About logicalincrementalism

Interested in systems, neurobiology, education and developmental disorders.

Co-production: now you see it, now you don’t

Co-production is currently a Big Idea in public services in the UK. The previous post summarised my attempts to track down the theory behind it. That search has prompted some further thoughts. I’d found out where the idea of co-production came from, but it’s presented quite differently by the NESTA papers and Parent Carer Forums (PCFs).   How did it get onto their agenda, and why are their models of it so different to the model originally developed by Elinor Ostrom and Edgar Cahn?

co-production and Parent Carer Forums

Co-production isn’t mentioned in the 2007 paper Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families, which proposed parent engagement via parent carer forums – and the funding for them. Nor does it appear in the 2011 Green Paper Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability that heralded the new SEND legislation.

The first appearance I could find was in the April 2013 report Co-production with parent carers: The SE7 experience.  In June 2013 it pops up, frequently, in a Pathfinder Information Pack Engagement and participation of children, young people parents and carers. The ‘strategic participation of parent carers’ is described as:

“The participation of co-production with representative parents carers in strategic planning, decision making, commissioning and service evaluation. Over the last five years, the Department for Education have supported and funded the development of parent carer forums in every area across England. It is essential that Parent Carer Forums are involved in co-producing plans and implementation of the reforms. Forums are also members of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF), provide the opportunity to feedback at regional and national levels. Representatives from the NNPCF work strategically with Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health (DH).” (p.3)

The information pack cites the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)’s March 2011 Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures. Page 36 of the NCVO almanac reviews participatory methods used to involve communities in local decision making. Interestingly, co-production isn’t mentioned.

Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures in turn cites a study by Involve, set up in 1996 and part of the National Institute for Health Research. I couldn’t find a publication date for their People & Participation: How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making, but it was based on research carried out in 2004/05 and has an introduction by Hazel Blears as Minister of State for Policing, Security and Community Safety, a post she held until May 2006. The Involve study does refer to co-production – in the context of Arnstein’s ladder of participation (p.18) – but doesn’t mention Ostrom’s or Cahn’s work.

putting the production back into co-production

The term co-production isn’t trademarked, so there’s nothing stopping people using it to refer only to one component of the Ostrom-Cahn model, such as a dynamic group process (PCFs), active participation (Involve), or volunteering to ‘give back’ (NESTA). But using it in such different ways is confusing. A single sentence could point readers to co-production’s origins and why an organisation was focusing on only one aspect of it.

Significantly, presenting only one aspect of co-production as co-production, also means that a key component of the Ostrom-Cahn model has repeatedly been overlooked. That missing component is the non-money-based, or ‘core’ economy; the things people make or do (‘produce’) that have value or benefit, but that they don’t get paid for. A key tenet of both Ostrom’s and Cahn’s model of co-production was that this unpaid production is effectively ignored by the market (money-based) economy. Making the invisible economy visible was fundamental to the original model of co-production.

now you see it, now you don’t

Obviously, a group of people drafting an Education Health & Care Plan (EHCP) or reconfiguring the local speech and language therapy service, won’t need to measure the economic efficiency of the project using Ostrom et al’s methods. Nor will they need to set up a Cahn-inspired time bank before they can get on with the task. But if the people doing the planning take into account the views, wishes and feelings of children, young people, parents and carers, but overlook the unpaid activities they all do that contribute to the development and well-being of the child or young person, what’s happening is co-design, not co-production.

Co-production PCF-style encourages parent carers to complete surveys, take part in consultations and conferences, and work with their local PCF in planning services at ‘strategic’ level. For most parent carers, this is on top of their already time-consuming caring responsibilities. A few get a nominal remuneration via the PCF. Most don’t.

Involve’s ‘active participation’ and NESTA’s ‘giving back’ also expect people to engage with public sector services in addition to whatever unpaid activities they do already. Sometimes, that participation can result in a power-shift leading to increased ‘citizen control’. It can also result in citizens having even less free time (and thus fewer resources) than previously. If expenses aren’t paid, they can be out of pocket as well.

In all the new co-production models, the unpaid contribution of carers to the well-being of the people they care for is almost invisible. There are nods to it, in the shape of Carer’s Allowance and ‘celebrating’ it during Carers’ Week. Parent Carer Forums are well aware of unpaid production on the part of parent carers and frequently refer to it, but it’s not an integral part of their model of co-production, and one has to wonder why not. I’ll come back to that point later.

culture change

The Involve participation report devotes an entire section (2.4 p.22ff) to issues and tensions. It includes several paragraphs on culture change. Culture change is frequently cited as the reason new legislation hasn’t been properly implemented in public services.  Involve describes an organisation’s management culture as “a reflection of the values that underpin how they do their work” (p.26). PCFs frequently cite culture change as a key challenge, and see co-production as an important route to changing the values of public services, thus changing their culture.

Organisational culture is a reflection of values, obviously, but that’s not all there is to it.   Culture is an emergent feature of an organisation – an outcome of the interaction between a wide range of factors. I can’t better the Wikipedia list, attributed to David Needle’s book Business in Context: An Introduction to Business and Its Environment. The factors include “history, product, market, technology, strategy, type of employees, management style, and national culture”. Culture manifests itself as “vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, environment, location, beliefs and habits.”

It is difficult to change people’s values, and one way to do it, in the case of implementing new legislation relating to people with disabilities (e.g. Mental Capacity Act, Children and Families Act, Care Act) is to ensure public services are aware of, and comply with, statutory requirements.

The current system explicitly expects people with disabilities and their carers – who together form one of the most vulnerable and resource-poor demographic groups – to enforce compliance, using their knowledge of the law, and via complaints and litigation. This is inequitable. And blaming culture change for the system not working, to me looks like an excuse.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard organisational culture cited as the reason public services don’t carry out their statutory duties, or why new legislation isn’t being properly implemented. Culture change, apparently, takes years to effect and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about that. Which provides a convenient excuse for poorly drafted legislation, non-compliance, and any failure of participation, engagement or co-production initiatives.

co-production has been framed

Earlier, I wondered why the invisible activities of children, young people, parents and carers have remained invisible in the co-production model adopted by Parent Carer Forums. After all, the forums are acutely aware of those activities.

The most likely explanation is that the idea of co-production has passed from one organisation to another, becoming transformed on the way by a process of conceptual Chinese whispers, and that few people have read Ostrom or Cahn. And so have missed their key point about activities in the non-money economy.  Parent carers are sometimes paid for participation, but that just makes participation part of the very money-based economy that co-production is supposed to help reform.

The NESTA authors clearly have read Ostrom and Cahn, and understand the informal non-money economy and the contribution it can make to communities. But they’ve framed tapping into that economy as “patients, pupils, parents or service users are being asked to do something, to give back and to help deliver the service.” (Challenge of co-production p.14)

To me this comes across as somewhat paternalistic. It frames co-production in terms of the state being in charge, service users being obliged to it for the services it provides, and being expected to ‘give back’. An alternative perspective, and the one taken by Ostrom and Cahn, is that the state exists for the protection of the people, that public services exist for their benefit, that people informally exchange activities, and that informal system of exchange can interact with public sector services so that everybody benefits.

Ironically, given the number of times Sherry Arnstein’s analysis of power structures has been cited alongside models of co-production, it’s not just unpaid activities that have remained invisible. Power structures have too.

references

Arnstein, S. (1969).  A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, (4), 216-224.

