Bridging the State-Private Gap

A couple of stories this week have posed a challenge for those who want our very best schools to be in our most challenging communities.  Firstly, we were reminded once again that our professions, as well as our creative and performing arts, are dominated by privately educated Oxbridge types.  Secondly, a Durham University study suggests that independent schools perform better than state schools even when we account for students’ backgrounds.

It’s no surprise that taking kids from wealthier families who value school, and then putting these kids together in an academic climate where high standards are the norm, tends to yield success.

Most of us swirl around the eddies of opportunity in which we happen to find ourselves.  The grim reality is that a middling student at a top private school can look forward to a much brighter future than a middling student at a state school on the wrong side of the tracks.

So what can we do about this?

We should continue to explore ways of increasing the social mix in our schools.  State schools need to be able to convince aspirational, educated parents that their kids can thrive with us.  Grammar streams within comprehensive schools aren’t to everyone’s taste but they might just help reassure ambitious parents that our state schools have the desire, the teachers and the resources to stretch and challenge able students.  Less controversially, our academies should be clear about the deal that they offer, for example by listing the books that all students will read in their time at the school, alongside the places they’ll visit and the knowledge they’ll acquire.

Improving social mix would work in areas where rich and poor live in close proximity, but it’s less useful in areas where poverty is widespread.  Such areas require a tsunami of support: massive regional investment in early years, food and nutrition, parenting, and evening classes.  If I’m not mistaken, Teach First is doing some interesting work which involves integrated solutions (education, healthcare, social services) for our most challenging communities.

I’m absolutely convinced that you could educate a middle class kid (from an educated family whose parents value school) for a fraction of the price that it takes to educate a kid who’s been dealt a tougher hand.  For this reason, I think the Pupil Premium is a beautiful thing.  At its best, Pupil Premium funding is used to systematically remove the barriers that can hold back disadvantaged students.  Where I see it used effectively, it’s spent on boosting attendance, working with parents, tackling illiteracy, 1:1 tutoring, ensuring fair access to trips and providing healthy food.  But this recent DFE report tells us that, on average, schools spend their Pupil Premium funding on 18 separate interventions.  I fear this indicates a lack of clarity and precision about the barriers our disadvantaged students face and how to remove them.

If only the difference between state schools and private schools was as simple as the quality of teaching, the facilities, or the after-school clubs.  Peer effects are tougher to tackle, but exploring these peer effects, combined with a systematic and integrated approach to removing the barriers our poorer students face, might help us bridge the gap, or at least select the materials needed to build the bridge.

If Gary Neville Worked in Schools

With his precise analysis, brutal honesty and no-nonsense demeanour, Gary Neville would make a brilliant teacher and school leader.  This podcast provides sharp insight into how Neville thinks about football.   I wonder if there is something in his approach that might improve our understanding of schools.

Schools and football clubs have a few things in common.  Both are subject to impassioned analysis.  This analysis often presumes that football managers and school leaders are in full control of their domain. The myriad factors beyond their grasp that also contribute to success and failure are ignored, such as the performance of rivals and the dubious judgements of officials.

Both school leaders and football managers are subject to a level of accountability at odds with the nature of their occupational field.  This accountability presumes that all schools and all football clubs can be successful.  Yet half of all schools will find themselves below average in performance tables each year, just as 10 premier league clubs will find themselves in the bottom half of the table at the end of the season.

Amidst the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we could dismiss any attempt at cerebral analysis of schools and football clubs.  How can leaders be expected to reflect, to ponder, to pause – when each week brings new threats?  How can leaders be expected to collaborate, to share, to trust – when the club next door is challenging for the 4th champions league spot, and the school down the road belongs to a rival academy chain?

And when sorrows come, they come not as single spies but as battalions.  Marauding battalions from distant lands, via international competition and foreign coaching methods.

In such conditions, brute pragmatism and cheap cliché could prosper, and often do.  Managers demand more and more from their overworked charges.  If only they could run that extra yard, go that extra mile, give that extra 10%.

But amidst the bluster there is a place for cool analysis.  A place for those who seek patterns, logic, meaning and connection.  Gary Neville’s passion for proper analysis sets him apart from the superficial punditry we were used to.  “Goals don’t interest me” he says.  He’s more interested in the patterns of play and micro-moments which change the course of a match.

At the risk of stretching my respect for Neville Neville’s eldest son a little too far, here’s 6 things we can learn from Gary Neville to improve our understanding of our schools.

