distracted by bees: Tom Bennett reviewing Ken Robinson

Like millions of others, I’m familiar with Sir Ken Robinson’s plea for more creativity in education. Sir Ken has come in for a bit of flak recently from those calling for a return to more traditional teaching methods. Tom Bennett’s TES review of Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up, upped the ante. I didn’t recognise the figure he describes as ‘Herod’s favourite educationalist’ as the guy who thinks schools should be more creative. So I read the book. Some of Tom’s criticisms are justified. Others aren’t. In his review, brickbats get hurled in many directions, often at the wrong targets. I think the review requires a response.

Sir Ken’s argument is that state schools were originally designed along the same lines as 19th century factories and the design hasn’t changed much since then. The factory model isn’t effective for education because industrial products are standardised but students aren’t. The factory model stifles the creative thinking we’re going to need on an increasingly crowded planet. As a solution, Sir Ken gives examples of schools that have radically changed their structure or function to foster creativity.

Tom will have none of this. For him, schools are stuffed full of creative activities so Sir Ken’s diagnosis is wrong. The proposed remedy is simply ‘the usual blend of personalised learning, project work, thematic curriculums, knowledge-light/skill-heavy lessons that we’ve come to love from the 21st-century education movement’, worthy only of contempt. His criticism of Sir Ken’s solutions is partly justified. As for the rest, I think he’s missed the point. I think he’s missed several points.

Victorian factories

Sir Ken claims that state education systems were based on the same model as Victorian factories; he’s right, they were. Hierarchical, bureaucratic, mechanistic systems regulated by performance measures were at the time considered to be the epitome of efficiency. That assumption has since been found wanting. To be effective, organisational form has to follow function, and standardised systems are not good at coping with functions that need a lot of flexibility, such as teaching children. Sir Ken isn’t saying that creativity doesn’t exist in schools, but that a standardised system militates against it. It’s quite possible to be creative within a standardised framework. Good luck if the standardised framework itself turns out to be horribly wrong.

Sir Ken’s analysis of the problem is grounded in organisational theory. So is his emphasis on the importance of creativity. The same can’t be said for how he deals with creativity itself.

creativity

There’s no doubt that creative thinking has enabled human beings to adapt to a wide range of environments, solve problems and develop sophisticated technologies. Creativity should be fostered in schools. But despite his awareness of its importance, Sir Ken doesn’t go into detail about what creativity is or how it solves problems, what it looks like in different disciplines or how it can be learned.

In Creative Schools, Sir Ken slips, imperceptibly and perhaps without realising it, from a fairly coherent analysis of the problem based on organisation theory to the scattergun ‘success story’ solutions so popular in management theory.

There’s a significant difference between organisation theory and management theory even though they overlap. Organisation theory looks at the big picture from a systems perspective. Management is only one facet of organisations. For many managers, success is whatever works – even if it works only briefly or only in some contexts. For organisations, success needs to take into account the whole organisation and its environment and to be sustained. So knowing that performing Shakespeare plays transformed one school and cultivating students’ interests turned round another might be useful, but you can’t just chuck those ‘solutions’ at schools and hope they stick. Sustained success is likely only with the right structure, the right educational programme and the right teachers for a particular situation.

Management books are replete with abstract concepts that aren’t operationalized and there are plenty of those in Sir Ken’s later chapters; creativity, vision, skills, incentives, leadership and climate. My guess is that management theory is partly responsible for Tom’s despised ‘21st-century education movement’, since they both focus on context-free abstract concepts.

The ‘21st-century education movement’ and Ken Robinson appear to have fallen into the trap of assuming that specific pedagogical approaches that have worked in one context will work in all contexts and that teachers can and should pick’n’mix them regardless. Tom appears to have fallen into a mirror-image of the same trap; of rejecting said pedagogical approaches because they don’t work in all contexts.

Having dismissed what he thinks is Sir Ken’s diagnosis and his remedy, Tom has a go at what he thinks is Sir Ken’s model of education.

not just pointless, but harmful

Sir Ken makes a living mocking the ‘lie’ that if you get a degree you’ll get a good job, but that’s a straw man. No one seriously claims a degree guarantees that.”

Actually, they do – or they come close. One justification for increasing graduate numbers in the UK was that as a ‘knowledge economy’ we needed more graduates – presumably for graduate level jobs. Another was that graduates earned more. Libby Purves on ‘The Learning Curve’ once tried to explain to Les Ebdon, now director of Offa, how increasing the supply of graduates might mean that graduate pay decreased. She failed to persuade him. But her prediction was correct.

What people actually claim is that possession of an academic education is valuable in itself in order to be an informed member of the human race; plus it offers some advantage over those who don’t. Is there anything more sad than the sight of someone denying children the right to an academic curriculum and the fruits thereof, than from someone who is the very pinnacle of such an education?

What does ‘the possession of an academic education’ actually mean? A good education means that you have a good knowledge about how the world works and the skills you need to respond to change. An education isn’t a commodity that you ‘possess’, it’s something you experience. And why specify ‘academic’? If ‘academic’ refers to the education it’s a tautology, and if it means book-learning only it’s questionable. Tom also frames education solely in personal terms; an education makes individuals informed members of the human race and, interestingly, offers them a competitive advantage over others. He doesn’t seem to think of education as a common good. What’s crucially important isn’t the level of education we have as individuals, but as a community. The ‘possession of an academic education’ doesn’t guarantee anything as far as individuals are concerned; one only has to look as far as the track record of some government ministers.

Although he attacks Ken Robinson’s model on the grounds that it will damage children’s prospects, Tom himself doesn’t appear to have a very high expectations of children:

“…while the groovier end of the education spectrum may lend value to a small subset of very able, mature and supported children, for the most part they do not. If you set a child with low literacy an independent study program to boost their grammar skills, some will flourish… But most will give up when it gets hard, or a bee flies in the room. If you only ask children to study those things that they are interested in, would anyone be surprised if they only study things that appeal to them and forego anything difficult or remote?

Well yes, if you suddenly foist a badly designed programme on a kid who’s not prepared for it or don’t give them a clue why things that look difficult and remote might turn out to be useful and interesting. But that’s explicitly not what Sir Ken advocates. Some of his success stories, even if cherry-picked, are about schools that have adopted long-term strategies to re-engage previously disaffected students. There’s no indication that the turnaround applied only to very able, mature and supported children. Tom then goes on to say;

It’s not a stretch to believe that children are naturally curious, they kind of are – what they aren’t is naturally self-disciplined. Curiosity isn’t a good in itself; it is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction….You could have visited a Montessori school a hundred years ago and felt perfectly at home with the homilies preached therein, and here.

They ‘kind of are’ curious? Seriously? Tom obviously hasn’t experienced a class of 5 year-olds close up. And curiosity ‘is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction’? The whole point about curiosity is that it’s a response to novelty and distraction. It’s what prompts us to acquire new knowledge and skills. It’s there, young children have it in spades, so teachers might as well cash in on it.

