Secret Origins

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Who makes our nation’s education policy, do you know? Who decides how schools are to be structured and run? If you think you know, how do you know? Is it because you have seen a face on the television with a name and a title below it?

The architects of many policies in many government portfolios are unelected, you won’t see their names on your television screen and you won’t hear them give interviews. They advise the elected from desks paid for by party donors and direct them to distribute departmental funds to their allies.

Their allies use these funds to lay astroturf over patches of public and professional opinion in their efforts to prepare both public and professions for their pet policies yet to pass into law, along the way recruiting useful idiots.

These useful idiots, grateful for the imagined recognition and eager to seem important in the eyes of their peers, promote the aims and ideas of their recruiters across social media and via ticketed salons at which point you, finally, have the choice of calling them, their bosses & their bosses’ bosses out on their shit. You are the guardian of your pupils and your profession from shit ideas.

It should be said that the authors and administrators of these ideas are not, to counter one critic of this post, ‘malign’ but a mix of the self-interested and the ideological who have access to networks and resources which allow them to disrupt established systems in readiness for their restructuring along their preferred lines. That they can take profit in both is not necessarily incidental.

The Lawn from beyond the Stars!

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If you read the official researchED origin story you will be told that:

researchED is a grass-roots, teacher led organisation started in 2013 by Tom Bennett

This is the Ladybird version. In fact, researchED as a project was publicly proposed by Sam Freedman, former think-tank commander at the Tory Policy Exchange:

About six months ago Ben Goldacre and I were having a twitter conversation about how one might mobilise the burgeoning collective interest in research amongst teachers. We’d agreed that a grassroots conference would be a great thing…but that sounded like a lot of work.

It is true that Freedman, a former adviser to Michael Gove, made a markedly casual suggestion that Bennett should be in charge of taking this ‘grassroots’ project forward:

We know that Bennett was subsequently employed by the Department for Education as its ‘behaviour tsar’. What is also true but absent from the researchED legend is that at the DfE wheels were already in motion ostensibly to make teaching an evidence-based profession.

Bad Science

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Four days prior to Freedman’s tweet Bad Science author Ben Goldacre had produced a report for Gove’s DfE into the possibility of this very thing, making clear his position on the professional agency of individual teachers as practitioner-researchers in opposition to a model of the profession as the passive recipients of sanctioned research & practice:

Firstly, evidence based practice isn’t about telling teachers what to do: in fact, quite the opposite. This is about empowering teachers, and setting a profession free from governments, ministers and civil servants who are often overly keen on sending out edicts, insisting that their new idea is the best in town. Nobody in government would tell a doctor what to prescribe, but we all expect doctors to be able to make informed decisions about which treatment is best, using the best currently available evidence. I think teachers could one day be in the same position.

Following education minister Nick Gibb’s gushing endorsement of researchED’s preferred researchers, schools and regular speakers to its 2016 national conference I can only guess what Goldacre makes of the recent commercial incorporation of his notional grassroots movement at Companies House, nor its positioning of itself and de facto government appointment as research gatekeeper to the teaching profession. On the evidence of his quote above I suspect he might disapprove and be more enthusiastic about the individual research access afforded to teachers by the Chartered College of Teaching. I am open to correction on that, of course, but a cynical observer might conclude that the commissioning of Goldacre’s report by Gove’s team was motivated less by a desire to instantiate his advice than to borrow his authority in the run-up to researchED’s launch via Bennett who, while affable with experience of event management, lacks research credentials.

Given that Goldacre’s recruitment was initially suggested to Gove’s DfE by then special adviser Dominic Cummings, lately Director of Vote Leave and former Strategy Director for Iain Duncan Smith during his stint as Conservative Party leader, cynicism may be legitimate. Certainly ResearchED’s disruptive influence upon professional opinion and practice has been significant. This is to be expected as its origins and players intersect with those of the New Schools Network, a successful astroturfer of parent and governor opinion and practice.

The New Schools Network was set up in 2009 by former Gove special adviser Rachel Wolf, daughter of the baronial author of the Wolf Report, to advise and support groups who wished to set up free schools. Having originated in Conservative think-tanks, free schools did not enter official government policy until after the May 2010 general election. Dominic Cummings worked for the NSN until December 2010 during which time, it is reported, he addressed an email to Gove, Freedman & Wolf calling for civil servants to ‘find a way to give NSN cash without delay’. What happened next? Following the establishment of a Conservative-LibDem coalition government, the DfE awarded the NSN £500,000.

