A Social Experiment

“Good morning.  I hope 2015 is going well for you.  I want to take these pages in a slightly different direction, towards practical matters.  Happily over the last two years, the Catholic Church’s deep-rooted concern for social justice has become more of a talking point again.  The language of the common good has been resuscitated and has provided something of a conceptual basis for Christians to criticise an austerity economics that hits the economically weak hardest.  However, for that critique to have force and bite, those of us who believe that something is wrong and that it could be done better somehow, need to be able to articulate that somehow in a way that clearly and effectively engages with reality.

I am probably too middle-aged and slow-witted to gain much more than a hazy idea of what more intelligent, better informed and more engaged thinkers in economics and social sciences have created.  Nevetheless, over the coming months, I should like to cobble together a few things arising from my amateur reading that may stir your own better-informed thoughts in useful directions, and in this way make my contribution to communal thinking-aloud.

A Social Experiment in education

Alongside my reading I am engaging in a small-scale social experiment on myself.  At the age of 55 I have gone into supply-teaching, as the only generally useful function in modern British society that I am (at least on paper) qualified to serve.  I am hoping that this will achieve a number of goals, the global aim being a worm’s eye view on the world of state education, at least in London.  For someone of my background it offers a test case of the impact of free market ideas and productivity models on the lives and working conditions of ordinary mortals.  And there are of course other specific features of the work  that touch on educational theory and practice, and which I have been wrestling with (floundering with) over the last couple of decades, that I want to get my head round.

At an existential level I am exploring a couple of things.  In the teaching profession I am old, and yet (theoretically, if I were not a religious) I would have another 12 years to go before retirement.  I struggle to produce the sort of lesson that an OFSTED inspector would regard as good, let alone one that (s)he would regard as outstanding.  Can I nevertheless do a useful job in the system?  If the answer is ‘no’ then there are critical questions about the sustainability of the national education system, given the drain of committed teachers leaving the profession early at all ages, unable to cope with the pressure.  If the answer is ‘yes’, then that raises questions both about the honesty and about the real purpose of the OFSTED framework as inspectors trundle around the country ‘driving up standards’ and rewarding (often justly) schools that present well according to the criteria and punishing (sometimes unjustly) schools where the fault lines in the system are visible.  Incidentally, so far the answer appears to be ‘yes’.

 Anecdote and data

Indeed, honesty about causes, effects and realities in education seems generally hard to come by.  A simple example from my travels so far (I’ll come back to OFSTED frameworks another day).   The government’s rule that schools in special measures should be forced to become academies implies that there is a secure causal association between liberating a school from the local authority and placing it under the authority of an independent trust, and an improvement in standards.  In  a London borough where I recently worked several schools have become academies and some have been newly built as academies.  One of these, in a well-to-do part of the borough has been spectacularly successful and is heavily oversubscribed.  Another, where I did a couple of day’s supply work, in a poor part of the borough with a high number of new-migrant families, appears to be struggling and to have falling rolls.  The staff, as far as I could judge, were as committed and as able as you would want to find in any local school.   In spite of corridor patrols by senior staff my own efforts to contain the running around of the students in my charge for the lesson were hampered by the incursion of older students from other classes, who wound the situation up even more.  Very little learning took place in the supply lessons that I covered.  There were perhaps five or more supply teachers in school the days that I was there.

My point is not to make unfair judgments (I did not see enough) about the quality of teaching and learning elsewhere in the school.  It is simply to say (1) here I found a living example that being an academy does not guarantee that a school is a runaway success (2) this example suggests that the more critical factors have very little to do with school ownership or teachers’ pay scales.   This seems to be borne out by the National Audit Offices report on the effectiveness of different interventions in education (October 30th 2014, see http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Academies-and-maintained-schools-Oversight-and-intervention.pdf).  On page 33 the report summarises their sample findings as follows:

“improvements in Ofsted ratings followed formal interventions in 62 (of 129) schools;

2,181 schools (of 3,696) that received no formal intervention improved (this does not mean that it is better not to intervene formally, and may be because schools received informal support, or due to other factors that our analysis could not control for);

the greatest improvement was in 1 school that became a sponsored academy and moved up 3 ratings from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’; and

of those that received formal interventions, schools with interim executive boards were the most likely to improve.”

So what are some of the critical factors in turning an unsuccessful school into a successful one?  My own observation would include ‘change local perceptions of you and become oversubscribed’.  How do you change perceptions?  I need to go and talk to some of my headteacher friends.  Then there is the further question, what are the critical factors in making a successful teacher – hmm.  More anon.


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