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U turn if you want…

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I don’t normally cross-post between my blogs – but I feel these issues really need a wide audience. I know some have been following this issue here. This is my last word here on the issue…

My comments about the grades fiasco precipitated if not a torrent of correspondence, then certainly more than usual. Most disagreed with my position. Yet here we are, with the desired shift to centre-assessed grades, a.k.a. teacher predictions – and lo, we have the predicted wave of grade inflation, worse at G.C.S.E. than ‘A’ level. Sixth forms now face the prospect of larger numbers of students on courses, who have miraculously become more intelligent overnight than their predecessors. Or maybe they will just struggle with the courses more…

Meanwhile, universities face the problem of accommodating increased numbers of students, while trying to maintain Covid-related safety. There is no guarantee that all those students are suited to higher education, and they may have negative experiences as a result. But the profession has got its way: more indeed did get prizes. Just don’t forget that that includes the teachers.

Conversations in the past few days with colleagues of decades’ standing, in whose views I have much confidence, agreed that schools tend to err optimistically with grade predictions – except perhaps with students who have been difficult, which is hardly an objective assessment of achievement either. Teachers are only human; the trouble is that they are now solidly invested in claiming otherwise.

A cursory look at corporate law will show that a company’s prime responsibility is to its shareholders. Customers and employees are merely the mechanism by which dividends are created, and it is by no means guaranteed that all companies will look after their machinery well. This is why self-preservation becomes important. It is worth saying again: the real culprit here is the transactional nature of almost everything in British society, the weaknesses of which Covid has unwittingly exposed. It is also worth repeating that this is not an inevitable situation, but one created by forty years of successive government policy. It has restructured Health and Education, and pretty much everything else, along quasi-market lines while encouraging people to think of themselves as customers rather than citizens.

The difference is important: customers are primarily self-interested, whereas citizens are less so. Customers have little long-term interest in a relationship; citizens more so. In that situation, the most aggressive players nearly always win; there is no room for sentiment.

I think it was this that also underpinned my being roundly criticised by a group of parents on a local parent-teacher social media group some days ago – for having the temerity to suggest that they might consider accustoming their children to wearing masks in case the requirements change as the number of Covid infections rises again. For my attempt at considered professional support, I was told this was “none of my business”. This is a typical customer-type reaction: very ‘interested’ when there is something to gain, and not at all when there isn’t. (A startling spin-off of this encounter was the almost total lack of expressed concern for the well-being of the teachers. Again, why would you care about the bod who served your burger, once you’ve bought it?)

The problem with such vested interests is that they are both short-termist and potentially deceitful. Feigning interest is just another ploy in the marketplace ‘game’, as is disowning vested ones. And short-term interests nearly always win out over longer term ones, as instant gratification usually trumps the deferred type – ably assisted of course by hype.

What’s all this got to do with exam results? Well, to my mind, this is exactly how the education system now works. It explains why schools are so desperate to maintain statistics (their share price). It explains why universities now have huge marketing departments with glossy brochures, appealing as much to lifestyle as study – and then allocate places based on internal economics rather than academic potential.

It explains why exam results have become so important in the first place: they have become a currency in their own right. And as in any inflationary situation, what ‘backs’ that currency has become less important than the amount of it you hold in the first place. The fact that predicted grades are little more than educated guesses matters little when you can – nearly – treat them as hard currency in their own right. Even what students learn has now become just the fuel of that system, rather than anything that might be useful or interesting in its own right. Why else would so many teachers balk at even passing coverage of things that are “not on the syllabus”?

And it explains why teachers have taken to squealing so loudly where they perceive “injustices”. I’m not suggesting for a moment that don’t believe they are genuinely concerned for their students’ well-being, and it is not they who chose to operate in this system. But I think the collective professional mindset has now been so utterly saturated by this economised, transactional way of thinking that many can no longer see beyond it.

