Thursday, 24 February 2011

Education Matters

Jersey's state run secondary schools perform worse than almost all UK schools, according to figures released by the education department. The island-wide pass rate including the fee-paying and selective schools compares well with the UK. But take away their results and the GCSE pass-rates at the four State secondary schools fall dramatically. (1)

These are, of course, the figures that Deputy James Reed, the Minister for Education, didn't want to get out into the public domain. But Mario Lundy has a point when he notes that:

43% of our secondary pupils are in fee paying education and a further 15% transfer to Hautlieu.

Now - providing that is correct (and the statistics to back it up agree), then the national average of children at fee paying education is only 7%, which means that the spread of children over a broad range of abilities in the UK is much greater.

For Victoria College, for example, 35% of senior intake comes from state schools, and this is selected by an entrance examination.

Clearly, within the UK, many of the brighter pupils remain in the States sector. So there is good reason to believe that the situation in Jersey is quite different. The real question is:

Is it possible to take pupils with lesser ability and educate all of them to the same GCSE standard as the private schools? Or is there a plateau, beyond which most pupils are unable to go much further?

This brings up echoes of the debates about the fixed nature of IQ, which formed the basis of Sir Cyril Burt's work, and lead to the Eleven Plus examination. After all, if IQ is fixed, then the best strategy for an education system is to sort out the dull sheep from the intelligent goats, and educate them according to their ability. But Cyril Burt's data was discovered to have been largely fabricated, although such is the excellence of the peer review programme, that research which had taken place decades before - some going back to the 1920s - was not investigated thoroughly until the late 1970s!

A body of work notable for its warning signals was that of Cyril Burt, the psychologist who won the 1971 Thorndike Prize of the American Psychological Association. Burt's work on inheritability of intelligence, based upon studies of separated twins over a fifty year period (1913--66), reported correlations that were not just similar but identical, despite the increasing number of subjects in the sample. It was only after his death that parties examining the whole of his work brought the fraud to light.(4)

The problem, of course, with peer review is that when "assured results" confirm the expectations that most scientists reading an article want to hear, then the review process fails.

How did the fraud evade earlier detection? On a piece-by-piece basis, Burt presented plausible explanations, and when asked to share his data, he constructed it from published correlations. But inescapable also is that his conclusions about IQ and inheritance enjoyed a hospitable political audience, eager to embrace the findings about inheritability. (4)

There are clearly differences in a child's ability - but the factors which play into this are not just hereditary. The social background of the child may play just as important a role in providing the kind of role models and discipline in study for the child. It is not surprising that the schools which feature most poorly in the States sector in Jersey are those whose catchment area is around town, and where there are most children who are from a poorer background, or whose parent's native language may not be English.

A study in Scotland last year found that even within schools themselves in Scotland, that children from poorer backgrounds consistently performed worse at school:

Save the Children compared overall exam results with attainment by pupils registered for free school meals. The research suggested children from wealthier backgrounds performed about 60% better in exams than poorer pupils. The research indicated that the gap impacted in every council area and at every stage of school, varying from a 19% gap in Eilean Siar, the Western isles, to 102% in the Stirling area. Free school meals are provided in Scotland if parents are receiving help including income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance and child tax credits. (2)

The other impact on children in education is undoubtedly class size. Private schools consistently have smaller classes, while in States schools, this is often masked by looking at the teacher / pupil ratio. A standard definition is as follows:

Pupil-teacher ratios shall be calculated by school. The pupil-teacher ratio for each school shall be calculated by dividing the number of enrolled pupils by the number of full-time equivalent teachers assigned to the school.

That is an average, and like most averages, can be distorted. A very small special needs or remedial class in a States school can help to lower the average, and even make it look fairly good compared with the private sector. But that's the wrong figure being considered. The median is the best measure, and median class sizes, in terms of number of pupils, ensure that the class size is not disproportionally reduced by a few outliers.

Results showed that as class sizes became smaller there were more times when pupils were the focus of a teacher's attention, and more times when they were engaged in active interaction with teachers. This effect was found for all groups at both primary and secondary levels. It was also found that pupils' classroom engagement decreased in larger classes and this problem was particularly marked for the pupils who are already attaining at lower levels. This, in turn, was accompanied by teachers seeking to control low attainers more than other groups in larger classes. It is suggested that small classes can be a valuable educational initiative right through school, but could be particularly targeted at lower attaining pupils at secondary level. (3)

What is needed at the present is more information on two fronts. Firstly, a study of how much poverty and language difficulties overlap with the States secondary schools, and what the same distribution looks like in the private sector, and secondly, some information on median class sizes in both States and private sectors. Part of the problem may be structural, simply because of the nature of Jersey society, and the distribution of poverty, but part may also be because of insufficient resources in terms of teacher numbers.

The full paper is available at:
(4) Scientific Misconduct and Editorial and Peer Review Processes, Mary Frank Fox, Journal of Higher Education, 1994

No comments: