Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

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Are campaigners against exclusions willing to tolerate sexual assault in schools?

October 26, 2020

Every so often I get told that nobody wants to ban all exclusions from schools. Therefore, I’m told, extreme examples like sexual assault are not relevant to the debate on permanent exclusion. Nobody would tolerate sexual assault, or think that the interests of the perpetrators of sexual assault are more important than the victims. The existence of the campaigning group “No More Exclusions” campaigning for no more exclusions was not sufficient evidence that these extreme views exist.

Today, I was directed to evidence of just how extreme this group is. On their webpage (no link as it seems to have been suspended since I accessed it) I read their Frequently Asked Questions document. In it they clearly state their aims:

No More Exclusions is an abolitionist movement. That means we want to stop exclusions altogether – abolish the whole process of exclusion.

Incredibly, instead of just ignoring the real danger some young people present to their peers, they actually address the question “What about sexual abuse and violence in schools?”. In a section that begins with the words “Sexual violence is a serious issue. However…” they explain that they don’t think young sex offenders should be punished. This might be concerning enough, but the explanation of their alternative to exclusion is actually staggering. Adult authority over children turns out to be the true culprit in sexual assault and the only culprit they would seek to confront.

Abuse is about power, and it is also important to address abuse by adults towards young people in schools and other institutions. As children we are taught just to accept the authority of adults, and this can lead us to learn to ignore our own sense of discomfort.

By creating a culture of consent, not just among students but also between students to staff, we both allow young people to have their agency and also make them less likely to want to transgress someone’s else’s boundaries, encouraging people to respect each other and hold themselves to account. By contrast, in environments in which their consent is constantly violated, young people might wonder: “Why should I care about someone else’s boundaries if mine are always being transgressed?”

That, is their answer to sexual assault in schools: end adult authority over children, and hope it makes young sex offenders respect their victims’ boundaries. Speaking of victims, incredibly there is also a section answering the question: “What about the Victims?” While the answer speaks of support for victims, it then tries the most outrageous argument yet.

Another important question to consider is who we count as a victim. So often when we talk about victims and perpetrators, we focus only on situations involving interpersonal violence, ignoring people who are harmed by state and structural violence – for example people experiencing the everyday violence and material deprivation caused by economic inequality and racism. The education system should recognise these forms of harm and ensure that those experiencing it are also supported.

Exclusion is a humiliating experience; it is the violent removal of a child from the classroom. We need to challenge and remove violence from our classrooms, not respond violently by excluding children, even those who have acted violently. No teacher should consider a child to be unteachable. Instead we need a model where the victim of violence can experience justice, for example by explaining their feelings so that the perpetrator can understand the harm they have caused. The perpetrator should also be allowed to explain what made them angry and violent and be given room to reflect on the way they acted.

If you are reacting to this like I have, with shock, then remember the No More Exclusions campaign has been given plenty of publicity and airtime. It seems to have particularly strong links with some activists in the NEU. While teachers have largely remained reluctant to speak out on the issue of exclusions, for fear that their schools will be accused of not being inclusive, campaigners against exclusion have dominated the debate without anyone much holding them to account for their extreme views and the danger they would put children in.

Another No More Exclusions document, is still available here. On page 10 it lists people and organisations they claim as supporters. Tempting though it is, I’ve decided not to include that list here, just in case it’s not accurate. But I do encourage you to look at that page and see that this is apparently not a fringe organisation, this is the mainstream of educational campaigning, and it’s dangerously irresponsible.

 

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Teachers describe their anti-racism training

October 25, 2020

A few of my recent posts have touched on ideas around whether schools may be accepting bad ideas around racism, or push contentious political ideas about racism to students.

I’m clearly not the only person concerned about this, as equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has recently made a speech about race that included comments on the teaching of contentious ideas such as White Privilege in schools.

A couple of teachers have recently told me their experiences of training and consultancy on issues relating to race. I have more direct confirmation of the first account than the second, but I know that both are teachers and see no obvious reason to doubt them.

The first account is from a large MAT’s very recent CPD session on race,

Early in the session it was explained that race is internalised. We internalise it as a victor or as superior: we benefit and see status from our race. Or we internalise it as inferior, with feelings of self hate and resentment. The session then went through a series of terms to be defined. Privilege was explained as how white people are able to access society without barriers, without their skin colour being an impediment and without having to over-prove themselves, unlike a person of colour. It was explained that there is some controversy over the usage of the term ‘white privilege’ but that it was a fact. A result of this is fragility. This is how people feel attacked or defensive. This is apparently understandable and normal but needs to be challenged. If we are uncomfortable and not happy with how this has all been experienced, it’s because we have internalised our race and our privilege and our fragility is a response to this.

