On four types of love in education, and how we can find balance

loveOne of my favourite school mottoes is from Kristin School, Auckland, New Zealand.  It is “Progress with Vision, Integrity and Love”. Their choice of words is very interesting. Love is pretty unfashionable at the moment beyond Valentine’s Day, wedding fayres and soppy films. However love in all its forms is very important to the human condition. It would probably not be going too far to argue that, without love, we are completely lost. With this in mind, I am going to apply four types of love from Ancient Greek to the field of education to see what we find. I am trying to establish whether we can move education towards a more worthwhile 21st century model by thinking about the different types of love a bit more often in our daily practice.

Here they are.

  • Agápe
  • Éros
  • Philia
  • Storge

So how do we see each of these manifested in today’s educational system?


This is the ‘I love you’ type of love, love for spouses and children, and something we see in the reading a lot of people choose for Christian weddings from Corinthians I in the New Testament. It can even mean an unconditional love for God. Here is an extract from the Bible, and similar words appear in the texts of many other religions:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This kind of love is unconditional, enduring, and pretty tolerant. Where do we see this? In the eyes of the teacher as he or she explains something painstakingly to a pupil in the belief that it’s worth the effort. When the teacher writes careful comments on a pupil’s work, in the hope that this will help him or her. When a teacher gives up a lunch hour to go through work a pupil has missed. At its extreme, I think of the schools where teachers buy breakfast for children who come to school hungry, buy coats for children who come to school cold, and cuddle children who have fallen over. I also see it in the eyes of pupils as they look up teachers they admire. I see it in my students’ eyes, when they think of their favourite teachers. It’s in the eyes of parents as they affectionately wrap a scarf around a child’s neck, watch over their homework, or walk them to school. It is in the eyes of trainees as they start to model their professional behaviour on the very best practice they see around them. All this is Agape.


This can mean different things, but here I will take it to mean erotic love, the dark side of pupil/teacher relationships.  The stuff of tabloid headlines, of CRB and DBS checks, of Vetting and Barring, of List 99. In our society there is no place for physical love between pupils and teachers, and the penalties are harsh. Philosophically speaking, why is this? Perhaps it is because it is so easy for the vulnerable to confuse this type of love with one of the other types. And without clarity there is scope for manipulation.

There is also erotic love between pupils, of course. Anyone who has worked in a secondary school will feel this in the air, hanging around mixed with the aroma of hormones, cheap aftershave and hair products. An almost tangible smell. This erotic love takes two forms: the positive and the negative. The positive can provide a practice ground for adult relationships, and a space where adolescents can learn the rules of engagement. A liminal state, as they pass from companiable childhoods to higher stakes in adulthood. The negative can be the humiliation of the person they most admire, through the abuse of social networking, pornography, sexting, websex and harassment. This is something our society is not managing well, because we set a bad example. Teachers learn to recoil from physical contact from even their youngest pupils, for fear of accusations of abuse, which leaves everyone in schools confused about where acceptable boundaries might be in a more holistic sense. This is a work in progress for society, I think, and this is how Eros rears its head in our schools.


What is Philia? This is brotherly love, the sense of solidarity amongst teachers, amongst subject specialists, or amongst pupils. It can mean the affectionate or loyal feeling of an alumnus or alumna for their old schools. It can refer to the shared sense of enjoyment as people engage in a shared activity. Its meaning is captured in terms like Outreach, Communication, and Community. These are all buzz words, and all evident in policy documents, curricula, and prospectuses. They are easy to measure superficially, easy to value superficially, but very hard to know whether they are truly present, in more than a fleeting capacity.


Finally we come to Storge. This is the toughest of all the loves. This is about putting up with awkward people, especially if they are in your family. This is the teacher patiently enduring the disruptive pupil, because it is his or her job to do so while the pupil learns to conform.  It can mean the pupil putting up with classmates who are less than co-operative, or the head putting up with the teacher who is having a tough time at home and has become temporarily unproductive. It also means the teacher putting up with a colleague whose personality is radically different from his or her own, or the head putting up with the parent who is worried and aggressive. In turn, it can mean the parent putting up with the child who refuses to do homework. At an extreme, dear reader, it means this author putting up with an earlier Education Minister who confused helpful critique with harmful dissent. This is about seeing the long game, the bigger picture, and not always having everything on your own terms. This is Storge.


