Archive for September, 2018


The EEF revisits ability grouping

September 29, 2018

Earlier this year I wrote a couple of posts about the Education Endowment Foundation’s summary of the research on ability grouping.

In a summary of the meta-analyses, they had claimed an average effect size of -0.09 for setting/streaming, which was at odds with Hattie’s claim of a positive effect size of 0.12 for ability grouping and a more recent analysis (Steenbergen-Hu et al, 2016) finding a positive effect size between 0.04 and 0.06.

It took two posts because there were so many odd practices and little errors that it was difficult to find out what had actually gone wrong. Two main ones that I identified were that:

  • Within-class ability grouping (i.e. something that would normally be considered a form of mixed ability teaching) was included because it was “ability grouping” even though the figure was being presented as a figure for “setting and streaming”.
  • A positive figure had been calculated originally based on all the meta-analyses, but so had a negative figure for low attaining students (based on just 2 meta-analyses) and at some point this figure had become used instead.

At the time, schools minister Nick Gibb shared my blogpost on Twitter, and as a result, I was condemned by a variety of educationalists for daring to disagree with the experts. After all, we all know that a mere teacher could not be right about a technical matter?

But the EEF did look at its figures again, and guess what they realised they had got wrong?

  • Within-class ability grouping (i.e. something that would normally be considered a form of mixed ability teaching) was included because it was “ability grouping” even though the figure was being presented as a figure for “setting and streaming”.
  • A positive figure had been calculated originally based on all the meta-analyses, but so had a negative figure for low attaining students (based on just 2 meta-analyses) and at some point this figure had become used instead.

They have now separated out the results for in class ability grouping, stopped using the figure for low attainers and reduced the “security rating” for their results. Obviously I am expecting those educationalists mentioned earlier to apologise immediately for dismissing me on a matter where I turned out to be right.

Unfortunately, there still seem to be issues with the new figure which is still negative and still way off the figures from Hattie and Steenbergen-Hu et al. The EEF result is based on the following meta-analyses:

Meta-analyses Effect size
Henderson, N. D., (1989)
Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. , (1992)
Rui, N., (2009)
Slavin, R. E., (1987)
Slavin, R. E., (1993)
Slavin, R. E., (1990)
Effect size (weighted mean) -0.08

So we have one study, Henderson (1989) in there that is an extreme outlier. It is an unpublished dissertation cited in Steenbergen-Hu et al, but hardly anywhere else. The only reference to it I could find elsewhere claimed that it it “found no achievement difference between students who had been ability-grouped and those who had been heterogeneously grouped”. Without this study, I suspect the overall effect size would be very close to 0.

Additionally, 2 studies by Kulik and Kulik that had been cited by Steenbergen-Hu et al and the previous EEF analysis that both found positive effect sizes of 0.1 have been removed because in both cases “The 2018 update revealed that this study was superseded by Kulik and Kulik 1992”. It is, of course, the case that more up to date meta-analyses by the same authors are to be preferred, but this sort of decision seems inconsistent with the approach of listing all meta-analyses and even more surprising when another author, (Slavin, R.E.) is allowed to have 3 studies considered without the newer ones superceding the older ones.

Perhaps I’m now just picking up on flaws with the entire “meta-meta-analysis” approach rather than just this review. Maybe it’s normal for really major differences to arise from highly contestable decisions and this will always be the case. And certainly I have a bias against mixed ability so I find myself looking far more closely at decisions to include negative studies or exclude positive ones than at the decisions to include positives ones and exclude negative ones. For instance, I also find myself wondering why Rui’s review of “detracking” (changing the academic program for different ability groups) is included, but Gutierrez, R., & Slavin, R. E. (1992)’s study of setting across age groups is excluded. Aren’t both studies in the same category of saying something about ability grouping but not exactly to do with setting and streaming as we use it in our schools? But while I am biased, might the author of the toolkit have a bias towards getting a result that was as close as possible to the previous flawed result? A published academic article might justify some of these decisions I’ve questioned, whereas a “toolkit” for teachers can’t be expected to. But if a peer-reviewed, published academic article is the standard required then Sternbergen-Hu et al (2016) is the only result we should listen to (and I’d still have questions about their use of Henderson (1989)).

