Category Archives: education policy

Project Halpin: ‘Cultural Literacy’ (1) – Hirsch and the Reader

This is part of a series of posts that I’ve been writing over a much longer period than I originally planned.  The idea came from a lecture given by David Halpin, in which he discussed the need for us to approach and listen ideas that seemed antithetical to our own.   On the back of that experience and of a growing awareness of the ‘attitudinal bubble’ that I live in, I’ve been reading books which, on the face of it, I might not agree with.

The latest book is E.D. Hirsh’s ‘Cultural Literacy’.  Hirsch started to impinge on my consciousness in a serious way in 2010 when it became apparent that Michael Gove and Nick Gibb would be using insights gleaned from their reading of his work in their reform of the National Curriculum.   At that time I possessed only a slight and prejudiced view of Hirsch’s ideas.  I am sure that this view was coloured almost entirely by the fact that he had been embraced by the incoming Conservative education leadership.

Reading the work has therefore been a real education – not the least because of the message of hope that one can read into it – that knowledge offers a (the only) route out of educational and, by implication, social disadvantage.   This has also been an important re-education for me.  I have re-focused in turn on the importance of the knowledge that my students have, not just the knowledge that I have as a teacher.   I’ve always seen my job as to teach students knowledge that they don’t have, but it took me some years to consciously focus on the fact that I’d therefore need to consider the things that they already knew (or didn’t know).

Hirsch also makes some important points about the way we have constructed curricula over the last twenty years, which resonate with my experiences as a history teacher. In our concern to choose a history curriculum that is not oppressive or irrelevant to those that we’re teaching we have instead shifted our focus onto formal skills in history – rather than make hard choices about what to teach and what not to teach.  As we’ll see in a later post, I think that Hirsch also ducks these hard choices.

I don’t think this abdication was ever as complete here in England as Hirsch suggests has been the case in American public schools.  This is especially the case in history classrooms.  We have always been concerned in history to teach an overview, a framework.  This is apparent even in the structure of most KS3 curricula in the schools I visit, which remain chronological and which touch on the big features of the chronological landscape – the Romans in Britain, Medieval Britain, Early Modern Tudor and Stuart Britain, Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and which finish with a bloody flourish in the 20th Century.

I disagree too with Hirsch attempt to place all the blame for this on Rousseau, Dewey and romanticism. It’s hard to remain romantic when actually teaching in a school – pragmatic pressures such as the struggle to spark interest, to justify one’s practice (and indeed existence) in the face of absurd and arbitrary accountability regimes and resultant managerialism.  There has no doubt been an easy re-course to a crude form of constructivism in schools, but one could argue that the move towards a formalist curriculum is actually an entirely rational response to the situation in which teachers have found themselves.  Performativity and formalism go hand in hand. Performance management trickles down through students’ targets and into pupil friendly mark-schemes, flight paths and ‘exam technique’ interventions.

Hirsch is also convincing that knowledge has an impact on the fluency of reading. Early in the book, before looking at his own research, Hirsch describes a study which found that two groups of readers, one American, and one Indian each found it easier to read articles which were about weddings from their own cultures.    Hirsch’s own work on the impact of knowledge on reading fluency and other research is used to show that background knowledge makes reading more fluent.

However, the extent of the improvements in fluency, and the impact of this improvement on learning are not made clear.  In describing the eureka moment that has informed his work on knowledge in the school curriculum, it is interesting that Hirsch takes the decision not to directly compare the fluency of readers ‘with’ and ‘without’ knowledge on the same graph.  The difference is not as great as it appears when one makes the direct comparison – around 4-16% increase in the words per minute rate for each quintile (estimated from the graphs in the book) between readers familiar and un-familiar with the content of a text.

Hirsch makes a convincing argument for the role of a basic level of fluency in discussion of the mechanics of short term memory and the clogging of this system if too much new or confusing information is presented, but there is nothing here to suggest whether this acts as a  floor level or whether learning  improves or increases the more fluent one’s reading is.  The implication is that there are two states – ‘fluent’ or ‘clogged’, and no middle ground, but there is nothing to suggest what the level of ‘clogged’ is.

Hirsch was originally looking at the effect of style on reading rates, by comparing the rates of people reading original pieces of text that were also stylistically degraded by the researchers.  The effect of prior knowledge on reading fluency seems to be removed altogether if we compare the rates of those reading degraded texts on topics that they’re familiar with, and those they’re un-familiar with.  In comparing college and university students reading about Grant and Lee, both reading stylistically degraded text Hirsch found similar rates of reading.

If the impact of knowledge on fluency was as great as suggested, might we expect instead that prior knowledge should make up for the poor writing in the stylistically degraded texts, or even to enable informed readers to leap over the barrier presented by the degradation in the text?   If we want to improve the fluency of our readers Hirsch’s graphs suggest that we should be doing more than teaching them more knowledge – that there are other factors that might affect the way we approach text, or which might limit how fluent our reading of a text can be.  One of the most important would, from this evidence, seem to be the quality of the writing of the text that one is reading.  The implication for teachers is that we should choose our texts carefully, and work hard to make our written communications accessible.

