Archive for March, 2013

Mr Gove, are you listening?

March 25, 2013

In a letter published in today’ edition of The Guardian Professor Andrew Pollard (Universities of London and Bristol) makes the case that there is a pressing need for cross-party talks on the national curriculum, and by implication cross-party agreement, on how it should be shaped.

 Subject knowledge is vital to education and a national curriculum should represent the knowledge which is accepted as being important in our society (Report, 18 March). Additionally, children, young people and other learners have developmental needs (including cognitive, emotional, social and physical) which change as they grow older. Successful learning occurs when teachers, parents and others exercise judgement in bridging knowledge and development appropriately. In this way, one generation helps another. There are two main problems with the proposals for a new national curriculum in England. First, there has been no authentic attempt to achieve agreement on overall intentions and on the balance of knowledge, concepts, skills and attitudes which should form the curriculum content. The proposals for subject knowledge thus lack legitimacy in far too many areas.

Second, the proposals are imbalanced. Over-specification, implausible expectations and high-stakes control in relation to English and mathematics are combined with laissez-faire variability in relation to other subjects and issues. This produces a significant risk that many children will not feel motivated or engaged by the new curriculum. Teachers will do their best, as they invariably do. Cramming often does raise short-term performance, but it is doubtful if understanding and long-term capability will be achieved by provision of this type.

Within our democracy, the secretary of state has responsibility for this process and for making evidence-informed judgments about these issues on behalf of us all. His selective use and misuse of evidence and advice cannot be justified. In December 2011, the Labour party offered cross-party talks on the national curriculum following publication of the report of the expert panel, of which I was a member. School education needs stability if it is to provide appropriately for children’s learning. Mr Gove should call a halt and do the job properly.
Professor Andrew Pollard
Universities of London and Bristol

Sounds sensible to me.


A Fair Day’s Pay (for a fair day’s work.) in the USA

March 20, 2013

This seems very long ago and far away:

A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work

Franklin D. Roosevelt

May 24, 1937

….  Our nation so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages or stretching workers’ hours.

 Enlightened business is learning that competition ought not to cause bad social consequences, which inevitably react upon the profits of business itself.  All but the hopelessly reactionary will agree that to conserve our primary resources of man power, government must have some control over maximum hours, minimum wages, the evil of child labor and the exploitation of unorganized labor………[link]

… In his recent  State of the Union  address, President Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour and to link the future increases to inflation. He noted that  a family with two children that works full time and takes home the current minimum wage is still living  below the poverty line. He insisted that  “in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” Higher wages, the president said, “could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead.” And for businesses across the country, it would mean “customers with more money in their pockets,” which translates into the simple fact that “our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages.”

As if to prove that not a lot  has been learned in 66  years that has elapsed , Obama’s call for an these increases  has elicited a somewhat similar response from conservative Republicans as FDR’s did, with House Speaker John Boehner saying that an increase is “a job killer,” and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan calling it “inflationary” and “counter-productive.” Some Republican leaders, such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, have even gone so far as to advocate doing away with minimum wage/maximum hours laws altogether, a move that would no doubt be applauded by Rush Limbaugh .

The National Federation of Independent Business, with a membership of 350,000, calls  the minimum wage as “more like maximum insanity.”

All the opposition ignore the fact that study after study have shown the raising the minimum wage has been good for both the economy and business overall.  This is because every raise increases the purchasing power of the American consumer. Conservatives are so wedded to their belief that the state should not interfere in the workplace in any way that they refuse see the benefits. Andrew S. Ross, in recent  article for the The San Francisco Chronicle,  pointed out that 19 states an the District of Columbia were all  already paying above the current $7.25 and that none appeared to be going out  of business.

 Business in San Francisco doesn’t appear to be suffering from the fact the city has the highest minimum wage – $10.55 – in the nation.

“You can’t continue to build an economy on the backs of low-paid workers,”said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013  earlier this month. Roughly half of Republicans — and 71 percent of Americans overall — support rise  $9 per hour, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. This suggests that maybe in 66 years  some lessons have been learned after all.

Evidence-based practice in schools.

March 19, 2013

 The physician, academic and science writer, Ben Goldacre, posted this welcome news on his blog last Friday

Here’s my paper on evidence and teaching for the education minister.

March 15th, 2013 by Ben Goldacre in evidence based policy |

I was asked by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) and the Department for Education to look at how to improve the use of evidence in schools. I think there are huge, positive opportunities for teachers here, that go way beyond just doing a few more trials. Pasted below is the briefing note from DfE press office, and then the text of a paper I wrote for them, which came out this week. You can also download a PDF from the DfE website here.

If you’re interested, there’s more on evidence based policy in this BBC Radio 4 documentary I did here, and in this Cabinet Office paper on trials in government that I co-authored here, as well as zillions more posts.