As for Tom’s sideswipe at Montessori schools… The Montessori approach dominated primary education in the UK for the best part of a century. It’s still widely used, very effectively, in early years and special education settings. Maria Montessori trained in physics, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and anthropology. She based her educational approach on work done by French physicians Itard and Seguin with children with hearing impairments and learning difficulties. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. To dismiss her approach as preaching homilies is… well, for once words fail me.

a dismal model of education

Tom’s review of Creative Schools is entertaining and colourful. He makes his points very clearly. Some of them are accurate. But I get the impression his model for education is based on a reaction to the status quo, rather than a rigorous analysis of educational models. He ignores the fact that a standardised, performance-based model of education had been largely abandoned in England by the end of WW1 – because it hadn’t worked. He overlooks the fact that organisational theorists have figured out why. He mistakes Ken Robinson’s reference to similarities in the deep structure of schools and factories for a reference to their surface features.

What Tom probably has seen fail miserably is a bunch of badly thought-through, poorly implemented (21st-century education movement) attempts to develop children’s learning. He appears to see the movement as monolithic and assumes anything that remotely resembles it must be part of it. That includes underlying assumptions about schools being designed like factories or children’s curiosity being powerful enough to make them want to learn anything and everything. If the 21st-century education model is the wrong one, the right one must be the opposite.

I agree that the 21st-century education model is pretty dismal, but I find Tom’s model equally so. It assumes most children aren’t motivated to learn anything hard, nor are they able to ignore distractions. That they’re not interested in things they perceive as difficult or remote. That they are ‘kind of’ curious, but their curiosity is worth nothing unless it oxymoronically eschews novelty and distraction and is constrained in a straitjacket of self-discipline and structure.

I think Tom overlooks the fact that many of the children he’s taught will already have had their curiosity and interest in learning squashed out of them by a standardised, performance-based system that has tried to educate children using a context-free skills approach. If neither of those models works, it’s not surprising kids get distracted by bees. I suggest Tom spends a bit of time with a class of pre-schoolers. He might see things differently.

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the new SEN legislation and the Dunkirk spirit

In less than a week an event will take place that’s been awaited with excitement, apprehension, or in some cases with something approaching the Dunkirk spirit. On 1 September part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 comes into force. It’s been described as the biggest change to special educational needs in 30 years.

It won’t work
. If I were a betting sort of person, I’d put money on the next government having to review the system again in a couple of years. How can I be so sure? Or so pessimistic? It’s because the ‘problem’ with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) isn’t the special educational needs and disabilities, it’s the education system. And not just the SEN bit of it – it’s the education system as a whole. To find out why we need to go back in time…

we have a history

Education became compulsory in England in 1870. The new education system was essentially a one-size-fits-all affair focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic. Or more accurately one-size-fits-most; what took the government by surprise was the number of children turning up to school who didn’t fit the education system. Government essentially saw these ‘handicapped’ children as a problem, and its solution was to provide special schools for them. Although the solution made perfect sense, it wasn’t entirely successful. Handicapped children often ended up socially marginalised and sometimes institutionalised, and there were still children in mainstream schools who were struggling.

By the 1970s, the education system had changed considerably. There was more emphasis on an individualised education and local education authorities (LEAs), schools and teachers had a good deal of flexibility in the education they provided. The time was right for Margaret Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education to commission a review of the education of handicapped children, headed by Mary Warnock. The Warnock Committee reported in 1978. It defined special education as ‘provision not generally available in normal schools’ (p.45). In other words it saw the ‘problem’ of special education not as the children but as the educational provision available in mainstream schools. The committee’s recommendations fed into the 1981 Education Act that:

• assumed children would attend mainstream schools where possible
• did away with the old categories of handicap
• introduced the concept of ‘special educational needs’
• gave LEAs a duty to assess children’s special educational needs and to fund the additional provision required for their education.

The Act had the potential to transform the lives of children marginalised by the education system, but it clearly hasn’t done so – not in a good way, anyway. In the last 20 years we’ve had three SEN Codes of Practice, numerous inquiries, reports and tinkerings with SEN legislation and regulations. One select committee described the system as not fit for purpose. So…

what went wrong?

The Warnock recommendations were made in the context of a highly flexible education system. A contemporary account describes a fruitful collaboration between a school for children with visual impairment (VI) and a mainstream junior school, pioneered by a keen LEA officer (Hegarty & Pocklington, 1981). Children with VI were gradually integrated into the mainstream school and teachers trained each other. Everybody won.

In order to undertake such a project, LEAs, schools and teachers needed a fair amount of control over their time and budgets. Projects like this might have eventually been rolled out nationwide, except that within a decade the introduction of a compulsory national curriculum and standardised testing had begun to steer the education system back towards a one-size-fits-all approach. Within a few short years central government had essentially wrested the responsibility for education and its funding from local authorities and education had become a serious ‘political football’. Successive governments have focused on raising educational attainment as an indicator of their own effectiveness as a government and ironically that’s what’s resulted in SEN becoming a problem again in recent years.

Essentially, if you want an efficient one-size-fits-all education system and world-beating exam results it makes perfect sense to remove from the equation children who don’t fit into the system and are unlikely to do well in exams however hard everyone tries. That’s what the government did in the 1890s. If you want an education system that provides all children with an education suitable to their individual needs, you can forget about one-size-fits-all and world-beating exam results; you’ll need a lot of flexibility. That’s what the education system had developed into by the time of the Warnock committee. If you want both you’re likely to end up where we are now.

"Relativity" by MC Escher

“Relativity” by MC Escher

The Warnock committee defined special educational needs in terms of the educational provision ‘generally available in normal schools’. By definition, the better the provision in normal schools, the smaller the number of children who would be deemed to have special educational needs. The committee couldn’t have emphasised the need for SEN training for all teachers more strongly if it had tried, but perversely, the education system appears to have taken a step in the opposite direction.

teacher training

The Warnock committee recommended the inclusion of SEN training in the initial teacher training (ITT) for all teachers. Following the 1981 Education Act, the assumption that many children with SEN would be taught in mainstream schools and that all teachers would be trained in SEN led to the cessation of many special needs teacher training courses. They obviously haven’t been replaced with comparable training in ITT. This, coupled with the retirement of special education teachers and a reduction of the number of children in special schools, has meant that the education system as a whole has suffered a considerable loss of SEN expertise.

Reviews of SEN provision have repeatedly reported concerns about there being insufficient emphasis on SEN in ITT. But it’s only been since 2009 that Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) have been required to be trained teachers, and only new SENCOs have been required to have SEN training. The current government has allocated additional funding for SEN qualifications (para 53) but only up until last year. This isn’t going to touch the problem. DfE figures for 2011 show that only around 7% of the total education workforce has SEN experience and/or training, and most of those people are concentrated in special schools. And special schools report ongoing difficulties recruiting suitably trained staff. This, despite the fact that the Warnock report 35 years ago pointed out that based on historical data, around 20% of the school population could be expected to need additional educational provision at some time during their school career. The report made it clear that all teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs.