I realise I’m at risk of being condemned as a ‘knowledge denier’, so I should be clear that I think we should want our students to know more.  What I am pointing out, and this is a theme I will return to in a later post, is that in focusing only on the role of knowledge and on reading fluency, in the face of his own contrary evidence, Hirsch is placing all the deficit in the minds of the learner.  For Hirsch, the message is that there is nothing else we can do as teachers other than give more knowledge, nothing as writers that we can do to make reading more accessible, nothing else that we can do to equip students who find themselves reading material with content that they don’t already know.  It’s a one-way street.

Tweet tweet! That’s the sound of the police…

6364040129_125d4754ef_mI’ve been thinking about (and will probably have been writing this post) for quite a long time – collecting examples of a kind of twitter behaviour that has been interesting me for some time.

A key feature of many edu-twitter users’ online life is the seeking out of practice that they disagree with or find abhorrent, in order that they can publicise their worries and coral condemnation from their followers.  I’m writing this piece not as a form of condemnation, but as an opportunity for me to  explore why this phenomenon makes me so uncomfortable. It’s inspiration is this tweet by @mrhistoire, a brilliant and thoughtful teacher who I have followed for ages – and with whom I agreed when he tweeted:

This isn’t history – nominally it is about the past, but that doesn’t mean ‘history’.  I could imagine ways of improving this, but not without relating to wider histories of gaming or leisure. Even with much effort not to such an extent that I can imaging spending any of the precious and restricted curriculum time reserved for history in primary or secondary schools.

So, I agree – end of post?

Well, no.  I wanted to know where Toby had found this poor bullet point – so I asked him. It turns out that this was from a page that was tweeted around by @C_Hendrick – another tweeting teacher whose work I’ve long read and admired.

Carl’s tweet included more items from the list of activities that this teacher was recommending:

Carl’s comment made me uncomfortable, especially when considered in the light of a tweet that he sent earlier in the week:

I’m not getting here at Carl personally.  These are just two examples of the kinds of tweet that I’m concerned with – there are many others.  In fact they have a long (hey, everything is relative) history.  We could argue that there is a tradition which has seen followers of various tweeters present them with ‘gifts’ of tweets or webpages that they hope might be tweeted around as examples of practice, beliefs or resources that can be pronounced as ‘beyond the pale’.


There will be other examples.

Why do these things worry me so much?  Why do I find them unpleasant – so much so that I have un-followed many (not all) of those who do this?

A big part of this might be because I (like many other people) don’t enjoy having my ideas challenged.  I’m quite interested in the sociology of education, and therefore how theories such as Bourdieu’s might be used to understand aspects of it.  @JamesTheo’s post might therefore be one that I find distasteful because it challenges my own preconceptions and beliefs.  Even though I’m also someone who tries to seek out ideas that challenge my views – and enjoy reading and being convinced by others perhaps sometimes these tweets force me to face up to things that are at the core of my world view – this might explain some of the feelings they inspire.  However many of these tweets I agree with (Toby French on the value of creating a ‘history of pokemon’ for instance).  Nonetheless, it is highly likely that some of this discomfort comes from feelings of disorientation and challenge.

What partly worries me is the way that these tweets make twitter the sort of place where one comes for a duel, a spat, rather than a place to find out, explore or improve.  I’ll admit that I’m someone who doesn’t like conflict or aggression – emotionally as well as intellectually.  I just feel uncomfortable when I see others being attacked, even @philipdavies (though he seems to like it).  I can’t help wondering how they feel, what effect this is having on them.

Intellectually I fear that such tweets are counter productive – that they create feelings of aggression and being under-attack which make it hard for anyone to understand either (1) how others are to be persuaded to change or (2) why their ideas or practice might need to be re-examined.  Misapprehensions and conceptions which are attacked to aggressively tend to be un-examined and instead tenaciously defended or driven underground in silent protection.

I detect a righteousness in some of these types of tweet, and as I reflect on that I think I detect in myself another form of envy. I wish I knew what I thought about things with such confidence, such decision and righteousness – really, I do.  No doubt a some aspects of my personal history leave me wishing I was one of those people who could come up with a supported opinion about something without worrying that I might be wrong.  Perhaps I’m also envious of the groups of followers that tweets like this inspire. Do I wish my social media footprint were bigger? This might be true – though I’d probably force myself to write more controversial blog-posts if were an important ambition for me.  I always hate pressing the ‘publish’ button, and much of this is driven by anxiety about whether I’m making a fool of myself.  I certainly envy those who can do this with fluency, free of such worries.

However, what worries me much much more is the way that some of these tweets – even by the most thoughtful and inspiring teacher – have the effect of closing down the categories of what it is acceptable to post about.  We might cite Carl’s insistence that some practice be ‘eradicated’ when it is clear from a moments reflection that aspects of the work in the post above could well be viable and valuable in many classrooms.

Carl’s earlier tweet, that a Philosopher’s thought experiment about preventing parents reading to their children, was ‘beyond parody’ is a great example of this last concern.  The report was an excerpt from a longer interview about about ‘familial relationship goods’ – the things that parents can do to confer advantage on their children.   Andrew Swift considered that the benefit of reading to children at bedtime conferred a bigger advantage than sending them to ‘elite private schools’.  Their conclusions were that parental reading should _not_ be banned (the opposite of the headline) because that would interfere with the proper establishment of ‘loving, authoritative affectionate’ family relationships.  (Interestingly they decided that we _could_ prevent people sending children to private school without making a ‘hit’ on family relationships, and at the same time prevent un-fairnesses for other people’s children).

