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OFSTED and Workload

March 31, 2018

In a recent blogpost I made the following comments about how OFSTED could change:

Don’t add to workload. There’s a lot of debate about how inspections could prevent teachers having too much workload. If there is a practical way to do that I would be interested to know what it is, but ultimately it’s not OFSTED’s job to set teachers’ working conditions. However there are still two ways in which inspection is adding to teacher workload. Firstly, inspectors look for consistency, i.e. whether a school’s policy is being followed by everyone. This means that where schools have counter-productive, workload-increasing policies, OFSTED is creating an incentive for schools to police those policies aggressively even where the policies are terrible. OFSTED can’t be the final arbiter on which policies create too much workload, but an acceptance that will be looking for consistency only where consistency will not increase workload (with a few examples of what that means) would help matters. Secondly, while OFSTED is clear that they do not require lesson plans or folders of student information when they observe a class, inspectors still take them if offered and schools still encourage teacher to provide such things for inspectors. OFSTED should not just say “we do not require X” when mythbusting, they should say “we will not even look at X” and start with Xs that a classroom teacher might be told to hand over unnecessarily.

There were a few responses that did not like the idea of inspectors refusing to look at information that might be relevant to judgements, so I thought I’d clarify and extend what I’m arguing for.

For clarity, this was entirely about classroom teachers. I am in no position to comment on whether managers have to provide too much information or not. But what has concerned me in recent years is that classroom teachers are being instructed to collect and present information that is entirely for observers and has no benefit for them or their students. I don’t blame the schools for this, as long as inspectors are willing to consider information in folders thrust under their noses then schools have every incentive to collect mitigating evidence to explain anything inspectors see in any given classroom. But this clearly does add to teacher workload. Those who say “but what if showing this to an inspector causes them to make a better or more sympathetic judgement?” have missed the point. Either we think reducing teacher workload is a priority, or we don’t. I think it should be and if that means inspectors avoid making the kind of judgements that could be swayed by a folder, then so be it. We need to move away from a culture of trying to prove everything to OFSTED and we need OFSTED to help with that by refusing to reward behaviours that might make their job easier, but make the work of teachers harder.

As an additional point, there may be a huge gap between what information schools think inspectors want to see, and what they actually want to see. There was a lot of excitement on Twitter last week when Sean Harford, OFSTED’s education director, made the following comment (admittedly in the context of EYFS):

The other point I made about OFSTED looking for consistency is particularly relevant for marking. I seem to have ended up in countless meetings and conversations about marking policies in recent years. At no point has anybody ever asked the most obvious question:

What marking policy would lead to more learning?

Instead, the discussions have focused on the following three questions:

  1. How can we demonstrate students acting on feedback?
  2. How can we ensure that everyone is doing this in the same way?
  3. (Not in every school) How can we do this in a way that requires least workload?

As a result I have seen ever more ingenious ways of trying to do the wrong thing with the least effort. The priority is, “put something in their books they can easily respond to and be seen to respond to”, which has become the entire point of marking.

However, this is not point of marking. The point of marking is to find out what students are doing. In some classes and some topics, this is about feedback. With other classes this is about behaviour, and in particular monitoring effort. With other classes and other topics it’s about assessing the effectiveness of your teaching. Even where feedback is to be given, the best type of feedback will vary. Often the best feedback is to re-teach something to the whole class. Sometimes the best feedback is merely to point out mistakes to individuals. Sometimes it needs a more detailed explanation to an individual, and whether that is best done in writing, or verbally will depend on the child.