Boyle, D. & Harris, M. (2009).  The Challenge of Co-production: How equal partnerships between professionals and the public are crucial to improving public services, NESTA.

Britton, C. & Taylor, J. (2013).  Co-production with parent carers: the SE7 experience, Mott Macdonald & South-East 7.

Cahn, E. S. (2004) No More Throw-Away People: The Co-production Imperative (2nd edition).  Essential Books, Washington DC.

Department for Education (2011).  Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability: a consultation.

HM Treasury & Department for Education and Skills (2007). Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families.

Involve (2005/6). People & Participation:  How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making.

National Council for Voluntary Organisations (2011).  Participation: Trends, facts and figures. 

Parks, R.B., Baker, P.C., Kiser, L., Oakerson, R., Ostrom E., Ostrom V., Percy, S.L., Vandivort, M.B., Whitaker, G.P. & Wilson, R. (1981).  Consumers as Coproducers of Public Services:  Some Economic and Institutional Considerations, Policy Studies Journal, 9 (7), 1001-1011.

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In search of co-production

Co-production. The only time I’d seen the word was in film credits, so when it appeared in a Parent Carer Forum (PCF) newsletter in 2013, I asked what it meant. I was directed to one of the Pathfinder area information booklets.  It defines co-production as:

“…when all team members together agree outcomes, coproduce recommendations, plans, actions and materials as a collective. It is an approach which builds upon meaningful participation and assumes effective consultation and information sharing. In its essence, co-production is a dynamic group process and happens in the room when there is equal value for each participant’s contribution and when there is a meaningful proportion of participants who are service users (in this case parent carers) present.” (p.10)

scaling up

Co-production turned out to be a buzzword in public services. That prompted another question. I could see how co-production could be used to develop a personalized programme of medical treatment, or an individual Education Health and Care Plan, but how could it be scaled up? A handful of patients wanting unusual therapeutic interventions, or half-a-dozen EHCPs specifying provision that has to be imported from out-of-county, is one thing. Tens, or hundreds of treatment plans or EHCPs along those lines is quite another and would require some major changes in commissioning.

I asked around. I joined several online groups and met many well-informed people. They all said ‘that’s a good question’, but no one could answer it, and no one had any examples of co-production happening at scale. This was significant. If co-production didn’t work at scale, there wasn’t much point to it.

I asked around some more. An organization called NESTA has done a good deal of work on co-production, so I read their research papers. NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) describes itself as an innovation foundation. It was founded as a non-departmental public body in 1998 with a grant from the National Lottery, and in 2010 became a charity.

Their co-production discussion papers The Challenge of Co-production, Public Services Inside Out and Right Here, Right Now, (more have been published since) were fascinating. But I couldn’t find an answer to my question about scaling up. The papers were packed with inspiring examples of co-production, but unless I missed something, all the examples looked like one-off local projects, some of which had been quite short-lived. Would co-production at scale consist of a bunch of local projects? If so, at what point would you need to do some joined-up thinking?

engagement

The NESTA papers indicated there was considerably more to co-production than producing “recommendations, plans, actions and materials as a collective”. The NESTA authors saw it as the active participation of citizens in delivering public services, a model that had significant potential to halt spiraling and unsustainable costs. The citizens’ engagement was framed in terms of ‘giving back’. There were obvious parallels with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

I felt uneasy.   Big Society emphasized the importance of volunteering, but blithely overlooked limitations familiar to volunteers. I vividly remember eyebrows being raised at a local meeting where it was suggested volunteers could support elderly people discharged from hospital. One former nurse asked what training the volunteers would get. Another asked about insurance – she’d once been falsely accused, by a patient with dementia, of stealing money. It would be more cost-effective to employ a few more district nurses.

power

The Pathfinder description of co-production had a footnote to Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 paper ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’. Variations on the ladder of participation are widely cited.  Here’s Arnstein’s version:

arnstein

Arnstein’s paper is about the role of power structures in planning decisions in the USA, and cites numerous examples of citizen participation. In some cases, the citizens had to engage in quite robust action before getting to the point where they were actually participating.

The NESTA papers referred to power shifts, but not quite as explicitly as Arnstein does.  Parent Carer Forums often refer to the ‘empowerment’ of parents, but generally in terms of parents sharing experiences and familiarising themselves with the law.  It’s assumed that in and of itself, this will make things happen. I can’t recall seeing any references to power structures.

Parent Carer Forums do, however, report co-production taking place at a ‘strategic’ level. As far as I can ascertain, this means PCF representatives working with commissioners and providers on the design of local services. Public sector services do appear to have shifted from a ‘doing to’ to a ‘doing for’ approach, and are now en route to ‘doing with’.

How far ‘doing with’ is likely to extend is debatable.   Even if the contributions of the people ‘in the room’ are given equal weight, what about the ones who aren’t in the room? The non-verbal children? The ‘hard to reach’ parent carers who’ve never even heard of parent carer forums? And at the other end of the scale, what about the Treasury, the DfE and the Education & Skills Funding Agency?

Most PCFs are funded indirectly by the DfE and/or directly by their local authority (see p.10), so who’s in the room and what power they have over the dynamic group process are key questions.

missing pieces

Although I could see the potential for co-production, as a model it still didn’t make sense. Pieces of the jigsaw were missing.  I found frequent references to Edgar Cahn, who worked on co-production in the 1980s. The NESTA papers presented his role in terms of ‘transforming public services’ (Challenge of Co-production p.13), which didn’t quite square with his being a civil rights lawyer. Then there was Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel prize-winning economist who coined the term ‘coproduction’ in her studies of the Chicago police force in the 1970s. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for studying a police force. Something didn’t add up.

So, I read Cahn’s book No More Throw-Away People, and the 1981 paper ‘Consumers as coproducers of public services: Some economic and institutional considerations’, co-authored by Ostrom.  And had an epiphany.  Cahn and Ostrom use ‘production’ in the economic sense: an activity that creates a good or service that people value and that contributes to their well-being.  This might have been obvious to policy makers, but I’d been completely unaware of it in my reading until then.  I suspect I’m not alone.

markets and time banks

Ostrom’s analysis straddles the divide between a formal market economy that uses money as the unit of exchange, and an informal economy based on exchanges that don’t involve money. (Cahn calls them the market economy and core economy.)

Exchanges that don’t involve money are generally marginalised by the market economy even though it’s utterly dependent on them. The profits of plantation owners in the 18th century, mill owners in the 19th century, and multinationals in the 20th and 21st, have depended variously on the labour of slaves or low-paid employees, and the market economy would grind to a halt without the unpaid, invisible, behind-the-scenes labour of what Gordon Brown called ‘ordinary people’.  It’s a point Cahn makes explicitly, right after he compares the core economy to a computer operating system.  Interestingly, NESTA cite Cahn’s operating system analogy several times in The Challenge of Co-production, but omit his reference to “the subordination of women and the exploitation of minorities, immigrants and children” in his next paragraph (Cahn, p.54).

Ostrom was interested in the interface between the activity of public services and the activity of private citizens. Coproduction referred to their joint activity in producing services. Co-production can make services more efficient, but Ostrom and her colleagues identified a number of issues around the incentives for citizens to get involved.

