You are not special

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1999)

You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake

It is easy to come to believe that you are something special; that somehow you rise above the crowd in your talents and abilities. Many people believe that they are above average in a range of ways – a bias known as illusory superiority by psychologists. With brutality, the quote above reminds us that we are probably not that special.

Where we have evidence to suggest that we are better than the norm – perhaps we have risen in the ranks at work, have launched a successful venture, or have been recognised by others for our exceptional achievements – we have a tendency to believe that our success comes from our innate abilities and our exceptional efforts. We like to attribute our success to something we have done, or something we possess that others don’t, rather than being in the right place at the right time. We under-estimate the situational factors which have led to our achievements and over-estimate the effect of our inherent abilities. Ask a successful business person what has made them so successful and they will often point to their hard work, determination and business insight. They are ‘self made’, not a product of a privileged upbringing and some lucky breaks.

And neither are they

This bias in our thinking extends to how we view others. People favour explanations which attribute behaviour to personality or character, not to the situational factors which have contributed to what is being observed. I notice this particularly in how we view leaders. We look for what attributes they possess which justify their rise to power, then seek to emulate these characteristics. If only we could be like them. We pay little attention to their story; the twists and turns in their personal history that carried them towards this present. We see them not at the mercy of the sea, but as the master of it – Moses parting the waves. In fact, their abilities are fairly average.

I am also very familiar with the opposite effect. When we observe negative behaviours and failure we also attribute this to the innate character of the individual. When someone cuts us up at a road junction, they are an ‘idiot’ and worthy of our contempt. We do not stop to think of the circumstances which may have caused their temporary lapse in concentration: the sleepless nights of the new parent, the stress of over-worked employee, or the recently bereaved sibling.

Beauty in adversity

Working in schools, I hope, makes one slightly less likely to fall into the attribution bias trap. We witness first hand how a child’s situation affects their future prospects. We are aware that those that achieve the highest examination results usually have a history of good fortune: supportive parents, stable income, positive peer influences. We are also sadly aware of the factors which make success so much harder: childhood trauma, poverty, bereavement, mental illness, to name but a few. Our professional highs come from children overcoming the situational factors and succeeding against the odds. The highlight of exam results day for me in recent years was witnessing one such student get the grades to stay on in Sixth Form, against a strong and persistent head-wind. In that moment, Chuck Palahniuk was wrong: here was a beautiful and unique snowflake.

The narrative of school success

These biases extend to how we view our schools. We look to the most successful schools (with the highest P8 score and the Outstanding badge) and wonder what it is they are doing to achieve such greatness. The schools themselves will parade their success, and make claims of cause and effect. They may tell us how hard they have worked to raise results, about the quality of their CPD programme, or boast of the ethos they have created. We want to believe that there are mechanisms within the control of the school which have resulted in them being so obviously above average so that we might replicate these, and so too achieve success. We all have a stake in this narrative.

Information problems

And yet we don’t actually know what has resulted in success. We have what economists call an information problem. This problem presents itself in a number of ways.

Firstly, our measures of success are narrow – they only reflect certain aspects of quality – therefore we may be only partially informed about which schools are really good.

Secondly, we have limited information about what contributes to school success. The complexity of schools, and the paucity of research in many aspects of schooling, mean that we make best guesses about what the internal causes of any apparent success are.

Thirdly, we under-estimate and ignore the information we do possess about the situational factors which affect school outcomes.

Lastly, we amplify misleading information; we broadcast false narratives about success and failure. This problem is partly a result of successful schools opening themselves up as ‘models of excellence’ and selling their (counter-factual) causal stories to others, and party due to the stories Ofsted tell in their reports which must explain the ‘journey’ from one grade to the next. These stories may reflect the actual process of school improvement or decline, but they might also be explained by the shifting expectations of the inspectorate or the moving goalposts of accountability measures.

In all, we can’t really be sure which schools are great, what makes a school great, and to what extent it is within a school’s control to achieve greatness. As I say, we have an information problem.