My experience is that the best way to mark often depends on the individual student, and always on the specific class. Policies that try to make marking “consistent” for every piece of work a teacher marks are utterly counter-productive. They just slow down and obstruct marking. They become more counter-productive when the policies are imposed on whole departments. They reach the absolute highest level of obstruction to teachers when they are imposed on whole schools. And this is being done without the slightest regard for learning. It is always done for the sake of inspectors, and other people scrutinising books. Teachers are left with the horrible choice: do I do the marking that is best for my class, or the marking that people looking in my books want to see? Often this means doing two types of marking, the useful stuff and the compulsory stuff, or feeling guilty when you skip the former, or stressed when you skip the latter. And this is the fault of an inspection system, where complete strangers are looking for “feedback” and looking for “consistency”. It is reasonable for inspectors to check that teachers look at work. It is reasonable for inspectors to check that students are doing work. That’s it. Everything else is just a hoop that teachers have to jump through. And if you want absolute proof that school marking policies are not for kids but for observers, ask a few teachers if they have ever provided written feedback to a child who cannot read.

 

 

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Shamed Schools 2 – Edutwitter Trolls 0

March 30, 2018

I’ve written a lot in the past about school shaming.

School shamings are the phenomena whereby a named school is singled out by the press or by people on social media and criticised in public. The most noticeable elements of big school shamings have been:

  • Disgruntled parents complaining about a school’s rules or the fact they are being enforced;
  • The “journalist” Warwick Mansell leading the charge;
  • Twitter progressives claiming they are just holding the schools to account;
  • Online abuse directed at the staff of the school. Often this is the use of the c-word directed at the teachers and claims from trolls and educationalists that whatever they don’t like about the school is child abuse and comparable to Nazism;
  • A desperate trawling of the school’s website and social media, followed by freedom of information requests, all looking for dirt;
  • Claims that no matter how unpleasant the campaign the victims deserved it because everyone knows they are up to no good;
  • Criticism of the school for things that almost every secondary school in the country does like giving detentions or banning extreme hair cuts.
  • Complete disregard for people who had actually visited the school and could say the criticisms were unfair and ongoing attacks on anyone that challenges the narrative of the shamers.

I always recommend So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson to anyone interested in how apparently normal people can get involved with online activity that creates genuine misery without seeing themselves as part of the problem. He describes how online shamings work: “The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche”. He also writes about how easy it is to be drawn into a Twitter mob, something that can be seen in the behaviour of school shamers who often seem utterly unaware of the harm they are causing and angry that those outside the mob do not see it as benign.

The most common defence of these witch hunts is that there is genuinely something scandalous going on in the shamed schools that requires immediate action by the authorities. I think it’s worth commenting on what happens when the authorities do go to these schools and look for the terrible things that the online trolls describe. Unfortunately this will require naming two of the shamed schools, but you will see why this is unlikely to harm their reputation.

One of the first big Twitter campaigns against a school was against Michaela Community School in Brent. The school’s discipline system was repeatedly described as abusive and cruel and outrageous claims were made about the kids being unhappy. Here’s what inspectors actually found in a report that found the school to be outstanding in every category:

Personal development and welfare

  • The school’s work to promote pupils’ personal development and welfare is outstanding.
  • Attitudes to learning are exemplary. Pupils know how to be successful learners because leaders and teaching staff actively encourage pupils’ social and emotional development.
    Pupils typically said that they understand how hard work now will help to prepare them very well for the next stages of their education.
  • Pupils’ self-confidence matures rapidly. Teachers and leaders challenge pupils to speak in front of their peers and adults and share their views. Pupils learn how to speak publicly and do so with self-assurance. They constantly show that they understand the importance of listening carefully to the adults and one another.
  • Pupils are readily appreciative and caring. They acknowledge enthusiastically what members of the school community have done well and generously celebrate the successes and achievements of others.
  • Pupils have an extensive understanding of possible risks to their safety. They are in no doubt that leaders and staff will deal quickly and effectively with any problems that may occur. Pupils are consistently clear that any instances of bullying are exceptionally rare.

Behaviour

  • The behaviour of pupils is outstanding. Pupils are polite, well mannered and very respectful. They conduct themselves exceedingly sensibly around the school. In class, they are reliably composed and attentive to teaching staff.
  • Pupils behave responsibly and are highly self-disciplined. They follow the school’s conduct guidelines conscientiously so that lessons run very smoothly and without interruption. The school is an extremely calm and safe learning environment. It is very well maintained, and graffiti- and litter-free.