More was discussed, including the difference between equality and equity. Various case studies were used to show legitimate and important examples of how racial views have interfered in schools, such as not dealing with race based bullying or staff members who feel marginalised because of their race. The need to understand the trauma of racism was discussed and how this can lead to lifelong problems that need addressing.

A final section focused on a discussion of ‘Power and Rank’. This made clear that the basis of the whole discussion was about the power dynamics between different groups. This was described as ‘formal power, informal power, local rank, psychological rank, spiritual rank.’ Each of us have power but that varies and affects our ‘rank’ and [the speaker] argued that ‘Going into a bank, I might have less rank in those situations.’ I found this hard to follow and wasn’t quite sure what our rank referred to. A rank like a position? Or a rank like a rank order? We were asked to consider: “Where do you believe you have rank/power privilege? How does it feel? Where do you not have it? How does that feel?”

We were told that we need to be aware of unconscious bias and to consciously use our power to help the powerless. As the session finished she was asked a question about Kemi Badenoch’s statement to parliament about CRT [Critical Race Theory] and not teaching these things as uncontested facts. She said she believed that Kemi had an incomplete understanding of CRT and was clutching more at the stereotype of it. My thoughts on this were mainly a real discomfort at being told theoretical ideas as uncontested facts. This wasn’t put forward as a debate or discussion but an explanation of racial power dynamics that were entirely seen through a CRT lens. The circular logic is presented as fact and makes any rejection of the theory merely a ‘fragile’ response. To disagree is to have internalised racism as a net benefit and to resist and rest that being adjusted. There is simply no disagreement without confirming the theory even further.

The other account comes from a teacher whose school paid for the services of a consultant to help decolonise the curriculum.

In a different school to the one I teach in now, we had a famous consultant harangue the staff for our harsh treatment of BAME pupils, noting that they accounted for almost all detentions and all FTEs [Fixed Term Exclusions]; he didn’t respond well when it was explained that the school was 97% BAME.

He also had a go at the English department about Macbeth as being evidence of systemic racism, and often played in blackface.

“You’re thinking about Othello.”

“No, Macbeth.”

“No, I can confidently tell you that Macbeth has never been played in blackface.”

He did concede that Macbeth might have been intended to be white after I explained that there were four characters in all of Shakespeare coded as black and only three were people, but he stubbornly insisted that I could not prove that Macbeth had never been performed in blackface.

It admittedly wasn’t a good idea to welcome him into my classroom to observe a GCSE lesson, but I didn’t expect to hear him accuse me of manifesting ‘white supremacy’ in front of a class of 32 with only one ethnically white British pupil. The kids thought he was rude and unhinged.

And that’s my cautionary tale about inviting in consultants to ‘decolonise [your] curriculum’ (He evidently did the same thing in the 100% BAME led and taught maths department and got short shrift). I think it was imagined he’d have meaningful insights as to educational equality and diversity. He ended up berating white males as an abstract entity – there were 3 in a staff team of 140 – and misunderstanding every aspect of the curriculum he was faced with.

I leave it to the reader’s judgement to decide whether these two examples represent practice that is either good or legal.

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The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 2

October 17, 2020

In my previous post I began discussing the recent RSE guidance. Please read that post first, as I continue the discussion here.

Is the guidance addressing real concerns?

One of the obvious complaints to make about the new RSE guidance is to suggest it was unnecessary, particularly at a time like this. I think the concern that a problem hasn’t been proved to exist is often overstated. When people ask if there is evidence that a problem the government seeks to address is real, I’m acutely aware that we often apply a double standard. For many years schools were attempting to deal with the problem of FGM, even though there had literally been no convictions (the first conviction in the UK was in 2019). Asking schools to look out for a problem is often part of the process of gathering evidence that there is a problem. For this reason, I’m not prepared to say you must prove there is a problem before action is taken, although that is a valid concern if the action is costly or has significant down sides. Where action is cheap and convenient, like a few words of guidance, then reasonable suspicion that a problem exists is enough.

So is there an issue of political bias in schools? In almost 20 years of teaching I have never encountered a teacher showing political bias in the classroom (although there was a TA once). Many teachers I know have very different experiences with this, although I’ve noticed almost all of those who tell me that teachers have been blatantly biased in the classroom in their experience have worked in London. Before the guidance came out, I would have said classroom bias was an insignificant issue. However, some of the online criticism of the guidance I’ve seen since it did come out seems to suggest that a significant number (although not necessarily a large proportion) of teachers were unaware of their statutory obligations to be balanced and impartial. Some teachers have been arguing quite explicitly that such an obligation is unreasonable. While I suspect scrutiny of what is taught about bias in teacher training might be more useful than new guidance, I accept there is an issue to be addressed.

