Why McInerney is just plain wrong

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I should be completing my next evidence-based post but, 24 hours on from reading this evidence-light Guardian article by Laura McInerney, I am still incandescent.

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I find I cannot return to normal business until I have shredded these flimsy arguments.  So this post is by way of catharsis.

McInerney’s core premiss is that political parties of all colours focus disproportionately on ‘the smartest children’ while ‘ignoring lower ability learners’.

This poisonous ideology seems particularly prevalent amongst Teach First types. I imagine they are regurgitating lessons they learned on its courses,

I have seen it promulgated by rising stars in the profession. That exchange prompted this previous post which attempted a balanced, rational analysis of our respective positions.

Ideologues cannot be persuaded by evidence, so there is no hope for McInerney and her ilk, but I hope that more open-minded readers will be swayed a little by the reasoning below.

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What does she mean by ability?

McInerney distinguishes learners who are ‘smart’ or ‘bright’ from those who are ‘lower ability’. This betrays a curious adherence to old-fashioned notions of fixed ability, dividing children into sheep and goats.

There is no recognition of ability as a continuum, or of the capacity of learners to improve through effort, if given the right support.

The principles of personalised learning are thrown out of the window.

Education is not a matter of enabling every learner to ‘become the best that they can be’. Instead it is a zero sum game, trading off the benefits given to one fixed group – the smart kids – against those allegedly denied to another – the lower ability learners.

There is also an elementary confusion between ability and attainment.

It seems that McInerney is concerned with the latter (‘get good marks’; ‘received a high grade’) yet her terminology (‘lower-ability pupils’; ‘the smartest children’; ‘gifted and talented’) is heavily redolent of the former.

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What does she mean by focusing on the top rather than the tail?

According to McInerney’s notions, these ‘lower ability’ kids face a sad destiny. They are ‘more likely to truant, be excluded or become unemployed’, more likely to ‘slip into unskilled jobs’ and, by implication, form part of the prison population (‘75% of prisoners are illiterate’).

If we accept that low attainers are preponderant in these categories, then it is logical to conclude that programmes focused on tackling such problems are predominantly benefiting low attainers.

So governments’ investment in action to improve behaviour and discipline, tackle truancy and offer Alternative Provision must be distributed accordingly when we are calculating the inputs on either side of this equation.

Since the bulk of those with special educational needs are also low attainers, the same logic must be applied to SEN funding.

And of course most of the £2.5bn pupil premium budget is headed in the same direction.

Set against the size of some of these budgets, Labour’s commitment to invest a paltry £15 million in supporting high attainers pales into insignificance.

There are precious few programmes that disproportionately support high attainers. One might cite BIS support for fair access and possibly DfE support for the Music and Dance Scheme. Most are ‘penny packages’ by comparison.

When the national gifted and talented programme was at its peak it also cost no more than £15m a year.

Viewed in this way, it is abundantly clear that low attainers continue to attract the lion’s share of educational funding and political attention. The distasteful medical analogy with which McInerney opens her piece is just plain wrong.

The simple reason is that substantial investment in high attainers is politically unacceptable.

Even though one could make a convincing case that the economic benefits of investing in the ‘smart fraction’ are broadly commensurate with those derived from shortening the ‘long tail’.

Of course we need to do both simultaneously. This is not a zero sum game.

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Deficit model thinking

McInerney is engaged in deficit model thinking.

There is no substance to her suggestion that the government’s social mobility strategy is disproportionately focused on ‘making high court judges’. Take a look at the Social Mobility Indicators if you don’t believe me.

McInerney is dangerously close to suggesting that, because low attainers are predominantly disadvantaged, all disadvantaged learners are low attainers. Labour’s commitment is a sop for the middle classes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But high-attaining learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will not succeed without the requisite support. They have an equal right to such support: they are not ‘the healthiest’, pushing in front of ‘the sickest’ low attainers. Equally, they should not be expected to go to the back of the queue.

There are powerful economic and equity arguments for ensuring that more learners from disadvantaged backgrounds progress to competitive universities and professional careers.

