s attempts to reform it have served mainly to expose its faults. OFSTED decisions seem arbitrary and unaccountable. School leaders have lost respect for it. It is locked into a number of changes, the biggest being the end of the use of private contractors next year. Gove was good at driving reform in OFSTED, possibly a bit too good at it to have good relationships with its leadership. The new secretary of state will need to make it clear what she wants.

4) There is a review being undertaken of Initial Teacher Training that will report back before the end of the year. I’d be surprised if a review set up by Gove will come back with anything that isn’t controversial and requires action. Possible teacher shortages will make it even more important that decisions are taken. However, this has come up as it is at the absolute heart of the influence of the education establishment. The only real options here are likely to be Gove-style civil war with the educationalists, or an act of appeasement which will ensure that new teachers are still being trained by the same old people.

5) Trojan Horse. This is just a mess and it won’t go away. Everybody is convinced that it confirms the political views they already held. Every report will make completely different recommendations and blame different people. Everybody will demand action. It’s too late for anything to be resolved in a positive way, but it will be absolutely vital that government doesn’t get brow-beaten into doing something really silly that will create more hassle for all schools. In particular, curriculum changes (perhaps around citizenship) or greater powers for OFSTED to intervene could be a huge step backwards.

If there aren’t political rows about most of these issues in the next 12 months I’d be surprised. I haven’t included the possibility of a major fuss over exam results, because schools have been warned about surprises. However, if the new secretary of state shows any weakness in the face of complaints about exam results, then there could be another concerted effort to push her and Ofqual to accept a return to the old days of grade inflation.

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Goodbye, Mr Gove

July 15, 2014

I won’t say this is the post I never wanted to write, because I would have written a post with this title more than happily if Michael Gove’s departure had been the result of an incoming Labour government. While I did have some worries that a Labour government would see a return to the complete dominance of progressive orthodoxy in education, I was pessimistic about both the chances of my party winning and the chances of a re-elected Tory government, with a different education secretary, being any different in that respect. The one thing I have noticed most about the education system is that it is barely under political control. The only politicians whoever seemed to be in charge while in office were Gove and Blunkett, and both of them had years of opposition to study the brief and four years in office. Moreover, the changes Blunkett began soon dissolved (sometimes while he was still in office) and were replaced by policies of the opposite stripe with no public debate. Almost any change of education secretary seemed almost guaranteed to lead to a drift back to the education establishment calling the shots.

And that is what I now expect. Not because I know anything about the new education secretary Nicky Morgan. Like most people I have no idea who she is. I do know, however, that she has never had education as her brief . I do know she is not a proven, powerful figure in the party or government. I do know that education secretary is a position nobody gets the hang of just by learning it while doing the job. As far as I can tell her appointment is likely to indicate that education will not be a political priority for the government between now and the election. It is being neutralised as an issue and she is likely to face an expectation from above to create no waves. The message sent by this is that the revolution is over. The system is back to normal.

As I implied above, I don’t expect Gove’s reforms to have made a permanent difference to the system. Those in positions of influence, who were most in sympathy with his agenda, will – no doubt – gradually be replaced by establishment figures over time. Reform of exams and teacher training will probably not be completed properly. The system has been shaken up a bit, but not replaced, and will soon settle back to normality.

The one place where Gove may have made permanent change is in the Conservative Party. There used to be little interest in state education there, beyond ideas about increasing selection, rooting out leftist influence and reducing the power of local authorities. Gove has made it possible for a Conservative politician to espouse the comprehensive principle and argue over the education of the worst off. It has gone from being an area, like health, where talking about it could only benefit the Labour Party, to one where a Conservative politician could become famous (if not loved) and repeatedly see off his opposite numbers.

As for his weaknesses, I’ve never seen Gove’s general willingness to cause a row to be a weakness, more of a necessity. Education is full of those who have exercised power without being challenged. However, I fear he did go far too far in the Trojan Horse row. By over-reacting to a mix of real, but unexceptional, problems and outright smears he helped make one of his own success stories into a gift for those who would see a monolithic system with no diversity at all, while at the same time causing a public row with one of his own colleagues. This may have been the step too far that finished him off, but it would be a real shame if education now dropped off the agenda. My one hope is that freed of the need to constantly react to Gove, this might actually be an opportunity for Tristram Hunt to show some of the potential that he had a few years ago, that has unfortunately been unrealised. He now faces an inexperienced opposite number and a government that has lost its nerve. Labour has a chance, for the first time in years, to be the party of high standards for all instead of comfortable acceptance of orthodoxy. Let’s hope they take it.

