Category Archives: Project Halpin

Project Halpin: ‘Cultural Literacy’ (2) – Hirsch, Knowledge and the Learner

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’. In my last post I discussed some of the things I liked about the book, and my concern with the foundations of Hirsch’s theory – that faster reading is a cure-all for educational ills and problems of learning.  In this post I’m starting to discuss the most obvious problem, Hirsch’s somewhat limited conception of what it means to learn, and his curiously passive learner, which I’ll follow up in my next post.

For Hirsch, the underlying assumption of learning is one way. Rather than transaction we have transmission. Rather than active construction we have accretion. Knowledge must come first, communication second. This also renders the world as a passive place, to which we can only apply pre-learned knowledge, which was itself received as a transmission from a more knowledgeable other.

Hirsch’s model of learning is one of assimilation – making things fit in with what we already know.  This is directly related to his focus on reading fluency;  ‘slowness of reading beyond a certain point makes assimilation of complex meaning impossible’ (P.57).  So forming complex meaning is only possible through assimilation and only when this assimilation is achieved through fluent reading. This, in turn, can only occur when reading things, in respect of which the reader is already knowledgeable, or which are culturally familiar to them.   This logically leads us to the conclusion that facts, knowledge must be learned before they can be applied. Assimilation of material here is overlaying confirmation of what is already learned, what is pre-assimilated.

For Hirsch this assimilation is natural – and one dimensional, relying as it does on memorisation and rote-learning. Hirsch objects to the ‘pious rather than realistic’ rejection of this method of learning that he detects in contemporary educationalists. Without supporting evidence beyond the anecdotal Hirsch asserts that children at an early age have an ‘almost instinctive urge to learn specific tribal tradition […] and are eager to master the materials that authenticate their membership in adult society’ (30). He points to the eagerness with which children hoover up the rules of their favourite sport as an example of how ‘memorisation’ should be re-examined as a way of helping children to learn.

This is probably not the time or place to rehearse arguments about rote-learning -v- strategies and ‘which works best’.  Suffice to say that for me, using ‘memorisation’ as a way of learning things seems to be something of a tautology – “We memorise to remember things”.  It also sets up something of a dichotomy which I would argue doesn’t really exist in most classrooms.  It’d be hard to find even the most traditional teacher ‘just telling them’, or relying only on memorisation of facts.  Similarly, it would be hard to find a ‘progressive’ teacher who deals only in subjective opinion, or who facilitates learning only through discovery.  In practice most teachers will tell some things, encourage memorisation of some things, facilitate exploration of some issues, and use discovery and suspense in relation to others.

Willingham suggests that the kind of knowledge that we might pick up only through rote-learning is going to be shallow.  Hirsch can just about make the claim that rote-learning could be a useful method of assimilating new knowledge only because he has set a low bar on the depth of that knowledge.  Hirsh directs us to teach a broad and shallow set of knowledge.  I would argue that by not encouraging students to see the deep structures of problems, shying away from analogies and exploration, and by failing to point out that there are problems with some (not all!) items or types of knowledge, we risk restricting the extent to which knowledge can be transferred to new problems.

We might also missing a trick or two as educators.   There will be key pieces of information that we all want students to know, and to be able to recall.  Repetitive rote learning will play a part in learning these facts.  However, we’ve got to make sure that these are the right kind of facts to be learned in this way, that these facts are correct, and that we give students a chance to see the deeper relations and structures between them.

As an example of the way that the ‘knowledge turn’ in pedagogy risks cutting off learning opportunities from our students, let’s take a look at the idea of ‘knowledge organisers’ in history.  I’ve used these – though I called them ‘glossaries’, and often I took the idea of ‘advance’ organisers as a model (for more on this see Ausubel’s ideas, set out in http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.1004.3954&rep=rep1&type=pdf#page=34).  Their most recent popularity stems from a post by Joe Kirby on his brilliantly helpful website ‘pragmatic reform’. https://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2015/03/28/knowledge-organisers/

There are some really great things about this – the careful thinking that has gone into deciding which items of knowledge the students will need, the focus on common spelling errors, key quotes to add compelling context and colour to students’ knowledge.  This is Hirsch in practice, in that brief, and shallow descriptions in the manner of vocabulary definitions are given.  However, in dealing with some, more complicated, concepts in a shallow way important misconceptions are introduced.