These are important questions to consider – and it is the job of philosophers to do this. Not all the examples above are those in which such important questions are at stake, but all are examples of the ways in which debate is shut down on twitter.  I bet I’ve done it myself on occasion – but I hope I think more carefully before doing so again.

[NB – there is a twitter vigilante! ]

Patriotism and Brexit – a few thoughts.

Patriotism is often the last refuge of the disenfranchised, or a lever of power which is used to wield influence over them.

People need institutions and ideas that they can invest belief in, and that they can trust to help them in the important and sometimes hard times in their lives. In the near past these roles have been fulfilled by many different groups, associations and ideas: family, church, the political party or the co-operative organisation, the local union, the workplace, night schools, football clubs, libraries, schools, leisure clubs or the doctor’s surgery have all played these roles. These are things that we can believe and trust in because we can touch them, we know the people who, alongside us, make them work. We make decisions with them, and through them. Through them we also help each other – not only in the obvious ways of distributing money and services, but through a million small ways in which we show care for each other.

Slowly we have removed the potency from many of the institutions that serve most people. Either we have turned our back on them, or refused to pay the taxes that fund them, or we have taken their responsibilities and powers into the disinterested central state. At the same time, and often as part of the same process, we have re-exposed many groups of people to the raw winds of economic change and risk in ways which mean they need these institutions more and more.

Amongst the wealthy we have, by and large, kept our institutions. Our good schools, private gyms, well stocked and supported libraries, our banks still serve us, we can get a game of tennis or a round of golf or a swim in the pool if we want. We raise money for the PTA, we buy insurance and own shares which limit our liabilities but bring us profits. We feel comfortable, we are not at risk, by and large.

However, we’re not just alright, we are rightly rewarded. We look at our wealth and the fact of its existence confirms that we are superior – because in this world value and wealth attain to the hardest working, and the most naturally gifted. The lack of comfort in those beneath us becomes a fact, a fundamental clause in the laws of the universe.  Those exposed without protection to these laws cannot afford, or cannot use, institutions that they can put their faith into and take comfort and support from.  They are even denied the right to place confidence in themselves because of the way that they are treated in the media.

When this happens it seems to me that people often invest in and turn to more dangerous abstract conceptions. They have to use accessible ideas that are free and open to all. Given such meagre resources these ideas have to generate a great deal of diffuse comfort. These ideas need to act as a mirror in which we can see our finest qualities, a lens through which we can only see the faults in others, and a way in which we can advertise and detect kinship with others in a world where there is a great deal of threat and uncertainty.

Patriotism and nationalism are two such ideas, and in the last week we have seen how they can be used not only to generate warmth but also to control and beguile.  We will wait and see what it means to ‘get our country back’, to take control back over our lives, but already it seems that this might not be pretty.  When it becomes clear that immigration will not fall as a result of the referendum result, we’ll see if these ideas can continue to be controlled by those who thought they could use them, and people, as a way of seeking further influence and positions of power.

However, the fundamental lesson of the referendum is that large numbers of people decided to vote when they have never voted before and may well never vote again and that they were often inspired by nationalism and patriotism.  If the media are to be believed many they did so thinking that the only way they had to protect their kids from competition from and to shore up their identity against that of ‘others’, was to tear down the UK’s membership of the EU.

Those of us in the 48% have ignored this large and important group of people for too long, and, in thinking that their condition was such that they deserved uncertainty, deserved poor housing and access to public services and institutions, that they cannot have a first chance, never mind a second or third one, or a regular wage or a steady job, we’ve abandoned them to Paul Nuttall and Boris Johnson.

Give me the closed factories, the zero hour contract, the shut library, the underfunded FE College and the jerry built school with 2000 plus kids in it, and I’ll give you Brexit.

Project Halpin – The Other Invisible Hand by Julian Le Grand: Choice

4149926846_917a6d89bd_mI’m currently reading 12 books that I think I might disagree with, inspired by a lecture I went to by David Halpin.  With this post, I’m finishing writing about the first book I read – Julian Le Grand’s ‘The Other Invisible Hand’, in which Le Grand argues that choice and competition in public services is the best way to drive their improvement. Le Grand discusses other ways of improving these services: trust, targets, and voice. In this post we’ll look in more detail at ‘Choice and Competition’, the method which Le Grand argues should play a prominent role in providing and improving public service provision.

Le Grand is careful to set out his stall precisely. He argues that choice and competition must go together if they are to improve public services. That is there must be a real choice between providers and  those providers have must have competition incentives to 1) seek to meet the demand or 2) avoid the desertion by service users that choice implies. In other words money and resources must follow the users’ choices.  Le Grand is also clear that merely giving the name of choice and competition to a policy will not lead to improved services: the choice and the competition must be real. There must be real alternative providers available to service users, and the purchase power of the state must back their choices.

