Friday, 27 September 2013

Why I changed my mind on for-profit schools

Back before the last election I wrote several reports arguing in favour of profit-making schools.

In 2009 I wrote:
"The question of profit is one the most emotive aspects of [school reform] and has been the focus of discontent on the left of American and Swedish politics. There seems to be little basis for this, or for the queasiness over potential profit-making schools in the UK, beyond an intuitive dislike of the idea that money could be made from educating children."
I never thought it was key to reform
"We do not believe that the inclusion of for profit firms in any reform is essential to making
making reform work – and reformers may consider the additional opposition it creates not worth the trouble."
But I did think that it would create extra incentives for people to develop federations of schools (which I've always thought is key to the success of any school reform movement):
"However, for-profit groups are much more likely to have the scale and ambition necessary to create multi-school federations. Larger charities with a national or regional focus, such as Harris and ARK in the UK or KIPP and the other CMOs in the US, are also able to do this, but such groups are relatively few and far between, especially during an economic downturn."

So why have I changed my mind?

Well I haven't had a Damascene conversion to Marxism. I still think that the intuitive horror many on the left have to the use of for-profit companies to provide public services is irrational. There are plenty of existing examples where for-profit companies fulfil a need at least as well as alternatives. It perhaps works best where services are simple and easy to measure (rubbish collection; maintenance etc...) but the NHS uses for-profit companies to buy-in treatments; many parents spend their nursery entitlement in for-profit nurseries. And so on. In parts of the developing world for-profit schools are the only chance many children get to have a decent education.

The question for me isn't "are for-profit schools inherently good or bad" it's "would for-profit schools improve the education system as it currently is". And there my answer is no - for three connected reasons.

One: the incentives that I thought allowing profit would create exist anyway

I failed to predict, back in 2009, how many natural entrepreneurs existed in the education system who would take advantage of the Academies Act to quickly develop chains and federations. When I left the DfE back in February there were around 150 schools that had not only converted to academy status but started up their own federation. I expect that number is now closer to 200. Some chains have grown very fast (some have grown too fast).

In some cases I guess this surge of entrepreneurship is linked to desire for personal gain or status (you don't have to run a for-profit company to make a lot of money yourself). But I think in most cases it has been motivated by moral purpose - successful school leaders wanting to reach more children than they could do by running a single school.

Two: allowing for-profit wouldn't in any case create much extra incentive because it's not a profitable industry

As many a CEO has found to their cost in America and Sweden it's very hard to make any money out of running schools. 80% of a school's costs are staff; without good staff you can't have a good school so offering lower salaries isn't really an option. There are only two ways you can make any money. First employ fewer teachers by using blended learning approaches. To put in kindly there's not a huge amount of evidence for these approaches (the for-profit "virtual" charter school sector in the US is an absolute scandal). Secondly, run so many schools that you make your money by cutting back-office costs. But the number of schools you'd need to make much profit make this pretty undesirable too. Most of the reputable firms that have run the numbers on schools have backed off pretty quickly.

You might be thinking (though you probably aren't) that it's worth a try anyway. You might get some really innovative companies that come up with a way of running great schools and making some money at the same time. But...

Three: allowing for-profit would require a complete overhaul of current processes
One of the big misconceptions about the Government's reform programme is that it "paves the way" for profit-making schools. In fact the system only works because all academies and free schools are not-for-profit. Back under the last Government anti-academy campaigners judicially reviewed the decision to allow UCL to sponsor an academy in Camden. They argued that it broke EU law because there wasn't a public procurement process where anyone could bid for the "contract". The judge ruled for the Government but only on the grounds that academies were all sponsored by not-for-profits. Had the Government handed that academy to SERCO they would have lost the review.

That means if the current Government wanted to allow for-profits they'd have to run a full procurement exercise for every sponsored academy and free school. The Swedes get around this by giving licenses to run free schools to any provider who meets a certain threshold. But that means losing any real control over who can set up a school. And as it precludes handing out capital (because you don't know how many will be over the threshold) it also pushes not-for-profits out of the market. There are no big not-for-profit chains like ARK or KIPP in Sweden. In any case that model wouldn't work for sponsored academies.

So that's why I changed my mind. We don't need them and the cost of overhauling the system is completely disproportionate to any potential benefit they could bring. For these reasons I can't see any Government going down this route for the foreseeable future.