For instance, if we take a closer look at the section on ‘political vocabulary’ we can see that ‘government’ is defined as ‘the political party with the most MPs in parliament’, and ‘political party’ as ‘a group organising to win an election’.  These are obviously problematic when studying Apartheid – the government was much more than the National party, and the ANC, whilst definitely being a political party, as a banned political party was unable to organise to win an election.

Multi-faceted historical contexts are also flattened. Democracy is not defined here, it seems to be taken for granted that students will understand perhaps a platonic model of democracy.  The very point about Apartheid era South Africa is that there were two competing models of democracy. Supporters of the regime would have denied that their country was un-democratic.   Often we can give helpful definitions, but that is not always true, and often we need to do much more. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Joe Kirby doesn’t do just that, but I worry that the impression is that all the knowledge needed can be fitted on one side of A4, and delivered to passively waiting students.

Of course, many people use KOs, and other similar techniques in lots of ways, but these all seem to be much more than ‘memorisation’, and in ways that build much deeper knowledge structures.  Toby French has a great post (https://mrhistoire.com/2017/01/19/kos/) which puts his use of KOs in the context of his wider practice, for instance.  I would go further, however.  Students need time to assimilate, accommodate, test and refine their understanding of concepts about a historical context.  We might start by exploring what democracy, what a political party means to them today, before comparing that with the views and experiences of those living in South Africa during Apartheid.   We might then ask them to fill in a few knowledge organisers (or to explain some concepts) so that we can assess the development of their understanding, and refine our own planning for future learning.

In other words, teachers also need to listen to their students’ ideas, not only to correct their students, but so that they as teachers can refine and perhaps improve their own understanding.  In fact this final point is the thing that people have been trying to teach me for years – from my PGCE tutor, Anna Pendry who gently suggested that I read some more history books, to the parent who rightly complained when I mistakenly told his son that Sefton Delmer wrote for the Daily Mail. The wonderful students who have asked me hard questions that forced me back to my books, and the wonderful teachers who have made me look again at source materials or asked me to think about how I approach what I thought was a familiar topic have, over the years helped me to see that I am also learning.  Unlike Hirsch, I recognise that as teachers we also need to approach ‘truth’ afresh, and sometimes through the eyes of others.  Attempting the delivery of a chunked up world does not help me, or my students, to do that.

 

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.

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.

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 nhsManagers.net 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.

Project Halpin – The Other Invisible Hand: Targets

This is part of a year long series of blog posts on books that I’m reading that I think I probably disagree with, inspired by a lecture I went to by David Halpin (thus the name).  The current book is ‘The Other Invisible Hand’ by Julian Le Grand.  You can read the original post here.  Currently I’m looking at the means by which public services are improved, according to Le Grand.  In the last post we looked at ‘Trust’ – the idea that autonomous professionals should be trusted to run good and improving services.   This post looks at ‘Targets (often called ‘command and control’) and next time we’ll look at ‘Voice’:

Targets

Targets or ‘Command and Control’ measures as a means for ensuring effective, efficient, high quality and high equality public services are things that we are very familiar with in the world of education in England and (previously) Wales.  Any readers from the public healthcare system in England will also know what it is like to work under a targets-driven regime.   The atmosphere around targets changed during my own time as a teacher.  At the start of my time as a teacher I came in on results day and had a brief chat about how my class had got on with my lovely HOD, and by the end of my time as a HOD my performance reviews were about the targets and hit lists that the school had devised as a way of making sure that we were doing well with the whole range of students.