Given their common players & paths the only apparent difference between the trajectories of researchED and the New Schools Network is that the latter’s is punctuated by whopping amounts of government cash while the former has claimed poverty since its inception. We have to hand it to Tom Bennett for his truly amazing accomplishment of keeping his international ‘grassroots’ enterprise going for four years without producing any apparent profits.

The Just-Us League

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In 2017 we find free schools everywhere even though by any objective observation, costly of itself and damaging in its needless diversion of much needed resources, that programme has failed. For the same reasons it has exceeded expectations as a disruptor of the established school system, a point of ingress for commercial interests, such that this April the DfE approved a further 131 free schools.

Sam Freedman is now Executive Director of Participant Impact & Delivery at Teach First, the UK’s largest graduate recruiter whose teacher training model has significantly disrupted both ITE and thereby teaching in the UK. It produces dissatisfied NQTs and works to a 10% dropout rate implying, at least, inappropriate recruitment but government backing papers over many cracks and so the enterprise endures. In fact, it thrives. Think-tank and lobby group the Fair Education Alliance, you may be interested to know, is Teach First lawn furniture. FEA’s Vice Chair Dame Julia Cleverdon is TF’s Vice Patron and former Chair. The groups’ shared address means that she can work for each from the same desk so if you want evidence of unelected influence upon our education policy & practice then you need look no further than 6 Mitre Passage, SE10.

Each new cohort of Teach First’s ‘ambassadors’ falls in line behind social media’s presumptive pedagogical gurus, tsars, prize-winners & wannabe super-heroes. Their ambition outstripping their experience these NQTs, practically trained to different standards to the rest of us, push forward with what they have been persuaded is their ‘revolution’ and proceed preaching to teachers who’ve been in successful practice longer than these evangelists have been tying their own shoe laces. Any risk that these still impressionable young people might learn from experienced in-service teachers is mitigated by regular ‘research conferences’ where they may meet their heroes and receive their marching orders.

Which brings us back to researchED. It has at last become a company in its own name, its 2017 programme featuring numerous presentations by its Directors as well as its customary chummy troupe of PowerPoint wranglers. Despite appearances by several people I respect as important voices I have sworn off researchED following a vile tweet by one of its regular turns, the last straw following the insulting & vacuous brand marketing delivered by Michaela Community School at May’s #rEDlang. The signs are that researchED will go on to give greater platform to individuals & groups who seek to disrupt our education system and the teaching profession. Its national conference in September will feature a talk by Louis Coiffait, think-tank Reform’s Head of Education, whom you may remember for his dream of introducing into schools the Uber model of employment.

Crisis in #bizarroED

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There is no shortage of bad ideas for education swilling down the social media pipeline from these networked astroturfers so if we’re using Twitter, WordPress, Facebook & the like to inform & enrich our own practice then we’ve a duty to be sceptical of everything preached by the Just-Us League. Call them out on their shit as soon as you smell it. Seeing their doom in the first sign of your dissent they’ll pull on their capes & sock puppets, they’ll accuse you of denying debates which don’t exist and they will call you a hater for pointing out errors & anticipating problems with everything from basic subject knowledge to safeguarding. Stand firm. What’s right is right, and what works works. It does not matter how many people follow your social media accounts or whether people pay to watch your PowerPoints, If you have a good idea then get it out there and let people try it. If it turns out it’s a bad idea then let people help you fix it and don’t let others drag you into futile flame wars or label you according to their prejudices. Don’t let get bogged down disputing their ideology. Don’t get stuck in interminable arguments with self-appointed authorities. Teach what you can teach, teach it better each time and your pupils will always remember you as someone from whom they learnt not only skills and knowledge but also how to be an independent, freethinking person.

Thanks for reading. Peace.

All information given in this post is in the public domain. Should any reader notice any factual errors then they are invited to provide me with appropriate links to their public domain sources that I might review and, if necessary, correct this post.

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7 comments

  1. Tom Sherrington

    Hi. I think this is massively unfair and misjudged. TB is not paid to be behaviour Tsar and ResearchEd is funded on an event by event basis, from ticket sales. Most people involved with it have absolutely no links with Nick Gibb or NSN. it’s just a group of people meeting to discuss research and how to use it. I know lots of these people and political views span a range. They rely on people volunteering to give talks… always grateful for people to offer. ResearchEd has no funding – they should do in my view. CoT is the organisation that has been funded generously by the DFE. It’s perverse to my mind that you’re so cynical about ResearchEd given how much they’ve done to ignite debate and forge links between academics and teachers. Where would we be without it? I for one would know a damn sight less about research. I get the problem of it seeming like a club to some; some people are regulars but that’s partly a necessity to make sure people come and buy tickets to keep the whole thing afloat. The last event I attended included a lot of debate. I don’t know… it feels that you have the agenda here.