Having labelled the different types of love encountered in education, it’s important to seek to balance them. We have to face up to the fact that the emotional side of education is as important as the technical side. We need to spend more time thinking about the ethics of care vs the ethics of emotional neglect. This particularly struck me when my son was smaller, in a school nursery class at the age of three. I realised that when he fell over he had been taught to kiss his own knee in order to feel better. This left me in something of a dilemma. Is such teaching promoting independence, or does it in fact deny the human aspects of the relationship between him and his carers? Perhaps it is both. However conversations debating the matter are all too rare. We shy away from them.

This is where we need the term Pedagogical love, coined by Finnish academics Kaarina Määttä and Satu Uusiautti in this insightful article entitled ‘Pedagogical love and good teacherhood’.


We need to move towards a state of grace, a real balance between professional and personal involvement. Such a state of grace requires patience, care, insight and tolerance. Only then can our pupils achieve their true potential in all forms.



What’s worth learning? Curriculum confrontation!

Kari’s curriculum debate is likely to be one of the hottest educational events of the summer. Education ‘hipster’ beards optional, apparently. See you in Helsinki.




A Curriculum Confrontation 

A free, inspirational and up-lifting educational pop-up happening in the heart of Helsinki in the middle of the summer.

Three different learning models coming together to deliberately disrupt each other’s thinking. The potential outcome?  An optimal curriculum to educate children for a changing world.

Finnish curriculum reform 2016

The Common Ground Curriculum for international schools

European School – From Early Education to Baccalaureate

The City of Helsinki – Phenomenal Helsinki – the joy of learning and doing together



PLACE:European School, Helsinki, Bulevardi 18, 00120 Helsinki

DATE: Saturday, 15th of August, from 10.00 to 16.00.

TARGET POPULATION (150 – 180 places):

  • Educational hipsters,
  • The staff of the National Board of Education,
  • Teachers/Directors/Parents/Students of the Finnish, European, and International schools
  • Curriculum specialists

KEYNOTES (20 to 60 minutes each/English):

Kevin Bartlett (Director, International School of Brussels) is the Co-Designer and Co-Leader of two successful global…

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A response to Martha Lane Fox

petiteI like technology, I really do. At the age of 7 I was fiddling about with my Petite Junior Typewriter in my bedroom, trying to see how it worked. Then, if we fast forward, I can see myself at the age of about 10, looking at a ZX81 as it came out of its futuristic box and wondering what it was all about. Later I found myself running a technology department in a school and teaching primary school kids how to use early networks. It wasn’t long before I was stripping down old hardware and rebuilding it for fun, something that was to get me a grad student job at a Cambridge college one day, when they caught me surreptitiously soldering a decrepit RISC-PC motherboard with borrowed tools in the college workshop (I was on a research council grant and just could not afford spare parts in those days). Occasionally I produced a bit of low key software if there was something I wanted to do that other people wouldn’t provide. However that’s in the past now. These days I tend to keep my hands a bit cleaner and sit on a lot of technology committees and the like.

Like a lot of people, I probably get my interest in all this from my parents. My father was an engineer, although he bought that computer for my brother rather than me (boys being ‘better at Maths’ and all that). My mother was the first student parent at Hull University, and at the time was working on a pre-digital research project using the university’s punch card system to analyse the linguistic structures in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, to see if they were all authored by the people claimed (which would be going it a bit even now, I reckon). So I had the idea that computer technology was full of promise and possibilities. I also assumed that it was available to me, just as it would be available to everyone.

I was wrong about that. They will let me use it as a consumer, of course, and like everyone I have to put up with the vagaries of poor IT procurement, sloppy installations, and indifferent customer support. However working in the field, influencing the field, proves a lot more challenging. Let me give you an example.

