CMRE THINK TANK – INCREASED SELECTION IS NOT A VIABLE STRATEGY FOR THE EDUCATION SYSTEM

 

Centre Right think tank, CMRE, says increased selection is not a viable strategy for the education system as a whole

This is what Gabriel Sahlgren the Director of Research at the CMRE think tank said  about selection   in  an opinion  piece  in the Daily Telegraph on 8 May.

‘Conservatives have proposed academic selection. In this model, children would compete for places based on their performance. Parents wouldn’t just choose schools – but schools would choose pupils, too. This is not a viable strategy for the education system as a whole. Indeed, research suggests that between-school selection doesn’t raise performance overall, but often decreases equality. Rather than promoting a more cohesive country, selection may therefore merely divide us further.

Most importantly, academic selection decreases parental choice and risks the competitive incentives in the system; it induces schools to focus more on picking pupils than on improving their performance.’

I  suggest  it  would be helpful, and appropriate ,  before any future government decides  to increase selection in the schools system, for it to set out clearly the evidence base that informs this policy decision.  At present, as far as I am aware ,there is no think tank,   no reputable academic or research organisation or institution , nor  any organisation promoting social mobility which  either backs the policy of increased selection or has provided evidence that such a policy  will  do any of the following: improve performance across the system, raise the performance overall of disadvantaged pupils, narrow the performance gap between disadvantaged and mainstream pupils ,increase social mobility, improve equity,  or significantly help ‘ordinary families’ educationally, all of which appear to be  priorities on the current  education  agenda.  If evidence informed policy and practice  has any meaning, then this should be a minimum requirement, before any government wastes scarce resources, political energy and capital on introducing and driving through any such policy in the face of   available evidence and expert opinion

GRAMMARS ,AND SELECTION -THE JAMS OWFS etc

The Government is heading rapidly down a cul de sac in its policy to increase selection in the maintained sector. Either it will have to execute a U turn (not unheard of-think, Nicky Morgan) or it will come to a grinding halt , using its scarce resources and haemorrhaging political capital, to prop up a policy that cannot possibly deliver the outcomes it wants-a significant number of new, good school places for ‘ordinary working  families’ and increased social mobility.

The Grammar school model is currently demonstrably failing to help the most disadvantaged pupils and is no engine of social mobility. Justine Greening has accepted as much, and now talks about  the need for a  ‘new model ‘for Grammar schools ,  conceding past failures of Grammars to cater for the less affluent.

Selective schools continue to be dominated by the most affluent. Over half of pupils in selective schools are in families with income above the national median and fewer than one in ten are eligible for the Pupil Premium. Ironically  one  enduring  education success of this and the previous government, has been the Pupil Premium ,which specifically targets the most disadvantaged cohort with extra per capita funding  . Grammars really haven’t played any significant  part  in this success story.

The government has shifted its attention now  to what it calls ordinary working families. Although there is no official definition of an ordinary working family, the government   describes students fitting into the category as those who are not entitled to pupil premium, but who come from families earning “modest” or below median incomes.The Education Policy Institute tells us that Department for Education’s definition of  the OWF group occupies the centre of the income distribution of children in maintained schools.’ Crucially, though , the child of the OWF  currently ‘experiences attainment and progress outcomes that are above average’.

Seeking to change that model by incentivising, or  compelling,  Grammars to take more   pupils from these  ordinary working families  presents a huge new  practical  challenge. . How do you hold schools  to account ? Do you introduce a quota system? Do you dump the eleven plus in favour of another test?  Indeed, can you design a new  tutor -proof test (unlikely)?  Or ,do you lower the pass mark for young people whose families fall below the median income threshold?  The Government risks falling between a rock and a hard place here, alienating both the education establishment and grammar schools.

