Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Campus Fugit

📥  Comment

I watched [part of] the first episode of Channel 4's new "comedy" Campus which was filmed at Bath last year.  I was a bit confused though as I didn't find it funny.  Whilst i know that universities are not supposed to be amusing, I thought comedy was.  Might be an age thing ... .  However, I am not alone; that insightful bloke, Graeme Thomson, agrees!

 

Can you forgive him?

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The news that, despite its lowly position in passing league tables, LSBU is to try to charge its new UGs almost as much as Oxford (and Bath) shows the absurdist position of the new funding arrangements for English universities.  No wonder the man who used to be the Sage of Twickenham looks more like someone out of his Thyme (I know!  It's a rotten pun — like most of the ones you have to think about).

LSBU's position is that it needs to do this because all taxpayer funding for most of its UG courses has now been removed by the government, and it seems to me to be this element of the new settlement which is the greatest betrayal, rather than the hike in the top limit to fees.  See yesterday's Telegraph for a comment on that limit.

The original increase in fees to £3000 was based on the understanding that this would represent a partnership of sorts: funding by the taxpayer and by the student, based on the reality that both the individual, and society more widely, benefit from HE.  It was the rationality and justice of this duality that underpinned my enthusiastic support for the initial fee increase  — and the understanding that there would be bursaries, scholarships, and the like to defray the costs of this to those from less affluent backgrounds, and continuing attempts to attract them in the first place.

I wrote at the top of this piece that "LSBU is to try to charge its new UGs ...". Question is: will they get away with it — and will anyone ever forgive Vince – even though he's trying to fight back?

 

Adrift somewhere between Delight, Indifference and Despondency

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Last Friday's Bagheot Blog recalls a Punch cartoon from just before the second world war which shows a military chap sprinting from a government building to a waiting taxi and crying urgently: "To the Royal School of Needlework – and drive like hell!".   Miles Kington had this happening in the 1940s, but no matter.

It got me wondering where the military type would be going today; the Higher Education Academy, perhaps.  After all, both the Royal School of Needlework, and the Academy, are significant social institutions about which the general public knows little (and probably cares less), and yet each in their very different ways has an effect on people's lives – if only they knew it.  As it is, a quiet and polite indifference is likely to be a popular reaction.  Some might also think that both ought to be more interested in sustainable development than they seem to be.  I am one of those.

This may seem a harsh comment as far as the Academy is concerned.  After all, it has a dedicated sustainable development advisory group (I should declare here that I am a member), an ESD project, and it has now agreed that sustainability is to be one of seven strategic themes within the its new service programme starting in 2011.  The other themes are reported to be: internationalisation, assessment and feedback, employment, reward and recognition, retention and success, and flexible learning.

Some – pragmatists probably – will see this theming of sustainability as a significant indicator of a seriousness of intent: for example, it's being treated as seriously as assessment, etc.  I am not so sure and I confess that my first reaction was a despondent one: that sustainability is only being treated as seriously as assessment, etc., when it surely needs to be elevated to a different plane entirely, where it informs the Academy and all its works, and is not just another theme alongside many others.  So, whilst I am not despondent, I am certainly not delighted either … drifting, rather, in a choppy sea.

 

The Impact of Sustainable Schools

📥  News and Updates

The Department for Education has provided some data on the downloading of the "Evidence of Impact of Sustainable Schools" report that Elisabeth Barratt Hacking, Elsa Lee and I produced last year for the DCSF – with much help from the South West Learning for Sustainability  Coalition and others.  The figures are:

March 2010 – 197                    April 2010 - 929

May 2010 – 778                       June 2010 - 468

July 2010 – 287                       August 2010 - 245

September 2010 – 290           October 2010 - 322

November 2010 – 322            December 2010 - 188

January 2011 – 229                 February 2011 - 249

March 2011 - 205 (as of 24 March)

These sum to around 4400, which seems good as it is in addition to a lot of paper copies.  What is particularly encouraging is the way that the numbers have held up month by month, after the decision was made public not to support Sustainable Schools centrally: a testament to the support in the sector for sustainability in schools, perhaps.  We are told by DfE that of the 26 publications on sustainable schools, Evidence of Impact is the only document that will remain intact.  It will be relaunched on the Departmental website once DCSF branding and artwork are removed.  Let's hope it proves useful to the newly launched Sustainable Schools Alliance.

