The overall absence rate for schools in the Autumn term of 2022-2023 was 7.5%. This was an increase from the previous term and from the pre-covid absence rate of just under 5%.
In the Autumn term of 2022/2023, the persistence absence rate was 24.2%, compared to just 11.6% in 2016/17. This means 24.2% of pupils missed 10% or more of their lessons, with illness being the main reason.
Why are school absence rates higher?
There are several possible reasons including:
higher rates of illness, including the persistence of covid
poor mental health
The cost of living crises
more parents working from home
A new norm of ‘hybrid schooling’…?
Higher rates of illness
Illness is the main reason for absence provided, and there have been relatively high numbers of flu cases and of course Covid is still around.
However, ‘illness’ is the standard excuse parents will use. There may be deeper reasons, which I think are the main cause.
Poor mental health
The Children Society’s Good Childhood Report of 2022 reported that children today are 50% more likely to have mental health problems compared to three years ago.
Unhappy and anxious children are more likely to want to avoid going to school!
This correlates perfectly with the increase in persistent absence, and is certainly something worth exploring further.
The Cost of Living Crisis
According to Joseph Rowntree, it is the poorest 20% of households that are suffering the most from increasing inflation, with many of them struggling to pay the bills and feed their children.
Poverty means poor diets and colder homes, which could feed into higher illness rates and higher absence rates, it could also mean inability to pay for the hidden costs of education such as school uniforms and stationary which could lead to absences due to a sense of shame.
More parents working from home
Hybrid working is increasingly common post-covid, and now that one parent is more likely to be home one or more days of the week, they are more able to look after children who are sick or ‘sick’.
A new norm of hybrid education?
Following covid and children having had time of school, some parents may simply not see the need for their children to be in school 5 days a week.
To my mind this makes sense. Many parents feel the benefits of being home 2-3 days a week and in the office for the rest of the week, they may feel their children could benefit from a similar pattern, especially because schools are now set-up to provide extra support for absent children following Covid.
This final point would be worth researching.
This material is mainly relevant to the education module within A-level sociology.
28.2% of schools are faith schools, most of them Christian.
Faith Schools are schools which have either have formal links to particular faith based organisations or just have a ‘religious character’.
There are three main types of state funded Faith School in England and Wales: Voluntary Aided (VA), Voluntary Controlled (VC) and Faith Academies. Some Faith schools are also independent, or fee-paying schools.
Faith schools have to teach the National Curriculum (although not Faith Academies because all academies are exempt from this requirement) but they can teach what they like for Religious Education, limiting the content to their own faith if they wish.
Faith schools are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of faith in relation to applications if they only have a limited number of applications. For example if a Faith school has 1000 places and they only have 1000 applications, they MUST allow all of those students into the school no matter what the faith of the applicant.
However Faith schools discriminate on the basis of Faith of applicants if the school is oversubscribed, using Faith as a preference for admitting students of the school’s faith before students who do not share the faith of the school. (3)
How Many Faith Schools?
In 2019 there were 1342 Faith schools in England and Wales, meaning that 28.2% of all schools were Faith schools and the remainder, over 70% were non-faith schools (3)
What faith are Faith schools?
68% are Church of England
29% are Catholic
1% are other Christian faiths
2% are non-Christian.
The statistics vary a lot depending on whether the schools are primary or secondary.
Church of England
Looking at the figures in terms of raw numbers you really get an impression for how dominant Christian schools are, and especially Church of England schools…
4370 Church of England
1649 Roman Catholic
72 Other Christian
There are very few non-Christian faith schools in England and Wales today.
Arguments against Faith Schools
Faith schools are selective: they take a disproportionate amount of students from wealthier, middle class backgrounds which explains their better results compared to non-faith schools.
However the fact that faith schools are selecting more middle class students results in a polarising effect with non-faith based schools having to take on a higher proportion of children from lower income backgrounds.
Parents really just want decent community focussed schools that encourage social cohesion, whereas Faith schools may have the opposite effect: by teaching pupils a particular faith they may well be isolating them from the wider community leading to increased social fragmentation.
There is little specific formal guidance for schools and more than half trans pupils feel like they can’t be themselves in school.
85% of schools report (1) they have seen an increase in the number of pupils identifying as either trans or non-binary, that is pupils identifying as a different gender to that which they were assigned at birth.
Schools have a long, historical tradition of being organised along a simple male-female divide which does not recognise trans identities, the most obvious examples of which include:
gendered school uniforms
gendered sports teams
Some schools are even boys and girls only schools!
Such simplistic traditional gender-divisions are potentially discriminatory against the increasing number of pupils with transgender identities, and this post explores the extent to which policies in schools are adapting to this increasing diversity of gender identities.
Government Policy Guidance on Transgender Children in Schools
The House of Commons Library last published guidance on how schools should support transgender children (2).
The briefing follows the Equality Act of 2010 stating that schools must not discriminate against pupils who are undergoing gender transformation, which doesn’t have to involve physical surgery, so any student transitioning to another gender is protected by law.
However besides this there is little central laying down of rules about what schools should do to support transgender pupils.