Teachers’ expertise, or lack of it, will have a big impact on the attainment of children with SEN, but that hasn’t prevented government from developing unrealistic targets for all children under the guise of raising aspirations.

expectations of attainment

I mentioned earlier that over the last three decades education has become a ‘political football’. Concern is often expressed over the proportion of young people who leave school functionally illiterate or innumerate or without qualifications, despite evidence that this proportion has remained pretty constant for many years. In the case of literacy, it’s remained stubbornly at around 17%, by bizarre coincidence not far from the equally stubborn 20% figure for children with SEN.

But the possibility that some of those young people might be in the position they’re in because of lack of expertise in the education system – or even because they are never going to meet government’s arbitrary attainment targets and that that might actually be OK – doesn’t seem to have occurred to successive governments. In her keynote address to the inaugural national conference of the Autism Education Trust in 2009 the then Minister for Schools and Learning Sarah McCarthy-Fry, saw no reason why young people with autism shouldn’t achieve 5 A-C grade GCSEs. Some of course might do just that. For others such an aspiration bears no relation to their ability or aptitude, part of the definition for the ‘suitable education’ each child is required, by law, to receive.

Currently, funding for post-16 education requires young people to have or be studying for A-C grade GCSEs in both English and Maths. Post-16 providers are rolling their eyes. Although I can understand the reasoning behind this requirement, it’s an arbitrary target bearing no relation to the legal definition of a suitable education.

it’s the system

Currently, local authorities, schools and teachers are under pressure from the SEN system to make personalised, specialised educational provision for a small group of children, whilst at the same time the education system as a whole is pushing them in the opposite direction, towards a one-size-fits-all approach. This is a daft way to design a system and no matter how much effort individual professionals put in, it can’t work. But it isn’t the SEN system itself that needs changing, it’s teacher expertise and government expectations.

Over recent decades, successive governments have approached education legislation (and legislation in general, for that matter) not by careful consideration of the historical data and ensuring that the whole system is designed to produce the desired outcomes, but essentially by edict. A bit of the education system is wrong, so government has decreed that it should be put right, regardless of what’s causing the problem or the impact of changing part of the system without considering the likely consequences elsewhere.

In systems theory terms, this is known as sub-system optimization at the expense of systems optimization. That mouthful basically means that because all the parts of a system are connected, if you tweak one bit of it another bit will change, but not necessarily in a good way. Policy-makers refer to the not-in-a-good-way changes as unintended and unwanted outcomes.

The new SEN legislation is a classic case of an attempt at sub-system optimization that’s doomed to fail. It requires the education, health and social care sectors to do some joined up thinking and extend the support offered to children with SEND for a further decade – until they are 25 – at a time when all three sectors are undergoing massive organisational change and simultaneously having their budgets cut. It introduces personal budgets at a time when all three sectors are changing their commissioning arrangements. It fails to address the lack of expertise in all three systems. (Recent reports have pointed out that teachers aren’t trained in SEN, GPs don’t have paediatric training and children’s social workers don’t know about child development.) It fails to address the fundamental systems design problems inherent in all three sectors; a one-size-fits-all education system, and health and social care sectors that focus on cure rather than prevention.

This approach to systems design isn’t just daft, it’s incompetent and reprehensively irresponsible. People who have made hopeful noises about the new SEN system have tended to focus on the good intentions behind the legislation. I have no doubt about the good intentions or the integrity of the ministers responsible – Sarah Teather and Edward Timpson – but they have been swimming against a strong tide. Getting through the next few years will be tough. Fortunately, in the world of SEN there’s a lot of Dunkirk spirit – we’re going to need it.

References
Hegarty, S & Pocklington, K (1981). A junior school resource area for the visually impaired. In Swann, W (ed.) The Practice of Special Education. Open University Press/Basil Blackwell.
Warnock, H M (1978). Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People. HMSO.

public services and systems thinking

Last week I attended a conference hosted by Stoke-on-Trent City Council called A Radical Approach to Reshaping Public Services. It was one of the most informative I’ve ever been to, so I thought a summary might be useful to anyone struggling to navigate public sector services.

A team from the city council and another from Bromsgrove and Redditch councils explained how they are applying Vanguard’s systems thinking approach to the way they support local people. The two teams have tackled local issues slightly differently; in this post I’ve amalgamated what they described, to give an overview. Obviously, this is my own overview and I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve got anything wrong.

Although both teams use the Vanguard approach, systems thinking for organisations wasn’t invented by Vanguard, but is based on the principles of systems theory. Systems theory is pretty robust. We know how systems work in many different domains. Because organisations are systems, applying systems theory to them makes a lot of sense. (Management theories, by contrast, usually address only part of the organizational system, and that’s why they tend not to work so well.)

Some key principles of systems thinking as applied to organisations

Form follows function

If you want your organization to be effective, you need to have a clear idea of its function. If its ultimate goal is to make sure local people can get on with their lives (the primary purpose of local authorities) you need to have valid, reliable and relevant information about what services people need to enable them to do that. Then you can decide what things your organization has to do to meet those needs (function) and what structure will best enable it to do those things (form).

Systems should be designed as whole systems

If you’re designing a system, you need to make sure the whole system is actually doing what it’s supposed to do. A system is essentially a set of interacting components. If you change one component, there’s a good chance another component will be affected, so you need to check out the impact on the system as a whole, or the system as a whole might not work.

Good data about the nature of demand is essential

“Demand’ is anything that takes energy out of the system. It includes the processes the system carries out, the number of people using it and the complexity of their needs, the cost of staffing, buildings and equipment etc. It also includes what Vanguard calls ‘failure demand’ – demand due solely to the failure of the system to function efficiently. Failure demand would include duplication, re-referrals, complaints etc.

Variation requires adaptability

A system dealing with high variation (e.g. a large population with a wide range of needs) must be adaptable if it’s to respond appropriately to that variation. The best way we’ve found so far of meeting the wide range of needs across a community is through the classic model of professional expertise. For millennia, communities have met needs through access to people with high levels of expertise, whether carpenters or doctors, tailors or teachers. The key features of these professionals are that they have a high level of both specialist expertise and autonomy. Both qualities are characteristic of the teams using the systems thinking approach.

How do you apply systems thinking to a public service organisation?

Stoke-on-Trent City Council was faced with escalating problems – unemployment, rent arrears, anti-social behaviour etc – at the same time as experiencing significant reductions in funding. It was clear that even before funding cuts, whatever the council was doing to tackle the problems wasn’t an unqualified success, so a radical change was needed to avert disaster. The council applied the systems thinking approach in three phases;

• an analysis of the effectiveness of the old system,
• a pilot study of the systems thinking approach in one location, and
• scaling-up the new system informed by data gathered from the pilot study.

Phase 1: Analysing the effectiveness of the old system

Because it was clear that the old system a) wasn’t working efficiently and b) wasn’t financially sustainable, a detailed examination of its strengths and weaknesses might, on the face of it, appear to be a waste of time. It turns out that several useful outcomes emerge from a detailed analysis of current practice. A analysis enables you to;

• look at the system as a system, not as a set of disconnected agencies and departments,
• see how effective the system is, and why it is or isn’t effective, and
• get detailed information about costs.