    • vinceulam

      Hello Tom, thanks for your comment.

      It’s not clear why you think any of my post is unfair or misjudged. It lists timelines of verifiable events and facts. Do you dispute anything in these? If yes then you should say what but if not then you should retract those charges.

      Whether Tom Bennett is paid to be “behaviour tsar” is something to which I cannot speak, nor can you, but i doubt there is a line on the DfE payroll listing that title. You and I would both be surprised if any working teacher would spend two years writing reports for and speaking on behalf of the government without claiming some level of remuneration but nor would we condemn such a teacher for this. Where there is none then the mind naturally imagines some form of quid pro quo between parties, or enthusiastic political affiliation.

      You’re right, most people involved with researchED, where involvement is speaking or attending, have no links with Education Minister Nick Gibb but Tom does. You and others are mistaken to confuse speakers and audience at researchED events with the researchED organisation.

      It’s interesting that so many of Tom’s friends are keen to position researchED contra the Chartered College of Teaching. If researchED is succeeding without government funding then why should it resent that received by the College?

      I am not cynical about researchED but a close examination of timelines naturally implies the cynicism of those therein.

      I question whether researchED has forged the links you describe. ResearchED is a travelling circus. People buy tickets and watch speakers deliver PPT. Few of these speakers, many of whom are fine people I respect, are actual researchers in the academic sense most take that term and many of these are regulars. David Didau for example, not an academic researcher, is slated for ten researchED events in nineteen months. There are several other regular individuals & groups whose spots, it seems, serve only the promotion of their books and their start-up schools. This all seems very clubby and to defend this by arguing their crowd-pulling celebrity invites the question of just who it is that celebrates these regulars other than researchED, not to mention their inevitable comparison with dancing horses.

      Debate is much appealed to by certain people pushing wildly unconventional practices and ideas on social media and on edu-salon panels, these consisting regularly of the same faces. In fact, anyone who wants to get to the truth of what works, necessarily in the academy, prefers dialectic. All debate is either entertainment or marketing.

      Of course I have agenda, just as I have intentions, ambitions & wishes. Everyone has agenda. You have agenda, so does Tom Bennett and so do the dozen strangers I passed on my morning run. You won’t break the timelines of verifiable, publicly available facts I’ve listed by claiming I have agenda. My specific agenda in this matter includes shining a spotlight on educational astroturf so we can all see the faces of the players.

      Cheers.

      • Tom Sherrington

        It’s all way too cloak and dagger. You don’t know the ResearchEd people; I do. There’s no conspiracy or political alignment. They work really hard to put on events that help teachers do a better job. For nothing. CoT will be amazing but they get well funded.. you’re not casting any aspersions in their direction. David has arguably done more to communicate the findings of research to teachers than anyone else. He’s provocative but very well informed. But he’s also only one of many voices. Anyway… you won’t be persuaded. Life’s too short.

        • vinceulam

          Hello again, Tom.

          I haven’t said anything about cloaks nor daggers but only a fool supposes that people don’t collude privately for ideological or personal gain.

          Whether you know ‘the researchED people’ better than I is neither here nor there. You could live in Tom Bennett’s stair cupboard for all the difference that would make to the verifiable, public domain timelines I’ve listed.

          I was a critic of the Chartered College of Teaching project since it was first proposed. I have recently 180ed on this because of the arguments and enthusiasm of people whom I respect. I also see that the function of the college has gradually come into greater focus and I’m particularly pleased that membership affords grassroots teachers access to academic research. I think the College should be given a chance to show what else it has to offer without having to dodge the brickbats of social media demagogues.

          Casual readers of science are poor communicators of its findings. David Didau, as I demonstrated in my blog post The Emperor’s New Pedagogy, is no different in this regard with respect to psychology than any other naive member of the public.

          Cheers.

  2. IanH

    The version with live links and formatting is on my own site: http://teaching of science.wordpress.com

    “These useful idiots, grateful for the imagined recognition and eager to seem important in the eyes of their peers, promote the aims and ideas of their recruiters across social media and via ticketed salons.”