The three bodies that know most about social mobility and its drivers, are the Social Mobility Commission, the Sutton Trust and Teach First . None of these organisations  though believe that social mobility, remember the top  priority of Justine Greening as Education Secretary, will increase one iota on the back of increased selection. The Sutton Trust believes that Grammars should demonstrate how well they can support  the bottom third of pupils, before they  roll out  increased selection across the system.  Greening struggled on the BBC R4  Today Programme, on 13 April ,to name a single expert or institution that supports her policy (to be fair its not her Policy ,its Nick Timothys of N0 10). She couldn’t,  because there aren’t any. When NO 10 phoned around those whom it could normally rely on to support its education announcements, on the release of its Green Paper on selection, all ducked their heads below the parapet. They had a quick squint at the evidence, saw the prospect of a car crash, and made their excuses .All these organisations are alarmed too at the shift away from targeting the most disadvantaged cohort, and narrowing  the achievement gap,  to the group that  was called those who are just about managing (JAMs) ,( now called  ordinary working families’ (OWFs).

There are  many,  including  key figures who have been  broadly supportive  of the governments education reforms,   who cannot fathom  why the government is pursuing such a high risk policy,   that is not evidence -based, and  has  such little prospect  of  meaningful  educational ,or political, returns. .

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CRITICAL THINKING AMONG STUDENTS?

There has been much debate in education about the need to develop in students critical thinking. Critical thinking  means having the ability  to see both sides of an argument clearly, while deducing or confirming conclusions from both the facts and arguments.  To think critically,  it is  thought  you need domain specific knowledge ,as well as certain  generic  skills. You  need to learn how to handle and order  facts,  as well as to learn the facts themselves.
The “critical” part of the term “critical thinking”  doesn’t refer to the  act of criticizing, or finding fault, but rather to the ability to be objective and dispassionate. So, “Critical,” in this context, means essentially  “open-minded,” seeking out, evaluating and weighing all the available evidence, affording a value to that evidence and reaching a rational,  objective , conclusion  .  Being Objective,  or rational,  though  is not as easy  as it might seem. Our  in built biases can interfere in our thinking process’s.  These are  sometimes known as cognitive biases.  And we can let our  emotions  get the better of us, so rational thought and objectivity goes  out the window.

According to Professor Dan Willingham,  looking at the issue  from the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the mental activities that are typically called critical thinking are actually a subset of three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving.One likes to think that students who have studied A levels have developed, to a significant extent good critical thinking skills . Certainly those with the best grades.  And that at University they develop these skills further,  and advance to a different level of critical thinking. But do they?  There does appear to be a cultural shift underway .  Subjective emotional responses  have an elevated status.  Sometimes it seems the only valid response to any idea  argument or situation is the individual’s own—how he or she “feels” about it, subjectively. Are they offended by it? Has it hurt their feelings? This is when and where emotion and feelings trump rationality and it would seem critical thinking.  So  Could all the banning, no platforming, safe spaces and trigger warnings simply be symptomatic of the fact that subjectivity has replaced objectivity as the default position.  Is it the case that students, much more than in the past, are  increasingly incapable of processing conflicting viewpoints intellectually; they can only respond to them emotionally? Is this what is meant by the snowflake generation? Food for thought

GRAMMARS-DIVIDING THE TORIES ?

The Times, in a leader this week, repeated an essential truth, rooted in  evidence  ‘At the heart of the grammar schools debate is a single, uncomfortable truth. Selection is good for the children selected, and not so good for those who aren’t.’  Grammar schools just dont select   disadvantaged pupils. At the last count 3% of their intakes on average, qualified for free school meals, the clunky measure for deprivation. So they are  demonstrably  not, as is claimed by some in government, engines of social mobility.
Somewhat bruised by the evidence put before them,  ministers are considering forcing those grammars with the fewest disadvantaged children to lower the pass mark for applicants from poorer backgrounds. (Tip for SPADS-On balance, its better to look at the evidence, and then formulate a  policy rather than formulate a policy and then look at the evidence).  Lowering the pass mark, would be combined with other measures to help disadvantaged children, such as holding entrance tests on deprived council estates to encourage children there to apply. This means that the reforms that will appear in the White Paper (the Green paper consultation process, was  a window dressing exercise ,much to the annoyance of those who submitted evidence to the consultation in good faith) will be more complex than simply allowing grammars to expand and free schools to select ,so may not please the existing grammar schools lobby. There will be caveats attached,  given their poor record with disadvantaged  pupils.  Graham Brady MP, the leading Tory backbench voice on grammars, said this week “Grammars are already keen to widen the social diversity of applicants and of the pupils attending them .There are numerous ways of doing this and it would be a mistake to force grammar schools to adopt a particular approach by requiring a quota to be reserved for a particular demographics or requiring lower pass marks for entry exams.”