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Towards a Blue Labour Agenda on Schools Part 1

July 13, 2014

Last weekend I went to the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar for a day of discussion about “Blue Labour” ideas. Blue Labour is the movement that developed out of the ideas of Lord Glasman. Despite Glasman being an academic and and member of the House of Lords, the core Blue Labour ideas, roughly speaking, revolve around the idea of a Labour party rooted in working class communities (including faith communities) rather than in Westminster and the chattering classes. I intend to blog about what ideas were discussed that were most relevant to education debate in the next day or two. However, I remembered that I had already written about this for the now defunct “Old Politics” blog in a response to another blogpost that also is no longer available.

I have to give a few warnings first. I wrote this in July 2011 for a political blogger. As such, it is more political than my usual comments and for an audience not familiar with my arguments. Also, I clearly was more prone to jargon then than I am now, and I apologise in advance for the phrase “managerialist quasi-market” which sounds like the sort of thing that I’d criticise the BERA social justice blog for using . At least one link won’t work (but I haven’t edited it out). If you are more interested in the education discussion than the politics, please don’t be put off by the first few paragraphs, it does become easier to read.

 

 

So far, schools are an area where Blue Labour appears to have been least able to make a contribution to policy. Blue Labour is sceptical of the possibility that the paternalistic middle classes can genuinely meet the interests of the working class through public spending on the part of the state. The British state school system is a public service which is dominated by middle class interests, beliefs and concerns, yet decisive in its power over the interests and aspirations of the working class in a way that is the antithesis of Blue Labour thinking. However, in this case, Blue Labour cannot even appeal for rescue to a pre-welfare state tradition of education, because while there may be positive things to be said about the contribution of church schools, workers education societies and other forms of education that existed independently of the state in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, nobody can suggest that these bodies were not either equally paternalistic or equally inadequate at empowering the mass of the working class.

That said, a scepticism about the existence of a state education system is not a credible position for Blue Labour thinkers either. The middle classes desire education for themselves and are willing to pay for it. The withdrawal of the state from the education system would not create comprehensive community-run civil institutions, it would create a free market in which the lion’s share of the good of education was captured by the well-off with a small amount saved for the most able.

Indeed, perhaps the easiest argument that can be made about a Blue Labour position on education is that it would object to the commodification of education, whether through a free market or a managerialist quasi-market, in which parents and children simply become customers of educational service providers. Blue Labour is in a position to suggest an increase in the influence of communities on education, for instance, Maurice Glasman suggested the following administrative changes:

…what Blue Labour would say is that there should be a third, a third, a third. A third of power with parents, so that the schools are genuinely places where they have power over the education for their children; a third with the teachers so that we can really honour the vocation and expertise of teachers and then a third with the funder, whether that would be the local authority or the state. A third, a third, a third.

Given the gulf that exists between teachers and governors, and often between parents and the parental representatives on governing bodies, this idea could well be an improvement on the status quo. However, it leaves untouched the difficult issues of schooling: the questions of what should be taught to whom and where. In the absence of Blue Labour having any obvious policy positions on this, we have seen a couple of attempts to navigate a Blue Labour direction in schools policy, where those involved have simply tied themselves to existing masts.

Firstly, in his chapter of “The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox” James Purnell declared (admittedly with some caveats which I have not quoted):

Mutuality, reciprocity, and organization are good guides to what is insufficient about empowerment. But they do not replace it. For example, they’re not a guide to renewing education policy. In fact, in education, we need to go further in a New Labour direction, not turn around… people should be able to choose a school for their child

More recently, in their article [no longer available] on the Blue Labour Blog two ex-teachers Jim O’Connell-Lauder and Jamie Audsley argued for a social engineering model of schooling, actually using the phrase “a tool of social justice” and suggesting that individuals (parents, children and even teachers) can, through reforming schools into democratic institutions, be transformed into “democratic citizens”.

This notion of schooling, where the state and its enlightened administrators decide what type of people the masses should become is an extension of the Every Child Matters agenda that became dominant in the later years of the last Labour government, which in turn was simply a new manifestation of the progressive tradition in education, where academic aims are side-lined by political, cultural, social or emotional concerns. It is also in the opposite direction to Blue Labour’s confidence in the existing values of working class communities, and scepticism of middle class liberal values.

So, having set out how little Blue Labour has so far been able to say about education, where do we go from here? At the very least, perhaps the following questions are worth considering (and I make no pretence that these questions don’t heavily reflect my own personal concerns and beliefs about education):

1) How can we ensure that the educational outcomes for working class children are not simply what middle class professionals think are appropriate for “children like these”? Much educational debate, for instance the debate over selection, or over the value of qualifications, assumes that there is a significant class of usually working class “non-academic” children who must be appreciated for being different rather than given greater opportunity to succeed. Not everyone can become a professor at Oxford, but it should not be the role of Labour politicians to cap working class aspirations.