Le Grand points out that targets seem to work in the short term, and that in comparison with trust-only models they produce higher levels of performance.   The problems of devolved health and education in Wales seems to be an illustration of the risks of removing targets as one of the drivers of improvement in that in the fairly short term many of the outcomes of Welsh schools and hospitals seem to have become poorer than those in England.

However, Le Grand also points out that there are problems with only relying on target setting. Beyond meeting the target there’s no incentive to improve.  Results that crowd around floor targets, time and money thrown at C-D borderline students in the noughties attest to this. Targets also encourage gaming,  – for instance dragging students through coursework only certificates that were GCSE ‘equivalents’, or entering and re-entering students in modules of GCSE exams in the hope that they will eventually pass, in order to meet targets also illustrates the risks associated with target cultures.   Ever fair, Le Grand also reminds us that targets are often missed because of factors beyond the control of those responsible.  As teachers we all know that there are students that it is very hard to reach, and sometimes year groups that are much more of a challenge or perhaps a challenge that presents with un-known or unanticipated aspects.  There’s also the events which take out two or three high performing teachers from a department at the same time, or the new head who wants to shake things up, disrupt and perhaps distract from what’s really important – what happens in the classroom.

For Le Grand however these serious drawbacks of the ‘command and control’ target culture are not the worst aspect of this method of driving improvement in public service:

“There is nothing as effective at demotivating and demoralizing providers as ceaseless bombardment of instructions from above”.

This seems to be especially true if

“the service may hit the target but miss the point”

where meeting targets can be end up being done with resentfulness or cynicism, such as the ‘shite cover music’ that one of my masters subjects described to me (as set out in my last post) the point of getting pass grades may be lost if the only way to meet targets is to focus on some groups in ways that are to the detriment of everyone in the system.  So, targets are decided by others, and often by those removed from the front line or from the concerns of parents. They are also blunt instruments in that they can only ever be proxies for all the possible positive outcomes that we may want from schools, and can end up directing attention and resources from this wide array of ends.

Project Halpin – The Other Invisible Hand: Trusting Teachers?

7760932128_9c2ce1e22d_mThis year I’m trying to read a book a month that, on the face of it, I might expect not to agree with. March’s book was Julian Le Grand’s ‘The Other Invisible Hand’, a book about the advantages of using choice and competition as a driver for improved public services.

For a book on this topic, The Other Invisible Hand is a good read. Le Grand wants to give us an overview of the ideas that govern his thinking, and to make these accessible and certainly persuasive. Of these latter aims he succeeds in both, to an extent – but in my view there are real problems in his analysis to do with resources.  In the last post I described (I’m not doing much more than expressing what I think I’ve learned and reflections on the book in these posts) Le Grand’s aims of public services, and since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about his typology of means – the ways that public services attempt to meet those aims.

As in his discussion of aims, Le Grand wants us to understand that these means never stand on their own.  At any time in any public service a mix of them is used to improve service.  He also points out that there is often conflict between these means, as there was between the aims, but his main argument is that a mix of these means which includes a substantial element of choice and competition seems to offer the best way of driving services towards their aims.

His view is very persuasive, but what is interesting is the way that he frames the debate as one of a mixture of means, and the way that choice and competition does not necessarily infer privatisation, personal profit or private ownership.   For me the discussion around ‘quasi-markets’ was very interesting, and a bit of a revelation, as I will discuss in a later post.

Le Grand sets out a typology of different means for reaching the aims of public service (see the last post on this):

  • Trust
  • Command and Control
  • Voice; and
  • Choice and Competition.

Trust

This is the one that I have often heard expressed in staff-rooms, lecture halls and I’m sure that I’ve even said myself something along the lines of ‘we’re professionals, we should be trusted more’.  Trust models assume that public servants are ‘knights’ and that they will work hard to deliver public services that provide Le Grand’s aims – those of accountability,  effectiveness, quality and efficiency.   The high levels of autonomy that ‘trust’ relies on can also lead to higher productivity through high morale, without costly and sometimes dubious monitoring and accountability systems.