Cahn’s contribution to the concept of co-production came about because of his pioneering work with time banks. A time bank is a system that allows people to earn credits for any activity they engage in that’s of benefit to others. The credits are based on the time spent, and can be exchanged for goods or services produced by other people. So you might earn credits by collecting library books for housebound elderly neighbours, and use the credits to pay someone to cut your lawn.

incentives

Cahn realised that time banking addressed some of the problems with incentives highlighted by Ostrom and her colleagues. Time banking:

  • Explicitly recognises, via credits, the value of activities that contribute to the wellbeing of others
  • Provides incentives for people to engage in and continue with such activities
  • Prompts people to identify and develop their skills and knowledge
  • Enables those on low incomes to participate in economic exchanges
  • Reduces economic and social inequality
  • Creates and sustains social support networks
  • Increases community stability and reduces crime
  • Facilitates the development of local businesses.

Parent carer forums and the NESTA papers also address incentives, but very differently.

The National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF) has a reward, recognition and remuneration policy. There are good reasons for parents not being out-of-pocket as a result of their participation, but the policy has had some unexpected and unwanted outcomes. Most PCFs have relatively small budgets. If, as a matter of principle, volunteers have to be rewarded financially, the budget limits the involvement of volunteers, so it’s hardly surprising PCFs report limited capacity (see p.27).

NESTA’s Public Services Inside Out goes into some detail about rewards (p.11ff), but they appear to be treated as an added extra rather than an integral feature, as incentives are in time banks. The underlying incentives of the NESTA model look more like moral indebtedness – there are frequent references to ‘giving something back’ and being ‘rewarded’ for one’s efforts.

The beauty of time banking is that it isn’t framed in terms of contributions and rewards. It’s framed in terms of exchange. People decide what activities they can offer and what activities they’d like in exchange. The exchange system is very flexible and can be modified to accommodate people’s resources and needs as they change; young children can be credited for learning and the elderly for mentoring.

Time banking also offers a way of integrating the market (money) and the core (non-money) economies. Taking family carers as an example, it would be impossible for all carers to be paid a living wage for the number of hours they work, but they could be paid in credits that could be exchanged for other services of real value, such as cleaning, child-minding or transport.

conclusion

The model of co-production adopted by Parent Carer Forums is different to the NESTA model in several respects, and both differ from the model developed by Ostrom and Cahn. There’s nothing stopping someone taking some features of the Ostrom-Cahn model and badging it ‘co-production’, but it’s unlikely to result in the significant changes in economic activity, power and well-being that Ostrom and Cahn envisaged.

Co-production, in the sense that Ostrom and Cahn used the term, offers the opportunity for everyone to be ‘in the room’, and allows the dynamic group processes to be scaled up to local and national level. It has the potential to transform economies, reduce inequality, increase the resources within communities and kick-start businesses. That’s the one I’m going for.

More thoughts in the next post.

references

Arnstein, S. (1969).  A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, (4), 216-224.

Boyle, D. & Harris, M. (2009).  The Challenge of Co-production: How equal partnerships between professionals and the public are crucial to improving public services, NESTA.

Boyle, D., Coote, A., Sherwood, C., & Slay, J. (2010) Right Here, Right Now: Taking co-production into the mainstream, NESTA.

Boyle, D., Slay, J. & Stephens, L. (2010).  Public Services Inside Out: Putting co-production into practice, NESTA.

Britton, C. & Taylor, J. (2013).  Co-production with parent carers: the SE7 experience, Mott Macdonald & South-East 7.

Cahn, E. S. (2004) No More Throw-Away People: The Co-production Imperative (2nd edition).  Essential Books, Washington DC.

Contact (2017).  Parent Carer Forums in 2017, Contact.

Parks, R.B., Baker, P.C., Kiser, L., Oakerson, R., Ostrom E., Ostrom V., Percy, S.L., Vandivort, M.B., Whitaker, G.P. & Wilson, R. (1981).  Consumers as Coproducers of Public Services:  Some Economic and Institutional Considerations, Policy Studies Journal, 9 (7), 1001-1011.

 

 

 

Home education: politics

Something that perplexed many home educating parents in 2009 was why a major review of the legislation should be commissioned only a year after the publication of the Elective Home Education Guidelines. It was clear many local authorities and other bodies weren’t happy with the status quo: what wasn’t clear was why.

Sharon Shoesmith’s book Learning from Baby P published in 2016, offers a convincing explanation – even though she doesn’t mention home education at all. I’ve blogged about her book previously.  The issues are important ones not limited to home educating families.  Here’s a slightly abbreviated version of my original post.

In August 2007, a toddler living in the London Borough of Haringey died. 18 months later on 11 November 2008 his mother, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s brother were convicted of causing or allowing the child’s death. The toddler was Baby P, eventually named as Peter Connelly.

Media interest was intense. On the day of the conviction, Sharon Shoesmith, director of Haringey’s children’s services, and Jane Collins, CEO of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) held a press briefing that mentioned the disciplinary proceedings against individual social workers finding no evidence of gross misconduct. On the following day, November 12, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) issued a press statement condemning the behaviour of those convicted.

Later that day, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Gordon Brown (then PM) appeared to be taken by surprise by David Cameron’s (then Leader of the Opposition) criticism of the way Haringey Council had responded to Peter Connelly’s death. Cameron asked who was taking responsibility and why no one had resigned. He followed up his attack later with an emotive article in the Evening Standard, and the next day with a letter to the Sun. The Sun launched a petition calling for Sharon Shoesmith, the social workers involved, and a paediatrician at GOSH to be sacked, and by the weekend the petition had 1.4 million signatures. The Government’s reaction triggered a chain of events culminating in a ‘perfect storm’ that had significant, far-reaching repercussions for national and local government, the news media, social work as a profession, children’s services, individual social workers, and vulnerable children.

the government response

The Government’s response to the criticisms was swift and robust. A press officer was sent to Haringey Council and on 1 December the Council leader, and the cabinet member for children and young people, resigned. Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced in a press conference that he was replacing Sharon Shoesmith with John Coughlan, then director of children’s services in Hampshire, and appointed Graham Badman, previously director of children’s services in Kent, as chair of Haringey’s Local Safeguarding Children Board. A week later, Shoesmith was formally dismissed by Haringey Council.

Shoesmith didn’t take her sacking lying down. She appealed and in 2011 the High Court ruled that Ed Balls and Haringey Council acted unlawfully in dismissing her. By 2015, she had completed a PhD analysing the psychosocial factors involved in the aftermath of Peter Connelly’s death. In 2016 she published Learning from Baby P, which draws on her research.

Shoesmith points out that by late 2008, the ‘New Labour project was running into trouble’ (pp.123-127). Gordon Brown had taken over from Tony Blair as PM the previous summer, but in May 2008 Labour had had its worst local government election results for 35 years and Labour’s attempts to reduce child poverty were faltering. In October the Healthcare Commission’s investigation into the Mid-Staffs scandal revealed significant failings, and the global financial crisis prompted a £500bn rescue package for UK banks.