The other part of the guidance where some expressed doubt there is an actual problem is over gender identity. In particular, does any external organisation that works in schools teach that, “non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity”?

I think there’s a few points of evidence that the organisation Mermaids, despite denials, has promoted that view (although I cannot confirm this has occurred in schools).

This slide – note the toys at the bottom – was used in a training session for the police:

The Mermaids website used to claim the following:

And a factsheet Mermaids wrote, still used by some LAs, said this:

So, again, I am convinced the guidance is addressing a genuine issue, although I don’t know how common it is in schools.

Myths about the guidance

Finally, it is worth mentioning some of the sheer nonsense in the reaction to the debate over the guidance. According to the Guardian:

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the measures effectively outlawed reference in schools to key events in British history, and that it symbolised growing “authoritarianism” within the governing Conservative party…

…McDonnell said: “On this basis it will be illegal to refer to large tracts of British history and politics including the history of British socialism, the Labour Party and trade unionism, all of which have at different times advocated the abolition of capitalism.

“This is another step in the culture war and this drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace and should worry anyone who believes that democracy requires freedom of speech and an educated populace.”

This is obvious nonsense, but several myths seem to have circulated:

  1. It’s a new law. It’s guidance. The law already included obligations to be politically neutral. Having the guidance makes it harder to break the law and say that was unintentional, but it only clarifies existing obligations.
  2. The guidance is about all subjects. It is not. It was about RSE. While teachers existing obligations apply across the curriculum, this clarification was rather specific. Claims that it affects teaching in history and English are baseless.
  3. It bans teaching about injustice. You can refer to injustice without creating “divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society”. Or at least you should be able to. It seems unlikely that such a phrase refers to uncontroversial facts, rather than highly controversial political statements.
  4. The guidance refers to all critics of capitalism and all “anti-capitalists”. The guidance warned about groups that have “a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow … capitalism”. If one wants to interpret this as referring to everyone to the left of Milton Friedman, one can, but it would make more sense to see this as referring to revolutionaries.
  5. The guidance is about what can be studied. The warnings about extreme groups referred to “resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances”. The examples given in the guidance are:
    • lesson plans
    • complete curriculum plans
    • other classroom materials such as videos or posters

    This would indicate teaching resources, i.e. resources designed for teachers, rather than anything and everything a teacher might ask students to study. So even if the guidance did apply to other subjects, it wouldn’t prohibit historical sources or works of literature.

I said last time that there were some odd phrases in the guidance, as if it was intended to contribute more to online culture wars than the classroom. However, I think the worst criticism that can be made of it is that it is a trap intended for teachers. And this is why the angry reaction to it was ill-judged, because if somebody sets a trap for you, throwing yourself into it is not a good idea.

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The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 1

October 11, 2020

In my last blogpost, Ends and Means, I mentioned the obligations on teachers to be politically neutral. In particular, I referred to the Education Act 1996 which outlines those duties.

406 Political indoctrination.

  1. The local authority, governing body and head teacher shall forbid—
    (a) the pursuit of partisan political activities by any of those registered pupils at a maintained school who are junior pupils, and
    (b) the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school.
  2. In the case of activities which take place otherwise than on the school premises, subsection (1)(a) applies only where arrangements for junior pupils to take part in the activities are made by—
    (a) any member of the school’s staff (in his capacity as such), or
    (b) anyone acting on behalf of the school or of a member of the school’s staff (in his capacity as such)…

407 Duty to secure balanced treatment of political issues.

  1. (1) The local authority, governing body and head teacher shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils while they are—
    (a) in attendance at a maintained school, or
    (b) taking part in extra-curricular activities which are provided or organised for registered pupils at the school by or on behalf of the school, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.

Recent government guidance on RSE apparently seeks to give some more guidance about how this is to be achieved in RSE lessons, with reference to contemporary issues affecting RSE.

What’s strange and controversial about the guidance?

The guidance has some surprising features, most of which I would suggest seem to reflect recent online debates and controversies. In a section on external agencies, alongside reminders that reflect the legislation quoted above and the need for familiarity with the values of external organisations providing training in schools, it states:

Schools should not under any circumstances work with external agencies that take or promote extreme positions or use materials produced by such agencies. Examples of extreme positions include, but are not limited to:

  • promoting non-democratic political systems rather than those based on democracy, whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
  • teaching that requirements of English civil or criminal law may be disregarded whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
  • engaging in or encouraging active or persistent harassment or intimidation of individuals in support of their cause
  • promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society
  • selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions

Some of this seems to just reflect, fairly enough, obligations that already exist. The reference to “promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society” must have puzzled many people who are not already involved with debating cultural politics online. In recent years, there have been online “culture wars” relating to race, sexuality and gender in which the status of particular groups as oppressed or marginalised has been of key importance. While few people would deny that racism, sexism or transphobia exist, there have been heated arguments about the relative severity of different forms of discrimination, and how some of the key terms should be applied. This is likely to be due to the phenomena, (described here as “identitarian deference”), whereby debates are to be resolved by blindly accepting the views of those assumed to be speaking for the most marginalised identity group. This has ensured the importance of establishing from one’s identity characteristics whether one has victim status and to what extent. To those involved in such discussions, which often take place online, “divisive or victim narratives” is easy to understand as referring to claims that some groups are always to be almost always recognised as victims, and some rarely or never are. But without that background in online discourse, the reference to “victim narratives” must be thoroughly confusing in a way government guidance really shouldn’t be.

In a section on resources, it is stated that:

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to:

  • a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections
  • opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience
  • the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications
    the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity
  • a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property

Providing one reasonably\ interprets the meaning of “resources” as something used to study a subject rather than the object of study (i.e. a worksheet rather than an example of a political poster) this seems reasonable. It’s really not obvious why you would get your lessons plans from revolutionary groups. However, the mention of “capitalism” is provocative. Presumably there could be an argument to be made that seeking to “abolish or overthrow… capitalism” is not extreme, although I’ve yet to see anyone make it without interpreting the phrase in ways that seem unlikely to reflect what was intended, or apparently ignoring it entirely.

A section on ensuring content is appropriate includes this section:

We are aware that topics involving gender and biological sex can be complex and sensitive matters to navigate. You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear. Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material. While teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support.

Gender identity is incredibly controversial at the moment in online discourse, with battle lines being drawn and redrawn every day and calls to ostracise people for expressing the wrong views on gender identity, or even not expressing the right ones, are very common. While I could link to thousands of examples of this, the best possible (but rather lengthy) discussion of cancel culture and gender identity I have ever seen is in this youtube video which, whether you agree with it or not, vividly illustrates how fraught this debate has become.

Further controversy has been caused, not by the guidance itself, but a slide in one of the training modules advising teachers to:

Explain the harm caused by ‘cancel culture’ and the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of association to a tolerant and free society.

Teach that censorship and ‘no platforming’ are harmful and damaging.

Explain that seeking to get people ‘cancelled’ (e.g. having them removed from their position of authority or job) simply because you disagree with them, is a form of bullying and is not acceptable.

If one believes, as I do, that “cancel culture” is a form of bullying and that freedom of speech is both a human right (when threatened by the state) and a British value (when threatened by anyone) then this is not inconsistent with what exists already. However, I can’t help but see this as being in a particular type of language that I have mostly encountered online and stemming from online culture wars, rather than education concerns.

So overall, I’m not disagreeing with the guidance, and I’m absolutely convinced that the government has a right to do this, but I do find myself wondering about why some of the language has been chosen, and whether some of the controversy was caused deliberately.

In Part 2, I will look at whether the guidance addresses real problems, and some of the myths about it.

 

 

 

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Ends and Means

October 4, 2020

In recent years I’ve started to fear that, politically, people have lost sight of the difference between the ends and means in politics. Democracy and the rule of law are not ends; they don’t always turn out well. We cannot be sure the right people are always elected or the law is always fair. Democracy and the rule of law are means; they are a way to achieve our ends. Democracy is a set of rules for who takes power, justified by the way it allows peaceful transitions and gives rulers an incentive to pay attention to the ruled, rather than a way to ensure that the best people are always in power. The rule of law is not preferable because of any claim that laws are always beneficial, fair and well drafted. The rule of law is preferable because it prevents the arbitrary use of power and allows legal challenges to those who would exceed their powers. A similar argument can be made for those human rights that apply in the political sphere. The rights to hold our own beliefs, to have freedom of speech and to associate with people of our choosing are not rights that will always be used to achieve good things, but they are a means that should be available to all. It is only by giving those rights to everyone that we can ensure they are always available to those who would use them to achieve good things. Finally, we could also consider virtues and behaviours we might wish for from the participants in a democracy, like thoughtfulness, honesty and moderation. I could add to these a preference for rational debate over personal attacks and a tolerance for disagreement. These things often seem lacking at the moment from politicians and public alike. But again, if they are desirable in political life, they are means rather than ends. We should see them as something we want from everybody (or nobody); those we agree with and those we disagree with. They shouldn’t be something we attack our opponents for lacking, while being unembarrassed to see that those we support also lack them.