The city council already had good city-wide data, so they knew where most of the problems were located geographically, but they didn’t know much about the people with the problems. They couldn’t answer the question “Where do the people who go through your system end up?”

The council team looked in detail at a small number of complex cases from the point of view of the people involved. Analyses carried out by a multi-agency team shed light on how the old system worked – or rather how it didn’t work. The analyses included mapping the pathways followed by people using the system, creating a timeline of interactions with agencies, and comparing what people wanted with what they got.

Mapping the pathways followed by people using the system

Typically, when someone first engaged with the system, the department they contacted dealt with issues within their remit, and then referred the person to other departments or agencies for any other issues. To analyse the pathways people followed, the team drew a map, for each case study, showing each referral. They ended up with some hugely complex diagrams, showing that people often ended up in loops of referrals and re-referrals to the same agencies. Anyone unfamiliar with the system would have found it bewildering and frustrating. Confusion and frustration is what people using public sector systems often report, but until you’ve seen it mapped out on paper, it’s difficult to see where the specific causes of the confusion and frustration lie.

Diagram showing how referrals were mapped

Diagram showing how referrals were mapped

Mapping out a time-line of interactions with different agencies

The team also looked at what interactions people had with different agencies and when. They used used post-it notes to represent interactions, colour-coded for the relevant agency, on a timeline. A typical pattern consisted of a few interactions with a single agency for a few months that then rapidly fanned out into many interactions with multiple agencies. What was clear was that there was no ownership of the case by any specific agency.

Diagram showing timeline of interactions

Diagram showing timeline of interactions

Asking people what they wanted

The team compared what support people said they wanted with what they actually got. One woman, who ended up with health and mobility problems, no support and her children in care, initially had two ‘wants’; access to the first floor of her home and help with housework. If those ‘wants’ had been met at the outset, the cost to the council would have been relatively low. As it was, the fact that neither ‘want’ was addressed resulted in an outcome that was very expensive for the council and catastrophic for the family.

What these exercises showed is that;

• the problems that people presented with (e.g. rent arrears) were often outcomes of other problems
• people often accurately identified the root causes of problems given the opportunity to do so
• addressing the root causes promptly could result in significant financial savings and avoid problems becoming complex
• people using services often experienced unnecessary referrals to multiple agencies and many agencies were duplicating each other’s work
• each interaction with services added to costs
• each increase in complexity of problems added to costs.

Phase 2: Pilot study in one locality

An area of the city known to have high needs was chosen for a pilot study. A ‘locality’ team was set up to respond to issues raised by people in this area. The team’s brief was to address any problems identified when people living in this area came into contact with any local authority services or with the fire or police services, which were by now actively involved with the project.

The new locality team differed from the old functional teams in several important respects;

• each team member would be responsible for ensuring the support of a small group of citizens
• they ‘pulled in’ additional expertise to the team if required, rather than referring the citizen out to another agency
• they used measures to monitor performance and outcomes but didn’t use targets

Phase 3: Evaluating the effectiveness of the pilot study

After six months, the pilot study was evaluated at three levels, Tier 3 – the city level, Tier 2 – which could be described as the locality level, and Tier 1 – the individual level.

Tier 3: City level evaluation

Two years prior to the pilot study the council had identified 35 key strategic measures in order to monitor the cost-effectiveness of their services, so they already had good data at the macro-level, Tier 3. The team used the ‘triangle of need’ to identify the level of support required by particular households.

triangle of need

Triangle of need

Small, but clear reductions in costs for the pilot area of the city were evident compared to similar localities used as controls. The results are tentative because the intervention had only been in place for 6 months.

Tier 1: Individual level evaluation

During the pilot study, the outcomes for seven people were assessed in detail, so data were then available at the individual level – Tier 1. The results were not what the team expected. Overall, the number of interactions with local authority services had increased, but the cumulative cost of those interactions had gone down slightly. By contrast, the demand on health and police services decreased significantly – in some cases by around 90%. Fire service interactions increased, but costs also plummeted because fire service involvement was around fire prevention, not emergency call-outs.

The seven citizens were asked at the beginning of the pilot study what problems they wanted to resolve and their perception of their progress towards resolution was mapped on radar (spider) charts. After six months most had seen significant improvements. The locality teams also filmed some quite moving interviews with people who’d received support from them. The citizens in question were obviously grateful to the locality teams for providing them with relevant, timely support. And surprised that the council offered that support at all.

Tier 2 – Locality level evaluation

After the first 6 months, the proportion of households in the pilot locality needing multiple-agency or specialist support had dropped from 35% to 20%. The council estimates that there are around 5,000 households in the city that fall into one of these two categories and that if the improvements seen in the pilot study can be scaled-up city-wide, over 5 years the council could save £40-80m.

Comments

Some points worth noting emerged during the course of the conference.

Getting other agencies on board was essential

Stoke city council were clear that they couldn’t have proceeded with this work without the active involvement of the police and fire services, and that getting the support of people in charge of other agencies was essential. The massive cost savings to the police, fire and health services suggested their involvement was a worthwhile investment.

Local councillors, often initially sceptical about yet another re-organisation, generally found the facts and figures persuasive.

Seeing the situation on the ground is essential

One housing officer was shocked when she visited the properties that tenants were expected to occupy. So were other team members when they found out what had happened to people who’d contacted their departments. What’s on paper doesn’t always match real life.

It takes time to build up the trust of people using the new system

Finding out more about people’s problems can seem intrusive, and it took time to build up the trust of those with complex problems. But word-of-mouth recommendations about timely, effective support and positive outcomes is beginning to change the relationship between local people and the council.

Staff using the systems thinking approach wouldn’t go back to the old system

Council officers found their working life transformed by the increase in variety, autonomy and effectiveness of their new roles. Most wouldn’t go back to the old way of working. One important factor in improving the time taken to respond to problems, was that the members of the locality team (including a fire officer, a police officer and an alcohol support worker) were based in the same room, resulting in almost instant communication. Other agencies had a designated member of staff to deal with locality team queries.


The main problem with systems thinking – it looks like common sense

One of the drawbacks of systems thinking is that it looks so obvious, it’s easy for organisations to think they are using it already .

For example, many local authority children’s services use multi-agency teams and emphasise the importance of ‘joined-up thinking’, but the teams, their thinking and the outcomes that result bear little resemblance to the locality teams or the outcomes they’ve achieved.

I’ve also seen the triangle of need used by another local authority, not as a way of representing data, but to categorise children with disabilities (low, medium and high needs). Support is available only to families with children with severe or complex needs – those in the top section – meaning there’s a real risk that the problems of families in the middle section will be allowed to escalate.

Systems thinking is based on tried-and-tested principles. It can cope with highly variable demand and results in increased job satisfaction, reduced costs and improved quality of service. The savings and improvements can be significant. A real ray of hope in a public sector facing its greatest ever challenges.

