Archive for September, 2020

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Good culture mitigates bad behaviour, it doesn’t cure it

September 26, 2020

My last post, Non-Teachers Telling Teachers What to Think was, as I said at the time, a bit delayed. It was originally prompted by some of the debate about the effects of facemasks. Teachers had been worried that facemasks would be compulsory in lessons and that this would have an impact on behaviour. In practice – at least I think for most of us – facemasks haven’t been compulsory in lessons and they aren’t comfortable enough for kids to choose to wear them all day. My experience is that, where they have been worn, they’ve had relatively little effect on behaviour. Had they been compulsory in lessons, I think there would have had a more significant impact, but I could be wrong.

In that last post, I noted the extent to which those who dismissed concerns about masks were non-teachers, but there was something else I noticed about that discussion. People would claim that if masks would have a negative effect on behaviour in a school, then that showed that the culture of behaviour in that school was poor. This was even suggested about schools with an absolutely exemplary reputation for behaviour. And facemasks are not the only discussion where a claim about negative effects on behaviour has been met with a claim about culture. I saw a similar comment yesterday about the effects of kids staying in the same classroom all day due to Covid. There seems to be the assumption that if we can expect to see behaviour get worse, then there’s something wrong with school culture.

I think we should avoid this sort of argument, and I say that as somebody who believes all schools with good behaviour have a good culture. I do think that culture does the most to determine how good behaviour is in schools. How kids behave is, most of the time, how they expect to behave, and much of that time, it’s how their peers behave. The beliefs a child has about how one usually behaves in school seem to have more impact than any behaviour policy, or individual teachers, or set of sanctions, or anything. This is why the best behaviour managers will still struggle in a new school, and why in some schools good behaviour seems almost effortless to achieve.

However, we need to appreciate that unless you have the most exceptional parents, good culture is constructed deliberately by schools. Schools have a good culture of behaviour, because bad behaviour is dealt with. They have it because potential bad behaviour is anticipated and prevented. They have it because any attempt to undermine expectations will be thwarted. All those elements of behaviour management that are not as important as culture, like rules, sanctions and teacher consistency, work together to build culture. This is why it is a mistake to think that if a school has a good culture of behaviour, we can stop worrying about behaviour. Schools with the best behaviour are not the ones where you stop worrying about behaviour, they are ones where you never stop addressing behaviour, not because bad behaviour is common, but because it can always be even rarer.

And this is why I think we should never argue “X won’t be a problem in a school where the culture is really good”. Culture mitigates bad behaviour, it does not cure it. It might mean that a wasp coming in the classroom causes five seconds of distraction, not five minutes, but the way to get that good culture is to keep working on getting it down to five nanoseconds. In schools with bad behaviour, people make decisions that will make behaviour worse without even thinking about it. In schools with great behaviour, people avoid decisions that will make behaviour worse, even if the effect is marginal. Sometimes decisions that will have a negative effect on behaviour are inevitable – living with Covid has certainly forced schools to make tough choices they’d not have made otherwise – but such decisions should never be made thoughtlessly. It doesn’t matter how good a school’s behaviour is, we should never be casual about making it worse, even in a marginal way. If you think your school’s good culture means you don’t have to worry about behaviour, it won’t have that good culture for long. Schools rapidly go from having great behaviour to “good enough” behaviour and from “good enough” behaviour to poor behaviour. So let’s give teachers who worry about losing ten seconds of teaching time, or having one more interruption in the lesson, some respect. Attentiveness to the potential for behaviour becoming worse is a building block of the great culture that ensures it doesn’t.

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Non-Teachers Telling Teachers What to Think

September 19, 2020

I wrote this at the start of term for an education publication that then didn’t use it. Apologies that it’s slightly out of date.

Like a lot of teachers, I found the prospect of returning to school after lockdown to be daunting. I’d be teaching in unfamiliar parts of my school; the make-up of many classes would be different; break and lunchtime routines would be transformed. In the last few days of the holiday it was announced that face masks might be required in schools. Regardless of whether it is the right policy, it was an extra complication for teachers and, for many, an unwelcome one. A particular concern was how it would affect behaviour if children’s faces were partially covered. As teachers took to the media (and social media) to express their apprehension, I was surprised to see a number of ex-teachers explaining how there would be no behaviour difficulties of note and dismissing concerns. I hoped they were right, and I’m sure some teachers agreed with them. Nevertheless, how could anyone who wasn’t currently experiencing the changes in classroom routines, and the general stress of being about to return to the classroom on a regular basis after months of working from home, possibly judge the impact of last minute changes? Who are they to tell us our concerns are not reasonable?

