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Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Making Choices about your Kids’ Education

Having recently been approached by friends for advice about how to navigate their kids through the education system, I thought that it might help to put some of the discussions down in print.

Firstly, I do not proclaim to be an expert. Anyone who does make this claim fails to see that education is a deeply contested area that is driven more by dogma and politics than anything else. However, having been a secondary school teacher since 2003 and now coming to the end of a PhD at the UCL Institute of Education, I have a fairly critical view and might be able to offer some advice about how to make better decisions.

Philosophy of Education

I am assuming if you are reading this that you are a parent and that you therefore went to school at least 10 years ago. If this is a case, then you had a very different experience than kids at school now are having and no doubt than your kids will have. This is due to the ideological foundations of education having shifted in the last decade or so. Broadly, educational theory falls into two camps; the delivery of measurable knowledge is at one end of the spectrum and at the other, relationships, experience, love and play are valued. There has always been an element of both in any curriculum but the former has come to predominate in the UK and globally in the last decade. In a very crude sense, the former might be seen to be creating an individual who can succeed in the world as it is and the latter is interested in creating citizens who will change the world.


This has increased under global (PISA) and national (league tables) testing and reporting regimes that have created competition for schools and students to get better test scores. In the UK where parents tend to choose which school to send their kids to by looking at the league tables and where school budgets are determined by the number of kids sent to each school, this has resulted in the phenomenon of teaching to the test. At the risk of stating the obvious, coaching to pass an exam is often not aligned with offering a rounded education and the pressure put on kids has resulted in fairly well reported mental health problems and even reports of teenage suicide, something that I have sadly also come across in my professional experience.
The Education Select Committee warned about teaching to the test and the harm that it might do in their report on Testing and Assessment in 2008, recommending that the exam system and reporting of scores was overhauled. Sadly, subsequent governments have doubled down on the competition for test scores since then. While academies and free schools are reported as not having to follow the national curriculum, the reality is that they are opened up in competition with other schools for places and this further catalyses the problem, forcing them and other schools to further teach to the test and to put increasing pressure on students and their teachers. As many teachers see the experience that their pupils have in schools as fundamental to the curriculum, this has presented a very real existential crisis to the profession and may be why there is a shortage of teachers. A schools’ minister was recently questioned by the Education Select Committee about the mental health crisis that faces our kids and suggested that the additional national tests that were being introduced would help kids learn to deal with this. This approach means that our kids are some of the most frequently tested in the world. At the risk of going into too much detail, the tests that I’m talking about are summative assessments where only a score is offered to the kids, rather than suggestions for improvement as might be offered in a formative assessment.
Ofsted reports and league tables might offer you some guidance about where to choose but you need to be aware that (unless you are looking at one of the schools in the top 2%) there is very little correlation between a school’s position in the league tables or their Ofsted rating now and in 6 years’ time.  Thus, the data that you are looking at might not be suitable to predict the type of school that your kid will be sitting their SATs in and then graduating from.
SATs are one of many national summative tests that your kids will be asked to take in school and teachers are generally asked to get kids to a certain level (test score) that is based on the last test that they sat. This self-referential cycle means that whatever score your kid arrives in a class with is a likely predictor of what they will get at the end. I have always found this very problematic. Some parents have chosen to boycott tests like SATs to protect their kids from the stress and to keep them out of the cycle of reinforced achievement and failure.

Things that I’ve seen affect how kids do at school

  •  Parents showing an interest in what they are doing – I’ve taught in some schools that are not renowned for good grades but kids whose parents show an interest get good grades (I mean take them to the zoo to support their biology, not spending hours on written homework)
  • Parents who come to parents’ evening and ask how they can support their kid in their studies
  • September babies do better at school as they are starting a year earlier than August babies – if you’re reading this, it’s probably too late to make changes
  • Good teachers are obviously important, and you are also likely to come across ones who you don’t think are any good - In my experience, how charming or offensive a teacher is to you has little correlation with how well they support the kids so be careful with your judgement on this. In any case, there’s not much you can do to choose teachers so keep your fingers crossed and be wary of an excellent but old headteacher as they may retire soon.

