Message to TeachFirst: debate means not censoring views you don’t agree with

Janet Downs's picture

A debate pits opposing views against each other.  That’s the theory.  And TeachFirst appeared to subscribe to this definition when it launched its recent social mobility summit.

TeachFirst said it ‘invited a range of external speakers with differing views to debate issues around education’.   One of these was Toby Young, director of the New Schools Network, the taxpayer-funded charity which promotes free schools.

As part of the post-summit ‘conversation’, TeachFirst asked Young to contribute one of two ‘independent blogs for our website with opposing views’.   Young wrote a piece arguing that IQ was the strongest predictor of GCSE performance.

Young’s argument didn’t please TeachFirst.  It removed his blog and issued a statement:

One of the pieces submitted, by Toby Young, we disagreed with. We wanted to give the opposing view, so we published Toby’s piece alongside a rebuttal from Sonia Blandford, who has recently written on similar subjects. The aim was to drive debate. But we shouldn’t have published his blog, even with the rebuttal: it was against what we believe is true and against our values and vision. We apologise. Although we don’t want to provide a platform for those views we also don’t want to cover over our mistake, so this note also serves as a record.’  

To recap: TeachFirst asked Young to write a blog opposing someone else’s opinion.  That’s what debate is – the airing of differing views.   But when TeachFirst disagreed with Young’s article they issued a rebuttal and then deleted it because TeachFirst didn’t ‘want to provide a platform’ for the views he expressed.  TeachFirst then apologised for publishing it in the first place.

The nature v nurture debate has been ongoing for decades.  My own (unscientific) view is that attainment is a bit of both – the elasticity of the brain (all those millions of pathways) and the environment which nourishes the brain (nutrition, stimulation, communication, schooling…) both contribute to attainment.  Whether nature trumps nurture, or vice-versa, I’ve no idea.  And attainment is, in any case, more than exam results.

Leave that aside.  Views about IQ should be heard.  The only caveat is when, as in any argument, the views don’t stray into hate speech which could lead to inhuman treatment of certain groups of people.   That’s why I attacked Boris Johnson when he said those with low IQ lacked ‘spiritual worth’.    A dangerous view for someone who’s now Foreign Secretary.

Young has now been described a ‘free speech martyr’.   Writing in the Spectator, Young  says 'Martyr is putting it a bit strongly' - he was ‘no platformed’ because his views were 'verboten'.   

But Young's views should be heard.  TeachFirst was wrong to delete Young’s article just because they disagreed with the views he expressed

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 07/11/2017 - 14:05

That it is 'cognitive ability', not 'prior attainment', that is the strongest predictor of future attainment is a fact supported by the vast amount of data collected first by NfER, followed by its more commercial successor, GL Assessment. These organisations have produced and sold Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) for many decades. CATs are a form of IQ test. GL Assessment doesn't like to admit this, perhaps because they are sensitive to the persisting negative image of anything related to 'intelligence' in the world of education.

CATs tests are used to drive the 'Fair Banding' Admissions policies of hundreds of Academy secondary schools. Part 4 of my book, 'Learning Matters' reports my investigation into how this system works at Mossbourne Academy and across the London Borough of Hackney. Unlike KS2 SATs, CATs tests cost the schools (and the Hackney LA) quite a lot of money. SATs are tests of prior attainment based on a curriculum set out by the government. SATs are high stakes tests for schools and now also Multi Academy Primary School Trusts, and as such they are susceptible to various forms of gaming/cheating that have the effect of corrupting teaching methods in favour of shallow rather than deep learning. See this Guardian article.

If SATs were as reliable as CATs for predicting later attainment, then schools and LAs would not waste their money on CATs.

Janet alludes to the continuing controversial nature of any discussion of the issue and role of intelligence. My book and a great many of my articles address these issues. Much of the difficulty of intelligence arises from theories of racial superiority that drove the appalling atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in World War II. However, when it is also accepted that cognitive ability/IQ is not just the underlying driver of subsequent attainment, but crucially is capable of being developed/enhanced by effective teaching, everything gets a lot less controversial, albeit a lot more complicated.

There is not a lot that Toby Young spouts that I agree with, but he is right about IQ, and Janet is also right that the arguments need to be heard.

I can see why 'Teach First' don't want to admit the importance of plastic cognitive ability. It is because it drives a teaching and learning model like that in Finland, where no adult is allowed anywhere near classes of school students unless they have a Master's Degree in Education as well as on the job familiarity with the vocational skills of teaching.

Teach First is a cheap shortcut to recruiting 'teaching operatives' whose function is to 'deliver' the deeply ideological behaviourist approaches that originate from the Gobal Education Reform Movement that promotes a marketisation model of everything including schooling.

agov's picture
Tue, 07/11/2017 - 16:32

Roger and Janet are right. How ironic that on one of the few occasions Toby Young also gets something right he is suppressed for Thought Crime by an organisation (that presumably provides a very nice income stream for its owners/senior staff) that would likely not exist but for Toby's ridiculous and uncomprehending attacks against proper education in pursuit of his own absurd and uninformed agenda for Brave New World non education. Perhaps he should repent and admit he was wrong - maybe someone would give him a peerage.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 08/11/2017 - 17:07

More evidence of the unreliability of SATs and the potential for  'maladministration' (cheating) is reported in Schools Week here.

And that's just the examples that were spotted.

"Investigations into maladministration of key stage 1 test leaped by more than 50 per cent last year, while 65 sets of KS2 exam results were either annulled or amended.

In its latest report into maladministration in the 2016 primary SATs exams, the Standards and Testing Agency reported and investigated 524 cases in total.

The term “maladministration” refers to any act that could jeopardise the “integrity, security or confidentiality” of the tests and lead to results that “do not reflect the unaided abilities and achievements of pupils”.

This includes incorrectly opening test papers, cheating pupils, or test administrators offering too much help to children. It can also refer to changes made to test scripts by someone other than the pupil, or the inflation or deflation of teacher assessment judgements."

It is yet another example of  the fallacy that the quality of education taking place in  a school can be judged from crude 'threshold' data derived from the performance of pupils in very high stakes (for the school and teachers) SATs.

The only way schools and lessons can be properly judged is through observation by highly qualified, skilled and experienced teachers and ex-teachers supported and validated by an HMI that is independent of the government and staffed by such individuals. 

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