This, for Le Grand, does not mean privatisation because public services take place in a quasi-market. In quasi-markets service users do not pay with their own resources, but those of the state, and this means that, according to Le Grand, these are “fundamentally egalitarian device[s] enabling public services to be delivered in such a way as to avoid most of the inequalities that arise in normal markets from differences in people’s purchasing power.”.  In this way individual wealth or lack of it should not constrain choice .

Beyond this ‘egalitarianism’, Le Grand describes several advantages to this model. Firstly it takes seriously a moral duty to give individuals autonomy, which we have already discussed. Secondly it provides incentives to provide better service, whether they are knightly altruists or knavish opportunists.

The book deals with some of the objections that can be raised about using this policy-approach, but I think it underestimates problems which lie in the way of establishing real choice in education.

The most fundamental of these is about where these choices impact. In medicine, unlike in school, one can make choices about the particular specialist one sees for each medical condition, or even each medical treatment one receives. In each choice, under Le Grands’ vision, providers who are incentivized to attract patients will provide a better service. We don’t pick a hospital on moving to or being born in an area and then dutifully use that hospital for all our illnesses and treatment. Each incident, each need, can be (and often is) met by using different providers. You might visit one provider for surgery on your back, and another to diagnose an eye condition.

Not so in education. Evidence suggests that within school variations are more important to a child’s progress than between school variations. For choice and competition to have an impact therefore, parents and pupils need to be able to make a choice between history teachers within a faculty. In addition, for this choice to be real, they need to be able to choose to send their children to a different school where there is a physics teacher who they believe will meet the needs of their child.  Obviously the practicalities of these choices prevent them from being fulfilled without the allocation of high levels of resources.

However, even if we take the argument that choice at a school level can raise standards, we have to do a better job than Le Grand in facing the resource-problems that get in the way even of the choice of school being met. Even if we allow for the change in fiscal policy that the 2008 financial crash forced upon governments, this aspect of ‘real choice’ is dealt with only at a superficial level. The assertion that choice can be described as real because 80% of children in England have two or more schools within three miles of them (p.79) does not stand up to much thought, or to evidence. Not only does Le Grand rely elsewhere on research which suggests that having a choice of five schools is necessary for positive effects of choice and competition to be felt (p. 74), but his statistic fails to be clear that the presence of schools within an area is only effective in raising levels of real choice if these schools have capacity to take students who wish to attend. It would seem that many of these schools do not have this capacity.

In addition, Le Grand fails to properly consider that, once parents and pupils have made their initial choices, there are important barriers which mean that, in many cases, parents will be unable to exercise more choice and will have to use voice.  Cost of transportation, having siblings in the school, a valued Chemistry teacher even though the English teacher and history department is falling apart, quite apart from emotional ties between their children and their peers will all act as barriers. These problems are in addition to taking into account that of the other two schools within three miles one is a notorious sink, whilst the other’s catchment area covers the nice estates which means that it is over-subscribed.

There are other things that Le Grand makes a nod to, but does not properly consider.  What information do parents need in order to make a decision?  Are league tables, or progress 8 figures enough to help them make this choice. What information do parents actually use on making school choices?  Do they think about the quality of provision or is this only one factor balanced with others that are un-related, such as ease of access, where siblings are or even whether they think the head is a wally.

So, choice and competition is a fine policy on paper, but it crunches up into a ball at first contact with reality. Interestingly the coalition government and, to an even great extent, the current Conservative government talk much less about competition and choice and much more about ‘autonomy’.  Perhaps this change has been driven primarily by the lack of resources available to government to provide for the level of choice required by Le Grand’s invisible hand.

I think we can question whether autonomy can really pertain to schools which cease to be independent legal entities on joining a multi-academy trust, many of which act like franchise businesses and impose teaching methods from the centre. The recent white paper represents a final nail in the ‘choice and competition’ coffin when we also consider that regional MATs are likely to emerge, meaning that parents can choose any of the three ‘Educorp’ schools within their three mile choice-zone.

So, my reading of ‘The Other Invisible Hand’ took much longer than I had thought it might. This is because it’s one of those books which is so intriguing that you have to keep coming back to it.  You can see how reading this book has made me think about current policy, and question why the government has not more clearly set out how ‘autonomy’ as envisaged by their proposals is (1) really ‘autonomy’ and (2) how it will raise standards.  One day I might to do some more reading on this and post about it.

What’s interesting me at the moment though is why policy makers prefer structural policies like these, when it is classroom level changes which seem to make an impact on the experiences that pupils have in school. Thinking about this has sent me to other books, such as ‘The Education Debate’ by Stephen J Ball.  Where this will lead, who knows, but this year of reading books that I think I might disagree with, has got off to a really informative and interesting start.

What is a textbook IV What are Textbooks for – in classrooms?

High pile of hardcover books

In my last post on this topic I explored the ‘conditioning’ and ‘coherence’ effects that Tim Oates claims at state level in his policy paper ‘Why Textbooks Count’. In that post I set out my concerns about the way the paper deals with the idea of ‘coherence’, and how this causes Tim Oates to overstate the effect of state or central control over textbooks’ content. This is a theme that I will return to in this blog-post. I’ll also be developing my critique of Oates’ treatment of the idea of ‘coherence’.

