Known unknowns

I’m currently reading Tim Shipman’s ‘All out War’, an account of the 2016 EU referendum. Early on he suggests that three of the major actors in what would become the dismal drama that has soaked the social and political stage for the last 18 months were influenced strongly by their earlier personal experiences. Chancellor Merkel, he suggests, was strongly in favour of free movement of people after experiencing the restrictions of growing up in East Germany. Party-hopping Douglas Carswell’s upbringing under Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda developed his sense of ‘libertarianism’ and Daniel Hannan’s viewing of an interview with the Latvian foreign minister who claimed ‘Yes, Latvia is now more independent than the United Kingdom’ cemented his desire to leave the EU. It seems trite to point out that our past experience and perception colour our worldview and ideology, and perhaps the author and/or people involved are overestimating the importance of these events in moulding their attitudes. Regardless, the idea that personal experience influences decision making processes and ideology deserves consideration.

Across the country right now eager Year 13 students are no doubt practising their double-feet-raised jumps in anticipation of A level results day, and newsrooms across the country are breathing a sigh of relief that they’ll have some stories to fill up August’s usual barren pages with stories of exam results. This year of course sees the debut of not only the new two year A level but also the English and Maths new GCSE courses. The press results post-mortem will not even wait until the corpse is cold before diving elbow deep into the guts of the school system and providing post-hoc reasons why some schools outperformed others. But even if we are sceptical of such initial snap judgements, the uncomfortable truth is that schools do perform differently. Describing the differences and even forming hypotheses to explain these differences is nothing like as difficult as being able to demonstrate and test the hypotheses to be valid. Not that it will stop people basing local and national strategies off such untested hypotheses (or ‘stories’ if we are being uncharitable). If you are in the unfortunate position of being in a school where results are less than hoped for in the next few weeks then being able to maintain a current long-term strategy may not be viable depending on external pressures, primarily Ofsted. But on what basis are decisions made to make changes?

Like many people I tend to view these problems through the lens of my own academic background, essentially scientific and specifically biological (other viewpoints are most certainly available). One aspect of biology that does lend itself well to these issues is ecology, which boils down to the study of living things in chaotic and changeable environments. Indeed, I’m not pulling out anything new here: ecological models have been used for many years in politics, business and social interactions. The basic building block is the idea of an ecosystem, the entirety of living and non-living things in a particular ‘place’. The concept of an ecological niche is also useful here; effectively all of the conditions needed for an organism to live (space, food, temperature etc.) and things that could the organism interacts with (predators, disease, mates and so on). It’s not difficult to think of a school in similar terms; physical factors such as location, size, funding etc. all of the human interactions – resilience, aspiration, creativity. If we start comparing schools then how far should we take these ideas into consideration? All of these factors (and many, many more) can potentially impact the whole ecosystem of the school. The answer would seem to be that we often choose the factor that we have the most personal attachment. School A is doing better than school B? That’s because school A has a selection policy. School C not as good as school D? That’s down to the detention policy. Why aren’t pupils at school E not doing as well as those in school F? Lack of a creative curriculum. Any or none of these could be true.

And on it goes. Of course I have subtly missed something out in my descriptions which is what you are measuring things against. In a school ecosystem there is an outside ‘pressure’ that tends to force things in certain ways which is the exam system, or at least KS2, Progress 8, Attainment 8, Ebacc – whichever you want to choose. This is not about arguing the relevance or not of these measures, it’s enough for the moment to know they are there and are having an effect on school systems. So putting that to one side, on what basis are decisions made on how to make improvements? If there are so many factors involved in a school, which are the key ones that will make the biggest impact on students? I think the problem here is that schools ecosystems are inherently ‘chaotic’ – each of the factors that make up a school ecosystem are confounding, in other words changing one thing can affect everything else. This is of no surprise in the social sciences where everything studied is pretty much a chaotic system but seems to be rarely addressed. To give an example, ex Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw rose to fame as a result of tremendous success1 at Mossbourne Community Academy before taking on the role of Ofsted Chief Inspector. His views on discipline are pretty well known. Is that all we need to transform every school into a Mossbourne? Perhaps. But on what basis do we dismiss all the other factors that were involved in the Mossbourne ecosystem? It is not only possible to bring in high discipline regimes2 , it’s been done, only with varying success3. If it was truly only the discipline that was needed it should be easy to replicate. Yet it doesn’t. The creation of a high-discipline (however you wish to define it) system is dependent on and will interact with all of the other parts that make up a whole school (see current retention issues). This is not to suggest that it can’t work of course, only that making changes can me more difficult than it may appear based on personal experience.

Though it might help to put a number on each of our confounding factors in schools to allow better comparisons in practice it’s very difficult. It is done to a degree, for example measures such as Ever 6 and IDACI do this, but again only partly measure complex phenomena. Is the experience of a FSM pupil in Richmond the same as a FSM child in Blackpool? Probably not. It might be enough to simply accept that the school ecosystem factors are there and they all potentially have an impact, the known unknowns. What I suspect does make some changes easier to implement is when a school ecosystem is already relatively stable. In ecological terms, a stable ecosystem doesn’t change much from its average state, or if you like is resilient to change. It’s difficult to pinpoint one thing that is responsible for a school’s resilience (again I stress it is probably the interaction between the factors that is important), yet some examples are fairly easy to identify. The schools that will year on year tend to get great results and great outcomes for their students no matter what changes in curricula, staffing and so on. I’, not suggesting for a moment staff at these schools are having an easy life (I’ve know them and they aren’t) or they aren’t doing a great job for their students, but to compare it to a ‘less stable’ school in the same way is unfair. You may well have your own ideas about what factors make the main difference between stable and unstable schools.

If I was to pick out the main factors that would influence a school that also have the most positive interactions with other factors I would group them under ‘student attitude’, the nebulous grouping of behaviour, motivation, empathy and aspiration. Of these behaviour is the one most easily influenced by a school though is still difficult to get right. It’s not so easy for example to have zero tolerance policies that result in high permanent exclusion rates in a county with a large area and low density of schools. Where are your excluded students to go if the nearest school is ten miles away? If you response to that is they shouldn’t have got in trouble to start with I have no answer for you. Doing anything (or nothing) will have an effect on a school because external factors are also in play (curriculum changes, budgets, retirements…). Come results days there are going to be Headteachers across the country contemplating making difficult choices and I don’t envy them. They need to have some rationale for the choices they are about to make, and in a chaotic, unstable system it’s hard to know what the outcomes will be. Some will be retrospectively lauded for their choices and others will lose their jobs. The human tendency to pattern seek and create Just-so stories to explain our triumphs and dismiss the failures of others will show up again. Most of the cases of major school improvements I’ve seen have been the result of in some part putting controls on a couple of the confounding factors either by managing intake (take that how you will) or manipulation of curricula (likewise), an option increasingly unavailable as Ofqal stumbles blinking into the sunlight after a decade asleep. The dull, uninviting answer in most cases that the best outcomes for students come from the daily grind and consistent efforts of staff across the school. Some schools find themselves in the ecological situation described by the Red Queen hypothesis, where they have to keep running as fast as they can just to remain in one place. I hope we aren’t running out of staff to throw into that particular meat-grinder.

Good luck with your results.


1 your definition may vary

2 see note 1

3 see note 2


Author: Mr Whellan's science

Nomadic science teacher

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