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Teacher autonomy is the most difficult issue in the education debate. Part 1

September 28, 2019

How much freedom should teachers be given to do their own thing?

Few things are more irritating to educators than knowing what needs to be done, and being stopped from doing it by those in charge of you. Whether that’s the actions necessary to keep order in the classroom, or keep students safe from each other, or the way of teaching that will make the most difference. At times, one is tempted to ask for complete autonomy. Freedom to make whatever decision one wants to. However, this principle becomes less appealing when one realises that what happens in other classrooms affects expectations of behaviour and effort in one’s own. It also becomes less appealing when one considers the consequences for children of the worst classroom practices, both educationally and with regards to their safety and well-being. A related issue is workload. An assumption that every teacher plans their own lessons, may undermine collaboration in the production of resources, leaving teachers to duplicate work their colleagues have already done. Conversely, decisions imposed on teachers by those less familiar with their classes or year group, may have adverse workload consequences for teachers who find they constantly have to make adjustments for a poorly sequenced curriculum or to prepare for badly designed assessments.

It’s easy to make rhetorical arguments in favour of teacher autonomy. Teachers should be trusted. Teachers are professionals. Teachers know their classes best. It’s easy to make rhetorical arguments against teacher autonomy. Teachers must be required to teach effectively. All teachers should have high expectations. All teaching should be based on how students actually learn. Students need consistency. Once you accept that all these arguments are sometimes true, the debate becomes about where you draw the line, and that’s tricky.

In this post I will summarise my past posts on the topic, which can be found here:

In those posts I concluded a number of things.

Managers should try to avoid giving any of the following:

  • Instructions contradicted by other instructions.
  • Completely idiotic instructions.
  • Instructions that no manager would ever subsequently admit to giving.
  • Instructions which, if followed, will be used against the teacher following them.

Some of this might seem obvious, but none of these things are uncommon. Dysfunctional management is by all reasonable accounts a problem in teaching and it is worth considering where managers should definitely leave well enough alone. However, attending to this only narrowly restricts the places where the line can be drawn.

Moving on from the day to day decisions of managers to the systems used to manage teachers, I suggested the following should be avoided in any system of holding teachers to account.

  1. Trying to achieve multiple aims simultaneously and without a clear indication of priority;
  2. Holding teachers accountable for methods and outcomes simultaneously;
  3. Enforcing, and creating paperwork for things that would happen anyway;
  4. Creating work that does not have to be done;
  5. Measuring and judging things that don’t matter;
  6. Measuring and judging things unreliably;
  7. Encouraging behaviour that is actually counter-productive;
  8. Wasting money, particularly on management salaries.

Again, this stuff might seem obvious, but it is all incredibly common. I believe almost every large school would gain from applying these principles to all of its rules and systems for holding teachers to account.

The point about the problem of trying to achieve multiple aims simultaneously is one that applies at many levels and across the public services. The philosopher Onora O’Neill, when talking about accountability described the following problem:

Traditionally, the public sector exercised control by process. We often call it bureaucratic process. The private sector allegedly exercised control by targets. When the target setting was imposed on the public sector, the process controls were not removed, hence the problem of having to be responsive to and responsible for two completely different sets of controls whose coincidence is not guaranteed.

Teachers should never be held accountable for outcomes if they were not given the freedom to affect them. In this era of workload concerns, I would add that if they can affect those outcomes, but only by taking on more work, that should also be considered unreasonable.

One helpful way of looking at restrictions on autonomy can be found in this blogpost by Doug Lemov which appeals to the concept of “positive and negative variance”.

… one of the strongest ways a school can make a difference in student achievement is to have a coherent approach to teaching, one that outlines a shared understanding of “how we do it”—things that comprise a schools core approach that everyone is expected to do. The school should name the things that are part of “how we do it” and then provide training  so predictable implementation errors are reduced. That’s a way of both aligning and implementing a philosophy but also of reducing negative variance.

But it’s super-important to balance that reduction of negative variance with an understanding of the benefits of “positive variance”… the idea that people who have achieved proficiency with a skill should have the freedom to personalize and adapt.

The example he gives is centralised lesson planning. Preparing lessons centrally will reduce negative variation in that it will make it harder for teachers to be under prepared. However, in order to encourage positive variation, teachers will need to be allowed to adapt the lessons and be progressively given decision rights that can include dropping the centrally prepared lesson entirely.

