Monthly Archives: September 2011



Schools must develop character and ‘grit’ in their pupils according to charismatic New York School Head

Influence of Seligman and Peterson key


Dominic Randolph, a Brit, is the Headmaster at Riverdale Country School  one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools,   which sits atop  a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. A charismatic, innovative mould- breaker, Randolph is a Head who very much stands out from the crowd.  He told the New York Times recently that he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign.  He believes too that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told NYT, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”  Anthony Seldon, here in the UK, is another Headmaster who shares many of Randolph’s views as well as  his admiration for  Professor Martin Seligman’s  work on well -being and  its application in schools.  Seldon argues, as he reiterated in the Guardian recently, that schools of all kinds have become too much like exam factories, concentrating their energies on securing passes at A to C at GCSE level, and have given too little attention to the overall development of the child and their character (the scramble for results has also been at the cost of genuine learning and creative teaching). He says that the government should embrace character-building and all-round education not as an alternative to academic attainment but as an essential adjunct of it. The opportunities open to those of independent education for wider enrichment should be available to all, regardless of school.  Seldon’s views are shared by others .The proper purpose of education the argument goes  surely is to equip young people for a fulfilling life, personally and as citizens of the world. Not simply to learn how to pass tests.  Joseph Raz, the lawyer and philosopher- proposed getting pupils wholeheartedly engaged in worthwhile activities and relationships. These, he argues, can be practical and aesthetic as well  as being  focused on the  pursuit of knowledge and  truth. Professor Ken Robinson too argues that creativity and divergent or lateral thinking are educated out of children early on in state education   and there is no proper emphasis on co-operative learning,  but instead we have  production line teaching to the test  in schools.

According to Randolph the most critical missing ingredient in many schools is a focus on character. In other words those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England (Wellington College as it happens) and that also have deep roots in American history. ( moral courage determination, resilience, stamina etc).  In the winter of 2005, Randolph read “Learned Optimism,” a book by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who helped establish the Positive Psychology movement (well -being etc). Randolph found the book intriguing, and he arranged a meeting with the author. Seligman had scheduled a separate meeting with David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City, so decided to combine the two meetings .Levin had also spent many years trying work out how to provide lessons in character to his students, who were almost all black or Latino and from low-income families.  Seligman referred them  both to a book, which he and Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who also ended up  joining  the meeting.  Peterson had just finished:“Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,”  It was intended, according to the authors, as a “manual of the sanities,” an attempt to inaugurate what they described as a “science of good character.”  Levin had been struck by the results of the first cohort of KIPP students. Although they succeeded academically, many didn’t seem to have any staying power or resilience, meaning that they dropped out along the way. As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed that the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were, in fact, the ones with exceptional character strengths, like ‘optimism and persistence and social intelligence’. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time. In short, character seems at least as important as intellect in those pupils who succeed.  Research from Professor Angela Duckworth’s showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s. But while self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn’t as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word “grit.” She has even developed a system for measuring this ‘grit’.  I.Q. it turned out was the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests, but measures of self-control were more reliable indicators of report-card grades. Duckworth’s research convinced Levin and Randolph that they should try to foster self-control and grit in their students.. So they asked Peterson if he could narrow the  original list of 24 character strengths  down to a more manageable handful, and he identified a set of strengths that were, according to his research, especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. After a few small adjustments (Levin and Randolph opted to drop love in favour of curiosity), they settled on a final list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. For Levin, the next step was clear. Students could graduate from school with not only a G.P.A. but also a C.P.A., for character-point average? If you were a college-admissions director or a corporate human-resources manager selecting entry-level employees, wouldn’t you like to know which ones scored highest in grit or optimism or zest? And if you were a parent of a KIPP student, wouldn’t you want to know how your son or daughter stacked up next to the rest of the class in character as well as in reading ability? As soon as he got the final list of indicators from Duckworth and Peterson, Levin started working to turn it into a specific, concise assessment that he could hand out to students and parents at KIPP’s New York City schools twice a year:  in effect it was the first-ever character report card.