Obviously this is an education blog rather than a political blog, but before I apply the idea of a difference between ends and means in politics to education, I’ll apply it to politics generally. I should point out that I’m biased about the places where I’ve noticed this distinction is lacking. It stands out to me most in debates where I may agree with people about political ends, but not their means, so this is mainly a gripe about others I see on the left of centre. It concerns me that up until last December, many of my fellow “remain” voters were arguing that the result of the EU referendum be ignored even though they’d never have argued this if they hadn’t lost. It concerns me that there are campaigns to put newspapers I disagree with out of business through corporate pressure via advertising, even though we’d never think it was fair if corporate power was used to silence people we agreed with. It concerns me that there are now people on my end of the political spectrum arguing that certain types of speech should be banned for being offensive, even though we would argue for our own rights to offend the sensibilities of those we disagree with. And don’t get me started on those who make excuses for violent protests when they sympathise with the cause, and are horrified by violence, or even protest, from those they feel are less enlightened.

We need to be able to consider means apart from ends. We cannot say “this is a good way to achieve a political end, because it will enable us to get our way” if we would never accept that it was fair for others to use it for their ends. If getting our way is the only thing that matters, we should not complain when those we disagree with are equally ruthless in pursuit of their goals. There is a fallacy of special pleading, where people make arbitrary exceptions to general principles. If we think it is desirable for our opponents to follow certain rules, or adhere to certain standards of behaviour, then it is “special pleading” to say that we needn’t bother with that because our cause is just. And, if that doesn’t seem right to you, then you perhaps need to ask if you really want a political system where there are no universal rules or universal principles.

There’s been a few debates in education in the last year or so that have worried me because teachers seemed unaware that in a democracy we should all play by the same rules. The first, was the debate over the climate strikes. People argued that it was acceptable for schoolchildren to truant from school in order to protest over climate change. When asked whether it would be acceptable for children to be absent from school to protest about other causes, particularly ones they disagreed with, that was invariably “different”. It was simply to be accepted that those with strong beliefs about the importance and urgency of climate change did not have to follow the same principles as those less enlightened people with different concerns. Then there was an outbreak of debate about racism, after the death of George Floyd and we saw the same argument again that this issue was “different”. Particular views about race, whether that was the existence of white privilege or systemic racism; the rightness of the Black Lives Matters movement, or the effectiveness of implicit bias training were not open to debate. These views could be imposed on schools without debate, or the need to find any kind of consensus, because racism was a special case. Opinions were to be treated as facts when they were the right opinions according to those who would never tolerate the imposition of a wide variety of other viewpoints that are equally, or less, controversial. Those who argued that teaching British values in British schools was outrageous, argued that teaching Critical Race Theory was essential.

Finally, there was a fuss over recent SRE guidance. There’s enough controversial elements of that guidance that I hope to blog about it properly, but incredibly there were teachers arguing against it, not because of the controversial parts, but because they felt entitled to push their political views, and even extreme political views, in the classroom. People who would complain if a teacher expressed right-wing views on social media, were happy to argue that left-wing views should be preached in the classroom. Apparently many had no idea that the Education Act 1996 requires schools to forbid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school” and “secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils… they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views”. Some even argued that this, a legal requirement, was impossible and should be ignored.

We need to remember that however deeply we hold our views, those who disagree are not so different that they need to be given different rights, or held to different standards. Teachers tend to be more left-wing than the electorate. If we argue that schools are to be used for indoctrination, we will find that the precedent this sets won’t actually favour the views of the teaching profession, but the views of the government of the day. If you don’t want British governments to use schools to indoctrinate our students, we need to stop arguing that we should be doing the same thing ourselves.

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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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The tragedy of grades based on predictions

August 16, 2020

When I wrote about an exam announcement last week it was out of date before I’d finished typing. This post too may now be out of date if the appeals system allows major changes, but I have seen so much false information that I thought I’d better get this out there.

Exams were not sat this year. The decision was made instead to predict what grades would have been given. This is probably the decision that should have been debated. Instead the debate has centred on how grades were predicted with much talk of an evil algorithm crushing children’s hopes. Some wished to predict grades deliberately inaccurately in order to allow grade inflation to hide the problems. Because opportunities such as university places and employment are finite, grade inflation actually doesn’t solve any problem. What it does is make sure that when people lose out on opportunities, it would not be clear that this year’s grades were the problem. I argued against the idea that grade inflation solves problems here and will not be going into it again now, but it is worth noting that most disagreement with any opinions I express in this post will be from advocates of using grade inflation to solve problems, rather than anything else. In particular, it needs to be acknowledged that the use of teacher assessment would have on average led to more grade inflation.

However, because people seemed to think inaccuracy in grades would justify grade inflation, and because people objected to specific grades when they arrived, there has now been huge debate about how grades were given. Much of this has been ill-informed. 