All well and good.  However what if, as Le Grand suggests, not all public servants are ‘knights’?  What if some are ‘knaves’, motivated not by the welfare of the citizens they work for, but for their own self-interest? That would lead to services being organised in such a way that they maximised benefits for the providers, rather than the users of a service.  What if they’re knights sometimes, and knaves at other times?

There’s also a really interesting discussion about who decides whether someone is a knight or a knave.  Le Grand writes that

‘knights may have their own agenda. They may be altruists […] but their interpretation of what would contribute to that welfare may differ from the government’s view or indeed that of the users themselves’ (p.20)

As a history teacher this resonated with my professional experience, and as a teacher-educator with a slightly wider perspective that I’ve picked up over the years.  Teachers often resist what is prescribed from the centre.  Taking the history curriculum as an example – over the years we saw various different iterations of the official history curriculum, but in schools the lag caused by using old resources, the enacted curriculum in many schools was much slower to change.  High level debate about teaching thematically or chronology in teaching journals, requirements in the national curricula and lower concerns in papers about the lack of knowledge of young people washed up against the cliff of ‘this is how we do things’.

Some of this resistance is actually a very good thing.  During research for my masters I interviewed teachers who taught one way for performance review and Ofsted inspection, and another for their normal teaching.  One described it as ‘like playing shit cover music’ which he knew would please the section of the audience he needed to be pleased, but which ignored the needs of the students in that lesson.  This enabled him to teach in the way that he wanted for the rest of the year.  Does this make him a knight, for bravely fending off the inspectors so that he can cater for his students’ needs the rest of the time?  Is he a knave for ignoring the diktats and requirements of his SLT and the Ofsted inspectors, or for ignoring the needs of his students in those performance review lessons so that his pay and career progressions were not interrupted?

Le Grand also points out that knightly attitudes can often descend into controlling paternalism, though their ‘perceptions of the needs of the wider community may be limited’, and they may be ‘giving users what the knights think they need, but not necessarily what users think they need’.   This is also a very interesting point for a teacher to consider.  My view of being in loco-parentis was that that my concern for their welfare had a long term, truly parental element which merged with my duty as an educator.  I was teaching them things that they might not want to know about, but which I thought they ought to know, for their welfare and for their future welfare.

Sometimes their parents didn’t agree – often I was told that the most important thing was that their children were happy. Actually I kind of agreed, but at the time I felt that my view of happiness was sometimes longer term.  Does this make my knightly concern into knavish paternalism?

Le Grand couches his point about the needs of the wider community in terms of monetary resources. He gives the example of doctors spending too much money on medicines because it is hard for them to do the rationing because of their lack of community-wide perspective.   As a teacher this too rang a bell.  Doctors can see too many patients in a day, volunteer to cover too many night (knight?) shifts, as well as perhaps spend too much money on tests, pills and treatments.    For most teachers the only commodity they have is time. Recent discussion on twitter about planning and marking has made me wonder whether knightly teachers staying up late to mark in green, red, blue pens and plan lessons might be overspending the community’s resource (their own time) in those areas to the detriment of other areas (being alive in the classroom).

We can therefore see some problems with relying on ‘knightly’ trust models.   As Le Grand puts it:

“What is needed is a system that combines elements of the trust model of service delivery with other models in such a way that the existence of both knavish and knightly motivations are acknowledged, and that knightly motivations are preserved but directed toward serving the wider interest”

This made a lot of sense to me.  I know that we’re not all knights, and I also know that some of our knightly instincts are misdirected and can lead to wasted energy and un-necessary work.  Le Grand makes a strong case – it’s not enough to trust the knights.  In the next post on this I’ll look at Targets or ‘command and control’ as another way of driving improvement.

 

Project Halpin: The Other Invisible Hand (1) – Ends

4184064187_c2aeae2dda_mJulian Le Grand’s book has been sitting in my ‘to-read’ pile since my OH finished her MA in Healthcare Management. Le Grand is the Richard Titmuss Prof. of Social Policy at LSE, a position he has held since at least 2007, when this book was published.  In the years before this he was a senior policy advisor to Tony Blair at no. 10.