National Changes

The amount of money going to schools has changed in the last year. Under New Labour, education budgets increased dramatically and much of this money went to the inner cities. For this reason, schools that I’ve taught at in central London have received over £11k per pupil while some in the provinces got less than £5k. Overall, the funding per pupil has gone down significantly in the last year and the balance has tipped in the provinces’ favour.
I was warned when I was training as a teacher 15 years ago that I must be prepared to become a political football and it has felt a lot like that since then. The teaching unions and Labour have recently been promoting the idea of a National Education Service (like the NHS) and this might swing the pendulum away from the current focus on test scores.

Types of Schooling

As is discussed above, the idea that free schools and academies have a less constrained curriculum is a red herring when they are promoting the competition that is driving teaching to the test.
This probably raises more questions than it answers but hopefully it shows you where not to focus your efforts when making the impossible choice about which school. If your kid starts at a school and they don’t like it, try to support them as best you can and, if all else fails, you can always home school or deschool them.
Rob Faure Walker

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Why liberals need to get over their fetish for how young Muslim girls choose to dress

OfSTED’s recent declaration that school inspectors should question Muslim girls who choose to wear Hijab strikes a blow to the freedom of conscience that most in the UK enjoy. Freedom of conscience was defined by the United Nations’ in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as everyone having the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Much of the discussion over the OfSTED Hijab story in the press and on social media has been around whether it is a requirement for Muslim women to cover their hair or not. While I’m sure that this is an important theological discussion for many Muslims to be having, it falls short of the discussion that all of us should be having in response to OfSTED’s decision. We should be talking about the legitimacy and value of the State deciding if young women can freely express their culture while at school.

The recent targeting of young Muslims by OfSTED and the Department for Education is not an isolated incident and is the latest move in a secular crusade that has been waged on our schools over the last few years by the likes of Michael Gove MP and Michael Wilshaw, the previous head of OfSTED. This secular crusade gave us the ‘Trojan Horse’ ‘scandal’, when schools in Birmingham were accused of having been taken over by so-called ‘Islamic extremists’ in 2014. This resulted in OfSTED issuing advice that led to the imposition of the PREVENT Counter-Terrorism Strategy on our schools. A strategy that has been widely criticised for unfairly targeting Muslim pupils and for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment.

The events that became known as the ‘Trojan Horse’ focussed on schools in Birmingham and subsequently in Tower Hamlets where I was working as a secondary school teacher at the time. These were schools that served majority Muslim communities and where the students gained better exam results than both OfSTED and the Department for Education expected them to. Much of this success has been put down to the schools respecting and valuing the cultures that children brought with them to school. In a book chapter from 2006 titled ‘The Trojan Horse’, Gove does not see value in the culture that Muslim children arrive at the school gates with. He describes the existence of Islamic ideology in the UK as a ‘symbolic fight’ and questions if the UK would be ‘strong enough to defend the idea of secular space’. Despite Gove’s concern for ‘secular space’, schools in the UK are not secular. Whether Gove and his fellow secularists like it or not, the UK is a religious state where the law suggests that freedom of conscience (religious or secular) should be respected.

The importance of respecting the culture that children bring to school presents an alternative interpretation to the events that became known as the ‘Trojan Horse’. This alternative view fits better with my experience as a teacher in Tower Hamlets. Young girls who I have worked with describe feeling welcome at school when their headscarf is allowed as part of their school uniform and how this helps them feel comfortable which in turn helps them to concentrate on their school work. Pupils who were offered a classroom when they asked for somewhere to pray at lunchtime describe feeling accepted and were more engaged in class. Similarly, a school where I previously worked brought in players from the local football club, Arsenal, to help motivate disenfranchised young white boys to learn to write. Ensuring that the cultures that all children bring with them to school are respected is necessary if they and their parents are to engage in their education and if our schools are to serve all of our children.