For example schools don’t have to provide gender neutral toilets or changing rooms, and they are free to continue with a traditional male-gender divide in P.E lessons.
The uniform restrictions are the most stringent as schools need to provide flexibility to accomodate cultural diversity, so transgender pupils are already covered against discrimination here in most cases.
The Home Secretary Seems to be Transphobic
Yet another generational disconnect that doesn’t help trans pupils is the fact that the current Home Secretary, Suela Braveman (*) comes across as Transphobic.
As far as she is concerned people under 18 cannot obtain a gender recognition certificate and so schools are under no obligation to recognise or support trans children in any way at all (4)
She has explicitly stated that schools don’t have to recognise students by any name other than that assigned at birth, and that they MUST provided single sex toilets, she has also suggested that schools are obliged to out transitioning pupils to their parents if they are not aware of this going on.
(*) I deliberately misspelled her name as she clearly thinks names don’t matter.
Support for Trans Pupils in schools is lacking
The latest survey data on how supported trans pupils feel in school to feel comfortable with their own (rather than birth-assigned) gender identity is from Stonewall in 2017 (3) which found that between one third and two thirds of trans pupils don’t feel supported.
While 75% of trans pupils reported that they were allowed to wear a uniform which fitted in with their identity, this is almost irrelevant as an indicator of discrimination as most schools today have gender-neutral uniform options – that is girls can choose to wear trousers if they want to .
Most shockingly of all one third of transgender pupils reported not being to use their own name in school, which is just about the most basic aspect of one’s individual identity I can think of, which is pretty hard evidence that one third of trans pupils feel like they are being directly discriminated against.
Finally, the majority of trans pupils report not being able to use toilets or changing rooms or feeling comfortable with sports suited to their gender.
I can understand that schools might find it difficult to find sports options that trans pupils feel comfortable with, given that most traditional school sports are spilt along traditional gender lines, and there might be resource restrictions on offering a wider variety of gender neutral options, providing discrete changing rooms and gender neutral toilets are relatively minor changes which could be made quite easily, and clearly by 2017 most schools hadn’t made these changes.
In terms of pupils feeling they can’t use their own name, that strikes me as just an unwillingness on the part of schools to make a very easy adaptation.
However, many schools are very supportive
It’s five years on since Stonewall’s last research on this issue, and even though we have a disconnected ageist and transphobic home secretary many schools do have policies in place which do support trans pupils.
A google search for ‘trans policies in schools’ yields several policy documents from schools which show a clear willingness to put in place mechanisms to make sure trans students feel comfortable, so thankfully many schools are more inclusive than central government!
Clearly when it comes to trans identities schools were lacking in their support for trans pupils in 2017, and central government is not at all supportive, but it will be interesting to see what future research shows on this issue in the coming years – I’m sure there will be more support in place, but we’ll have to wait for more data to know for certain!
Academies were first introduced under New Labour in the year 2000 to drive up standards and improve equality of opportunity. However academies under the coalition and the new Tories have been more about creating a quasi market in education.
Academy schools are state funded schools which are independent of Local Education Authorities (LEAs), unlike ‘community schools’ which are subject to more Local Education Authority control and receive their funding from them.
Academies receive their funding directly from the government and have the freedom to manage their own budgets, fire and hire staff, set their own daily timetable and term dates and do not have to follow the national curriculum.
Every academy is required to be part of an academy trust (AT), which is a charity and company limited by guarantee. They can seek additional funding from companies, philanthropists, charities or religious organisations, and are non-profit organisations.
They were first introduced under the New Labour Government in the late 1990s and have gradually replaced schools managed by Local Education authorities.
Some academies are run as part of a multi-academy trust (MATs) such as Harris-Academies where several schools are run under one centralised management structure.
Most of the early academies chose to become academies, but some have been forced to convert away from LEA control to academies following an ‘in need of improvement’ grading by OFSTED, many of these converter academies having to choose an MAT to manage them.
Like community (LEA) schools academies are inspected by OFSTED and follow the same nationally imposed rules regarded exclusions and Special Educational Needs provision.
Types of Academy
There are three main types of academy schools: sponsored, converter and free schools.
Sponsored academies were the first type of academy, established under New Labour in the year 2000. They are typically underperforming schools which have failed an OFSTED inspection and have been required to move away from LEA control and become academies.
In the early days sponsors were businesses, philanthropists, charities or religious organisations but today well established successful academies or MATs can be sponsors and take over failing schools.
These are already existing schools under Local Education Authority control which have voluntarily chosen to become academies.
There are certain advantages to a school becoming an academy – more control over its affairs and the fact that they save on 15% VAT on goods and services which they don’t pay, unlike LEA schools.
Converter academies are the main type of academy today and account for 2/3rds of existing academies.
Free Schools are newly created schools which are run as academies.
Free Schools were introduced under the Coalition Government in 2011 and are typically established by local interest groups who want a better standard of education for their children.
So far they have been established by groups of parents, teachers, charities, businesses and faith groups.