Cameron’s framing of Peter Connelly’s death in political terms had significant implications for the Labour government. Their flagship strategy Every Child Matters couldn’t be seen to fail, nor could Ed Balls, who had previously been Brown’s chief economic adviser. Then there was Haringey. Haringey had a history of what Shoesmith calls ‘defining events’. It had witnessed the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, and the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000 that had led to the Laming Inquiry and significant changes in child protection policy. In addition, Haringey Council had long been perceived as hailing from the ‘loony left’; understandably a centre-left government might want to distance itself. Lastly, the government felt compelled to align its narrative with that adopted by large sections of the public and press – that public sector services should be seen to take responsibility for Peter Connelly’s death.

All three key political figures – Cameron, Brown and Balls – used the press directly to manage the political narrative.  It could be argued that the press used politicians to the same end. In July 2007, six months after he’d resigned as editor of the News of the World following the conviction of two reporters in the phone hacking scandal, the Conservative Party had appointed Andy Coulson as its director of communications. The Sun, another News International paper, had a history of campaigning for changes in the law as a result of high profile child abuse cases. During the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking, it was suggested that after the Baby P trial the Sun put pressure on Ed Balls to order resignations (p.183). The issue of resignation warrants further comment.

it’s a resigning matter

In 2004, the offence of ‘causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult’ was introduced to close a legal loophole. Although the offence can be committed only by people living in the same household as the victim (such as Peter Connelly’s), its title begs the question of whether police officers, social workers or paediatricians might be brought into the frame, something that could be inferred from David Cameron’s Evening Standard article (p.144).

But there’s another factor involved in the calls for sackings; it’s the assumption that if a public sector worker failed to prevent the death of child, they would have been able to prevent it if they’d acted differently. That’s nonsense of course. Even if a child were taken into care or a social worker were to live with the family, no child can be totally protected from harm. But the idea that children can be fully protected persists. Cameron, Brown and Balls all vowed to ensure that nothing like Peter Connelly’s death happened again (p.178) – even though, in reality, such promises are meaningless.

Child protection had become a political football and government, opposition and the media were vying for control of the ball. Ironically, the outcomes had significant negative repercussions for vulnerable children. Directors of social services became very nervous about their jobs, and social worker recruitment and retention, already under strain, became even more challenging, further increasing the vulnerability of the children social workers were dealing with. Local authorities made sure they erred on the side of caution; between October 2008 and March 2012 the number of applications for care proceedings increased by 79% (p.19).

elective home education and the Badman review

The ‘Baby P effect’ rippled out to another group of children Shoesmith doesn’t mention – those educated at home. Home education has long been a contentious issue, and in November 2007 Jim Knight and Andrew Adonis at the then Department of Education and Skills, published guidelines for local authorities.  A year later, in January 2009, Ed Balls announced a review of elective home education. The review was framed in terms of home educated children being ‘hidden’ and home education being used as a cover for child abuse, even though there appeared to be no robust evidence of this actually happening.

The review was led by Graham Badman, introduced as the former director of children’s services at Kent County Council. A month earlier, Balls had appointed Badman as chair of Haringey LCSB, but unless they’d been following the news closely, most home educating parents wouldn’t have made a connection with the Baby P case. They would also have been unaware that in May 2008, seven year-old Khyra Ishaq had starved to death at her home in Birmingham. She had been educated at home for the previous six months. Khyra’s death came to public attention only in June 2009, when the trial of her mother and her mother’s partner began. Her death was presented as reinforcing the government’s call for reforming the law relating to home education, rather than as a trigger for the review happening in the first place.

In 2009 Graham Badman was busy. In November 2008 he’d set up an education consultancy, Nektus, that carried out two local authority progress reviews in its first year.  In December he’d been appointed Chair of Haringey LCSB.   In January 2009 had become a visiting professor at the Institute of Education, and Acting Chair of BECTA – being appointed Chair on 1 May. He became a Trustee and Board member of UNICEF in July. His elective home education report was published on 11 June, and his recommendations accepted in full the same day by Ed Balls.

Given all these commitments, it’s not surprising that more than one organisation complained that Badman’s account of what they said to him wasn’t quite what they recalled saying, and that Graham Stuart MP, a member of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, felt obliged to point out that Badman had made a significant sampling error in his assessment of the risk to home educated children.

The full government response to the Badman report wasn’t published until October 2009, towards the end of the public consultation, so many people who responded wouldn’t have read it. Throughout the review, I got the strong impression that the Government didn’t see those who disagreed with the proposals as citizens expressing their opinions, but as political opponents.  The high number of responses to the consultation prompted references to an organised campaign, despite the wide diversity amongst home educating families.

Conservative MPs had, not surprisingly given the political overtones of the review, been quite supportive of home educating parents. In December 2009, a record number of petitions protesting against the proposed changes to the law were presented to Parliament, a strategy initiated by Graham Stuart.  The Government planned to include the Badman recommendations in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010, but instead they were abandoned in the ‘wash up’ prior to the 2010 General Election.

learning from the Baby P effect

The primary task of government, national and local, is to protect our liberty to go about our lawful business without let or hindrance. Obviously, there are going to be instances where legislation that protects one group of people infringes the liberty of another group – the law has to weigh up the various interests of different parties. On the face of it, it looked as if that the actions of government, opposition and press in the wake of Peter Connolly’s death could result only in beneficial outcomes for vulnerable children. But their focus was on only one aspect of child protection.

Other aspects got completely overlooked, including local authority priorities (disabled children are also children in need but LA thresholds for support are set so high many disabled children get no social care support), social worker recruitment and retention and the consequent impact on vulnerable children, and children being taken into care unnecessarily. The proposals for home educated children, such as social workers being entitled to enter the family home and to interview children alone had significant implications for a number of important legislative principles.

Government, opposition, and the press, framed child protection solely in terms of the behaviour of individuals, whether they were adults who might harm children directly, social workers who might fail to prevent harm, or elected members of local government responsible for implementing national policies. Little attention was paid to key legislative principles, the effectiveness of legislation, local authority resources, the impact of the government’s action on social workers and senior local authority officers, and on children deemed to be at risk when they weren’t. Good legislation requires careful thought and wide consultation, not a knee-jerk response to a party political attack. If government is seen as a party political project, rather than an institution that exists to serve the population, it puts everyone’s welfare in jeopardy, not least that of vulnerable children.

reference

Shoesmith, S (2016).  Learning from Baby P.  Jessica Kingsley Publishers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home education: legislation

In England, parents can educate their children at home if they wish. It’s been estimated there might be as many as 50 000 children being educated at home. Home education tends to trigger strong opinions, including calls for the relevant legislation to be tightened up. In the next two posts I’ll attempt to summarise the legislative framework, the key features of recent home education debates, and the political context.

In November 2007, soon after Ed Balls became Secretary of State, the then Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) revised the Elective Home Education Guidelines for Local Authorities*. The guidelines were advisory only, but provided a clear explanation of the relevant legislation and powers and duties of LAs. In general, home-educating parents welcomed the guidelines.

In January 2009 the DCSF commissioned a review of elective home education, by Graham Badman, previously Director of Children’s Services at Kent County Council.   Badman’s 28 recommendations were published in June that year, and accepted in full by the government. A public consultation concluded in the October. There was considerable opposition to the recommendations from parents and from Conservative MPs. The recommendations didn’t become law; they were abandoned in the ‘wash up’ prior to the May 2010 general election.