I’m sure that the Amanda Spielman (HM Chief Inspector of Education) who has advised schools inspectors to question Hijab wearing girls is well-meaning but her instructions are likely to do more harm than good. Quizzing young girls over the legitimacy of their choice to wear a headscarf to school tells these girls that they do not belong. Had Spielman spoken to some of the kids who I have taught, she would have heard that there are many reasons for wearing a Hijab; considered theological positions; fashion; I’m told that it’s quicker to put on a headscarf than to do your hair in the morning and, yes, because dressing modestly and wearing a Hijab keeps your Dad off your back, often so that he lets you stay out later in the evening. If OfSTED’s move was really about care for young Muslim women, these voices would be heard and respected.

The liberal fetish for the headwear of young Muslim girls is a textbook example of the contradictions of liberalism. While discussing the West’s response to 9/11, Jacques Derrida warned that these contradictions result in the ‘autoimmunity’ of liberalism. He tells us that liberal aspirations tend to backfire. Creating an institutional requirement that Muslim girls are questioned about how they chose to dress is likely to make young people feel alienated from their schools and teachers and may undermine much of the excellent work that has previously been done to raise the academic standards for children from minority communities as they are implicitly told by OfSTED that our schools are not for them.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Do you need to be a critical realist to win elections now?

The following paragraph from Corbyn's recent conference speech may reveal something of the philosophical foundations of the division that has blighted Labour for the last decade.

'Conference, it is often said that elections can only be won from the centre ground. And in a way that’s not wrong – so long as it’s clear that the political centre of gravity isn’t fixed or unmovable, nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is. It shifts as people’s expectations and experiences change and political space is opened up. Today’s centre ground is certainly not where it was twenty or thirty years ago.'

In saying this, Corbyn is showing an appreciation that the structure of society changes over time. This seems like an obvious statement but the failure of New Labour to appreciate such change over time can be tracked back to a more complex source in the work of Antony Giddens, the architect of New Labour's Third Way, and his theory of structuration.

I've recently taken an interest in Anthony Giddens and his theory. Specifically, I am interested in its similarity to much of Roy Bhaskar's theory of social change within the critical realism paradigm that his life's work describes.

Bhaskar and Gidden's models were so similar that Bhaskar tells us in both of his posthumously published books , The Order of Natural Necessity (p34) and Enlightened Common Sense (p53), that he and Giddens agreed on the similarity of their theories over lunch in 'a very nice restaurant in Greek Street'. However, Bhaskar's colleague, Margaret Archer, subsequently pointed out that there was a profound difference between their work. Giddens' theory failed to account for change over time and as Bhaskar subsequently points out, 'This may fit a college in Cambridge but it does not fit most of social life'.

As Giddens, along with his theory of structuration, was the architect of the Third Way that Blair implemented, the failure to theorise change over time may account for some of the division that has been seen in the Labour movement since Blair's tenure as leader of the Labour Party. Failure to account for change over time has resulted in a failure to see that political parties that attempt to grab votes with populist promises before elections may alter the structure of society over time. The electorate may move further from the ideals of the party over time. Conservative attempts to grab votes from UKIP resulted in them doing UKIP's work and leading the way out of Europe, Blairism resulted in their traditional voting base resenting the increasingly rich South East of the country and voting for the nationalist rhetoric of UKIP, a situation repeated across the Atlantic to produce Trump's USA.

In appreciating work that has come before him, Bhaskar tells us that, 
'Critical realism is indeed a new philosophy is not a new practice; genuine science, whether great, revolutionary or normal, has always been critical realist.' (p41)

Blair and Giddens appear not to have been critical realists, perhaps Corbyn is. Trump might be one too!

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Why We Should be Critical of All News

Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the type of news that we are consuming. But, maybe attempts to categorise the news as 'fake' are part of the problem. To say that some news is 'fake news' suggests that other news is truthful. This undermines our need to be critical of all news that we consume.

It would be foolish to suggest that some news does not have an ulterior motive. Some Moldovan teenagers want to make a quick buck, agents of the Kremlin appear to want to alter the outcomes of foreign elections and tabloid newspapers wilfully demonise minorities to sell more papers.

But, even though some of this so-called 'news' is intentionally fake, we should be careful not to accept that any news represents objective truth. The news is data about the world, it is not the world itself and a choice must always be made about what data is chosen and how it is presented to us. We should, therefore, be critical of how we interpret all news. As we are assailed by evermore data, the need to question how the world is described to us is more important than ever.