Sunday, 8 September 2013

ResearchED 2013

About six months ago Ben Goldacre and I were having a twitter conversation about how one might mobilise the burgeoning collective interest in research amongst teachers. We'd agreed that a grassroots conference would be a great thing...but that sounded like a lot of work. Who would be crazy enough to take on that kind of a challenge in their spare time? I half-jokingly asked Tom Bennett on the grounds that he was a) a teacher b) had written a lot about research c) is well liked across the political/policy spectrum and d) is just about crazy enough to take on a project like that...

To be honest I didn't actually think he'd do it.

Anyway fast forward six months to yesterday and I found myself watching Tom presenting Ben to an audience of 500 expectant educationalists - most of them - uniquely in my experience of attending research conferences - classroom teachers. Taking that germ of an idea to reality in such a short space of time has been a heroic effort by Tom and his small team of volunteers; especially Helene Galdin O'Shea. They deserve all the praise they're getting.

The event itself was the best I've attended on the topic. Partly because of the speakers but also because of the shared sense that this was a real tipping point for the profession. There are now enough teachers engaged in research to make a conference on a Saturday at the beginning of term viable (with another 400 on the waiting list). This movement is only going to get stronger....

As for the speakers Ben Goldacre summarised his DfE report with great humour. I particularly enjoyed his caricatures of the sort of people who will try to put teachers off research (especially the smug git who once read about a methodological problem with RCTs and now thinks it's smart to dismiss them completely...)

I stayed in the main hall to watch Amanda Spielman talk about the ways in which ARK schools use research for school improvement. As usual when listening to Amanda speak I found myself wondering why more schools aren't just copying ARK given the strength of their systems and the robustness of the results to date.

After that I rushed over to another building to listen to Joe Kirby and Becky Allen talk about Teach First. Joe's excellent presentation is here and I've already blogged about Becky's research here. I did think Becky's presentation was masterful in its careful use of caveats and refusal to make overblown assertions about the findings. There were lots of questions at the end but no time left to answer them. I did, though, see Becky furiously scribbling them down so I'm hoping for some more analysis in the future.

Then it was on to my favourite presentation of the day from Laura McInerney. She challenged us to think up 7 "touchpaper" problems for education that were focused on cognitive development, would of direct relevance to classroom teachers and would have a clear end point. She had a couple of interesting ones herself including (I'm paraphrasing) "if you wanted a class to learn 20 chunks of knowledge between two lessons what's the most effective homework you could set"? She's promised me she has thought up seven and will be blogging on it shortly. I think it's an idea that the DfE or a education foundation should pick up and run with.

I missed the next set of sessions to compose myself before my own talk on evidence-based policy-making. I had a decent crowd who seemed receptive to my musings. It was filmed so I'll post a link when I have one.

I then really wanted to see Katie Ashford talk about her views on teacher training based on her own experiences and subsequent research. Unfortunately the door was physically blocked because there were so many people in the room. I'm told it was fascinating.

After the event finished a large group of us went off to the pub. I met many tweeters I'd only known virtually before and had some fairly spirited debates...

I got back home at 11:00 after a great day wondering what I should ask Tom to do next...

Anyway my proposed slogan for ResearchED 2014:

"The geeks shall inherit the earth"

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Teach First boosts GCSE grades

Today sees the publication of the most comprehensive quantitative analysis of Teach First's impact to date.

The paper - by Dr Becky Allen and Jay Allnut - uses several different methodologies to see whether schools and departments with Teach First teachers achieve better GCSE grades than similar ones that don't. Their two key findings are:

1)    That schools using Teach First see an improvement of around one GCSE grade per pupil across their "best eight" GCSEs. If this doesn't sound like much bear in mind that most secondary schools involved with the programme have only a couple of teachers from Teach First out of a staff of 80-100. Furthermore the researchers only looked at Teach Firsters in their first three years of teaching.

2)    That subject departments containing at least one Teach First teacher see an improvement of about 5% of a grade in that subject when compared to other departments in the same schools. As the authors note given that only 1 in 6 of a department's teachers (on average) will be Teach Firsters this means that if all of that 5% is being generated in their classrooms they will be improving their pupil's results by 30%. Which is a very significant increase. As the authors put it:

"Our estimate of impact of the order of at least 5% of a subject grade could be as high as 30% of a grade if we assume no spillovers of participation to other teachers in the same department. This implies that Teach First participants are highly effective, on average, compared to those they have displaced."

