Sunday 17 April 2016

Why is our public discourse on education so poor?

Am I the only person who finds our national discussion about education frustrating? We seem to spend our time on trivia, when debate is important. Here are seven areas of the way education is portrayed that I find particularly frustrating, and a brief thought on what we can do about it.

It bears little relationship to what is actually happening. The most misused statistic relating to education must surely be the much repeated “...only 7% of children are educated in independent schools”. When examining the number of Oscar winners, or gold medallists, or High Court judges who are former pupils at independent schools, the statistic required is the proportion of school leavers who have had some experience of independent schooling in their childhood. And this number is surprisingly high - at about 14%. Since a large number of independent schools offer scholarships and bursaries, it’s also a sample biased towards those who have shown significant potential. Earlier this year, Sir Michael Wilshaw made bold statements about the number of independent schools which are in partnership with local state schools - and he got his facts spectacularly wrong.

It takes little account of really good academic research, and those who know most seem to be in the public eye least. Mentions of the remarkable work of Professor James Heckman on character education, or Dylan Wiliam on formative assessment, or Guy Claxton on what learning means are all rare. Of these, the first omission is most surprising to me: Heckman, a Nobel Laureate, has produced really good research on what has really helped people to ‘succeed’ in the past - and it isn’t necessarily what we might expect, and it suggests that performance league tables, as they are currently composed, are flawed (and so are the assessment objectives for our exams, but that’s another story).

A handful of anecdotes are produced as ‘research’. As a substitute to painstaking research - the sort the HMC produced on a CIE assessment this week - coverage tends towards absurdly small samples being used as compelling evidence, along the lines of the ‘I once met a person who…’ line. Our children deserve a better methodology of understanding what is good for them than this - we wouldn’t dream of researching health care on this basis, so why do we do so with education?

It rejects the complexity of real life in favour of the confirmation of existing prejudices. Columnists need to summarise an issue quickly, and surprise, worry or enlighten their readers in less than 500 words. Few ‘stories’ therefore fulfil these requirements - or they would already have been written. The result is that what educaiton is really like, because it is both complex and unnewsworthy, is hidden, in order to produce an approximation to it which is saleable. 

It quotes surveys of 30-60 years olds and assumes the lessons are true of those currently being schooled. The long-gone history of our education is raked over by stories which observe that nominations for Oscars are dominated by former students of independent schools. But in most cases it’s more than twenty years since these people  were pupils, during which time drama schools, university entrance, and independent schools have all changed. This tells us what the world was like 20+ years ago - it’s not news, and it’s not true of schools now.

It mistakes what is happening in London for what is happening in the country as a whole. Really good -and well paid - leadership, higher pay for teachers, closer attention from the DfE, and an increasingly middle class demographic because of our housing crisis have all helped London state schools to become much better in the last twenty years. This is a good thing. Even the Good Schools’ Guide has noticed. The increase in London’s population has also led to overcrowded and successful London private schools. But the story is very different further from London, and much more mixed. London is not the whole story. Few headteachers are quoted whose schools are outside the M25, and even then…

It mistakes self-promotion for serious debate. Pupils, and parents, gain from the competition between schools. But this should never be allowed to reach levels in which important opportunities for young people are guarded like aces in a game of cards. Schools exist for pupils, not pupils for schools. Go-to soundbite-providers are used to comment on types of school of which they have no experience, often to make critical comments. This problem extends as far as apparently independent educational consultants.

Perhaps we are all following too much the recent example of Ofsted’s Chief Inspector in devoting more energy to headlines than the day-to-day work of developing young people. Putting kids first - as the HMC is in its campaigns on CIE English and mental health (and as we are resolutely determined to do at our school) needs re-commitment from all in education.