Parliamentary protocol dictates that MPs should challenge the argument and not the person as failure to engage with the argument stifles debate. Labelling 'fake news' shuts down political debate and undermines mechanisms by which we might come to better understand each other, I've previously written about how shutting down debate undermines mechanisms that help us moderate our views.

Next time you hear the term, 'fake news', ask what is 'fake' about the accused source and, perhaps more importantly, why the accuser is trying to label it 'fake'.

Also, share it with #watchyourlanguage and let's try to keep on top of this.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

EXTREMISM: Pathologising the undefinable

The horrific attack on Finsbury Park Mosque happened up the road from my home and the sirens and police helicopters have now faded into the distance and the politicians have visited and since left. As ever, our Prime Minister didn’t miss this opportunity to call to “establish a new Commission for Countering Extremism”.
“Extremism” is a word that the Home Office is unable to define in law and means something different to what it did it did 8 years ago.
In 2008 the Government published many documents on “extremism” and, at this time, “extremism” tended to be written as “violent extremism”. Each point on the graph above is a government document and the point at 100% represents the CONTEST Counter-Terrorism Strategy where “extremism” is only written as “violent extremism”. Over time, the word “violent” has been lost so that all recent documents are clustered around 0%. Our Prime Minister’s recent speech fits into this cluster and, in doing so, presumes that we must address “extremism” as a pathology in its own right. Whether this is because “extremism” is now synonymous with violence or because we don’t tolerate challenges to the status quo is a question that will remain unanswered due to the lack of any legal definition for “extremism”, as is mentioned above.
Whether a Muslim seeing her sisters oppressed abroad or a Welshman wanting political change at home, the new “extremism” stops us speaking out and tells us that we are violent if we oppose the status quo. To promote a strategy to address “extremism” shuts down political debate, leaving violence as the only option for those seeking radical change. This dangerous situation is catalysed by the new rhetoric and policy of "countering extremism" telling those who are silenced that violence is to be expected from them. 
Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park, let us see them for the crimes that they are and address them as such rather than allowing them to be used to justify a failing policy that is based on dangerous pseudoscience. This will allow our security services to be fully resourced and to act in the exemplary and heroic way that they have in the last few months.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

PREVENT: Safeguarding or Stereotyping?

Great debate organised by The Society Of Asian Lawyers at The Law Society last night. My initial statement copied in full below.