There’s a response to my DfE paper from the Education Endowment Foundation here (they’re running over 50 trials in 1400 schools), and a blog post from the Institute of Education here, I’ll post up more when I get a chance.

Hope you like it!

 In an article in today’s edition of Education Guardian Goldacre argues that if  teachers want politicians to base policy on evidence, they need to accept that randomised trials –very much much like those which used when evaluating various treatments in Medicine – are the way to show what works.

Medicine, in just a few decades, has leapt forward with evidence-based practice. By conducting “randomised trials” – fair tests, comparing one treatment against another – we’ve been able to find out what works best. Outcomes for patients have improved, through thousands of tiny steps.

There are many differences between medicine and teaching, but they have much in common. Both involve craft and personal expertise, learned through experience; but both can be informed by the experience of others. Every child is different, and every patient, too; but we’re all similar enough that good-quality research can show which interventions work best.

It seems to me that this approach might yeild better results than we have seen from other approaches. 

The UK mass media is awful because…..

March 19, 2013

John Naughton puts it very succinctly

The reason that sections of the UK mass media are so awful is simply that there’s a market for intrusive crap. People continue to buy disgraceful newspapers, so bad behaviour is always rewarded, not punished. The only thing that would change that would be for consumers to make ethical decisions when buying papers. And they don’t. The elephant in Leveson’s court-room was the Great British Public. But nobody talked about that during the proceedings.

You can bet your bottom dollar nobody talked about that. Which of the people involved in the proceedings would be willing to bite the (public) hand that feeds them?

Media 2

Measuring for the right reasons.

March 18, 2013

In a recent article Simon Caulkin gives a vivid description of how it emerged at a recent event on ‘results-based management’ run by the consultancy Vanguard that “what to measure may be the single most important management decision a company makes.”

 For an indication of why, take the case of a typical local authority child protection department which operates to two standard measures. For children at serious risk, it must carry out a fast initital assessment of 80 per cent of cases within seven days. For a full core assessment, the standard is 35 days. The department meets both standards; under the widely-used ‘traffic-light’ signalling system (red-amber-green) it rates a green, so managers judge that no further action on their part is necessary. 

 Now look at the same department through a different measure: the end-to-end the time taken to do the assessment from first contact to completion. The picture that emerges is very different. The urgent assessment predictably takes up to 49 days, with an average of 18.5, while the 35-day assessment takes an average of 49 days, but can equally take up to 138. Worse, the clock for the core assessment doesn’t automatically start when the initial assessment finishes but only when it is formally opened. So the true end-to-end time for the 35-day assessment is anything up to 250 days. ‘Now tell me Baby P and Victoria Climbié were one-offs,’ says Vanguard consultant Andy Brogan, who gathered the data, grimly. ‘They weren’t – they were designed in.’

 When the underlying cause is looked for we find, Caulkin says, that “from assessing and protecting children, the imposition of the government-mandated measures ..has shifted the de facto purpose to meeting the standard within officially laid-down parameters”

Unlike standards, the end-to-end measure on the other hand throws light on how well the department is meeting its purpose. Learning takes place. The workplace conversation is no longer about how to meet the standard but what accounts for variation and how to how to save time in assessments to make children safer. Contradicting the traffic lights, action is urgently needed. As the process is repeated, improvement becomes continuous.

 The “why” we measure must, Caulkin insists, always precede the “what”,  and in the remainder of his article he states very plainly why this must be so.

Shareholders are not investors.

March 18, 2013

Professor Brendan McSweeney (Royal Holloway, University of London) recently reminded readers of The Guardian that shareholders are not investors and that a “shareholder’s relationship with a company is, in effect, the same as that of a punter on horse races with the owners of the horses.”

Finding the right room.

March 18, 2013

From John Naughton’s online diary

Quote of the Day

March 16th, 2013 [link]

“If you’re the most intelligent person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”

James Watson

Luckily, I spend a lot of my time in the right rooms.

It’s occurred to me that it’s just possible not to be the most intelligent person in the room and still be in the wrong room.

Box-ticking, bean-counting, target-meeting in the NHSdoctors

March 4, 2013

Here, in a  comment is free  column for today’s edition of The Guardian north London GP and Urgent Care Centre doctor,  Dr Fred Kavalier , gives readers some insights into how the flawed management of which Simon Caulkin wrote on Friday is viewed by someone who has seen it close up.

In today’s box-ticking, bean-counting, target-meeting NHS, doctors and nurses are forced to concentrate on things that can be measured and quantified. In the process, we are forgetting many of the things that really matter – the things that are difficult to count and measure.