Grammar schools, in order to retain their status may have to change their admissions/selection procedures fairly radically. So, The Government could fall between a rock and hard place. Irritating the Grammar schools lobby on the one hand, and on the other, the bulk of the educational and research establishment who feel that the government is heading down a cul de sac on selection.

CHERRY PICKING MINISTERS THREATEN THE CAREERS STRATEGY

The Minister Lord Nash, responding to a PQ in the Lords on Careers Guidance this month, said there is clear evidence that if  one relies on face to face careers guidance that  this is a very ineffective strategy. Most studies have concluded  ,he intoned, that the best careers advice comes through activities with employers, and there is evidence that five or more employer engagements during secondary school means that students are seven times less likely to be NEET. Really?  Come again.  Does the Minister truly  think that face to face careers advice from a trained guidance professional is ineffective- and that the best careers advice comes from employer engagement and that this engagement is the same as professional  careers guidance ? The alarm bells are ringing! If he does then the careers strategy will be a dogs dinner, marginalizing professional advisers and yet another missed opportunity. And , guess what, its the most disadvantaged  students who will suffer the most. (talking evidence, its  disadvantaged students who  benefit the most from face to face professional  guidance)

Employers are not trained in giving guidance. Giving information is not the same as guidance.  At a time when the guidance sector is focused on improving quality assurance, for guidance professionals , Ministers want to send lots of employers into schools. So where is the quality assurance in this process? Do they have the right skills? Do they have the knowledge base ? Are they good communicators? Have they worked with young people before? Do they know the routes into different professions, outside their own sectors and the qualifications required.? Will they be  impartial and disinterested , or will they promote the merits  of their company sector or profession? Would they know what a facilitating subject was ? Where are their guidance qualifications? In short,  Where, on earth is the quality assurance in this engagement process? Ministers endlessly quote the same one piece of research which they manage to fundamentally misunderstand and misuse about the importance of employer engagement. To base policy on such a narrow and selective evidence base will lead to poor policy design and ultimately a hopeless strategy.  .Nobody suggests that its only about careers advice from professionals. This has to be combined with (quality assured) employer engagement, of course, careers education ie equipping young people with the tools to make informed choices ,and high quality work experience.
Ministers though are stuck on one track. Employer engagement with schools, and, err, that’s about it. They should adhere to all the Gatsby benchmarks on careers guidance, one of which, number eight as it happens,  covers personal  face to face guidance from a trained professional.  Rather than specifying a particular model  it said ‘ , the indicator for our benchmark is that the interview should be with an adviser who is appropriately trained to have the necessary guidance skills, the knowledge of information sources and the essential impartiality to do the job.’ It continues ‘ This person might be an external adviser (the professional association for career guidance practitioners, the Career Development Institute, maintains a register of qualified practitioners), or might be one or more trained members of the existing school staff, whose careers role could be part-time or full-time. School leaders told the authors of the Gatsby report that they thought personal guidance important because it:
– Tailors advice to individual needs;
– Can direct pupils towards the information sources of most use to them, and the actions most relevant to them;
– Can (and always should) give impartial advice that has only the pupils’ interests at heart.
The authors stated ‘Alongside our evidence from international practice, there is research evidence that personal guidance has an observable impact on young people’s careers and progression.’ So Ministers should stop cherry picking. Stop cheery picking both  the empirical  evidence and the Gatsby benchmarks. Otherwise the Careers strategy will be dead in the water..