I want to focus on the effects that Tim Oates claims for textbooks at the classroom level in key jurisdictions.  Along the way I’ll suggest more ways in which the papers suffers from evidential problems, and point out the rhetorical devices which, in my opinion, are the sine qua non of a policy paper, rather than a piece of ‘New research’ as is claimed by the page title on which it is posted.

According to Oates, at a classroom level well-designed textbooks ‘free up teachers to concentrate on refining pedagogy and developing engaging effective learning’ (p.4). In ‘key nations’ they have also ‘been developed to support highly effective pedagogic practices’, where they also ‘encourage clarity regarding key concepts and core knowledge, [and] provide clear learning progressions’. This support enables teachers to provide ‘enhanced responsiveness to individual learner need’. None of this is controversial. I recognise these advantages from my own practice – and it would not surprise me if ‘high performing teachers [were] most supportive of the use of well-designed textbooks’ as Oates claims Reynold’s and Farrell’s 1996 study suggests (though I must admit I can’t find this claim in that study). I am also reminded of my own search as teacher and HOD for textbooks that were coherent with the curriculum aims that I had for my students.

An ambiguous comparison

One of the key rhetorical devices that Oates uses is a sense of crisis, of a problem with a daunting scale in the quality and use of textbooks in England.  In order to support the idea that the use of textbooks is ‘dauntingly’ low and problematic a confusing picture is then painted in which responses to the TIMSS 2011 questionnaire items about the use of textbooks from English teachers are compared with those of Finland and Singapore. Oates sets out the very low numbers of English teachers reporting that they use textbooks as ‘a basis for instruction’, and contrasts these with the much higher proportion of teachers from Finland and Singapore who report that they use textbooks as ‘a basis of instruction’.

However, the questionnaire itself asked whether teachers use textbooks as ‘basis of instruction’, or as ‘supplement’, not as ‘the basis for instruction’ nor yet as ‘a basis of instruction’ as Oates sets out in his table headings. I’m aware that this might seem like taking close reading to a pedantic level, but as I hope we’ll see – it’s important.

It is suggested that this comparison will ‘confound many common assumptions about these three countries’, though only two such assumptions are hinted at, which arise out of ‘high level messages regarding high school autonomy and learner-centred pupil support’ in Finland. I’m forced to presume that Oates thinks that from these high level messages many people assume that the Finns don’t use textbooks. This is not something that I’m aware of. If people did think that then they’re obviously wrong. Finnish teachers obviously value textbooks, as ‘basis of instruction’ and as ‘supplement’ (or whatever they were asked in Finnish).

In which case what else are we supposed to do with this comparison? Well we’re told that the problem (the one with the daunting scale) is ‘low use and low quality’ of textbooks in England (p.4), and here we’re asked to compare the use of textbooks in England with that of Finland and Singapore. Both are bywords for high performance in international comparative tests, whereas English performance in such international comparisons is commonly assumed to be dire. Is Oates comparing dire England’s ‘low’ use of textbooks with the high use of textbooks in high performing Finland and Singapore?

Why doesn’t Oates join these dots more directly? Possibly because there is no correlation between the proportion of teachers reporting that they use textbooks as ‘basis for instruction’ or as ‘supplement’ and a country’s TIMSS 2011 scores at any of the benchmarks that TIMSS used. In fact we might be able to confound a few assumptions by pointing out that in maths, far from being dire in comparison to Finland’s performance, they come out at similar levels, despite the ‘problem’ of low use of textbooks. Performance in Singapore was stratospherically better than in both England and Finland, yet in Singapore teachers report that they use textbooks as ‘basis for instruction’ less than they do in Finland.

A flawed comparison

What we can say from the TIMSS 2011 questionnaire is that in England 74% of 4th grade teachers of maths report that they use textbooks (either as ‘basis’ or as ‘supplement’) in their lessons, whilst 88% report that they use workbooks or worksheets, either as ‘basis for instruction’ or as ‘supplement’.

The omission of an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ in the question about ‘basis’ or ‘supplement’ is important and makes it harder for us to understand the responses of the TIMSS teachers. When I taught classes I used a textbook in the vast majority of my lessons. I would often use it as ‘a basis of instruction’ but not ‘the basis of instruction’. Sometimes I would also use a second textbook as a supplement if I felt that material was better covered therein. If I was asked whether textbooks were ‘the’ basis of instruction in my lessons I would say “no”. My own knowledge was “the basis of instruction”, though often a textbook would be used as ‘a basis of instruction’, with my knowledge informing how this instruction was done.

So, all in all we can say English teachers are less likely to report that textbooks are ‘basis of instruction’ in their lessons than in all other countries, although 78% report that they use textbooks in lessons. This is less than other countries, but there may be special reasons for this, as when English teachers teach maths and science they often use bought in worksheets.

So, what was the point of this comparison, if we can’t join the dots and say that using textbooks as ‘basis for instruction’ is more likely to lead to better outcomes? To understand the use that Oates puts the comparison to we’ll have to pick over this sentence:

With levels of use lower than other jurisdictions, and very low levels assigned to ‘as a basis for instruction’ [sic] what is interesting in England is the existence of an underlying ‘anti-textbook ethos’, and its location in teacher training and educational research communities,

It’s not clear whether Oates is suggesting that the TIMSS survey is evidence of an anti-textbook ethos. The two things are put side by side and, again, it seems it is up to us to join the dots.