2) How do attempts to “include” badly behaved children in the classroom, regardless of their behaviour, reflect the values of working class communities? If Blue Labour respects the conservatism of working class parents, then there can be little reason for letting a child from a disciplined home environment, where the authority of adults is respected, endure the chaos of a permissive school environment run by middle class liberals where poor behaviour by a child is seen as a social or emotional problem to be treated therapeutically, rather than an attack on the interests of other children.

3) How can Blue Labour change the top-down culture of schools? While some comment has been made about central government initiatives that create paperwork or interfere with school management, very little attention has been given to the way in which classroom teachers are managed. How many teachers in a school should have a management responsibility? How much of a teacher’s work should be open to continual scrutiny by managers?

4) How much should teachers and schools be concerning themselves with non-academic aspects of children’s lives? Blue Labour criticises the bureaucratic welfare state, and should be the first critic of schools where the dominant culture brings to mind management consultants trying to frustrate social workers, rather than that of an academic institution.

 

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Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 3

July 8, 2014

In this final post on the debate over Andrew Davis’ phonics pamphlet I respond to the arguments addressed to me in this post by David Aldridge. There are quite a few arguments (and points) in that post (one might even suggest more than in the original pamphlet) and I will attempt to answer them in turn.

1) There is a “false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers”.

I pointed out last time that this is not Davis’s argument. It is also lacking as a response to me given that I have more than once disagreed with simply trying to ape medical research too closely (for instance here and here). Regardless, the reason we should listen to the empirical evidence on phonics is not because it is exactly the same as other forms of research, but because it consistently gets the same result. The evidence tells us that whenever we look into the matter, we find (with a good degree of reliability) that the more children are taught with phonics, and the less they are encouraged to guess words from other information, the better they end up being able to read. This is all we really need it to tell us. As with Davis’s actual argument, Aldridge’s is an argument that empirical research could not ever tell us what it has already told us. Engaging too directly with the argument for why phonics research wouldn’t work would be like going back to look for flaws in the arguments of those who said flying machines could never be built. We know the argument is wrong. The only thing that makes Aldridge’s argument seem vaguely more plausible is that Davis’s argument implied that the evidence couldn’t exist, whereas Aldridge implied that it cannot be of the right type. However, neither’s descriptions of the inevitable flaws in the evidence can account for the evidence that has been found. Davis’s argument would lead us to believe no evidence exists. Aldridge’s argument would lead us to believe that the evidence could not reliably tell us anything one way or the other. Both are evidently wrong.

2) Systematic Synthetic Phonics is “exclusivist” and my position on this “is not abundantly clear” as I have both “strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches” and suggested that SSP does not prevent use of certain other techniques in the teaching of reading.

The confusion here probably comes from being unfamiliar with Systematic Synthetic Phonics. SSP is about learning to decode written words using the phonetic information in them. This is incompatible with methods of identifying words that ignore some or all of the phonetic information. So this rules out trying to recall the whole word (or a large chunk of a word) as if it was a hieroglyph. It prevents guessing what a word says from the context rather than decoding it. It doesn’t allow for partially decoding a word and guessing the remaining parts. It would discourage the teaching of vague “meaning-getting” skills that are meant to compensate for those whose decoding is so lacking in fluency that they cannot decode and pay attention to meaning at the same time. (If I have opposed “comprehension strategies” before, it is this I was objecting to). It does not, however, rule out any part of learning to read that doesn’t discourage paying attention to phonics. So there is no prohibition on improving vocabulary (including finding out about the meaning of words). It doesn’t rule out telling stories. It doesn’t ban books with pictures in, as long as they are not used to guess what words in the text say.  It positively encourages (and includes) working to be able to distinguish phonemes in spoken language. Now the principle here is not difficult and I’m able to grasp it as a layman. If a “method” involves either learning or guessing words using something other than the phonetic information in the word (thereby discouraging use of SSP) then it has no place in SSP, but that is all that is “exclusivist” about SSP. The confusion comes from the habit denialists have of rebranding guessing and whole word learning as things like “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy”. If denialists hadn’t suggesting that encouraging readers to guess more, and decode less, was merely adding extra tools to be used to decode then I don’t think phonics would ever have been seen as “exclusivist”. This is not some deep ideological objection to spending time in the primary classroom on anything but phonics, it’s just the same sort of practical objection that would stop a teacher handing out calculators in the middle of a mental arithmetic test. If you genuinely favour the teaching of phonics, why would you suddenly say “stop decoding and guess”?

3) I defend “a one size fits all approach to teaching”as if I see “so-called ‘learning styles’ as the obvious alternative”.

