Potholes and fallen trees – the road ahead

Earlier this year (May 2015) we had an election here in the UK so it seems appropriate to try and scout out what may lay ahead, based on the budget statement, the business secretary Sajid Javid’s speech on productivity, and Jo Johnson’s speech to universities UK.

While there are some aspects that I agree with there are others where their impact very much depends on the detail of its implementation. Overall, there is a lack of coherence and a number of contradictions, although few are as blatant as this example from the energy section of the productivity document:

I'm pretty sure one of these isn't going to get done

I’m pretty sure one of these isn’t going to get done

or the proposal to double the proportion of disadvantaged students entering university. That sounds great, until you realise this is the government that tripled tuition fees, removed Education Maintenance Allowance that supported 16-18 year olds in study prior to university, and is removing maintenance grants aimed at the poorest students only to replace them with more loans.

An overriding theme throughout all of these speeches and documents is that of monetary value being the only measure of importance. Johnson says that only half of students polled thought that their course had provided good value for money[1], but a huge amount hangs around how we choose to define value. Is it simply a business measure of return on investment – the improvement in our salaries for the cost incurred? Is it that our path to a ‘good’ job (another loaded word) is eased? Or is it the knowledge that we were exposed to, our lecturer’s enthusiasm for their specialism that inspired us to change direction? Or simply watching the sun come up with friends after the final summer ball with that bittersweet mix of relief at having succeeded and regret that our time is ending? Do we measure ‘value’ in the ache of intellectual exertion and growth or in the frame we hang on the wall afterwards? I remember my eldest daughter wanting help with her English essays (i.e. ‘tell me what to write’) and us having the same conversation a number of times that the homework was the research, analysis and synthesis of the raw material. The homework was the process and the piece of paper handed into the teacher was just the proof that you’d done it.

There is a direct link to earnings made[2] and the phrase ‘… enable education providers to assess their effectiveness in delivering positive labour market outcomes for their students’ appears so there is little doubt what definition of value is being used. It’s obvious no one actively involved in the process of education wrote this. Is this really how we want to gauge higher education, in “positive labour market outcomes”? Yes, we want our students to be successful in whatever field they choose, but that should naturally follow on from quality education anyway. Having those outcomes may be appropriate for vocational courses (of whatever level) where that’s an explicit objective of the course anyway. That’s not a dig at vocational education, by the way. We have a very biased attitude towards vocational education in the UK, seeing it as the poor relative of higher education and a refuge for those lacking the ability to do a degree. That’s profoundly wrong. We only have to look across the channel to Germany to see what a less prejudiced approach to vocational education can achieve for individuals and the society they are part of.

As part of the push towards transparency and ‘more informed choices’ elements of the US version of the National Student Survey (NSS) are to be piloted. This is good because the American survey is much more fit for purpose in terms of measuring what’s important for teaching and learning rather than the ‘customer satisfaction’ surveys we use in the UK, but it does depend on how those elements are integrated with the current NSS. Jo Johnson’s speech talks about using these elements to measure ‘learning gain’. My big fear here is that the metric we use is an easy-to-measure proxy rather than a true representation of the thing we’re interested in. The speech defines learning gain as ‘the improvement in knowledge, skills and work-readiness’. Leaving the issue of work-readiness to later, these are all graduate properties that are emergent and as such at this level will be relatively difficult to measure with reliability and validity. What this will mean, as has been the case with the ‘value-added’ methodology in schools, is a push towards a proxy that may be only loosely representative of the true quality we’re trying to measure.