At the time of the alleged Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham the Muslim children who I taught in Tower Hamlets stopped engaging in political debate. My concerns for the impact that this might be having on school children led me to develop an academic interest in this area when it became clear that the students had withdrawn from debate for fear of being reported under the PREVENT Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
My concerns led me to contribute to the Rights Watch report into PREVENT, were reported in the media and led to me becoming a member of the Tower Hamlets Overview &Scrutiny committee into PREVENT. Ultimately, this resulted in students feeling empowered to speak to me about their concerns that they were being targeted by an overzealous and racist state surveillance policy, concerns that they told me they did not discuss with other adults for fear that they would be reported due to PREVENT if they did so. This placed me in a privileged position as I found myself the confidant to children who were, according to them, experiencing alarming levels of fear and alienation. I will illustrate this with a few examples of how PREVENT has impacted children who I have worked with, all of these examples are representative of others that I have heard in focus groups that I have run with children from across Tower Hamlets, from formal interviews with children and from my ongoing conversations with pupils past and present who have come to me with their concerns.
Children who I worked with explained that they were now scared to practice their religion for they feared a PREVENT referral if they did and I was told by many that they did not speak openly with adults for they feared that the adults would be obliged to report them under PREVENT.
Online Propaganda
A student who would often engage me in theological discussions expressed his concern that PREVENT had prevented him from seeking the support of adults when he became concerned for the safety of one of his peers. The situation involved a 15 year old friend of his who he worried was spending too much time playing violent video games and who he feared was being drawn into the support of Islamic State by exposure to online propaganda that shared the aesthetic of the video games. To provide support, my student and a group of his peers arranged to spend more time with their vulnerable friend, devising a rota to ensure that someone was spending time with him on every day of the week after school. By the time my student discussed the situation with me, he reported that the friend was less socially isolated and that he was no longer concerned by his activity online or that he might be supporting dangerous views and opinion. During this child-led intervention, in spite of his concerns for his friend’s continued isolation and safety, my 15 year old student did not seek help from any adults. He did not seek help as he feared that PREVENT made it their duty to report the situation to the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism and he was concerned that the intervention of government counter-terrorism workers in this sensitive situation would undermine his own successful efforts to help his friend.
Resisting calls for a caliphate
Another student who was also theologically literate explained how PREVENT was preventing him challenging the views of people who he perceived to be extreme and potentially dangerous. He explained that on a number of occasions he had been approached by people who were calling for the support of a caliphate and who he felt were misrepresenting the teachings of Islam by their lack of respect and pragmatism with regards to the laws of their home country. However, on every occasion that he was approached by these people, rather than challenging them with his astute and pragmatic views on Islam, he had turned his back and refused to talk to them. He refused to talk to them as he feared that association with these people was likely to result in a referral under PREVENT and that this would result in the security services intervening in his life. As a result of this, he did not engage his extensive theological knowledge to challenge views that he perceived to be extreme and dangerous. PREVENT was preventing this student from challenging the views of other Muslims that he perceived to be ‘extreme’.
Whether real or imagined, the knowledge of PREVENT was undermining the mediation of and safeguarding from extreme views in these children’s lives.
Situations like these increased my concerns and led to me carrying out research into PREVENT at The UCL Institute of Education. My interest is specifically in the language of counter-terrorism which reveals significant changes in focus since 9/11. Firstly, you will not find ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ used in contemporary explanations of the attacks on the twin towers or for other acts of terrorist violence at the time. The terms, ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’, start to come into the lexicon of counter-terrorism over the next few years and there is no better example of this than the earlier version of PREVENT that was published in 2008; in this document, ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ are only used alongside references to violence or terrorism, for example in phrases like ‘preventing violent extremism’. By always using them alongside references to violence, ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ are associated with but distinct from violence; were they synonymous with violence, both references would not be required. In the later strategy from 2011 that we now follow, ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ have become synonymous with violence. This not only justifies PREVENT’s focus on ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’ views but also provides a mechanism by which violent identities can be catalysed.
These later changes have happened since counter-terrorism moved from being a military matter, which focused on preventing violence, and into the Civil Service with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism’s formation and their focus on challenging ideology rather than just violence.
The recent focus on ideology by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism has been based on demonstrably flawed research that took common factors identified in a small number of convicted terrorists, the authors have since recognised that it was an error to omit political grievance in these factors and they failed to theorise the real causes of terrorism. This means that the factors identified and that justify counter-terrorism’s focus on so-called ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ do not describe causes of terrorism and are a correlation at best; though the validity of even this assertion is questionable.
These factors are then used to  describe a different population, the children in my classroom, and this means that not only are the real causes of terrorism hidden but that counter-terrorism resources are focused on the wrong areas, seeking out the self-fulfilling effects of policy rather than the underlying real causes of terrorism.
This is why I noticed that the application of PREVENT in my classroom, casting me as an informant, was not addressing terrorism. Rather, it was undermining the mechanisms by which we all become less extreme to each other in a democracy.
PREVENT reveals an aspiration to a politics of consent. It’s almost needless to point out that rhetoric that casts radical or extreme views as pathologically violent presumes that it’s own stance is unassailable. An aspiration to consent might at first appear to be a noble aim but political theorists have pointed out how this undermines democracy and is likely  to result in the inadvertent promotion of violence.
Belgian political theorist, Chantalle Mouffe has written that ‘it is undeniable that it [violence] tends to flourish in circumstances in which there are no legitimate political channels for the expression of grievances’ (2005: 81). She describes the shutting down of discourse in a democracy as ‘letting death in’. Similarly, Jacques Derrida, has described the autoimmunity of liberalism and how this aspiration to consensual politics results in violence (Borradori 2003). And, Przeworski (1991) also suggests that a failure to be represented by the democratic process might leave violence as the only option for those excluded.
The application of the PREVENT Counter-Terrorism Strategy in schools casts teachers as informants. Under these new conditions my pupils and pupils across the country have stopped engaging in the political debate that is vital for peace in a democracy. The aligning of political opposition with violence adds a catalyst to this already dangerous situation.
Ironically, children who I have spoken to from schools with a religious ethos said that they felt more empowered to resist the propaganda of Islamic State than those in purely secular schools. ‘Ironic’ as it was criticism of religious ethos in schools during the Trojan Horse debacle that led to PREVENT being forced into schools in the first place.
PREVENT stops people from being heard and targets the exact institutions that help people air their grievances. As long as counter-terrorism is used to cast teachers, doctors and social workers as informants it will shut down debate and promote violence. Conflating diverse political ideology with violence adds fuel to this fire.
The answer to this is not PREVENT’s recent shift in focus onto the Far Right, a move that deflects accusations of racism. The answer is the abandoning of counter-terrorism that focuses on ideology rather than violence. Until this happens, the UK’s extensive counter-terrorism resources will not be focused on the real causes of terrorist violence