I intend to explain the following:

  1. How grades are predicted.
  2. Why predicted grades are inaccurate.
  3. What claims about the process are false or unproven.

Normally, I’d split this into 3 posts, but things are moving so fast I assumed people would want all this at once in one long post.

How grades are predicted.

Ofqual produced a statistical model that would predict the likeliest grades for each centre (usually a school or college). This used all the available data (past performance and past grades of the current cohort) to predict what this year’s performance would have been. This was done in accordance with what previous data showed would predict grades accurately. A lot of comment has assumed that if people are now unhappy with these predictions or individual results, then there must have been a mistake in this statistical model. However, this is not something where one can simply point at things one doesn’t like and say “fix it”. You can test statistical models using old data, e.g. predict 2019 grades from the years before 2019. If you have a model that predicts better than Ofqual’s then you win, you are right. If you don’t, and you don’t know why the Ofqual model predicts how it does, then you are probably wrong. In the end, proportions of grades were calculated from grades given in recent years, then adjusted in light of GCSE information about current students, then the number of expected A-levels in each subject at each grade was calculated for each centre. Centres were given information about what happened in this process in their case.

Although the model came up with the grades at centre level, which students got which grades was decided by the centres. Centres ranked their students in each subject and grades were given in rank order. Some commentary has overlooked this, talking as if the statistical model decided every student’s grade. It did not. It determined what grades were available to be given (with an exception to be discussed in the next paragraph), not which student should get which grade. As a result the majority of grades were not changed and where they were, it would often have been a result of the ranking as well as the statistical model.

Finally, there was an exception because of the problem of “small cohorts” taking exams i.e. where centres had very few students taking a particular exam (or very few had taken it in the past). This is because where there was less data, it would be harder to predict what grades were likely to be given. Centres had also been asked to predict grades (Centre Assessed Grades or CAGs) for each student and for the smallest cohorts these were accepted. Slightly larger cohorts were given a compromise between the CAGs and the statistical model, and for cohorts that were larger still, the statistical model alone was used.

It is important to understand this process if you think a particular grade is wrong. Without knowing whether the cohort was small; why the statistical model would have predicted what it did; how the distribution was calculated for a centre, and where a student was in the ranking, you do not know how a grade came to be given. For some reason, people have jumped to declare the evils of an “algorithm”. Didn’t get your result? It’s the result of an algorithm.

As a maths teacher, I quite like algorithms. Algorithms are the rules and processes used to solve a problem, perhaps best seen as the recipe for getting an answer. Every year algorithms are used after exams to decide grade boundaries and give grades. A mark scheme is also an algorithm. The alternative to algorithms deciding things is making arbitrary judgements that don’t follow rules. This year is different in that CAGs; a statistical model (also a type of algorithm), and centre rankings have replaced exams. The first thing that people need to do to discuss this sensibly is to stop talking about an algorithm that decided everything. If you mean the statistical model then say “the statistical model”. There are other algorithms involved in the process, but they are more like the algorithms used every year: rules that turn messy information into grades. Nobody should be arguing that the process of giving grades should not happen according to rules. Nobody in an exam board should be making it up as they go along.

Why predicted grades are inaccurate.

Predicted grades, whether from teachers or from a statistical model, are not likely to be accurate. That’s why exams are taken every year. The grades given will not have been the same as those that would have been given had exams been sat. Exam results are always influenced by what seem like random factors that nobody can predict (I will discuss this further in the next section). We can reasonably argue over what is the most accurate way to predict grades, but we cannot claim that there is a very accurate method. There are also situations where exam results are very hard to predict. Here is why I think this year’s results will be depressingly inaccurate.

Some students are exceptional. Some will get an A* in a school that’s never had an A*. Some will get a U in a school that’s never had a U. Predicting who these students are is incredibly difficult and remains difficult even where historic A-level results are adjusted to account for the GCSE data of current students. Students will have often unfairly missed out (or unfairly gained) wherever very high or low grades were on the table (i.e. if students were at the top and the bottom of rankings). This is the most heartbreaking aspect of what’s happened. The exceptional is unpredictable. The statistical model will not pick up on these students. If a school normally gets some Us (or it gets Es but this cohort is weaker than usual) the model will predict Us. If a school doesn’t normally get A*s (or it does but this years cohort is weaker than usual) the model will not predict A*s. This will be very inaccurate in practice. You might then think that CAGs should be used to identify these students. However, just as a statistical model won’t pick up an A* or U student where normally there are none, a teacher who has never taught an A* or U student will not be able to be sure they have taught one this time. In the case of U it might be more obvious, but why even enter a student for the exam if it was completely obvious they’d get U? The inaccuracy in the CAGs for extreme grades was remarkable. In 2019, 7.7% of grades were A*; in 2020, 13.9% of CAGs were A*. In 2019, 2.5% of grades were Us; in 2020, 0.3% of CAGs were Us. Both the CAGs and the statistical models were likely to be wrong. There’s no easy way to sort this out, it’s a choice between two bad options.