The most recent campaign against a school was against Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. A previously failing school, attempts to improve the school under new leadership from September last year had been met with aggressive resistance. This became particularly unpleasant due to a facebook group, involving both disgruntled parents and online trolls (and people who were both) campaigning against the school in the local community and claiming to speak for parents. Claims were repeatedly made about discipline being cruel and SEN students being mistreated. It may even have been complaints from parents that were organised by this campaign that led to an unannounced inspection focusing on behaviour and safety. Here’s what the inspectors found:

A large number of pupils told inspectors that, prior to the introduction of the school’s revised behaviour policy at the beginning of the current academic year, they often felt unsafe at school. They described ‘dangerous’ behaviour in corridors and during breaks from lessons, including regular fights, and said that abusive language was very common. Pupils explained that, very often, serious disruption during lessons prevented them from learning anything at all. Some said that in the past, they had ‘dreaded’, and in consequence sometimes avoided, coming to school because of these fears. Teachers and other staff told inspectors that they often found it difficult to teach because behaviour was so poor, that they were frequently the target of verbal, and occasionally of physical abuse, and that at times they too felt unsafe.

During this unannounced inspection, all of the large number of pupils who spoke with inspectors said that they now feel safe at school. Pupils moved around the school site in an orderly manner and behaved very politely and respectfully to their peers and to adults. They wore their uniform with pride, arrived at lessons promptly, and settled down to learning quickly. In all lessons visited, learning took place in a calm and orderly environment. Relationships between pupils and teachers were positive, and consequently pupils had the confidence to ask and to answer questions. Pupils behaved well, both when interacting with their teachers and when working on their own. As a result, they worked hard, completing tasks in a focused manner. During break periods, pupils socialised with each other amicably.

Pupils and teachers told inspectors that behaviour has improved significantly and that, as one put it, ‘today is just what things are like now’. The school’s records also indicate a considerable decline in the incidence of repeated disruption, and of more serious misconduct, particularly since the beginning of the current term. The incidence of permanent or temporary exclusion from school, or of internal isolation, though falling, remains too high because the behaviour of a small number of pupils has not improved. These pupils are removed from lessons when necessary so that learning continues. Pupils said that typically sanctions deter poor behaviour on the part of others because they are enforced consistently and quickly. The increased emphasis on rewarding pupils for their punctuality, behaviour and achievement is also promoting good conduct. Staff feel supported by leaders in dealing with misconduct; all of the large number who responded to the Ofsted staff survey agreed that, overall, behaviour at the school is now positive.

Staff and pupils attribute the improvements to leaders’ introduction of a new behaviour policy at the start of the current academic year. Leaders and teachers respond to poor behaviour robustly, but also priority is given to encouraging and rewarding positive conduct and relationships through what you describe as a ‘warm, but strict’ approach to discipline. Some parents expressed concern that a rigid application of the rules might punish, unfairly, pupils who have SEN and/or disabilities who are unable to follow particular instructions. Other parents were anxious that a rule designed to keep pupils within the classroom whenever possible would prevent pupils with medical needs from visiting the toilet during lesson time. You have ensured that the text of the policy makes clear to staff that they must be flexible when applying it. Teachers and pupils told inspectors that in their view, the
behaviour policy is applied with due regard to individual needs. Such an approach was evident during the inspection. Governors have considered carefully each of the small number of concerns about the application of the behaviour policy that individual parents have asked them to investigate.

In both cases, what the inspectors found was what other visitors to the school had also observed, and what the schools claimed was actually happening. There was nothing to confirm the claims of the online mob, and in both cases the mob seemed to dramatically change their story, from ongoing terrible cruelty to quibbling over single incidents and moaning about anyone who supported the schools on social media. No apologies were forthcoming and many trolls seemed furious to learn that children were safe. Of course, OFSTED is far from perfect, but the claims of the witch hunters about these schools had been so extreme – a culture of fear with kids being deprived of food or made to vomit in public – that no inspector would have missed it if they had been true.