 

Lament for History's Lost Narrative

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Sitting in a Hay-on-Wye tea shop, reading (what else?) The Guardian, I come across Niall Ferguson's recent blast at school history teaching in the face of what seems like complacency by Ofsted who said in a recent report:

"There was much that was good and outstanding.  ... Most pupils enjoyed well-planned lessons that extended their knowledge, challenged their thinking and enhanced their understanding."

One of Ferguson's complaints is that young people don't know very much history any more — actually, that history undergraduates – well, actually those at Cardiff – don't know key events, places, times and actors: think, here, the Armada, Waterloo, Boer War and Victorian prime ministers.  Another issue is that, in Ofsted's words:

"some … found it difficult to place the historical episodes they had studied within any coherent, long-term narrative. They knew about particular events, characters and periods, but did not have an overview.  Their chronological understanding was often underdeveloped and so they found it difficult to link developments together."

The only thing wrong with this observation, Ferguson says, is that Ofsted seems to think it applies only to primary school pupils, whereas it could equally well be applied to those in secondary school – and students at a good few universities, too.  The inspectors note elsewhere that, in 28 of the 58 secondary schools they visited,

"students' chronological understanding was not sufficiently well developed: they had … a poor sense of the historical narrative".

Ferguson says that this is hardly a minor deficiency.  He also notes that some young people are actually ceasing to study history at age 13 and wonders what's going on.  Nothing new here, I thought.  I 'dropped' (odd phrase as I'd never really picked it up) history when 13 because of the demands of the option sets, and yet I know all the dates, places, actors and events that Ferguson mentions — and a lot more besides; all self-absorbed in the intervening 50 years.  Largely because I was interested and curious, I suspect.

Mind you, whether I have an adequate sense of the historical narrative, is another question, as this is the essence of history for me: where have we come from, and how and why, and what does this tell us about who we now are, and who we might yet be.

So many gaps to fill ... .  It's a good job there are people like Ferguson, Sharma, Starkey, ... prepared to go on TV to help.

 

ESD in Schools to be Compulsory

📥  News and Updates

In a surprise move today, Michael Gove has announced that a study of sustainable development is to be made compulsory in English Schools from September 2012.  The Department for Education has confirmed that there will be three elements to this: [1] sustainable development theory and practice; [2] the history of sustainable development; and [3] sustainable development across the world.

Asked who would teach all this, a DfE official said: "There will be compulsory retraining of teachers.  Schools will have to designate 15% of their teaching staff a year (for the next 5 years) to attend residential courses run by the three universities who top the People & Planet green league tables".   When asked what had prompted this move, the official said that Mr Gove had inadvertantly read one of John Huckle's old pamphlets whilst stuck in a traffic jam on the M1.  Apparently this had been slipped into his ministerial box by a senior civil servant who was one of Huckle's old students and who had been waiting for just the right moment.  The epiphany was complete when Gove attended the launch of the Sustainable Schools Alliance last Tuesday disguised as an ordinary person.  Asked what would be taken out of the curriculum to make way for all this sustainability stuff, the official said that this was the wrong way to think about it; it was rather that the curriculum was being re-shaped with sustainable development at its core.   "Nothing will be the same again", they said.  Sadly, I'm told that the official denied that Huckle was to be brought out of retirement to head a combined Ofsted / TDA.

What some students have to put up with

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I have just read, with some despair, an academic's post-UK budget posting to the SHED-ACT [Sustainability in Higher Education Developers Act Network] list serve.  This is what it said:

I'm sure by now many of you will have picked up the latest use of 'sustainable development' in the UK Budget to mean industrialisation and economic expansion: "we will expect all bodies involved in planning decisions to prioritise growth and jobs, and we will introduce a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is yes." (George Osborne)   Last week there were strong comments on this list about the document "Manstreaming Sustainable Development: the Government's vision", particularly bits of it like this:  "Our long term economic growth relies on protecting and enhancing the environmental resources that underpin it, and paying due regard to social needs ... We ...will outline how Government will seek to maximise economic growth, whilst decoupling it from impacts on the environment." (UK Government Feb 2011)

