Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

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The latest Guardian article on exclusions

September 18, 2021

You may recall from this post that the Guardian misleads its readers about exclusions.

And today they have a new story on the topic:

‘It takes too long to get support’: alarm over rising primary school exclusions

It claims (in the sub-headline):

Parents and teachers call for action as figures show more young children in England being permanently excluded

The actual data for permanent exclusions in primary schools can be found here. The incredibly low level of permanent exclusions in primary schools means that the changes are unclear due to rounding, so let me calculate the exclusion rate for primary schools more precisely and plot it on a graph.

No, I don’t see that as a rise at the end either, even if we acknowledge that the most recent fall was due to lockdown. After an anecdote about a year 1 pupil being permanently excluded (not something that happens very often) we discover how the writer has concluded there has been a rise.

The number of permanent exclusions from primary schools in England has been rising steadily, from 610 a year in 2010 to 1,067 by 2018-19 (the last year of reliable figures).

The 2019/20 figures are not “unreliable”; they are just affected by lockdown and 1067 in 2018/19 is actually down from 1253 in 2016/17, so that’s not a steady rise. It’s also misleading to measure from 2010/11 which is a historic low point. This strategy (measuring change over time from an extreme value) is well known as a way to deceive, and you can read more about it here.

The article then points out:

In the autumn term of 2019, just before the Covid crisis, data recently published shows that permanent exclusions from primary schools rose by 20% to 455 compared with the same term the previous year.

Potentially this could be indicative of a rise. But the problem is, the term by term data was only introduced to make precisely this comparison and before autumn 2018 we don’t have it. This means we are comparing 2 data points for exclusions in the autmn term without any idea of how much the level of exclusions in the autumn term fluctuates from year to year. To put it in context, this is the graph the DfE published to show the termly data.

If that orange line isn’t causing you immediate worry it’s partly because the change (77 pupils) is tiny when you consider the total number of exclusions in a term across all schools, but it’s also that we have very few data points and termly exclusions seem fairly unstable. There are 16791 state funded primary schools in England (on last count).  A change from 378 permanent exclusions in an autumn term to 455 is tiny compared with the number of schools involved, and is only noticeable because exclusions in primary are so rare. Anyone trying to spot a trend from this could be fooling themselves.

I don’t want to dissent from the suggestion that there may be a need to do more to support children with behaviour problems in primary schools. This might be true. But if you look at the data for primary schools in 2018/19 (the most recent non-lockdown year) we are looking at 1067 permanent exclusions among 4727089 children in 16784 schools. The average primary school could expect only 1 permanent exclusion in 15 years. Is this really a cause for alarm?

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Book Review: Running The Room by Tom Bennett

June 26, 2021

Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour by Tom Bennett. £16. Published by John Catt. 

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.

There’s no shortage of books on managing behaviour. The field is packed with publications containing tips for managing a class that will be no use whatsoever. Many pretend that little differences like saying “thank you” rather than “please” when giving an instruction, or presenting a threat as a choice, will transform behaviour. The worst books on behaviour claim that “meeting needs”, “building relationships”, “remaining calm” or “planning engaging lessons” are at the heart of behaviour management as if these were things teachers generally planned to avoid doing, or could easily do in a hostile classroom.

Meanwhile, the reality in classrooms is that children largely behave in the way that their experience of school has led them to believe is normal for students in that class with that teacher. And while teachers who remain in the same school long enough will work out the cues they can give to their classes that will be most likely to lead to good behaviour, there are no universal cues because every class has drastically different experiences. This is why there are some classes in some schools where shouting once at the start of the year will mean nobody ever misbehaves again, and there are other classes in other schools where raising your voice to the wrong kid will start a full scale riot. It is also why becoming THAT teacher –  the one the kids will never act up for – takes time and, no matter how long you’ve been teaching, never happens when you start at a new school even when you are doing the exact same things that worked perfectly at your last school.

Running the Room largely avoids the trap of suggesting that there are cues or techniques that are universally effective, and focuses on the big picture. It describes how human beings actually behave. Uniquely (I think) for books about behaviour, four of its sixteen chapters are in a section entitled “Human Nature” where it discusses realistically how children are motivated. It turns out that children are not all natural saints, who will behave perfectly if you make sure you print all their worksheet on the right shade of magenta paper, and tell them you care about them. They are complex; they are individuals, and even when you think you have a perfect understanding of what motivates 14 year olds, it’s a whole different matter to keep 30 of them in some semblance of order.