These are really encouraging results but like all good research the paper raises some interesting questions for further study - many of which are noted by the authors in the text. For instance:

1) How much of the impact found is due to Teach First's highly selective recruitment model? The authors think most of it but the effects of recruitment can't easily be separated from the different training model and the sense of mission inculcated during this training. If these things are partly responsible for the impact what could other teacher training programme learn?

2) How much of the departmental impact is down to the Teach Firster's own teaching and how much is it do with the knock-on effects of them joining on the rest of the department? The authors think knock-on effects (or spillover effects as they call them) are important. If this is right then it raises some interesting questions about the validity of value-added models for individual teachers.

3) Are there knock-on effects between departments? So - for instance - does an improvement in the English department also help the Maths department? If it does then the methodology will have underestimated the impact of Teach First teachers (as it compares improvements in departments with Teach Firsters with those without them in the same school).

4) What are the long-term impacts on schools who stay with the programme over many years? Do Teach Firsters who stay in teaching continue to have a strong impact? Do they make particularly effective leaders?

5) What impact will the expansion of Teach First have? This research covers a period when we were recruiting between 200-500 teachers a year. Will be able to maintain that impact when recruiting 2000 - as we plan to do in two years' time? We certainly hope so - and have no intention of consciously dropping the quality bar.


Sunday, 1 September 2013

On Memory

Probably the most enjoyable book I read over the summer was "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer. In it he describes his journey from covering the US memory championships in 2005 as a science journalist to winning it the following year; with the help of various gurus including UK memory grand master Ed Cooke. Along the way he offers multiple digressions on the history and science of memory.

Foer wins the Championships by learning a series of well established memory techniques like the Method of loci, or Memory Palace. This technique, also popularised by illusionist Derren Brown, enables the user to memorise long lists of items or numbers by coming up with a striking visual representations and then placing them on a route around a well-known location. It is effective because it taps into our much more powerful visual and special memory rather than relying on standard rote learning.

Foer also picks up some more advanced tricks such as the PAO system for remembering six digit numbers. This works by assigning an arbitrary Person, Action and Object to every two digit number; so 38 could be David Cameron eating a kebab; 47 might be Ed Miliband bouncing on a space hopper and 98 Nick Clegg talking to a toddler. After encoding all two digit numbers any six digit number can be remembered by combining the person from the first number; the action from the second and the object from the third. So 384798 is Cameron bouncing on a toddler.

While PAO and some of the other more complex systems are unnecessary unless you want to baffle your friends or win memory championships, the basic techniques actually have quite a lot of utility for people who do need to remember a lot of information such as schoolchildren preparing for an exam. Dan Willingham includes a list of such mnemonic techniques on p.59 of "Why Don't Students Like School?"* And nearly all of us will remember at least one or two mnemonics passed on during childhood (for some reason I always remember how to spell "necessary" by thinking "never-eat-cake-eat-smoked-salmon-and-remain-young").

Foer includes a fairly cursory discussion of the potential education benefits of more systematic mnemonics citing Bronx schoolteacher Raemon Matthews who became nationally known for his startling success with students using memory techniques and won several teacher of the year awards (before being stuck off - after the book's publication - for sexual misconduct).

This isn't much to go on but I did find myself wondering whether many teachers in the UK systematically teach their pupils how to remember more easily (as opposed to using the occasional mnemonic). It's not something I've seen widely discussed despite the seemingly endless debates on the value of memorised facts over generic skills. It would certainly be fascinating to run an RCT to investigate the value of memory techniques. The potential irony is that learning a set of skills might enable children to remember a lot more facts.

There is a deeper question, of course, as to whether the sort of memorising still required for exams is actually useful at all. Foer acknowledges that, of course, memorising masses of information does not make a person intelligent - indeed many of the memory champions that turn up in his book are almost comically unsuccessful in any of their real-life endeavours. And he includes a poignant meeting with the late Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man, who remembered the complete content of over 9,000 books yet could do absolutely nothing with the information but party tricks.

Despite this Foer ends up taking the E.D. Hirsch line that memory is essential in providing the conceptual framework for the further development of ideas. As he puts it:

"It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory...but memory and intelligence to seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There's a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded in the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world."

And not only is memory a facet of intelligence it is also vital to our shared sense of humanity:

"How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humour in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character."

* Willingham says he's not a fan of method of loci because they are "hard to use for different sets of material" - e.g. if he uses a walk around his house to memorise the periodic table can he use the same walk for French verbs? Foer makes it pretty clear in his book that you can't use the same route for two different sets of information so have to have multiple routes available to you (your house; your parents house; work; the park etc...).