So next time you see a Twitter witch hunt against a school, remember that online outrage is usually completely at odds with what independent visitors to shamed schools actually find. You don’t have to defend any school, but challenge the trolls for their behaviour, particularly if they claim they are only asking questions or holding the school to account. And remember, even if their claims were ever true, social media is never the place to raise safeguarding complaints about named schools.

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10 “unbelievable” things that used to be common in schools

March 24, 2018

 

I asked this question on Twitter:

I have collated the most common responses. They were not necessarily the most unbelievable, to see those you should click on the above tweet and read the responses and follow this link for the “quote-tweeting” replies. (Seriously, I recommend doing this, and find out what a swimming horn was and the horrors of tracing paper loo roll).

I will count down from the 10th to the 1st most popular responses. (For what it’s worth the 11th most popular response was sherry, which was apparently drunk at interviews, when the headteacher offered it, or on Friday lunchtimes.) Numbers are very, very approximate as it’s kind of hard to find all the old tweets.

10) Rolling chalkboards (Suggested 6 times). A chalkboard that could do scrolling. A marvellous thing. Mind you I’ve never written on one, and I seem to recall they often looked a bit flimsy.

9) Written memos (Suggested 7 times). In the days before email, messages were handritten and stuffed in pigeonholes. People also mentiong “round robins” which were messages, usually about a student, that everyone had to write on.

8) Written reports (Suggested 11  times). Suddenly I remember that workload wasn’t actually so great in the old days. We used to hand write reports on every student, sometimes on duplicate paper. One mistake and you had to start again. I remember one school where the student also had to write a comment on the report, and a friend of mine had his entire set of reports destroyed by a challenging year 10 class during this process.

7) Registers in a book/on paper (Suggested 11 times). Before we were all online, there were a variety of ways to take registers. A number of people mentioned books, but also pre-printed sheets. I haven’t included Bromcoms in this category, but a few people mentioned them.

6) Televisions on wheels/department televisions. (Suggested 12 times). In the days before youtube and projectors, you booked a TV and wheeled it in on a trolley.

5) Chalk/Blackboards (Suggested 13 times). Possibly not really that hard to believe. But clearly well-remembered.

4) Pub lunch on a Friday (Suggested 13 times). Apparently this was a thing. Amazing. Must have been before my time. (Or maybe nobody ever invited the maths department).

3) Smoking room/smoking in the staffroom (Suggested 14 times). I am just old enough to remember when people could only smoke in their offices, and certain managers’ would have a stream of smokers coming to visit. One tweeter described a smoking room in the staffroom separated by a glass partition.

2) Over Head Projectors (Suggested 26 times). I remember these. The visualisers of their day. You could write on the acetates. There was even an OHP calculator you could use.

1) Banda machines or other types of spirit duplicators (Suggested 31 times). Before my time, although I do have a set of Banda printed algebra worksheets given to me by a retiring teacher. As I understand it this was a copier machine that was messy and physically demanding and printed everything in purple.

 

If you can find public domain pictures of any of these, I will add them. Thanks.

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What OFSTED still needs to do

March 17, 2018

It seems incredible to think how far the schools inspectorate OFSTED have moved on since I was writing about them five years ago. Back then they seemed to be little more than the “child centred inquisition”, a way of enforcing the correct way of teaching, and the correct way was always progressive. They were also a nice little earner for contracted inspectors, who could work as consultants advising schools on how to pass OFSTEDs. This was usually by teaching the correct way.

Nowadays, OFSTED do not grade lessons; they do not let inspectors work as OFSTED consultants; they do not officially have a preferred style of teaching and they publish mythbusting information. The worst of their former inspectors can now be found trolling people on Twitter and complaining about how terrible it is that teachers can be openly traditionalist again.

But is there more that needs to be done?