Randolph was not so sure of this approach for his school.  Still, he did think that the inventory Duckworth and Peterson developed could be a useful tool in communicating with students about character. And so he has been taking what one Riverdale teacher described as a “viral approach” to spreading the idea of this new method of assessing character throughout the Riverdale community.  Messages about behaviour and values  now permeate the school day, but those messages  apparently are focused primarily on  the moral dimension.  It’s an interesting approach placing character and intellect side by side and regarding them as mutually supportive but also in saying that character can be taught in schools.

We know from Pisa (OECD) research that around 30% of pupils from poor backgrounds who are identified as resilient can overcome their socio-economic disadvantage and thrive at school. And Resilience seems to equate to character, or ‘grit’. Food for thought?



More resources doesn’t equal better results

Its the focus on teacher quality that matters


The Sutton Trust was helped in its recent research by Professor Eric Hanushek, a  Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution,  looking at  the importance of the quality of teaching in raising pupil attainment and school performance. He has done much research in this area , particularly on  the effects of good and bad teachers of pupil performance.

Although many factors help determine cognitive skills, most government efforts for improvement focus on schools—the place where they have the most policy leverage.  Politicians constantly interfere in State schools trying one thing, and if that doesn’t work, then another, sometimes informed by solid evidence, sometimes not. The one constant is that they believe they are making a difference and that their centrally driven interventions will improve performance. They rarely do, at least on a sustained basis.

Reforming school policies and improving performance are, as Hanushek points out, not just a matter of will, or of providing extra resources to schools.

He writes ‘If the effectiveness of different resources—or combinations thereof—were known, it would be straightforward to define an optimal reform strategy. The problem is that we do not currently have enough credible knowledge about how best to use new resources’.

Our own Professor Michael Barber may not agree but productivity in education actually fell during the period of greatest investment in education and centrally driven interventions during the Blair years,  particularly over 2001-05 when Barber headed the Delivery Unit.(Barber said in his book  ‘Instruction to Deliver’ (2007) that raising productivity in public services was the Governments main challenge).If you look at OECD countries its not just about money. As the Economist recently (Sept 17 2011) pointed out ‘Many of the 20 leading economic performers in the OECD doubled or tripled their education spending in real terms between 1970-1994 yet outcomes in many countries stagnated or went backwards’.

Of course, credible research findings indicate that the absence of the most basic school resources—such as adequate facilities or textbooks—noticeably impacts performance. Nonetheless, as Hanushek says,  ‘the evidence does not indicate that simply spending more, even in poor countries, can be expected to have a generally significant effect on student outcomes without closer attention to the uses of resources’.

One explanation for failure is, according to Hanushek, ‘simply that insufficient attention has been paid to teacher quality. Estimated differences in annual achievement growth between an average and a good teacher are large. Within one academic year, a good teacher can move a typical student up at least four percentiles in the overall distribution (equal to a change of 0.12 standard deviations of student achievement). In fact, a string of good teachers can erase the deficits associated with poor preparation for school.’

But the problem is that hiring good teachers is not easily achieved. Teaching ability is not closely related to for example to training or experience . Moreover, most teacher salary systems do not reward high-quality teachers.

Hanushek believes that policymakers should focus on improving the overall quality of the teaching force.  But if one were simply to redistribute existing teachers, the overall policy goals would not be achieved.

Instead, most existing evidence indicates that quality improvements are more likely to come from selecting and retaining better teachers rather than from retraining existing teachers. Hanushek concedes that ‘some in-service training and development programmes have had success, they have generally disappointed. Moreover, existing evidence on in-service programmes does not provide us with sufficient insight for selecting a programme that is likely to yield significant gains in teaching performance’ Professor Dylan Wiliam here, while agreeing about the importance of the quality of teaching, would probably disagree with Hanushek as he believes that the key to improving the quality teaching   lies in  improving  teachers  continuing professional development.(we struggle here, as they do in the States  in getting rid of poor teachers from the system who undermine successive governments  school improvement agendas)


Hanushek believes we need to get a better handle on what works and what doesn’t. He concludes ‘The most feasible approach, given currently available information, is to experiment with alternative incentive schemes. These might involve new contracts and approaches to teacher compensation, introduction of parental choice across schools, merit awards for schools, and the like. The unifying theme is that each new policy should be designed to improve student achievement directly. For example, merit awards to teachers could be directly linked to objective information about student performance ‘.