I suggested the following principles might help with ensuring there is less negative variance and more positive variance.

  1. Outcomes must be considered before processes.
  2. Schools should be upfront about what they want.
  3. If you can’t write down clearly, concisely and objectively what you want, you have no right to ask for it.
  4. The best justification for restricting autonomy is where a teacher’s behaviour will undermine colleagues. e.g. differing expectations for behaviour across the school.
  5.  Don’t take the piss. i.e. don’t have systems that can be harmful to teachers in themselves by adding to stress or encouraging bullying.

That’s about 1000 words summarising what I’ve already said on this topic. I am fully aware that everything I’ve said only suggests some constraints on where to draw the line, and doesn’t give any easy answers to the question of teacher autonomy. In my next blogpost I hope to add a few more considerations that I haven’t covered previously.

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Has new research on exclusions solved the problem of causation?

September 21, 2019

Earlier this week, Siobhan Benita, the Liberal Democrat candidate for London mayor made a speech where she declared that:

My “feel safe, be safe” plan for Londoners will give every young person a voice, activities and the security of good schooling… No child will be permanently excluded from mainstream schools.

Naturally plenty of teachers, ex-teachers and people whose kids go to mainstream schools were able to point out on social media that it might not be best to keep young people in schools if they are dangerous or out of control. But in the online discussions that followed, a number of people who work in education, but don’t teach in schools, seemed very convinced that there was great new evidence that exclusions were bad.

It turned out to be this conference paper by Bacher-Hicks et al which, while largely having the same glaring inadequacies as any other research in this area, did have a few innovations in its methodology. It found a link between suspensions from school and various negative outcomes. It is about suspensions rather than permanent exclusions. It is based in the US not the UK. It is based on a student population where 23% of students are suspended at least once per school year, and 19% go on to be arrested between the ages of 16 and 20. However, even given the general irrelevance of this research to the debate in England about permanent exclusion, it would still be interesting if it had solved a big problem with research about school discipline.

I’ve written before about how a big problem in reaching conclusions from data is being able to identify causation from correlation, i.e. being able to identify what is an effect and what is a cause where two statistics seem to be related.

The accepted method for researching causation is to use a Randomised Control Trial, where the proposed cause is assigned at random to some part of a sample, so that the effect can be isolated by comparing the “treated” and “untreated” parts of the sample. From a practical point of view it would be very easy to test policy on exclusions in this way, you could design an exclusion process where after the decision to exclude had been made it was only carried out after being confirmed by the toss of a coin. Unfortunately, while practically easy, it is ethically beyond the pale to apply punishments by chance. So there is no body of RCT based evidence on exclusions. This is not an isolated problem, similar ethical considerations also leave us with huge gaps in our knowledge of the effects of other sanctions used in schools, not to mention criminal justice policy and parental discipline.

Where there is no chance of an RCT, researchers tend to look at existing data, and try to draw conclusions from it. This is not a futile endeavour where there are clear reasons to limit which hypotheses you are testing. If it seems reasonable to think that falling out of an aeroplane without a parachute is a cause of death, but that being about to die is not a cause of falling out of aeroplanes, then looking at the death rate of people who have fallen out of planes could provide good evidence for that hypothesis. People do use correlation evidence in order to reach conclusions about causation quite often and quite reasonably in cases where there is only one reasonable hypothesis about causation that can be made. Unfortunately, this can trick us into thinking that deducing causation from correlation is a reliable “second best” method to be used in all cases where an RCT cannot be used. It isn’t. If there are multiple competing hypotheses about how causation works in a particular instance, then correlation evidence can be, not just less reliable than RCTs, but utterly useless.

This is the situation we have throughout research on sanctions and behaviour (where RCTs are ruled out). We usually wish to know whether particular sanctions improve behaviour. We wish to test the hypothesis that applying sanction X, improves behaviour. Unfortunately, because the sanction is a result of poor behaviour, there will always be a correlation between poor behaviour and sanctions or the poorly behaved and sanctions. We can pick groups to compare or we can vary the timescale, but almost every empirical claim that sanctions don’t work, or that harsher sanctions are less effective than lenient ones, runs into the problem that the punishments were a result of bad behaviour, therefore the punished were always more likely to behave badly than the unpunished. There may also be other variables that cause both bad behaviour and sanctions, which will allow for further hypotheses about causation.