Postscript

As I understand it, the pilot wasn’t rolled out across the city because the elected members of the council were concerned that the initial consultancy fees were greater than the savings to the council over the pilot period.

not enough jam: select committee report on SEN legislation

Sad person that I am, I love reading Parliamentary Select Committee reports. Select Committees don’t always get it right, but they are an example of democracy at its most transparent. Evidence, written and verbal, is presented verbatim so anyone who cares to can see how the Committee has taken evidence into account in its recommendations – and anyone can learn from the expertise and insights of witnesses. And because government responses to Select Committee reports are also published, anyone can see how much notice the government has taken of the Select Committee – and therefore of the evidence presented. Just before Christmas, the UK’s House of Commons Education Select Committee produced a report on its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft special educational needs legislation published in September this year. I want to comment on the report in the light of my previous post about upstream and downstream factors in the education system.

Evidence

The first thing that struck me about this report is that it is firmly grounded in the evidence submitted by individuals and organizations involved with special educational needs; almost all the recommendations are based on information from the frontline. The second thing was that it brings a systems perspective to the draft legislation. And the third thing (I have mixed feelings about this) is that I’m not the only Cassandra out there. The impression that the report as a whole conveys is that although the government’s intention and direction of travel in reforming the SEN system is heartily welcomed, that welcome is accompanied by long list of misgivings.

In this post, I want to list some of the key misgivings that emerged from the evidence presented to the Select Committee and then look at the upstream factors that might have prompted them.

Misgivings

Joined-up thinking:
• no statutory duty for health or care services to provide the support specified in the Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans
• questions over how EHC plans will fit in with adult Care and Support plans.

Assessments:
• doubts about the capacity within the system to carry out assessments – without enough people with sufficient expertise, young people will continue to need multiple assessments from different agencies as is currently the case
• a conflict of interest if assessment and service provision are carried out by the same parties.

Accountability:
• lack of clarity about who is accountable to whom for what and how that accountability can be enforced.

SEN Code of practice:
• to be revised, but not as a statutory document laid before Parliament.

Children and young people falling through the net:
• concern about children who have non-educational needs (e.g. pre-schoolers, children with disabilities but not SEN, young people in supervised work placements, apprenticeships)
• concern about children currently on School Action, School Action Plus or lower Statement funding ‘bands’ levels – SA and SA+ categories will disappear.

The Local Offer:
• no minimum standard required – concern that LAs will simply provide a service directory
• no minimum requirement regarding parent participation – a risk that parent participation will be tokenistic

The task of government

As I see it, the primary task of government is to ensure the maintenance of an infrastructure that allows the community it serves to go about its lawful business without let or hindrance. That doesn’t mean government has to design the infrastructure – the evidence suggests that design is far better left to people with relevant expertise. But government does need to maintain an overview – to make sure the different parts of the infrastructure interact effectively, to legislate in order to resolve conflict and to ensure the community’s cash isn’t wasted. Government departments have different areas of responsibility and one of the tasks of the Prime Minister or his/her office should be to ensure that those departments interact effectively. This is a thankless and difficult task and conflict between government departments is unlikely ever to be eradicated, but someone, somewhere needs to have oversight of what’s going on in different departments to ensure that government policy is coherent – that legislation drawn up by one department isn’t going to conflict with legislation drawn up by another, or that budgets aren’t going to scupper policy. Unfortunately, in the case of the draft SEN legislation, this doesn’t appear to have happened.

The biggest reform in SEN legislation for 30 years is being introduced at the same time as the NHS is undergoing the biggest structural change in its history, the school leaving age is being raised to 18, school funding is changing to reflect the increasing autonomy of schools and public sector budgets are being cut year-on-year for the foreseeable future. The SEN legislation rests on several assumptions about the way other public sector services will be working. But no one actually knows how they’ll be working. Witness after witness drew the Committee’s attention to the large number of ‘unknowns’ in the proposed SEN equation.

Sub-system optimization

The SEN legislation is a perfect example of what’s known as sub-system optimization at the expense of whole system optimization. In other words, the proposed SEN sub-system on its own might be great; but the SEN sub-system doesn’t exist on its own, it interacts with several other systems many of which are also undergoing change. Re-designing a service so that it works effectively is a challenging task and one that’s best undertaken by a team of people who have expertise in different aspects of the service, in consultation with a wide range of those working at the front-line – including service users. The reason for this is not to ensure that all parties feel they have been consulted, but to avoid the unforeseen and unwanted outcomes of poorly designed legislation that often end up as part of the judiciary’s caseload. Large-scale or rapid structural changes should be undertaken only when absolutely necessary otherwise there is a big risk of costly knock-on outcomes elsewhere. Over recent decades, the speed with which legislation is introduced seems to have gathered pace. This is certainly true for special educational needs legislation.

The Warnock Committee responsible for the previous re-design of SEN provision was set up in 1974 and consisted of 27 members. Its terms of reference were as follows;

To review educational provision in England, Scotland and Wales for children and
young people handicapped by disabilities of body or mind, taking account of the medical
aspects of their needs, together with arrangements to prepare them for entry into
employment; to consider the most effective use of resources for these purposes; and to
make recommendations
”.

The Committee took nearly four years to report and legislation based on its recommendations wasn’t enacted until 1981. The recent equivalent was the Lamb Inquiry. Its Expert Advisers Group had six members (although it had a larger Reference Group). It was commissioned in 2008 in response to Select Committee reports critical of SEN provision published in 2006 and 2007, reported in 2009 and its recommendations have prompted legislation that has been drafted before pathfinder local authorities’ pilot studies are complete. Its terms of reference are very different from those of the Warnock Committee, focusing on parental confidence in the SEN system:-

In formulating their advice, the Inquiry would:
●● consider whether increasing parental confidence could be best achieved by:
–– making the provision of educational psychology advice ‘arm’s length’ from
local authorities;
–– sharing best practice in developing good relationships between the
authority and parents, through effective Parent Partnership Services and
other local mechanisms;
–– effective practice by schools and local authorities in meeting the needs of
children at School Action Plus;
–– developing the ‘team around the child’ approach in the school stages;
–– other innovative proposals;
●● commission and evaluate innovative projects, in the areas identified, that can
demonstrate the impact on parental confidence of a particular approach;
●● draw on the evidence of other work currently commissioned by the
Department;
●● take into account the evidence of the submissions to the two Select
Committee Reports in 2006 and 2007.

In 1981, the changes resulting from the Warnock report would have been applied to a fairly flexible education system – it would have been up to individual schools or local authorities how implementation took place. A decade later, a compulsory national curriculum and standardized testing had completely transformed that educational landscape. Ironically, the SEN reforms had been both introduced and undermined by changes to the wider education system by the same person – Margaret Thatcher. The constraints imposed on schools and local authorities by performance indicators have led to unforeseen and unwanted outcomes for children with SEN.

