The GCSE retake challenge.

Imagine a year when all our efforts to improve sixth form students’ English and Maths worked for nearly everyone. A year when the English and Maths skills of all those post-16 students who achieved grade 3’s at school improved to at least the standard required to achieve grade 4 in the previous year.

Imagine that year also saw much stronger Year 11 achievement in GCSE English and Maths than the year before. Exam boards would be looking at a potential leap in grade 9-4 pass rates with the achievement ‘Bell curve’ shifting sharply to the right.

In such a year, would we be allowed a moment of joy to celebrate this dramatic national success story; the genuine raising of standards so fervently wished for by everyone?

Probably not.

Why? Because the built-in assumption that each year’s cohort is roughly the same as the last means that results must tend towards ‘comparative outcomes’. So in a very strong year, results are adjusted downwards in a way which has more in common with cohort norm-referencing than criterion referencing.

So, in order to avoid dramatic shocks to the system, real improvement is under-reported and students in different years with exactly the same performance can end up with different grades.

For post-16 retake students, many of whom are working at the margins of a good grade and are more likely to be achieving near the good grade threshold, this means greater uncertainty about outcomes. These students are being required to retake GCSE English or Maths to demonstrate a level of competence – but it turns out that this level is a moving target; a moving target on a cliff edge.

If we are going to set a national threshold standard for English and Maths, it should really be described in terms of what students know and can do. This is the only way we can all be confident that we know when they have actually crossed that threshold. This is far more important than ‘stable’ pass rates from year to year or the politician’s fear of accusations of grade inflation or falling standards every time national achievement rises.

Now imagine a year which saw a big increase or decrease in the proportion of candidates achieving a Distinction in their grade 5 piano exam, or the proportion of candidates passing the driving test. Would this lead to soul-searching by the testing bodies or claims about standards? If they were confident that they were applying and interpreting a clear standard consistently for each candidate, the existence of variations would not in themselves require adjustment or ‘comparative outcomes’ to maintain credibility.

The GCSE retake challenge is a massive preoccupation in many colleges and sixth forms. We all want to develop the literacy and numeracy skills of our students. We all hate the fact that these courses routinely have pass rates below 50% when we expect rates in the 90’s or 80’s for all our other provision. We also hate the uncertainty of the annual grade boundary lottery which disproportionately affects our retakers.

These 2 GCSE’s are now the equivalent of a compulsory driving test. Students need to keep taking them until they achieve a good pass. We are setting a national standard by creating a national target. Those of us who are committed to making the policy work don’t want watered-down or more ‘relevant’ versions. We just want to be confident that the grades awarded will be defined by the skills students have demonstrated and that our students’ efforts to reach the threshold are properly recognised. Even advocates of norm-referencing accept the need for national reference tests to establish whether standards are improving across the system from year to year. In the case of GCSE English and Maths, the argument is that they should themselves be national reference tests.

It would also be helpful if the ‘stepping stone’ lower level English and Maths qualifications articulated with the content of the GCSE specifications and if students could ‘bank’ their achievement and build on it.

Interestingly, an opposite side-effect of the comparative outcomes problem was demonstrated by the kerfuffle around grade thresholds for some modern language exams this summer. For instance, the 17% of A-level German candidates who were native German-speakers managed to achieve 50% of all the A* grades. Concerned private schools had asked boards to look again at grade boundaries because ‘too many’ native speakers were being entered and achieving well, allegedly ‘making it harder’ for non-native speakers to get good grades. But if the grade criteria were clear and stable, we should surely be celebrating the fact that more students are doing better because some of the cohort bring more skills with them.

While recognizing that exam requirements and content will change over time, we do need to assert the key principle that we want to grade students as objectively and consistently as possible. And because cohorts vary and teaching does make a difference, we need to be prepared to live with variations in results from year to year; upwards as well as downwards.

See also:

Pick your own performance measure (September 2016)

The post-16 retake challenge (September 2015)

 

 

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Easing student debt won’t cut it.