As and when more succeed, they serve as role models for younger learners, persuading them that they too can follow suit.

McInerney has made that journey personally so I find it hard to understand why she has fallen prey to anti-elitism.

Her criticism of Labour is sadly misplaced. She should be asking instead why other parties are not matching their commitment.

According to her there was a golden age under Blunkett ‘who really believed in helping all children, not mostly the smartest.’

Guess who was Secretary of State when Labour first offered support to gifted and talented learners?

He fully appreciated that the tail should not wag the dog.

[Postscript: Here is the Twitter debate that followed this post. Scroll down to the bottom and work upwards to read the discussion in broadly chronological order.]

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GP

March 2015

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15 thoughts on “Why McInerney is just plain wrong

  1. I think the problem here is ambiguity. If you look at the money spent on the lowest attainers through SEND, smaller classes etc you can easily make a case that the “system” favours low attainers at the expense of high attainer simply based on the per capita spend on each. If on the other hand you take performance measures such as 5 A*-Cs, an increased emphasis on academic attainment eg with Academic A levels and Ebacc you could say the system favours higher attainers. Which get emphaised will depend on the political position. The dog is Gaussian and has a nose and a tail -)

  2. Good reply. Can feel your anger.

    A few things:
    1. I’ve never regurgitated anything TeachFirst suggested to me. They wish I would sometimes, but it’s just not my style. These are my own thoughts. Blame me, not them.
    2. “there is no hope for McInerney and her ilk”. That’s not true. There’s always hope.
    3. I definitely don’t suggest poor = not bright. Not even close. In fact, in an email yesterday someone else who took me to task over the column said something that hinted at that and I corrected them. I very clearly talk about lower ability or ‘struggling’ students.
    4. You are right in that I don’t make attainment vs ability clear. That’s a fair cop. When I say ‘low ability’ I always mean ‘low ability AT THIS MOMENT’ (and likewise ‘high ability’) because I DO believe there’s always hope. I’m not a big believer in ‘potential’ as a thing we can see in some people more than others – I find that a bit voodoo. Ultimately, I believe that kids are where they are right now and with help they will get better. The level in a subject (or skill) they exhibit right now is labelled as their current ‘ability’ – or, as you might prefer it, ‘attainment’. But I can see the language isn’t clear on that. It’s tough in a 700 word piece written for a lay audience but: noted. (See, I’m listening to your evidence).
    5. Money and time are finite resources. So, I’m afraid, education is sometimes a zero sum game.
    6. That said, this isn’t just about money. If we got all the sec of state speeches together of the last few years and looked at how many time the ‘top’ students were mentioned versus those who struggle – the emphasis is most often at that top end. (NB: Pupil premium does not equal low ability so doesn’t count – as you mention in your piece).
    7. On Blunkett, I know and nearly mentioned it. BUT the point is that his vision was about everyone. There were nods in EVERY direction. I still don’t know what the current Labour plan is for supporting children struggling to read – do you?

    Finally, I got a message from a councillor in my hometown yesterday who pointed out that where I’m from 25% of people don’t have a level 1 qualification. So when you ask about my own journey, and question why I’m falling prey to ‘anti-elitism’, it’s because I’ve shown that ‘bright’ people where I’m from tend to do quite well, actually. Plus, I do go back. And I implore young people to go on to top universities. And by and large they do so – surrounded by tons of bursaries, mentors, etc. With kudos to Russell Group admissions tutors I haven’t yet taught a high-ability student who didn’t end up in one regardless of circumstance. But those 1 in 4 people, without the qualifications, are likely to struggle to get a job paying anything above the minimum wage – and are probably disadvantaged each day by a lack of numeracy and literacy skills. That I think they need more help is, most probably, ideological but it’s not because I’ve abandoned my background. It’s because it is right here with me.