Of course, an ad hominem argument is fallacious. Whether somebody is right or wrong does not depend on who they are, but on what they say. Ex-teachers and even people who have never been teachers, have frequently told me things about teaching and learning that I have found useful and wise. So why do I sometimes lose patience with those opinions expressed from outside of the profession? I think that some people show insufficient respect for the insights of those who still teach.

Firstly, there are those who claim that teachers are wrong about what they experience at work, particularly the problems of the job. They suggest that workload can’t be all that bad with those long leisurely holidays, or that children’s bad behaviour can’t be that serious. I’ve lost count of the number of times people who, having never taught in a challenging school, or having traded the classroom for the office at the first opportunity, have told me their hot takes about behaviour I see every day, or how well they understand the children they no longer encounter.

Secondly, there are those who know how to do the job of teaching better than those who do it. Behaviour worries would melt away if you just shook hands with students at the door. Shakespeare would entrance every student if you just explained how it was like rap music. Simultaneous equations would be grasped in a second if you used graphs that showed how phone companies charge. Indeed, listening to some ex-teachers you’d have to wonder how so many of those apparently infallible and endlessly caring practitioners would ever have come to abandon the classroom.

Thirdly, there are those who claim to speak for teachers. Over the years I’ve read newspaper headlines about what teachers are saying, or even petitions supposedly signed by thousands of teachers, that actually just represented the opinions of educationalists, consultants, or full time trade union activists. Too often, teachers are seen not as individuals, but as a single interest group, supposedly signed up to some simple political idea that actually doesn’t reflect the priorities of anyone in the classroom.

Finally, there are those who wish to take power from teachers. There are influential organisations that have been set up to represent teachers which ended up dominated by those who no longer teach. I’ve known some educationalists to be outraged when politicians and policymakers show signs of listening to those still in the classroom rather than non-teaching “experts” in teaching.

I’ll calm down now, because I have learnt loads from governors, advisors, academics and MAT CEOs. I don’t believe for a second that only teachers are worth listening to. But there are definitely times, like now, when the only people who can really know what it’s like to be teaching, are teachers.

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Another look at exclusions and SEND

September 12, 2020

A couple of years ago I looked at the rhetoric around permanent exclusions and SEND in this blogpost. As I explained, it is argued that…

…a disproportionate number of excluded pupils have SEND (Special educational needs and disability). This is a favourite fact of those who believe that children are not responsible for their bad behaviour. The impression is given that a child will only behave badly because they have SEND, then schools cruelly exclude them rather than supporting them with their SEND. Some get so carried away with the idea that they will talk about badly behaved children and the disabled as if they were interchangeable. One Australian article on exclusions actually illustrated the connection between SEND and exclusions with a picture of a young person in a wheel chair, as if those with physical disabilities were likely to be excluded.

A lot of this is designed to fool politicians, or parents, who may have no idea how the SEND system works. They may imagine a precise, objective system of identifying a coherent category of genuine needs and disabilities in a small minority on the basis of scientific evidence in order to assist them in ways that have been shown to work. Having made this mistake it would be easy to assume that there is no reason why students with SEND would be disproportionately represented in the exclusion figures, unless they were the victims of prejudice or their bad behaviour resulted from their SEND in a way that suggests it was not their fault. This then allows the anti-exclusion lobby to claim that exclusions are a form of discrimination against the disabled, an issue of social justice, and very probably illegal.

Roughly speaking, those who wish to obstruct or prevent permanent exclusions argue that the situation looks like this.

I argued that there were two problems with this picture.

  1. The labelling of students with SEND is not a precise process of diagnosis which identifies a meaningful difference between SEND and non-SEND students. It covers a fairly arbitrary category of students, pretty much anyone who needs extra help for any reason. The one exception to this is those whose difficulties are due to not speaking English as a first language, which is considered to be distinct from all other difficulties and given a different category.
  2. If a child is badly behaved, and particularly if they are at risk of exclusion, there are lots of incentives to look for SEND and to label them SEND, including types of SEND that are identified mainly from bad behaviour.

Taking this into account the process looks more like this:

When I wrote that previous post I argued mainly from

  • experience;
  • reports into the SEND system;
  • the rules regarding identifying SEND,
  • and the rules regarding exclusions.

As a whole, these generally seemed to indicate that it was easy for a school to classify a child as SEND if they want to, and that there are incentives to label badly behaved children as having SEND. However, while this seems plausible, and plenty of teachers confirmed this was their experience, I didn’t indicate whether this was supported by the data. I am now able to do this.

