Behaviour. Fibs, lies and statistics

The most recent Teenschooling blog began:

‘The latest annual DfE statistical release on exclusions, which reported an increase for the second consecutive year, divided opinion. Whilst many were alarmed by the increase from 5,795 permanent exclusions in 2014/15 to 6,685 in 2015/16, others felt that, at thirty five pupils a day, there should be no real cause for concern. “Equivalent to a third of a pupil per school annually. Not really that shocking,” observed executive director of Teach First, Sam Freedman. Without exclusion “system freezes” reassured DfE behaviour tzar, Tom Bennett.’

Note: False statements can be arranged according to their degree of falsehood under three headings; fibs, lies, and statistics.

Let’s take a cool look at what is being said here.

Recent data show the direct correlation between school exclusion and reduced life chances of those excluded children. In prisons, sleeping on the street, in young offender institutions, among children in Care, in mental hospitals and in morgues, the 1/3 of a child per school per year figure quoted by a company CEO multiplies up to a substantial majority of those people in distress.

Simply dividing one number by another to get a product and then publishing it counts as the worst falsehood, statistics.
Whether something is a ‘Cause for concern’ or “Not really that shocking” depends on your viewpoint. Presenting the issue as a statistic, 1/3 of a child disappearing from every school, makes a mockery of the experience of a child lost to their community and the distress of those who love them. Educational, social, judicial, and other services are interdependent and resources are finite. One child starting off down the ‘Pipeline to Prison’ by being excluded is ‘of concern’ for many reasons ( LA PRU £10,000/annum, private alternative provision £20,000/annum; youth custody: Secure Children’s Home placement £212,000/annum; Secure Training Centre £178,000/annum, Young Offender Institution £65,000/annum; prison £40,000/annum plus £65,000 police and prosecution costs), for family reasons (distress, despair, failed relationships) and consequences of loss of self pride in the child’s life (NHS costs, specialist mental health services, substance misuse, homelessness, worklessness).

‘Without exclusion the “system freezes” ’. Mr. Bennett is making an unsubstantiated claim. Fib, lie or statistic? Setting himself up as an expert, you would expect that he was in possession of a large store of knowledge. Knowledge based expertise is well known to be reliable, and he’d know that many countries do not exclude children at all, i.e. they have systems which do not freeze in the absence of exclusion. He would also presumably know that in Lincolnshire the great majority of schools do not exclude children, these do not “freeze” but run efficiently while retaining all children. Exclusion is used only in the remaining small minority, which is clear evidence that there is no systemic requirement for exclusion. In Lincolnshire a positive supportive strategy, incorporating an evidenced and structured approach to children’s learning about and changing their own behaviour, is resulting in a reduction in exclusions in 2016/17, the first steps in a multiyear strategy. In Gloucestershire different positive supportive action is reducing exclusions and there is no indication that the system is “freezing” there either. Viewing schooling as an algorithmic system, rather than a contextualised process carried out in wide variety of idiosyncratic provisions is clearly wrong, as is basing claims on this view. The claim that a school is a production unit in a overall manufacturing system, relying on the identification and rejection of a proportionately small number of faulty products for its existence is ludicrous. Fib, lie or statistic? There must be another category above statistic to contain this falsehood.

‘Divided opinion?’ I spent three years studying for an MA and eight years researching this area of education for my Ph.D. , all of which I paid for out of my salary as a full-time specialist teacher. I did this because as a scientist I felt I needed to get a better scientific understanding of a field largely driven by opinion and prejudice. What powered me up then still fires my boiler now. This field of ‘behaviour’ is an odd one. It’s not necessary to study at an advanced level to emerge as a ‘Behaviour Expert’, despite the interdisciplinary demands made in applying science to solving such complex problems. It is an unfounded belief, not a scientific fact, that exclusion of some children is necessary as a lesson in obedience for the others remaining in school, for fear of “freezing” the system.

There is no evidence that excluding one child stops all other children misbehaving, low-level disrupting, making rude noises in class. There is evidence that most children have no idea what permanent exclusion means, even when it’s happening to them, making its wider impact within school minimal.

The assertion that exclusion is the Last Resort, underpinning the notion that exclusion is ‘a necessary part of a functioning school system’ that some children are so fixed in their ways, in intelligence, or potential or whatever you might call it, is based on a false premise. That idea went out with the ark. The plastic brain concept came into the field decades ago and has strengthened ever since. As teachers we depend on it. If it were fixed there’d been point to education because there would be no such thing as learning. My research and practice demonstrate that by taking an approach that foregrounds a child’s agency, resourcefulness and self-motivation in place of external control and punishment engages the potential of the plastic brain to reorganise, to think differently and to re-engage with the rigours of school. Applying science to behaviour.

Science and behaviour in the same breath, eh?

Whatever next!

Next blog: A story of success