I would make the following suggestions entirely as a classroom teacher (I realise there are plenty of bigger issues if you look at inspections from other perspectives, particularly the pressing need to inspect MATs directly):

  1. Get rid of the “Outstanding” grade for schools, or at least make it dependent on results, not inspections. The point of the outstanding grade seems to be that it should encourage Good schools to get better. However, anecdotally at least, it’s main effect seems to be to scare Outstanding schools into getting worse. I can only judge this from anecdotes, but because the period between inspections of outstanding schools can be so long, and because the schools are so invested in their outstanding status, you end up (after enough time) with schools that are both desperate to do well in an inspection and also a bit out of the loop about what inspections are like. This creates a space where panic and myths thrive and a number of teachers in outstanding schools that are due to be inspected have told me stories of terrible gimmicks that managers have inflicted on them in a panic.
  2. Improve accountability of inspectors. There are still inspectors who think there is a particular correct way of teaching and tell schools what they should be doing. It is not as blatant as it was. They don’t do what an inspector did to me back in the day and tell me a lesson was inadequate because bottom set year 10 were working quietly on algebra and not talking to each other. But I’ve very recently seen how an inspector can say they want to see more “challenge”, not because students were finding work easy, or because they could all do it, but apparently because there were no exercises of a particular type. I have two suggestions for increasing accountability of inspectors. Firstly, require them to record all advice give on teaching on a separate form, that can then be analysed over time. Secondly, survey teachers immediately after an inspection. While what one school says about inspectors can be a pretty limited and partial perspective, over several inspections it should be possible to build up a picture of what inspectors are doing.
  3. Don’t add to workload. There’s a lot of debate about how inspections could prevent teachers having too much workload. If there is a practical way to do that I would be interested to know what it is, but ultimately it’s not OFSTED’s job to set teachers’ working conditions. However there are still two ways in which inspection is adding to teacher workload. Firstly, inspectors look for consistency, i.e. whether a school’s policy is being followed by everyone. This means that where schools have counter-productive, workload increasing policies, OFSTED is creating an incentive for schools to police those policies aggressively even where the policies are terrible. OFSTED can’t be the final arbiter on which policies create too much workload, but an acceptance that will be looking for consistency only where consistency will not increase workload (with a few examples of what that means) would help matters. Secondly, while OFSTED is clear that they do not require lesson plans or folders of student information when they observe a class, inspectors still take them if offered and schools still encourage teacher to provide such things for inspectors. OFSTED should not just say “we do not require X” when mythbusting, they should say “we will not even look at X” and start with Xs that a classroom teacher might be told to hand over unnecessarily.
  4. Make “mythbusting” more proactive. I really like the way that if lots of schools are doing something ridiculous to prepare for OFSTED, then after a year or so it will become well known via social media or other teacher forums, and perhaps within another year or two it might appear in a mythbusting document and schools might slowly stop doing it. This is a great thing and a vast improvement on days gone by, when not only did almost every fad get described as “this is what OFSTED want to see” but also half the time there were inspectors who spread the myths as part of their consultancy work and probably did expect to see it when inspecting. However, there needs to be a better way of preventing new myths developing than hoping enough people ask Sean Harford on Twitter if they are true. Inspectors need to feedback to say “schools are doing this now” whenever something seems to be a craze during inspections, and OFSTED needs to react to that information by constantly updating its myths documents to remove any practice that looks like it might be being done entirely to impress inspectors but serving no practical purpose.

I now see OFSTED as an organisation that takes a fairly sensible attitude towards dealing with classroom teachers. But it still has a lot of unintended consequences for teachers, and it is time to put systems in place to address them.

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What’s normal in a school is what matters

March 10, 2018

A lot of descriptions of what happens in schools become confused because what actually matters in a school is what it normal, not whether things happen at all.