Rate for Youth Unemployment- 16-24- now 20% and three times the rate for older workers


The ‘unemployment rate’ is the proportion of the ‘economically active’ population who are not working (i.e. the number who are unemployed divided by the number who are either in paid work or unemployed, excluding those who are ‘economically inactive’ from both the numerator and the denominator). The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds has risen sharply in the current recession, from 15% in 2008 to 19% in 2009 and then to 20% in 2010.  However, the rate had already been rising for a number of years before the recession, from 12% in 2004 to 15% in 2008.  These rises have collectively more than offset the falls during the 1990s and, as a result, the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds in 2010 was actually higher than its previous peak in 1993.  Qualitatively, the unemployment rate for older workers (25 to retirement) has followed a similar pattern: falling from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, then rising from 2004 to 2010, with a sharp rise between 2008 and 2009.  Quantitatively, however, the falls from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s were greater for older workers than for those aged 16 to 24.  As a result, the unemployment rate for older workers in 2010 was still lower than that in the early 1990s.

Putting this point another way: the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is now more than three times the rate for older workers.  By contrast, in the mid-1990s, it was ‘just’ twice the rate for older workers.

As a result, two-fifths of all those who are unemployed are now aged under 25.  Averaging across 2008 to 2010, the unemployment rate was higher for young men than for young women: 20% compared with 15%.  This contrasts with the situation for those aged 25 to retirement, where the unemployment rates for men and women are similar. At 22%, the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is highest in London.

As for those young people not in education employment or training (NEET) Government spokesmen are keen to tell us that the NEET figure for 16-18 year olds at the end of 2010,  was 141,800 (7.3 per cent).  Rates vary considerably with age – 2.3 per cent of 16-year-olds, 6.8 per cent of 17-year-olds and 12.4 per cent of 18-year-olds. These figures are surprisingly good given the economic backdrop, although they tell you nothing   of course about the quality of the  education, training or employment.  And what officials are less willing to publicise is that the proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds NEET has risen to 18.4%. This is the highest percentage for the second quarter since 2006, and is up from 16.3% last year. Nearly a million (979,000) 16 to 24-year-olds were Neet between April and June this year, the figures show.



Comparisons with Sweden and Spain – parents show less resilience in UK to pressures of consumerism


A report just released finds that parents in the UK feel powerless before the consumer pressures on their children.  The study by Unicef, comparing families in the UK, Sweden and Spain, found UK parents buying high status brands to “protect” their children from bullying.  In 2007, UNICEF’s Report Card 7: An overview of child well-being in rich countries, put the issue of child well-being firmly on the UK’s political agenda. When compared with 20 other OECD countries, including substantially poorer ones, the UK was at the bottom of the league table of child well-being. Subsequent Report Cards have shown that inequality among children in the UK is greater than in other countries.  The UK was 18th out of 21 countries in Report Card 7 for levels of material well-being and 20th for subjective well-being. Sweden, on the other hand, ranked first for material well-being and seventh for subjective well-being.  Spain was 12th for material well-being, yet had the second highest rating for subjective well-being.  UNICEF UK commissioned Ipsos MORI and Dr Agnes Nairn to explore some of the reasons behind these statistics by comparing children’s experiences in the UK with those of children in Spain and Sweden.  The research paid particular attention to the interplay between materialism, inequality and well-being to determine how children experience this relationship. Researchers explored children’s perceptions of inequality, and the ways in which this affects their well-being; the role of inequality in determining children’s aspirations and materialistic attitudes; and whether materialism itself affects children’s well-being.  The report states ‘Our findings paint a complex picture of the relationship between well-being, materialism and inequality across Spain, Sweden and the UK. Time with family and friends and activities outside the home emerge as central to children’s subjective well-being, and material goods appear to be used by children often as social enablers rather than as direct contributors to their own happiness. Children in all three countries told us they wanted time with their parents and families, good relationships with their friends, and lots of stimulating things to do. In the UK, we found parents struggling to find time to be with their children, or to help them participate in sporting and creative activities. It was also clear that parents in the UK found it more difficult than parents in Spain and Sweden to set clear boundaries for their children. The research reveals that consumer goods play a multi-faceted role in children’s lives – sometimes positive and sometimes negative – and there is no doubt that status technology and clothing brands play their part in creating or reinforcing social divisions between the more and less affluent. While we saw all of these dynamics in Spain and Sweden, the pressure to consume appeared much weaker and the resilience of children and parents much greater than in the UK. Families in the UK appear to face greater pressures on their time and money, and react to this in ways they feel are counter- productive to children’s well-being.  Parents found it very hard to challenge the commercial pressures around them and their children.’