The book then builds on this theoretical basis to discuss how to run a room. Yes, that’s right, the book is accurately titled. It is about how to manage a classroom. Rules, routines, and culture for all, not therapy and lowering expectations for individuals. It does not pretend that there are quick fixes, and it does not pretend one single strategy works, or that absorbing the information in the book will enable you to work wonders. It does, however, build the sort of solid foundation for doing the job of teaching that so much teacher training fails to provide. It tells you a huge chunk of the stuff that teachers wish they’d been told at the start of their careers. In a sane world, nobody would stand in front of a class without first having seriously engaged with all the ideas in this book.

Also, it’s funny in places.

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When “Antiracists” don’t care about racism and how it affects the debate about exclusions

June 11, 2021

There are actual racists online. Like this one.

He spends his time making comments like these about the relative superiority of races/countries/continents.

He shares a lot of crime reports that he thinks involve black criminals and is preoccupied with “black violence” which he believes is genetic in origin.

The other day I saw him tweeting at the MP Diane Abbot. Racists do this a lot. In an interview, she’d given stop and search polices and school exclusions as examples of racism.

He commented to say:

I have been spending a lot of time looking at the Twitter discourse around school exclusions, and the claim that black pupils are particularly likely to be excluded is very common. But it’s not actually true now for black pupils as a whole. According to the latest figures (2018/2019) the exclusion rate for black students is 5.54% for Fixed Period Exclusions and 0.11% for Permanent Exclusions. This compares with white students where the exclusion rates are 5.80% for Fixed Period Exclusions and 0.10% for Permanent Exclusions. I would say these are about the same. The misconception that black pupils, “black and brown” pupils and BAME pupils are more likely to be excluded is so widespread that I selected the data from the DfE website for Asian, white, black and ethnic minority students as a whole and took a screenshot which I share on Twitter a lot when I see people make any of those claims. (Asian is actually largely irrelevant to most discussions, but I couldn’t be bothered to take another screenshot).

While a lot of those who get this wrong are trying to allege racism by schools, occasionally racists also accept the claim about black pupils being more likely to be excluded and use it to argue that black pupils are worse behaved. I correct anyone, because these stereotypes are potentially harmful regardless of the intentions of those spreading them. So I did this here.

A pseudonymous writer for the Yorkshire Bylines blog saw this and decided to include this exchange in a post about systemic racism. Now, if you know the Yorkshire Bylines blog, you probably know it’s fairly left-wing. Writers would probably call themselves “Antiracists” and others might even call them “woke”. So how would they present an exchange in which a racist falsely implies that schools exclusions show the behaviour of black boys to be bad and is corrected by a teacher?

If you thought it would be to condemn the racist, and praise the teacher for putting them straight, you don’t know social media.

Yep, they appear to have completely missed the actual racist in the exchange, but decided to object to me presenting the facts which show there is no evidence in the latest school exclusion figures that black pupils behave worse than white pupils. And, in this, post “these issues” are issues of systemic racism, so the implication here is that I am supporting systemic racism by correcting a racist.

I wish I could say this is unusual behaviour. Antiracists who are willing to overlook racists in order to attack those who are likely to be more upset by accusations of racism are not rare. This well liked tweet was from a consultant who offers training to schools:

This shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone familiar with Twitter discourse on race. Those who police Twitter for “inexplicit” racism can detect wrong-think like a shark can detect blood. However, they aren’t as friendly as sharks. If somebody who isn’t white expresses the “wrong” views they are often treated terribly – far worse than when a white person expresses the same views. Sometimes this is in explicitly racist ways; sometimes there is just a concerted effort to marginalise them. Some of the worst racism I have seen on edutwitter has been against @5naureen and all by people who claim to be opposing racism.