The problems with causation don’t stop ideologues from making pronouncements (“non-custodial sentences are more effective than prison sentences” or “the best way to manage children’s behaviour by explaining to them why their actions are wrong”) that the evidence cannot actually support. However, we simply cannot tell whether correlations between stricter sanctions and worse behaviour are a result of behaviour being negatively affected by harsher sanctions, or sanctions being made harsher due to worse behaviour (except perhaps by applying common sense). The same problem exists where we try to find the the effects of sanctions (or systems of sanctions) on other outcomes. Do those outcomes result from the sanctions, or from the punishment that results from the sanctions? The most egregious example of being unable to separate cause and effect we have seen recently has been over the supposed link between school exclusions and knife crime where some well-intentioned people seemed unable to consider the possibility that a propensity to violent criminal behaviour is a cause of exclusions, rather than the possibility that upstanding members of society are being excluded and stabbing people as a result.

There are various techniques that can be used to solve some problems involving correlation and causation. Sometimes the timing is a clue. Where young people are both permanently excluded and convicted of possessing a knife, it is far more common for a permanent exclusion to swiftly follow the conviction than for the conviction to swiftly follow the exclusion, suggesting that causation does not run from exclusion to involvement in knife crime. Sometimes alternative chains of causation can be eliminated by using multi-variate statistical methods (although this paper makes a pretty good argument that this doesn’t work as well as we think it does). Sometimes “natural experiments” occur, where just by luck, we have data that should resemble what we might expect from RCTs. Where people think that they have grounds for comparing the effects on two groups, without randomisation, research is often referred to as “quasi-experimental”.

And this brings us to the Bacher-Hicks et al paper mentioned earlier. A change in the boundaries of school districts allowed them to eliminate some variables that might confound efforts to identify causation involving suspensions. This enabled them to create a measure of schools’ willingness to suspend that controlled for student background, and to see what effect that had on outcomes for students who went to the school after the boundaries changed and, therefore, came from different backgrounds. Being able to control for some variables, allows the paper to improve on papers that couldn’t control for those variables. Unfortunately, the paper does not even begin to address the problem of controlling for behaviour. It describes schools with high conditional suspension rates (i.e. suspension rates after controlling for student background) as “strict” and concludes that strictness results in negative outcomes. What justification there is for this approach is limited. The point is made that where principals have changed schools, conditional suspension rates have also changed in ways that suggest leadership is important. However, this does not go very far to disprove the obvious hypothesis that high suspension rates may be a result of bad behaviour that also leads to the negative outcomes the researchers found. To conclude that suspensions, not bad behaviour, are the cause of the negative outcomes that are correlated to high conditional suspension rates, requires that one controls perfectly for bad behaviour. Anything less, can result in a correlation that does not prove causation.

One additional point I’m going to make is that research that assumes you can control for behaviour by attributing suspension rates entirely to a mix of pupil background and schools’ willingness to suspend, rather than, say, school culture, makes assumptions that I think few teachers will agree with. We will get better education research when researchers start getting better at listening to teachers when theorising about whether correlation indicates causation.

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Tough questions about behaviour

June 29, 2019

I originally wrote most of this as a Twitter thread, but it’s long enough that it really deserves to be turned into a blog post. 

There have been recent news reports about a school that has staff striking due to the perceived threat of violence from their students. I won’t link to it as I’m not sure naming schools always helps (not that I condemn anyone for reporting this as news). But I do want to draw attention to the underlying issue of schools where staff and students do not feel safe.

The background to this is that, in my experience, any secondary school that makes sure rules are clear and followed at all times will be labelled “zero tolerance” and demonised. Any school that doesn’t have clear rules constantly enforced will have a certain amount of kids out of control for at least some of their school day. This is, I regret to say, normal in secondary schools as far as I can tell. It doesn’t mean that every teacher faces the same situation; most at least ensure senior staff have some power and the difference between, say, being a supply teacher and being an established member of staff can be extremely vast.

