Knife Crime and schools: Panic +Populism = Poor Policy

Well, it’s all brewing up nicely, isn’t it? The austerity chickens are coming home to roost and only the most slavish Tory ideologues can willfully avoid the obvious conclusions. Civil society in general is falling apart, but I’ll confine myself for the moment to Education, where several interesting threads are coalescing.

Britain’s finest minds tackle crisis head-on and fail. Again

First the knife crime and exclusion conundrum. It is absolutely staggering just how totally wrong the politicians and commentators, intelligent people all, can get this. Why can’t they be bothered to do some proper research or get briefed by someone who knows what they are talking about?

The general thrust of the “argument” put forward by lazy hacks seems to be: Crisis in number of deaths and attacks involving young people and knives. Plus surge in permanent exclusions from school. Plus Ofsted’s belated concern about schools using “off-rolling” to manipulate their figures. The answer is obvious. It’s the schools’ fault for excluding too many students, who are left as vulnerable, easy prey for hardened criminals. And the media crew fall over themselves, hugging themselves with glee, as an opportunity presents itself for them to indulge in one of their favourite pastimes, Teacher bashing. An easy narrative, that they can get three or four weeks of cheap copy from.

The trouble is, it’s far too important to shrug one’s shoulders and move on. The track record of Government in making populist policy on the back of misleading headlines goes back a long way. Sometimes it comes back to bite the perpetrator (See Sajid Javid wriggling in the backlash of his nakedly populist, inhumane edict on Shamima Begum and her baby), but generally it bites us, The British People, as we are routinely referred to these days.

Let’s separate exclusions from Off-Rolling for a start. Off-Rolling is an indefensible practice that has only one motivator: to massage performance table figures for the benefit of the school. If accountability measures are so high -stakes that people’s jobs are at risk, then it’s fairly obvious that the ever- resourceful school leadership community will come up with allowable scams to achieve better headline figures. I don’t blame them for this. School leadership is an incredibly stressful, pressured and difficult job. The thing that constantly takes me by surprise is the way that the powers that be (The DFE and Ofsted) profess surprise, shock and disappointment that schools are behaving in ways that are a direct result of policies implemented by the DFE and Ofsted, as if it is nothing to do with them. Rather than blame schools and heads, change the accountability system and use a bit of imagination when you’re about it.

Permanent exclusions are an entirely different matter. On the Today Programme on Radio 4 last week, Justin Webb casually used the phrase “a handful of tricky students” to describe the kids that were being permanently excluded, as if schools couldn’t be bothered to deal with them in-house. It was another one of those moments of banging the dashboard and screaming at the radio, much to the surprise and amusement of other drivers on the M25.

Schools absolutely need the facility to remove students from classroom, for the benefit of the rest of the class, and for the benefit of the child being removed. If it has got to that point, the school is clearly not meeting the needs of the child and another solution has to be sought. In my experience, permanent exclusions are the front sheet of a very thick file detailing all of the efforts that the school has made to engage with the child and the family. It is not a decision taken lightly.

The kids who are off-rolled are much more likely to be dealt with by a chat with the parent, usually the mother, where it is politely explained that they might like to take their child out of school for the the last two terms to avoid them being permanently excluded, with that forever on their record. They become officially home schooled. The school agrees to let the kid sit the exams at the school, usually in a separate room from the rest of Year 11. These deals often come with offers of help with revision materials etc, which is a sweetener. The school has effectively washed its hands of the “tricky student” because they do not figure in the results.

The numbers are increasing in part because of Gove’s boneheaded imposition of the new exams which make the experience of many troubled and challenging children even more alienating than they were already. (see my blog from Feb5th on this: ) Kids vote with their feet. If you want to do something about Los Disaparecidos sort out the curriculum so it meets the needs of the students rather than the needs of Tory politicians pandering to the ghastly conference attendees.

The issue is not with exclusion, it’s with the next step. Exclusion to what? And this takes me back to the first point at the beginning of this piece. It’s a question of money and austerity. You can’t do Education on the cheap. It’s an investment, not a burden, and you get what you pay for.  Pupil Referral Units need a massive injection of money, sustained and guaranteed over years. It needs to be transformed explicitly into a high status career track for teachers, a place where behaviour specialists, therapists, educationalists, highly skilled subject teachers come together and work with small numbers of excluded students. Top quality people need to be incentivised to choose that route as a career track. I’m sure that the top quality people who are already working in that sector, would benefit massively from such an approach and would welcome it.