Do the antiracists who don’t object to racism matter, or is this just what the Americans call “internet bullshit”? I think it does matter when this affects debate about education and there is one issue where choices have to be made about confronting real and explicit racism. That issue is exclusions as schools have to choose how to deal with incidents of racism. In the most recent exclusion figures for England there were 4889 fixed period exclusions for racist abuse. LBC reported that there were 1,987 hate-related incidents in schools reported to police in 2018 and 71% of these were described as racist. The Guardian reported over 60000 racist incidents reported in schools in the UK over a 5 year period, using a methodology that would.have missed out a large number of schools. There are tens of thousands of schools in England (and obviously in the UK as a whole), so I don’t want to imply that these incidents happen every day in every school but these are not insignificant numbers, and we know schools are often reluctant to exclude and understandably reluctant to involve the police in disciplinary matters.

Schools need to be able to act against racist behaviour. While some of that response will be to educate students about the unacceptability and seriousness of their actions and to change attitudes, much of that response, particularly with older children, should be disciplinary. What schools permit, they promote. If racist abuse is not punished, a message is sent that it is acceptable. Exclusions, both fixed term and permanent, are very much part of that.

If all children are to feel safe in school, those who are deliberately racist to others need to be punished, not given therapeutic interventions or asked what “unmet needs” made them do it. Use of fixed term exclusions or internal exclusion as a sanction shows that racist abuse is far more serious than forgetting to do homework, and will not be tolerated. The very least schools can do is ensure that any recidivist racist bully should be removed from their victims permanently. You can’t be serious about tackling racism if you aren’t willing to exclude. Scotland’s attempts to eliminate permanent exclusions has noticeably not worked in this respect. That’s not to say England is necessarily getting it right either, exclusion figures only show 15 permanent exclusions for “racist abuse” in the latest figures.

Now while I, a teacher, might say that explicit racism is a problem in schools and that exclusions are needed to deal with it, this is not what I hear from “Antiracists” commenting on the issue of exclusions. No doubt it depends on your cache, but if you Google “school exclusions racism” and you will predominantly find opinions about how school exclusions are racist, not information about racists being excluded. (I get only one link about racists being excluded on the first page.)

I’m not going to discuss why those who claim exclusions are racist are wrong (as I’ve already done that here, here and here). However, I do suspect that the national debate on school exclusions has been massively distorted by the bizarre phenomenon of self-proclaimed “Antiracists” who want to reduce the ability of schools to stop racist behaviour. And I think this is because so much of the posturing about racism we see is from people who really don’t care about confronting explicit, demonstrable incidents of racism involving actual racists. Those who do care, support schools having the right, and duty, to exclude.

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Another myth about exclusions

June 5, 2021

Most information I encounter about exclusions (i.e. permanent or temporary removals of students from schools due to behaviour) is either false or misleading. Whether it’s a claim that exclusions are common, racist, rising, or easy, it’s usually false. My all time favourite false statistic about exclusion is this one, which is staggering in its implausibility.

Yesterday, I found a new myth that I don’t recall encountering before. I was reading a fairly typical anti-exclusion article. I say “fairly typical” because the article:

  • was written by somebody who did not run a school or teach but claimed to know what schools should do;
  • didn’t explain clearly what “exclusions” were;
  • claimed without good evidence that stricter discipline was bad for mental health;
  • falsely claimed black students were more likely to be excluded;
  • didn’t mention the victims of bad behaviour, or their interests, only the perpetrators.

All this is standard in exclusion discourse and charities and journalists produce articles like this pretty much every week.

But what was new was this claim:

Evidence reviewed by the University of York suggests that the UK has a school exclusion rate that is ten times higher than that of any other country in Europe..

This claim surprised me because:

  1. The UK has 4 different education systems with drastically different exclusion rates.
  2. It did not specify whether this means permanent, or fixed term exclusions.
  3. Exclusion statistics are compiled according to particular definitions and procedures. They are not necessarily going to be directly comparable between countries.
  4. The nations of the UK are particularly transparent about exclusions and have been since the 90s. But would all countries in Europe even count them? Particularly fixed term exclusions.
  5. Not every country in Europe publishes their data and definitions in English. This could be pretty hard to research even if the relevant data had been published.
  6. “Ten times higher” is a lot. This is not impossible – you can suppress exclusions by tolerating bad behaviour (see Scotland) – but it seems unlikely that every country in Europe would do this. And if it referred to permanent exclusions, which are rare even in England, then for small countries there would barely be any.