  1. Start with the Big Picture

When working for Sky, Gary Neville watches the first 20 minutes of games on the ‘boot room camera’ – a stationary camera which provides a birds-eye view of the whole pitch.  While the rest of us follow the action, Gary gains an overview of the formation of both sides and the flow of the contest.  Once he’s grasped the shape of the game, he turns to the standard camera and watches the play unfold.  Having understood the big picture, he can focus on the finer details of the match in front of him.

Often with schools we home-in on the small details without understanding the bigger picture.  RAISEonline tells us that Maths results have slipped, but it doesn’t tell us that these are still the best maths results in an area with a chronic under-supply of maths teachers.  Performance tables tell us that Y11 results have stagnated, but they don’t tell us that students are now following a more challenging curriculum.  Before grappling with the finer details of a school, we should take a leaf out of Neville’s book and seek to understand the bigger picture.

  1. Spot Patterns

My job involves visiting schools and providing feedback to school leaders.  I’m keenly aware of the danger of offering superficial feedback on things which are easy for me to spot, but which don’t get to the heart of the challenges faced by the school.

Neville faces a similar challenge in the Sky studio.  Most games will yield talking points on which to ponder – goals, red cards and dubious decisions.  He could easily get away with describing these big incidents, but Neville interrogates the dynamics operating beneath the surface: “Patterns are important to me … When I see things once, I accept it as a mistake, when I see it twice I think ‘hmm there’s a problem developing there’ … you see it three or four times, and you’re in, two-footed.”

“If you’re going to be critical of someone, make sure you’re right, and make sure you’re supported by the facts”, says Neville.  Anyone who passes judgement on schools, or on teachers, should take note.

  1. Get People to Think for Themselves

Neville talks about ‘periods of uncertainty’ in a football match – pivotal moments in the aftermath of a goal, or a big decision, or simply a period of frenetic action, in which both teams are exposed and stretched.  He encourages coaches to develop in their players the devolved intelligence to deal with situations as they arise.  A right-back over-ran by the opposing left-winger should ask his right-winger to drop back and support him for 10 minutes.  He calls on players to reflect on their performances and question what they could do better, to build up a bank of knowhow which they can use to respond situations as they arise, during the freneticism of the match.

The link to teaching is obvious.  Lessons don’t usually unfold as we expect.  Perhaps knowledge from previous lessons isn’t as secure as we thought; perhaps the new material that we’re presenting contains one tough concept too many.  This is when we need to encourage teachers to live in the moment of their lessons, to spot misconceptions and obstacles and respond appropriately, ditching their plan if necessary.

  1. Share and Learn

Gary Neville: “If you said ‘find ten videos of Alex Ferguson’s coaching sessions’ you couldn’t find them cos they don’t exist.”  Neville suggests that the FA should record videos of sessions led by great football managers in order to share these with aspirant coaches.

Similarly in teaching, every school in the country contains its share of brilliant teachers.  But if we asked for 5 great lessons on how to teach Pythagorus, where would we find them?  Thanks to Doug Lemov and Harry Fletcher-Wood, we might have half a chance, but we need to do more to capture the things that great schools and great teachers do.

  1. Avoid Imitating Success

Too often in schools we seek to emulate the visible signs of success, unaware of the hidden habits that lie beneath.  We follow the example of Finland, only to find that Finland’s success was based on distant reforms, and that recent policies have seen its status plummet.

Neville laments ‘copycat coaching’, and the obsession with the tactics of the most recent country to have won the world cup.  Was Spain’s recent success due to its ‘tiki-taka’ style of play?  Surely it’s more likely that changes to coaching methods in Spain in the 1980s yielded a crop of players with great touch and technique.

We can protect ourselves from chasing success by investing over time in the things that we know will make a difference: attracting talent into the profession; investing in evidence-informed CPD; providing a coherent and challenging curriculum; eradicating disruption from our classrooms

  1. Being Tough Doesn’t Mean Being Heartless

What do you do when the derelict building you’re turning into a luxury hotel is occupied by homeless people?  If you’re Gary Neville, you allow the squatters to stay – as long as they promise to look after the place.  In business, football and schools, being tough doesn’t mean being heartless.

Soccer and education are tough to make sense off.   They’re both susceptible to animal spirits – confidence, momentum, belief.  Both domains seem to spit out winners and losers; neither respond well to cold analysis or deep reflection.  But Gary Neville shows that if we ask the right questions we can get beyond the superficial punditry that will otherwise pass for wisdom.