Advertising is a means of maximising your capital in such a system – which is why professional virtue-signalling is also so widespread. It results, too, in the frenzied claims about the “damage” done by lost classroom time – despite emerging evidence from the past months that high-pressure classroom regimes may be doing even more harm to some. Whose interests are we really serving here?

Many of the concerns I expressed in my previous posts have rapidly become reality. We now have students in up-coming years complaining that they will be disadvantaged when competing with those whose grades have been inflated. We have over-supply of students to the higher phases. Those given grades this year will always know that (through no fault of their own) they were never properly earned and are therefore eternally questionable as a real validation of ability. Inflating the grades will only have made all this worse.

Teachers have become proxy consumers of exam results – why would they not, when their annual appraisal and perhaps pay rests so heavily on them? This perhaps explains the satisfaction being expressed at the U-turn, despite the many other problems that will result, and the routine decrying of other views on the matter.

The answer to the unfair competition problem? Bump up the results even higher next year. Just to make sure the situation isn’t “unfair”. Just give prizes to everyone – then they will all be happy. The unfettered market mentality never did take a long view.

If I have a criticism of the teaching profession, it is not for protecting its own interests: that is in effect what it has been increasingly forced to do, jettisoning its impartiality on the way. But denying it is disingenuous; arguing for solutions that are, at very least little better than the original problem is irresponsible. All the more so when self-interest may be a significant factor.

Those in the profession should be taking a much harder look at this situation and reflecting on where they stand. There are still plenty of teachers, I believe, who see the situation and its complexity for what it is: who are still motivated by genuine educational purposes, and who understand that real student progress requires a significant degree of teacher detachment. They would still have argued for the recent issue to be revisited – though from another perspective. But they are not the ones who tend to be heard.

This is why, in my opinion, it is essential to de-couple teachers’ professional interests from those of their pupils once again. While teachers’ own interests align so closely with those of their pupils, they will never retain adequate professional detachment. The system we have has forced this alignment – and it has caused the neglect of the other responsibility of teachers: to be gatekeepers to educational success, to police standards even when that requires hard decisions to be made and disappointing outcomes to be accepted (so long as they are rigorous). Not just to be unthinking cheerleaders for young people come what may: the profession also has bigger responsibilities. We have been forced to see the exam boards and regulators as competitors, even the Enemy – when the profession should actually be supporting their work in calibrating the system as accurately as possible – and ensuring that educational rather than transactional values prevail.

In the past, exam grades were norm referenced – in effect an algorithm. It meant that a constant percentage of the cohort received a certain grade each year, and the grade boundaries were shifted – marginally – to achieve this. While this had its own drawbacks, it did allow for annual variations in for example exam difficulty. G.C.S.E.s replaced this with criterion referencing: anyone who hit a specified level received the corresponding grade, with no cap on numbers. Superficially this might seem fairer, but – coupled with publishing the criteria criteria – it was a huge driver of teaching to the test, and the transactional scrum that has come from the resultant grade inflation. I am not surprised that governments have tried to rein this in, even though they were its instigator.

In a sense, education has always been a marketplace: access always was a matter of supply and demand, as was the allocation of qualifications. It is simply a fact of life that previously-scarce resources become devalued if they are given free to all. But at least this was governed by academic principles, rather than the merely consumerist self-gratification that fuelled the recent furore.

The only way to remove this is to get rid of the competitive aspect of the education system entirely. That is still the situation in some countries – but it comes with its own set of difficult choices, of course. When the crunch came, it was the highly-economised model of education was the one that was found most wanting.

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Unjust deserts?

It is noticeable that today, even that scourge of right-wing governments, The Observer, accepts what I suggested in my earlier comments, that the parameters used in the exam-prediction algorithm made theoretical sense.

But it is also now clearer that something went desperately wrong with the way in which the algorithm worked or was applied. One would have thought that there had been adequate time for the Government to test this to destruction before the grades were announced – but it seems not. Such things are so far beyond my expertise that I cannot really comment further.