As well as exceptional students, there are exceptional schools. There are schools that do things differently now, and their results will be different. Like exceptional students, these are hard to predict. Ofqual found that looking at the recent trajectory of schools did not tell them which were going to improve and so the statistical model didn’t use that information. Some of us (myself included) are very convinced we work in schools that are on the right track and likely to do better. However, no school is going to claim otherwise and few schools will admit grades are going to get worse, so again, CAGs are not a solution. Because exceptional schools and exceptional students are by their very nature unpredictable, this is where we can expect to find the biggest injustices in predicted grades.

Perhaps the biggest source of poor predictions is the one that people seem to be reluctant to mention. The rankings rely on the ability of centres to compare students. There is little evidence that schools are good at this, and I can guarantee that some schools I’ve worked at would do a terrible job. However, if we removed this part of the process, grades given in line with the statistical model would be ignoring everything that happened during the course. Few people would argue that this should happen, so this hasn’t been debated anywhere near as much as other sources of error. But for individual students convinced their grades are wrong, this is likely to be incredibly important. Despite what I said about the problems with A*s and Us, a lot of students who missed out on their CAG of A* will have done so because they were not highly ranked, and a lot of students who have got Us will have done so because they were ranked bottom and any “error” could be attributable to their school rather than an algorithm. 

Finally, we have the small cohorts problem. There’s no real way round this, although obviously plenty of technical debate is possible about how it should be dealt with. If the cohort was so small that the statistical model would not work, something else needs to be done. The decision was to use CAGs fully or partially, despite the fact that these are likely to have been inflated. Inflated grades are probably better than random ones or ones based on GCSE results. But this is also a source of inaccuracy. It also favours centres with small cohorts in a subject and, therefore, it will allow systematic inaccuracy that will affect some institutions very differently to others. It is the likely reason that CAGs have not been adjusted downwards equally in all types of school. Popular subjects in large sixth forms are likely to have ended up with grades further below CAGs than obscure subjects in small sixth forms.

Which claims about the process are false or unproven

Much of what I have observed of the debate about how grades were given has consisted of calls for grade inflation disguised as complaints about inaccuracy, or emotive tales of students’ thwarted ambitions that assume that this was unfair or unusual without addressing the cause of the specific disappointment. As mentioned above, much debate has blamed everything on an “algorithm” rather than identifying what choices were made and why. Having accepted the problems with predicting grades and acknowledged the suffering caused by inaccuracies, it’s still worth trying to dispense with mistaken, misleading or inaccurate claims that I have seen on social media and heard on the news. Here are the biggest myths about what’s happened.

Myth 1: Exams grades are normally very accurate. A lot of attempts to emphasise the inaccuracies in the statistical model have assumed that there is more precision in exam grades than there actually are. In reality, the difference between a B grade student and a C grade student can be far less than the difference between two B grade students. Some types of exam marking (not maths, obviously) is quite subjective and there is a significant margin of error, making luck a huge factor in what grades are given. Add to that the amount of luck involved in revising the right topics, having a good day or a bad day in the exam, and it’s no wonder grades are hard to predict with accuracy. It’s not comforting to think that a student may miss out on a university offer because of bad luck, but that is not unique to this year; it is normal. The point of exam grades is not to distinguish between a B grade and a C grade, but between a B grade and a D grade or even an E grade. It’s not that every A* grade reflects the top 7.7% of ability, it’s more a way of ensuring that anyone in the top 1%, say, should get an A*. All grades are a matter of probability, not a definitive judgement. That does not make them useless or mean that there are better alternatives to exams, but it does mean everyone should interpret grades carefully every year. 

Myth 2: CAGs would have been more accurate.

As mentioned above, CAGs were higher than they should have been based on the reasonable assumption that a year group with an interrupted year 13 is unlikely to end up far more able than all previous year groups. There’s been a tendency for people to claim that aggregate errors don’t tell us anything about inaccuracies at the level of individual students. This is getting things backwards. It is possible to have inaccuracies for individual students that cancel each other out and aren’t visible at the aggregate level. So you could have half of grades being too high, and half too low, and on average the distribution of grades seems fair. You could even argue that this happens every year. But this does not work the other way. If, on average, grades were too high it does tell us something about individual grades. It tell us that they are more likely to be too high than too low. This is reason enough to adjust downwards if you want to make the most accurate predictions.

Myth 3: Individual students we don’t know getting unpredicted Us and not getting predicted A*s are examples of how the statistical model was inaccurate.