Apparently, the prime minister is considering ways to ease the burden of student debt (story here). That sounds like a good idea; she might also take the opportunity to consider how the tuition fee and loan system has changed the university system in this country and whether there’s a case for more fundamental change.

The popularity of Labour’s promise to abolish university tuition fees has clearly rattled the Conservatives. But it would be wrong to think of this as a simple political bribe which can be cancelled out by a counter-bribe. Such spending promises are the bread and butter of electoral politics, but the promise of free education, as part of a National Education Service, is more than just a spending commitment. It is a rejection of marketisation which many people feel has gone too far, with real consequences for quality and equality – in education and in other public services.

If that is the case, simply tweaking the interest rates on student loans won’t cut it. The prime minister is also said to be considering a plan to name and shame universities that fail to improve students’ earning potential. In other words, consumers just need better data about exactly how much their degree will improve their earning power and somehow the system will improve. This is one of those ‘pure’ market prescriptions which sees a public good as a purely financial good whose benefits to the individual can be quantified in value for money terms with no recognition of the wider social benefits or the macroeconomic and labour-market factors which impact on graduate earnings.

Such a move would be absolutely in line with the wider marketisation project. This has several elements, each of which can be specifically promoted by government policy while also taking root in the assumptions and behaviours of organisations and the people within them. In higher and further education, there’s no doubt that marketisation has changed the way people think and behave.

In summary, the steps in moving to a marketized education system include:

  1. Redefining education providers as businesses in competition with each other.
  2. Redefining students as consumers in competition with each other for the most valuable resources.
  3. Redefining educational achievement in financial terms.

Financialization (giving a monetary value to things) and marketisation (creating a market where things are exchanged for money) go hand in hand to drive the process at all levels, from the national to the institutional to the personal. In education, this threatens to reduce everything to essentially financial transactions; from our national priorities to the process of teaching and learning and the teacher-student relationship. At the national level it’s all about the success of UK plc and at the individual level it’s all about getting a better paid job. All social, political and cultural objectives are relegated to second order aims or ‘good intentions’.

This radical reductivism of the social to the financial fails to address the needs of a modern, democratic society trying to tackle any of the global and local challenges which we face. Reducing education, health, the environment, the economy, housing, human relations etc. to the purely economic is a recipe for disaster and economic failure. By forcing us to ignore the complexity of our societies and economies it prevents us from developing the complex policy responses which might actually take us forward.

If the prime minister wants to address concerns about higher education, perhaps she should be asking more fundamental questions about what we want from education in general and university degrees in particular.

See also:

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

Education 2022: market or system? (June 2017)

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

University Gold (October 2016)

University for all (September 2016)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

Re-imagining the university (February 2015)

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Challenging IQ.

Behavioural genetics; the clue to the difficulty is in the name. As with Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology before it, the squashing together of two very different levels of understanding into a single discipline creates a real problem. Genetics and psychology are both respectable fields of study with their different methodologies and evidence bases but they are explaining phenomena at different levels.

On the whole, the best explanations for complex phenomena are to be found close to the level that the phenomena occur. Imagine a ‘Molecular Politics’ or a ‘Quantum Sociology’ trying to explain social and cultural phenomena by referring to biochemistry or physics. From the other direction, imagine trying to explain different human personalities based on the alignment of the planets and stars at someone’s birth. (OK, some people actually do that, but Astrology really isn’t a science.)

Aggression, alcoholism, religiosity… these are evidently socially determined and contextual behaviours subject to change and multiple complex influences over time. Investigating them reductively is difficult as they simply won’t keep still or fit into neat categories, even in single individuals. How useful is it to try to explain such complex social-level behaviours with reference to the much ‘lower’ molecular or genetic level?

Such translations are sometimes possible; for instance we accept that drugs can affect behaviour, and pharmacologists and psychologists can provide connected chemical and physiological explanations of these effects. But to be convincing, such explanations across levels need to be susceptible to robust investigation and provide very credible causal mechanisms.