Crucially, the message from all the children who participated in the research was simple, clear and unanimous:  their well-being centres on time with a happy family whose interactions are consistent and secure; having good friends; and having plenty of things to do, especially outdoors. But in the UK parents were ‘obviously struggling to give children the time they so clearly wanted; in Spain and Sweden, family time seemed to be part of the fabric of everyday  life.’


The recommendations of the report though are somewhat disappointing. For example:  ‘UNICEF UK encourages the UK Government to  focus more strongly on how its policies affect family  life, with particular consideration of their impact on  the time that parents and children are able to spend  together. Our research shows that low-income families  find this particularly difficult, and receiving at least  a Living Wage would enable these parents to work  fewer and more reasonable hours and have more  time to spend with their children – essential from birth  throughout the teenage years to young adulthood.’

Motherhood and apple pie spring to mind-but what in terms of policy levers do you do to deliver  this? Silence, unsurprisingly, on that score.



Milburn pitches in

But are Universities the right target?


Social mobility is important because it raises aspirations, creates better connections between and within communities (more important now perhaps than for a generation), and reinforces the value of education and skills.

Worryingly for governments, despite huge investment in widening access to education in the last decade or two, research suggests there has been no comparable increase in social mobility – quite the reverse.  Social mobility can be thought of in absolute and relative terms. The former refers to processes of adjustment in the income or occupational structure of the economy. The latter, sometimes called ‘social fluidity’, is associated with an individual’s opportunities for progression within the social hierarchy However, trends in social mobility are remarkably resistant to policy interventions. Those in higher social classes appear to have been able to take greater advantage of the opportunities created by policy interventions and more able to use a variety of additional social advantages to maintain their relative position.

The factors involved influencing Social Mobility are thought to be:

Social capital –A lack of positive role models, negative peer pressure, poverty of ambition and aspiration and risk aversion etc

Cultural capital – can also help middle-class families to confer social advantages on their children, increasing their potential to move upwards and protecting them from downwards movement in the social hierarchy.

Early years influences – are seen as key to influencing later life chances.  Convincing evidence shows that early experiences such as the quality of the home environment, family structure, pre-school care and relationships with caring adults produce a pattern of development in later life that is hard to  reverse even through schooling.

Education – appears to be one of the most important factors influencing social mobility. However, there is considerable evidence that the introduction and expansion of universal education systems in the UK and Western Europe have , not led to increasing levels of relative social mobility.

• Employment and labour market experiences – substantial levels of worklessness and long-term economic inactivity have emerged in some areas and/or among specific population groups.  Second, research has identified the emergence of a prominent ‘low-pay – nopay’ cycle for some groups.

Health and wellbeing – ill-health results from social and environmental factors identified with lower socio-economic status, and ill-health and caring responsibilities can lead to declining socio-economic status.

Area-based influences – localised environmental problems appear to combine with socio-economic disadvantage to produce negative area-based influences on potential for social mobility. For example, inequalities in access to private transport combined with poorer quality provision in some important public services in deprived areas may mean that lower socio-economic classes are unable to exercise effective choices over access to these services.

Alan Milburn the access Czar has recently, like many others before, said that universities should do more to encourage greater access to Higher Education, particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils. There is always a simple solution to addressing a complex problem that is wrong.  We have seen how many factors actually influence social mobility -education is but one- important though it may be.  A report for the  Department of Work and  Pensions (2007) ‘Factors influencing Social Policy’ said that:  ‘while educational attainment remains a strong predictor of future social position, there are strong influences on educational attainment  which are outside the scope of formal educational provision. For instance, patterns of development are often set prior to starting formal education, suggesting that early experiences are central to understanding both educational attainment and social mobility. However, many of these early years influences are outside what is normally thought to be the scope of public policy and are heavily associated  with family dynamics, parenting and home environment.’