A History of Academies
City Academies were first introduced in the year 2000 under New Labour and then saw a rapid expansion under both the Coalition (2010-2015) and Tory governments (2015 to present day).
Academies under New Labour
Academies were first launched as ‘city academies’ in 2000 under the New Labour (1997 to 2010) government, and Lord Adonis, then education advisor to the Labour government, is credited with their establishment.
Most early academies were ‘sponsored academies’ – they were failing LEA schools in deprived urban areas which were shut down and then re-opened under new management as academies and in the early 2000s huge amounts of capital funding was injected into these early academies.
In 2002 the prefix ‘city’ was removed to allow schools in non urban areas to join the academies programme.
The rationale behind academies was that they would raise educational standards through increasing diversity and choice and encouraging competition between schools – and they are thus an expansion of the ‘marketisation’ of education introduced by the previous Tory government.
Early academies were founded and governed by sponsors including businesses, charities and universities, with funding initially capped at £2 million per school. (This cap was lifted in 2009).
New Labour’s early academies had a greater intake of Free School Meals students and the hope was that by making them independent of LEA control and introducing private sponsorship they would encourage a culture of high aspirations among students and thus break the cycle of deprivation.
This focus on combining marketisation and social justice concerned is very characteristic of the third way ethos which lay behind many of New Labour’s policies.
Mossbourne Community Academy
An example of a successful early academy is Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, which was opened in 2004 with a capital budget of £23 million being spent on shiny new school buildings.
The first headmaster of Mossbourne Academy was (now) Sir Michael Wilshaw, who went on to become the chief inspector for OFSTED. He instigated a regime of high expectations of all students with strict rules about not only attendance and punctuality but also strict dress code.
Teachers were required to work long hours as were students deemed to be in need of extra help to reach their target grades with additional after school lessons and Saturday lessons part of the weekly regime for those who required them.
The school also set up a range of extra curricular activities emulating private schools such as a debating and rowing club – increasing access to cultural capital for those students who took up these opportunties.
Mossbourne was extremely successful in getting its students excellent grades but there is a question mark over how much of this was down to the extreme amount of initial funding injected into this flagship academy project.
By 2006 there were 46 academies established, half of these in London, which had capital and operating costs of £1.3 billion.
By 2010 there were 203 Academies up and running.
Academies under the Coalition
The Coalition identified academies as one of their main education policies for simultaneously raising standards and improving equality of educational opportunity by narrowing the achievement gap.
The Coalition government pursued the setting up of academies even more enthusiastically than the previous New Labour government, their aim being to make it the norm for all state schools to be academies, rather than just for failing schools and schools in deprived areas as had been the case previously.
The new Coalition Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote to all head teachers in 2010 informing them that all secondary and primary schools would be invited to convert to secondary school status, and schools with and OUTSTANDING status from OFSTED would be fast tracked through the process of conversion.
In 2011 the academy conversion process was extended to all schools doing well, and other schools not classified as doing well good convert to academies if they joined already existing academy chains which were doing well.
Fast tracked schools were required to support at least one weaker school, the idea being that better schools would partner with weaker schools and help them improve.
The Coalition also continued with ‘forced academisation’, in June 2011 the government announced that it would be forcing the weakest 200 schools to become academies, under new management, typically an already existing well-performing academy or academy trust.
The 2010 academies act also made it a requirement for all new schools to be either academies or free schools (see below) – this prevented the Local Education Authorities from setting up new schools.
Michael Gove also introduced legislation which allowed for the establishment of Free Schools – entirely new academies which allowed teachers, parents or religious groups (for example) to set up a new school in their own area if they were not satisfied with local provision. By the end of the Coalition government 254 Free Schools had been opened.
All through the five years of the coalition government the academies programme continued at a rapid pace – by the end of the New Labour government in 2010 there were 203 academies, and within nine months of the coalition this had doubled to 442 academies.
By the time of the general election in 2015 there were just over 5000 academies in England and Wales, which was 40% of all secondary schools.
The rapid rise of academies during the Coalition is down to two factors primarily:
The streamlined application process made it a lot faster to convert
There were financial benefits to becoming academies – independent control of budgets (rather than LEA control) made finances easier to manage and there was additional central funding available, all during a time of austerity which made converting very appaling.
West and Baily (2013) have suggested that while New Labour saw academies as a way of solving the problem of failing schools the Coalition used setting them up en masse to enact system wide change towards a more marketised education system.
Academies since 2015
When the Tories came to Power in 2015 David Cameron’s stated aim was to achieve full academisation, that is he wanted ALL schools to become academies.
A 2016 white paper proposed that all schools had to start converting to academies by 2020 and that any that hadn’t would be instructed to do so by 2022, the idea being that the Local Education Authorities would have no role in management education by 2022.
However, there was resistance to this forced academisation, especially by primary schools which were doing well and were reluctant to hand over control to relatively new Multi Academy Trusts and these plans were relaxed and the government focused its efforts on ‘encouraging’ LEA schools to convert voluntarily rather than forcing them.