And then there’s intelligence. If we could even agree on a definition, it would certainly be a complex, changing set of socially determined skills which are the result of development within social and cultural settings and shaped by many human influences and interactions over time. Parenting, education and peer groups would be just a few of these influences. Is it really possible that such complex phenomena can be usefully summed up by a single number on a linear scale?

These are some of the problems with the search for a single measure of general intelligence and why it seems so unscientific. These concerns are confirmed by a reading of classics such as Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘The Mismeasure of Man’ or ‘Not in our Genes’ by Stephen Rose, Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin and any number of other scholarly contributions.

So, surely the simplistic notion of intelligence as a single defined ability with a substantial genetic component has been definitively laid to rest? Well, apparently not. Uncritical talk of IQ and its genetic basis seems to be experiencing a revival. Has something changed? Is there some compelling new evidence which should lead us to revise a judgement that IQ test scores tell us little more than how good the sitters are at taking such tests? Have new mechanisms been found to demonstrate causation where there was only correlation?

We should be open to new hypotheses and there’s no harm in revisiting the evidence. However, in doing so, we can be forgiven for being very cautious because IQ testing has such a shameful track record. The long history of the use of such tests to justify racist, sexist and classist prejudices and discriminatory social policies is well documented, including in education. The 11+, which has a lot in common with IQ tests, is still used in parts of England to separate 11-year olds into two groups and decide which of two very different types of school they should attend, offering them different educational opportunities on the basis of this single measure of their ‘ability’.

Do the latest educational claims of Behavioural Genetics stand up to scrutiny at the social level? A few recent examples:

In a piece on The Conversation website in July 2016 entitled: Your genes can help predict how well you’ll do in school a researcher from the Centre for Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry at King’s College London describes genetic studies which aim to ‘better understand differences in students’ performance’ and will help us ‘predict specific learning abilities such as reading and mathematical ability’. She concludes: ‘hopefully we will be able to create more powerful polygenic scores in the near future to predict even more of the individual differences in educational achievement’.

Presumably when these polygenic scores are available, experienced English and Maths teachers across the country will be expected to ditch what they have learned and change their practices.

A 2015 Scientific Report  in the journal Nature  from the same Centre at King’s College announces: Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement. The team claim to have shown that young people’s decision to study A-levels and their choice of A-levels subjects shows substantial genetic influence as does their performance in those courses. Based on the study of over 6,000 twin pairs they found that these decisions are ‘highly heritable’ and conclude that this suggests ‘a genetic way of thinking about education…based on…genetic propensities’.

Anyone who has worked with students making these post-16 decisions will know of the many social and cultural factors, assumptions and expectations which come into play in the process. We also know of the high correlation between A-level achievement and prior GCSE achievement. It seems particularly obtuse to be leaping straight to a ‘genetic way of thinking’ to explain all this. One can only suggest that these folks get out a bit more and take a slightly broader view of the issue they’re researching. Isn’t it obvious that they’re looking in the wrong place?

This is not to dispute the results of any experiments or any of the calculated correlations but to question the assumption of causation and the subsequent interpretation and application. It’s not enough to say: ‘it’s Science – you can’t argue with Science’, the onus is on the advocates of the importance of such data to demonstrate their meaning and their usefulness.

At the interface of the genetic and the social, as at any other level boundary, there will be a tension between the emergentist who wants to say: ‘things are actually very different at the next level’ and the reductionist who wants to show that: ‘things are really quite simple’. It’s not easy to persuade those searching for simple causes that there might be more complex ones. It may sound a bit wishy-washy to respond to hard experimental data by saying ‘aren’t we missing something – isn’t it more complicated?’ but that’s exactly what we must do before moving between levels.

In summary, we need to ask:

  • What claims are being made about the usefulness of heritability data, ‘general intelligence’ or IQ?
  • How robust are these claims in the real world of these phenomena?
  • What policies or practices are being advocated as a result of these claims?