This is one of those contentious issues in all types of discussion in teaching. In so many debates any suggestion that there is a wrong way to teach something is immediately faced with the suggestion that it is the right way for some particular child or group of children. On the face of it, the flaw with making this suggestion indiscriminately is obvious. Some methods are just not going to work, or just not work particularly well, for anyone. Beyond that there is the disturbing possibility that false assumptions about how certain types of child will require something different can lower expectations in line with existing prejudices. It is also an easy way to blame a teacher when a child doesn’t learn something if it can be claimed that every child can learn everything easily providing the correct method is used. It is also highly lucrative to sell silly gimmicks that will enable teachers to reach those students who are hardest to teach and differences in “learning styles” are one explanation used to justify those gimmicks.

Now, these considerations (which do include the nonsense of “learning styles”) indicate reasons why I think the burden of proof over suggestions that certain students need different teaching methods should be with those making the suggestions. There are, however, some undeniable differences between children. Some children have learning difficulties. Capacity of working memory and other cognitive abilities will differ between children. Children also vary in their prior knowledge. I have no problem in taking account of any of these. The contention appears to be over how much variation in teaching should be allowed in light of these differences. Nobody can deny that SSP will differ in effectiveness between children. Some children seem to learn to read with little support; others really struggle. Different methods of teaching might be used to address some of these differences. However, if one wishes to use this as an argument against SSP working best for all, the claim would have to be that some children benefit from methods, like learning whole words or guessing from context, which ignore phonetic information and discourage decoding. It is this that there seems to be a remarkable lack of evidence for.

There is not even consistency in the claims about which children the alleged exceptions to the effectiveness of SSP apply to. When the denialists were at the height of their power SSP was relegated to being a method for those with dyslexia. Now, I more often hear it claimed that it is those with dyslexia who most require the denialist methods instead of phonics. Admittedly, I also hear it claimed that phonics is unnecessary for the most able readers (here, at least, there is a plausible chance that they might have absorbed a large amount of phonic knowledge before anyone taught it to them explicitly making some phonics instruction redundant). Given the confusion, it seems better to assume that children learning the same system of writing will require the same knowledge of phonics, unless there is good evidence to the contrary, and being either faster or slower to learn than other children should not be considered evidence of needing the denialist methods, only more or less time spent on phonics instruction.

 4) The phonics check will force teachers to concentrate “on the method of synthetic phonics rather than another approach or combination of approaches that might equally or better promote their success with reading but will not be relevant to the phonics check”.

This one is simply begging the question. The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively. This may well deter methods that are alleged to be a form of phonics teaching but which don’t actually result in good phonics knowledge. It will also deter methods of teaching reading that ignore the evidence on phonics. Neither of these is a bad thing, unless you have already made the decision to ignore the evidence or to teach phonics ineffectively.

5) The argument that teachers should become consumers of educational research in order to identify the ‘best’ method for achieving a particular educational outcome, so that they can then employ this method across the board, neither empowers teachers nor improves the educational experience of their students.

This strikes me as missing the point of “evidence-based” teaching. The reason that many teachers are interested in research is not to create a monolithic list of activities that must be carried out in order to teach. We’ve seen that doesn’t work. It is to protect us from such demands. To read the debate on phonics you’d think there was never an era when phonics teaching was marginalised or pushed out. You’d think that no phonics denialist ever had power or influence and no teacher was ever forced to use denialist methods. In reality, there’s no shortage of stories from the 80s and 90s of teachers using SSP having to hide what they are doing from their managers. There are plenty of people who became marginalised because they spoke out against the phonics denialist orthodoxy. There was no freedom to skip the “Searchlights” model of the NLS. We are still suffering from their apparently exclusive domination of primary teacher training in our universities and many sensible people leave teacher training wedded to bizarre notions like the belief that “reading” is a synonym for “comprehension” or the idea that an enthusiasm for books must always precede the ability to read them.

Teachers will always be under pressure to teach a particular way, even if it is from fashion, training and school level pressure rather than national policy. When I argue for an evidence-based profession, I am arguing that teachers should know the evidence and that the trump card when resisting pressure to teach in a particular way is being able to say “but the evidence shows this is not a good idea” without it getting you singled out as a troublemaker. I believe our professional judgement will hold more sway if it is professional judgement backed up by evidence and rational argument. If anything has brought about the statutory phonics check it is teachers ignoring the evidence on phonics or, worse, pretending to teach “phonics” while actually teaching children to guess rather than decode. I don’t want evidence-based practice to create a new orthodoxy, I want it to establish the rules by which orthodoxies can be resisted and overthrown. Evidence will never tell us exactly how to teach, but it will expose when we are mistaken or, worse, when we are dishonest. While we should have plenty of freedom to make our own decisions, we should not be arguing for the principle of making decisions based on ignorance or irrationality. I don’t want the freedom to teach by telepathy or to encourage children to rub their brain buttons. I want the freedom to make informed and reasonable judgements and that requires an informed and reasonable profession.

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