As argued above, the statistical model is likely to have been inaccurate with respect to the extremes. However, because we know CAGs are also inaccurate, and that bad rankings can also explain anomalies, we cannot blindly accept every story about this from kids we don’t know. I mention this because so much commentary and news coverage has been anecdotal in this way. If there were no disappointed school leavers that would merely tell us that the results this year were way out compared to what they should have been, because disappointed school leavers are normal when exam grades are given out. Obviously, the better you know a student, the more likely you are to know a grade is wrong, but even then you need to know their ranking and the justification for the grade distribution to know the statistical model is the problem.

Myth 4: The system was particularly unfair on poor bright children.

This myth seems to have come from two sources, so I’ll deal with each in turn.

Firstly, is has been assumed that as schools which normally get no A*s would not be predicted A*s (not quite true) this means poor bright kids in badly performing schools would have lost out. This misses out the fact that even with little history of getting A*s previously, they might still be predicted if the cohort has better GCSE results than usual, so the error is less likely if the poor bright kid had good GCSEs. It also assumes that it is normal for poor kids to go to do A-levels in institutions that get no A*s which is unlikely for big institutions. Additionally, schools are not uniform in their intake. The bright kid at a school full of poor kids who misses out is not necessarily poor, in fact because disadvantaged kids are likely to get worse results, they often won’t be. Finally, it’s not just low achieving schools whose A* students are hard to predict. While a school that usually gets no A*s in a subject, but who would have got one this year makes for a more dramatic story, the situation of that child is no different to the lowest ranked child in a school that normally gets 20 A*s in a subject and this year would have got 21. 

The second cause of this myth, is from statistics about downgrading from CAGs like these.

Although really this shows there’s not a huge difference between children with a different socioeconomic status (SES) it has been used to claim that poorer students were harder hit by downgrading and, therefore, it is poor bright kids that will have been hit worse than wealthier bright kids. (Other arguments have looked at type of school, but I’ll deal with that next). Whether this figure is a result of the problem of small cohorts, or from the fact that it is harder to overestimate higher achieving students, I don’t know. However, we do know the claim these figures reflect what happened to the highest achieving kids is incorrect. If we look at the top two grades, the proportion of kids who had a high CAG and had them downgraded is smaller for lower SESs (although because fewer students received those grades overall the chance of being downgraded given that you had a high CAG would show the opposite pattern).

 

Myth 5: The system was deliberately rigged to downgrade the CAGs of some types of students more than others

I suppose it’s probably worth saying that it’s impossible to prove beyond all doubt that this is a myth, but I can note the evidence is against it. The statistical model should not have discriminated at all. The problem of small cohorts and the fact it is easier to over-estimate low-achieving students and harder to over-estimate high achieving students seem to provide a plausible explanation of what we can observe about discrepancies in downgrading. Also, if we compare results over time, we would expect those types of institutions who on average had a fall in results last time to have a rise this year. Take those three factors into account and nobody should be surprised to see the following or to think it sinister (although it would be useful to know to what extent each type of school was affected by downgrading and by small cohort size).

If you see anyone using only one of the above two sets of data, ignoring the change from 2018 to 2019, or deciding to pick and choose which types of centre matter (like comparing independent schools with FE colleges) suspect they are being misleading. Also, recall that these are averages and individual subjects and centres will differ a lot. You cannot pick a single school like, say, Eton and claim it will have done well in avoiding downgrading in all subjects this year.

Now for some general myth-busting.

The evidence shows students were affected by rounding errors. False. Suggestions like this, often used to explain unexpected Us, seem entirely speculative and not necessary to explain why students have got Us.

Some students got higher results in further maths than maths. True. Still a tiny minority, but much higher than normal.

No students at Eton were downgraded. Almost certainly false. This claim that was all over Twitter is extremely unlikely; denied anecdotally and there is no evidence for it. We would expect large independent schools to have been downgraded in popular subjects.

Something went wrong on results day. False. Things seem to have gone according to plan. If what happened was wrong it was because it was the wrong plan. Nothing surprising happened at the system level.

Students were denied the grades they needed by what happened. True for some students, but on average there is no reason to think it would have been more common to miss out on an offer than if exams had taken place, and some institutions might become more generous, if they can, due to the reduced reliability of the grades.

Results were given according to a normal distribution. False.

Rankings were changed by the statistical model. False. Or at least if it did happen, it wasn’t supposed to and an error has been made.

The stressful events of this year where exams were cancelled show that we shouldn’t have exams. False. Your logic does not resemble our earth logic.

And one final point. So many of the problems above come down to small cohort size, that next week’s GCSE results should be far more accurate. Fingers crossed. And good luck.

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