In the case of intelligence, the lumping together of very different social behaviours and labelling them as one simple thing (the process of reification) combined with the seeking of simple causes for complex phenomena feels like several steps too far. We are right to be suspicious of any behavioural, social or political claims derived from IQ or genetic data. The concept of ‘general intelligence’ is so poorly defined to begin with that it isn’t in a position to be translated from the behavioural level to the genetic level or to be taken seriously by educators.

See also:

Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

Challenging neurosexism (January 2016)

Homology, analogy and metaphor (October 2014)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A few quotes:

The hereditarian fallacy is not the simple claim that IQ is to some degree ‘heritable’. I have no doubt that it is. The hereditarian fallacy resides in two false implications drawn from this basic fact: 1. The equation of ‘heritable’ with ‘inevitable’…heritability says little about the range of environmental modification to which these traits are subject. 2. The confusion of within- and between-group heredity… Variation among individuals within a group and differences in mean values between groups are entirely different phenomena. One item provides no license for speculation about the other.

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould (1981)

The products of one human generation’s intelligence and creativity have been placed at the disposal of a subsequent generation and the horizons of human achievement have been therefore extended. The intelligence of a schoolchild today, in any reasonable understanding of the term, is quite different from, and in many ways much greater than that of his or her Victorian counterpart…Its measure is itself historically contingent.

Alfred Binet, the founder of IQ testing, once protested against ‘the brutal pessimism’ that regards a child’s IQ score as a fixed measure of his or her ability, rightly seeing that to regard the child as thus fixed was to help ensure that he or she remained so.

Suppose that developmental biology were to reach the point where the developmental response to environment of specific human genotypes could be specified with respect to behaviour…the characteristics of an individual could be predicted, given the environment. But the environment is a social environment…the laws of relation of individual genotype to individual phenotype cannot by themselves provide the laws of the development of society. In addition, there must be laws that relate the collection of human natures to the nature of the collectivity. The problem of social theory disappears in a reductionist world view, because to a reductionist, society is determined by individuals with no reciprocal path of causation.

Not in Our Genes, Biology, Ideology and Human Nature by Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin (1984)

High heritability of a character need not say anything about genes. The genetic view is usually a chance of blaming the victim; a way of excusing injustice because it is determined by nature.

The Language of the Genes by Steve Jones (1994)

If the history of medical genetics teaches us one lesson, it is to be wary of …such slips between biology and culture. Humans, we now know, are largely similar in genetic terms – but with enough variation within us to represent true diversity….Tests that are explicitly designed to capture variance in abilities will likely capture variance in abilities…but to call the score in such a test ‘intelligence’… is to insult the very quality it sets out to measure.

Genes cannot tell us how to categorize or comprehend human diversity; environments can, cultures can, geographies can, histories can.

The heritability of a trait, no matter how strong, may be the result of multiple genes, each exerting a relatively minor effect…while some combination of genes and environments can strongly influence it, this combination will rarely be passed, intact, from parents to children.

The Gene, an Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2016)

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NewVIc results 2017

Students and staff at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) are celebrating another year of improvement in A-level pass rates and top grades, all of which have continued to increase faster than nationally. NewVIc’s A-level pass rate is up 1% on last year at 98% and is the highest ever for the college.

The proportion of candidates achieving the highest possible A* grade is also up and 10% of all entries achieved A or A* grades with 14 of these in Maths, 12 in Sociology, 10 in Psychology, 9 in Chemistry and 7 in Biology. Students in 22 A-level subjects achieved 100% pass rates. This improvement has been sustained by a comprehensive college despite the competition from highly selective sixth forms which cherry pick high achieving students.

Results for the A-level sized Subsidiary Diplomas taken by some A-level students were also excellent; a 99% pass rate across 149 entries with 73% of candidates achieving at least a Distinction and 48% achieving the highest possible grade of starred Distinction including a stunning 84% in Business intensive and 83% in Applied Science intensive.