    It must be really nice to see yourself as immune to all this, too smart to fall for the conspiracy that everyone else has been duped by. Because, whether you intended it or not, that’s how much of the original post comes across. I think this is what put my back up, to be honest. I’ve attended two ResearchED events, one of which I spoke at. I’d like to think I earned that, rather than being recruited as a useful idiot. But then, in your viewpoint, it’s only natural I’d fall for it: I’m not as clever as you. The contrary argument might be that you’re resentful of not having the opportunity or platform for your views, but I’ve no idea if you’ve applied to present at ResearchED or anything similar. So how about we look at the facts, rather than the inferences and assigned motives you write about?

    ResearchED in Context

    From a local teachmeet up to national events, the idea of ‘grassroots’ activism in teaching is a powerful one. As bloggers, we both believe that practitioners can influence the ideas and work of others. And yes, I agree that appearing practitioner- or public-led, but actually being influenced by specific political parties or organisations, would be appealing to those organisations. It would lend legitimacy to very specific ideas. You only have to look at the funding of patient organisations by pharmaceutical companies, or VoteLeave and allied groups, to see the issues. But there is surely a sliding scale of influence here.

    How we assess the independence of such a grassroots organisation could be done in several ways. Do we look at where the money comes from? Do we examine the people involved in organising or leading it? Do we look at the decisions they make, and how they are aligned with other groups? Do we look at who chooses to be involved, and who is encouraged/dissuaded, subtly or otherwise?

    In reality we should do all of those. I think my issue with your post is that you seem to be putting ResearchEd in the same category as the New Schools Network among other groups, and (on Twitter) to be adding in the Parents and Teachers for Excellence Campaign too. I see them as very separate cases, and I’m much less hesitant about ResearchEd – partly because the focus is teacher practice and engagement, not campaigning. And you raise Teach First, which I have my own concerns about and am leaving to one side now as it’s not relevant.

    The New Schools Network is (mostly) funded by government, and many have written about the rather tangled set of circumstances which led to the funding and positions expressed being so closely tied to a policy from one political party. I must admit, I find myself very dubious about anything that Dominic Cumming has had a hand in! Their advocacy and support for free schools, with so far limited evidence that they provide good value for money, frustrates me.

    The PTE Campaign is slightly different. I’ve not spent time on searching for funding information but remember from previous news items – this from Schools Week for example – that it lacks transparency, to say the least. I think the name is misleading and their claim to be about moving power away from ‘the elites in Westminister and Whitehall’ to be disingenuous.

    And let’s not even start with Policy Exchange.

    From where I sit, if you want to group ResearchED with other education organisations, a much better match would seem to be Northern Rocks. The focus is improving and sharing classroom pedagogy, rather than campaigning. They’re both run on a shoestring. Classroom teachers are keen on attending and praise what they get out of the sessions. I can’t find anything on your blog about Northern Rocks, but that could be simple geography. (The bitter part of me suggests it’s not the first time anything happening past Watford gets ignored…)

    Back to ResearchED: Funding and Speakers

    “We have to hand it to Tom Bennett for his truly amazing accomplishment of keeping his international ‘grassroots’ enterprise going for four years without producing any apparent profits.”

    Maybe it’s me seeing something which isn’t there, but your post seems to imply that there must be some big funding secret that explains why ResearchED is still going. What do you think costs so much money? The speakers are volunteers, as are the conference helpers. I don’t know if Tom gets a salary, but considering how much time it must be taking it would seem reasonable for at least a few people to do so. The catering costs, including staffing, are covered by the ticket price. The venues I remember are schools, so that’s not expensive.

    As you’ve raised on Twitter during our discussions, the question of transport for UK-based speakers to overseas venues is an interesting one. I know that when I presented at Oxford (the Maths/Science one), my employer covered my travel costs; I assume that was the same for all speakers, or they were self-funding. If you have other specific funding concerns, I’ve not seen you describe them; you can hardly blame me for focusing on this one if you’d rather make suggestive comments than ask proper questions. I would also like to know if speakers can access funding support and if so, how that is decided. I can’t find that information on the website, and I think it should be there. I disagree with lots of what you say – or I wouldn’t have written all this – but that loses legitimacy if I don’t say where we have common ground.

    I was surprised to find out how many ResearchED conferences there had been; I was vaguely thinking of seven or eight, which is why I was surprised by your suggestion that David Didau had presented at least six times. I stand corrected, on both counts. Having looked at the site, I’m also surprised that there’s no clear record of all the events in one place. A bigger ask – and one I have addressed to one of the volunteers who I know relatively well – would be for a searchable spreadsheet of speaker info covering all the conferences.