It does seem that social mobility  may be  very resistant to  centrally driven  interventions because of the number of factors at play and the multi-faceted  dynamics underpinning  social mobility. But most experts on social mobility believe that the earlier you address the issue, in education,  the more likely you are to achieve the outcomes you want. Many critics believe that pressuring universities to take more with  lower grades  is not the right answer. Trying to force social mobility at such a late stage is actually counter-productive. True, a pupil at  a  poor school who achieves an ABB at A level probably deserves a place on a course much more than a privately educated pupil ,going for the same course with equivalent or slightly better grades, although quite where you draw the line is less clear But, A level Grades  are  set to establish  to what  degree pupils have acquired  the knowledge base, information processing, analytical  and  communication skills required  to succeed at University . There is a big difference in this respect between an A* student and one securing a B Grade. Good GCSEs are also important indicators for admissions tutors. They want to see breadth and consistency across subject areas.  Yet a lot of teachers’ work in state schools is focused on getting  pupils  up to a C grade at GCSE, because that’s how league tables work. Schools are given government incentives to get a certain number of students above a C grade. But there’s no incentive to help them get from a C to an A*, whereas at fee-paying schools students are pushed to go for those top marks and they are the ones who get into the top universities.’ Proper support for our most able pupils in schools remains in short supply, although these are precisely the pupils who have the most potential to be socially mobile. Pupils also are not getting the kind of good,  face to face professional advice and guidance and mentoring they need to raise their aspirations and expectations-so crucial for social mobility. Making the right choices at the key decision points in a young person’s education and career can open or close a lifetime of opportunities.

The fact is Governments  have not  had a joined up policy to aid mobility, and it is not, in any   case, a policy area that easily lends itself to top down interventions.   There is no reason why this government will be any more able to ease social mobility than any other to my mind particularly given their obsession with Oxbridge.




The World Bank’s senior Education Economist, Harry Patrinos, has been working closely, over the last few months, with  Michael Latham, Regional Director South Asia and  Laura Lewis, Senior Consultant, both of CfBT Education Trust, to develop a tool kit to help decision makers deliver education development goals. Significant inputs were  also received from Felippe Barrera-Osorio, Harvard University; Juliana Guaqueta, IFC; Norman LaRocque, Asian Development Bank; and Katharine Dixon, of  CfBT Education Trust. This decision-making instrument, launched this week in Oxford,  is aimed at fostering greater understanding on how the public and private sector (communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), faith-based organisations, trade unions, private companies, small scale informal providers and individual practitioners) can collaborate in order to attain education development goals.  It is a tool for policy-makers that are interested in engaging the private sector to help them assess the appropriate options available taking into consideration both the benefits and challenges. The toolkit draws from international examples and provides case studies from a variety of educational contexts and the evidence of the impact of private sector engagement programs around the world.

Significantly, developing countries and aid agencies are increasingly looking to the private sector (both profit and not for profit) to fill the gaps in state education particularly in relation to low income families. Policymakers now seem to be more accommodating in respect of more private sector involvement and the need for a more flexible, pragmatic approach to satisfying rising demand in the developing world  for good education. Education is seen as the ladder out of poverty, and exclusion.  The toolkit guides policy makers through each stage of engaging the private sector:

Strategy: what do they wish to achieve and the possible ways they can engage the private sector to reach those objectives including both education provision, educational and non -educational services and infrastructure

Regulation: the regulatory context needed to support any private sector involvement

Design: how contracts should be designed to maximise educational outcomes

Evaluation: tools that can be used at each stage to ensure engagement is both effective and efficient. The toolkit draws from international examples and provides case studies from a variety of educational contexts and the evidence of the impact of private sector engagement programs around the world.

Engaging the private sector toolkit is a collaboration between CfBT Education Trust  and The World Bank and builds on the publication Public-Private Partnerships in Basic Education: An International Review and book The Role and Impact of PPPs in Education. The toolkit also supports The World Bank’s System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results (SABER)

The beta version of the toolkit was  launched on 13th September at the 11th UKFIET International Conference on education and development and also in Washington at the World Bank seminar


Diplomas-the beginning of the end?