WHENS A GREEN PAPER A WHITE PAPER? WHEN ITS CALLED SCHOOLS THAT WORK FOR EVERYONE

The Prime Minister made it clear in her Telegraph article of 7 March that whatever the results of the Green paper consultation, ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ the government will plough ahead, regardless, with its plans to extend selection in the state school system. There will be new selective free schools established and existing grammars will be allowed to expand . Indeed resources have already been  earmarked to make this happen . It requires some cynicism to set up a formal consultation exercise and then to announce firm policy before that consultation is even complete. Self-evidently, this makes a mockery of the consultation process. It also demonstrates a disrespect to all those education professionals who contributed to the consultation exercise in the genuine expectation that their submissions would be taken into account in the formulation and implementation of policy.  The largest, and oldest state  secondary school network  in the country, the SSAT, which submitted its own response to the  Green paper,   called the process “a travesty.”

It also runs a coach and horses through the idea of evidence led, and informed, policy. The overwhelming evidence is that selection does little for social mobility, and has a  negative educational impact on those students not in selective schools, particularly the most disadvantaged. It also suggests that the Prime Minister has much less understanding of the frustrations of voters, who believe that politicians neither listen to nor act on their concerns, than her rhetoric suggests.

POSITIVE THINKING IS GOOD FOR US-OR MAYBE NOT ?

According to a Danish psychologist the art of positive thinking is turning us all into depressive psychotics. Professor Svend Brinkmann is the author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’ He suggests that navel gazing and all that positive thinking should stop and life coaches, nice as they may  be, should be sacked.
We should instead focus as much on negative thinking. Appearing on the BBC  Today programme,  on 20 February,  with Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham,  he said “There are negative things in our world and in order to understand them we have to speak concretely about them and not cloud them in positive thoughts or sugar- coating’ He added that there appears to be a new duty of happiness,-we are not allowed to be unhappy, and are constantly required to think positive thoughts because when we are unhappy “we are inefficient as human resources” –but Brinkmann has a problem with this view . We shouldnt change our emotions into positive ones as this distorts our view of reality and puts more pressure on ourselves. .He reminded us  what Nietzsche wrote, in (The Twilight of the Idols), “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.” (Actually now, as it happens, they also strive for happiness in Bhutan, where Gross Domestic Happiness is the overarching political goal!) Nietzsche had in his sights the English utilitarian thinkers.(Bentham etc)-Mind you, I am still struggling to identify anything that Hitlers favourite philosopher Nietzsche got right .
People constantly fail in the quest for self-improvement. Its an ideology around personal choice says Brinkmann and this needs to be resisted.
Sir Anthony, responding, agreed that some approaches to positive thinking serve to infantilise the issue and places us in the realm of La la land. But this has nothing to do with positive psychology or its robust evidence base. The appeal of positive psychology its about building capacity and building on our strengths, so we can better cope with and manage adversity.
Sir Anthony rather likes the analogy of a waterfall to illustrate our current approach. As things stand we wait till some fall over the edge of the waterfall ,and its only when they hit the bottom that we take action. Then everyone rushes in to help. Much better surely to prevent people going over the edge in the first place, which is where positive psychology comes in. He subscribes to the approach “ If you want to feel good, do good”
The University of Buckingham has a long tradition of looking after students, he said, preventing them falling over the edge of the waterfall but its positive programme also, importantly, supports staff.
Brinkmann said his main concern is not positive psychology, as a scientific enterprise but the way its researched, and how this is filtered down and interpreted by its practitioners . When pushed for an example of where things are going wrong due to positive psychology he said that  in employee reviews (in Denmark) for example often you are only allowed to talk about your successes and what’s positive in your life but that is what serves to  in effect infantilise people.
Seldon pointed out that the positive psychology approach when applied at  Wellington College where he was the Master for 8 years, students saw a transformation in their A level results- indeed it was one of the most improved schools in the country . Forget  La La land “Mindfulness embraces the real’ he said . With regard to evidence he mentioned specifically Penn State University and the work of Professors Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth as providing solid evidence as to positive psychology’s impact. Brinkmann claimed though that research on the impact of positive psychology has had very mixed results.