So, for instance, debate about teaching through the use of group work is not a debate between some people who always use group work and some people who would never endorse group work in any context. It’s a debate between those who think it is normal to use group work, and those who think group work should be the exception.  What matters is the default. Would you use group work whenever you felt like it, or would you use it only because it served a particular purpose that you could not achieve in a different way. When we are discussing how teachers teach, the measure of a teacher’s teaching style is not a list of how often they teach in a particular way, but what they default to. How would you teach something if it could be taught in a number of different ways? What would you think would work best? When people who always default to one style, claim they have no ideology, no bias, they just “do what works” and so does everybody else, they are being disingenuous. What you believe works, is an ideology. In particular, what you default to, is a bias. Your teaching style is what you do when there is no reason to do something else, not what you do in exceptional circumstances. This is why the set up of a room is important and controversial. Whether you choose to put desks in rows or in groups has a lot to do with what you think you will normally be doing. It tells you far more about a teacher’s priorities than statements about “sometimes I do this, other times I do this”.

When talking about behaviour in a school, it is the defaults that matter. What will students do for a teacher they have never met? What will students do before the teacher tells them what to do. There’s a lot of debate about whether classes should work in silence or not. But that’s never the issue. The default behaviour of the students is what matters. Do students stay silent until told they can speak, or speak continually until told to be silent? Both situations can result in a class that sometimes works in silence and sometimes do things that involve speaking, but the former is a lot easier to manage. You can pretty much judge the behaviour of a school by how long it would take an unfamiliar teacher to get a class to be quiet and listen. Similarly, do students call out answers to questions until a teacher tells them not to, or do they wait their turn until they are told to call out? Too often the worse behaviour is the habit and the good behaviour the exception, rather than the other way around. There is a paradox in behaviour management that stricter rules are often easier to follow, and a lot of that is because schools that ask for certain behaviours (eg. working in silence, putting your hand up to answer questions, forming an orderly queue) almost all the time find it easier to make exceptions when required, whereas schools that only ask for those behaviours some of the time find it difficult to get students to adjust their behaviour when required.

Finally, discussions of what a school should teach and how they should teach it, must be based around what is normal, not what is necessary in exceptional cases. A lot of debate about inclusion and SEN has simply not been about what schools can do to help the exceptional cases: the students who cannot read or write, cannot access the curriculum or cannot sit still for a test. Instead it has been about how schools can lower expectations across the board so that exceptional cases are no longer exceptional. We can call it “inclusive” if students can learn history for three years without ever having to read and comprehend a page of historical writing; if there are calculators available in every maths lessons so nobody ever has to rely on mental arithmetic, or if classes are mixed in ability to the point where writing five words in an hour is acceptable from some, but the effect on the majority in terms of reduced expectations is immense.

In all these contexts, and more, those running schools and classrooms need to ask “what is normal?”. Anything schools allow may become normal, and anything that is normal may soon be seen as something that cannot be changed. Too often teachers come to the idea that a certain level of effort; a certain level of disruption; a certain level of rudeness, is just normal for kids. They also come to think that a certain way of teaching; a certain way of ignoring bad behaviour, a certain attitude to work is normal for teachers. However, too often all those expectations are simply what the school has taught to the kids and to staff and the behaviour could be changed with a bit of thought and a clearer explanation of what is expected and more consistency in expecting it.

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School Shamings: Why they are unnecessary and who is to blame for them

March 4, 2018

I won’t link to it for reasons that will become obvious, but I read an article on the Guardian website about behaviour.

One by one, the children are greeted by staff with a warm smile and a personalised hello. The teachers’ enthusiasm, however genuine, is rarely reciprocated. Some students scowl, others grunt a “hello”, almost all hunch their shoulders. One 11-year-old girl, … [the executive principal of the special school] recalls, responded with a curt “Fuck off!” every single morning for a year.

That particular response would be met with instant isolation, detention or expulsion in many schools – but not at …[this school]. “She was living in a house where there was violence, drug abuse, swearing – that was just commonplace and no one was nice to her,” ….[the executive principal] says. “So when she comes to us and we’re nice to her, she couldn’t cope with it.”

Instead of disciplining her, teachers paid the girl more positive attention in an attempt to understand the angst she was bringing from home. Within a year, she had stopped her morning outburst and got along with school staff. And that, the school’s principal, …, explains, is why the daily greeting is essential: it allows teachers to spot which children are arriving in a foul mood. “You’re sussing out where the child is at and how they’re feeling,” she says.