To understand the Badman recommendations and the ins and outs of home education, an overview of the relevant legislation and the principles underpinning the legislative framework is important. This is my understanding of them. I’m happy to be corrected if wrong.

principles

A fundamental principle in a liberal democracy is the liberty of people to live their lives how they wish, unless that prevents others exercising their own liberty.  A primary function of government is to protect liberty –  by defending against attack and by maintaining law and order.

The law protects liberty too; it’s unlawful to go round killing people or stealing their stuff, for example.  The law also protects liberty from abuse by government. A person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and agents of government have to have reasonable cause to believe that a breach of the law is involved before even beginning an investigation. These safeguards are important in protecting individuals against harassment by those in positions of power.

A further principle is that legislation should be demonstrably necessary, i.e. should be evidence based. The number of ways in which people’s liberty can be infringed is almost infinite, so legislating against every possible risk would be impossibly burdensome.

The legislation pertaining to home education is firmly grounded in these principles.

legislation

In England, every child is entitled to a suitable education. That entitlement is framed in terms of a duty placed upon parents, set out in s7 Education Act 1996 (the specific meanings of the terms are explained in the 2007 Guidelines):

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable—

(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and

(b) to any special educational needs he may have,

either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

One reason for allocating this duty to parents is that overall, they have a much better track record than the state when it comes to looking after children. Most parents delegate the task of educating their children (though not the legal duty) to schools. But it could also be delegated to a private tutor, or the parent could educate the child. The duty frequently prompts the question:

what if a parent doesn’t provide a suitable education?

The law’s answer is s437(1) Education Act 1996 (the Guidelines explain the steps that local authorities can take):

If it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education.

This inevitably begs another frequently asked question:

what if a local authority doesn’t know the child isn’t getting a suitable education?

The Badman Review responded with Recommendation 7; that children’s progress be monitored, that LA officers have right of access to the home, and have the right to speak with each child alone to satisfy themselves that the child is safe and well (p.40).

If your focus is the education and welfare of children, this recommendation might look entirely reasonable.   In fact it’s highly problematic because it runs completely counter to principles underpinning the UK’s legislative framework.

The Badman Review was based on different underlying principles. Badman saw home education legislation as requiring a ‘balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child’ (p.3), a principle widely cited by local authorities and others. It sounds plausible, but legislation isn’t simply a matter of ‘balancing rights’. Rights are expressions of the fundamental liberty that’s an underpinning principle in a liberal democracy. Rights might or might not be enshrined in law in the form of specific legislation. New legislation has to comply with existing legislation and the principles underpinning the legislative framework, or it will be unworkable.

There are several problems with Recommendation 7. It:

  • abrogates fundamental legislative principles
  • gives LA education departments significantly greater powers than the police have when investigating suspected criminal behaviour
  • overlooks the knotty problem of the reliability of child testimony, something the courts have had to wrestle with, and with which all teachers will be familiar
  • assumes that a LA officer who has never met a child before is in a position to judge what is a suitable education for that specific child
  • conflates education with safeguarding.

The last point brings us to a third FAQ:

what if a child is at risk of harm?

This question has dominated the discourse about home education. The scenario many public bodies have in mind is that if a parent wants to exploit, traffic, indoctrinate, or in any other way cause harm to a child, home education offers perfect cover, because local authorities don’t have powers to see the child.

What this line of reasoning overlooks is that the law treats education and safeguarding as two different things, and with good reason; a child could be getting a good education but be at risk of harm, or be safe and well but not be receiving any education at all.

The law’s answer is s47 Children Act 1989:

Where a local authority … have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, the authority shall make, or cause to be made, such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.

The conflation of education and safeguarding has resulted in much avoidable confusion. Several tragic cases have been cited as evidence that monitoring of home-educated children is necessary.   In a 2014 briefing, the NSPCC cited seven such cases. On closer inspection, it transpired that the authorities were involved in each case. In some, they were very closely involved, and in some actually contributed to the harm the children experienced. Around 70% of the recommendations in the relevant Serious Case Reviews related to procedures being properly followed or to healthcare. I’ve blogged about the cases in more detail here.

It’s possible, of course, that there are home-educated children at risk of harm, hidden and unbeknown to the authorities, but home education has been lawful since at least 1944, and to date no such examples appear to have come to light. Those children must be extremely well-concealed or their number is vanishingly small.   Either way, there is insufficient evidence to warrant the regular monitoring of home-educated children on safeguarding grounds.

educational support

But what about educational grounds? Personally, I think there’s some justification for a register, although that raises constitutional questions. But if anything, it should be a register of all local children, not just particular groups. And not the huge national database proposed by the previous Labour government either; there are known problems with such databases that could have catastrophic outcomes for children.

I also think there’s some justification for giving local authorities a duty to support home educating parents. I’ve previously proposed an educational resource centre, for public use, using the funding schools lose when children are taken off their roll.

The purpose of local authorities is to provide services to local people, and the Badman Review did recommend support – but almost always in the context of monitoring. This would create a bizarre Escher staircase of accountability; home educating parents would be accountable to LAs, who in turn would be accountable to them as local residents. The potential legal consequences could be challenging. Especially if parents were home educating children with special needs because who couldn’t access suitable local authority provision.  A resource centre, in contrast, could improve the quality of local education in general, and could reduce the risk of any child not getting a suitable education.

This post has discussed the legislative issues relating to home education. Most home-educators would have been unaware, during the Badman review, of the political context – the subject of the next post.

 

*’Elective home education’ is used to denote home education as a choice made by parents, as distinct from ‘education otherwise than at school’ (EOTAS) which usually refers to a local authority service for children who cannot attend schools.

 

Bold Beginnings – could do better

Bold Beginnings, an Ofsted report on the Reception curriculum, was published at the end of November. It caused a bit of a stir among Early Years teachers. I thought they might be over-reacting, an understandable tendency developed in response to endless assumptions that the children they teach ‘just play’. Last week, an open letter with over 1700 signatories questioning the report’s conclusions was published in the Guardian. An article in response wondered what all the fuss was about. So I read the report. Here’s what I thought. References in brackets are to the paragraph numbers.

The report was commissioned as part of a review of the curriculum. 41 primary schools  judged good or outstanding in their last Ofsted inspection (86) were visited and asked to complete an online questionnaire.

Implicit assumptions

The first thing that struck me was the implicit assumptions on which the report is based. Implicit assumptions are sneaky things.   For one thing, they’re assumptions; no one wheels out evidence to support them – and sometimes there isn’t any supporting evidence. For another thing, they’re implicit – no one spells them out, so they’re easy to miss. Sometimes the people making the assumptions aren’t aware that they’re making them. Here are three.

Falling behind  

The first implicit assumption appears in the first paragraph. It refers to the “painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers” (p.4). I find the idea of children ‘falling behind’ baffling. Falling behind what, exactly? The school population is, like any other large population, very varied. And then there’s the age range. Expecting the youngest children in a Reception class to be at the same level of attainment as the oldest, flies in the face of everything we know about human development and population statistics.   Then there’s “in 2016, around one third of children did not have the essential knowledge and understanding they needed to reach a good level of development [as defined by government] by the age of five” (6). Anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics would expect 50% of children to be developing more slowly than average in a large population. The assumption that children can ‘fall behind’ and should ‘catch up’ is made by an education system designed around administrative convenience, not the educational needs of children.

