Archive for March, 2021

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Guest Post: Sexual assault, or why my school will never really be “good”.

March 30, 2021

This blogpost (not written by me) first appeared on the Red Or Green Pen blog in August 2013. It is shared here with the permission of the author as I think that blog is no longer accessible.

I’ve read too much and heard too much about sexual assault of girls in our schools recently. It’s horrible. It makes me incredibly angry. Try these blogs for starters:

My life as a cynical teacher

Nervous

I’m sure there are many more, but these immediately come to mind.

I went to private school (boo, hiss etc). My immediate thought when I read bigkids’ blog post was: If this had happened to me, I would have been out of that school faster than you can say “privilege“. I’m absolutely certain of that. My sister was bullied for a short while in secondary school. When my mum found out, she said “right, we are having a meeting with the Headmistress tomorrow morning, and we are digging the prospectuses out”.

For Christ’s sake. You shouldn’t have to pay to avoid sexual assault.

Meanwhile, in the school I now teach at, sexual assault has almost become part of the furniture. The Head has talked about how much of a problem it is. He sent some staff on a training day about it. He’s kept boys back after assembly and given them a bollocking. He’s kept girls back after assembly and told them he’s given the boys a bollocking. It hasn’t really helped. It’s a culture. A culture takes a lot more than an assembly to change.

It’s as if this whole issue is a pesky mosquito buzzing round his head, that he limply swats at occasionally when it bothers him too much.

When SLT talk about how good a school we are, how we’re aiming for an Outstanding Ofsted next year, how great our progress stats are, I want to shake them and say “how can you apply positive adjectives to a school where girls are just resigned to being felt up now and again? Where pupils with police reprimands and warnings for assaulting girls walk the corridors alongside the victims? Where your own pupil voice survey says that the majority of pupils do not feel safe?” The idea that we are currently an Ofsted “Good” school is laughable, not when you compare us to other Ofsted Good schools – then it actually seems reasonable – but when you think about what the word “good” means to the layperson.

I look at schools like King Solomon Academy where “no student could think of an occasion when [bullying had occurred]” (Ofsted, 2013). It can be done. But our priorities need to change. We need to stop accepting that a bit of bullying, a bit of sexual assault, a bit of fighting is normal in a secondary school. We need to stop obsessing about whether iGCSEs would add a couple of extra points to our results and start looking at ethos and values. Guess what? When students aren’t terrified of coming into school, and are allowed to work hard without taunting, those league table results have a tendency to fix themselves anyway.

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Book Review: The Great Exception By Ian Stock

March 28, 2021

The Great Exception by Ian Stock. Published by John Catt Educational Limited. £15 

One of my new year’s resolutions was to read more books. I intend to review those that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies.. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased. 

This is an unusual book. It is a book by an experienced classroom teacher discussing teaching that is offering informed opinions, rather than advice on how to do the job. At no point does it say “this is how to best teach”, it just tries to get under the skin of the job. It’s the sort of book that would be more common if we expected teachers to last in the classroom long enough to be able to reflect on it at length, while still being primarily engaged in teaching. In a world where people who haven’t taught regular lessons to kids in decades are considered experts on teaching, and in many contexts given authority to speak on behalf of teachers, a book like this that reflects on the job without offering advice is a rarity.

How much you get out of it might depend on how much you agree with the analysis and agree that it is saying something important. Stock relies a bit much on just a few ideas, like “Affluenza”*, managerialism and the limits of both market approaches and scientific approaches to the craft of teaching. But even if you think other factors are more important in shaping the profession these days, there seems to be truth in all these points. Perhaps it is at times unsatisfying that Stock doesn’t take the ideas to an extreme where you can really disagree with him. You are more likely to think “but he doesn’t mention X” than to think “he is completely wrong about Y”. You are more likely to think that your own experience differs from his, than to think he is misleading you about what he is seeing in schools.

Instead, the book seeks to prompt discussion more than it seeks to give answers. At times this is a weakness, and some of it seems more suited to, say, a thought-provoking  column in an education periodical, than the chapter of a book. (Seriously, he should be given a regular column in TES or Schools Week or whatever.) But it’s also a strength in that the book would be great for a teachers’ book group to discuss. Even in the shortest chapters could probably be discussed for hours by a group of experienced teachers.

I want people to buy the book, because I want there to be books out there that simply say what the job is like from a particular position of experience and wisdom.

* “the dysfunction brought by effects of socially competitive greed” (from the Oliver James book)

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How misleading was today’s Guardian article on exclusions?

March 25, 2021

As I said in this morning’s post, I spent a lot of time on Twitter from November to February interrogating the claims, particularly the statistical ones, of the conspiracy theorists alleging that the result of the 2020 November US presidential election was won through fraud. When it came to looking at the numbers, the same tactics were used again and again.

Ignore the big picture.