My first claim above was about how arbitrary the category of SEND is, and in particular, the extent to which, if you look for SEND in a student, you will find it. The New Labour years saw an expansion of the SEN bureaucracy and teachers can tell you just how much paperwork they saw produced on students which identified trivial problems, or made amateur diagnoses of fashionable problems, and recommended interventions that were impractical and not evidence based. FFT Education Datalab looked at the SEN data and, in a blogpost entitled More pupils have special educational needs than you might think, they confirmed the scale of the phenomenon. Looking at the cohort of students who were in year 11 in 2016/17 they found that “44% of the cohort had ever been classified as having SEN by the time they reached the end of Year 11”. As most permanent exclusions involve boys, I asked on Twitter what was the percentage of boys who were classified as SEN at some point was, and was told:

So it would appear, that for some cohorts it was possible to identify a majority of boys as having special needs at some point, which is a curious definition of “special” in itself. I think this is good evidence for my first point: when you look hard enough for SEND in a child, you will find it.

My second point was the extent to which it’s the case that badly behaved students would be identified as having SEND, rather than it being the case that students who have SEND would be likely to be badly behaved. We know that excluded students are likely to have SEND. If it is bad behaviour that results in students being labelled SEND, we would expect the categories of SEND that are most linked to exclusion to be those which are likely to be diagnosed from bad behaviour. We would also expect those students with an EHC Plan, or statement of SEN, i.e. those for whom more evidence of genuine need has been identified, to have a lower risk of exclusion than those just labelled by schools. We would also expect non-specific SEND labels, where a school has decided a child has SEN, but has not even identified enough evidence to say what the SEN is, to be well represented among the excluded. If, however, SEND causes bad behaviour, or permanent exclusions discriminate against those with SEND, we would expect a wide variety of SEND categories to be represented among the permanently excluded and we would expect those with more evidence of genuine SEND (i.e. those with an EHC Plan or statement of SEN) and those with more clearly identified SEND, to be more likely to be excluded.

Fortunately the Timpson report, looked at whether SEND was a risk factor for exclusion after controlling for other factors.

This chart shows the risk of a student without SEND being excluded as a horizontal line, and those categories of SEND that depart significantly from this level of risk are in dark blue. Those categories of SEND with no statistically significant difference in risk from those with no SEND are in light blue.

As you can see, the data shows that having an EHC plan, or statement of SEN, for anything other than “Behavioural emotional and social difficulties” and “social, emotional and mental health”, the two categories most likely to be diagnosed from extreme poor behaviour, actually lowers the risk of exclusion. For those who are identified by schools as having SEND, but without an EHCP/statement, the very high odds of exclusion are found in those same two categories and the miscellaneous category of “SEN type not recorded”. Although there is a statistically significant higher risk for some other categories of SEN, they are not much higher, given the incentives for diagnosis. This is all far more consistent with the “bad behaviour leads to being labelled SEND” hypothesis than the “having SEND leads to exclusion” hypothesis. For those involved in the debate around this issue, where children who are excluded unfairly for behaviour related to their autism feature prominently in the rhetoric, it is particularly noticeable that children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder do not have a high risk of being permanently excluded. If they have a EHC plan or a statement of SEN, they have less chance of being excluded (everything else being equal) than a student without SEND.

This will not stop the debate. Those who believe that permanent exclusions are never justified, will argue that even the most extreme behaviour is a result of “unmet needs” regardless of the data. It’s impossible to exaggerate the tenuous nature of the reasoning used to portray excluded children as helpless victims, and school leaders as villains. A report on exclusions from the think tank IPPR, followed up the claim that SEND is a causal factor in exclusions with the following argument for believing it likely that all excluded students have mental health problems:

In 2015/16, one in fifty children in the general population was recognised as having a social, emotional and mental health need (SEMH). In schools for excluded pupils this rose to one in two. Yet the incidence of mental ill health among excluded pupils is likely to be much higher than these figures suggest. Only half of children with clinically diagnosed conduct disorders and a third of children with similarly diagnosed emotional disorders are recognised in their schools as having special educational needs. This means the proportion of excluded children with mental health problems is likely closer to 100 per cent.