Wednesday, 22 March 2017


(originally written for, an excellent arts charity)
A recent New Schools Network’s report shows that more students are doing arts GCSEs since the introduction of the Ebacc. For those of us with an interest in the arts in schools, this at first appears to be great news. But, scratching the surface, we start to see some issues with the positive presentation of these findings. Firstly, the issue celebrated by the report and in the supporting press release is the number of pupils sitting arts exams and, at the risk of stating the obvious, being examined in an arts subject is not the same as putting on a play, visiting the theatre or painting a picture; this is confirmed as a valid concern by exam boards dropping the requirement of drama GCSE students to watch a live performance.
Interrogating the Key Findings on page 7 of the report reveals further problems. Point 1, that “Arts education improves students’ job prospects”, does not appear to be grounded in any evidence other than the correlation between students sitting arts subjects and future earnings, a correlation but not necessarily a causal link. As the report fails to make any attempt to correct for other factors such as parental income, this says very little as the correlation is just as likely to be tied to the fact that middle class students do more arts subjects. The causal link with job prospects is thus as likely to be socio-demographic status as it is arts education. Point 2, “There is no evidence that the EBacc has affected GCSE arts entries”, is, as with point 1, about exam entries rather than access to the arts and point 3 raises the most pertinent findings of the report so is copied in full below:
However, it does appear that schools have misunderstood the intention behind the EBacc, using its introduction to reduce funding for the teaching of the arts. While arts entries have risen, the number of GCSE arts teachers has declined, with schools focusing recruitment efforts elsewhere. Similarly, evidence suggests that less contact time is now being given to GCSE arts entrants.
This third finding finally addresses the issue of access to the arts and, if we are concerned that all students should have access to the arts, this must be more important than exam entries and reveals some alarming headlines that are not highlighted in the report and surrounding articles; reduced funding for the arts; fewer arts teachers; fewer arts teachers being recruited for the future and less time in arts classes for pupils.
In the New Schools Network press release about their report, Toby Young (Director of New Schools Network), The Rt Hon Nick Gibb (Minister of State for Schools), The Rt Hon Matt Hancock (Minister of State for Digital and Culture Policy) and Ian McEwan (Author), all lend their support to the idea that the arts are being supported in schools and I can’t believe that they are anything other than sincere in this assertion. Yet, while they may be sincere, they are also misguided. If this report was submitted to me by one of my students on the MA in education course at the UCL Institute of Education, they would be disappointed to be awarded a D for such sloppy research. Unfortunately, the press release suggests that the guidance of this report is being taken at the highest levels of government so is likely to have considerably more impact than a disappointed student as it ensures that the government are unaware that they are cutting arts from schools at a time when schools are already suffering further cuts that will catalyse this unseen harm.
The New Schools Network’s focus on arts exam entries is a distraction from the findings of their report that show that students also have less access to the arts. We must not be fooled into thinking that all is well, school pupils need more support than ever to ensure their access to art.