Low take up and high costs may seal diplomas fate


Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the diploma, the qualification that appears not to have won the confidence of key stakeholders?  One leading Head told me eighteen months ago that the diploma, to his mind, was “poorly conceived, poorly managed and  poorly marketed”.  Other critics have claimed it is too complex, too expensive, and insufficiently rigorous and not demand led. The last charge, in particular, has a certain resonance. The diploma, which one Secretary of State described as neither an academic nor a vocational qualification, was the result of a compromise rather than any lobbying from employers or admissions tutors. It was decidedly not demand-led. Ruth Kelly the then Education Secretary couldn’t accept the proposals offered by Mike Tomlinson for an overarching post 16 Diploma because  Tony Blair wasn’t prepared to dump the A level. So the resulting compromise was the diploma. Neither the best universities, nor employers have taken to the diploma, which has not been helped by overselling by politicians (Ed Balls ,when Education Secretary, predicted it would be  ‘the jewel in the crown ‘of our education system) and very low take up at its launch. The Tories when in opposition were very lukewarm about the diploma and their concern was not to pull the rug from under those who had already opted to study it.  But they had no great faith in the qualification itself. An Ofsted report in 2009 found that among many of the first cohort of 14 to 19-year-old students taking the diploma there was “little firm evidence of their achievement in functional skills”, including maths, English and IT, inspectors said. Ofsted inspectors were also concerned about the lack of formal assessment of the qualification. “There was little evidence of frequent marking or checking of students’ knowledge and understanding in relation to work they had completed,” the report said.

Only one diploma has  really caught the eye. Engineering .But the expense is a big problem. Wellington College ,the £30,000 a year public school ,which has strong brand identity, aimed to launch the Engineering diploma but decided against because it couldn’t raise the funds on a sustainable basis to support its delivery(they were going to offer it to some local state pupils too)  . Now it has been revealed, according to a report in the TES last month, that the diploma has cost the taxpayer nearly £20,000 for every pupil completing it. The figure, which does not include teaching costs, is almost twice the amount previously estimated. And the final bill, already hundreds of millions, could be higher still. Professor Alan Smithers from Buckingham University said: “It is a terrible waste. The diploma doesn’t have much recognition or open many doors.”  And where is the demand? Much less than half the pupils anticipated have opted for diplomas.  Just 9,069 of the diplomas aimed at GCSE-level pupils were completed this year, compared to 5.15 million GCSEs. They are likely to drop further as this year’s courses were begun before the change in government and the launch of its English Baccalaureate – both likely to further damage the diploma.

So far, according to the TES, only 15,063 students have finished a diploma at any level since it was first launched in 2008. In the meantime, at least £295.6 million of Government money has been spent on developing the diploma, funding consortia and training staff to deliver it, and subsidising transport so pupils could reach lessons.

The figure works out at £19,624 per candidate, nearly four times the annual £5,083 average per-pupil school funding in England, and only covers diploma spending until the end of March 2010. The Government thinks that exam boards should be able to continue to offer the diploma if they think there is a market for it. The writing seems to be on the wall for the diploma. That is what happens to qualifications that are introduced without clear evidence of demand. Qualifications designed to impress employers and Higher Education institutions must listen to them and ensure that they are engaged in a meaningful way in their design, in their  quality assurance and implementation .This did not happen. Instead we had the classic command and control interventions from Whitehall trying to implement a compromise political ‘solution’ which was never fully backed by stakeholders.  We are  now seeing the expensive consequences of this  folly.


Charter Schools-Are held accountable-but some State Charter Laws need revision


The concept of performance-based accountability, as far as schools are concerned, means that if a school is failing against accepted benchmarks, it should either have a change of leadership or close.

Far too often in this country, in the United States and elsewhere failing schools have, historically, been allowed  to stay open, unreformed to blight the life opportunities of young people, often from  the most disadvantaged  communities .Failure and chronic underperformance has been tolerated by local or municipal authorities. To understand the motives behind supply side reforms here and in the States you have to understand that those advocating  these reforms, whether its  in the form of Charters, Free schools or Academies  are not, for the most part at least, motivated by a desire to ‘privatise’ education.  Instead, its because they want to improve their state education systems, to raise school  performance ,  and  pupil outcomes  and  to  give parents choices, particularly for the most disadvantaged families, who have until now had just one choice, take it or leave it. Either a sink school or no school at all. Parents want choices and there should be a range of different types of schools  catering for a range of different demands. One size does not fit all.