However the ‘existence’ of this ethos is assumed. As we have already seen, we don’t know if in the TIMMS survey there were low levels assigned to ‘as a basis for instruction’ because that’s not what was asked. As we will see, it’s location in teacher education is only perilously supported by anecdote.

Oates cites Marland as evidence. Marland’s analysis is described as ‘comprehensive and penetrating’ (p.8). Oates seems to be suggesting that a survey in which 78% of science teachers responded that they used textbooks in lessons supports Marland’s findings of an anti-textbook ethos. If we read the extract from Marland this ‘comprehensive’ analysis suggests that that there is little evidence in the literature for the proposed anti-textbook ethos other than anecdote. My own anecdotal experience as a teacher trainer at university and as a mentor in school would suggest that trainee teachers might be discouraged from using textbooks as ‘the basis for instruction’, and positively pushed into using it as ‘a basis for instruction’.

Context and Historical Analysis

The paper is very critical of those wishing to explain Finland’s success in simple terms of contemporary school and professional autonomy without exploring the historical context of the country’s success, or of its current relative autonomy. This would imply that any analysis of the seemingly low use of England textbooks in maths and sciences which did not consider the historical context of this pattern of use would also be flawed. This paper makes no attempt to consider such a history, despite finding space for a (also flawed) consideration of Finland’s recent educational history. The TIMSS survey in 2011 came after the end of the New Labour years of national strategies, specified schemes of work and centralised resources distributed in packs of booklets or downloaded from the DCSF website. In these circumstances it is not surprising that teachers in science and maths report that they are less likely to use textbooks as ‘basis for their instruction’.

Furthermore we need to consider Oates’ own definition of ‘textbook’ in his paper, which he gives us as:

rigorously-designed paper-based materials which can include textbooks for teachers’ use, textbooks for pupils and pupil workbooks.

This is a wide definition, and elements of it could easily fall within the ‘worksheets or workbooks’ as well as within the ‘textbooks’ that English teachers were asked about in the TIMSS questionnaire. So, workbooks mean textbooks to Oates, but the TIMSS treats them separately. We know that in many English primary and secondary schools science materials are often purchased in the form of photocopy master worksheets. These too could be defined as ‘rigorously designed paper-based materials’. So, another reason that so many teachers report low use of textbooks could be because their school doesn’t buy in its ‘rigorous paper based materials’ in the form of books, but in the form of worksheets.

Fundamental flaws in Oates’ claims

However, there are real problems with Oates’ claims about (1) the quality of English textbooks, and about (2) the potential for centralised control over the content of textbooks to combat these perceived shortcomings. It may be that England’s textbooks are of an inferior quality, though there is not enough evidence in this paper to support such a claim and such evidence that there is suffers from important methodological problems.

In our discussion at Oates presents us with a ‘method statement’. Interestingly this statement is not in the paper itself – the ‘New research’ that was published on the site.

In the paper itself we are told that 200 textbooks were collected and used ‘as part of the transnational curriculum content mappings’, which then allowed for ‘further analysis of the qualities of the textbooks themselves’. We are also told that the textbooks were ‘documented for the different kinds of information elements which [they] contained and the manner in which [they] presented these elements’. The assessment of these textbooks was based on ‘the coherence of the text based on either correspondence to a stated model (eg spiral curriculum) or to an obvious form adopted in the text.’.


The treatment of the issue of sampling is a key problem in this paper. In the ‘method statement’ on the website above we are told that:

“Just over 200 books were examined, obtained from Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Alberta and Massachusetts. […] Books in Science, Maths, History, Geography, and English/Native Language and Literature were collected and scrutinised, covering both Primary and Secondary. Books on early reading were included and were of course focussed on early Primary.[…]”

In the paper we are asked to compare 3 textbooks – one from each jurisdiction. The problem with this is obvious. Each textbook is made to stand for the textbooks of its jurisdiction. If we were drawing conclusions only about those particular textbooks then these conclusions might have weight, but instead the each one is held out as representing all the books in each jurisdiction. The choice of a KS4 book in England is an interesting one and brings us back to the definition of ‘textbook’. KS4 textbooks vary widely in audience and in purpose which leads them to vary widely in content and tone. Is this a class text? Is it a revision textbook? Is it one that has been approved by the examination board (and which therefore has to contain information and examples which relate directly to the examination)?


The method for the study is also not outlined in detail, and the method itself seems to have been forgotten when data was collected and analysed. There are two steps in the method: – ‘documentation’ of the different kinds of information elements, followed by ‘assessment’ of the coherence with a ‘stated model’ or ‘obvious form adopted in the text’.

Turning first to the idea of ‘documentation’. This is an interesting choice of word. I would take this to imply the production of a non-judgemental record of the elements of the books, so that this would allow further analysis and supported judgement. What we are not told is the framework by which the documentation will take place. Beyond the aim of documenting ‘key elements’ We don’t know if the civil servants who did this analysis were looking for visual elements, explanatory elements, information elements.