The 2020 election was won by the favourite. The only surprise in the result was that he didn’t win by quite as much as the polls suggested and lost some states he might have been expected to win. Yet conspiracy theorists would ignore this and talk as if Joe Biden’s victory was inexplicable.

Scour the data for anomalies in the details.

An anomaly is something improbable in the data. All elections have anomalies and there are always unprecedented features for any election result (as XKCD show here). Because of the scale of US elections then just at random there will some unlikely events. If a million things have happened then you would expect to find even a one in a million fluke occurring somewhere. If you look at the smallest possible subdivisions of the electorate, counties and precincts rather than whole states, then you get a lot of opportunities to find unlikely events. Conspiracy theorist statistics showing fraud were often based around results at county level (and occasionally precincts). It would actually be more suspicious if there weren’t any unusual results and, of course, they did not consider anomalies that worked in the favour of the losing candidate to be evidence of fraud by his side.

Assume all anomalies are explained by fraud

Once an alleged anomaly is found it was assumed to be evidence of fraud. Other explanations, like changing demographics or the effects of high turn out were ignored. Even results that were largely the same as 2016 were treated as suspicious this time. Errors made by election officials were given as evidence of fraud. Even errors made by journalists reporting on the election were seen as evidence of fraud.

It’s not that an anomaly couldn’t be evidence of fraud, but even the most serious anomalies are more like a smoke alarm going off than seeing your house burn down. It is necessary to look at all explanations. It is also necessary to ask “even if we don’t have an explanation for this anomaly, does fraud actually explain it?” Many anomalies were simply irrelevant to the result of the election, but were seen as evidence that there was fraud everywhere.

Uncritically repeat false or misleading claims.

Finally, and this is probably the most frequently used tactics, false claims (like Pennsylvania counting more mail in ballots than they sent out) or misleading information (like exit polls results in an election where a huge proportion of voters voted by post) would be repeated without any effort being made to see if they were false or misleading. Even mathematical errors, like an incorrectly calculated percentage, would be repeated without checking.

What does this have to do with education?

I was reminded of all this when I saw today’s Guardian story about exclusions being racist. I should point out it is about Fixed Term Exclusions i.e. pupils be sent home for a short time, often just a day.  I am neither bothered about FTEs as an issue (ultimately schools have alternatives if there is political pressure to reduce FTEs) or convinced there is no evidence of racism in the pattern of FTEs. However, given that the headline does not mention that the article is about FTEs, I do fear that this may impact the debate on permanent exclusions which I do care about, so this is worth commenting on to see if the article is accurate. And what I see is all the same tricks that drove me to distraction on MAGA twitter.

Ignore the big picture.

The big picture on FTEs and race is that in the most recent data the rate of fixed period exclusions (number of FTEs as a percentage of the headcount of pupils) is 3.91 for minority ethnic pupils and 5.80 for white pupils. In itself, that would be grounds for doubting racism, but it’s fair enough to look more closely. The single minority ethnic statistic hides that there’s a big difference between Asian and Black pupils, with FTE rates of 2.03 and 5.54 respectively. And if we break down data further we will find significant discrepancies in FTEs rates between ethnic groups, although we would still find most ethnic groups have a lower FTE rate than white pupils and particularly white British pupils. Nevertheless, some groups do have a much higher rate. The big picture here is that there is no clear pattern of racism, but there is inequality that cannot be simply explained by any one cause I’m aware of.

Scour the data for anomalies in the details.

If you have to describe the method used by the Guardian article it is this:

  1. Find the ethnic groups with the highest FTE rates.
  2. Find the LAs with the highest FTE rates for those ethnic groups (ignoring those with less than 100 pupils from those ethnic groups).
  3. Report the above information as a comparison with white pupils where possible.

This is a deliberate strategy of looking for the most anomalous results (favouring the racism hypothesis) and reporting only those. There is no way this method would not find dramatic discrepancies apparently favouring white pupils, even if the number of FTEs was distributed completely by chance. It is cherry picking, with even the choice of white pupils (FTE rate 5.80) over white British pupils (FTE rate 6.01) being made to increase the discrepancies found. I should point out that the data was released on February 24th, but it has apparently taken a month to subdivide it sufficiently to get the story the Guardian was looking for.

Perhaps some will say this is a fair method of finding evidence of racism, so I’m going to give them a challenge. Use the exact same method but replace “white” with “Asian” or “black”. Do you get equally convincing discrepancies showing FTEs favour Asian or black pupils? Unless the decision to ignore LAs where the relevant ethnic minority has a headcount less than 100 scuppers it, this would almost certainly find even greater discrepancies than carrying out this procedure for white pupils.

Assume all anomalies are explained by racism.