There is plenty of evidence for these assertions. In particular, I would point towards the correlation between schools’ Ofsted grade and P8 score, and the level of disadvantage within their catchment. The more affluent a school’s demographic, the greater ‘success’ it appears to have. Just take a look at the P8 scores and Ofsted ratings for grammar schools. It would be irrational to believe that the apparent ‘success’ of this group of schools is a result of their exceptional talents at running schools. It is clearly easier to get great results and a strong Ofsted report if the children at your school have passed an 11+ exam. Now look at the schools serving the most disadvantaged areas of the country. The vast majority achieve much less ‘success’ according to our conventional measures: of course they do.

Where do we find the exceptional?

How do we resist the pull of attribution error? Where should we look to find the school improvement strategies that have merit?

One possibility is to look for the beautiful and unique snowflakes: those schools that have overcome significant adverse situational factors to achieve success against the odds. You know the ones I’m talking about.

I believe there is more to be learned at a system level by examining the school improvement stories of the highly attaining schools in disadvantaged areas than there is by fawning over those with the odds stacked in their favour from the outset. Ethically and pragmatically, what matters most in our country is to improve the education of the most disadvantaged. However, there are two traps which we should be careful to avoid.

The first trap is to again succumb to an attribution error. It is tempting to assume that an amazing turnaround must be entirely attributable to the super-human endeavours of the school itself, and perhaps it is, but we must examine the situational factors too. We must understand all the factors which came together to achieve rapid improvement, else we will attempt to replicate the the internal dynamics without regard to the importance of external circumstances which allowed these to have impact.

The second trap also concerns how transferable school improvement models are. For those in similar circumstances to those schools achieving against the odds, there may be useful information to be gleaned. However, for schools in different circumstances it may not be advisable to replicate the methods observed, even if their efficacy can be proven. Copying the surface features of success has its risks.

A tale of two schools

To illustrate the argument above, let me give you an example of two schools: we’ll call them School A and School B. They are neighboring schools.

School A and School B both achieve an average Progress 8 score. However, School B has done so for many years. It serves a fairly affluent catchment, has stability in staffing and few adverse situational factors. School A, on the other hand, was an historically low achieving school in terms of Progress 8, which has managed to improve outcomes over the last few years. It serves a fairly deprived part of town and has suffered reputational damage from its low ranking in performance tables and Ofsted grading. As a result, staff turnover and leadership instability has been high. School A is a success story against the odds.

It is impossible to isolate one factor which has led to a school’s success, but for the sake of this example lets consider a factor which we believe to be very important, and distinguishes the two schools. School B teaches students for around 25 hours per week (fairly average), whilst School A increased its teaching time to 28 hours a week a few years ago. To do this, the school used a significant amount of its additional funding received as a result of its relatively high proportion of disadvantaged students. The school believes (and has some evidence to support this) that this increase in contact time has been a significant factor in improving exam results for students.

The attribution of at least some of the school’s improvement in results to a 12% increase in teaching time seems rational and supported by some evidence. We know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be less likely to receive private tuition than their more affluent peers, so additional teaching at school would help compensate for this. We also know that these students will be less likely to have parents educated to graduate level and that this may affect the support they receive in their studies, the value placed on education, expectations to progress to higher level study, etc. These students will be less likely to have their own bedroom or to have another quiet place to study. They may have less access to IT and other resources. These are generalisations and will not apply to every student from a less-affluent background, however we know that these factors will affect the achievement of students from disadvantaged backgrounds overall. The increase in teaching time is logical and arguably likely to lead to improved outcomes.

If we could evidence this impact at a national level, perhaps through some large-scale research, then we would take a step closer to overcoming our information problem. Few people would argue against additional resources directed at such schools for actions we know will increase outcomes for disadvantaged students.

What should School B do with this information? In our market for school places, School B will wish to maintain its competitive advantage by increasing further its Progress 8 score. There is now a proven strategy for doing so which is to increase the school week. As it’s student body does not suffer the effects of disadvantage to the same extent as in School A, increasing the school week may actually have the adverse affect of replacing private tuition (and more whole-class teaching may be less effective than the one-to-one tuition some students were receiving) and depriving children of time to relax or pursue the hobbies so beloved of middle-class parents. This move may even be fiercely opposed by some parents (and no-doubt students). However, setting this aside for the moment, there is a more fundamental problem which is how the school can fund this increase.