Increased expectations in Year 1

Reception and Year 1 teachers agreed that the vital, smooth transition from the foundation stage to Year 1 was difficult because the early learning goals were not aligned with the now-increased expectations of the national curriculum.” (p4 §8) The national curriculum isn’t a Law of Nature or Act of God. It’s a system designed by human beings. There is no reason why early learning has to adapt to expectations for children in Year 1. Year 1 expectations could instead adapt to early learning. The report complains “there is no clear curriculum in Reception” (p5 §3). There’s no reason why a clear Reception curriculum shouldn’t be developed, but the current lack of one might be because many children in Reception classes are below the statutory education age.

The curriculum

A third implicit assumption runs through the entire report. Despite the review being of the curriculum, the focus is relentlessly on reading, writing and mathematics – all fundamental, but only three of the skills children need to acquire to access a broad curriculum and understand how the world works.

Bold Beginnings appears to have been written by someone with little knowledge of what is taught and learned at the Early Years Foundation Stage. That might have been a deliberate choice to avoid the bias towards play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning perceived by some headteachers (81), but it resulted in an impoverished analysis. The focus is on reading, writing and mathematics rather than the curriculum; play is mentioned numerous times but not discussed in detail; and the purpose of  education appears to be GCSE grades.

The three Rs

Schools are supposed to be places where children learn, and for Reception age children there is much to learn. About physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, geography, history, music, art and drama. I’m not recommending formal subject areas for 4-5 year-olds, but found it mystifying that the report makes only a passing reference to ‘science and the humanities’ (13) and ‘music and science’ (21).  The report’s author doesn’t seem aware that at this age children are forming basic concepts about solids, liquids, gases, plants and animals, maps, timelines, rhythm, melody, art materials, scripts and roles, that form the foundation of later learning (Rakison & Oakes, 2003).   Instead, the author sees reading, writing and number as “the building blocks for all other learning” (7), completely overlooking all the learning children do that doesn’t involve reading, writing or numbers.

Although speaking and talking are mentioned in passing, language skills are seen in terms of their contribution to reading and writing (p4 §3) not as an end in themselves. Reading and writing are crucial skills, but the report overlooks the amount of spoken communication that goes on between human beings at all levels.

The report’s author is a big fan of systematic synthetic phonics, but I felt painted themselves into a corner when discussing children’s books.  It makes sense for reading schemes to introduce grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) one-by-one, as the report recommends, to secure children’s knowledge and build up their confidence. Books with unfamiliar GPCs are cautioned against because they encourage children to use other strategies, such as guessing (53, 54). But it wasn’t clear how parents or teachers could avoid this if they read a wide range of stories to, or with, children.

And then there’s the mathematics. What’s actually discussed isn’t mathematics as such, or even arithmetic. It’s number. Number is obviously a foundational mathematical skill, but I couldn’t find any reference to shape, spatial relationships, or operations – all foundational mathematical concepts that most 4 year-olds are beginning to get to grips with.

Play

The report mentions play numerous times but its role is seen as “primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills” (p4 §5). There are many references to teachers knowing how children learn through play, but what they know seems to be a mystery to the report’s author.   There’s a rather breathless account of children dramatizing the Three Billy Goats Gruff (35), suggesting that inspectors weren’t very familiar with an activity that’s probably been a feature of every nursery and infant class since at least the 1930s.

Achievement

The report appears to see achievement solely in terms of succeeding at the tasks set by schools, rather than in terms of children getting a good knowledge and understanding of how the world works.   For example “The research is clear: a child’s early education lasts a lifetime. Done well, it can mean the difference between gaining seven Bs at GCSE compared with seven Cs.7”(5).  Leaving aside the fact that the reference refers to 8 GCSEs not 7, and that a correlation doesn’t indicate a causal relationship, framing the importance of education solely in terms of GCSE results is troubling. The author of the report doubtless got at least 7 B grades at GCSE, but that doesn’t appear to have equipped him or her with adequate research skills.

The research

Ofsted do not appear to be aware of the impact of their own inspections. For example, the statutory moderation of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile comes in for some stick, one complaint being “a moderator expected to see three pieces of evidence for every separate sentence within the early learning goals” (77). I vividly recall my son’s Year 1 teachers complaining about the insistence of Ofsted in their previous inspection on exactly this. (My son wasn’t very happy about it either, asking why, if he’d shown he could do something, he then had to do it again.)

Then, in Annex B, we have the online questionnaire sent to schools. Q1 doesn’t have an ‘other’ box for anyone completing the form who isn’t a head, early years or reception teacher. And in Q2 there’s an elementary error that most primary school pupils would know to avoid. The narrow focus of the report is clear in Q12. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an Ofsted questionnaire cause raised eyebrows. One teenager thought a questionnaire sent to families “looks like it was written by a Year 7”. It did too. I’d expect better research skills from a regulatory body.

The narrative

Bold Beginnings isn’t an objective, dispassionate analysis of the Reception curriculum. Instead it propagates a particular narrative that goes like this: 1) Because the long-term outcomes are better for children who attend pre-school provision and attend it for longer, and 2) because teachers at good and outstanding primary schools believe that formal education begins in the Reception year, that 3) the Reception curriculum should be shaped by the increased expectations for children in Year 1, and 4) that reading, writing and number need greater emphasis, it stands to reason that formal education should start in Reception, be shaped by the Y1 curriculum, and should focus on reading, writing and number. But the narrative doesn’t hold water. Here’s why.

1) Research (Sylva et al 2014) indicates that long-term educational outcomes are better for children who have attended pre-school provision, and attended it for longer. That’s the current informal provision. The research doesn’t support the assumption that the earlier formal education starts the better. As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that starting formal education later (in some countries age 6 or 7) has a detrimental impact on long-term outcomes.

2) “Nearly 95% of the school staff who responded to Ofsted’s survey questionnaire believed that Nursery and/or Reception signalled the start of school. Leaders clearly believe that the moment a child starts attending their school, in whatever capacity, their educational journey has begun. While Year 1 may be the official start, it is clear that the Reception Year is more commonly recognised as the beginning of a child’s formal education” (3). That’s interesting, but an education system shouldn’t be designed around beliefs, whoever holds them. Initial teacher education (ITE) tutors come in for criticism from some headteachers for their emphasis on play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning (81), but the ITE tutors’ beliefs, however strongly evidence-based, don’t play any part in the Bold Beginnings narrative. The word ‘believed’ is used 14 times in this report. That’s probably 14 times too many.

3) There’s no reason why the EYFS curriculum shouldn’t shape the Year 1 curriculum, rather than vice versa.

4) There’s no reason not to improve reading, writing and mathematics in Reception classes, but they are not “the building blocks for all other learning” (7) and the report ignores the vast number of other building blocks routinely developed by Early Years teachers.

Conclusion

This is not a well-researched, objective assessment of the Reception curriculum. The research is inadequate, the evaluation of evidence leaves much to be desired, and the recommendations are based largely on the beliefs of teachers in a sample of 41 schools. Ofsted should be leading the way. Instead, they are falling behind.

 

References

Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  Oxford University Press.
Sylva, K, Melhuish, E, Sammons, P, Siraj, I,  & Taggart, B (2014). Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) Project. Department for Education.