However, once the normal situation in a school is for some kids to be out of control for some of the time it really doesn’t take much for things to tip towards a greater level of anarchy.  The number of staff who are ignored by kids can suddenly increase from unfamiliar faces, to any member of staff who can’t count on the full support of managers. The type of out of control behaviour can also suddenly escalate, particularly when students become aware of incidents not being dealt with adequately. It doesn’t take much to reach a point where fairly extreme behaviour, whether that’s verbal abuse to staff; violence; sexual harassment or sexual assault, or even bringing in weapons and drugs becomes normal. That’s where some schools end up.

Because the response to out of control kids when they were just disrupting lessons or ignoring some staff or some rules, was to ignore it, or cover it up or blame the teachers, some schools end up taking the same approach to more serious behaviour. At such a point, schools become dangerous to staff and students. The biggest problem in the culture of secondary schools is that there are still incentives for schools to cover up, rather than deal with, endemic behaviour problems. People still talk about “too many exclusions” or “too many detentions” as if doing something about behaviour was more of a problem than the behaviour itself.

‏Schools need to be honest. How many of your students are “outlaws”, i.e. ones who largely do what they like knowing the schools systems will never effectively constrain them? How clear are the systems for dealing with defiance? How much incentive is there for staff to ignore some behaviour? There are schools where challenging behaviour would lead to having to giving up time to sit detentions, having a confrontation or, worst of all, being blamed for the behaviour. What would actually happen if a kid was doing something wrong in front of a member of staff who didn’t know who they are? How many pseudo-rules are there, i.e. rules that can explicitly be broken without any actual punishment?

The biggest question to ask about a school is this: who would have a harder time at your school, a new member of staff who enforced every rule according to the behaviour policy or a new member of staff who didn’t even know what the behaviour policy was?

Edited 29/6/2019

Since I wrote this, more has come to light about the school where staff are on strike. According to The Sun they used the “Pivotal Approach” to behaviour. This has been condemned in the past by my union, the NASUWT, and is named after the behaviour consultancy previously (although I believe not presently) run by the consultant I wrote about here.

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Year Zero

June 22, 2019

I trained to teach in 2001-2002 and this blog began in October 2006. The mid-noughties were a time when progressives were consolidating their control of the education system. Although they were losing ground on preventing phonics teaching, and the policy of Inclusion had become an embarrassment, they had successfully seen off the original version of the National Strategies that had been inspired by Direct Instruction and were setting the agenda on the purpose of the education system. We were entering the period where education would be merged with social services, and the academic side of schooling would be given the lowest priority it ever had. GCSEs would soon become dominated by controlled assessment and retakes, and school inspection was becoming a racket where consultants made money out of selling schools advice on the “correct” teaching methods, while also working as inspectors who would ensure that schools were enforcing those methods. This enforcement was largely done through grading teachers on a 1-4 scale largely on the basis of their teaching methods.

If you look in the archives of my blog, you can see me discuss many of the developments and initiatives of the time, and also, as an anonymous blogger describe what was going on in the places I worked. The years from 2012 onwards saw much of this change. The Gove reforms, changes in OFSTED under Sir Michael Wilshaw’s leadership, and the growing voice of teachers on social media, have meant that many of my experiences from before those changes are bizarre tales that newer teachers might struggle to believe. Although some schools are still stuck in the past, and much teacher training is still run by people who left the classroom during that time without ever seeing those ideas be abandoned in schools, we have moved on. The collapse of the progressive hegemony is now a historical fact.

Except, of course, this is inconvenient for progressives. In the last few years we have seen progressives deny that any of this stuff happened in much the same way that they deny that there was more than a century of debate between progressive and traditionalist ideas in education, or that people in schools ever disagree over philosophy. I have covered this denialism in two posts already.

Nobody’s actually against knowledge are they?” dealt with the argument that there was never any opposition to the teaching of knowledge in schools. I recommended two main sources for those who ever doubted that there was an antipathy to knowledge in our schools. The first was Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths About Education. It provides many sources for the attitudes and arguments of the time in order to argue against them. The second source was this letter from 100 educationalists opposing the attempts to make GCSE more knowledge based, in which they make it clear that the explicit teaching of knowledge should not be encouraged.