  3. If we cut to the chase, my understanding is that – in your zero sum game – you would prioritise the needs of a disadvantaged low attainer over those of a disadvantaged high attainer. It seems as though you would even prioritise the needs of an advantaged low attainer over a disadvantaged high attainer. And you would do this because you believe that the low attainer is inherently the more deserving. Using your analogy, the low attainer is ‘sick’ while the high attainer ‘healthy’. You simply do not accept that all learners have an equal right to support, regardless of their prior attainment. Tell me if I am wrong. If I am right, such an ideology is anathema to me.

    GP

  4. Saying low attainers are sick and high attainers are healthy seems a weird thing to say. Am I unhealthy because I can’t high jump 6 feet when plenty of other people can? Sure I can practice to get better but I might never make it. I can do other things though that the high jumpers can’t do. We’ll be onto curing gays next …..

  5. My tuppence –

    1. we do have finite resources, we can’t spend money on everything, but what we’re talking about here is a paltry £15m as against a £2.5bn spend or thereabouts on SEN. In the scheme of things, and forgive my lack of finesse, that doesn’t even equal a piss in the Atlantic;

    2. why on earth do we need to distinguish between low ability and high anyway? They’re both sides of the same coin. You’re right about one thing, potential isn’t something you see in some but not in others. Everyone has potential, and the more support they receive, the more likely they are to achieve as much of it as they can. If you insist on ploughing all the cash down one end and ignore the other, you’re basically saying that some potential isn’t worth supporting. That’s fundamentally unfair, and effectively condemns an entire generation to mediocrity.

    MB

  6. What I thought was most interesting about the original piece was McInerney’s misunderstanding of tail effects. She ignores potential upsides to gifted and talented education for whole of society eg: investing in g and t increases your chances of producing the next game changer in industry x or field y and therefore wider society profiting (including those disadvantaged groups the author champions). Investing in G and T isn’t giving a healthy subject a gym pass it’s more like giving a potentially world class athlete the opportunity to realise that potential. The reality is education and economies are in competition with other countries and hamstringing our potential star players isn’t wise. McInerney’s view seems insular to say the least.

  7. So – if I’m drawing a list of prioritisation, would I prioritise low attainers over high? Yes. Is that because they’re inherently more deserving? No.

    Also, you say: “You simply do not accept that all learners have an equal right to support” – Does anyone advocating a gifted and talented programme think this? Unless we are now saying G&T programmes are something everyone will access? In which case, isn’t that just ‘school’?

    But, let’s go back to the analogy. The way I think about it is that ‘ability’, like ‘health’, is a pretty complex issue. For a start – someone could be low current ability in one area but high in another.

    An example: I might have a broken leg but all other organs might be exceptional. In that circumstance, we think the broken leg is sufficiently problematic and we prioritise fixing it. If the person,with the exceptional inner organs did not have a broken leg, we wouldn’t prioritise their overall health. That’s not because they are ‘inherently deserving’ but simply because the broken leg needs fixing whereas their exceptional organs, though they could be more exceptional, are not really a problem.

    A commentor below has made the point that helping the smartest is like giving extra support to athletes, and it’s worth doing because of economic gains from those groups. First, I suspect there are economic gains of improving every group. Second, being honest, if I’m faced with giving more money to the NHS or giving it to athletes, I’m struggling with handing it over to the athletes. And finally, if there’s such an economic gain through the athlete’s activity – then why isn’t that subsidising them? (In the case of athletes and sponsorship, it usually is. This is also why LOTS of companies fund G&T mentoring programmes, etc, already).

    At the same time I appreciate that education has more than just a ‘making up for problems’ function. And I do believe that, in the same way that we make sure everyone has access to health services to keep them in ‘sufficient nick’, that we should have schooling that helps everyone do well. So I’m not talking here about focusing all resources on the lowest ability and leaving high ability kids in classrooms of 90 with no textbooks.

    But once we take into account the many hours each day where children have equal access to good education (just like people have equal access to cancer tests or vaccinations), then, as we get to the extra stuff, (‘sickness’ treatments in the health service, or ‘extra tuition’ in the education example) I would focus it on lower ability children, *particularly with issues of numeracy and literacy* than anywhere else (in the same way the NHS focuses on ‘sick’ people or, if you don’t like that terminology, ‘people with a broken leg’).