The errors of reasoning in this are incredible. SEMH is not synonymous with “mental health problems”; it’s a category that can include those whose difficulty is that they are badly behaved. “Schools for excluded pupils” here appears to be Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) which, while they are often attended by excluded pupils, are actually institutions for any students who are unable to attend school, including those who are unable to attend due to SEMH. Therefore, their SEMH figures tell us nothing about the rate of SEMH among excluded children. It is, of course, possible to find out the actual proportion of excluded students with a label of SEMH that year by looking at the figures. In 2015/2016 the number of excluded children labelled as having SEMH was 1 860 out of 6 685 or 27.8% (which is surprisingly low given that poor behaviour is a common reason to label a child with SEMH). The “clinically diagnosed conduct disorders” and “similarly diagnosed emotional disorders” were diagnosed from survey data (collected from parents, teachers and children themselves) by a method that found 6% of young people to have a conduct disorder and 4% to have an emotional disorder and not from direct assessments by clinicians. While the survey did find that a large minority of the former category, and almost two thirds of the latter category, did not have officially recognised Special Educational Needs at that time, this was not referring specifically to either permanently excluded children or children in PRUs which may be wildly different. Any one of these errors (assuming this is just an extremely unlikely series of mistakes, rather than a deliberate intention to deceive) would invalidate the argument; so many errors in one paragraph suggests the IPPR was not too bothered about factual accuracy.

Does it matter that such dodgy data is being used? Well the IPPR is a well-established and supposedly reputable think tank. The author of this report went on to set up The Difference, a very influential charity that has done a lot to oppose schools’ right to exclude. The one in two figure was quoted as fact, sometimes alongside the 100% figure, by The BBC, Schools Week, The Huffington Post, the Guardian and even referred to by a report of the House Of Commons Education Committee. Invented and contrived statistics about exclusions can be widely circulated by the media, politicians, charities and think tanks. However the fact that excluded children often have the label of SEND is not evidence that innocent children with SEND are being unfairly excluded, only evidence that we label the children likely to be excluded as having SEND, and it’s time the public debate reflected this truth, rather than the horror stories of the anti-exclusion lobby.

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Teachers on the Edge

September 6, 2020

Making the frontline the centre of the education system

The biggest difference in education is made by those at the frontline: the teachers (including school leaders), lecturers and support staff. They know who they are serving; they have a responsibility to their learners. They can also see more directly what is working and what isn’t. At every other level, and unfortunately sometimes in school leadership, there is a distance between the decisions made and their results in actual classrooms.

At other levels, the education system is its own worst enemy. This is not a whine about the political leadership of education: the politicians, the policy makers and the civil servants. For good or ill, their careers usually cover far more than just education, changing portfolios and moving departments as they progress. Whatever faults they bring to the system they usually take them with them when they go. What I am referring to is the way that parts of the education system itself seem to be perpetually focused on something other than education.

It’s a given that those responsible for tens of thousands of schools and other educational institutions, are not trying to shape every single classroom. Whether they do their job well or not, it’s clear that their responsibility is to serve the interests of the public as a whole. It’s also clear that they can consult frontline staff if they wish to, and it’s not obvious that they have any particular reason not to. What concerns me, are those parts of the system which seem to have a vested interest in keeping frontline staff out of sight and out of influence. There are parts of the system that tell frontline staff what to do, but do not have to do those frontline jobs themselves and often haven’t done them for years and often look very uncomfortable if those at the frontline have any say in the matter.

In ITT, education departments in universities overwhelmingly expect those training teachers to teach to be full time academics and not to be teaching in schools. As a result, ITT staff are often concerned only with the political and pedagogical orthodoxies of educationalists, not what works in schools. They have no ‘skin in the game’. On issues such as mixed ability teaching and use of exclusion and discipline in schools, university education lecturers typically appear to have attitudes that are militant, extreme and entirely out of touch with teachers. While they would claim their positions are more evidence-informed than those of teachers, there are also some issues such as phonics where it is noticeable how often educationalists stand against the evidence.

Frontline staff are not encouraged to have much say over their own professional development. CPD budgets are spent by schools and colleges, not by the individual professionals. While it is only appropriate for schools and colleges to provide some proportion of CPD, after all schools need to train their staff in the school specific systems and expectations, this has left education workers unable to set their own priorities. As a result, a voluntary “shadow” system of CPD has developed that teachers take part in during their own time and often pay for out of their own pockets. After school teach meets, BrewED events in pubs, and huge researchED conferences at weekends rely on speakers (often frontline staff themselves) speaking for free and teachers attending in their own time. Sometimes school staff can ask their schools to pay for tickets or travel (although I suspect most don’t), but attendance is on top of the time already spent on days of employer-directed CPD.

A considerable downside to too much employer-directed, and too little self-directed CPD, is that a market for a particular type of consultant has been created. Rather than concentrating on improving the effectiveness of frontline staff, these consultants concentrate on appealing to managers. Teachers find they are given training on how to help the school pass inspections and how to ensure that their response to bad behaviour doesn’t create work for those in charge, rather than being trained on how to teach or manage behaviour more effectively. They may even be employed simply to fill a gap in the schedule for an INSET day, or to give a motivational talk, rather than to provide meaningful professional development. This type of consultant then becomes another vested interest within the system, arguing against effective teaching methods and whole school behaviour systems.