…the proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity…

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity…

…Schools in high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning…

More recently, I was told by several outraged progressives that the policy of Inclusion (closing special schools and stopping exclusions), that dominated the early years of my teaching career; that was abandoned after its effects on school discipline became politically toxic had either never existed, or was still the policy. Curiously, I had written a masters dissertation on SEN policy which included this period, and so it wasn’t difficult to research a post about the debates and controversies at the time. “Inclusion: Gone but not forgotten”.includes a timeline with links to both policy documents and news stories that illustrate what the policy was, when it was enforced and when it was abandoned.

However, it turns out that progressives are now denying more than their opposition to knowledge and the existence of the policy of Inclusion. The following quotation from Katharine Birbalsingh, shared by Loic Menzies, caused controversy on Twitter recently:

I find that Katharine can exaggerate for rhetorical effect (and that’s not a criticism, it is obvious and only a problem for the pedantic). There’s also plenty of things she has described over the years that, while teachers I know in London can confirm they experienced them, nevertheless don’t match my experience in the West Midlands. However, this is not in that category. This is a really good description of what I, and most teachers I know, experienced back then. I remember being absolutely hammered by OFSTED when I was the only teacher in my school not to cooperate with my school’s stance on putting tables in groups. While not every school banned rows, most that I worked in made it clear that if you were being observed then you wouldn’t get a good grade if the room was in rows. I remember endless INSETs on making lessons fun, repeat viewings of “Shift Happens” (see below) and the blanket condemnation of teacher talk.

Yet, amazingly, an army of consultants, and other ex-teachers, appeared on Twitter to deny this ever happened.

Now, some of the objections were based on deliberately misreading it as a statement that described everyone’s experience. Katharine did not say that this happened to every teacher in every school, only that it was terrible when it did. Interpreting statements as an absurd absolute is such a common tactic of insufferable partisans on the internet that it even has its own Dilbert cartoon. This is why the principle of charity is so important. But as well as those who misinterpreted the tweet, plenty seemed to want to deny that Katharine described any kind of widespread experience. Progressives seem to want it to be Year Zero. We don’t need to trouble ourselves with facts: we have always been at war with Eurasia.

Obviously, it doesn’t take much to disprove claims that this stuff never happened. Let’s face it, there are plenty of people like myself who were around ten years ago and witnessed it first hand. As mentioned earlier, Daisy’s book and the letter from educationalists, shows the attitudes to knowledge, and the former also gives many examples of the promotion of games over explicit instruction. But here’s a few extra sources for you anyway. Most of these are from after 2010, but they make it clear what was being challenged during the Gove/Wilshaw years, so if somebody wants to argue over when the tide turned then fair enough, but they should still make it clear what has now changed.

If all this is before your time, please have a look at these sources. If we do not learn from the past as a profession, we are doomed to repeat it.

 

 

 

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More popular than “Ban The Booths”

June 8, 2019

For the last six months, educational progressives have shifted their attention to preventing schools from keeping kids safe. Their two key demands have been to prevent students being excluded from school, and to prevent internal exclusion (i.e. where students are kept in school but out of their regular lessons).

The latter of these campaigns has used the phrase “Ban the Booths” referring to those schools whose internal exclusion facilities have barriers between desks. Led by the behaviour consultant Paul Dix, whose advice is very controversial among teachers and has led to some dire results they have achieved remarkable levels of, often uncritical, publicity for this campaign.

It’s been backed at union conferences:

It has been supported by MPs:

 

It was publicised by the BBC

It has been in the Independent, The Guardian and the TES.

And now, finally, their attempt to collect 10 000 signatures to force a debate on the issue in parliament has come to an end. And how popular was this high profile, widely publicised, progressive cause?

Strangely enough, the number of people that think kids should be either kept in class (regardless of their dangerous behaviour) or sent home (regardless of their safeguarding situation) is actually tiny. Common sense has overcome the gullibility of journalists and MPs who either assume that “behaviour consultants” are experts or have an ideological belief that schools cannot be trusted with the power to keep their kids safe.

Here are some parliamentary petitions that received more signatures:

 

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Inclusion: Gone but not forgotten

March 11, 2019

When I trained as a teacher (I did a PGCE from 2001 to 2002 and my NQT year from 2002 to 2003) the government had a policy of “inclusion”. As was universally understood at the time, this meant reducing the number of children in special schools and forcing students with special needs into mainstream schools. Other elements of this policy included a marked reluctance to exclude out of control children, and a large increase in the number of teaching assistants. I recall this time as very difficult for teachers, and the policy of inclusion as being unpopular within the profession. By the 2005 general election, this policy had become massively controversial, and afterwards the government backtracked and the policy of inclusion gradually ended. As ever, politicians were not terrible forthcoming about the change of policy, although it seemed obvious to teachers, and at times ministers seemed to be declaring they had no knowledge of the policy ever existing. By 2010, and with a change of government, there was an explicit commitment to end inclusion.

