In 2005 I became an Exams Officer, a modern job created by New Labour's prodigious investment, that has an ancient flavour, being governed by the seasons. In fallow times I was in charge of tracking, the collection and analysis of internal assessments and so I came to the most interesting question in Education. Why do poor children often make such poor choices in their approach to school, when they know the economic consequences of those decisions, and when so many professionals are dedicated to changing their path?
By day I hounded teachers for overdue assessments; all teachers have been chased by a data minion like me, someone who, unlike their students, is always hungry for information. At night, I was reading about Milton Erickson, a pioneering hynotherapist whose approach was based on respect for his patients' beliefs, however different they were from his own. Erickson said that 'everybody makes the best decisions within their knowledge and understanding of the world.' So I asked a different question. Why are these children making a good decision to fail?
Imagine Jade, a working-class, eleven-year-old girl in English, sat watching her teacher hand back a writing assignment. In the past Jade's work has been of a lower standard than most in the class and it hurt, to see her inferiority in black and white. This time Jade didn't complete the task so she gets nothing and although everyone knows that if she had she would have got a low grade, that's not explicit, so her decision not to do the work has minimised her embarrassment.
We want Jade to try next time which would involve her putting in lots of effort and being rewarded with...still quite a low grade. It takes more than a week to learn to write well. It's much more embarrassing to fail at something when you've tried hard than when you haven't bothered. Again, from the perspective of minimising the pain school causes her, Jade's decision not to do the work next week is a good one.
So far we've considered Jade alone, but she's not taking this decision in isolation. Jade has friends who also don't work hard at school. School tells them they are inferior; it's the enemy. By working hard this week Jade would betray this principle of her friendships while reaching for a higher position in the social hierarchy as defined by the authorities. This decision comes with economic benefits but they are distant and uncertain; its social costs are real and immediate.
Jade's social networks go beyond school to parents, extended family, older people she respects and wants to emulate. Many of them will have had similar experiences of school so by choosing not to work Jade is conforming with their expectations and validating the choices that they made as children. Jade is making good decisions not to work hard at school just as Isabel is making good ones to conform to the expectations of her network by pursuing academic success.
For three years I collected the data that showed the results of these decisions and made them into spreadsheets and graphs. Then I mutated into a data consultant and started to visit different schools to talk to them about their results. The conversation always began with the school's story, the tale it uses to explain itself. In good schools the story is about the school, for example, 'we make good behaviour our highest priority' or 'we intervene whenever we find underachievement'. In bad schools it's a story about the children - like 'ours are too foreign', or 'too white' or they come from 'broken homes'. Then we would look at the data, the Raise Online Full Report, produced by the government annually for every school. I liked to start with the expected vs actual scatter plot. Here are two, one from a school whose performance was significantly above average and one that's significantly below. The x axis, expected performance, is based on results at KS2 adjusted for other factors which affect educational outcomes like gender, race, eligibility for free school meals, English as an additional language etc (calculations from the now defunct Contextual Value Added).
What's striking to me is how similar these graphs are, to each other and all the other examples I saw. In the successful school a greater proportion of the dots are on the right hand side of the graph (better intake) though they are also doing a better job of pushing them above the line. In both schools there are fewer dots on the left but they tend to be a long way off their expected level of achievement. All those different schools, with their different contexts and stories, produced the same pattern of achievement, because Jade's decisions are good ones regardless of the school she attends and every school has its Jades.