The article goes on to talk about “unconditional positive regard”:

… it means rewarding children for the smallest things – like being kind to fellow pupils – and not punishing bad behaviour. “I could have a kid that spits in my face today and tomorrow I’ll be OK with them,” he says. And if a pupils throws over a table and swears at the teacher? “The teacher would be really nice to them, talk nicely. It would be dealt with by the care team and that child would be looked after, taken out of the room for a calming period and then welcomed back into the classroom.”

This model of teacher virtue, in which we are encouraged to be human sponges willing to absorb any abuse and punishment, was not popular on my Twitter timeline. Many complained about how bad it would be for students to have their bad behaviour excused or rewarded. Others pointed out the implications for teachers’ working conditions. One tweeter observed that the idea that you should just put up with violence and hostility if you care enough was one that was normally discouraged because of its implications for victims of domestic violence.

However, if you read this blog you are probably already familiar with what I think of this. This is not why I am blogging. There was something else. This article was on Tuesday. The school, the principal and the executive principal were named. They are easily found on Twitter. Many, many Twitter traditionalists expressed their disapproval. Yet when I did a search last night, there was not one tweet attacking the school by name. There was not one abusive tweet sent to those staff members. There was only condemnation of the ideas.

I have repeatedly blogged about school shamings: when named schools and their staff are criticised on social media or in the press and it leads to online abuse.

There have been three main counter points given in defence of school shaming (if you ignore the endless pedantic responses asking me to define every word I use to describe the phenomena).

  1. Schools are publicly funded, therefore, they should be scrutinised and public criticism is part of that.
  2. The school being shamed has sought publicity for itself, therefore, as its name is out there, critics of the school should name it too.
  3. Traditionalists do the same thing too, you only object because you support the ideology of the schools being shamed.

We now have an example that shows that it’s possible to criticise a school, and object to the ideas and activities there in the strongest terms, without naming the school. We now know that it’s possible for people to be really angry about what a school does (and let’s be clear, I am very angry at the suggestion that teachers just accept abuse and violence) without provoking abusive messages on Twitter to staff at the school. We have now seen that even when a school publicises its terrible idea, it is possible to respond with criticism without using the school’s name. And finally, we can now observe that Twitter traditionalists do not react in the same way as progressives to things they dislike in schools; we can actually criticise at length without trying to shame or abuse. The difference between the insults and accusations schools get for having strict discipline policies, and the response this school has had for a ludicrously lenient one, is striking.

So I’m going to say it:

  • There is no excuse for school shaming. You can always criticise ideas without naming schools or people.
  • School shaming is something done by supporters of progressive education, and it is progressives who need to stop.

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Why is the EEF getting it so wrong about ability grouping?

March 3, 2018

For a while now, whenever the topic of setting and streaming has come up, people have referred me to the EEF toolkit, and particularly graphs like this one:

It shows that “ability grouping”, which to teachers in England is likely to be thought to refer to setting (i.e. grouping by previous test scores in a particular subject) or streaming (grouping by a measure of general ability or a combination of test scores across subjects) has a negative effect on student achievement. For other topics I’m interested in, the effect sizes found by the EEF, based on meta-analyses, correspond to similar work done by John Hattie for his book Visible Learning. Hattie found a positive effect size of 0.12 for ability grouping. The EEF found a negative effect size: -0.09. This puzzled me when I first saw it.

The EEF – The Education Endowment Foundation – was set up by Michael Gove with the intention of providing a more solid empirical basis for education. It has been generously funded to conduct Randomised Control Trials according to an agreed protocol. It is therefore often treated as a neutral source of information. This has been repeatedly cited to me as proof that setting does not work. One would have assumed that it would be subject to more checks than the work of a single researcher, such as Hattie. So how did the results end up so different?