Even so the number of academies continued to increase rapidly under the Tory government and by 2020 the number of academies had risen to over 9000, an increase of around 1000 per year, and most of these converter academies.
There are also new national structures in place now to regulate academies:
The Education and Skills Funding Agency regulates funding
The Schools Commissioners Group made up of eight regional commissioners for schools monitors academies in their regions.
The growth of Academies in England and Wales
The total number of academies in England and Wales has grown rapidly since 2010, although the rate of growth has slowed in more recent years.
In 2009 to 2010 there were a total of 133 academies
By 2019/ 2020 there were a total of 9200 academies
The total number of academies increased by 5% between 2018/2019 to 2019/2020, but this figure would have been lowered because of the impact of Covid, as schools focused on dealing with safe re-opening and helping pupils catch up rather than converting to academy status.
Key for the above table:
Dark blue = sponsored academies
Light blue = converter academies
Mid blue (smallest) = Free Schools.
There are more secondary than primary academies…
In 2020 78% of secondary schools were academies, 22% where LEA run schools
This compares to 36% of primary schools being academies, 54% remain under LEA control.
Multi Academy Trusts
The number of schools in MATs has increased since 2018, with the largest increase being for schools in trusts with 6-10 schools, with 25% of schools being in trusts of 6-10 schools.
15% of schools are single schools
40% are in small trusts of 2-9 schools
25% are in large trusts of 10-19 schools
20% are in very large trusts of 20+ schools
The average number of schools in a trust has increased from 5 to 7 schools in the last four years to 2022 and the largest trust today has 75 schools in it.
Evaluations of Academies
There has been criticism of how far New Labour’s early academies managed to break the cycle of deprivation (Gorand 2009, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, 2008)
Under the coalition the Local Education Authority system of provision of schooling was dismantled – this involved democratically elected bodies planning appropriate educational provision for a local area. This has now been replaced with a greater diversity of provision, increased competition between schools and greater involvement of non-elected officials (sponsors) in how local schooling is run (Walford 2014)
As a result there is now a lack of accountability to the local communities in which academies exist because there is no LEA control.
Funding arrangements for academies are agreed between the secretary of state and the management company of the academy – this means there is no ‘democratic oversight’ of funding arrangements – sponsors are effectively operating outside of the democratic process (Ward and Eden (2009).
While the government speaks of ‘diversity and choice’ another way of looking at this is that they have created a fragmented education system – when there is no local planning for provision you get overlap and inefficiencies, especially where Free Schools are concerned!
Multi Academy Trusts vary in their degrees of competence, and for those schools which are still under LEA control, they may be better off remaining so, BUT LEAs now get much less funding because so much of it has been siphoned off to the academy trusts, so they may not be able to offer as much support in the future.
In short, it’s possible that academisation has gone so far and now LEAs are so weakened that full academisation is possibly now inevitable.
Signposting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology
This material is primarily relevant to the education aspect of the AQA’s A-Level Sociology specification.
Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition
The Pupil Premium provides extra funding to schools to improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children in England and Wales.
Both Local Education Authority Schools and Academies in England and Wales get the following Pupil Premium Funding (2022 to 2033 figures)
£1385 (primary) or £985 per pupil who is eligible for Free School Meals (or who has been eligible within the last six years)
£2410 (primary and secondary) per pupil who has been adopted from care or left care,
£2410 (primary and secondary) per pupil who is looked after by the Local Authority.
Payments for the first two above are paid directly to the school ( the later to the LEA) and school leaders have the freedom (and responsibility) to spend the extra funding as they see fit.
Approximately two million school children qualify for the Pupil Premium:
How the Government expects schools to spend the Pupil Premium?
There are three suggested areas:
General teaching – school leaders are allowed to just spend money from the Pupil Premium on recruiting more teachers or support staff, or training.
Targeted Support for disadvantage pupils – this is probably what you imagine the funding being spent on – things such as extra tuition in small groups for specific children, probably those who generate the Pupil Premium
Wider areas – such as Breakfast Clubs or helping fund the cost of educational trips
Schools are required to publish online statements outlining how they have spent their Pupil Premium Funding.
Pupil Premium: The Theory
The pupil premium is the main government policy to tackle the educational underachievement ‘caused’ by material deprivation.
This educational policy recognises the fact that children from disadvantage backgrounds face more challenges and achieve lower grades than children from more affluent backgrounds.
Children who are eligible for Free School Meals are from the lowest 15 – 20% of households by income, so they will probably be living in relative poverty, and some of them will be experience material deprivation.
The government gives most of the money straight to the schools with such disadvantaged children, allowing school leaders to pick a strategy that they think will work best for their school, as one solution won’t work for every school!
The Pupil Premium: Does it Work?
This 2021 Parliament Briefing summarises seven reports on the attainment gap and the effectiveness (or lack of it) of the Pupil Premium.
On the positive side, it notes that the attainment gap (between disadvantaged and non disadvantaged children) has come down in the last ten years, since the Pupil Premium was introduced, BUT this trend alone doesn’t necessarily mean it was the Pupil Premium which led to this.