    This doesn’t mean I would stop funding for everything else, eg sport, music or drama. But I do think that provision should be available for everyone. If you are terrible at drama, but love it, then the provision should be equally available to you as it is for everyone. Drama, as important as I think it is, isn’t the same as literacy or numeracy in terms of life chances and therefore I don’t count it as one of the things that ought to be focused on the lowest ability – nor can I see any reason to focus it on the most able.

    One final thing: the Guardian article is 700 words and focused on the specific issue of Labour choosing to focus a pledge during election time on one particular group and the problems I see with that. It isn’t the totality of everything I think on this issue. That said, I appreciate being held to account for the words and for being made to think about it. I doubt you will agree with my answer, but it’s the fullest one I can give you.

  8. So you concede that – in your zero sum game – low attainers get priority over high attainers. I infer that advantaged low attainers get priority over disadvantaged high attainers, though you fail to answer that specifically. Is that correct?

    I searched your response in vain for a reason I could understand. It’s not because low attainers are inherently more deserving, so why is it exactly?

    I am afraid I still don’t understand your medical analogy, and I fear you are extending it further than it will stretch without breaking.

    That is because there are no proper educational equivalents to ‘sick’ and ‘healthy’. Every learner is somewhere on a continuum. Every learner has scope for improvement, and a reasonable expectation that their school will help them to secure that improvement.

    I appreciate the ‘spiky profile’. High attainers need support to improve in their areas of weakness, but not at the expense of continued improvement in their areas of comparative strength.

    I agree with you about the economic gains from investing at both ends of the spectrum – and made that point in my response to your piece. But I find your suggestion that support at the top end should rely on private sector funding offensive and illogical.

    Since there are economic gains at both ends, there is an equally strong case for the private sector sponsoring ‘catch up’ interventions. Moreover, the education sector cannot escape its responsibilities to high attainers by assuming that private companies can or should pick up the slack.

    If we apply your zero sum game to a class that you teach (because money and time are finite resources) then the low attainers would get disproportionate attention compared with the high attainers: more resource, more teacher time, more priority.

    If you were a head shaping the whole school ethos and culture, there could be no whole school commitment to valuing all learners and doing your best to help them all ‘maximise their potential’. There could be no commitment to universal high expectations – unless of course your expectations of high attainers were that they could and should succeed without the necessary support.

    And you could not defend this on equity grounds, since low attainers from relatively wealthy backgrounds would be prioritised above higher attainers from poor backgrounds.

    You’d take care to ensure that parents of high attainers never got to find out that their children were being short-changed but, when Ofsted came to call, you’d most likely emerge Requiring Improvement.

    You would almost certainly be taken to task for your whole school approach to high attainers. Your disadvantaged high attainers especially would almost certainly be underachieving.

    I don’t understand your concept of gifted and talented programmes. You seem to be implying that, in order to provide equal support, every part of a school’s provision must be accessible to every student. Yet that is never the case in real schools, either at the top or the bottom of the attainment distribution.

    Moreover, your concept of a gifted programme seems to assume that it requires a permanent division of learners into those who are ‘gifted’ and those who are not, whereas it is perfectly possible to provide such support for different learners, as and when they need it. Some learners will never require such support; and some will only require it temporarily. The same applies to ‘catch up’, doesn’t it?

    You attempt a new distinction between ‘the many hours each day where children have equal access to good education’ and ‘extra stuff’, with the latter focused on ‘the lower ability children’.

    That may be designed to indicate that your unequal treatment doesn’t play out in the normal everyday classroom, only coming into effect when ‘top-up’ support is introduced. But I don’t think that this will wash.

    The best schools will not make a distinction between in-class and additional provision – what matters is the holistic educational experience of each learner.

    The best schools will want to make sure that their default expectation is effective challenge and support for all learners across the piece. But they may find it necessary to programme in additional ‘top-up’ provision where assessment shows that some learners are under-challenged and under-supported.