My comments were not intended to justify the outcome we have seen, which clearly needs further investigation and (probably) amendment. But I stand by my other observations, namely that a lot of the current outcry is not so much to do with the imperfection of the algorithm as the indignation that teachers were not “sufficiently listened to”. We need to rise above this: moral indignation – whether politically motivated or not – is neither the right nor the best approach.

The claims that teacher predicted grades should have been virtually the only criterion still do not hold water. As I pointed out, these grades are very often wrong; I have now seen a figure of 79% inaccuracy cited in The Observer. That does not surprise me: if the teaching profession is claiming that it is somehow immune to Optimism Bias, then it is certainly and miraculously the only part of the human species that is. That is not to suggest that there is deliberate distortion going on, but to deny that teachers are subject to such things is disingenuous, and in my view, this alone justified other factors being taken into consideration.

Even in these days of publicly-available marks schemes and exam hot-housing, school-reported results are only ever a less-than-impartial interpretation of what the exam board is looking for. I know from my own experience, that there were times when one used grades “elastically” for motivational or ‘stretch’ purposes, particularly near grade thresholds.

It is true that one does acquire a certain “gut feeling” for students’ abilities – but it is not reasonable to claim it is much more than that – nor that horse-trading does not go on between teachers over formal predictions. Nor it is untrue that knowledge of students’ target grades can distort the predictions teachers make. Being human, it can hardly be otherwise, no matter how hard we try – especially when we know how high the stakes can be. Equally, there are plenty of reasons for the grades that schools formally predict, for optimism bias to be a significant factor. Yet there is no acknowledgement of this fact.

The language that is used in education about such things also troubles me greatly. In particular, the use of the word “deserve”. From a moral perspective, Desert is a difficult matter. What one (supposedly) deserves at any given moment is deeply imponderable. I think it is dangerous for teachers to talk about what their pupils “deserve” – most of all when addressing the pupils themselves. And particularly so in the casual sense that is often used, implying that all young people deserve to succeed simply for being themselves, for being young, or for being students. What about young people who made no effort whatsoever? Do they “deserve” to be included in such blanket statements – because I’m pretty sure this is what such phrases imply? What about those who were disruptive in school or who even commit criminal acts? Do they deserve the same outcomes? Do people of unequal ability “deserve” to be given the same rewards, even though that would effectively devalue them for everyone? This is a word that teachers would wisely avoid.

Likewise, I have seen it said that these are “not the results we would want our young people to have received”. Well no, of course not. Superficially, we would all like prizes for all – but that is not to say it is a wise policy. And this again betrays a critical conflation of the desired outcomes with the actual ones, even accepting the deep flaws in what has happened. No exam ever delivered what all pupils and all teachers wanted. The answer is not to capitulate and just award teacher-predictions to all, as one Conservative M.P. has apparently suggested. The matter is more complex than that, even allowing for the difficulties caused during the last academic year.

As I said before, the aim should be to achieve maximum consistency with what has gone before – and what will come after. The “potential” that so many teachers seem to feel has not been recognised is not the same as actual exam performance, when many other factors have always come into play, that meant the results were not someone’s maximum potential. Like it or not, that has always been part of the exam “game” – and we have, as a nation, chosen to set disproportionate store by that game.

The trouble is, this is opening a Pandora’s Box: which limiting factors are admissible and which are not? What is an acceptable time threshold for mitigating circumstances? The fact that someone was feeling ill in the exam room? (Possibly). Issues like dyslexia? (often – but I am far from convinced this is never abused). Parental maltreatment as an infant? The fact that someone had broken up with their boy/girl friend the day before? Or that the weather was bad? Where does one stop? My own exam results were lower that what I think reasonably in hindsight reflected my “true potential” – but that deficit was largely due to poor choice of subjects and normal teenage turbulence and disaffection in the years before them. Why should that not be factored in too? Not everyone experiences them identically. Nor should we be swept away by claims that failure to compensate for these things inevitable “wrecks lives” That, given the blanket certainty with which it is cited, is just brinkmanship, more foot-stamping.

