Monday, 14 January 2013

Some sanity on study leave, please

Whatever happened to study leave? Cutting study leave prior to exams - a drift which has happened at different rates in different schools, but all gone the wrong way over the past decade or more - was motivated by several different reasons: one idealistic-if-misplaced, one spinelessly convenient, one exploitative - and perhaps a depressing fourth. Importantly, the agendas of developing independent learners and ending study leave are explicitly opposed, despite the claims of the cancel-study-leave-brigade that learning is improved by their actions.
First the idealistic argument for cancellation: students sent on study leave often simply don't study. They doss around. They waste time. They play games. Etc. (I don't know where this comes from. I studied hard during my study leave and so did almost everyone I knew. Slouched on the sofa with the TV in the background while I scribbled, and a pack of biscuits beside me, may not have looked entirely studious to suspicous eyes, but I promise you it was going the way I knew best for me. I still defy anyone, decades on, to take me to task on the plays of Brecht, trigonometry or the correlation between safe playgrounds and the social class of an area. And in fact a majority of my current students and tutees rail against being forced to attend "pointless revision lessons when I could be at home revising better myself.") But let's follow the argument through. "They don't study if given independence, so keep them in lessons until the last possible week / day / hour / minute before the exam," goes the mantra, "and they will do better." Well, maybe. (Actually, maybe not, not only because of the psychological issues of displacement and interference, which suggest late revision is counter-productive, but because the demotivating and distracting effects of being over-regulated may reduce home engagement: a half-engaged hour at school may prevent a focused hour at home. In addition, any teacher-led / -structured revision is inevitably useless for most of the class, and reduces student ownership of the process to zero.) What you're saying is that your whole philosophy is based on the inability of students to motivate or manage themselves, to take any initiative or show any independence, any responsibility for themselves. If this is the limited view you hold of them - what do you think will happen the moment they go to university? Or need to get a job in an astonishingly competitive and ruthless job market where all reasonable help or support has just been axed? If you view students as so ill-prepared to take responsibility for their own choices, actions and future - ye gods, what have you been doing with them for the SEVEN THOUSAND HOURS of education they have had in your institution? "It's too important to gamble with letting them study by themselves!" - No, it's SO important that they can do that by the time they reach exams that absolutely everything you do with that seven thousand hours should build towards it! Wood for the trees and all that. You aren't half as responsible for their grade performance in exams as you are for their future life prospects across the board: deep and lasting self-responsibility, not some quick fix, is the aim of schooling. School is short and life is long. Check the timeline. Scrap the revision lessons and send them home. Have a code of ethics and ideals which is longer than your immediate performance management target list.
Hordes of people right now will be reading the last few sentences and snorting with derision that I don't realise other forces are afoot. "But you can't let them have study leave," they chant in unison, "it would harm the attendance data!" Kindly unhitch your cart from in front of the horse. Tell your dog to stop being wagged by its tail. This blindly-obedient convenience ("I don't need to make a decision, some remotely-required data has made it for me") is ridiculous and merits no more comment.
The idealism is ill-judged, and the excuse of attendance data is thin: cowardly or stupid. But the significant reason for refusing to give study leave, the exploitation, is more malicious: keeping students in schools longer might be simply because ambitious careerist deputies / heads / chief education officers get to look tough by demanding more work for free out of their staff (and perhaps by pressuring students unnecessarily, too.) These people - not as rare as you'd think - tend to enjoy trumpeting how much harder their staff and students work than surrounding schools, and take pride in how much they can force teachers to hold compulsory revision sessions which pointlessly consist of demotivated teachers repeat-lecturing stuff students either know already or can't take in that way. The local press love it because it is "extra schooling" and because it keeps (a tiny tiny number of) "problem" students off the street. Politicians of all colours make press-release favourites of these leaders, just as they do of the morons who talk of teaching all through the summer holidays. As with most "do more and don't question it" initiatives, this is not value-free. Teachers did not spend May on the beach during the halcyon days of study leave now lost. They did slow down a bit and relax - to the kind of pace most normal jobs are at. And in doing so they gave themselves time to reflect for the first time in the year on issues of practice, programme design, building cross-curricular projects, how to change how they delivered courses next year. They improved because they gave themselves time to stop and think. Killing study leave kills that creative, gradual, reflective and renewing process. Impoverished practice and a lack of change and dynamism is the result. At its most extreme, heads brought forward the next school year to start in June, as soon as exams were underway for the departing year group. No time to stop and think at all. Either this is typical education management macho teacher-bullying, or (if you're a real conspiracy theorist) the aim of stopping the profession thinking was exactly the point - more unquestioning robots, please. I'm not willing to subscribe to quite such a JFK line on this but even so the result is staid and unreflective, exhausted practice, year-round. You could use the time instead, as a leadership team, to launch productive CPD and practice-sharing, and innovative projects - but that would require intelligent thinking and probably even a degree of professionally inclusive and democratic action at leadership level, wouldn't it? Nah... easier just to make them stay induring study leave...
So here's my thought, Mr. Gove - I think, presumably like you from the things you say, that students ought to learn to take responsibility for themselves in good time before reaching university or the workforce, both for their own good and that of the wider economy and society; that they and their parents are the key agents for ensuring they do their work, meet their obligations and achieve what they can; that teachers and schools should stop spoon-feeding increasingly low-grade and banal mini-chunks of information for students to be crammed with until the last moment. I agree with you on this issue at least that a student's socio-economic background isn't an excuse: everyone must step up to the plate at the final exam and be judged equally, and schools ought to be developing in students those real skills of initiative in everything they do ready for that public reckoning. I agree with you that schools should be more ambitious and devote their time with students to building the right mindset and values from day one, about independence and self-responsibility.
So I want a national dictat from central government on study leave. And no, I don't want you to ban it; I want you to make it legally COMPULSORY at all schools studying UK syllabi, in the UK or abroad. I want schools to be told that no student is allowed to be taught, mentored, lectured or otherwise provided-to, in person or remotely, by any school or any staff member of a school, from a point, say, two weeks after Easter in their exam year. All schools would be obliged to follow this prescription as simply and absolutely as they are obliged to follow any other exam regulation - and always do, to the letter, so - critics - please don't pretend it's unworkable.