At the very least, I think the priority of the EEF should be to sort out these issues, perhaps even conducting their own meta-analyses in a case like this, rather than leaving teachers to wonder whether they should listen to Hattie, Sternbergen et al or the EEF who between them have now come up with 3 completely different answers to the same question.



September 15, 2018

Every so often progressive edutwitter goes insane about something. Usually it is something that is obviously true.

The last time it happened was over this post. In it, I argued that children should be held responsible for their behaviour and pointed out they were “not insane”. Progressives deduced that if I thought we should hold children responsible for their behaviour because they were not insane, then I must be saying that children who are not responsible for their behaviour are insane. For some progressives, this is almost all children, particularly if they have SEN or are badly behaved and edutwitter filled with two arguments:

  1. He calls children/children with SEN/badly behaved children “insane”. He is a monster.
  2. He used the word “insane”. This is offensive to people with mental health problems. Nobody should ever use the word.

As ever, the argument could only get as far as it did by being dishonest. Anyone going back to the source would discover that I had said children were not insane. Anyone claiming that the word “insane” was inherently offensive would invariably turn out to have used the word “insane”, or “mad” or “crazy” themselves at some point because that’s a normal part of how almost everybody talks about irrationality.

It all died down eventually, with most of the damage being self-inflicted. However, the key argument, that when we start saying kids (or particular types of kids) aren’t responsible for their actions, we are treating them as if they were insane was lost in the fuss, which is a shame.

This incident sprang to mind, yesterday when David Didau also got attacked for saying something obviously true. In defending the position that intelligence is not innate (i.e. the position that we do have to learn in order to become smart) he pointed out:

And again, faced with that second sentence, something that, without serious misinterpretation, was obviously true, progressive edutwitter went insane… I mean…. no, I do mean insane.

The argument went something like this:

  1. If we define “stupid” to refer to the inability to learn well, or to refer only to comparison between children of the same age, then this isn’t true.
  2. I don’t like the tone.

Obviously, a moment’s consideration reveals that in all the ways relevant to what David was saying, babies are actually stupid. To object is to declare that either you know what he meant better than he does, or that you have unilaterally decided “stupid” cannot refer to ignorance, lack of ability at intellectual feats or anything else where babies compare badly with adults. This argument is hard to sustain, so we soon had personal attacks, claims from authority – “I  know more about babies/child development/what David meant than David does” – and general attempts to declare the word “stupid” offensive to babies, or some other category of people, in the same way that “insane” was.

I don’t think progressives using bad arguments is really news. Nor is it news that they will use a mix of manufactured outrage, personal attacks, and twitter pile-ons to get at people. But what fascinates me most in these two arguments is the way in which the original point was obviously correct in both cases. Babies are stupid. People who are not responsible for their actions are usually considered insane. I’ve long observed that inconvenient facts cause more controversy than actual debatable opinions. And this is what I see as dangerous. Truth is something we should be committed to. Unless a truth is something obviously personal (e.g. your mum is fat) or private, we should always hesitate to criticise somebody for saying what is true. It reflects badly on progressive edutwitter that so many were so outraged at something so obviously true.

When people object to truths then you really see which assumptions underlie their ideology. One of the longest standing themes of progressive education is the idea that children do not need to learn from adults, that all their intellectual gifts are contained within and just have to be drawn out. G.K. Chesterton satirised this over 100 years ago:

I know that certain crazy pedants have attempted to counter this difficulty by maintaining that education is not instruction at all, does not teach by authority at all. They present the process as coming, not from the outside, from the teacher, but entirely from inside the boy. Education, they say, is the Latin for leading out or drawing out the dormant faculties of each person. Somewhere far down in the dim boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose. Sealed up in the newborn babe are the intrinsic secrets of how to eat asparagus and what was the date of Bannockburn. The educator only draws out the child’s own unapparent love of long division; only leads out the child’s slightly veiled preference for milk pudding to tarts. I am not sure that I believe in the derivation; I have heard the disgraceful suggestion that “educator,” if applied to a Roman schoolmaster, did not mean leading our young functions into freedom; but only meant taking out little boys for a walk. But I am much more certain that I do not agree with the doctrine; I think it would be about as sane to say that the baby’s milk comes from the baby as to say that the baby’s educational merits do. There is, indeed, in each living creature a collection of forces and functions; but education means producing these in particular shapes and training them to particular purposes, or it means nothing at all. Speaking is the most practical instance of the whole situation. You may indeed “draw out” squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him and pulling him about, a pleasant but cruel pastime to which many psychologists are addicted. But you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.

