Parental Choice Revisited

February 17, 2010

Not so long ago I posted about the Tory plans for “freeing up” the education system.  I do think that the Tories have been saying some fairly sensible things about what is wrong with our education system when it comes to dumbing down or discipline so it is deeply concerning that their actual policies seem to be based on ideological dogma about markets rather than the more obvious option of, well, actually doing something to solve the problems. My objection was that no amount of talk of Sweden as an example will actually make it plausible that schools will improve drastically simply by trying to encourage more competition and diversity in a system which is far more competitive and diverse than so many other countries.

Anyway, debate has moved on. Firstly, questions are being asked about whether Sweden is a model worth copying:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “BBC News – Newsnight – Can Sweden rea…“, posted with vodpod

For balance, here is Gove’s response:

Vodpod videos no longer available.
more about “BBC News – Newsnight – Gove defends T…“, posted with vodpod

More importantly, we are beginning to see who the Tories think will come and do their job for them if they were to be elected. The answer appears to be “any idiot with a pet theory”. One in particular stands out. The actress Goldie Hawn runs what appears to be an educational charity with some crank ideas. So mad are they that even the Daily Mail are happy to criticise the Tories for this. More detail is available from Kelvin Throop in a blog post that I wish I’d written, which I’ll represent here:

I have been somewhat critical of education policy under the current Government but compared with what the opposition have planned, Labour are sane and clear thinkers.

That’s right. The Tories are planning on taking education advice from a Hollywood actress who has a scheme for controlling aggression by breathing excercises and meditation dreamt up while she was on holiday. I wondered what research backed up her system. Google found me this:

In 2005, leading researcher Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, Associate Professor of Education at University of British Columbia, received a grant from the The Hawn Foundation to conduct a pilot research study on MindUP (TM), developed by the The Hawn Foundation and author Nancy Fischer…The studies used rigorous scientific design, including a randomized control trial, to test the program’s effectiveness. One study also explored the program’s implementation, helping to refine the curriculum design. Ongoing longitudinal studies will evaluate the impact of MindUPTM over time.

Study Results
The studies found that children who participated in MindUPTM, compared to children who did not, showed significant improvements on all four dimensions of teacher-rated school behaviors, including:

Attentional control
Decrease in aggression
Decrease in behavioral dysregulation
Increase in self-esteem
Increase in pro-social behavior such as sharing
Increase in social-emotional competence
Program effects were also found for self-reported optimism, self concept, reflection, and mindful awareness attention. The positive emotional benefits were strongest for girls and/or younger children.

“Rigorous scientific design” sounds good, as do the claimed results. Although the “self-reported” optimism etc. sounds a bit subjective.

The actual research is summarised here.

The research design is described as:

Quasi-experimental, pretest, posttest, control group design

The first study consisted of 246 4th to 7th grade children in 12 classes, 6 classes received the Mindfulness Education (ME) program and 6 control classes did not. The classes were matched for age, ethnicity, gender and social background. The participants filled in questionaires before and after so that changes in social and emotional understading etc. could be assessed.

There is no mention of randomisation, so it would be perfectly possible for the worst performing kids to be assigned to the control groups. Likewise, there is no blinding, so this could influence the researchers interpretation of results.

A series of papers that resulted from this research are listed. All but one are conference presentations ie not peer-reviewed. The remaining one, Promoting optimism and well-being in school-aged children: Initial findings from the “Mindfulness Education” program by K.A. Schonert-Reichl and M.S. Lawler was, as of December 2008, being prepared for publication in Psychology in the Schools.

I had a look on that journal’s website and inputted “Schonert-Reichl” into the author field of the search function. Precisely 0 papers were found.

The second study involved 99 4th and fifth graders assigned to 4 classes, 2 ME and 2 control. This one is a randomised control trial ie the researchers should have no influence over whether a particular student is assigned to an ME or control class. However, we are not told what randomisation technique is used so we do not know whether it was adequate. Furthermore, once more no mention of blinding is made, so when the researchers are assessing the results they will know whether a kid was in the conrol or ME group. The results of this study are still being written up for publication.

There is thus no peer-reviewed evidence and indeed no sound science at all supporting this program.

Now if only the alternative to all this was someone more credible than Ed Balls…


  1. And there was me thinking the tories would put alot of what is wrong in education at the moment right.

    When will it change?