One of the main arguments used against Charter schools in the States is that they are ‘ unaccountable’, in that they are seen to be  outside the direct remit of local democratic control.  But failing public schools that operate under  such ‘ control’ can, and do, remain open year after year. Think of how many of our  local authority schools have continued to operate here, while failing to meet the most basic benchmarks. And if  parents are not happy with their local state school , or the performance of  the local authority supporting these schools they have very few options.

Charter schools  generally operate within a tightly regulated environment and are accountable   through a  very direct route. Because they operate under contract, and have to provide very detailed information, and achieve set outcomes , they close if they fail to perform according to their charter.  And while opponents claim that charter schools are not being held accountable or that only “responsible” charters should remain open, the data on closed charter schools, across the states  strongly suggests that the performance-based accountability inherent in the charter school model  is, broadly  speaking, working— particularly, of course,  in states with  robust and  transparent charter laws. True, some states have more robust laws,  and governing Charters, than others, and it is work in progress for a number of others,   but the direction of travel is pretty sound.  Clearly,  though  much more work needs to be done .

The Center for Education Reform   says of the 40 states (including the District of Columbia) that allow for charter schools, only 13 have strong laws that do not require significant revisions. Their report highlights the key elements in education law that separates reform-minded states from the rest of the pack. “Too many states have allowed their charter school laws to be watered down under pressure from special interests who feel their monopoly on the education of our children is threatened,” said Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform (CER).

The strongest criticism of Charter schools, and the Charter school movement more generally, is that while there are many excellent providers there are a significant minority that are not up to the mark, and this has tarnished the Charter brand .Not all Charter schools succeed. In fact around 12% fail. But it is now clear that  both the Charter School movement and the  States  who welcome Charter schools,   understand the crucial need for  robust ,initial vetting  procedures and due diligence. Tightening up  local charter laws  reduces significantly the risk of failure. But you can never provide  absolute  guarantees against failure.  If you over- regulate, of course, and seek to remove all risk, you threaten innovation, experimentation and progress, which charter schools seek to foment.

The Centre for Education Reform has, helpfully, provided a state-by-state analysis of closed charter schools. Previous reports haven’t provided a full enough picture,only a national overview of the data. Through this in-depth look at each state’s closed charter schools it is evident that strong state laws ensure accountability. The report found, perhaps unexpectedly, that those states with multiple and independent  authorizers provided stronger, more objective oversight to ensure the successful charter  schools remained open and those that failed to perform were closed. The research shows that accountability is lost in states with weak charter laws and poor processes to vet schools  and those that are poor in collecting t student assessment data. The state-by-state pages within the report offer a clear picture of the states whose charter schools are making the grade and those where there is room for improvement. Knowing where charter schools are achieving and the reasons why charter schools have closed is important to understanding what makes a school successful. But it is nonsense to suggest that the charter model means reduced accountability. These schools are responsible ,through a contract, to local democratic authorities, so there is both direct,  contractual accountability underpinned by  democratic accountability.



The Long route and the Short Route


One of the main arguments against giving schools autonomy from local authority or municipal control is that you then remove direct democratic accountability. The local authority is elected by the people (often a minority of the people) and so gives a voice to them, and offers accountability for public funds.

But Public Services often fail those they are supposed to serve, either in terms of access,  quantity or quality. If the  elected authority doesn’t deliver, then it can be removed at the next election, so there is a possible sanction attached. This type of accountability was referred to in a World Development Report in 2004, which was discussing how to make public services more accountable and responsive to the needs of the poorest in the developing world, as the “long route” to accountability. In short, citizens provide mandates to policy-makers to design services to respond to citizens’ needs. If these needs are not met, this could result in electoral or other forms of political backlash, including demonstrations and legal proceedings. The theory is straightforward, the practice rather more problematic. For example, a consumer who is dissatisfied with the public service they are being offered has to await the next election to express dissatisfaction, which could be several years away. And, what if an elected authority provides generally good services but an  inadequate service in one particular area,   for example, in education? We know in the UK that some local authorities have kept badly underperforming schools open for many years without sanction. The reality too is that you may remove elected politicians but the officials, who may have been responsible for poor service delivery, remain in place, regardless of the election results. As the World Development Report pointed out ‘public services often become the currency of political patronage and clientelism’.