And this is before we consider those yet to come. If this year’s students are given an easy ride, how will it reflect on coming years’ students who do not receive such favours? They will eventually all be operating in the same higher education and jobs markets. Why should one cohort be given an extra-easy ride? They didn’t “deserve” the disruption from Covid (at least no more than the entire human race might) – but following cohorts don’t deserve to be put at a disadvantage as a result, either.

Some have observed that my earlier comments were unsympathetic. They were not meant as such – but I see no reason why the correct response to the current situation is indulgence. There are enough bona fide reasons not to trust teacher predictions 100% – without that implying acceptance of the shambles we have now.

This is why we must decouple teachers’ interests from those of their pupils. I don’t think it does the teaching profession any favours to be as invested as it is in a partisan stance: in the quest for fairness, I don’t believe that positive bias is any more acceptable than negative. This is perfectly compatible with wanting the best for your pupils because achieving it by misrepresentation is not the answer. I know for a fact that a few generations ago – when my parents taught – the witch-hunts that can follow from a teacher producing low exam results in a particular year did not happen. Again, I am not justifying repeated under-performance: this is where real individual professional responsibility needs to come in (though this, too, has been removed). But it needs to remove the reasons teachers have for partisan talking-up of specific student outcomes. Professionals need more detachment than that, for their students’ greater good, let alone their own.

The real problem is the simplistic, mechanical and consumerism-driven model of education that we now have. On the one hand, this has led people to believe that there is a simple causal relationship between what a teacher does with their students and the results those students achieve, as there is between a business and a customer. It is not so: there are many more factors involved than that, some which are neither predictable, nor in a teacher’s gift.

On the other, it has led people to cry foul when they don’t then receive what they feel they “deserve” as consumers of the education system – whether in the wider perspective it is justified or not. In education, the customer is not always right. Furthermore, the spectacle of teachers making such complaints is a significant factor in students and their parents following suit, whether well-considered or not.

I’m not suggesting there should not be reasonable grounds for appeal, as there have always been; indeed probably more so this year than usual. But it is also true that schools and teachers have increasingly used that procedure to “game” the system for furthering their own vested interests. I know of some schools where appealing grades has been pretty much an automatic annual policy in order to improve the statistics. This is not what I understand by professionalism.

This is not to imply that teachers are bent. The vast majority act in good faith – but whether it is wise or appropriate is a different matter. The recent spectacle has come close to an unedifying stamping of the feet. Professionalism should raise people above that, even though the partisanship has, I accept, been forced on teachers by the processes by which they are now appraised.

I repeat: this is why we desperately need to return teachers to a position where professional disinterest is possible. That is all I have been advocating in my posts.

Indulging in metaphorical foot-stamping, while repeatedly denying the validity of points such as those raised above, is disingenuous, and does the teaching profession no favours. Rather than reducing the matter to simplistic shouting, we should be providing a more rational, nuanced and disinterested narrative for the sake of all concerned. Where there is cause for concern, it should be advanced primarily through reasoned argument, rather than subjective matters of “fairness”. Teachers of course wish for the best for their students – but that is not the same as crying foul every time they don’t get what they want.

That this seems to be neither seen, nor perhaps possible, is said in sadness not anger.

Incidentally, I have seen no discussion, either, of the legal right of people to request decisions made by algorithm be reassessed by a human being. That ought to settle it.

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England – and the lure of the Exotic

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Italian days 2010

We English are a contrary lot. We spend a lot of time banging the drum for the supposed virtues of our own country, while simultaneously yearning for all the things that we perceive it is not. We have a long tradition of enchantment with the exotic, which probably comes from living on an island, from which escape takes some effort.

Maybe it is also something to do with living in a place which whose climate old-fashioned geography books used to describe as ‘equable’ and whose terrain is never much more than mildly challenging, when compared with that found in some places elsewhere. We have become masters of the dull and ordinary, trumpeting the virtues of that – and in parallel wishing we could be somewhere else.