It is entirely possible that some of the discrepancies could be explained by racism. There could be some LAs where exclusion policies operate in racist ways. However, the article’s only concession to the fact that other explanations are available is an admission that it’s most extreme anomaly involving Black Caribbean pupils (the figure for Cambridgeshire) might be partially explained by the “relatively small number of Caribbean students”. No attempt is made to work out if any discrepancy is explained by social class, even though London is known for having a lot of wealth alongside its disadvantage. No attempt is made to look at the reasons for exclusions, despite these also varying quite noticeably between ethnic groups. I have no idea why the largest category for exclusions for black and Asian pupils is physical assault against another pupil while it is only the fourth highest category of exclusions for white pupils, but it seems like it might be relevant to the analysis and certainly likely to be relevant to policy suggestions to address discrepancies. But assault is not mentioned, and yet “uniform policies” are mentioned as a reason for exclusion.

Uncritically repeat false or misleading claims.

This to me is the worst part of the article. For all the cherry picking, the groups with the highest FTE rates might be discriminated against. But, when you then use this as evidence for discrimination against groups that don’t have high FTE rates, you are at best mistaken and at worst lying. The article quotes people getting this wrong without correcting it.

We are told of:

an “incredible injustice” for schoolchildren from minority ethnic backgrounds

a “PRU [pupil referral unit] to prison” pipeline for working-class black children.

BAME … children being disproportionately excluded

an “incredible injustice” for schoolchildren from an ethnic minority background [again]

Yet as pointed out above, none of the categories I’ve emphasised here are at greater risk of FTEs than white British pupils. The writer of the article knows this as these claims are all attributed to others (with the repeated claim being attributed to both “experts” and a politician) rather than claimed by the Guardian. Yet they are reported uncritically despite being at best misleading and, at worst, dishonest.

There is no excuse for reporting that consists of cherry picking statistics to fit a hypothesis that contradicts the big picture, presenting only one explanation and then repeating objectively false claims uncritically to ensure people are misled. If this Guardian article alone convinced you that exclusions are racist, then you should be equally convinced that Democrats stole the US election. If you aren’t, you should ask yourself why, before our schools end up looking like the riot on Capitol Hill.

All statistics cited by me in this blogpost come from here.

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A belated note on 14 years of blogging

March 25, 2021

Last October (on the 24th) I reached the 14th anniversary of my first blogpost. From the 24th to the 26th I wrote a blogpost every day. This distracted me from my usual practice of writing a blogpost about the previous year’s blogging, and I remained distracted for quite some time and I haven’t really been blogging lately.

That time has come to catch up. In my 14th year of blogging I wrote about:

Teacher Autonomy

Exclusions

Internal Exclusions

Behaviour

Achievement For All

CPD

Exam grading in a pandemic

Reforming the education system

Principles

RSE guidance

I think this probably accurately reflects the education debate in that time. Progressive education is losing the debate in terms of pedagogy and curriculum, with schools embracing a knowledge rich curriculum and moving away from inquiry learning. It is gaining ground in the debate over discipline with perfectly normal practices like exclusion and internal exclusion being demonised, and all manner of outdated therapeutic ideas being suggested as alternatives to setting and enforcing rules. The “Culture War” is impacting on education, with progressives being the first to claim that only their ideas can fight racism. The government’s manifest failures over replacing exams during a pandemic has also opened the door to those who wish to introduce less fair methods of assessment.

In other news

  • I appeared in this podcast with Greg Ashman which is well worth a listen.
  • I was reported to the police for warning my Twitter followers about an online troll who contacts teacher’s schools if she disapproves of what they say on Twitter. While I eventually established that warning teachers about this is not illegal, it took time and the support of The Free Speech Union to do so.
  • I was offered a permanent contract at my current school, which I accepted after years of temporary contracts with different schools.

A further distraction from blogging was the US Presidential Election. I became fascinated with the attempts to overthrow the election by alleging fraud. In particular, I studied the way false information was introduced and disseminated on MAGA Twitter. I spent a lot of time seeing what happened when I corrected factual, and in particular, statistical inaccuracies on the part of people alleging fraud. Reflecting back on this time, seeing how conspiracy theorists reject facts as propaganda and appealing to the idea that nobody but partisan actors disagrees with their account of events, made me consider if any part of the education debate shows the same tendencies. Does anyone spread false information? Does anyone invent statistical anomalies to suggest a non-existent problem exists? Does anyone use only “approved” media sources? Does anyone suggest completely lunatic solutions to problems that don’t exist? Does anyone identify “experts” who are actually complete lunatics?

I think the answer is that the MAGA of edutwitter is the anti-exclusions movement. They do spread false information. They do attack the motives of everyone who challenges them. They do suggest crazy alternatives that would never work. They do get their claims uncritically accepted in more partisan parts of the media. For that reason, I intend to spend a lot more of my time on Twitter just getting the facts about exclusions out there. There appear to be as many people on edutwitter who think ethnic minority students get excluded at a higher rate than white British students as there are people on US Twitter who think Pennsylvania counted more postal votes than they sent out.

I’m sure there’s plenty of other things I could mention. Thanks to all the support from my social media followers. And thanks to my fiance. Gwen, for totally supporting my avenging.

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