I found a few articles about Ireland which suggested that their expulsion rate, while much lower than England’s permanent exclusion rate, was not ten times lower. So it seemed worth checking where this whole claim came from. And so, I followed the trail from one source to another. The link in the blogpost took me to a news page from 2020 on the University of York website which claimed:

The UK has a school exclusion rate that is ten times greater than that of any other country in Europe.

The news page was about research from 2020 in a peer reviewed journal that claimed as fact:

It is also important to note that the UK has a school exclusion rate that is 10 times greater than that of any other country in Europe…

The source for this, however, was another peer reviewed journal article this time from  2014 which claimed:

England maintains an exclusion rate 10-times greater than any other country in Europe…

If the only error here was to present old research as contemporary data and to confuse England and the UK it would be shoddy enough, particularly in peer reviewed research. However, this still isn’t the source of the claim. This was a reference to yet another peer reviewed journal article. This time from 2001, so even more out of date. I couldn’t even access this one online, but a friend sent me a copy. This, however, appears to have been misread. The text actually says:

There has been a particular policy concern that school exclusion rates in England are the highest in Europe and are very different from the rest of the UK: ‘We expel ten times more children than Northern Ireland and four times more than Scotland’

Later it refers to:

…an exclusion rate for England that remains the highest in Europe and 10 times the figure for Northern Ireland.

These appear to be the only comparisons with Europe, and seem to have been misread. So a misreading of an article from 2001 talking about the 90s, has been published in two separate peer reviewed articles, including one that implied it was still relevant in 2020.

And just in case that wasn’t bad enough, was this original 2001 claim based on peer reviewed research?

No. The only reference given is a newspaper article (WERTHEIMER, F. Expulsion is not the answer, The Times, 17 September 1999, if you want to find it). This article does not actually give a source for the claim about Europe and when making the comparison with Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is referring to England and Wales, not just England, as “we”.

I suppose I could dig further into the background of that Times article, but what’s the point? We’re already very far removed from the claim that sent me down this rabbit hole.

It’s worth remembering this litany of repeated factual errors next time you hear somebody claiming that educationalists and charities are the experts on exclusions.

 

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Book Review: Why Teach? by Ben Newmark

May 22, 2021

Why Teach? by Ben Newmark. Published by John Catt. £14

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 another one of those little books from John Catt, which is probably best bought at a discount or in bulk. It’s a collection of essays about teaching. Although the title seems philosophical, other than the final chapter the focus is on accurately describing what it is like to teach and giving advice. It would be well suited to NQTs and others early in their careers. It might be best to read when, having had a fair bit of experience of standing in front of a class, you start to wonder about the point of what you are doing, and everything else going on in your school.

Chapters include “Why doesn’t my school’s behaviour system work?”; “Why are there so many spreadsheets in my school?”, and “Why is everyone so scared of Ofsted?” These, and others like them, are describing the experience of working in a school and how to deal with it. The character of the writing is that of the sort of conversation you might have with a more experienced colleague in your first year of teaching, when you start to wonder whether the many of the things you are are doing have a purpose and if you are doing the job correctly.

The tone is upbeat even when the descriptions of school life would seem cynical to a non-teacher, or equivalently, depressingly realistic to a teacher. It isn’t a book to put you off teaching, even in chapters such as “Why is there more work than it is ever possible to do?” and “Why is teaching making me so sick?” Most chapters have a “What to do” section, balancing out descriptions of what can be a challenge to teachers with solid advice on how to overcome these difficulties.

The exception to this format is the last chapter – the title track – “Why Teach?” which is a reflection on the purpose of being a teacher. This is an intelligent, philosophical discussion reminding us that what we do in the classroom is not some indirect step to some ambitious greater goal, but a worthwhile activity in itself when you believe that what you teach has inherent value.

Like most of the books I’ve reviewed so far, a lot of the appeal of this one is the honesty and accuracy. I don’t remember many books like this when I started teaching. Honest books written by a teacher, for teachers, are a reminder of how much there is to be gained from learning from those still within the profession. This book is a good demonstration of the way that teachers still spend their time thinking about teaching, and probably with greater sophistication than those who are often given the most prominent platforms to tell us what to do.