Of course, this won’t happen. History teaches us that the same inadequate, careerist Government Ministers will make the same inadequate, populist policy decisions, piling further responsibilities onto schools with less money and with their hands tied behind their backs. I fully expect someone will soon pompously announce to camera that a) they are giving the police extra powers and b) they are banning permanent exclusions from schools. Phew, thank goodness for that. Sorted!

Are you, or have you ever been, Pixellated?

It’s that time of year again. A couple of months to go to GCSE exams, the last round of data collection is in, and Senior Leaders are in full panic mode. 4Matrix has well and truly pulverised the figures and a list of students and teachers has popped out of the end. SIMs has generated data cards on every Year 11 student, cross-referenced against pupil premium, target grades and subgroup and the War room wall display is dutifully constructed, so that everyone, can see the current state of play. The more gung-ho schools and the most desperate schools will run at least one other data trawl and one more set of mock exams to generate maximum panic as they reveal you are miles away from your targets. As the weeks roll by, the pressure ratchets up and further strategies, each one more extreme, more perverse, more hyperventilating than the last, are rolled onto the battlefield, the modern educational equivalent of the Trebuchet or the Battering Ram.

Pixl time.

That’s what it is in London and the North East. I believe there was a Pixl toehold developing Bristol way a few years ago, but that might have changed now. It’s been some time since I was involved in the exam frenzy that is Pixl, but the techniques they pioneered, the general approach they represented is widespread now, regardless of whether your school is a member of the organisation or not. And it really is time for a rethink.

I first got involved with Pixl as a Deputy Head of a school in challenging circumstances with several years of GCSE results that were unremittingly crap, over ten years ago now. I know that data gurus will wince at the imprecision of the descriptor “Crap”, but as a “words not numbers” kind of guy, I feel it’s more accurate than a spreadsheet in giving you a full picture of the situation. Crap from top to bottom. I had just joined and like many schools they had had some kind of woolly mentoring scheme for Year 11 that had failed dismally despite an enormous amount of hard work from many people at the school. Except the Year 11s, obviously. No-one knew why it had failed so comprehensively, so Pixl’s arrival on the scene, (or London Challenge as it was known then), came just at the right time because it was providing much needed answers

We met with the Pixl head honcho and signed up on the back of his assurance that paying £3K a year was chicken feed because it guaranteed that your headline 5 A*-C figures would go up by at least 10%. It was a no-brainer. We had been on the verge of following some scheme called “Assertive Mentoring”, but went for London Challenge instead because there were several other local schools that had done so successfully, and because there was a network of support, an infrastructure to help each school through.

It was a stunning success.

Our results went up by 20%. Simply by doing our job properly, in a coordinated way, joining the dots and going the extra mile. The next couple of years confirmed it. This was an approach that worked. And it turned me into a much better Senior Leader and a much better classroom teacher. It showed me what was possible. It reminded me who were the adults in the room. It taught me to think out of the box and not to just accept how things had been done in the past. To analyse a problem and arrive at solutions, regardless of structural or institutional barriers.

Every London Challenge meeting (or PIXL meeting after the Government disbanded London Challenge) was productive. There were always new ideas, and intensely practical suggestions about strategies and approaches. Back at school, staff were receptive and eager to try these new ways of doing things because they were passionate about serving their community and their students, who frankly, had been given a raw deal by society. All was well.

And then….

As the government began to move the goal posts, PIXL responded. Each change designed to make some of the strategies unfeasible was met with ingenious new ways of delivering results. And then there would be another change and so on. Until the King was backed into a corner of the board, one move closer to checkmate. Gaming the system became the new Government catchphrase. We all thought we were just doing our jobs properly, trying to deliver for our students, but apparently not.

But even from the beginning, there were doubts. Remember the ALAN tests? Numeracy and Literacy tests that were worth half a GCCSE each, they were a useful qualification for a small cohort of Year 11 and they had the added bonus of getting them over the line of the magic five. I remember being at one meeting and some new convert to Pixl stood up and proudly told everyone how the entire year11 cohort had been got through both ALAN tests, adding x percent to their results. He received rapturous applause. What a guy!

But, what about the kids? Did they all need it?  Of course not. But they were dragged through it, sacrificial victims to the headline figures. Aren’t they under enough pressure as it is? And what about the staff who had to haul them through? I doubt they had much say in the matter.