And once you have consultants and educationalists earning a living without providing a benefit to frontline staff, they take an interest in capturing resources intended to serve the frontline. The marginalisation of the frontline is perhaps best illustrated by the way that, in recent years, new institutions have promised to change the balance of power only to replicate what already existed. Two recent examples of institutions funded by the DfE being created to serve the frontline and being captured by interests other than the frontline are:

The Education Endowment Fund. This was apparently intended to move control over education research from the ideologically motivated individuals in education academia. Michael Gove claimed it would “provide additional money for those teachers who develop innovative approaches to tackling disadvantage” and “it is teachers who are bidding for its support and establishing a new research base to inform education policy” [my emphasis]. In practice, it’s chief executive is an educationalist who has been involved in writing papers on how setting children into ability groups is “symbolic violence” based on the theories of Bourdieu. The EEF is now a law unto itself in the agendas it promotes. It recently squandered funds for research into the effectiveness of setting and mixed ability by failing to compare them directly and continues to share older research of doubtful provenance instead. And nobody can work out who, other than the opponents of phonics, wanted the EEF to spend money on the latest iteration of Reading Recovery.

The Chartered College of Teaching. This was created by government policy (and government funding) to be an independent teacher led professional body, “run by teachers, for teachers”. In practice, it is run largely by ex-teachers who already have or had positions of power in education; it is funded by employers, and it is now only too happy to campaign against government policy, even taking its lead from the trade unions. It now holds events in the day time when most teachers can’t leave school, promotes educational fads and censors teachers who dare question educationalists.

Another issue is how difficult it is for frontline staff to express opinions. Teachers have been reported to their employers for expressing opinions on social media. Those training to teach have been reported to their training institutions. Without being able to divulge the details of specific cases it’s hard to prove the trivial nature of such instances. But it doesn’t take long on teacher twitter to discover that whereas consultants and educationalists can heap online abuse on anyone they like, teachers find there are professional consequences for even disagreeing with fashionable opinions and very often those making the complaints are the same consultants and educationalists who have complete freedom of speech themselves.

Finally, the education system promotes and protects the beliefs and interests of those who make the job at the frontline more difficult. Some of this, like the consultants described earlier, appears to be about self-interest. We have organisations that provide training to schools campaigning for the government to ban internal exclusions, suspensions and expulsion, thus creating behaviour problems which require more training for staff. We have organisations that provide mental health services and advice to schools, running public campaigns claiming there is a youth mental health crisis that requires schools to spend more money on mental health services and advice.

To be charitable, it’s not all self-interest, sometimes it’s ideological. When the newly appointed head of Goldsmiths Education department indicates that her department’s programmes focus on “inclusion and social justice in educational settings”, she is no doubt sincere, but it is far from clear why money from the education budget should fund an organisation with such openly political priorities. Similarly, when The Children’s Commissioner joins an online campaign that demonises schools, she is no doubt sincere in her belief that the campaigners are right that schools are cruel and internal exclusion is unnecessary. But it’s far from clear why the government should be funding ideologically motivated attacks on things that are perfectly normal in schools.

Here are my suggestions for changing the system to empower the frontline.

  1. Remove all ITT from university education departments. No teacher needs to be trained by experts in Marxist sociology and critical theory. Remove funds from any organisation, such as the EEF, that is giving power and influence to educationalists to promote their pet theories of learning.
  2. Reduce the number of CPD days controlled by schools, and allow teachers to choose their own CPD for part of that allocation and encourage schools to make this as convenient as possible. Make it harder to make a living providing CPD that teachers don’t want, and easier to make a living providing CPD that teachers would choose for themselves.
  3. Create incentives for those providing teacher training or employer-directed CPD to also teach, whether that’s in the structures or in financial incentives. All parts of the system should be encouraged to audit the extent to which those that shape its policies are currently working at the frontline of education. It would be fascinating to know what proportion of people invited into the DfE to give advice on the education system have worked in a school or college in any capacity other than consultancy in the previous week.
  4. Give teachers a right to freedom of speech. While teachers should not be able to say anything they like about their employers or their students, it is not up to schools to regulate opinions on pedagogy or politics expressed on social media by teachers who are not representing their employer and sometimes not even writing under their own name.
  5. Require every organisation that receives funds directly from the DfE, or indirectly from educational institutions, to refrain from taking part in, or funding anything close to political activism. Abolish completely any institution, such as the Office Of The Children’s Commissioner that seems to have been set up almost entirely to push an ideological agenda.
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