Unforseen and unwanted outcomes

The recent Select Committee report draws attention, for example, to the disincentives in the education system for schools to educate children with special needs. The NASUWT cites the case of the flagship Mossbourne Academy in Hackney (founding principal Sir Michael Wilshaw, currently Chief Inspector of Schools) where parents have successfully challenged the school in relation to admission of pupils with SEN. My attempts to find a reference to ‘special educational needs’ on Mossbourne’s website met with failure – as they did on a number of websites for secondary schools in my local area. This might be because the search function on the websites doesn’t work – but frankly, I doubt that’s the cause.

In addition, giving schools increased autonomy and removing them from local authority control has resulted in a lack of clarity about who’s responsible for what and to whom. Edward Timpson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education assured the Committee that

all schools will have a vested interest in ensuring that the services that they have available are part of the local offer. Parents will be able to hold them to account for whether they do or they do not” (para.138)

I suspect the Committee wasn’t assured, since this means that the only way for parents to ultimately hold schools to account will involve taking legal action against them – which many parents will be unable or unwilling to do.

In short, making sure that a suitable education is available to all children and that schools actually provide that education is no longer safeguarded in the design of the system – by, for example, ensuring that all education providers have ready access to relevant expertise and resources and that there’s a clear pathway of accountability that doesn’t require parents to resort to legal action. Instead, government appears to see its role as having good intentions.

In response to the Select Committee’s suggestion that the draft clauses in the legislation lacked substance the Minister stated;

“I am confident—and it is borne out in many of the conversations I have already had with many of those who played a part in bringing it together—that it does illustrate, very clearly, the ambition of this Government and many other people to ensure that the system we move to is a vast improvement on the previous system” (para.13)

That might be perfectly true, but ‘ambition’ isn’t all that’s required to design and run an education system, health or care service. As I see it, over recent decades governments have become increasingly involved in the design of public sector services for political reasons, but are reluctant to take responsibility for flaws in the design of those systems – flaws that are unsurprising given the unavoidable lack of relevant expertise of government ministers and their special advisers.

Upstream factors

I said I’d look at upstream and downstream issues. Not surprisingly, the factors I flagged in my previous post – lack of expertise, insufficient resources and capacity and inadequate needs analysis, cropped up in the evidence submitted to the Select Committee.

Expertise The NUT drew attention to the fact that schools were already reporting difficulties accessing specialist advice regarding children with School Action or School Action Plus support, implying that at least some teachers don’t currently have the expertise required to support children at these levels. Witnesses also asked for the legislation to require SENCOs to have appropriate training.

Resources and capacity The difficulties experienced in accessing specialist advice suggest some local authorities are already cutting back on support services. One headteacher had been told by her local authority that children currently with lower band Statement funding would not be eligible for EHC plans. Funding cuts across the public sector have significant implications for the viability of the SEN proposals.

Needs analysis The task of local authorities is, and always has been, to provide services that meet the needs of the local population. By now, LAs should have accumulated sufficient information about the needs of local children to have a reasonably accurate idea about what services those children need. But currently, many LAs prioritise the needs of children with severe difficulties, suggesting that services are not based on need, but on budgets. The NHS hasn’t been around for as long as local authorities, but 60 years is quite long enough to have formed a good awareness of what children’s needs are. But long waits for diagnoses, to see specialists or get wheelchairs suggest that again, children’s healthcare is based on budgetary considerations rather than needs.

Not enough jam

In a letter to the Education Select Committee, Sarah Teather, responsible for the Green Paper that initially set out the proposals for change to the SEN system, asked whether there was ‘a case for extending the scope of the integrated provision requirement to all children and young people, including those with SEN’ (para.73). The consensus amongst witnesses was that doing this would mean ‘spreading the jam too thinly’.

One can appreciate concerns about limited resources being diverted from those who need them most, but this response does beg a couple of questions: The first is ‘Why are children categorized as those who need jam or those who don’t?’ Difficulties that require educational, health or social support are distributed across the population and vary during the lifetime of the individual – some children need more support than others and some might need support at some times but not at others. In other words, all children need access to the jam, even if they never need the jam itself. The second question is ‘Is there enough jam in the pot?’ If service design is based on the outcomes of a needs analysis, there should be. If service design is based on budgets, then assessments determine children’s eligibility for support, not what their needs are. And if there isn’t enough support to go round, this means that there are likely to be children who need support but who aren’t getting it.

The saying ‘children are our future’ might sound trite, but it’s still true. Child abuse by individuals has, rightly, received a great deal of attention in recent years. But public sector systems that withhold support from children who need it is also abusive and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Treating children with special educational needs and disabilities as second-class citizens is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

the dead sheep in the stream and new special needs legislation

Many years ago, on a walking holiday in the Lake District with friends, the conversation turned to how clean the water in the mountain streams might be. One of the more intrepid members of our party said; “So it would be OK for me to drink this?” “Probably,” replied an experienced fell-walker, “But not if there’s a dead sheep in the beck higher up.”

mountain stream

I was reminded of this incident by my local parent carer group newsletter. Not that there was anything wrong with the newsletter itself, but it included a couple of articles about the proposed legislative changes for the support of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The proposals include;

• joint planning and commissioning of services by local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups
• individual support specified in a single Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan
• support extended to age 25 and
• that families of children with EHC plans should have the option of a personal budget.

The proposals have, overall, been welcomed. However, concerns have also been expressed.

The changes were first put forward in March 2011 in a Green Paper entitled “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability”. I was involved in the responses of several groups to the consultation that followed and the general feeling was that it was difficult to comment on the viability of the proposals because they hadn’t been set out in enough detail. The Department for Education’s response to the consultation, “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability – progress and next steps” was published in May this year and draft legislation was published in September. The Department for Education appointed 20 pathfinder authorities to pilot and evaluate the proposed changes, with a final evaluation due in the summer of 2013 – almost a year later. Queries from interested parties about how the proposals would be implemented were generally greeted with advice to wait for the pathfinder reports. In the event, not surprisingly, the pathfinder evaluation has been extended and it is likely that the legislative programme will be delayed until after the final pathfinder evaluation is published.

In discussions about these changes, I’ve felt like a Cassandra, prophesying doom and gloom whilst many around me have remained relentlessly upbeat. After all, the fact that there’s a SEND Bill at all shows that the current government recognizes there are problems with the current system, and the proposed changes show that the DfE knows what the biggest ones are. Many children are likely to benefit from the changes. But in my view the proposals merely tweak problems caused by much more fundamental factors in the system, and that if these factors aren’t addressed, the current set of problems will simply be exchanged for another. One parent I sat next to in a meeting kept saying “At least it couldn’t be worse than the current system.” Well, actually it could. It could be like the situation prior to the Warnock report in 1978, which recognized that many able children were denied a suitable education because of a physical disability, and many less able children were considered ineducable. Or, as I suggested, the legislation might result in a set of problems that are simply different to the current ones.