  2. Do you think it is possible, however, that different models of education might suit different people? I don’t have any faith in the Tories to deliver diversity in the education system, but I don’t really see a great deal of diversity as things stand – we have a national curriculum and those few schools which can opt out are generally priced beyond the means of most people.

    • I was talking about a diversity of providers not a diversity of curricula, as it is the former, rather than the latter, that the Tories are claiming to promote.

      Far from abolishing the National Curriculum they actually want to bring it under more direct political control.

      • What diversity of providers? Again, the vast majority of teaching is provided by the state, and the alternatives tend to be very expensive.

        Do you think a national curriculum is a good thing?

        • By comparison with most of the developed world we have a huge diversity of providers. Our private sector is enormous, as is our faith school sector, and then we have academies on top of that.

          I wouldn’t have a compulsory National Curriculum.

          • The private sector is beyond the reach of the majority. Both academies and religious schools are state funded, state regulated and have their curriculum dictated by the state. In what way do they offer diversity?

            I wonder where there is genuine diversity in education? There seems a real paucity in alternative approaches to primary and secondary education, especially considering the changes that technology has wrought in other areas.

            I too think it is the compulsory nature, rather than the content, of a national curriculum which is the problematic part.

            • As I said before I was talking about diversity of providers not curriculum, and I was comparing it to other countries (like, say, Sweden before the reforms) when I talked about the English system being more diverse.

            • I fail to see how we have a diversity of providers. We have Tesco metro, Tesco Supermarket and Tesco Megastore. If they all sell Tesco Brand Dog Food, the only diversity is that of geographic location.

            • I’m not clear why you are just ignoring what I have already said. If you ignore me again and just post the same opinion once more I will not be adding it to this thread.

  3. I get tired of hearing the “they do it like this in Sweden – they have a more successful education system – so it must be good!” argument. This is yet another example of people confusing correlation with causality. The Scandinavians are outwardly quite like us but on close examination you see countries which are economically and demographically different from the UK. Sweden, for example, has a much smaller and more homogenous population, less economic disparity between rich and poor, fewer urban population centres, and a very different cultural perspective in relation to education. In short, Swedish educational success could be more of a reflection of Sweden’s society and economy than their model of education.

  4. It’s the same muddled thinking that supposed that transplanting cointinental-style drinking venues and hours onto UK soil would result in less pissedness and antisocial behaviour and family-example drinking pratices.

  5. Terrible typing. Sorry.

    • Absolutely, a good example of dodgy logic in policymaking. I must admit though I like the all night drinking. Mainly because I like drinking and being treated like an adult. Interestingly, I hear that some of our Scandinavian cousins share our cultural fondness for intoxication. I wonder if their policy of making booze unfeasibly expensive has worked. Although, I’m bitterly opposed to the idea for the aforementioned selfish reasons.

  6. What’s worse is that the Tories seem to be suggesting that the diversity of providers of education in Sweden is the sole reason for it’s educational success and completely ignoring the many other factors that contribute as they don’t want anything to do with them.

    It’s further movement towards the notion that pupils and parents are consumers and customers.

    Parental choice for most is a myth. It always has been and it always will be. Education is not a market. nor should it be. Government attempts to create a market and parental choice are a nonsense and the league tables (which are supposed to aid parental choice) do not do what they are supposed to do. the confidence intervals of the relevant statistics mean that there is potentially little or no different in value added between the schools at the top of the league tables and the schools at the bottom.

    I’d also like to know, practically, how it’s going to work. How are people who want to start a school going to acquire the land, building, resources etc with which to start one? Are the government going to provide it? where is that money going to come from?
    If people have to come up with all the necessary resources themselves then that will severely restrict who can start a school. People with that kind of money already send their kids to private schools I imagine

  7. What about the example of further education? With the exception of Buckingham, all universities are state funded. However, they are effectively paid for with a voucher system (fees and grants) topped up by individuals. There is no single national curriculum and there is competition between university for students. I know the analogy has faults, but we have a university system which can boast some of the best institutions in the world.

    • If we only care about having “some” good institutions then the school system is fine too.

  8. Copy the post by all means (though I’d appreciate it if you credit me). The more people who relise how barking that idea is, the better.

    • Cheers.

  9. For your consideration:


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