In recent years, progressives have used SEN as a trojan horse for dumbed down education and tolerance of poor behaviour in schools. The argument is that academic and behaviour standards should be low, in case students with SEN are discriminated against by the demands of having to learn and behave. Often it is simply assumed that there is a vast reserve of children who are unable to cope with an academic curriculum and explicit instruction, or unable to control themselves, and these students must be in mainstream schools. Sometimes it comes down to numbers. It can be amazingly difficult to get progressives to answer questions such as “what percentage of students do you think cannot access an academic curriculum?” or “what percentage of students do you think cannot cope in a school where rules are enforced?” But sometimes progressives will admit that the population of students they are appealing to is tiny in number, but still insist that all mainstream schools be able to cope with students with the most severe SEN even if that means lowering expectations for all children so as to remove obstacles for this small minority.

It is in this context that I have encountered what I can only call inclusion denialism. This is the claim that the policy of inclusion, of forcing as many students with SEN as possible into mainstream schools, which was tried from around 1997 to around 2006 and was abandoned, either never ended or, in some accounts, never existed. It is simply assumed that everyone still believes wholeheartedly in the policy of inclusion; that it was never controversial and it was never reversed. On Twitter, simply for mentioning the fact that there was a policy of inclusion that was unpopular and abandoned, I have been blocked; accused of hating the disabled, and some edutwitter trolls have even demanded that I be reported to my headteacher and governors for my appalling views. This is particularly baffling to me, as not only did I teach during this era and pay close attention to the public debate, but I did my masters dissertation on SEN policy, and the policy of inclusion was a major part of what I studied.

So here, for the sake of teachers who are to new to the profession to remember the policy of inclusion, and for the sake of rebuttal to any inclusion denialists, are a small sample of links and documents to confirm that this policy existed and was then abandoned.

To begin with it’s important to be aware of what the data shows. It’s worth looking at the graphs on pages 10-12 of this document from 2018 where it is explained that there is:

A general trend of the proportion of pupils in special schools falling until 2007, with evidence of some plateauing in the early 2000s. Since 2007 the proportion of pupils in special schools appears to be rising slightly.

I have put the other resurces in roughly chronological order.