Components of a service

A service – whatever it is and whoever it’s for – has to have several components. First, expertise. The people offering the service need to know how to accurately assess their clients’ needs and how best to meet them. Second, capacity and resources. An effective service will need enough people with the right expertise and sufficient equipment, materials, buildings etc. Thirdly, before designing the system the service will need to carry out a requirements analysis for all the people who need the service – usually described as a needs analysis in the case of children with SEND. No service would have an unlimited budget, so once planners and commissioners know what the needs are, they can then decide what expertise and resources are going to be most cost effective and what service users can probably manage without. This might seem self-evident and might appear to be what central and local government are doing already, but since the current system of support for children with SEND clearly isn’t working – and I would argue that it never has worked, in terms of ensuring that most children with SEND achieve their full potential – there must be something going wrong somewhere.

What’s going wrong?

The Department for Education seems to have decided that the problem lies in the way support services are planned, commissioned and delivered. Planning and commissioning aren’t joined up enough, despite local authorities having integrated children’s services for nearly a decade. The process of statutory assessment is too cumbersome and takes too long, even though in principle, assessments could be completed within weeks, rather than months. Support doesn’t go on for long enough, despite adult services being available. Local authorities aren’t allocating finance in the most effective way, even though it’s their job to do so. Consequently, the planning, commissioning and delivery of the system are being changed. Since the people who designed the current system presumably thought it would work, and viable processes for planning, commissioning and delivery are already in place, a key question does not appear to have been asked; what made the system go wrong in the first place?

The dead sheep in the stream

This is where the sheep in the stream analogy comes in. Imagine that you live in a farmhouse at the foot of a mountain. The farm is too remote for a mains water supply and for three hundred years the inhabitants have relied on water from a stream fed by a spring halfway up the mountainside. The purity of the water is renowned locally and the only problems ever reported have been that the stream flows sluggishly during extreme droughts. Then one day everyone at the farm gets sick. The illness is identified as a water-borne one and further investigation reveals the source – the body of a sheep lying in the stream just below the spring, hidden in a densely wooded area where sheep rarely stray. The farming family is advised to boil their drinking water or install a purification unit, but they might not need to do anything that involves that level of inconvenience or expense. It’s quite likely that simply removing the body of the sheep from the stream and letting the water flow for a couple of days would allow farmers to continue drinking the spring water for the next three hundred years without mishap – provided no more bodies end up in the stream.

Requiring local authorities to undertake joint planning and commissioning, implementing EHC plans, extending children’s services to 25 and providing personal budgets are all the equivalent of the farming family boiling their water in pots instead of kettles or installing a more sophisticated purification unit – while there’s still a dead sheep in the stream that’s contaminating the water. So what’s the equivalent of the sheep? I’d say it was a problem with each of the three components of service provision I mentioned earlier – expertise, capacity and resources, and requirements analysis – not downstream in the system near the point of delivery where most of the amendments are taking place, but further upstream.

Expertise

First, let’s look at expertise. Recent independent reports have indicated a lack of expertise with regard to children, in the education (Lamb, 2009), health (Kennedy, 2010) and social care (Munro, 2011) sectors. Despite the Warnock recommendation that children with SEND be taught in mainstream schools where possible being implemented since 1978, it’s only since 2009 that teachers have been required to have SEN training and that new special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) have had to be qualified teachers. Teaching Assistants (TAs), who now make up around 25% of the mainstream school workforce, are generally not qualified teachers and don’t necessarily have any educational training, but are often the people who spend most time with children with SEN. A recent study (Webster & Blatchford, 2012) revealed that teachers aren’t usually trained to work with TAs, so many TAs are having to work ‘on the hoof’ in the classroom with little or no preparation with a child with learning or behavioural problems. The study found that when TAs worked with the rest of the class for part of the lesson so teachers could spend time with the children with SEN, the achievement of the pupils improved and teachers understood their learning difficulties better. What’s puzzling is how this situation arose in the first place. Here’s an extract from a piece about SENCO training published in the Times Educational Supplement in May 2009.

The [training] courses have been set up to address serious concerns about the perceived “low status” of Sencos and to raise the profile of special needs and disabilities in schools.”

I find it intriguing that although the professional status of SENCOs and poor awareness of special educational needs might be relevant issues, the TES reporter frames SENCO training in those terms of rather than in terms of the expertise required to help all children learn. What does this say about perceptions of SEN?

Capacity and resources

A second factor is capacity and resources; I’ll talk about capacity first. A recurring problem for parents of children with SEND is how long it takes to see professionals who can carry out assessments. Often all children get is repeated assessments; because of limited service capacity sometimes parents (and occasionally teachers) are expected to implement therapies even though they have no idea what might be causing the child’s problems or what outcomes to expect. Another recent report (Bercow, 2008) suggested that speech and language therapy in England was a postcode lottery, and there doesn’t seem to have been a significant improvement since then. The British Psychological Society has expressed concerns (not for the first time) about cuts in the number of educational psychologists employed by local authorities. Google ‘shortage occupational therapist’; and you’ll find reports from various parts of the globe. Then there’s resources. Parents report problems getting wheelchairs and nappies; even the NHS website says that there might be a waiting list for assessments (waits for the actual wheelchair aren’t even mentioned). My local occupational therapy service apologized for the delay in providing therapy for my son. One problem was that they hadn’t been able to access his school to show teachers how to integrate exercises into his school day. Another obstacle was that because their equipment takes an hour to put up and an hour to dismantle, the only time they were able to book a room large enough and available for long enough for them to treat several children in one day was during the school summer holidays.

Requirements analysis

And then there’s the requirements analysis. Under the 1989 Children Act, local authorities are required to keep a register of children with disabilities. This should provide the information they need to enable them to design support services. The register is a voluntary one in the sense that parents volunteer information about their children, and there are obviously questions over what qualifies as a disability, so at best such a register is only going to provide approximate information about the needs of children with disabilities in a given locality. But an approximation is all that’s required. In the past twenty years, it should have been possible to form a fairly accurate picture of local needs, trends over time and year-to-year fluctuations. But judging by recent reports, support for children with SEND has been getting worse, rather than better. So what’s gone wrong?

I suggest that because education, health and social care systems have been evolving piecemeal during this time, national government initiatives have cut across local authorities’ ability to use data to design effective services. For example, following the Warnock report in 1978, local authorities were encouraged to educate children with disabilities in mainstream schools where possible. An inspiring example of this is the collaboration between a mainstream junior school and a school for children with visual impairment described by Hegarty and Pocklington (1981). At that time, local authorities and individual schools had complete control over such initiatives. Then in 1988, the Education Reform Act introduced a compulsory national curriculum, followed in 1991 by national curriculum assessments, commonly known as SATs. Although there might have been good reasons for introducing both, they have each had an impact on the Warnock recommendation for the inclusion of SEND pupils in mainstream schools. If the performance of schools is assessed by pupils’ performance in standardized tests, systems pressures will inevitably lead to a tendency to marginalize pupils with SEND, either overtly – by schools discouraging admittance or by formal or informal exclusions – or covertly by simply not allocating sufficient resources to their education. Add to this the absence of SEN from initial teacher training and the reduction in SEN expertise within the education system as a whole due to a focus on children within the normal range and the closure of special schools, and no amount of tinkering with statutory assessments or who holds budgets will be able to compensate.