When we look at the Case study texts ‘extracted from the textbook analysis’ we can assess how closely the method stuck to the principle of documentation, and an idea of the un-written analysis framework starts to emerge. Documentation in fact seems to involve a fair amount of evaluation, which would not be problematic in itself, if we were told the framework around which the evaluation of the different types of ‘element’ were taking place.

So, the ‘Elements’ in the maths textbook from Hong Kong starts with what seems like documentation. We are given a list of elements as follows:

  • Statement of Pre-requisites
  • Review activity to determine whether pupil is ready for the chapter
  • Different forms of the equations of circles
  • Features of circles from the equations
  • Equations of circles from the different given conditions
  • Intersection of a straight line and a circle Inclusion of a series of problems
  • Check through assessment: 6 problems, 1 practice exam Q, 1 lively maths problem

What we have is a list of things that are in the textbook. We could quibble about the ‘lively maths problem’ and ask about what makes it ‘lively’. A similar list is given for the textbook from Singapore. By the time we get to the ‘documentation’ of the English textbooks we are told that the IGCSE textbook has:

  • Clear statements of mathematical ideas
  • Clear statements of operations
  • Some sample activities

The GCSE English textbook ‘documentation’ is cursory at the least, and seems to have been done with a pre-conceived judgement in mind:

  • Extremely diverse content within diverse structure – complex
  • Divided into Higher Tier and Lower Tier elements to match examination 299 pages long
  • Sample full GCSE exam paper very early in the text: p11

Are the ‘sample’ activities set out in the IGCSE textbook divorced from the type of questions that will be asked in the final exam? I don’t know, and we are not told. What makes the IGCE textbook statements of ideas and operations ‘clear’? I don’t know, and we are not told. How do they compare with similar statements in the GCSE textbooks. We don’t know, because we are not told. What does it mean that the English GCSE textbook is ‘diverse’ in content and structure? How is ‘complexity’ judged? We go from a list of elements with some implicit approval of the Asian books, to clear but un-supported critique of English GCSE textbooks which abandons any attempt to ‘document’.

This tendency to eschew documentation and skip straight to judgement is best illustrated by the recording of the ‘Key Features’. These consist of value judgements, rather than documentation or even of an analysis of ‘coherence’. So, the Hong Kong book contains ‘important’ evaluation, ‘good’ elaboration, and the Singaporean book ‘extremely clear’ statements and ‘good’ elaboration, whereas the English textbook is ‘rather incoherent’.

Furthermore the second stage, or the analysis of coherence with a ‘stated model’ or ‘obvious form adopted in the text’ is not further explained, though we are assured of the Singaporean and Hong Kong texts that coherence was ‘impressive’. In the paragraph which seems to draw conclusions instead we are told that texts from Hong Kong and Singapore had ‘extremely clear presentation, explanation and reinforcement of key concepts and ideas’. We are not told which stated model they cohere with, nor any obvious forms adopted in the text around which they cohere with. We are not told what the difference or similarities are between a ‘model’ or ‘obvious form’, whether this is a model of presentation, learning, cognition or whether we are looking at obvious forms of ‘style’ or otherwise. This lack of definition makes it impossible for anyone attempting to look at the same sample of 200 books (should this list be made available) in order to repeat the analysis.


All of this brings us back to the central issue of coherence. Even in those jurisdictions which Oates chooses to focus on, where there is (or was) state control over the content of textbooks, there is evidence that the force of ‘coherence’ is (or was) provided by a wider agency than a central curriculum authority and that a good deal of it came ‘upwards’ from the classroom and from teachers, as well as from society as a whole. In Hong Kong we are told that textbooks tend over time to become similar as they follow the market leader, and thus are affected by teachers’ views as well as by the self- censorship that publishers undertake to please the actual censor. Not only that, but attempted innovations fail because they are rejected by the teachers – interestingly it is the teachers who are providing coherence, as well as the government approval system. In Singapore we also read about the ‘panel of professionals’ drawn from ‘curriculum specialists, teachers and academics from universities’ who approve textbooks. In my last post on this topic I discussed the societal shifts and coalescence which resulted in the education reforms of Finland in the 1960s and which provided wider coherence to the implementation of these reforms.

As we also saw in the last post in this series, Schmidt’s paper on coherence suggests that teachers will place authority and trust in curricula materials which cohere with the curriculum as it is enacted. If we accept Oates’ argument about narrowness and the instrumentalist approach of English textbook publishers (though I don’t think that we have to on the basis of the poor evidence that Oates supplies), and his evidence that teachers’ views and practices have caused the failure of state sponsored changes to textbooks in other places then we must look at the curricula system as a whole in order to find out why textbooks are like this in the English system, not apply state level approval of texts as the primary guarantee of ‘coherence’.

This all boils down to my basic problem with this paper – that it does not reflect the critical-realist methodology that Oates has claimed for it. Of course textbooks count – but the important questions are the extent and the mechanisms by which they count in particular circumstances. My worry about the analysis in this influential policy paper is that these circumstances are only referred to in just enough detail to provide legitimacy for the threat of state intervention.

