Evidence is all well and good, but don’t forget values

by Loic Menzies, 20 March 2023
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Earlier this year, Professor Steven Gorard published an article on the pupil premium showing that it has been successful in reducing school segregation. This is great news and means the policy has succeeded in achieving part of its intended impact. However, the pupil premium isn’t the only way of achieving the goal of reduced segregation.

You should take the evidence into account, but the evidence doesn't tell you what to do. It never has and never will.

In the US and India, some Charter schools and Independent schools use lottery-based systems. Laura McInerney rightly argues that private schools should take a similar approach when awarding scholarships in England - rather than cream-skimming high achievers.  Another approach would be to force faith schools and selective schools to change their admissions code, but this would be tricky if not unfeasible to push through. Meanwhile in Singapore, a commitment to social mixing means the government reserves a proportion of housing in different neighbourhoods for people from different backgrounds through its ethnic integration policy

These are all different ways of navigating one of the obstacles to educational equity: school segregation. However, choosing an approach is more than just a technical question; it’s a political and an ethical question that’s shaped by culture and values. 

As former government advisor and author of “How to Run a Government,” Sir Michael Barber emphasised when I interviewed him recently, the same can be said of many decisions about education policy:

“You should take the evidence into account, but the evidence doesn't tell you what to do. It never has and never will. Let's say you can prove that teaching a literacy hour perfectly will improve results. That still doesn't tell you: ‘should you force a teacher in Cornwall to do that when they don't want to?’ That's a policy decision.

Or you could say we've shown that we can reduce poverty by doing these things. And it costs this much -  there's still a decision to make about whether reducing poverty is your priority as a government or not - you might have another priority. 

As Dave Brailsford, the guy who ran British Cycling says, ‘the data informs it doesn't decide’ and that is basically it. There is no neutral evidence that can just be implemented. And in education as you know very well, it’s contested anyway”

Ultimately, values and ‘policy orientations’ are always part of policy-making. We should be more honest about this when deciding how to map our way to educational equity, and a recent FFT Datalab blog by Dave Thompson was exemplary in this respect, acknowledging that:

“You might think there are good moral arguments for universal free school meal provision. Alternatively, you might think better use could be made of the money. We only do data so we’re not going to get into that here.”

The values-based dimension of policy was emphasised way back in the early 20th Century by Max Weber, who contrasted 'formal' with 'substantive' rationality. For Weber, formal rationality involves the technical weighing up of options, whereas substantive rationality introduces values into the mix. In his famous lecture on the “Vocation of Politics” he argued that politicians have to balance an  "Ethic of Moral Conviction" (that is, their deeply held beliefs) with an "Ethic of Responsibility" (the practical need to deploy resources for the greater good). 

Returning to the example of school segregation, determining how to navigate that obstacle to educational equity is not just a question of practical rationality - it’s also about substantive rationality.

Increased interest in evidence in education is great, but there are all sorts of ‘stuck questions’ on which people claim their views are just ‘what the evidence says’. The debate on school inclusion and exclusion is typical in this respect, which is why, in Young People on the Margins I quote a headteacher who said:

“I wouldn’t allow and I would never allow one child to upset 29 others in a classroom and I would say for too long education has done that or has allowed that to go on. We’re seeing many failing schools around the country where everyone talks about that child; but no one’s talking about the other 29 children in the room.”

There are plenty of schools where that’s not the case (as I’ve discussed in a previous blog), but I do agree that far too much learning time continues to be wasted due to disruption caused by a small minority of pupils, and that this causes unacceptable distress to the majority of pupils and their teachers. However, in a recent discussion about this tension (between the needs of the majority and minority), someone else pointed out that this mindset can be a barrier to inclusion in mainstream schools.

In debates about ‘progressive’ versus ‘traditionalist’ teaching - part of the debate is about evidence, but values are the iceberg floating beneath the surface

Evidence on behaviour management and inclusion can inform decisions about how to navigate this tension - but isn’t enough to settle the question. This debate isn’t just a conversation about ‘what works’ - it’s part of an age-old philosophical debate between the utilitarian pursuit of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number” and those who hold a more ‘rights-based’ view of ethics.

If we ignore the values-based dimension in questions about classroom management, we’ll end up chasing our tail. The same goes for debates about ‘progressive’ versus ‘traditionalist’ teaching - part of the debate is about evidence, but values are the iceberg floating beneath the surface.

A recent study by Sam Sims and John Jerrim found no significant difference in the learning gains made by pupils taught by progressive teachers (who valued things like pupil-led learning) and those preferring more traditional (direct instruction-based) approaches. Of course, ‘one study does not the case conclude’, but even if the ‘evidence’ for this conclusion continued to mount, I doubt it would lead to widespread agnosticism on pedagogy. Ultimately one approach favours freedom, whereas the other favours authority - contrasting moral principles according to Moral Foundations Theory.

A bit more honesty about values - alongside considerations of evidence, might make for more constructive discussions about stuck questions in education. It might also help policymakers as well as school and trust leaders to provide clearer ‘strategic intent’ - a question I’ll be exploring in my next two blogs.

This blog was in response to our discussion series 'Mapping The Way to a More Equitable Future for Education' which brings together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers and practitioners might need to overcome them.

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