NewVIc’s advanced vocational students have also excelled this year with an overall pass rate also at 98%. 75 students (18% of candidates) achieved a triple starred distinction (D*D*D*) which is the highest possible grade in the level 3 extended diploma. Half of all Extended Diploma candidates achieved at least a triple Distinction, equivalent to 3 A’s at A-level. A stunning 94% of Computer Science students and 82% of Mechanical Engineering students achieved at least a Triple Distinction. Most of NewVIc’s vocational students will progress to university, in many cases on to some of the most highly-rated specialist degree courses.

NewVIc’s university progression rates have always been very high and we are delighted that this year a record proportion of applicants will progress to the first-choice university. Just to pick two of our high achieving Honours students:

Mughees Hassan achieved A*A*A*A securing a place to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and Bibire Baykeens achieved A*A*A and will start her medical degree at Plymouth University. There are many more like them.

After opening her results, Bibire said: “It’s been an absolute pleasure being at NewVIc. Everyone here is on your side to help you succeed. They don’t just care about grades, they care about your future. Staff are happy to answer all your questions and ensure you know your subject as well as possible. They encourage you to aim high.”

Over the last 25 years NewVIc has helped many thousands of local young people succeed and this year’s excellent results continue our year on year improvement. This success means that many hundreds of young east Londoners will be able to realise their ambitions and progress to the university degree course of their choice. This success shows that excellence can be achieved within a comprehensive college which is there for everyone with courses at all levels.

Our students and staff have worked extremely hard for these results and their success is well deserved. As we prepare to celebrate our Silver Jubilee this year these excellent results show that we are a place of ambition, challenge and equality and truly a successful learning community.

I want to thank everyone involved in teaching and supporting the class of 2017 throughout the academic year and all the staff who worked so hard ensuring everything went smoothly on results day.

We wish our class of 2017 every success as they pursue their dreams.

Notes:

  • Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) is one of London’s largest sixth form colleges with around 2,500 full-time students and high success rates.
  • The college is proud to be comprehensive and to promote social cohesion.
  • NewVIc has a 25-year track record of widening participation in higher education and has a university applicant progression rate of 90%.
  • NewVIc sends more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to university than any other sixth form provider in England
  • The college has strong links with schools, universities, employers and community groups and hundreds of NewVIc students volunteer in the local community.
  • NewVIc has started a major campus investment programme by opening a superb new building earlier this year which houses a studio theatre, café and a modern university-style library.

See also:

The NewVIc class of 2016 (August 2017)

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

University progression for the NewVIc class of 2015 (December 2015)

NewVIc breaks all its university progression records (September 2015)

Russell group numbers soar in Newham (August 2015)

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The NewVIc class of 2016

As we prepare to celebrate the achievement and progression of our 2017 leavers on their results day, it’s worth looking back at our most recent previous cohort and where they progressed. As usual, the class of 2016 was a brilliant and diverse group, full of ambitious and determined young people, preparing to make a positive contribution by acquiring a range of professional skills and qualifications.

Key facts about the NewVIc class of 2016:

696 students progressed to higher education.

90% progression rate across all applicants; A-level and vocational. This is well above the national average.

86 students progressed to Russell Group universities.

Where did they all go?

Our ‘top 7’ university destinations account for 60% of students progressing and this group has remained the same for the last 4 years: Westminster, East London (UEL), Greenwich, Middlesex, Queen Mary University of London, London South Bank and City University. Going back further, the top 7 has always looked very similar but hasn’t always included City and has included either London Metropolitan (currently 11th) or Kingston (currently 9th)

In terms of numbers, the picture is one of stability with the biggest increases over 2015 at Greenwich (up 14 students) and Queen Mary University of London (up 11 students).

14% of NewVIc students progressed to universities outside the London area which required them to live away from home. This is down from 2015 with the highest numbers going to De Montfort (11 students), Anglia Ruskin (8), Coventry, Portsmouth, Surrey (7 each), Sussex (6) and Essex (5).