Another element to this danger of proxy worship is the next paragraph in the speech which, while acknowledging that “independent learning is vital”, then states that universities should be more transparent about how student time is split between lectures, seminars and tutorials, as well as who is doing the teaching. This information is valuable, but is not the whole story. I’d certainly welcome information on who is doing the teaching being more available, even if only to avoid the explosion in the use of adjuncts that has happened in the USA. Contact hours, however spent, will vary according to discipline, with STEM subjects typically having higher contact hours than the humanities, and again I can see no issue with this information being available in principle. The issue is that without some more qualitative metric to counterbalance them these numerical measures will distort how higher education is provided. Independent study will be sidelined in favour of contact hours since that will be the measure that importance is attached to, but how are those contact hours to be delivered, and by whom? Staff time (already stretched) costs money and student numbers are increasing, so if there are to be no additional resources provided and we can’t (and shouldn’t) reduce costs by using adjuncts or post-graduates to do the teaching, how on earth is it all expected to come together in some sort of coherent whole?

There is a worrying mention of the use of competition to drive up standards. It’s worrying in two ways. First, the practice of education is a collegiate activity and we succeed, as Newton put it, by “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Secondly, the productivity plan[3] makes clear what form this will take place by saying “widening the range of high quality higher education providers” and “remov[ing] barriers preventing alternative providers from entering and growing in the market”. To me, this sounds very much like fast-tracking a large-scale expansion of the for-profit sector in UK higher education. Given the current high standing with which UK higher education is held and widespread concerns over some of the for-profit colleges in the United States this seems a very risky strategy to pursue.

The productivity plan then goes on to say the government “will explore options to allow the best providers to offer degrees independently of existing institutions before they obtain degree awarding powers”[4]. I’m a little confused by the inclusion of this sentence. Courses can be already taken at institutions that don’t have their own degree-awarding powers provided that they are accredited by an institution that does – my own post-graduate teaching qualification was taken at an further education college but validated by a university – so why the need to ‘explore options’? Also, how is ‘best’ to be measured, and by whom?

The Jo Johnson speech mentions ‘innovation in terms of course length and design’[5], with an explicit mention of degree apprenticeships. This is a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of vocational education. Unfortunately, Johnson also mentions two-year courses on the grounds that they offer a more accessible route to higher education and, together with degree apprenticeships, offer a ‘faster route to productive employment’. I think it’s much more likely that accessibility to higher education is more adversely affected by the level of debt students will have on graduation rather than the length of the course. And why should a faster route to employment even be a goal? What evidence is there that a shorter course would produce graduates with comparable skills and attributes to those that graduate after three years?

Two-year courses would be attractive to those new for-profit providers since they can produce more graduates than a conventional university in the same time, particularly if the Teaching Excellence Framework allows some institutions to self-certify their level of performance (as has been done in schools where those that received the higher grades on inspection were re-inspected on a longer timescale and effectively inspected themselves in the intervening period). Together with the uncertainty around the degree-awarding powers for new providers these ‘more accessible’ pathways to HE and shorter routes to employment seem to be a recipe for dumbing down, slipping standards, and increasing ‘shareholder value’.

Johnson also talks about course choice and curriculum design[6], saying that not enough is being done to ensure graduates are prepared for work, and quotes a CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey that nearly half of employers (47%) felt that universities weren’t doing enough to make graduates job-ready. Well, that would depend on how you chose to define ‘prepared’ and ‘job-ready’. My own response to that 47% of employers is: do your own training. We’re not your HR department. Graduates should have graduate-level, transferable skills – that’s the contribution from higher education to being job-ready. That means graduates can adapt to the specifics of a particular role or industry, but it’s the employer’s job to mediate and support that adaptation. If business has any evidence that we’re not producing that standard of graduate (beyond vague complaints that graduates are not ‘job-ready’) then they should produce it.

Johnson then says that businesses should not just be customers of universities, but “active partners”, and says that business outreach should be a core function with influence over curriculum design. Absolutely not – I repeat, universities are not part of a business’ HR department. Education is not the same as job training. Should businesses have some involvement in curriculum design? Yes, of course – collaborations with industry can be very productive for both sides – but decisions around the curriculum should rest with the university except in rare cases.