From 1 April, when all NHS services will be up for grabs by the private sector, it’s going to get much worse. For all its failings, some of which were highlighted by the recent Francis report into deaths at Mid Staffordshire hospital, the NHS has always had the care of patients as its core activity. GPs and hospitals were all singing from the same NHS hymnsheet.

In the new privatised NHS, many of the players will be singing from hymn sheets written in corporate boardrooms. Every single activity will need to be specified in a commercial contract. If some vital aspect of a service is left out it will not get done, or it will appear as an “extra” when the bill comes in…..

All of  which goes to show that the NHS has been in wrong hands for some considerable time now.

Shaming the poor at will.

March 3, 2013

In a thought-provoking article published in today’s issue of The Observer, columnist Barbara Ellen, using the findings of  a multi-faith sponsored study called The Lies We Tell Ourselves. which highlights myths surrounding people and poverty, explains how shaming the poor has become the new blood sport

 The report argues that the government is “deliberately misrepresenting” the poor, blaming them for their circumstances while ignoring more complex reasons, including policy deficiencies. Moreover, they feel that this scapegoating is the result of collusion between politicians, the media and the public.

The reader does not have to wholly believe her assertion that it  does seem so long ago that most people would think twice about villifying fellow citizens for being down on their luck to see that she means that  thses days it appears “to have been sanctioned as a new national bloodsport, regularly slipping under the PC-radar as little else manages to.”

Is this our new default setting – that the needy are greedy? This chimes with a slew of government policies that appear to be founded on notions of bulletproof self-reliance, making no allowances for circumstances or sheer bad luck, and which many would require huge amounts of help to put into practice, never mind sustain. Meanwhile, the more fortunate are invited to pour scorn upon anyone who fails.

One could argue saying that it simply the “more fortunate” are the only ones invited to pour scorn on the failures ignores the fact that some of those pouring scorn are not always  especially fortunate themselves.  So what we have is the almost-poor being encouraged to  blame those below them for the situation they find themselves in.

Ellen has a neat explanation about how this came about.

 How does this kind of thing escalate? That’s easy. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the poor are poor. They have no money, no voice, no representatives, and no means to establish their own public profile. Poverty is a big domino – once it falls, everything goes. In such circumstances, if a group of people are “deliberately misrepresented” then there’s precious little they can do about it. The churches got it right – if anything, the truth seems so much worse that it must surely be time to put the shame back into poor-shaming.

All I would add here is that the same could be said about those who who are almost poor.  They are encouraged to echo the those who are fortunate because while they may not have no money,  they almost certainly have “no voice, no representatives, and no means to establish their own public profile” Nor does it look like they will have in the very near future.

The Mid Staffs NHS scandal – the consequence flawed management system?

March 2, 2013

There was a terrific piece in last Friday’s edition of The Guardian by Simon Caulkin auggesting that ‘NHS management failures stem from the same flawed system that gave us Enron and Lehman Bros in the private sector’

The Mid Staffs NHS scandal will not go away. The collapse of the hospital trust into administration and the subsequent resignation of two board members. ensures that the wound will continue to bleed, ratcheting up the pressure on the embattled NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson. Investigation of suspicious death rates at a number of other hospitals just increases the sense of foreboding.

One reason that scandals like these both run on and recur is that we persist in thinking of them as exceptional; one-offs caused by a few incompetents or rotten apples in an otherwise wholesome barrel. But they’re not. The terrible outcomes at Mid Staffs were the logical consequence of a disastrously flawed management system that systematically forces people to face in the wrong direction, counts the wrong things, and focuses management attention on the wrong part of the job…….

What’s flawed about the system is, according to Caulkin, performance management, which was originally presented as “an enlightened expression of shared interest’ has in reality “morphed into its dark opposite, synonymous “not with developmental HRM and agreed objectives but with a claustrophobically monitored experience of top-down target driven work”.

Applied to individuals such tactics lead directly to Mid Staffs, a system which reshaped people into target-chasers who couldn’t afford to care. At the level of the supply chain the same kind of fierce control gives us a different form of butchery. Scaling up the performance-management tyranny, the big supermarket chains treat meat suppliers as adversaries, writing short-term term contracts, playing one off against the other and driving prices way below the point where something had to give. The immediate result was horseburgers. But behind the scenes is a much bigger, very British tragedy: a meat industry that is in long-term crisis and decline, wholly unable to defend itself against less cannibalistic European counterparts.

Anybody who has read Caulkin over the last 20 odd years, as I have, would expect him to end on an upbeat note. Much of what he has been saying in that time has gone wholly unheeded. Why should things be different now?

Few these days would want to be treated with the mixture of superstition, ideological prejudice and pseudo-science that constituted medical knowledge in the Middle Ages. But that’s hardly an exaggeration of the state of management today. It is management not medicine that has put our institutions in intensive care, and until we decide to do it better unfortunately that’s where they will remain.