So, using ones ‘vote’ to ensure services are accountable is at best a very blunt instrument .Indeed and more often than not it  doesn’t leave the citizen with any sense of real empowerment.

It is generally agreed that there needs to be accountability in three key relationships in the service delivery chain: between the consumer and providers, between the consumer and policymakers, and between policymakers and providers.

Given the weaknesses in what has been termed the “long route of accountability”, service outcomes can be improved by strengthening “the short route”. The short route is all about increasing the client’s meaningful power and influence over the providers of the service. In practice, this could mean, for example, a provider, whether a for profit or not for profit enterprise, having a contract to deliver certain agreed outputs over a set time frame. Failure to deliver the agreed outputs, to the satisfaction of the consumer, could result in financial penalties or the ultimate sanction, the loss of the contract. Vouchers systems in which parents exert choice might also be described as providing short route accountability. One factor that ensures better accountability is access to sound information. So citizens are aware of the money allocated to their services, the actual conditions of services, and the behaviour of policymakers and providers and the WDR says this can be a powerful force in overcoming clientelist politics.  And separating the policy maker and the commissioner from the provider of the service is crucial too. (this often doesn’t happen in our own system at the local level).

 The World Development report argued (remember it was focused on the poor but has a much wider utility) that there is no silver bullet and ‘varied experience with traditional and innovative modes of service delivery clearly shows that no single solution fits all services in all countries.’ The framework of accountability relationships explains why. In different sectors and countries, different relationships need strengthening. In education the biggest payoff may come from strengthening the client-provider link, as with vouchers in Colombia or scholarships for girls in’ Bangladesh.’

In conclusion, it is clear that accountability means different things to different people.  It is also clear there are different forms of direct and indirect accountability, operating at different levels. But to ensure that our public services respond   to the demands of the consumers of those services we cannot rely solely on one model  ‘democratic accountability’- or  what is termed the long route. We also need the short route which allows for a more direct accountability relationship between the consumer and the provider of the public service.


Rebecca Allen and Simon Burghes of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation raise an important question on their blog regarding whether or not teachers and other school staff should be given priority when it comes to admissions to schools where they are employed. The admissions code is currently under review following consultation. Paragraph 1.33 of the code says: “If admissions authorities decide to give priority to children of staff, they must set out clearly in their admission arrangements how they will define staff and on what basis children will be prioritised.” This, Allen points out, suggests that admissions authorities are to be allowed to prioritise the children of staff, reversing the policy of recent Admissions Codes. On the face of it one has some sympathy for teachers wanting their children to be in the school where they teach. It makes their lives much easier for one and allows them to keep a close eye on their child’s education. One group very likely to be included in most definitions of “staff” are teachers. For those teachers with children, this will add a new aspect to their decision on which school to seek a job at. Like many other parents, teachers will be keen for their children to attend high-performing schools. Following the White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”, one of the leading education policy issues is how to attract  particularly effective teachers into the more challenging schools. Research evidence does not tell us whether teachers who are parents are on average more effective teachers, but there are two points to make:
This policy change will differentially increase the flow of applicants to high-performing schools. If the Headteachers of those schools are skilled at spotting effective teachers, then simply having access to a much bigger applicant pool will raise the average effectiveness of teachers  hired at those schools. They are less likely to be novices, which is one of the few clear findings on teacher effectiveness, so in that sense alone teachers who are parents are likely to be more effective. Given that, claim Allen and Burghes, this policy change is very likely to work against any efforts to attract effective teachers to challenging schools, and thus set back the Government’s stated educational policy goals of narrowing the outcome gap between affluent and disadvantaged pupils. The proposed code change could also complicate disciplinary procedures because firing a teacher from a school would also have implications for her/his children. This is likely to make it even less likely that headteachers will engage in robust performance management. They write ‘We know that any work-based privileges that are specific to particular establishments tend to cement people in that job and reduce turnover. Such privileges include health insurance, pension rights, and so on. This reduces labour mobility and typically will make the labour market less efficient. This proposed change will have the same effect in the teacher labour market as teachers will be less willing to move as it will disrupt their children’s education.’ They make a compelling argument but if you are a  parent and teacher you might not share their view.