‘Exotic’ is, of course, relative. The meaning of the word implies mild culture shock: encounters with places,people and things that are not familiar. And in that sense, England would seem exotic too, if you happen to come from the Yanomami tribe of the Brazilian Amazon.

I’m no different, I suppose. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the places that I love, though being somewhat cowardly, I like my exotic fairly mild, and am usually content with places further into Europe. That’s what draws me to the savoir-vivre of France, the dolce vita of Italy, and even the rather more low-key crisp and sometimes chic  efficiency of Germany and Switzerland.

There is more to it than that, though, because there are many things about those places that I admire which I know are more than skin-deep. To my mind, there is a clear culture-gap between these islands and our neighbouring continent – and I’m not certain that the appeal of many of their ways is only down to the appeal of the different, or exotic.

The difficulty comes when you try to emulate it at home. For the last month or more, the temperatures in Britain have been on a par with those more normally found in southern parts of France or northern Italy. It’s what we spend a lot of time yearning for – and yet the ways people are reacting (or not) are instructive.

I’m ignoring the media hype, and thinking about everyday life. Not the novelty has worn off, people have started complaining about the heat and craving rain. Well, if you’re a gardener, I can understand why – though our peppers and melons are doing exceptionally well this year – and I’m not sure they would even really need their poly-tunnel, inside which it is in the low 40s. I’m even noticing a gradual change in what people are wearing: the number of loose, lightweight flowing garments and brighter colours seem to be on the increase – a distinct improvement on the normal dull British turn-out. Tight denim and trainers are just too hot in this weather.

I wonder what people are eating. For once, our preferred Mediterranean-style diet doesn’t seem out of place, and neither does sitting outside to eat on days when the air is as warm until late in the evening as we find it on the continent. I’m not sure I would want to be eating burgers and chips in this weather, even if that were my normal preference.

And yet certain other things don’t seem to change. Unlike in the regularly warm countries, people don’t seem to be slowing down much. They are muscling on through the daily routine – though to be fair, I suppose daily life continues as normal in the south too, even when it is hot. But in the U.K. people struggle and grumble; I wonder how many are staying indoors in the relative cool during the heat of the day. Working days don’t really allow for it of course – but maybe we should adopt Spanish practice and take a siesta, at least temporarily? What would it take to do that?

More puzzlingly, evening life doesn’t seem to have adjusted. Having spent the day either sweltering, or taking refuge indoors, it is pleasant to get out and about in the relative cool of the evening. That’s where the Italian passeggiata comes from – and the general tendency of those cultures to live long into the night. But even in our small town, the streets are deserted in the evenings. Some are away on holiday, but the evidence suggests that people remain sweltering inside, as glued to their T.V.s as ever. Ours really is not an outdoor culture, for all we go on about it.

So here we are, basking in the kind of temperatures that we spend much of our year craving – and what are we doing with it? Not a lot, really. It is worth remembering that our current temperatures are just normal for places further south, where we often holiday. One hot summer is not enough to bring about real cultural change – but one can wonder what will happen if this is a foretaste of what is to come more frequently as global warming takes hold. Will the Brits adapt and become more like the southerners are today? Will our gardens become more like those dreamy places in Provence or Tuscany which thrive on hot dry weather (as my oleander and palms are doing this summer)? Or will we just sit at home amongst our new-found exoticism and yearn for the lost ordinariness of England?

Because, of course, when this becomes the norm, it will stop being exotic at all.

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English nights 2018
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The Great Exception

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I don’t often cross-blog from my professional activities, but this event warrants it: my book The Great Exception: why teaching is a profession like no other is now on sale. It’s quite a moment after more than three years’ work.

Published by John Catt Educational, it is of most relevance to those in the education world – but no reason why curious others shouldn’t read it too! It also makes an excellent door-stop.

My thanks to John Catt for doing a great job with it.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Exception-Ian-Stock/dp/1911382578/