The Russell Group list remains dominated by Queen Mary University of London which is hardly surprising as it is the nearest Russell Group institution to our college. It accounts for two thirds of all NewVIc’s Russell Group places. Other key institutions are University College London (UCL) with 9 students and King’s College London (KCL) with 8 with a good spread of students progressing to 10 other Russell Group universities.  It’s also worth noting that, as usual, a good number of our vocational students also progressed to Russell Group universities, demonstrating that good vocational qualifications are valued by selective universities when they understand them well.

What are they all studying?

As usual, our students are progressing to pretty much the full range of degree courses available, with the most popular degrees being very broadly by title: Engineering (over 70), Accounting (60+), Business (50+), Law (40+), Psychology (40+), Criminology (30+), Nursing (20+), Education (20+), Early Childhood (20+), Mathematics, English, Design (around 20).

Using the UCAS subject groups, the most substantial areas chosen were: Business and Administrative Studies (147 students), Computer Sciences (82), Biological Sciences (66), Engineering (61), Subjects Allied to Medicine (55), Social Studies (54) and Law (54). The biggest increases over 2015 were in Computer Sciences (up by 19 students), Law (up 12), Mathematical Sciences (up 10) and Biological Sciences (up 8). The biggest falls were in Business and Administrative studies (down 36) and Creative Arts and Design (down 15). These changes reflect changes in cohort sizes for the associated college curriculum areas.

Top 26 universities for the NewVIc class of 2016:

University students %
Westminster 87 12.5
East London 71 10.2
Greenwich 66 9.5
Middlesex 58 8.3
Queen Mary University of London 57 8.2
London South Bank 42 6.0
City 37 5.3
Goldsmiths 23 3.3
Kingston 17 2.4
Brunel 14 2.0
London Metropolitan 14 2.0
West London 14 2.0
Hertfordshire 13 1.9
De Montfort 11 1.6
Ravensbourne 10 1.4
University College London 9 1.3
Anglia Ruskin 8 1.2
King’s College London 8 1.2
Buckinghamshire 7 1.0
Coventry 7 1.0
Cumbria (London campus) 7 1.0
Portsmouth 7 1.0
Roehampton 7 1.0
Surrey 7 1.0
University of the Arts London 6 0.9
Sussex 6 0.9

 

Russell group progression for the NewVIc class of 2016:

University students
Queen Mary University of London 57
University College London (UCL) 9
King’s College London (KCL) 8
Southampton 3
Imperial College 1
Bristol 1
Cardiff 1
Edinburgh 1
Warwick 1
Birmingham 1
Exeter 1
Leeds 1
Liverpool 1

See also:

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

Reducing London’s disadvantage gap (January 2016)

Let’s celebrate vocational success (January 2016)

University progression for the NewVIc class of 2015 (December 2015)

NewVIc breaks all its university progression records (September 2015)

Russell group numbers soar in Newham (August 2015)

From free school meals to university (April 2015)

Where do all our A level students go? (January 2015)

Vocational education: rejecting the narrative of failure (January 2015)

Investing in East London’s future (2014 university progression) (December 2014)

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Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation

Disadvantaged young people in Newham are more than twice as likely to progress to university than in England as a whole and their progression rate is the 4th highest of all local authorities in the country. The ‘disadvantage gap’ between them and their ‘non-disadvantaged’ peers is less than a third of the national average and the 3rd narrowest in the country. This very strong performance is not new and Newham has consistently been ahead for these measures for many years and has narrowed the disadvantage gap faster than average.

By any standard this is an outstanding record of sustained widening participation over many years and something everyone in Newham can take pride in. The lives of many thousands of young people in Newham have been transformed thanks to their own efforts and those of long established Newham schools and colleges. All of this despite the many challenges faced by young people in one of the poorest and most disadvantaged contexts in the country.

Data for this analysis were drawn from the recently published Widening Participation in Higher Education Statistics which cover the 9-year period 2005/06 to 2014/2015 for young people in state-funded schools and colleges who had progressed to Higher Education (HE) by the age of 19 and includes a breakdown by their Free School Meal (FSM) status.

Some key points:
1. Progression has increased overall nationally:
There was a steady increase in the proportion of young people progressing to university in England from 30% to 38% of the cohort in this period.

2. Progression has increased for both disadvantaged and less disadvantaged students nationally: The proportion of students progressing to HE from both the FSM and non-FSM groups increased over this period; from 13% to 24% for FSM students and from 33% to 41% for non-FSM students.

3. There has been no significant narrowing of the ‘disadvantage gap’ nationally: Despite the overall improvement, the gap between the progression rates of FSM and non-FSM students has remained stubbornly high nationally, shifting barely at all; from 19% to 18% over this period.

4. Newham’s performance is outstanding by any standard: Newham’s progression figures are well above the national average, but it’s worth drilling down a bit further and looking at the Inner London region which is the highest performing region in the country with an FSM progression rate of 45% and a ‘disadvantage gap’ of only 8%. Even when compared to the high performing Inner London region, Newham’s record is impressive; the progression rate for FSM students of 49% is above the Inner London average and is the 3rd highest in the region behind only Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea. Newham’s ‘disadvantage gap’ of 5% is also well below the Inner London average and only Westminster and Islington do better.

5. Newham has sustained high HE progression rates over many years: The proportion of Newham students progressing to HE was above the Inner London average every year throughout this 9-year period, in fact the borough actually improved its relative position in that time.

6. Newham has narrowed the ‘disadvantage gap’ over many years: During this 9 year period Newham’s ‘disadvantage gap’ has also fallen faster than average; from 11% to 5% compared to the Inner London fall from 12% to 8% and a mere 1% fall nationally from 19% to 18%.

All these improvements were achieved steadily over the 9 year period and do not correlate with the recent creation of new selective sixth form providers in the borough.

% of 15-year-old pupils from state funded schools and colleges who entered HE by age 19

2014/15 FSM Non-FSM gap
England 24% 41% 18%
Outer London 38% 52% 14%
Inner London 45% 53% 8%
Newham 49% 54% 5%

This demonstrates the strong commitment over a long period of young people in Newham to HE progression  as well as being a tribute to all the work done over many years by Newham’s post-16 providers. As the largest and most comprehensive of these, Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) has made a significant contribution to establishing a long-term culture of HE progression and helping to achieve Newham’s sustained record of success. Throughout the 25 years the college has been open we have consistently promoted high levels of student achievement and progression and we will continue to do so into the future.

See also:

Reducing London’s disadvantage gap (January 2016)

University progression for the NewVIc class of 2015 (December 2015)

England’s engines of mobility (October 2015)

London’s engines of mobility (October 2015)

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Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’.

How do we understand the difference between the behaviour of an individual and that of a society, between a small group of like-minded people and a political movement or between the ecosystem of a few acres and that of a whole planet?

Clearly these are differences of scale, but some of the properties of the larger more complex systems can’t simply be explained as scaled-up versions of the properties of the smaller constituent parts. Those properties of the whole which can’t easily be explained at the level of the parts are emergent properties. These properties operate at a different level and require different explanations which is why social and political phenomena can’t be explained by psychology alone and biological processes can’t simply be explained by physics or chemistry. Reductionist explanations which involve understanding how the parts work can be very useful in helping us to understand the whole, but they never tell the whole story.

The most interesting questions are often about the translation between what is happening at one level and the next one ‘up’ or ‘down’. It’s by studying this interface that we begin to understand how chemical changes could have life or death effects on a whole organism, how individual human behaviours could influence a whole society or how human activity could have a planetary impact. To do these translations between levels we need to be confident with the rules and explanations governing both the levels we’re interested in, in other words to understand the properties of both the parts and the whole. This can put the overspecialised expert on just one level at a disadvantage.

In his brilliant book ‘Thinking Global’ (‘Penser Global’, Flammarion, 2015) the distinguished French sociologist Edgar Morin aims to help us get our heads around the overwhelming complexity of a modern world where so much is at stake, including human survival itself. Like Morin, holists reject the idea of breaking knowledge up into subject areas and fields of study but Morin suggests that this can itself be a form of reductionism – seeing only the whole and failing to take account of the constant dynamic interaction and feedback between the different levels. Morin is neither a reductionist nor a holist; going beyond the distinction between parts and wholes to see the key issue as the complexity of the system itself.

The first task, according to Morin, is to contextualise. Things only make sense if they are seen in their context; like a word in a sentence or human action within a human culture. In looking at humans in our world he sees both unity and diversity; a striking genetic, physiological and emotional unity – we all smile and cry, experience pain and joy, but this commonality translates itself into a great diversity of cultures and behaviours. Morin says that at a time when we all share a common planetary destiny:

We have to recognise others as both different to us and the same as us. If we see others as entirely different we cannot understand them. If we see them as entirely the same we cannot see what makes them original and different.

In order to start thinking about a global human society we need to understand the relationships between the parts and the whole and the emergent properties of a complex social system. Individuals and groups interacting with each other have produced languages, cultures and structures of power and regulation such as states with laws and institutions all of which can endure beyond any individual lifetime. The whole both releases and limits the potential of the parts but amounts to much more than the mere sum of those parts.

Social changes can be seen as disruptions at the social level which eventually transform the whole system, like capitalism growing from within feudalism or a new technology revolutionising the way people live. But historical evolution should not be seen as linear; the smooth flow of a majestic river. Instead, we need to understand that it is often triggered by apparently marginal events or accidents which set off deeper systemic change.

The more complex human society becomes, the more interdependent we become; relying on a web of connections, interactions and tensions which we barely understand. At the global level, this leads to greater uncertainty and risk. Emerging global challenges require some perspective to be properly understood and addressed and we need time to come to terms with these; time which we can’t always afford. Morin reminds us that during his youth in the 1930’s, European society seemed to be sleepwalking towards disaster and he quotes Hegel: “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk”. Given the colossal challenges we face today, we need to seek to understand the human condition a little better if we are to spread our wings a little faster. The parlous state of our human condition demands urgent action.

However, as Morin says, all action is a gamble full of uncertainty and success can never be guaranteed. No sooner do we make what we think is a wise and enlightened decision, it is released into a social, economic and political context outside of our control and may have all sorts of unintended consequences. This is not a counsel of despair, simply a reminder that our current understanding is always partial and that we need to combine the desire to deal with urgent problems with some humility about our abilities. We only need to reflect on the genuinely held fallacies and misconceptions of the past to recognise that we are probable just as prone to error and illusion today.

Morin makes the case for a new paradigm to replace a reductionist and atomised view of knowledge with a more ‘connected’ paradigm of complexity. We are in a period which Morin describes as the ‘prehistory of human thought’. Early Homo Sapiens had essentially the same brains and capacities as we do but we now have to operate at a new level and face new threats; fear, fanaticism, murderous conflict and political regression. We also have more powerful tools – both real and conceptual – at our disposal. But human society is a constant ‘work in progress’ and we need improved tools for global thinking.

Morin concludes:

Faced with all these dangers we need to seek a more open way of thinking, one which is both more global and more complex. We need to reject dogmatism; the hardening of our ideas and the refusal to test them against reality. We need to abandon a closed rationalism which cannot grasp what might be beyond conventional thinking and instead commit to an open rationalism which knows its limitations. We have to struggle constantly to avoid believing in those illusions which could acquire the solidity of a belief system. In this global world we are faced with the challenge of global thinking, which is the challenge of complex thinking. We are living through the beginning of a beginning.

Based on the final chapter ‘Pensée complexe et pensée globale’

See also :

Citizens of somewhere, citizens of anywhere (May 2017)

The social origins of human thinking (March 2016)

Gulliver’s levels (May 2015)

Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

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