    That would be fascinating, wouldn’t it? It would let us see how many repeat speakers there are, and how concentrated the group is. My gut feeling is that most speakers, like me, have presented only once or twice. Researchers would probably have more to say. I’d love to see the gender balance, which subject specialisms are better represented, primary vs secondary numbers, the contrast between state and independent sector teachers, researcher vs teacher ratios…

    I’m such a geek sometimes.

    You tweeted a suggestion I should ignore my personal experience to focus on the points in your post. The thing is that my personal experience of – admittedly only two – ResearchED conferences is that any political discussion tends to happen over coffee and sandwiches, and there’s relatively little of that. Maybe there’s more at the ‘strategic’ sessions aimed at HTs and policy-makers, rather than the classroom and department methods that interest me. If there’s animosity, it’s more likely to be between practitioners and politicians, rather than along party lines. I suspect I have more in common, to be honest, with a teacher who votes Tory than a left-leaning MP without chalkface experience. It’s my personal experience that contradicts the suggestions in your post about ResearchED being part of a shadowy conspiracy to influence education policy debate.

    To return to Ben Goldacre, featured in your post as a victim of the puppet-masters who wanted a good brand to hide their dastardly plans behind: his own words suggest that in the interests of improving the evidence-base of policy, he’s content to work with politicians. Many strong views have been expressed at ResearchED. With such a wide variety of speakers, with different political and pedagogical viewpoints, I’m sure you can find some presentations and quotes that politicians would jump on with glee. And I’m equally sure that there are plenty they ignore, politely or otherwise. But I don’t believe the speakers are pre-screened for a particular message – beyond “looking at evidence in some way is useful for better education.” To be honest, I’m in favour of that – aren’t you? If there’s other bias in speaker selection, it was too subtle for me to notice.

    But then, I’m not as clever as you.

    • vinceulam

      Hello Ian, thanks for commenting.

      I use the term ‘useful idiots’ in its technical sense to refer to unwitting accomplices rather than as any general insult.

      The way to assess the alleged independence of any organisation claiming grassroots is to look at its origins. That’s what I’ve done.

      Placing researchED into the same category as Parents & Teachers for Excellence and the New Schools Network is not to say that they are identical in every feature of their origin, structure or operation, only that they share many features of each in common. ResearchED’s Director Tom Bennett, for example, sits on PTE’s advisory council alongside NSN’s Rachel Wolf.

      On your regard for Dominic Cummings, could it be that your scepticism towards this post’s contents have something to do with the fact that he sits at the top of the researchED timeline?

      While there are some superficial similarities, for many reasons we cannot place researchED alongside Northern Rocks. NR donates significant amounts of money to charity following each event and it is involved with Third World student sponsorship. NR also pays its speakers a nominal fee in recognition of the effort they put in. NR is genuinely grassroots in origin with no connections to partisan think-tanks, special political advisers or government ministers and therefore it is wholly independent and unbiased.

      ResearchED speakers and conference helpers are only volunteers if they agree to present and to work free of charge. Do not underestimate the work which goes into organising conferences and preparing successful talks for them. While I recognise that there are many reasons why a person may volunteer to present, if they have been convinced to do it for the exposure afforded them by a particular platform, rather than from any genuine wish to contribute to the principles & practice of pedagogy, then that person is a mug seen coming from a mile and programme fodder for PR artists.

      I haven’t the time nor inclination right now to tabulate the appearances of every speaker at researchED but it’s been going long enough that a narcoleptic breeze block facing in the opposite direction would notice that it has preferred speakers. Tom Sherrington waved this away as the need to pull crowds. Frankly, if research doesn’t pull people to researchED then either there’s no good research there or Tom & chums don’t know how to promote research but only how to pull crowds, in which case they may as well pack researchED under a big top and ride around in a clown car.

      I think many people are too close to researchED to look objectively at the quality of its core product never mind its origins and de facto function. Those who have attended and perhaps presented enjoyed their experience of talking about their interests, meeting people they admire and also welcome the networking opportunities afforded by researchED in person and online. This is all good, enjoy all these things, I’m sure they’re great but they don’t dismiss the timelines I’ve listed, each point of which is in the public domain and verifiable. There’s no reason why you can’t reconcile your experience of researchED with the contents of my post, they are not mutually exclusive. After all, the audience and speakers at researchED are not the researchED organisation anymore than a sports team is the astro-turf beneath their feet.

      If there is no bias in researchED speaker selection then you must explain why David Didau, not an academic researcher, is slated to speak at ten researchED events in nineteen months. If you can suggest a reason for such a pattern more plausible than bias then you are more clever than me.

      Cheers.

  3. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 2nd June – Friday 9th June – Douglas Wise

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