Le Grand’s vision that choice and competition were to be the most important drivers of increased quality, efficiency, accountability and equity in public services is one that I have some ideological trouble with – but I’m the first to admit that this has largely been of the un-examined type. Competition sounds inefficient to me, in public services, and runs counter to my co-operative ethic, and that of many people that I know who work in public service.

In addition, what has always worried me about choice and competition is the need for failure – in order for some schools to do well, others have to lose out.  In health and education (the two sectors that Le Grand focuses on in this book) this has seemed iniquitous to me.  We only get one life, and to have a healthcare or education system which requires some to experience failing care and education seems wrong.

Nonetheless, this vision was one which seemed (for a time at least) to drive Blairite policies in health (if not in education), and reading this book has helped me to form a more balanced view of what was being attempted then in the NHS reforms, and informed my growing unease about what is happening now in education.  It has also challenged my views on competition as well as clarified what it actually means to open social provision up to a ‘market’.  I have learned that markets are not all the same.

The first task that Le Grand sets for himself is to categorise the ‘ends’ of social provision and then the different ‘means’ that are available to realise these ends.  The discussion on ‘Ends’ describes ‘quality’, ‘efficiency’, ‘responsiveness and accountability’ and ‘equity’ in detailed and realistic ways.  Le Grand doesn’t shy away from the difficulty in deciding what kinds of ‘quality’ should be prioritised – how this could mean quality inputs (such as the level of qualifications of those delivering service, or the buildings in which they work), processes (how the users are treated, dealt with or the kinds of experiences they have as clients, customers, users etc.), or outcomes and outputs.

Differentiating between outputs (the activities that the service undertakes) and outcomes (the results of these activities) is a crucial point – as policy makers (according to Le Grand) tend to want to measure the inputs and outputs of a service – rather than the processes and outcomes – in terms of the experience or the service, and the life quality, life chances or changes to these brought about as a result. The processes and outcomes are the things that are probably more important to the users of these services, though  Le Grand is also open about the difficulties of measuring these.

For Le Grand people suffer when services are not efficient – he sees the cost of services not just in terms of their price, but in terms of their opportunity cost.  This is the value that is being forgone by spending money on a service.  If the comparison between the value of the service and the cost of the service is not balanced, we are losing the opportunity to spend that money on things which create more value.

the real price of a service is not the money that was spent on providing it: it is the other services that could have been provided had the money not been spent in that way. (Le Grand p.9)

This is a difficult concept, which I’m not sure I totally understand, but I think that Le Grand’s treatment of it misses one important aspect, which reflects the pre-austerity days in which he was writing. Services need enough money to work efficiently. We have seen crises in the NHS and in teacher recruitment which have meant overspends and increased costs in spending on agency and temporary contractors, nurses and supply teachers. Supplying a service at a given cost might not be possible.  There is also an interaction between quality and efficiency which

Responsiveness and Accountability as ‘ends’ of public services are also really interestingly dealt with, using Albert Weale’s ‘principle of equal autonomy’. This states that as part of the respect owed to individuals as ‘deliberative and purposive agents capable of forming their own projects’ (cited on page 10), government should create and maintain conditions conducive to this autonomy.

I’m really interested in this idea of humans being ‘deliberative and purposive agents capable of forming their own projects’.  As soon as we have more than one ‘deliberative and purposive agent’ living in close proximity to others – as we surely do in our modern and interconnected society – this will entail trade-offs, negotiations and compromises, and the making and maintenance of structures which enable these things to happen.   When is this duty discharged in terms of education?  Is it through the option to educate children at home, or at private school?  What’s the effect of these options being open only to a minority?  Does having the option to choose the school that our children attend discharge this duty, and is this the case even in those areas where there is no real choice over schooling? Is the duty discharged entirely by these options and choices at the start of schooling? To what extent should we address pupils’ status as ‘deliberative and purposive’ agents’, and when?

