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.


Writing school textbooks is a lot like dropping big rocks into a well. It takes some effort, and there’s a bit of a splash when you first publish them, but then…. silence.

So I happened to look at the first book I helped to write on amazon yesterday, and was really very delighted to see that someone who I don’t know (as far as I know!) had positively reviewed it!  That’s my first independent review.  Now I know it’s not just my mum that likes it!

book review

Whitechapel 1870-1900

The other day I was asked on Twitter about the books that I read whilst writing the Whitechapel 1870-1900 section of this book.


I’ve got five minutes, so I thought I’d quickly write about one or two of them.   Of these,  Crime in England by Godfrey and the London’s Shadows by Drew D Grey were most useful from a writing point of view.  Grey’s, in particular, is a detailed and interesting introduction into the social context and a real pleasure to read.  Along with City of Dreadful delight it made me think carefully about how I was going to write the book, especially when I was writing about the lives of women generally and those of the Ripper’s victims in particular.

‘Victorian Convicts’ by Godfrey, Johnston and Fox will be very useful as the course goes on and as you start to teach it.  I heartily recommend it (if you’re going to buy a copy of this or all the other books buy it from Mr B’s Emporium, a proper bookshop that’ll deliver just as quickly as Amazon and which pays its taxes and everything else that we like proper bookshops to do).

Online / Electronic Resources

I also used a few books which I read online. Neil R Bell’s ‘Capturing Jack the Ripper’ was really helpful, not only about the particular circumstances of the Ripper case, but also about police procedure, recruitment and life ‘on the beat’.

Some of the geographic bits of ‘the Historic Environment’ were very interestingly addressed by

The Whitechapel Society ( not only contains great articles but also hosts a really great podcast (which Neil R Bell is a regular contributor to).

Of course I spent a great deal of time at a very detailed and comprehensive site, with some very wise contributors.

Because the records of police courts have not usually survived in detail, the best record of the crimes that appeared at the Thames Police Court at this time is the reports in newspapers.  I used the a great deal – as well as the amazingly free , which gave me the moving story of Sarah Fishers’ baby that starts my section of the book.

Lovely Friendly and helpful people.

Whilst trying to find out more about this incident, 615H_GraphicI found that I really needed to see the Attestation Ledgers and Divisional Registers for H Division (Whitechapel’s division).  They’re in London at the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and they have not (yet) been digitised. So, I rang them.  I expected that they’d say ‘you’ll have to come down’, but they didn’t. They looked it up for me, and helped me to understand the information on the ledgers. They sent me a pic of the Divisional Ledger, and even put me in touch with the Friends of the Met Police Historical Collection ( who used their forums to help me work out where this event had taken place.  You’ll have to buy a copy of the book to find out what I discovered though :).  I couldn’t have written my part of the book without their kindness and their efforts, and I’m really grateful.

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.

5 great podcasts for history teachers*

man using antique listening deviceMy job means that I’m quite often in my car, and therefore listening to my radio.  Unfortunately, this often seems to coincide with ‘moneybox live’ or Chris Evans.  In response to this terrible conjunction, I’ve fallen back in love with podcasts.  My subscription list is all the best bits of radio 4, with added shows that radio 4 should commission, and without ‘quote-unquote’ or ‘the unbelievable truth’.  Recently I’ve heard some fantastic episodes which I think could be used in the history classroom – either as inspiration for lessons, as CPD for those wanting to improve their knowledge of a topic, or as something that could (with cuts and tweaks) be used directly with pupils.  I thought I could share these with you.

In Our Time

Of course I’m going to start with In Our Time.  Consistently brilliant and always challenging (especially when it’s about quantum physics), In Our Time occasionally serves up an episode which you immediately want to turn into a scheme of work.  I could talk about the ‘Lancashire Cotton Famine‘, as an example which could help us teach the history of industry and the end of slavery together – with a really global reach.  I might urge you instead to listen to the staples of ‘The Armada‘ or ‘Suffragism‘ if you wanted to learn more than the basics about these important events.  When I start some new teaching or writing on a history topic, often the first search I make is of the IOT archives.

History Extra

Until recently I didn’t listen to History Extra,  I didn’t like the early podcasts.  It felt to me like a marketing exercise, and there seemed to be a lot of military history.  Recently however I listened by chance to an episode about the dissolution of the monasteries, and a piece on Surinam, which was a really interesting explanation of the links between state, trade and colonialism in Stuart, Civil War and Restoration Britain.  This episode, which was excellent, earned the show a place in my podcast schedule.  The next episode on Charles II was even better.  Listening to Claire Jackson’s fascinating and nuanced views of the character of Charles II  (or even better, buying her book) would be a great first step for teachers of the Restoration British Depth Study from AQA’s 2016 GCSE and I urge you to give this a go.

History Pod

This well researched podcast is great, and produced by Scott Allsop, a proper history teacher.  Scott’s ‘on this day’ type podcast often reaches parts of history that the others cannot.  A recent favourite was the episode about the flying cow. Listen to it – you won’t be disappointed.

The London Review of Books

Just great for broadening one’s mind generally but also, every so often, there are great episodes with a history focus – like the recent one given by Colm Tóibín on the cultural and political run up to the 1916 Dublin uprising.  If you really want to know why ‘All changed, changed utterly’ then this is a good place to start.

The British History Podcast

This is another recent addition to my podcast list.  Its written and presented by a British ex-pat who lives in the US. It’s unashamedly narrative driven, but takes this as an opportunity to cover the stories of British history in an engaging way, as well as often from unusual perspectives.  I’m only a few episodes in, but already I’m hooked.

*and a bonus episode- More or Less

Strictly speaking this great podcast isn’t really a history show.  A few episodes ago however there was a great piece about the ‘story of average‘. Average, as a human construct, has a history and therefore a story of development which is not only interesting, but which I think helps us to understand why average is the way it is (and how it is used) today.  I wonder how much more successful my own mathematics education could have been if it had taken a more historical approach.

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 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.


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?