And then there was the consultant who told us that it was imperative that our GCSE English key marginals had to achieve at least two grades above their target grade for the written coursework to maximise their chances of getting a C or above. As someone who had done coursework for the previous twenty years, working for the exam board as a senior moderator, I knew that there was only one way to achieve that, and it wasn’t by inspiring the students. It was to cheat.

At the same time the London meetings took on the air of an evangelical religious meeting. Fervour was in the air. People speaking in tongues. Tambourines banged. Individuals singled out by the saintly head of the organisation to stand and bask in the frenzied approbation of the congregation. Dissent was out of the question. It was simply not possible to question anything suggested from the front of the auditorium.

Very early on, it had been suggested that D grade (back in the day, younger readers, a C was the magic bench mark and anything below that was worthless in terms of league tables) was just not good enough and that to accept that was to fail one’s students. The suggestion that, for some students, a D grade represented a real achievement, massive progress after much hard work, was treated with disdain. You were either laughed at for your naivety, or castigated for your lack of “moral purpose”.

Ah yes, moral purpose. Smug, sanctimonious PIXL apparatchiks used this vile phrase to make it clear that anyone in the Pixl universe who did not sign up to every last madcap scheme the organisation sponsored, was in some way, a lesser human being. You were letting down your students. You were being selfish. On judgement day, there would be no way you would pass through into the promised land, because you had comprehensively demonstrated that you were not worthy.

And so, towards the end of my time under the PIXL jackboot, we had moved on from Twilight training sessions, after 6pm, walking talking mocks, constantly using the PIXL library of mock exams to drill our year 11s endlessly after school. The latest thing was to do a last -minute revision session at about 7am the morning of the real exam. The idea was that you could somehow subliminally plant key information in the minds of the students, sitting in their proper exam seats in the proper exam hall, in the last few hours before the exam was due to start. It was a brave Head of Department or Senior Leader who stuck their head above the parapet to venture the opinion that this was just voodoo exam prep, a busy activity to be done for the sake of doing something, anything, without any evidence that it worked. And heaven protect the teacher who suggested that staff had already done more than enough to support their Year 11 students and that to ask more was to risk burn out.

It got to the point where these additional activities were expected, not just by Senior Leaders, but by parents and students. Complaints were made by parents about a Department that were not willing to lay on a pre -exam session at 7 am, or an Easter revision session, or a twilight slot. You were accused directly of letting down little Johnny. A culture developed amongst students that said that attendance at extra sessions should be enough to guarantee success, even for those students who messed around with their friends when they did attend and who didn’t show up for mainstream lessons, or did show up and were involved in constant low -level disruption.

And what, ultimately, was the result of all of this “support”?

A generation of kids who developed the attitude that it did not matter what they did, in terms of class work or homework, there would always be some mug teacher who would give yet more time to them, even when they had thrown it back in their face during normal lessons. Because the kids, being very wise, had clocked that the whole thing mattered much more to their teachers than it did to them. The ultimate in spoon feeding. This, of course, was going on at the same time as Senior Leaders were launching yet another initiative to encourage independent learning, when the whole structure of Year 11 GCSE preparation rested upon an enormous, tottering edifice of dependency.

If I were the Secretary of State for Education, I would bring the whole tottering edifice crashing down. I would ban after school lessons, holiday revision schemes, the whole works. Teachers would deliver high quality lessons. Students who did not get the grades they needed would resit the year. This would incentivise students to take responsibility for their own learning. Over time there would be a revolution of attitude and students would inevitably, become independent learners, doing what they needed to do to get the grades they needed to enter the next chapter of their lives. And it would only work with an accompanying revolution in school accountability measures, which have so blighted and distorted the educational process.

Or, as has been recently suggested, get rid of GCSEs altogether, and get back to Teaching and Learning.

I hope that Year 11 teachers everywhere, and Senior Leaders and even senior members of PIXL don’t take too much offence at this. I know it’s not as simple as bad guys and good guys, bullies and victims. I know that the overwhelming majority of people involved with PIXL are well-meaning, good people who want the best for the students. And if some of them are building careers, as are some of the Year 11 teachers who are burning themselves out delivering all of this stuff, as well as trying to give their students a leg up, well there are worst things to be guilty of than that. I just wish we questioned it more and campaigned for alternative approaches. Because if there is one thing I’m sure of it’s this. The annual, exhausting scramble for GCSE results that are good enough to placate OFSTED and Performance Managers is inevitably self-defeating. And it’s not education. That is something much bigger, finer, more valuable, more important, more precious. Something, in short,  worth fighting for.