Over the years, I have been to many IT conferences, and I am invariably one of a small number of women delegates at most, surrounded by literally hundreds of male delegates. One JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) conference I attended ten years ago was a real revelation. That time, I had gone as part of a group of women and there were about a dozen of us facing 200+ men (we counted). Once we had recovered from the sheer creepiness of JISC putting us all up in a chain hotel where the first thing you saw upon walking into your room was a rather, shall we say, exotic advertisement for no fewer than 6 hotel porn channels (aimed at men, of course), we braved the conference. It ended up being something of a meat market from our point of view, with drunken men frequently looming at us with propositions galore. Few men seemed able to have a proper conversation with us about technology, presumably as they were so distracted by seeing Real Women who weren’t relatives or conference organisers/booth babes. After 24 hours of this, we decided to try a little experiment. “How many women do you think are at this conference?” we asked an unscientific sample of male delegates. “Oh, lots!” they would reply. “Half the people here are women!” When we asked the same question of women delegates, the answer was nearer 10%. Which was the right answer, of course, and there’s the rub. Women in technology are still seen as an oddity, and if one or two appear into the daylight they are noticed more than men, so people think gender isn’t an issue.

I had forgotten about the JISC conference until last week, when I sat in a meeting to talk yet again about how online learning is the future, and if we just do x, y and z (in the past this has usually involved a migration from one meagre, poorly designed US commercial platform to another, carried out by beleaguered IT staff during long, dusty August nights in a university basement) then our future will be secure. My mind was cast back to a presentation someone made in that very JISC conference where they put up slides of each university’s network structures, and pointed out how incompatible they were with one another, and how online learning couldn’t get very far unless systems were interoperable and students were able to access their learning materials and university accounts for life. And I sat in the meeting last week and cited the presentation, and realized I had probably cited it half a dozen times over the years in half a dozen ‘big meetings’ about the future of online learning. And nobody had really done anything about the problem in the meantime.

Which is why I think we need to listen to the likes of Martha Lane Fox. What we have in the UK (and even to an extent in the US) is an horrific case of IT groupthink. This is why our systems don’t work very well, and why whole swathes of society are left out of the debate. Many of those in charge of our most influential social and political systems are technologically illiterate, with it being a joke to some (Ed Balls Day, anyone?) and unrecognised by others (hence the Cambridge University CAPSA accounting software disaster). Technology is seen as something done to us, rather than for us, by a group of male tech nerds and investors in a distant room somewhere.

I have one response to that.


Please consider signing Martha’s petition for a new public internet body for the digital age, which you can read about here.


#mydayonaplate – A post just for fun

I thought it might be amusing to join in with the latest social media meme #mydayonaplate. This is how a Senior Lecturer in Education forages throughout the day, in case any anthropologists are interested.


Accept cup of stewed tea with scummy surface from husband and check BBC News, Twitter feed and emails whilst shouting instructions about dress codes and PE kit for family members from bed.


Eat some cornflakes with skimmed milk whilst silently reminding self that despite the fact they taste of cardboard, at least they are not going to make self even fatter, unlike preferred breakfast of Bavarian sausages, pretzels and beer or massive bowl of granola with full fat Greek yoghurt and honey.


Sip at lukewarm overpriced skinny decaff cappuccino on grubby train wondering how it has come to this.


Shield eyes from the 101 snack outlets on arrival at station and give self a stern talking to about the evils of fast food. Ignore any smells of bacon.


Paperwork. Cake avoidance manoeuvre in office kitchen. Make self cup of tepid decaffeinated coffee with stolen milk from colleague’s carton.


International research student arrives with inviting snacks from home country as friendship offering. Try to ignore snacks but end up eating three. Make self cup of tepid decaffeinated coffee with stolen milk from colleague’s carton. Eat long life Granny Smith’s apple from office fruit bowl. Ignore slightly stale cheap biscuits in bottom drawer from last research team meeting, despite their enticing calls.


Enjoy healthy balanced hot meal of vegetable curry and rice in staff canteen for £4.75 but refuse to pay a further £1.75 for a tiny low fat yoghurt. Resist poppadoms and naan. Purchase massive four pint carton of guilt milk to donate to office kitchen to make up for stealing milk from colleagues previously.


Have been back in office for 40 minutes but already hungry again. Give self talking to.


Meeting with two green tea loving colleagues. Make some from special tea purchased in Beijing Airport on work trip. Drink it wondering what the attraction is, as it is so bitter.


Sit on train sipping at overpriced bottle of water whilst telling self off for not remembering own reusable water bottle.