Moreover, the report notes that the recent school closures following the government’s choice to lockdown the nation as a response to the Pandemic have almost certainly impacted disadvantaged children more, and it’s unlikely that the Pupil Premium will be sufficient to make up for this.
Besides this vaguely positive note, there is a lot of criticism of the Pupil Premium too, and four stand out:
Firstly, a lot of schools are spending the money to plug gaps in school funding, so not targeting it at disadvantaged students, but just spending it on general school needs.
Secondly, many reports point out that lack of school funding is the problem and the Pupil Premium doesn’t make up for this.
Thirdly, a lot of the money, where targeted, is being spend on Learning Assistants, but apparently this isn’t the most efficient way to help disadvantaged students.
Finally, some reports criticise the accountability aspect, schools don’t have to be too specific in outlining how they spend the money.
It is also relevant to the education and social class topic, but be careful as the Pupil Premium is only designed to tackle material deprivation, not class inequalities or differences more broadly, and relative deprivation/ material deprivation are only one aspect of the more broader concept of social class.
The most common type of unregistered schools offer ‘alternative provision’ – 28%, while 25% are general educational schools and 21% are religious (although the media tends to focus primarily on the later!).
It is illegal to run a school which is not registered with OFSTED, and to to so is a criminal offence which may result in fines or a prison sentence, but this hasn’t put people off setting such schools up, or put some parents off sending their children to them.
The problem with unregistered schools, according to OFSTED is that they may fail to have adequate checks in place when recruiting staff, lack adequate safeguarding provisions and not put sufficient resources into teaching the ‘British Values’ agenda.
However it seems like illegal schools may continue going forwards as Local agencies lack the power to investigate, so it’s down to OFSTED, and apparently they don’t have the power to shut down illegal schools which are performing below standards anyway.
Even if the people running them face prosecution, which is rare, the penalties handed out don’t appear to be very tough – in one example in which two people were prosecuted – they only received suspended prison sentences and a tiny fine, and that’s after having been caught once before and ignored the instruction to desist running the school!
Relevance to A-level Sociology
This topic is clearly relevant to the education module, and could also be applied to Crime and Deviance.
The existence of such ‘illegal schools’ shows us that there isn’t consensus across the education system as there are hundreds of teachers and parents willing to avoid OFSTED.
You could apply labelling theory to this – these schools are only illegal because OFSTED exists and there is a legal requirement to register – just because OFSTED labels them ‘illegal’ doesn’t mean they are bad schools.
In fact you could say it’s fair enough that such schools have increased (probably, it’s difficult to count!) since Covid-19 – given the disruption to education in regular schools, and what I can only imagine is an extremely stressful environment which is very unpleasant to be in, maybe it’s BETTER that some parents and teachers are ignoring the rules and setting up their own ad-hoc schools.
Don’t go falling into the trap/ myth that formal-‘legal’ state sanctioned ways of doing things are the best or only options!
The classic method for researching in classrooms is non-participant observation, the method used by OFSTED inspectors. However, there are other methods available to the researcher who wishes to conduct research on actual lessons within schools.
Classrooms are closed environments with very clear rules of behaviour and typically containing around 20-30 students, one teacher and maybe one learning assistant, and lessons usually lasting from 40 minutes to an hour.
The obvious choice of research method for using in a classroom is that of non-participant observation, where the researcher takes on the role of the OFSTED inspector.
The fact that there are so many students in one place, and potentially hundreds of micro-interactions in even just a 40-minute lesson gives the observational researcher plenty to focus on, so classrooms are perhaps some of the most data rich environments within education.
Arguably the most useful way of collecting observational data would be for the researcher to have an idea about what they are looking for in advance – possibly how many times teachers praise which pupils, or how many times disruptive behaviour takes place, and how the teacher responds, rather than trying to watch everything, which would be difficult.
And students will probably be used to OFSTED inspections, or other staff in the school dropping in to observe lessons occasionally, thus it should be relatively easy for a researcher to blend into the background and observe without being too obtrusive.
The fact that classrooms are usually organised in a standardised way (they tend to be similar sizes, with only a few possible variations on desk layouts) also means the researcher has a good basis for reliability – any differences he observes in teacher or student behaviour across classrooms or schools is probably because of the teachers or pupils themselves, not differences in the environments they are in (at least to an extent!).
There are, however, some limitations with researching in classrooms.
Gaining access could be a problem – not all teachers are going to be willing to have a researcher observing them. They may regard their classroom as their environment and think they have little to gain from an outsider observing them – although if a researcher is a teacher themselves, they could maybe offer some useful feedback about teaching strategies applied by teachers.
Teachers will probably act differently when observed – if you think back to OFSTED inspections, teachers usually ‘up their game’ and make sure to be more inclusive and encouraging, this is likely to happen when anyone observes.
Similarly, pupils may behave differently – they may be more reluctant to contribute because of a researcher being present, or disruptive students may act up even more.
Classrooms are very unique, controlled environments, with only two roles (teachers and students) and clear norms. Teachers and students alike will not be themselves in these highly unusual situations.