You’ll gather that I’ve enjoyed reading Le Grand, and as we’ll see in the next post on this topic about ‘means’, the book certainly raises very interesting questions.  What I’m less sure of is how realistic Le Grand’s ideas are in the current policy and fiscal climate.  As I think we’ll also see – choice and competition has become a kind of slogan which is hiding incoherency in education policy.

Project Halpin – Reading books I think I might not agree with.

7215063582_ff54ecf9e0_mAt the end of February I went to hear David Halpin’s public lecture at Leeds Trinity University, where I work and where Prof. Halpin is a Visiting Professor of Education. This inaugural lecture was entitled ‘Tears of Longing: The Role of Nostalgia and Tradition in Education’. I went along expecting a thoroughly enjoyable evening of having my prejudices confirmed by an engaging and well informed speaker. I hoped also to pick up a few reading tips along the way and to leave the conference room at LTU with my world view strengthened.

I’d even had a little bet on with myself. I thought that this talk would be about the inadequacy of policy makers’ nostalgic view of education – the silliness of looking back to a golden age that never was when trying to come up with solutions and policies for today. I was expecting him to cite the crocodile tears of politicians whose ‘golden age’ rhetoric was a cover for uncharted change, giving the un-tested a patina of age and experience.

Prof. Halpin did take aim in particular at the poverty of thought which leads politicians back towards grammar schools, as a tool of social mobility, when all the evidence points to their role in depressing social mobility for most of the population. He claimed that policy makers ‘half shut their eyes’ when thinking nostalgically about their own experiences, so that they could ignore legitimate questions, and that they used tradition as a way of avoiding these questions.

However, Halpin also said that we all use nostalgia, and that its use could be negative or positive. As a tool, nostalgic thinking could help us to open our eyes to a current situation, and to resist the way things are or are changing in the present, as well as challenging others’ vision of the future.   The crucial thing is being honest with ourselves about the character of the nostalgia in which we’re engaged.

As an example he talked about his own experiences as a boy who got enough marks to pass the eleven plus exam where he lived.  He recalled how he had been put on stage at the school assembly, and presented as a role model to the others in his primary school, and the realisation that he would be separated from his friends.  He talked about how he has met them since, and how different their lives have been. But he also talked about how that change in his life led to a successful and fulfilling career.

This was all very interesting, but I think I missed the point until I asked a question at the end. I asked him about the more recent tendency for reformers to denigrate the comprehensive system, despite the fact that it helped many of them to reach Oxbridge universities.  David’s reply made me think.  He asked why they thought that, and said that it was up to the proponents of comprehensive education to ask why even those who had benefited from it were questioning its effects.  Very clearly he said that there were ‘legitimate questions’ to ask about comprehensive  education.

A few days later my youngest, who has been obsessively reading the Percy Jackson series of books by Rick Riordan, said to me that she’d like to learn ancient Greek. She’ll go to our local comprehensive school, which is a great school that is looking after our eldest really well.   They don’t teach Greek, ancient or otherwise.  This request really got me thinking, as I realised that there wasn’t going to be much chance of her learning classics unless I used my privileged resources to get that for her – which I will probably do.  Not everyone can do that, and perhaps this leads us to ‘legitimate questions’ about comprehensive education.

Recent discussions with other academics, debates that I’ve had online with other supporters of the Labour movement, and the recent whitepaper have made me realise that we all, on all sides of political and ideological thought have the tendency to leave our nostalgia, and our basic assumptions un-examined.  I started to think about how I have read lots of books, but not many I didn’t agree with. If there are legitimate questions to ask about the positions that we hold (and there are, for all of us), and our ideas are better, stronger and more effective if we take care to interrogate and scrutinise them properly, we need to challenge them.

To that end I’ve given myself a bit of a project.  I’m going to read a book a month that, on the face of it, I might not agree with.

March – The Other Invisible Hand, by Julian Le Grand

April – The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

May – Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou

June – Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools by Robert Peal

 

I’m halfway through the Le Grand, and in the context of the current white paper it’s fascinating.  However, I need more suggestions – can anyone help?