Eat two small sausages, some peas, and a dollop of mashed potato with the kids, followed by two wrinkly Satsumas apparently left over from Christmas. Enforce conversation and staying at the table rule conversation with teenagers. Try not to express shock and amazement when teenagers load dishwasher willingly after meal without alpha male scuffle.


After putting youngest to bed, watch people being bumped off TV in the name of detective fiction, at husband’s behest, and do emails and Twitter posts on knee whilst drinking cups of tepid instant coffee at hourly intervals.


Go to bed, repeat.

OFSTED, moderation of inspection grades, and what we can learn from universities

InspectI’ll begin this post by writing about how assessment works in higher education, and then explain how this shows us potential shortcomings in the OFSTED system of grading schools, with reference to one Lead Inspector and a sample of 50 inspections.

In universities, we do a lot of high-stakes marking, so we have to be very careful about our processes to make sure they are transparent and defensible at all times. There are different ways of approaching this, for example second marking (when a colleague marks papers to check the original marks make sense), blind second marking (where said colleague has no idea what the original marks might have been) and even third marking (where the first two colleagues are in dispute, and another view is felt to be appropriate). These approaches generally apply to essay-based answers, projects, dissertations and reports. Marking is double checked by an external examiner, to ensure conformity with national standards with comparable courses, and any anomalies investigated.

For certain subjects, that might involve more scientific or mathematical answers involving technical or numerical content, there are techniques such as scaling that are typically used. This means that if a cohort of, say, 200 students all score uncharacteristically badly on a question, the pass mark for that question can be raised or lowered if it was felt that the original question was pitched wrongly in the context of the overall examination, as well as what is usually expected at a particular level. That way students get a fair and reasonable result, and standards do not fluctuate wildly if there happens to have been a change in the assessment team, for example. Again, marking is checked by an external examiner, and any scaling has to be justified to him/her in the context of national standards.

If an examination board really wants to probe assessment standards, it is possible to track how individual colleagues or groups of colleagues assess over time, in terms of a particular set of criteria, or statistical norm, depending on the subject under consideration and the group size. This then feeds into ongoing staff training. Academics tend to see assessment standards as an ongoing work in progress, routinely checked and altered, and underpinned by principles of fairness and parity. People take it very, very seriously indeed. This is why I am not being my usual jokey self in this blog post.

With this in mind, recently I spent some time looking at how OFSTED inspection grades vary amongst inspectors, and which factors influence this. To that end, I would like to present a case study of an individual inspector to give an example of quite how variable grades can be in comparison with a national norm. I am not saying this is the case for everyone, or making a pronouncement about OFSTED in general. I am just saying that, in this case, there is a case for OFSTED/Serco/Tribal to moderate grades internally, as part of ensuring professional standards are met. Then, and only then, can the public have real confidence in inspection findings.

My approach

  1. I carried out an internet search to locate all OFSTED officially published inspection reports with the same Lead Inspector (n=50), who has inspected primary schools for two different subcontracting agencies, but who does not appear to have been an HMI (a centrally employed inspector).
  1. I have gone to considerable lengths to find as complete a data set as possible, by digitally searching published OFSTED reports, with triangulation against relevant newspaper articles reporting school inspections. I was also allowed access to the Watchstead website to check the data, which was very useful (thank you, Watchstead).
  1. I logged the overall inspection grade given by this Lead Inspector in each case.
  1. I calculated the overall proportion of inspection grades in each category given by this Lead Inspector, in percentage terms.
  1. I compared this percentage to the officially published OFSTED average grades overall for all inspectors in each category, which were available on the OFSTED website.


        1. Some caution is required in interpreting the data, as a sample of 50 inspections means that one or two unusual incidences may skew the findings more than it should, more so than if we had a sample of, say, 100 inspections.
        2. The table below lists the 50 inspections carried out by the Lead Inspector over the last 9 years, and overall inspection grades awarded in each case. I have removed the names of the schools as it identifies the Lead Inspector concerned very easily and that is not the point of the exercise here.
        3. The figure below demonstrates the pattern of the Lead Inspector’s inspection grades over time. It tells us that in recent years, the inspector has become considerably more likely to award Level 4 grades to schools. This corresponds to a decreased frequency of inspections carried out by this Lead Inspector during the period 2010-2014, when the new regulations applied. Click the icon in the bottom right hand corner if you want to enlarge the chart/table.
  • As stated above, the inspection regulations changed after 2010, but the overall OFSTED proportions of schools getting level 2 or 4 has roughly stayed the same during that period.
  1. In the case of this Lead Inspector, the table below represents the proportion of grades given during  the period 2005-2013. The second column represents the OFSTED average for the same period. I have listed the 2010-2014 OFSTED averages in column 3, but I have not done so for the Lead Inspector as we only have data for fifty school inspections, so that seems unhelpful. Note: columns will not add up to 100% due to complex rounding.