These are the meta-analyses behind the figure:

Meta-analyses Effect size
Gutierrez, R., & Slavin, R. E., (1992)
-0.34 (mixed age attainment vs non-graded classes)
Kulik C-L.C & Kulik J.A. , (1982)
0.10 (on secondary pupils)
Kulik C-L.C & Kulik J.A. , (1984)
0.10 (on elementary/primary pupils)
Lou, Y., Abrami, P. C., Spence, J. C., Poulsen, C., Chambers, B., & d’Apollonia, S. , (1996)
-0.12 (on low attainers)
Puzio, K., & Colby, G. , (2010)
0.22
Slavin, R. E. , (1990)
-0.06 (on low attainers)
Indicative effect size (on low attainers) -0.09

I had previously noticed a couple of issues here.

Firstly, they have cherry picked data for low attainers, rather than an average effect size in two cases. While the effect on low attainers might be of particular concern, it is odd to simply include figures specifically for low attainers in calculating a single effect size. Also it has been claimed (and I’m not in a position to check whether this is correct) that figures for low attainers in this type of research include a systematic error. Secondly, Abrami et al (1996) meta-analysis was actually research into “within class” grouping, which is usually considered a form of mixed ability teaching. I don’t know how the EEF combines its effect sizes so I don’t know the effects of correcting for these two anomalies. It is noticeable that Hattie also includes within class grouping, so that alone can’t explain the differences. And, I think some of the positive effect sizes are also from within class grouping so this may cancel out.

But now I notice there’s a bigger anomaly. Hattie considers Gutierrez et al (1992) to give ability grouping a positive effect size of 0.34. The EEF says -0.34. This is the biggest effect size anyone found in either direction. The paper can be found here and it seems to agree with Hattie. The confusion may be that it is actually research into mixing year groups, and because year groups are called “grades” in the US, the ability grouped classes are called “ungraded”. However, the figure of 0.34 seems to be for ability grouping, not against.

The only effect size which Hattie and the EEF both agree is negative is Slavin (1990). In the abstract Slavin, an opponent of ability grouping, describes his results this way:

“Overall achievement effects were found to be essentially zero at all grade levels… Results were close to zero for students of all levels of prior performance.”

If that’s the best evidence the EEF found for negative effects of setting, then they have, intentionally or otherwise, misled us.

The EEF appears to have used a mix of irrelevant studies, and an incorrect figure, to get its assessment of ability grouping completely wrong. To be honest, the quality of the studies are generally so poor, and the practice of combining effect sizes so problematic, that I hadn’t been that bothered previously. Additionally, most of the effect sizes in the graph above, and in Hattie, assess interventions and come from research conducted by supporters of those interventions, meaning that any comparison with the effect size for ability grouping is not comparing like with like. I had generally concluded that this whole approach was hopeless.

However, it seemed likely that some good research was on its way. The EEF was doing some RCTs with researchers at UCL. And then this week, before any RCT results had come out, an incredibly poor journal article “The Symbolic Violence of Setting” attacking setting on the basis of minimal evidence, was published under the name of most of the UCL researchers. Greg Ashman discusses it here. It’s pretty much everything that gives educational research a poor name: worthless “qualitative” methods and a vehement ideological commitment to a particular conclusion.

This is a big problem for the EEF. If people are so against setting that they compare it with violence, then I don’t believe it can be ethical for them to conduct research into setting. From their perspective, honest and objective research that has a result that favours setting would actually encourage “symbolic violence”. Either they are willing to risk inflicting “symbolic violence” on children or they never planned to allow the results to go that way. Both alternatives would be completely unethical and researchers should not put themselves in a position where they have to make such a choice. This is all despite the claim: “The EEF is committed to maintaining independence and impartiality in all its work”.

The EEF and those funding it need to take a closer look at what it is doing. It was meant to help educators get evidence that is not tainted by the usual ideological nonsense of educational research. Here, either by error or bad intent, they seem to have encouraged exactly that.

As a final note, Dylan Wiliam recently claimed on Twitter that the problems with the research on setting might be even more fundamental:

This area remains one where there really is minimal good evidence, and I would recommend that teachers make their own decisions based on their experience.

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