And the result? Instant level playing field between all schools and all students, with the message: it's down to you. Instant requirement for schools to shift their whole focus - however they do it - to the development of independent study skills, self-motivation, and good planning, rather than force-spoon-feeding content repeatedly. And with the freed-up teacher time - as well as allowing some reflection, planning and thinking time - you could massively increase your three Rs direct tuition to younger students, with every teacher of every subject sent to do one-on-one literacy and numeracy support for younger individuals at more influence-able ages - or send every teacher in the country on a IT coding course, if you like - or to learn Mandarin; or triple the Work Experience opportunities for all fourteen year-olds. Or get teachers to team-teach in other subjects and learn a wider range of skills from one another. Or create a ten-week window of wider activities and enrichment for year groups remaining in school. Etc. So make study leave a fixed legal requirement with a set date for all schools. Go on, Govey. I dare you.
Of course this won't happen, and the true reason is horrific: the other, not-to-be-mentioned purpose of keeping students in classes until the hour the exam starts is social control: teachers and schools are cheaper and more effective than policing the streets, providing youth facilities or expecting parents to take the lead with their own children. People believe, but fundamentally won't be caught saying, that they think that study leave leads to students running feral in the streets of sleepy market towns, grunging around / skateboarding / nicking stuff from Tesco / terrifying old ladies and / or generally being drunk and groping one another irreverently by the Cenotaph. Far better to keep them in school until the last possible minute. Examine for a moment the premises that underpin this philosophy:
  • schools have the capacity to, and should function as, places of restraint to keep dangerous characters out of the public space - i.e. schools are prisons
  • no-one else wants responsibility for our youth - not police, local councils, employers or parents - not hard to see where the current youth unemployment figures come from, huh?
  • young people are predominantly likely to be a danger to society rather than an asset - the litany of alarm (cf James Arthur's work - now running the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values at Birmingham University)
  • we don't expect schools to have inculcated any independence or focus on self-managed learning into students in all of the years they've had them...
  • ... and we're going to reinforce that negative presumption and poor practice with a constant insistence on no-study-leave which compounds all these negative messages about the function of schools and the incapacity of both schools / teachers and young people themselves
Clearly, no study leave is idiocy. It disembowels (and advertises the powerless disembowelling of) any effort towards using education to develop independent initiative in young people. What else could education possibly be for, if not independence and the building of one's own capacity to meet the world? How much more wrong could we possibly get it? And all because we think - "don't give study leave or they leave their study!" - we're doing it in the interests of students. This is the definition of spoiling them - ruining them, in fact. Like my recent post about the flawed idealism behind attendance obsession - so much for the best intentions of orthodox thinking. Until we see that student independence and development of initiative and self-responsibility is the key, national, aim, no individual school that understands the damage caused by obsessive attendance orthodoxy could risk giving a sensible length of study leave when their competitors use every minute for crammed revision and social policing; it requires a brave rejection of the vile idea that schools are prisons / daycare centres for teenagers, that attendance is all-important, and a decisive shift to making students responsible for themselves. What we need is a national ruling from the Secretary of State to make study leave compulsory. Have you got the nerve, Mr. Gove?