Finally, researchers wouldn’t be able to dig deeper and ask probing questions when part of a lesson, unless they took on the role of participant observer by becoming an learning assistant, but even then they would be limited to what they could ask if they didn’t want to disrupt the lesson flow.
It’s not all about direct non-participant observation
Researchers might choose a more participatory approach to researching in classrooms, by training to be a learning assistant or even a teacher, and doing much longer term, unstructured observational research with students.
This would enable them to get to really know the students within a lesson, and make it very easy to to ask deeper questions outside of lessons.
The problem with this would be that they would then be part of the educational establishment and students may not wish to open up to them precisely because of that reason.
A further option would be to put up cameras and observe from a distance, but this might come up against some resistance from both teachers and students, and it would be more difficult to ask follow up questions if reviewing the recordings some time after the actual lesson took place.
There are tens of thousands of schools in the United Kingdom, which means that observational research which focuses on just one, or a handful of schools will be unrepresentative. This is also a problem with any of the popular documentary programmes which focus on just one school – they are very interesting as they focus on the stories of the school, and some (but only some) of the pupils and teachers, but they are never going to be representative of all schools!
There are a lot of official statistics available on schools, much of it freely available on the DFES website – information on results, attendance, exclusions are all available, as are the latest OFSTED reports, so using a mixture of secondary qualitative and quantitative data may be a good choice for researchers given that schools are ‘data rich’ institutions.
A researcher could also use official statistics to easily select a sample of schools which represent all the regions in the UK, different OFSTED grades, and/ or different school types.
However, official statistics on education can be misleading – exam results may not reflect the underlying ethos of a school, or show us the difficulties a particular school faces, and schools can manipulate their data to an extent – for example, they can reduce their exclusion statistics by ‘off-rolling pupils’ – getting parents to agree to withdraw them before they exclude them.
Schools are potentially very convenient places to conduct research – because the law requires pupils to attend and teachers/ managers need to attend to keep their jobs, you can be reasonably certain that most people you want to research are going to be in attendance! You have a captive audience!
However, school gatekeepers (i.e. head teachers) may be reluctant to allow researchers into schools: they may see research as disruptive, fearing it may interfere with their duty to educate students.
Schools are also highly organised, ‘busy’ institutions – researchers may find it difficult to find the time to ask questions of pupils and teachers during the day, meaning interviews could be a problem, limiting the researcher to less representative observational research.
The researcher will also need to ensure they blend-in, otherwise they may be seen as an outsider by teachers and students alike, which would not be conducive to getting respondents to open up and provide valid information.
Some education polices such as prevent seem to be racist, and most ethnic minority students would agree!
One sociological explanation for differences in educational achievement by ethnicity is that schools are institutionally racist.
This means that the school system as a whole is racist, or that schools are organised in such a way that children from ethnic minority backgrounds are systematically disadvantaged in education compared to white children.
If schools are institutionally racist then we should find evidence of racism at all levels of school organisation – both in the way that head teachers run schools and the way in which teachers interact with pupils. We might also expect to find evidence of racism in government policies (or lack of them) and regulation.(OFSTED).
What might institutional racism in schools look like?
There are numerous places we might look to investigate whether schools are racist, for example:
The curriculum might be ethnocentric – the way some subjects are taught or the way the school year and holidays are organised may make children from some ethnic backgrounds not feel included.
We could look at school exclusion policies to see if the rules on behaviour and exclusion are biased against the cultural practices of students from particular ethnic backgrounds.
We might look at how effectively schools deal with issues of racism in school – do the victims get effective redress, or is racism just ignored?
We could look at teacher stereotypes and labelling, to see if teachers en-mass have different expectations of different ethnic groups and/ or treat pupils differently based on their ethnicity.
We can look at banding and streaming, to see if students from minority ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the lower sets.
Below I summarise some recent research evidence which may suggest that schools are institutionally racist…
Exclusions by Ethnicity
More Gypsy-Roma, Traveller and Black Caribbean students are excluded from school, but this might not necessarily be evidence of racism…
Exclusion rates for Gypsy-Roma and Traveller Children
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children are 5 times more likely to be excluded from school than white children.
I’ve included the temporary exclusion rates below as you can see the difference (you can’t really see the difference with permanent exclusions because the percentages are too small to really show up).
Exclusion Rates for Black Caribbean Children
The permanent exclusion (2) rates for Black Caribbean and mixed White Black/ Caribbean are two and half times higher than for White children. The respective exclusion rates are:
2.5 children per 10 000 Black Caribbean pupils
2.4 children per 10 000 mixed Black Caribbean and White pupils
1 child per 10 000 White pupils.
Gypsy-Roma children have the highest exclusion rates of all minority groups with 3.9 children per 10 000 pupils being permanently excluded, four times as many exclusions compared to White children.
Whether or not these particular ethnic minority students are being excluded because of institutional racism is open to interpretation, and is something that needs to be investigated further. There is certainly qualitative research evidence (see below) that both groups feel discriminated against in the school system.