It's worth tracing this back, because it echoes Brundtland's discourse from so long ago: "Sustainable development involves more than growth.  It requires a change in the content of growth, to make it less material- and energy-intensive and more equitable in its impact." (Brundtland 1986)   Except that Brundtland was talking about "developing" countries, not "developed countries".  Taking the term 'sustainable development' from genuine efforts to improve the lives of people in poor countries through economic growth and environmental protection and applying it to rich, over-industrialised and over-consuming ones instead was a sneaky rhetorical move.   It could be argued that it makes no sense at all to talk about 'sustainable development' of a university campus, a business, or a country in the already 'developed' world.  Instead, the overriding priority is on contraction (i.e., contraction and convergence) - or more precisely on finding ways to give people employment and fulfil people's needs which still 'work' while the economy is shrinking, which it will undoubtedly do anyway because of peak oil and ecosystem destruction.   I know the conflation of SD with economic growth makes people involved in 'Education for Sustainable Development' uncomfortable, and we try to sidestep the issue by calling it 'Education for Sustainability', usually abbreviated to ESD none-the-less.   I wonder if it's time to stop and to say that Sustainable Development is for developing countries, and for people in already developed countries the priority is something different.  In the end there aren't and never will be perfect terms or concepts for what this 'something different' is - we had 'development' but it was flawed and we moved to 'equitable development', which was flawed and we moved to 'sustainable development'... if we feel that 'sustainable development' in the context of developed countries is also flawed then we may need to embrace other concepts, while recognising that they have their time and place and will undoubtedly need to be moved on from too.

For me, the 'Transition' movement looks much more like 'Sustainable Development for already developed countries'. It emphases reducing consumption, energy descent and fulfilling people's needs in ways that are less dependant on the global economy. And it's a bottom up movement, so the concept is less open to appropriation by dominant forces. That's why I've become involved in my local transition movement, but I'm very well aware of it's flaws, recognise the need for a diversity of approaches, and the need to move on from the concept of transition at some point.  Anyway, this email is just to distance myself from some of the concepts of sustainable development there are out there, because a permanent 'yes' to any kind of development of the countryside on the grounds of 'sustainable development' isn't where I'm at!

Where to begin!  I was tempted not to begin at all, as smarter people than me have noted that to comment is to condone something as worthy of comment, and hence to acknowledge its value.  However, let me run that risk as there is hardly anything in this egregious outpouring of angst with which I agree.

1.  The idea of sustainable development doesn't have to be read as an oxymoron, although many are determined to do this, and some academics have made a career out of it.

2.  Brundtland saw socio-economic development as [i] necessary and [ii] having to occur within environmental limits.  So, if it can take place within such limits, and without exploiting others, where's the problem?   The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (for which I do a little bit of work, let me declare) is actively exploring this through the idea of the circular economy.

3.  This bipolar division into developed and developing just won't wash: How do the lives and lifestyles of the middle classes in India and Brazil compare with the poor in the UK and Ireland – very well indeed thank you.

4.  Who's going to vote for economic contraction?  What a miserable idea.  Only the comfortable could ever begin to think of it.  This is not inevitable.  To pretend so is tendentious and rather sad.

5.  Who is going to be doing the "finding ways to give people employment and fulfil people's needs ..."? Clearly, not a market economy.. Then what ...?

There is one good thing though: it reminds me why I have nothing whatsoever to do with the beggar-thy-neighbour economics that the transition movement represents and the dominant force it would like to become.

 

UK Census Form Illustrates the Chaos that is FE

📥  Comment

As I read through the 2011 Census form I found myself having many of the thoughts about it that have been widely aired in the press, in particular wondering just how useful such a process really can be for social planning purposes. However, as I'm clearly not a good judge of that question, I'd best say no more.

Two things struck me quite forcibly, however:

[1] the failure to distinguish between an MA / MSc, a PhD, and a PGCE.  These, it seems, are all "postgraduate" if you're a censur.   What purpose is served by this deliberate confusion is hard to say – and anyway, a PGCE is usually only postgraduate in the temporal sense, and not a level one.  Maybe there's some nascent pique here: a resentment that my hard-won PhD is counted in with all those many, many MAs out there!  Surely not?

[2] Respondents are invited / required to identify their qualifications.  This is all pretty straightforward when it comes to GC(S)Es, A levels, and degrees (notwithstanding the MA / PhD confusion), but when it comes to vocational qualifications it's a very different story.   Because there have been so many awarding bodies and levels, when all the possibilities are written down it looks like an alphabetical obstacle course.  No wonder there's so much confusion, I thought.  So much is historical baggage, of course, but are things really different now?

As to the Census form, I am really looking forward to filling it in ... .