                        Inspector   OFSTED 05-14    OFSTED 10-14

Level 1           10%                13%                            10%

Level 2          30%                50%                           50%

Level 3          40%                34%                           36%

Level 4          20%                7%                              6%

  1. It would fair therefore to conclude, with the caveat that this is a relatively small sample of 50 inspections, that on the basis of the publicly available data, this Lead Inspector appears to be around three times more likely to give a Level 4 grade to a school than the overall OFSTED average.

The problem with this is that we don’t know:

1. If this inspector is being specifically sent to schools in trouble, hence the lower grades. However it is usually directly-employed HMI that are sent to schools in trouble, as I understand it, rather than a sub-contracted inspector, as in this case (I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong).

2. If this inspector has become more or less reliable in terms of judgements over time, compared to the OFSTED guidelines and the opinions of inspection peers (I found many incidences where this inspector was working alone, in small primary schools).

3. How inspection grades are defended internally by inspectors to one another. And if we don’t know this, then we have no idea how accountable inspectors are for their decisions.

This is why OFSTED needs to tell us more about how its moderation processes work, or if it has none, then simply to implement some as soon as possible. Otherwise wild vacillations and inconsistencies will continue to make parents, teachers and pupils very nervous indeed. If surgeons can publish their personal outcomes, then surely so can inspectors?

How *not* to approach your doctoral viva exam. Or indeed your research.

hattujamiekka15_0If there were a league table of cool places to do doctoral degrees, it would have to be topped by Finland. It’s the only place I know where you are given a top hat and a sword on graduation (see picture), which is rather like being transformed into a rather elegant academic Ninja. Anyway, today I thought it might be amusing to upload a spoof viva script I use when teaching on doctoral courses. For those who haven’t been subjected to this rite of passage, a viva is an oral exam where you have to spend a couple of hours (at least) being interrogated fiercely about your thesis by two or more seriously clever people. This script shows how to get almost everything wrong in the exam, and describes what might be the world’s worst doctoral project by the world’s most unaware student. Do not try this research project at home.

  1. How did you choose this topic of study?

I thought it would be easy to get a tobacco company to sponsor it. Plus I have just given up smoking myself.

  1. Tell us a bit about your study, could you explain the title in more detail?

I can’t remember the title, it’s so long. Hang on, I have got it written on a bit of paper here. “Puff the Magic Dragon: Adolescence and Smoking Culture in the Secondary School Environment”

  1. What is the gist of your study? What is your ‘thesis’?

That there is still a very entrenched smoking culture in secondary schools, despite recent legislation. I have developed an idea based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, that in addition to social, cultural and intellectual capital, there is also a kind of ‘smoking’ capital that kids develop over time. They form a social identity as smokers, and base this on the smoking culture they see around them. If you like, this is almost a kind of smoking habitus, which is an all-encompassing identity as a smoker. I have linked this to Foucault’s work on the design of prisons and the relationship with control. I argue that schools are generally not very well designed, because pupils still find lots of places to hang out and smoke, which means the surveillance aspect of things isn’t working sufficiently well.

  1. What would you say is the main contribution from your study?

I have completely rethought Bourdieu’s theory on capital and shown that there are four kinds rather than three. I think this is so important internationally that I have started writing a journal paper for the Harvard Review of Education on this.

  1. What is NEW or novel about what you are saying?

Nobody has identified the existence of smoking capital or a smoker’s habitus before. If you are going to stop children smoking, then you have to nip this habitus formation in the bud, frankly, otherwise all the nicotine patches in the world won’t work.

  1. What methodologies did you follow and how did you prepare for doing fieldwork?

I have a friend who works in a secondary school in Harlow, so I carried my fieldwork out down there. I thought it was very important to do this discreetly, otherwise the school would try to hide evidence of pupils smoking, because of school policy. So I managed to get in one weekend to install Axia webcams in the key areas that my friend had previously identified as likely smoking venues. Then I monitored them remotely over the internet to track what sort of pupils used the smoking venues and how often.

  1. How did you think through or prepare for an ethical concerns you might have had about how you conducted the study? Did you not think of doing participatory research?

I did wonder about the ethical dimension of what I was doing, but I knew that an American researcher called Humphreys published an article with the title “Tearoom Trade” in 1970, which discussed his observation of homosexual men carrying out sex acts in public toilets. He managed to acquire really good data about sexually transmitted diseases which he was able to transfer to a later study, so it seemed to make sense to me to use a more modern version of the same methodology, and it seemed legitimate to base the fieldwork in school toilets and so on. I was also aware that Petticrew et al published a journal article in 2007 in the British Medical Council’s journal Public Health, about the smoking ban in Scotland, entitled “Covert observation in practice: lessons from the evaluation of the prohibition of smoking in public places in Scotland”. In the article they describe how complicated it is actually remaining incognito whilst carrying out covert research. That’s why I decided the webcams were vital for this project. Clearly if all these people are doing covert research, then it’s acceptable to do it if your reasons are genuine.

  1. What did you find out through your study?

I discovered that school toilets are only used for smoking during certain key periods of the day, such as during lessons, and that kids throw wet wodges of toilet paper at smoke detectors to make sure they won’t react to the smoke. During breaktimes and after school, pupils tend to smoke behind the school kitchens, and not the bike sheds as people popularly believe. Regarding the smoking habitus, it is more likely that girls take up smoking than boys, and this is generally because they are worried about putting on weight, and they think smoking will suppress their appetites. It is part of the habitus of being a modern young woman. Boys tend to do it to look cool and be part of the gang, on the other hand. I could hear all this over the webcams.

  1. Talk to me about the sorts of literature sources you read that led you or inspired you to study this topic.

Well, the main inspiration was probably the Humphreys ‘Tea Room’ article. There was also an article in the American Journal of Public Health called “The power of policy: the relationship of smoking policy to adolescent smoking” by Pentz et al in 1989, that looked at school policy towards smoking and whether it was likely to decrease smoking amongst adolescents. There was also a really great article in Social Science and Medicine in 2004 by Aveyard et al, that explored the influence of school culture on smoking amongst pupils. These three articles were the main inspiration for me. I read some books as well, but there aren’t so many of those. I am hoping to write the first.

  1. How did you collect, organise and manage your data? Did you follow any documentation/data set management procedures? What is your evidence base?

I observed pupils over the Axia webcams whenever I had time, by logging in remotely. I made notes in a fieldwork diary while I was watching, and referred to these notes when I was writing up. Really I was looking for good examples of my theories about design and control, and habitus.

  1. How did you analyse your data?

As I said, I selected the most interesting examples that supported my theories, and then made sure they were prominent when I wrote up the dissertation. I was a bit disappointed because most of the time, pupils weren’t actually smoking in the toilets, so I had to make the most of the few times that they were.

  1. How did you get access to your subjects of study?

I was lucky to have a friend doing his teaching practice in the school, and he organized things so I could set the webcams up. He cares a lot about pupil health as much as I do, and I was very grateful for his help.

  1. What would you do differently if you had to do this again?

I think it was a bit limiting doing it in only one school, so I would be inclined to find another school and use that as a kind of control group to show that what was happening in the first school wasn’t unusual in any way. It’s important to be scientific, even when you’re just looking at education.

  1. Where do you think your research leads? i.e., what next for you or your research agenda?

I want to disseminate the research as widely as possible, so I am planning to write a book about smoking in schools, and put some of the film clips up on my website. This is so school managers have an idea what is going on in schools today. Obviously I will anonymise the name of the school because it’s important to be ethical.