  • October 1997: Excellence for all children. Government green paper declaring the intention to increase and promote inclusion.
  • December 1999: From exclusion to inclusion: final report of the Disability Rights Task Force Report from government task force arguing that schools must follow the principle of inclusion.
  • May 2001: Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 Legislation requiring mainstream schooling for children without a statement and requiring LEAs and governing bodies to “prevent the incompatibility” where students with SEN could not be educated in mainstream schools.
  • November 2001: Special Educational Needs Code of Practice and Inclusive Schooling: Children with Special Educational Needs  Guidance for schools and LEAs. The former declares as a fundamental principle that “the special educational needs of children will normally be met in mainstream schools or settings”. The latter document “provides statutory guidance on the practical operation of the new statutory framework for inclusion” and warns that OFSTED will be monitoring schools and LEAs who use exceptions to the rules and the Secretary of State will intervene if they are found to be acting “unreasonably”.
  • December 2001: Disabled pupils ‘inspire teachers’ BBC news story about the policy of inclusion.
  • July 2002: Special schools ‘must stay open’ BBC news story about Conservative opposition to the policy.
  • October 2002: Special needs school pressure BBC news story about the policy and the effect on behaviour.
  • January 2004: Removing Barriers to Achievement The Government’s Strategy for SEN Government document most notable for confirming that LEAs should take account of the consideration that “the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time as mainstream schools grow in their skills and capacity to meet a wider range of needs”.
  • April 2004: Special education policy ‘a disaster’ BBC news story about teacher’s union NASUWT opposing the inclusion policy.
  • August 2004: Tories to review special schools BBC report about Tories calling for special school closures to be reviewed.
  • February 2005: Special schools or inclusion? BBC news story discussing controversy over the policy.
  • June 2005: Turning point for special needs? BBC report about the political controversy and disillusionment around inclusion. Call for special schools review BBC report that David Cameron as a hopeful for the Tory leadership calling for a review of the policy and education minister Lord Adonis claiming the changes had only been minor.
  • November 2005: The Thick Of It Episode 3 of season 2 of this comedy series shows the policy of inclusion was well enough known to be used as the basis for satire.
  • March 2006: Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence Education minister Lord Adonis tells a select committee: “We do not have a view about a set proportion of pupils who should be in special schools, but we note that in fact the proportion has remained roughly static in recent years. If that is the view that local authorities take in fulfilling their statutory responsibilities, we are absolutely content with that. We have no policy whatever, I should stress, of encouraging local authorities to close special schools or withdraw resource provision where they do not believe that is in the best interests of their localities” in contrast to January 2004 above.
  • May 2006: School inclusion ‘can be abuse’ BBC news story about an NUT report criticising the policy of inclusion.
  • June 2006: Education and Skills Committee Special Educational Needs The select committee report observes that “statutory and non-statutory guidance, and… the Government’s original 1997 position” was a policy of inclusion that the government no longer supports and argues “The Government should be up-front about its change of direction on SEN policy and the inclusion agenda”.
  • July 2006: Special needs education ‘not fit’ BBC news report about the select committee report on inclusion calling for the government to clarify its position on the policy.
  • December 2009: Lamb Inquiry After almost 2 years, a government inquiry reviewing special needs provision reports back, making no mention of the policy of inclusion.
  • September 2010: Minister seeks more parental choice on special needs BBC news story reporting on the coalition government’s explicit commitment to ending “the bias towards inclusion” which dates the policy to 1997-2005.
  • May 2012: Q&A: Special Educational Needs BBC report on government reforms of SEN education and the background to them.

I hope this makes the point. There may be a couple of complications. There were moves towards moving more students from special schools to mainstream before 1997 and, as I argued in my masters dissertation, there is a tendency for policy literature to suggest that policies had been in place longer than was actually the case. Additionally, even at the height of the policy of inclusion, there were those who would defend the policy by talking as if “inclusion” was only a desirable virtue, not a highly contentious policy. However, hopefully these sources should make clear the reality and history of the policy of inclusion and provide some warning about what to expect if policy makers try to turn the clock back.

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More on School Chain Shaming

March 3, 2019

I wrote here about “school chain shaming” and the involvement of the TES website in sharing accusations about two MATs.

They began their contribution to the shaming campaign by finding a flimsy pretext to share the following uncorroborated accusation from John Tomsett’s blog:

In the blog, Mr Tomsett refers to “a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called ‘flattening the grass’ rolling assemblies”.

The blog goes on: “Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en-masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour.

“Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry.

“If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner.

“The students are the ‘grass’ which is ‘flattened’ by the experience.”

The TES named a MAT which did have a practice referred to as “flattening the grass” without actually providing any evidence that it resembled the practice described above.

In the aftermath of sharing this gossip, they then printed pretty much any accusation they could find about the MAT (no matter how different or vague); called that “flattening the grass”, and claimed it corroborated the original story. One of their earliest reports even flatly contradicted the original accusation. This is what they reported about one of the former employees attacking the MAT:

The senior leader [the TES source] …. said the executives did not select children in advance to target, but rather “just indiscriminately picked on children either in the line or in the assembly”.

The TES campaign has continued since then, dragging in another MAT, so that now, on the basis of what seems to be a handful of disgruntled (probably ex-) employees over 80 schools have been smeared on the basis of an original accusation that nobody now seems able to support.

A TES journalist has continued to defend this story, on the grounds that the people coming forward to accuse the school is sufficient evidence to support the story, rather than simply down to the fact that when you show that you are willing to smear dozens of schools, former employees with a grudge will get in touch and people who know it is not true will steer clear of you. In fact, far from there being anything unusual about this, I easily found hundreds of teachers who thought the same thing could be done to their school:

Shamed schools have learnt to their cost that there is nothing they can do to put the record straight. So we cannot expect to see the named trusts challenge the details of the story. However, after showing my willingness to challenge these stories, I was contacted by two edutwitter users who were willing to give me an anonymous account of what happened in their experience of the trust. Obviously, I acknowledge that my sources are just one side of the story. My claim is not that they can prove what happened in all 80 schools in the two trusts, only that if the TES had actively sought corroboration for the original accusations, and had not just been interested in dishing dirt, they would have found this other side to the accusations.