 

OECD Confirms UK School Grade Inflation

📥  Comment

In its recent economic survey of the UK, the OECD devotes a significant part of its comments to a critique of how grade inflation in tests and public examinations [SATS & GCSEs] has obscured a poor performance when compared internationally through its own PISA studies and the like.   The report says:

Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited in the United Kingdom.  Average PISA scores, measuring cognitive skills of 15–year olds, have been stagnant and trail strong performers such as Finland, Korea and the Netherlands.  The use of benchmarking in England is more widespread than in virtually any other OECD country.  Transparent and accurate benchmarking procedures are crucial for measuring student and school performance, but “high–stake” tests can produce perverse incentives.  The extensive reliance on National Curriculum Tests and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) scores for evaluating the performance of students, schools and the school system raises several concerns.  Evidence suggests that improvement in exam grades is out of line with independent indicators of performance, suggesting grade inflation could be a significant factor.  Furthermore, the focus on test scores incentivises “teaching to tests” and strategic behaviour and could lead to negligence of non-cognitive skill formation.

It goes on in this vein for several pages.  The bar charts in Figure 4 make for particularly depressing reading.  They show the rise of national grades set against the fall in international scores, and this is not just an English problem as even the much vaunted Scottish system is found at fault.  Meanwhile, Wales doesn't get a mention.

OECD is particularly concerned at how children from disadvantaged homes fare badly in the UK.  In paragraphs 25 and 26 they say:

Schooling outcomes in the United Kingdom are among the more unequal in the OECD area.  This leaves many students from weaker socio–economic backgrounds with insufficient levels of competence, which hampers their chances in the labour market and higher education.  Further reforms are needed to improve the outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to raise their life chances and overall productivity.

The unequal educational outcomes partly reflect a complex, multi–layered and poorly functioning deprivation funding system for primary and secondary schools in England.  The implicit compensation for disadvantaged students that the government provides to local authorities is only partially spent on disadvantaged schools and students.  This mismatch partly reflects the complexity of the funding system.  By moving to a less complex system and introducing an explicit pupil premium, the government has started to address these problems.  The premium is, however, relatively low in an international perspective and it is not clear that it will cover the extra costs of admitting disadvantaged students.  The government needs to ensure incentives are sufficiently large to incentivise schools to admit disadvantaged students.  To maximise transparency the government should consider increasing the pupil premium, within the overall budget constraint on public spending, and making it the only source of deprivation funding.

Indeed.  I have long thought that schools would compete madly for such children were the funding really to encourage this and enable dedicated and effective teaching.

The situation is summarises as follows:

Despite significant increases in spending on child care and education during the last decade, PISA scores suggest that educational performance remains static, uneven and strongly related to parents’ income and background.  Better educational performance could improve labour market outcomes, raise growth, lower the consequences of a disadvantaged background and increase social mobility.  Given the austere fiscal outlook, improvements have to come from higher efficiency rather than further spending.  More focused pre–school spending on disadvantaged children could improve skill formation.  Better–targeted funding for disadvantaged children combined with strengthened incentives for schools to attract and support these students would help raising educational outcomes.  The government is increasing user choice by expanding the academies programme and introducing Free Schools, but needs to closely follow effects on fair access for disadvantaged children.  The impact of increasing user choice oneducational outcomes is uncertain, but the government should experiment with proscribing the use of residence criteria in admission to local government maintained schools in some local authorities. Reforms to increase supply flexibility should be pursued.  All government funded schools should enjoy the same freedom in hiring and wage setting to level the playing field across different school types.  To better gauge progress and inform policy makers, schools and parents on educational outcomes, additional performance measures should be developed and steps taken to lessen the reliance on grades in performance management. Insufficient supply of high–quality vocational programmes and tertiary education study places hamper human capital formation and growth.  Stabilising and simplifying vocational education by more focus on high quality apprenticeships would support participation.  The government needs to find efficient measures to raise participation especially among children from low income families to replace the abolished educational maintenance allowance.  Further reforms to funding of higher education could lower taxpayers’ costs and help finance a needed expansion in the sector.

All very worth a read, and Chapter 4 deals with climate change policy ...


 

The Trouble with DfID is ...

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I've lost count of the number of discussions and conversations I have these days where someone starts a sentence in this way – and it usually ends, one way or another, with a complaint that DfID is [shock] promoting current government policy.  But DfID has always done this, and a major purpose of the development education that it has supported over recent years has been to win public approval for its policies – hence all those Brazilian Dance troups that the Daily Mail (and others) go on about.   And when there has been low public support, historically, for the idea of overseas aid, there are points that need to be made and ideas to be got across.  So, the problem now is not that the department has changed; rather, it is that the policy has – which is what so many people are upset about.   DfID is ok, it seems, provided it's 'OK'.   As for me, well, I am always uneasy about government departments promoting themselves through the education system, as this is not what schools, colleges and universities are for in a liberal democracy.  Imagine the uproar if the MoD ... .