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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Attempt #2 to raise the quality of debate in education

With a nod to my earlier post on creeping stupidity... I should declare in advance that I am CEO of an Academy Sponsor (the Elliot Foundation) and I have helped a number of of academy chains and groups of schools who are considering whether becoming an academy is in their interest.  But I'm getting a little bored with the spectacular inaccuracy and prejudice presented as fact on all sides of the education debate.

Yesterday the Times published an article under the title 'Huge Gulf in Academy Standards Revealed' (and I'm not having a pop at the Times as this is representative of the reporting on the sector as a whole and they have at least tried to inform).  They had commissioned Price Waterhouse Coopers to analyse national school results and had produced a league table that I have pasted below:


You might think that I would be chuffed to bits to be running the second best primary chain in the country.  Particularly since I was in the media a fortnight ago calling for league tables of academy sponsors and for OFSTED to inspect academy chains.  But actually I think the whole table is probably rubbish because it doesn't give you enough information to decide whether it is meaningful. And I'm hoping that, because it says we are great, you might believe me when I pick it apart.

It would appear from the table that what PWC has done is to take the publicly available school performance tables (that were published last November) and stick them into a spreadsheet to work out collectively what percentage of children in each Multi Academy Trust achieved the expected level (in primary) and their average point score (in secondary) and then ranked them.

If this all that PWC has done (and it could be a big if as the Times has not published the actual report and the rankings are not in strictly numerical order at the bottom so they probably haven't) then it is so criminally simplistic as not to bear thinking about.  It's like comparing Havant Town Football Club with Real Madrid...

Not all primary schools are created equal.  This is not some pathetic, wet, lefty moan about unfairness.  It's blunt and simple.  Some primary schools deal with children who arrive at the age of four still in nappies and unable to communicate. And some don't.  To compare them simply in terms of the levels their children have reached at the end of the schooling is dangerous.

So if you are going to publish tables, and I believe we should because otherwise no-one will trust you,  then you need to publish them with some form of context data and seek to inform people about it.


English as an additional language Pupil Premium Index of Multiple Deprivation Times/PWC score
Harris Federation Primaries 23% 36% 57% 84%
Elliot Foundation 47% 45% 78% 78%
Wakefield Diocese 37% 45% 79% 63%
National average 19% 27% 50% 80%




In the above table I have quickly pulled together some of the more common measures that indicate challenge in schools for the top two and one of the bottom three (of the table above) and given the national average (source DfE data and ONS data but figures not in bold are my calculations so may contain errors) and you should immediately see that there is significant variance in all the levels of challenge (incidentally the Index of Multiple Deprivation ranks the post codes in the country from 1% least deprived to 100% most deprived).  So a blanket sponsor x is better than sponsor y is not immediately apparent.

And this is before we factor in the level of transience, which is pupils moving in and out of schools or other issues affecting performance.

If you want to have a reasonable comparison, you are much better off looking at pupil progress or value add rather than attainment .  But to do that you have to assess children very early in their schooling and that is a whole other debate...

So just to summarise:

  • Making a school into an academy doesn't improve anything unless it comes with significant other changes to the way that school is run or children are taught (otherwise you are simply changing the name)
  • Most of the most challenged schools in the country (particularly at secondary level) have already become academies so like-for-like comparisons with schools under local authority control is impossible
  • Equally many sponsors have not had their schools long enough to claim that any improvement or deterioration was their fault or to their credit
  • It could simply be regression to the mean (ie on average things are average)
  • Although it is only human to want to simplify things into good and bad
  • It is usually too complicated to give such a simple answer
Don't rush to judgement.  

Teachers and school leaders want to improve outcomes for your children.  

I wish I could say the same about everyone else.

Enough already! Can we stop the stupid please...?

Unfortunately, complete ignorance does not prevent strongly held opinions.  In fact the opposite is true.  He who shouts loudest, generally shouts stupidest.  And those who know more, generally doubt more...

In the past this was less of a problem.  You could walk away from the drunk in the pub or the nutter on the bus.  But the rise of social media has just given lots of idiots a megaphone and a soapbox. Moreover, we seem to have forgotten the caveat to the most common justification for self-endarkenment,

"Everybody is entitled to an opinion...."

Yes they are.  But they're not entitled to have that opinion taken seriously unless they can marshall evidence in its defence.

If you want to be taken seriously you must cite your sources and declare any interest so that other people can evaluate you opinion.

Rant over. Sorry.