 

 

 

Toby and the social constructionists: intelligence, race & gender

Toby Young, journalist and co-founder of the West London Free School, and appointed to the brand new Office for Students (OfS), recently delivered the 2017 Constance Holden* Memorial Address. His title was “Liberal Creationism”. The text of the lecture has been published as an opinion paper in the Elsevier Journal Intelligence. Neither Toby nor the topic of intelligence are strangers to controversy, so I was curious about to what he had to say.

the fate of intelligence researchers

For the first couple of pages I was nodding along in agreement. Toby opens with a robust defence of intelligence researchers who have faced serious consequences for suggesting that biological factors contribute to intelligence – careers ending abruptly, ignominy, and worse. His description of their opponents as a ‘neo-Marxist intersectionality cult’, ‘Social Justice Warriors’, ‘Liberal Creationists’ and ‘anti-hereditarians’ had a ring of truth about it.

The intelligence researchers’ findings have generally supported the idea that human nature is in part biologically determined.  Historically this idea is tainted by its association with eugenics, and it’s that association, Toby suggests, that’s at the root of the opposition to the research. He claims the ‘anti-hereditarians’ are wrong to think of the biological aspects of intelligence as “inextricably bound up with these toxic political movements and fundamentally incompatible with liberal values” (p.3).  I think he’s right.

human nature and individual differences

After a brief tour of some anthropological controversies to demonstrate that all human beings have some psychological traits in common, Young moves on to “what divides us” beginning with individual differences. This is the point where I felt his argument weakened considerably.

Young says “when a progressive liberal listens to a behavioural geneticist talk about the biological basis of IQ and the positive correlation between IQ and socio-economic status, what they think they are hearing is a Social Darwinist argument in favour of the current distribution of wealth and power” (p.3). He argues that at the heart of the opposition to claims about the biological basis of human nature, whether IQ, gender or race, is social constructionism, which holds the view that “anyone who believes that human differences are rooted even in part in biology rather than socially constructed is the enemy” (p.2). What Young appears to have failed to realize is that whatever the contribution of biology and however wrong the social constructionists’ reasoning, ‘intelligence’ (IQ), ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are nonetheless constructs.

intelligence, race and gender as constructs

There’s no doubt that biological factors contribute to what we call intelligence, race and gender. Some congenital medical conditions result in low intelligence, people with ancestry in different parts of the world have different physical and physiological characteristics, women are anatomically different to men, and so on.

The concepts ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ and ‘gender’ entail biological characteristics (ability to carry our particular tasks, physical features, anatomical differences), but that doesn’t mean ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ or ‘gender’ map directly on to discrete biological entities.  Although the biological characteristics are real things in the natural world, it doesn’t follow that the concepts ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ and ‘gender’ must be real things in the natural world. As Gilbert Ryle would have pointed out, intelligence, race and gender are different kinds of things to the brains, skin colour and sexual characteristics we associate with them.

The biological characteristics mean we can operationalize those constructs in biological terms for research purposes. A researcher could decide that, for the purposes of their study, intelligence consists of the ability to perform particular tasks, measured using a particular test. A particular racial grouping could be operationalized in terms of particular physical characteristics. Gender, likewise.

It doesn’t follow that intelligence, race or gender have a biological existence independent of the concept of intelligence, race or gender. In marked contrast to brains, skin or genitals.

I think Toby is right that some more vociferous opponents to the claims about intelligence have framed the debate entirely in terms of social constructs and in doing so have completely discounted biological factors. But that’s not true of all who have questioned the claims about intelligence, race or gender.

The existence of brains, skin or genitals are rarely disputed.  They are physical entities and there’s general agreement about their characteristics. But intelligence, race and gender have been the subject of controversy more or less since they came into being because they are constructs. The question looming over all of them is ‘what do you mean by….?’

what do you mean by…?

As the psychologist Edwin Boring pointed out way back in the 1920s, intelligence is what[ever] intelligence tests measure.   Somebody, somewhere makes a decision about what a particular intelligence test measures. Intelligence tests undoubtedly measure something. Whether it’s intelligence or not depends on what you think intelligence is.

Race is controversial because the characteristics that are supposed to be typical of different racial groups are, because of the way genetic expression works, on a multi-dimensional continuum.  Even if the features considered to characterise a particular racial group are very clearly defined, it’s often difficult to decide whether or not an individual belongs to that group.

As for gender… The ‘social constructionists’ so disparage by Young make an important distinction between someone’s sex (reproductive anatomy and secondary sexual characteristics) and their gender – their social role based on their sex. The distinction is a helpful one, but two terms are often, unhelpfully, used interchangeably.

A further complication is that biology, also unhelpfully, doesn’t adhere to a neat binary male/female distribution of physical sexual characteristics. One estimate§ puts the frequency of intersex characteristics as high as 1.7% of the population.

The difficulty in determining what constitutes intelligence, race or gender calls into question the validity of all correlations found between intelligence and any demographic group. That’s because someone has to decide what constitutes intelligence and what constitutes the demographic group; the validity of intelligence as a construct has been questioned ever since Spearman came up with the idea of g.

you say this, I say that

Young’s argument appears to be essentially this: Science shows that shared human characteristics and individual differences are to large extent biologically determined.  And that anti-hereditarian opposition to that finding originates in the ‘fanatical egalitarianism’ of the hard left (p.6). According to Young, the egalitarianism the hard left want can be brought about by a totalitarian dictatorship.

Interestingly, in his opening comments Young dismisses the fanatical egalitarianism embraced by the far-right (also enforced via a totalitarian dictatorship), as ‘toxic baggage’ that could be discarded. And complains “It’s not much fun to be branded a ‘Nazi’ or ‘white supremacist’ on Twitter or anywhere else” (p.1).

Totalitarian regimes of the hard left, far-right and various other political and religious persuasions, inflicted catastrophic damage on huge numbers of people during the 20th century and look set to continue doing so in the 21st. To justify their actions, some regimes used the idea that characteristics are inherited. Others have used ideology. None have taken much notice of what science has to say.

Toby has taken note of the science but has managed to fundamentally misunderstand both it and social constructionism. He’s lumped together anyone else who’s misunderstood the science, objected to spurious scientific claims, been upset by unwise off-the-cuff remarks, with left-wing ideologues.   And has used his misunderstanding to launch an attack on the hard left who he equates with Stalinists.

His argument is essentially constructed in opposition to the narrative of people he disagrees with, whether they are a ‘neo-Marxist intersectionality cult’, ‘Social Justice Warriors’, ‘Liberal Creationists’, ‘anti-hereditarians’ or vote Democrat (p.7).

If the social constructionists think intelligence, race and gender are social constructs, Young doesn’t consider the possibility they might actually be no more than social constructs, despite scientists arguing over their construct validity for decades. If sceptics get upset about scientists making questionable claims, Young assumes the scientists must be right. If any group he disagrees with marginalises the role of biological factors in individual differences, Young marginalises the role of environmental factors. If all the parties Young disagrees with fight like ferrets in a sack about the differences between their views, Young lumps them all together as if they form a homogeneous group.

That doesn’t tell us that Young is wrong and the social constructionists/neo-Marxist intersectionalists/Social Justice Warriors/Liberal Creationists/anti-hereditarians are right. What it does tell us is that misunderstandings of science can be used to justify anything.

notes

*Constance Holden wrote for the news section of Science for 40 years.