  1. What sort of supervisory support or guidance did you have – cause frankly, it’s not looking too good for you just now…. :-)

I had a supervisor for the first month, but I found that after I found it very difficult to get on with him because he just wanted me to spend the whole time in the library. So I didn’t bother going to supervisions after that. He wanted to read the final dissertation but I didn’t see the point, because I don’t think he really understood habitus in the same way as me, which would make him biased when he was reading it. So I can proudly say this is all my own work.

Do sponsored primary academies improve faster than local authority primaries?

Group of five happy children jumping outdoors. I remember the first time I heard the strongly asserted DfE claim that primary schools who become sponsored academies improve a lot faster than other types of school, such as local authority schools, and that this leads to impressive educational results. Wonderful! I thought. Just what we need! Magic formula! We will soon be a country of brain surgeons, engineers, philosophers and international diplomats!  Our literary canon will swell, our educated voices will rise in song, and our British hearts will beat with pride at having discovered such a simple answer to all our educational woes. I therefore decided to carry out a very small investigation into whether this stands up as a claim. Here is how I went about it.

  1. I have taken three South Cambridgeshire primary schools with broadly similar intakes and structures. These are Fawcett Primary School[1], William Westley School and Stapleford Community School. These represent schools starting from a high base in terms of their improvement.
  2. I have taken the three worst performing schools in the UK according to a 2009 BBC article based on official data, but which have stayed in local authority control rather than becoming academies. These schools are Willows Primary School, Bankwood Community Primary, and Bysing Wood Community Primary. These represent schools starting from a very low base in terms of their improvement.
  3. I have taken four examples of primary schools that have become sponsored academies. They are been chosen to give a spread of dates in terms of when they became academies, with two changing status in 2012 when there was a large increase in the number of schools being required to do this. These schools are Usher Junior School (now Priory Witham Academy, since 2008), Ashburton (now Oasis Shirley Park, since 2009), Downhills (now Philip Harris Lane, 2012) and Nightingale School, Wood Green (now Trinity Primary, since 2012). These schools represent a mix of both high and low bases in terms of their improvement. In other words, some schools were already improving quite rapidly before they became academies, whereas others weren’t.

Next I tracked each school’s KS2 SATS results in English and Maths[2] from 2008-2013[3]. I derived the data from both primary and secondary sources as the official reporting method has changed twice during this period and it is extremely time consuming to derive this information direct from the raw data. I am perfectly happy to be corrected on any of the raw data, by the way – just point out any errors via the comments below and I will upload a correction. However I am reasonably confident the data are reasonably indicative of the overall picture in each case. Finally I plotted the annual results for each school against the average for England overall. My findings were very interesting.  

  1. Improvement nationally in England in KS 2 English and Maths results has been relatively static between 2008-2013.
  2. Schools that underperform but which remain under local authority control tend to make rapid improvements once any underperformance is identified in the official data.
  3. Schools that underperform but which become sponsored primary academies tend to experience slower improvement once they become academies.
  4. Schools that become sponsored primary academies tend to experience a drop in results for 2-4 years before getting back to the original performance levels. The exception to this is Oasis Shirley Park, but this school experienced a particularly marked results ‘bounce’ after an initial steep drop from 2009-2012.

Therefore from this admittedly small, but carefully constructed sample, it looks as though underperforming schools remaining in local authority control are likely to experience faster improvement in KS2 results in English and Maths for many pupils, and avoid a 2-4 year dip in performance. Oh dear. Perhaps someone might like to check this against a larger dataset, just in case the sample really was too small to be helpful? After all, it would be very disappointing to find out all that public money was spent for no purpose at all.

Look below for my workbook, if you would like to see the data I was using or the chart I created to track improvement. Click on the icon in the bottom right hand corner if you would like the workbook to grow to its full size. As I say, it’s useful to know if there are any arithmetical corrections needed, so feel free to comment.

Footnotes [1] In the Fawcett Primary School data, the 2011 data are anomalous due to an unusual cohort of children (small class, extremely high levels of ESOL, most children in cohort there for <18 months). [2] KS2 English and Maths results represent one very crude measure of how a school is doing, which emphasis summative test performance, and the measure may be influenced by parents paying for private tutoring over which schools have no control. [3] In 2010 many schools did not submit results due to NAHT industrial action, so I have carried forward the previous year’s data in each case in order to populate the chart, as our main concern is with change over time.



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