Schools punish Black Caribbean Pupils for Hair Styles and ‘Kissing Teeth’
Campaign Group ‘No More Exclusions’ argue that schools with strict exclusion policies are unfairly punishing Black Caribbean pupils for having different cultural norms to pupils from other ethnic backgrounds.
They cite evidence of Caribbean girls having been temporarily excluded for having braids in their hair, while other students have been sanctioned for ‘kissing teeth’, a practice mostly associated with Black students.
Such exclusions are mainly being given out by Academies with strict ‘zero tolerance rules’ on student behaviour, but according to David Gilborn there is a problem of discrimination when black Caribbean students are being disproportionately sanctioned as a result.
In defense of this policy, Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School in London, which enforces very strict rules on behaviour, argues that we should expect the same standards of behaviour from all students, and that Black students know that ‘kissing teeth’ is rude, and so should be punished for it.
Another problem is that if you dig down deeper into the data and look at the overall statistics on reasons for exclusion by ethnicity we find that White pupils are more likely to be excluded for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’ and Black students for more the more serious sounding ‘assault against a pupil’ which suggests maybe that schools are being harsher on White pupils, so this may not be sound evidence of Institutional Racism!
Source: The Independent (no date provided, just lots of adverts, but it must be from late 2019 as it links back to a previous article from October 2019. )
Racist Incidents In Schools Are Mainly Dealt with by Fixed Period Exclusions
According to a recent Guardian article (September 2019), Hate Crimes in schools rose 120% between the years 2015 and 2018. There were 1987 hate crimes recorded by the police in 2018, of which 70% were recorded as being racist. This means that approximately 1500 racist incidents occurred in schools which were deemed serious enough to warrant police involvement.
Schools handed out 4500 fixed term exclusions for racist abuse in 2017/18, but only 13 permanent exclusions.
If the under-reporting rate is similar for children as it is for adults and if most of these racist crimes aren’t ‘very serious’ then it seems that schools are doing a pretty good job at dealing with Racism, even if they are not always involving the police. This certainly seems to be backed up by the case study below…
Case Study 1: How One School Dealt with its problem of racism:
Some pupils do experience racist abuse from other pupils. One example is the case study of eight year old Nai’m, a boy who moved to from Bermuda to Britain with his mother in 2017, who was a victim of at least five racist incidents in a year. (article link from January 2020)/
His mother was contacted by the school when one student, apparently his friend, called him a ‘black midget’. Another pupil told Niam’h that his parents had told him he wasn’t allowed to talk to black or brown people. Niam’h plays football for his local professional club and says a lot of racist name calling occurs on the football field.
Besides Niam’h being a victim staff at the school where this incident happened (The Lawrence Community Trust Primary School) had also overheard racist comments from other students – such as ‘go back to your own country’ being directed at ethnic minority students and discussion about skin colour between students.
The school seems to have taken measures to address this problem with some of the racist attitudes being verbalized by some students by taking the following actions:
they seem to have excluded at least one student
they encouraged Niam’h to give a special assembly on Bermuda
They called in Anthony Walker Charity to deliver a presentation to students on Racism
The A-C Economy
David Gilborn (2002) argues that schools are institutionally racist because teachers interpret banding and streaming policy in a way that disadvantages black pupils.
Gilborn and Youdell (1999) argued that Marketisation policies have created what they call an A-C economy: schools are mainly interested in boosting their A-C rates and so perform a process of educational-triage when they put students into ability groups.
Those who are judged (by teachers) to be able to get a C and above get into the higher sets and are taught properly and pushed to get a C, but some students are labelled as no-hopers and get put in the bottom or bottom sets and written off.
Gilborn and Youdell noted that Black Caribbean children were more likely to be labelled as ‘no-hopers by teachers and were overrepresented in the lower sets, thus this kind of labelling is linked to institutional practice and wider policy thus it is institutional racism.
Racism in Education Policy?
David Giborn has argued that education policies in England and Wales have done little to combat racism over the last several decades. He argues that education policy has never successfully celebrated multiculturalism and that ever since the London Bombings of 2005 there has been an element of anti-Muslim sentiment in the way schools are required to teach British Values.
PREVENT policy certainly seems to have been interpreted in way that is discriminatory against Muslims. 95% of pupils referred under PREVENT are Muslim despite the fact that there have been more problems with racism and extremism from White people following Brexit.
Schools DO NOT have to report Racist Incidents
Schools are not required to report cases of bullying or racial abuse to their Local Education Authorities, only to their governing bodies. Some LEAs insist that governing bodies send them the data but some do not, meaning we have incomplete data on racial incidents in schools.
This implies that the Tory government (this no-reporting requirement was introduced in 2010) isn’t interested in even knowing whether racism in schools is a problem or not.
The available data (1) shows us that 60 000 racial incidents were reported in the five years between 2016-2020 but that information had to be collected through a Freedom of Information Request and will not included all of the racist incidents in schools during that period.
Student Perception of Racism in Schools
70% of Black students report having experienced racism in school, according to a YMCA poll of 550 students in 2020 (3)
The report is depressing reading with Black students reporting being called racial names such as ‘monkey’ and being criticised because of having untidy ‘Afro’ hairstyles.