Failure demand

Overlooking shortcomings in factors that are upstream in a system means that whatever you do to problems downstream, they won’t get fixed. In fact the upstream issues create the need for further resources that wouldn’t be needed if the upstream problems were fixed. This phenomenon is what John Seddon calls failure demand – demand created solely by failures of system design. A common failure demand in the case of children with SEND is that avoiding early intervention in an attempt to avoid unnecessary costs often means that simple problems become complex ones, requiring expensive interventions later on. Not to mention the sometimes permanent damage done to a child’s self-esteem and the time wasted by teachers, parents and professionals trying to get problems resolved in the meantime. Providing sufficient resources to meet needs might not cost more; in fact, once failure demand is eliminated, costs can go down.

In short, until teachers, healthcare and social care professionals are trained to meet the needs of all children, not just those within the normal range, until there are enough people with that training working within the education, health and social care sectors, and until there are enough materials, equipment and space available to meet the needs of all children, the needs of all children will not, and cannot be met.

References

Hegarty S. and Pocklington K. (1981). “A junior school resource area for the visually impaired” in W. Swann (Ed.) The Practice of Special Education, Basil Blackwell/Open University Press.

Webster R. & Blatchford P. (2012). “Supporting learning?:.How effective are teaching assistants?” in P. Adey & J. Dillon (Eds) Bad Education: Debunking myths in education, McGraw Hill.

Acknowledgements

Photograph: Tullynaglack, Donegal, copyright Louise Price, used under Creative Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mountain_stream,_Tullynaglack_-_geograph.org.uk_-_974248.jpg

Dr Beeching, I presume?

When it was nationalized in 1948, the UK rail system was already inefficient. It had evolved piecemeal over the previous century into an overextended sprawling network. Passenger numbers had been hit by the increased use of motor vehicles and continued to decline in the post-war period. A commitment to full employment by the Labour government and increasing union power due to the post-war economic boom set the scene for a two-week rail strike in 1955, forcing rail freight users onto the roads, where many of them stayed. A White Paper in 1960 recommended splitting the integrated national transport system. Rail – then making a significant annual loss – would be run by a new British Railways Board, and a programme of complete modernization was proposed.

Richard Beeching was a research physicist who had risen through the ranks of ICI to become technical director when in 1961 he was appointed chairman of British Railways. His task was to make the nationalised rail network profitable. Quite why someone with no experience of the rail industry was appointed to this post remains a mystery. Maybe it was thought a physicist would understand the technicalities of rail. Perhaps it was felt that someone with a rail background wouldn’t be sufficiently ruthless. Or maybe Beeching was considered thick-skinned enough to take the blame for savage cuts. I won’t speculate on the motivation of Ernest Marples, then Minister of Transport.

According to Robin Jones’ fascinating account Beeching: 50 Years of the Axeman, one of Beeching’s criteria as to whether or not a service should be spared his now legendary axe, was direct profitability. On the face of it this seems perfectly reasonable. It certainly made sense to replace a branch line carrying a dozen passengers a week, with a bus service. Unfortunately for Beeching, many unprofitable branch lines contributed much of the traffic that made mainlines profitable. And according to Robin Jones, Beeching assumed that long-distance passengers whose branch line had closed would drive would drive to their nearest mainline station and complete their journey by rail. Instead, partly because of the new motorways, car owners found it more convenient to keep driving.

The way Beeching wielded his axe is an example of a classic systems-change error, known as sub-system optimization at the expense of system optimization. In an interconnected system, changing one component of the system will affect other connected components. The tighter the connection, the greater the risk of unintended or unwanted outcomes. Since rail branch lines are tightly coupled to mainlines, the effect of closing branch lines was considerable.

In addition, Beeching committed a second common systems-change error; making unfounded assumptions about another interacting system – in this case human behaviour.

The problem that we humans have with complex systems is that they are complex. With incomplete knowledge and a working memory that can hold seven-plus-or-minus-two bits of information, it’s very difficult for us to look at systems as a whole. That creates a lot of problems. We tend to optimize our own immediate situation regardless of the impact that has on other people or on our own long-term outcomes. Governments tweak sub-systems oblivious of the impact on whole systems and then have to tweak other sub-systems to compensate.

Beeching’s systems errors and Marples’ policies had a lasting impact on the transport infrastructure of the UK, with incalculable cost implications for the economy as a whole. It’s only been since privatization in the 1990s that rail passenger numbers have recovered to levels comparable to those prior to the Beeching cuts. (Whether or not the increase in passenger numbers is due to privatization or due to traffic congestion, petrol prices and difficulty parking at stations is a moot point.)

It’s interesting to speculate on how a biologist might have approached the task of making the railways efficient, since the systems that biologists are familiar with are significantly more complex than those that engage the attention of physicists.

Next, I plan to look at levels of complexity in systems.

References

Jones, R. (2011). Beeching: 50 years of the axeman. Mortons Media Group.

Miller, G. (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

form and function

In the next few posts, I plan to look at some examples of how systems issues affect organizations, especially public sector ones – education, health and social care. I then want to explore how people’s theories about the content of education, health and social care interact with the form of public sector systems. My particular areas of interest are in education, the neurobiology of developmental disorders and conceptual modeling in scientific research, so later posts are likely to focus on those topics. In the meantime, I want to pay tribute to the pioneering work of an organizational researcher little known outside her field.

_______________________________________

In the 1950s Joan Woodward (later a professor at Imperial College) carried out a study of the structure of manufacturing firms. Manufacturing was of vital economic importance in the aftermath of WWII, and Woodward’s team was trying to find out what made efficient manufacturers efficient.

What they found didn’t make sense until they took into account the type of technology firms were using. Woodward identified three main types of production system; unit or small batch, mass/large batch, and continuous process. In essence, what she discovered was that whether a manufacturing process was efficient or not depended on the technology used, and the technology depended on the nature of inputs and outputs. It would be inefficient to manufacture packs of granulated sugar from sugar beet one at a time – continuous processing would be much more effective. Similarly, customized wedding dresses couldn’t be produced efficiently using an assembly line – a unit process would be more appropriate.

What Woodward also noted was that once you knew what technology is being used, you could accurately predict what the organization’s structure will look like. Unit/small batch organizations had ‘organic’ structures, with most workers reporting directly to CEOs, whereas mass production organizations tended to be run as bureaucratic hierarchies with many managers.

Woodward’s contribution to organizational and management theory was an important one, but she had stumbled on a principle already familiar to biologists; that organizations are as much subject to physical constraints and affordances as living organisms, and that both inhabit their own ecosystems.

Reading
Gibson, J.J (1979), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Lawrence Erlbaum.
On my reading list.
Pugh, D.S. (Ed.) (1997), Organizational Theory, Penguin.
A good introduction to the history and development of organizational theory.