§Blackless et al (2000). How sexually dimorphic are we?  http://www.aissg.org/PDFs/Blackless-How-Dimorphic-2000.pdf

can’t help it, root causes and strict discipline: part 3

It’s clear from responses to the previous two posts that some further explanation is required of how the Root Cause approach to behavioural problems works. People have raised issues such as:

  • Some of the children in my class are refugees from a war zone; I don’t know how to tackle the root causes of their behaviour. Other agencies don’t seem to know either.
  • I don’t have time to teach all the children in my class individually, never mind sort out their behaviour issues.
  • How do you find out what the root causes are anyway?   Children will lie and blame anything but themselves.

All behaviour has causes, ranging from an involuntary response to physiology or the environment, through to a deliberate, carefully planned, long-term strategy. All unwanted behaviour in schools has causes too.

the environment

Unwanted behaviour often emerges if the school isn’t sufficiently explicit about its expectations. Rules such as walking in single file in corridors, no talking at certain times, are health and safety related. They reduce the risk of accidents and allow teachers to be heard. Other rules (e.g. do what teachers tell you, hand in your homework on time) facilitate learning.

The Strict Discipline model uses reward and punishment to ensure children comply with the school’s behavioural expectations. But having an explicit behavioural framework reinforced by rewards and sanctions doesn’t mean all children will keep the rules. Nor that all children are able to keep the rules. And sometimes the behavioural framework itself can cause problems.

One school I encountered experienced ongoing ‘challenging’ playground behaviour. On the wall by the door from the Y3 cloakroom to the playground was a small card bearing 13 rules for playground behaviour. Expecting 7 year-olds to memorise 13 rules seemed a bit unrealistic, and any child who stopped to read them would create a bottleneck likely to result in somebody falling over or getting their head bashed as the door was shoved open. I won’t even start on the problems caused by the coat pegs and lunchtime arrangements.

But what can schools do if a child is persistently not adhering to an explicit, carefully thought through behavioural framework, and rewards and sanctions are having no effect? My suggestion was to investigate the root causes of the behaviour.

the child

Most of us are familiar with the Root Cause model in some form or another. We know from personal experience that the causes of behaviour aren’t always obvious. We are aware (thanks to Freud) that the causes can sometimes be deep-rooted. Teachers will be aware of the cycle of deprivation theory that’s widely misinterpreted (and sometimes presented) as the Can’t Help It model. If you’ve never undertaken a root cause analysis, it’s easy to assume the causes of problematic behaviour will be nebulous and difficult to identify. That a child’s unwanted behaviour will turn out to be rooted in a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the community’s cultural expectations, or whatever. That’s often not so, even for the most apparently challenging behaviour.

For example, a pupil with a diagnosis of autism and complex specific learning difficulties attending a residential school (so yes, the school had the capacity and expertise to tackle difficult behavioural issues) began exhibiting extreme distress and ‘school refusal’. Some careful probing with the student revealed the source of the distress not to be some obscure aspect of his ‘autism’, but anxiety about being asked to do things he couldn’t do, in three particular lessons. The kid was given an opt-out card for those lessons. If it all got too much, he could show the card to the teacher and go to alternative provision. The card was never used; knowing he had an escape route was enough to allow him to cope.

The school could have explored in more detail why these particular lessons were an issue, but in this instance they didn’t need to; the problematic behaviour was avoided by a pretty simple solution. I’m sure some of the Strict Discipline adherents will at this point say that if a ‘get out of jail free’ card was available everyone would want one, but this was an approach the school used frequently and that’s not what they found. It became a kind of badge of honour to have the card but manage not to use it.

children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND)

Old Andrew complained that the Can’t Help It model made SEND an excuse for poor behaviour. It might, but in my experience, some teachers don’t know enough about SEND to make that judgement call.

Teachers in mainstream schools have always been expected to teach at least 98% of the child population; only very small percentage of children have attended special schools. But initial teacher training (ITT) has generally focused only on the 70% of children in the middle ability range. Not surprisingly, children with specific learning difficulties or disabilities have often been problematic for mainstream schools. I’ve advocated making SEND training an integral part of ITT.  Teachers have raised objections:

  • SEND training isn’t necessary. Direct instruction and explicit rules work.
  • How can teachers be expected to provide individual tuition to each child?
  • How can teachers be expected to learn about all those different conditions?

Direct instruction and explicit rules work      Direct instruction and explicit rules can be very effective. Whether the same direct instruction and explicit rules are effective for all children is another matter. Advocates of direct instruction and explicit rules also have a tendency to question the policy of educational inclusion, and to complain about objections to exclusion. Although their complaints might be valid, there’s a fine line between ‘wanting to get on with teaching and avoid disruption for children who want to learn’, and making problem children somebody else’s problem.

How can teachers be expected to provide individual tuition to each child? They used to be expected to do this, before the education system became standardised and performance-driven. Basically, if you are teaching a very varied child population, you can have high performance if you shuffle off the more challenging pupils elsewhere. Or you can have well-educated pupils who might still not meet a narrow performance measure.  You can’t have properly differentiated tuition and high performance based on a narrow measure.

How can teachers be expected to understand all those different conditions?   They don’t need to. Whatever a child’s diagnosis, for children with SEN in mainstream schools, teachers need to know about a handful of challenges (parents are usually a good source of information too – note the ‘usually’):

  • Visual processing – does the child screw up their eyes or complain of headaches? Do they persistently misread letters/numbers or find it difficult to find a visual target?

Make appropriate modifications to material. (One child I taught couldn’t see letters or numbers in their right visual field. Shifting everything to the left was effective). Avoid classroom clutter. Get their visual functioning checked; most local authorities have an educational sensory impairment service.

  • Auditory processing – does the child ‘zone out’ when you’re talking to them, or lose track of what they are saying to you? Do they confuse particular phonemes? Do they put their hands over their ears?

Speak slowly and clearly. Give them time to respond. Get some Jolly Phonics materials for visual/kinaesthetic reinforcement (and no, I’m not talking about Learning Styles). Keep the classroom quiet. Get their auditory processing checked; speech & language therapists can help.

  • Attention/executive function – Are they easily distracted? Is it difficult to get them to switch attention between topics? Or both? Do they find it hard to remember instructions?

Sit the kid at the side/back of the room. Give verbal and/or visual cues to signal the need to switch topic. Back up verbal instructions with written ones.

  • Motor control – is the child clumsy? A chair-rocker? Poor handwriting?

Do lots of physical activities that don’t involve fine motor control. Lots of exercise involving balance and using both sides of the body simultaneously. Get an occupational therapist to advise.

  • Anxiety and unwanted behaviour – if the child is anxious or behaving in a way that’s causing problems, there is very likely to be a reason for it.

Win the child’s trust. Get them to talk – sometimes it’s best to start with what they’re interested in rather than confronting the problem head on. Find out what’s going on and find ways to fix problems together. Compromise is powerful.  Sometimes all that’s required is knowing that a teacher is really on their side.

Some teachers will argue that they can’t implement any of these suggestions because they don’t have time or can’t get access to external support services. Or that the problems are intractable and outside their control. Those things might be true, but they don’t negate the Root Cause model’s effectiveness. They do indicate that public sector services have a long way to go.