This is from a teacher, no longer working at the MAT:

I trained with [this MAT], then worked at one [of their schools] for a few years, and visited lots more. I’ve never been in a flattening the grass assembly, but have visited a school newly taken on, and discussed the plan for how they go into a new school with senior staff. Flattening the grass is just an assembly to state the rules when they take over a school. People are missing the context. They’re going into very difficult schools and enforcing order. In the minutes found where the term ‘flattening the grass’ went public: the point before ‘flattening the grass’ is a kid was expelled for setting the changing rooms on fire at another school they had just taken over. In the point that mentions flattening the grass, it finishes with reporting that students sought out a member of staff to say they felt safer in the school.

From the minutes with the names of the schools removed.

I’ve seen people fixate on the ‘rolling assembly point’, It’s a “rolling assembly” is just because in most schools you can’t get all the kids in the school into the hall at the same time. They only have the assembly once each. It only happens when they take over a new school, to set the new rules. I have only been in a behaviour assembly once, a few weeks into term with 1 year group, because a large minority were behaving poorly across the school, so the rules were firmly restated to all. It is certainly not a regular thing in the trust to have behaviour assemblies. I don’t think the assemblies are particularly nice, because every time they state a new rule a kid makes a fart noise or shouts something. You can imagine. They then pull them out and issue a detention. When they first take over a school detentions are in the hall, because so many kids test the system. Lots then fail the detention, so isolation the following day will be in multiple rooms. There’s a huge spike in consequences after they take over, but it soon settles when the kids accept it. They then gradually introduce more rules. They aren’t trying to destroy kids, just settle the school down so teachers can teach and kids can learn.

I never heard the pre-selection line [i.e. the claim that kids were chosen in advance to be shouted at], and generally the behaviour policy is that you don’t shout. It explicitly says that you’re supposed to issue sanctions in as calm, detached and unemotional way as possible to not give kids the reaction they often want. I’ve had training in the behaviour system multiple times from very senior staff in the trust. No one ever told me to shout, and in fact they all emphasised that point that getting angry or pretending to generally doesn’t work. I disagree with [this MAT] on several things, but these reports, and the social media reaction, seem totally over the top.

This is from a teacher currently working at a school in the MAT:

The first time I heard the ‘flattening the grass’ phrase was looking around a [the second MAT named in the story] Academy when I was looking for another job. My life under the previous organisation of my school had become so awful that I was considering leaving teaching after 15 years, not just the school.

When we found out [the MAT in the original story] were to take over [my school], there was a huge amount of apprehension among staff. This was partly due to their reputation and partly due to the inevitability of redundancies. These weren’t due to anything other than a significant fall in students on roll that had never been addressed, with teachers replacing those who left, rather than taking advantage of natural wastage.

When [the MAT] arrived, I was present in some of the assemblies. They were done by year group because there wasn’t a space to contain all our students. I saw one child removed, having stood up and sworn at the member of SLT delivering the assembly. No one was otherwise singled out or shouted at. Moreover,  vulnerable and SEND students had already had a meeting with the new principal, where the new expectations and rules were explained so that they would not be subjected to undue stress.

As [the MAT] sent in a team to patrol the corridors and help the resident staff and SLT to enforce the new standards, each was paired with an experienced member of staff to ensure that no vulnerable students were put in difficult situations because those challenging them were not aware of their circumstances. To address one particularly ridiculous claim, I’ve never had a lesson on shouting at students.

A second reason I haven’t become involved in any of the [MAT]-bashing online is because I’m too concerned about the reaction of people I otherwise respect on Twitter. I realise it’s a wildly unpopular view at the moment, but I’m happier in my job than I’ve been for years. I can actually teach. In the first few weeks after take over, I regularly failed to plan adequately, with 10 to 15 minutes left at the end of the lesson where I had to make up activities. This is when I genuinely realised just how poor behaviour had been before. I’d been subconsciously planning to include spending 25% of lesson time dealing with low level disruption.

Don’t expect to see stories like this in the TES any time soon.

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