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Book Review: The Truth About Teaching by Greg Ashman

May 15, 2021

The Truth about Teaching: An evidence-informed guide for new teachers by Greg Ashman. Sage Publishing. £17.28 on Amazon.

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 book is aimed at new teachers, not those of us who have been in the job for a while, but I still loved it. It’s exactly the book I could have done with 20 years ago. A guide to teaching with a twist. The twist is that the content is true and useful. There are no claims that engaging lessons will solve behaviour problems. There are no claims that group work and chatting in class will mean better learning. There’s no Bloom’s Taxonomy, brain gym or attachment theory. There’s no chapter on SEN that pretends that being on a list makes everything different. There’s just how to teach, based on the evidence.

The best part though is that the whole book is framed around the actual history, debate and research in education. There is no claim to be above it all, and no assumption that nowadays all disputes have all been resolved in favour of progressivism. Alternative ideas about education are presented and an evidence based case is made for what actually works. Explanations are given for what is effective and how we know it’s effective, alongside practical advice, and some exploration of current controversies such as phonics, and the use of technology.

Greg is based in Australia, but he worked in schools in England (at their worst) for years, so the book is somewhat generic in what it shares. It’s not a guide to teaching in a particular country, just a guide to teaching. But that is probably the reason it gets its priorities right. I think it’s the first book of it’s type that I’ve seen which puts the chapter on classroom management before the chapters on learning, motivating students, teaching, planning and assessment.

The case is made for explicit teaching: actually telling kids the stuff they need to know and making sure they learn it. This is accompanied by advice on how best to do it, and the limitations of the alternatives. The references are thorough enough that it would also serve as a good guide to further reading about the ideas in the text.

I don’t imagine a book like this will be appearing on too many PGCE reading lists any time soon. Even if ideas about explicit teaching weren’t anathema to the ideology of many university education departments, the idea that teachers should be uncovering “the truth”, by use of reason and evidence, would be. I can, however, imagine teachers recommending it to their new colleagues. It’s a useful place to start your reading about teaching if you’re just starting out, and a good recap if you’re not.

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Book Review: The researchED Guide to Explicit and Direct Instruction. Edited by Adam Boxer

May 8, 2021

 

The researchED Guide to Explicit & Direct Instruction: An evidence-informed guide for teachers edited by Adam Boxer. Published by John Catt Educational Limited. £12 

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 one of those short, but packed, education books that are probably best bought in bulk, or on special offer. This one covers the benefits of explicit instruction, the history of Englemann’s Direct Instruction, and more detailed explanation of how his ideas might be used in practice. In the end, I think I’d rather have seen more of the first two and rather less of the third.

Having become a teacher in an era where teacher talk was demonised, I think it’s great to see books about the value of explicit instruction. The most interesting chapters are those that talk about the history of Englemann’s Direct Instruction – a method of explicit teaching based on carefully designed scripted lessons – and how it was vindicated by a massive research trial entitled “Project Follow Through” – but somehow subsequently neglected for being against the tide of educational opinion.

Other parts of the book explain the benefits of explicit instruction in general, but also outline what was unique about Englemann’s contribution. A lot of the chapters explain how Englemann sequenced his work through various principles that determined what examples, and patterns of examples, would be most effective. While it’s intellectually interesting to see the connections between pedagogy and reasoning, a lot of these parts of the book assume the reader will have a lot of time to plan examples and sequences of instruction which, unfortunately, is not the case for a lot of classroom teachers. Perhaps those parts of the book are most useful for those creating resources, or planning curriculums.

Some chapters give examples of applying Englemann’s ideas in practice, but in some cases these examples are probably too subject specific for those unfamiliar with the topic to get much from. I was completely lost in the chapter about teaching electrolysis, but more at home in the one about teaching fractions. There’s probably a gap in the market for anyone who can find a way to write about these ideas without relying too much on subject specific examples. Alternatively, what may be needed is subject specific books on these ideas.

Overall, this book reads like a starting point, and perhaps the aim is to get people engaged with a wider body of work that is already out there, rather than a source of ideas that can be immediately applied. Somewhere I have a copy of Englemann’s Theory Of Instruction, and this book certainly increased my enthusiasm to get started on it.

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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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