But the important point here is only that you cannot anyhow get rid of authority in education; it is not so much (as poor Conservatives say) that parental authority ought to be preserved, as that it cannot be destroyed. Mr. Bernard Shaw once said that he hated the idea of forming a child’s mind. In that case Mr. Bernard Shaw had better hang himself; for he hates something inseparable from human life. I only mentioned educere and the drawing out of the faculties in order to point out that even this mental trick does not avoid the inevitable idea of parental or scholastic authority. The educator drawing out is just as arbitrary and coercive as the instructor pouring in; for he draws out what he chooses. He decides what in the child shall be developed and what shall not be developed. He does not (I suppose) draw out the neglected faculty of forgery. He does not (so far at least) lead out, with timid steps, a shy talent for torture. The only result of all this pompous and precise distinction between the educator and the instructor is that the instructor pokes where he likes and the educator pulls where he likes. Exactly the same intellectual violence is done to the creature who is poked and pulled. Now we must all accept the responsibility of this intellectual violence. Education is violent; because it is creative. It is creative because it is human. It is as reckless as playing on the fiddle; as dogmatic as drawing a picture; as brutal as building a house. In short, it is what all human action is; it is an interference with life and growth. After that it is a trifling and even a jocular question whether we say of this tremendous tormentor, the artist Man, that he puts things into us like an apothecary, or draws things out of us, like a dentist.

I think most progressives would have said this addresses a straw man and was not their true position at all. But now we know that for many progressives, or at least for many of those who would deny that we are born stupid, it is not just their belief but an assumption that is so firmly ingrained they actually get angry when they hear it denied.


A Guide To Scenes From The Battleground

September 2, 2018

I have updated this guide for the holidays.

This blog is about the state of secondary education. There is an introduction to it here:

And some reflections on it here:

Here is a summary of my main points:

Here are a few posts written purely for a laugh (although some of them perhaps make a point at the same time):

The following posts sum up what is typical in schools these days in various respects:



Teachers and Managers:

Special Needs:

School Life:


As well as the advice for teachers included in many of the other posts, I have written advice specifically for new teachers:

These deal more directly with my own personal experiences, or the experiences of others:

I have also written a number of posts exploring and explaining how this situation came to be, discussing the arguments in education and suggesting what can be done.


Apologia and arguments:

Progressive Education:



Education Policy and Current Affairs:



The College of Teaching:

Children’s Mental Health

School shamings and witch hunts

Teaching and Teachers:

Educational Ethics and Philosophy:

Education Research and Academics

The Curriculum

Here are some videos I found on the internet which I thought were interesting, or relevant, enough to present in a blog post. Some will probably no longer be available, I hope to correct this where possible when I get the chance.

I wrote about some of the myths that are spread to teachers, often in INSET or during PGCEs:

I have also outlined what I would expect from schools willing to do put things right:

Here are my book recommendations:

This may be of interest if you are considering writing a blog or are looking for blogs to read:

You may also have found me…

Here’s an idea for using Twitter to advertise teaching jobs:

I have also written sections in the following three books:

Please let me know if any of the links don’t work.

Finally, I can be found on Facebook (please “friend” me) or Twitter (please “follow” me).

If you want to keep up with education blogging other than mine, or to see some of these same concerns discussed by others, then you should follow my sister blog, The Education Echo Chamber. The blog is here. The twitter feed is here. The sister blog to the sister blog is The Echo Chamber Uncut which automatically shares all UK education blogs. The blog is here. The twitter feed is here. There are details of some “mini Echo Chambers” here.

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