The report also noted a resigned acceptance of the fact that schools were just institutionally racist.
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children feel excluded from mainstream education
Professor Kalwant Bhopal has conducted research with GRT children and found that they don’t feel represented in the school curriculum: parents believed that their histories were not adequately represented, and were uncomfortable with sex education being done in school, as this was something usually done within the family in their culture. In short, it sounds as if they are experiencing the mainstream school curriculum as being ethnocentric.
Parents and pupils also claimed that they had experienced racism from both children and teachers within schools, however, when they reported incidents of racism this tended not to be taken seriously as they were white.
Conclusion: Are schools ‘institutionally racist’?
There is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting that institutional racism does exist in schools today, starting with some overtly discrimantory policies such as PREVENT and the failure of government to even collect data on racist incidents.
The strongest evidence lies in student perceptions of racism, with over 70% of Black British students feeling as if they are discriminated against in education.
This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education, usually taught in the first year of A-level Sociology.
Big data enthusiasts argue that the greater data collection and analysis potential provided by e-learning platforms such as Khan Academy and Udacity provide much more immediate feedback to students about how they learn, and they thus predict a future in which schools and private data companies will work together in a new educational ecosystem…
This is a continuation of my summary of Meyer-Schonberger and Cukier’s in their (2017) ‘Big Data: The Essential Guide to Work, Life and Learning in the Age of Insight.
The advantages of e-learning platforms over traditional education
Khan Academy is well-known for its online videos, but just as important to its success is the software which collects data about how students learn, as well as what they are learning.
To date, Khan Academy has data on over a billion completed exercises, which includes information on not only what videos students watch and what tests scores they achieve, but also on the length and number of times they engage with each aspect of the course, and the time of day they did their work. This enables data analysts to deduce (probabilistically) how students learn most effectively, and to provide feedback as to how they might improve their learning.
The Kahn Academy is just one online learning platform, along with a whole range of MOOCs offered through Udacity, Coursera and edX, as well as SPOOCs (small, private online courses) which are collecting huge volumes of data on student learning. The volume of data is unprecedented in human history, and Cukier suggests that this could change the whole ecosystem of learning, incorporating third parties who do the data analysis and with the role of instructors (‘teachers’) changing providing advice on which learning pathways students should adopt.
At least some of the Khan Academy Data on learning is available to third parties to analyse for free, and information personal to students is presented to them in the form a dashboard, which allows for real-time feedback to take place.
Cukier contrasts the above, emerging ecosystem of online learning, to the present ‘backward’ way in which data is collected and managed in the current education system as backward (he actually uses the term ‘agrarian’ to describe the process) – in which students are subjected to a few SATs tests at predetermined stages, and this score is ‘born by them’ until the next test, which makes labelling by teachers more likely.
In addition to this, the school day and year are run in a 19th century style, pigeon holed into year groups, pre-determined classes, students exposed to the same material, and with digital devices often banned from classes. All of this means data cannot be harnessed and analysed.
Where does this leave existing institutions of learning?
Schools and universities are well poised to harvest huge amounts of data on students, simply because they have 1000s, or 10s of 1000s of students enrolled.
To date, however, these traditional education institutions have shown a very limited ability to collect, let alone analyse and use big data to better inform how students learn.
The coming change will affect universities first – these have mature students, and this audience is more than capable of digesting insights about how to learn more effectively… the big universities where fees are expensive and students don’t get much back in return are poised for disruption by innovators…
Some of the very top universities seem to have got the importance of BIg Data – MIT identified EdX as a crucial part of its forward strategy in 2013 for example, but some of the universities lower down the pecking order may find it difficult to compete.
The response of some forward looking schools is to embrace elearning – recognising the importance of getting and utilising more data on how students learn – Khan Academy is partnered with a number of schools, for example Peninsula Bridge, a summer school for middle schoolers from poor communities in the Bay area. – Cukier cites an example of one girl who managed to improve her maths due to this (again, evidence cited is almost non existent here!)
The chapter concludes with imaging a future in which schools are just part of a broader ecosystem of learning – which includes a much more prominent role for private companies and where data plays a more central role in learning.
There are number of factors which may contribute to schools’ inability to harness big data:
Time limitations – as Frank Furedi argues in ‘Wasted’, the function of schools have expanded so that they are now expected to do more than just educate kids – thus an ever larger proportion of schools’ budgets are taken up with other aspects of child development; combined with meddling by successive governments introducing new policies every few years, schools are caught in the trap of having to devote their resources to adapting to external stimuli rather than being able to innovate.
Financial limitations/ equality issues – correct me if I’m wrong, but any online course tailored to GCSEs or A-levels is going to cost money, and this might be prohibitively expensive!
The negative teacher experience of governance by ‘small data’ – there is a staggering amount of small data already collected and teachers are governed by this – it might actually be this experience of being governed by data that makes teachers reluctant to collect even more data – no one wants to be disempowered!
Child privacy rights – there is the not insignificant issue of letting big ICT education companies have access to our children’s learning data!