I’m not anti-business – trade and enterprise have always been a part of human societies and business is integral to modern societies – but I am against the fetishistic worship of business and entrepreneurs as having all answers to all questions. Increasingly, mainstream economics and politics seem to revolve around the mantra ‘the answer is a free-market. Now, what was the question?’ although there are others such as Naomi Klein and Paul Mason putting forward alternative viewpoints. Education has huge societal value beyond servicing the needs of business, but this seems to be increasingly neglected. A telling point is that higher education in the UK is administered not from the Department of Education, but from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Overall, the direction of travel for higher education in the UK does not look good. Statements and aims often explicitly contradict each other, such as wanting to widen access while simultaneously constructing more disincentives. The language of business dominates with the focus and metrics primarily targeted towards financial measures rather than anything innate in the process and practice of education. These are not the characteristics of a healthy higher education system, unless the function of that system is to be a subsidiary of business. These are not the characteristics of a system that Johnson himself acknowledges is a “world leader in higher education … and as number one in the world for the impact of our research”.


1Johnson – Meeting value for money expectations.
2Johnson – More informed choices.
3Productivity plan – section 4.10
4Productivity plan – sections 4.9 and 4.10
5Johnson – Widening Participation.
6Johnson – Course choice and curriculum design.

Times tables – a matter of life and death?

Recently I took my youngest daughter to visit a university in the north-east of the UK, which involved a round trip of nearly 500 miles and an overnight stay. There’s a general election due in less than three months, which means we’re into that ‘interesting’ phase of the electoral cycle where all the parties try to outcompete each other either with bribes incentives for certain groups (‘Unicorns for every five-year old!’) or to outdo themselves with demonising whatever group is the scapegoat this month. If you’ve ever seen the Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen sketch, you’ll know what I mean.

So what has this to do with times tables? Well, one of the announcements was for every child to know their times tables up to 12 by the time they leave primary school (i.e. by age 11), and by ‘know’ they appear to mean memorise.

I have a number of misgivings about this. Firstly rote learning without understanding isn’t particularly useful. Memorisation isn’t education. Secondly, as the work of Jo Boaler has remarked students perform much better at maths when they learn to interact more flexibly with maths (number sense) rather than than simply remembering the answers. As she points out, calculating when stressed works less well when relying on memory, which is presumably why politicians refuse to answer maths questions when interviewed, as Nicky Morgan the education secretary did recently. In one of my previous jobs I worked in a health sciences department and the statistics on drug errors (such as calculating dosages) were frightening, and there are few things less stressful than someone potentially dying if the answer to a maths problem is wrong.

The outcome of all this memorisation is that the application suffers. As we travelled back there was a radio phone-in quiz and as times-tables were in the news one of the questions was zero times eight. The caller answered eight, and was told they were wrong. A few minutes later someone else called to tell the presenter that they were wrong because zero times eight was eight, but eight times zero was zero. And this is the real problem. While maths is seen (and taught) as a recipe, a set of instructions to follow, misconceptions like this will continue to prosper. Personally, I see maths as more of a Lego set – a creative process where you combine different components in different ways to get to the end result you want. As Jo Boaler has said “When we emphasize memorization and testing in the name of fluency we are harming children, we are risking the future of our ever-quantitative society and we are threatening the discipline of mathematics”. Unfortunately, I’m doubtful whether that will count for anything against the one-upmanship in the closing months of an election campaign.

Troops as teachers?

This post will be a little different from my usual posts in that it’s not about MOOCs, it’s UK-focussed, and also more political than usual.

The UK Government recently announced a new programme to fast track former military personnel into the teaching profession. I think it’s a bad proposal for a number of reasons. Before I go into those reasons I’ll give a little background. The scheme is aimed at those without degrees who have recently left or will shortly leave the military and they’re especially interested in those with ‘advanced technical skills’. When I was in the Army I worked repairing and maintaining air defence missile systems as a member of REME and I left without any higher education qualifications so, if this scheme had been in place then, I would have been precisely the type of person it would have been targeted towards. I went to university after leaving the forces and eventually gained a masters degree and a post-graduate teaching qualification. I’ve taught in further education, higher education and the commercial sector. My step-daughter is about to complete her PGCE and gain qualified teacher status (QTS), so the combination gives me a particular perspective on the proposal.

First of all, as a former soldier myself, I see no reason why former service personnel should not make excellent teachers. My technical training in the army was in Arborfield at what is now the School of Electronic and Aeronautical Engineering (SEAE). We were taught by senior NCOs and the basic electronics portion of my training covered a BTEC syllabus in nine months that would have taken two years at a civilian college. The teaching was well resourced and consistently excellent throughout my time there. The military know how to train well, but training doesn’t automatically conflate with education.

One problem I have with the proposal is ‘what problem is this the solution for?’ There is a issue around teacher numbers with a projected shortfall of 15,000 by the next election in 2015, but I don’t see that as the major thrust here. The publicity surrounding the announcement talks about bringing a military ethos into the school. Education minister David Laws talks about bringing “leadership, discipline, motivation and teamwork” to the classroom. Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond talks about “instil[ling] respect discipline and pride in the next generation”.

Is the lack of discipline in schools a real problem? Possibly, in limited cases, but how is that to be solved by troops becoming teachers, since they will have exactly the same disciplinary powers and discretion as those teachers already in post? Military discipline, in my experience, is not the same as that presented in the media or cultural stereotypes. The sergeant screaming into your face from six inches away is not a common occurrence in day-to-day military service. The cliché is not the reality, Military discipline, despite orders having the force of law (through the Armed Forces Act 2006, previously the Army Act 1955), is still a form of rule by consent through a strict hierarchy, and that requires all parties to acknowledge and accept the hierarchy. Military discipline functions because the answer to “jump” had better be “how high?” or else, and would that really be the case in schools? As Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, pointed out: military discipline does not equal the management of behaviour in the classroom.

Is the problem being served that of redundant service personnel? Possibly. Perhaps someone in government looked at the shortfall in teacher numbers and the numbers being made redundant and decided to join the dots. I’m all for giving help to those leaving the forces, especially those who are leaving against their wishes, but I don’t think that this scheme does that. It looks at two problems and solves neither satisfactorily. The GI Bill in the USA showed a much more enlightened (socially and economically) approach to returning service personnel.

This particular government does not have a good track record with regard to the teaching profession, receiving four votes of no confidence from unions, including the union representing the head teachers. ‘Reforms’ have come thick and fast. Schools have been removed from local democratic scrutiny through an escalation of the academies program and introduction of free schools, and are now managed by central government. The justification narrative for all this change seems to be that schools (and especially teachers) are failing our children. Unfortunately, international league tables either show the UK performing well, sixth in one study, or are criticised as statistically flawed. The Times Educational Supplement reported: “The UK Statistics Authority has censured the Department for Education and Sir Michael Wilshaw – appointed by Mr Gove as Ofsted chief inspector – for using uncertain, weak and ‘problematic’ statistics to claim that England’s schools have tumbled down the global rankings.”
Also, if teachers are really the problem, then why allow academies to employ ‘teachers’ without requiring them to actually be qualified as teachers? Accompanying this is the dismissal of educational academics as a Marxist ‘blob’ and the “enemies of promise”. The emphasis seems to be on de-skilling the practice of teaching and reducing the status of the profession. Since social mobility is low in the UK compared to other developed countries and hasn’t improved in thirty years (according to the London School of Economics) isn’t it more likely that the “enemies of promise” are those that take away those programs designed to increase social mobility, such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance and Aim Higher? Oh wait, that would be the Department of Education.

Troops could make good teachers but not because of their previous profession. They would make good teachers because that particular person is suited to the demands of teaching. This scheme, this idea, seems to be the latest in a long line of bad ideas. And that’s bad for all of us.