Attendance is not the be-all and end-all

How exactly did we subscribe to the myth of attendance being more important than engagement? One of my biggest bugbears of the last few years has been the tedious puritan orthodoxy that missing a single day of school means doing badly. I am constantly bowled over by the incredible commitment of the people who so tirelessly chase the attendance agenda but in many cases something pretty unintellectual, and indeed intellectually dishonest, is happening - and, as so often in education, it's the abuse of statistics at the root of the nonsense. Yes, poor attendance is correlated with poor attainment. But (a) the correlation is much less notable below the highly problematic low levels - down at 80%, say - so you're not entitled to automatically extend the principle and argue that 98% is likely to mean higher attainment than 96%, (b) we teach KS3 students that "a correlation is NOT a cause" - why are we then so intellectually dishonest as to pretend it is in this case? and (c) we need to aim for people to internalise the value of education, not comply under threat and bribery with policing of trivia.

Each in turn. (a) is obvious. Don't generalise from statistical truths to untruths. This is clumsy maths. We know who the kids with attendance problems are and we should deal sensitively, and time-intensively, with that. But we don't need a chart in our classrooms, we don't need to read attendance percentages out monthly, and we can stop pretending that above 95% there are any meaningful distinctions. If I did the attendance figures for my KS4 classes in the last few years there are students that lost 15% of all lessons for self-important core catch-up tuition. They still went on to get better grades than in the core lesson they were topping up - which proves (besides the questionable delivery of some of that core programme) that you can miss swathes of lessons and still get A grades. How are the attendance junkies to explain that phenomenon, then? Stop pretending 96.9% indicates the imminent collapse of a student's educational future. And the public charts and lists displayed in tutor rooms can seem a little bit like medieval liturgy, the mindless congregation reciting by rote the expected response to the priesthood's formal lines - or perhaps like state-sanctioned public bullying. This is not developing a generation who are masters of independent thought. It is breeding compliant robots who think being physically present is more significant than being intellectually aboard. Computer says no.

(b) is infuritating. Level 4 Maths students get this. When two things are correlated, it does not mean one causes another. Usually it is due to a (less visible) root cause underpinning both. In this case the root cause is obvious - disaffection with school. And don't argue that can't be measured where attendance can - if you have any competent conception of student voice, or half decent pastoral leaders and / or support, and whom you trust - detection and even rough quantification of disaffection with school is simple to assess. Underlying the most serious non-attendance is problematic disaffection - but this does not underlie a 94/96% difference. Nor, by the way, is it conducive to long-term motivation of fairly able students to push them to attend when ill, leaving them switched off in lessons and lengthening sickness periods. Intellectual absenteeism and protracted low-level ill health are massively more serious problems in our schools than the odd day off.

I should be fair to the attendance enthusiasts. By accident, the system works. Tireless tutors, year leaders and assistant heads pursue attendance figures like the leprechaun's pot of gold, and in doing so tend to have endless persuasive discussions with students which end up on the magic question - why are you not attending? By accident, they strike oil. The correlation's root cause - disaffection - is discovered and addressed - but they themselves, as well as the students, remain trapped in the illusion of the correlation - that it is the attendance itself that matters. It is not. That's just a symptom. Go to the cause and bypass the surface feature. Meanwhile, it is becoming harder and harder to run meaningful school trips for the engaged as even students come to think they cannot afford a single lesson off.

Which leads us to the idea of internalised values. (c) is valid but I'm not going to dwell on it. I strongly believe that - and as a psychologist could write reams of evidence for why - token economies of bribery and threat are anathema to the long-term acquisition of internalised value-based independence in education. But I don't want this to be the thrust of my argument, because the other two claims - that there is an ignored root cause, and that attendance is only a real issue in a tiny proportion of cases - are more important. All this is without detailing much further the fact that an obsessive focus on attendance has massively increased the number of clearly sick children coming into my classroom, pale and sweaty, and sneezing all over other children just so they can get a Mars bar and a certificate at the end of term. It's like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme: treat the troops better and use some common sense.