    The effort invested in this ‘top up’ provision will depend on who needs extra challenge and support. If low attainers are less well catered for in the classroom, the top-up for them will be correspondingly important; if the reverse is true, high attainers should attract the lion’s share of ‘top-up’ support. If both need support, both should get it.

    But the ‘top-up’ is always an important, integral part of the learner’s holistic educational experience, not an optional extra that the school tacks on if it can be bothered.

    If there is a zero sum game and a need to prioritise, priority should go to disadvantaged learners, regardless of their prior attainment. Otherwise disadvantaged high attainers are unfairly penalised.

    Their A needs converting to an A* just as much as another’s D needs converting to a C. This is the problem that Progress 8 is expected to solve (though I doubt that it will be sufficiently powerful to do so without additional measures alongside).

    Towards the end of your response, you appear to be coming round to the argument for equal treatment, but you don’t follow it through to its logical conclusion.

    I too think that ‘provision should be available for everyone’. But my experience suggests that high attainers are too often being denied that opportunity, compared with other learners, and Ofsted seems to agree with me.

    Labour’s commitment – while not yet properly explained or thought through – is welcome recognition that additional resource – taxpayer’s money not private sponsorship – may be needed to rectify this.

    GP

  9. You extrapolate far too wildly about what I would do as a headteacher. (And what I did as a teacher).

    There’s a difference between the typical curriculum offer, the extra-curricular offer, and extra tuition. In sum: I think the first two ought to be equal, the latter not so.

    If you and I talked about this a lot you would find I’d add lots of ‘new’ things in because, as I said, the original article is 700 words and doesn’t encompass all my thinking on education – not because I’m trying to weedle my way out of anything.

    If you want to sit down over a coffee or lemonade sometime, I’m happy to do so, and we can go at this hammer and tong then.

  10. There is no real point is there?

    I’m on a hiding to nothing in trying to challenge your ideology through reason. I can see you have shifted a little on some of the detail, but your fundamental position remains at odds with mine.

    Laying reason aside, this is emblematic of a wider malaise that’s personally dispiriting and, as I’ve said, it’s one of the main reasons why I’m hanging up my boots.

    It feels as though I’ve spent the best part of 20 years challenging these arguments. In the late ’90s they seemed far more dominant in the generation ahead of mine. I put that down to the last vestiges of ’60s egalitarianism.

    During the mid-2000s it felt for a time as though the consensus had really shifted for good. But now influential people in the generation following mine are pushing those old arguments again. I’m not going to be typecast as the reactionary old fart.

    I see a connection to the abject ‘not invented here’ response to Ofsted’s latest ‘most able’ report. Leaving aside Wilshaw’s determined personal championing of this issue, Labour’s small commitment was the one chink of light in the prevailing gloom.

    I got angry – and am still angry – because you dissed it.

    GP

  11. This comment will surprise no one, but I find this debate the best argument for the restoration of grammar schools / assisted places / direct grant I have come across in a long time. Simples.

  12. McInerney’s reply to my point about potential economic benefits in an increasingly competitive global environment for wider society to investing in G and T reinforces the point that she misunderstands scalability. Incidentally, her reply is actually a strong argument for state investment in gifted and talented education as she mentions company led support for training schemes as a viable alternative. These schemes (as I’m sure she is well aware) are accessed disproportionally by bright students from socially advantaged backgrounds. Doing so is both inefficient for wider societal and economic gains (as you’re only targeting specific existing industries rather than potentially game changing new industries plus focusing only on a relatively small amount of your potential talent pool ie: the already socially advantaged students rather than all students). She again misses the point that investing in Gifted and Talented education increases the potential of massive upside gains for wider society by benefitting from a new discovery/creation of a new industry etc etc. It doesn’t guarantee it but it instead increases the chances of the next big thing (in field X or industry Y) coming from Britain. This is an interesting omission from someone who is both clearly a strategic thinker and a thought leader in British education.

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