Project Halpin – The Other Invisible Hand: Voice

cropped gargoyle-1.jpgI’m currently reading 12 books that I think I might disagree with, inspired by a lecture I went to by David Halpin.  I’m almost finished writing about the first book I read – Julian Le Grand’s ‘The Other Invisible Hand’, in which Le Grand argues that choice and competition in public services is the best way to drive their improvement. Le Grand discusses other ways of improving these services: trust, targets, and voice. In this post we’ll look at the last one.

One of the great things about reading a book such as this is that it makes you think hard about what a taken-for-granted word like ‘voice’ actually means in the contexts of improving public services.  For instance, we are told that voice can be collective or individualist.

Collective Voice

Collective voice mechanisms are things like voting for new council members or parent governors, but these can be blunt in that they don’t readily allow the users of these services to voice their ideas, aims, complaints and feedback. They do mean that there is a formal way in which the users of these services can have some say in their provision in their locality.  One of the (many) things that worries me about the plans for academization is the lack of local democratic oversight that the MATs will be under. Le Grand is right that these mechanisms are blunt, but I think he misses an important aspect of their function – accountability over the planning of medium and long-term provision of services.

The 1870 Education Act didn’t require that children go to school, but it did require that the local school boards (pre-cursors of today’s LEAs) ensure that there were enough school places for each pupil that wanted to attend.  The 2016 white paper leaves the responsibility for creating enough school places in the hands of the LEAs, without any effective means for achieving this (as Chris Husbands points out in his excellent blog-post).  Local democratic structures with powers as well as responsibilities can be a way that the community finds and uses a voice for the direction of resources to improve public services over the medium to long term.

Further confirmation that collective voice mechanisms that work through local democracy may be missed in the short term comes from the example of NHS trusts, which in theory the SofS can influence through commissioning.  As the latest newsletter suggests;

Commissioners can’t commission services they don’t have the money to pay for, or services that providers do not provide.

We’ve already seen that public servants have knightly and knavish tendencies. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that some trusts might not want to expand their services in a region or move into a new one- possibly for as many knightly reasons as knavish ones, and especially in a situation in which resources are tight.  As we’ll see when I eventually get to the end of these long posts (I don’t know if anyone is actually reading at this point), choice and competition, (and perhaps autonomy) works best when there is over-capacity in the system. Current evidence suggests that the opposite will be true in the coming years, and the Times recently ran a story reporting LEA’s fears that multi-academy trusts are reluctant to open new schools.

History should also give us pause for thought, before we leave the era when collective voice mechanisms helped steer and improve education services.  Jane Martin’s article To ‘Blaise the Trail for Women to Follow Along’: Sex, gender and the politics of education on the London School Board, 1870–-1904′ suggests that public transparent discussion of education and education policy in each locality can contribute to progressive improvements of the rights and outcomes for marginalised groups.  It also contains ample evidence that without this transparency and discussion, without these collective voice mechanisms, that education policy risks falling into the hands and under the prejudices of cloistered cliques, and that progress has to be openly fought for.

Individualist Voice

So, Le Grand’s view is that on the one hand collective voice is a blunt instrument.  However he also considers that, on the other hand, individualist voice methods are exclusive and often inaccessible to many different categories of people.  Taking the example of complaints and complaint procedures Le Grand argues that individualist voice tends to be dominated by the middle classes.  I’m not sure about this.   He does make cogent points about middle class people having more influential friends, and argues convincingly that they are sometimes more articulate, and confident.  Elsewhere in the book Le Grand is careful to support his assertions with evidence, but here the argument is not supported with anything other than common-sense reasoning.  I wonder if there has been research about those who use voice related systems, and how successful they are.  Some of the most vociferous parents I dealt with were not the middle class ones.  Indeed the parents of the middle class kids who did OK were those that I would only see at parents’ evening, and usually  without incident.  One could make an anecdotal argument in favour or more research here by reflecting on the difficult conversations that we have with parents who are alienated by school, who fear for their children’s self esteem or their futures and see school as an opposing force.  They were the ones who often objected to homework, grades, feedback, detentions, in my experience, and the ones who were more likely to voice these objections.  The knight and the knave fought within me at such times – I sometimes felt frustrated at the inconvenience of a parental complaint, but I tried to keep in mind that most of the parents who used their voice in this way were rightly worried about their children’s well-being or education.

The real problem with ‘voice’.

For the force of Le Grand’s argument about voice the concern over who uses voice is however a side show.  For Le Grand the main problem with voice is that it lacks force as an driver for improvement.   Le Grand argues that voice works only when it reacts to users, and without other mechanisms the user’s voice can be ignored.  In Le Grand’s view the mechanism that works best with voice is choice.  Those providers who might lose their customers, their clients, their reasons for existence to other providers are the ones that react most quickly to voice.

I’ll be looking at choice and competition in Education in the next post, but before we move on it’s worth noting that this view of the users of public services as consumers is quite a limited one.  It seems to ignore their role as citizens, and the way that the institutions of collective voice have been developed, and how, in turn, they contributed to the development of rights and obligations that we have as citizens. As consumers our choice is restricted to accepting what is given, or attempting to access something else which looks more like the service that we want.  As citizens the conceptual borders of our roles, rights and duties are greatly expanded.