In the absence of the additional funds received by schools in more disadvantaged areas, School B may achieve additional teaching hours in other ways than a formal increase in the school week. For example, they may begin to expect that teachers provide additional intervention, revision classes and support outside of scheduled lesson time. Given that not all the students at the school need this extra input, this may be targeted at those very students who in another school would receive additional teaching as standard. This intervention may well have a similarly positive impact, which is to close the attainment gap between different groups of students.

This school improvement strategy is a managerially rational response to a competitive market pressure. However, it comes at the expense of a significant increase in workload for teachers, therefore is unsustainable in the longer term.

This example raises all sorts of issues about the unintended consequences of a competitive schools market, simplistic measures of performance and accountability pressures. The story illustrates what happens across the school system. Individual school performance is always relative to the outcomes of other schools and there is a constant quest to work out what it is that others are doing to gain advantage in this game.

Performance over productivity

I will admit at this point that the example above was inspired by the schools that my wife and I work in. She teaches in the improving school and I lead the ‘stable’, relatively advantaged school. I have a great deal of admiration for the school improvement journey her school is on. However, I am presented with dilemmas. Unlike my fictional School B above, we have resisted the pressure to compete in this ridiculous system by over-working our staff to a point where they want to leave teaching (so far they are still with me, at least!). Unlike the portrayal above, we have actually improved outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged students. Furthermore, whilst our headline progress measure is kind of ‘average’, we have made these improvements despite incredible financial pressures and whilst bringing down workload pressures. If I view this as an economist, what we have achieved is to slightly improve output (school effectiveness) but we have significantly increased productivity. In other words, we are getting slightly more out even though much less is going in.

Interestingly (and frustratingly), none of our measures of success reflect improvements to productivity. Ofsted inspections evaluate school effectiveness – they care not for whether your budget has been slashed, or (until recently) whether you are driving teachers out of the profession and into despair. At our last inspection I was told clearly that the they could not consider the 10% reduction in teaching numbers which had just occurred as a factor in our school’s performance. Only the value-added, the flight path and the teaching quality mattered. In some ways this is right: parents want to know how well their children are being educated, not how efficiently. However, achieving more with less is also a sign of tremendous success. If we want to know where to look for evidence of school improvement, we need information about productivity gains as well as output gains.

Factor inputs

Lets’ stay with an economics perspective for a moment. If our aim is to improve outcomes in schools (however we define these), then there are economically two ways of doing this. We either need to increase the quantity or quality of inputs. Increasing the number of taught hours is a quantity strategy. Improving the effectiveness of teaching is a quality strategy. Achieving more with the same or fewer resources (increasing productivity) is more desirable than throwing more money and resource for a disproportionately small increase in outcomes. The most desirable position is to increase resources and make more productive use of these.

In our school system, there is also the option to signal that outcomes are increasing without actually improving effectiveness. This is also known as gaming, and I wrote about this here.

Winning strategies

One of the main problems in the way our school system is set up is that the incentives are such that school improvement strategies are attractive to school leaders in the following order:

  1. Gaming – the easiest path to apparent success
  2. Increase inputs – in the absence of more resources, flog your workforce harder
  3. Increase quality – make every minute of the time students are in school more enriching and beneficial.

Increasing quality takes the most time and expertise. We also know least about how to achieve success in this way. The rewards go to those who achieve better outcomes quickly, regardless of how they achieve these outcomes. Is it any wonder that we have seen an increase in toxic school environments? We get the school improvement we deserve.

Rank hypocrisy

It is not beneficial to persist in asserting that the institution is the sole determinant of improved educational outcomes. When we underestimate situational factors, we attribute too much credit to the winners, and too much blame to the losers. This in turn presents a false narrative of school improvement and leads schools to mimic behaviours which are unproven, and possibly damaging in the longer term.

Neither is it beneficial to equate simplistic outcome measures with true educational success, and rank schools accordingly. The information we need to help improve our schools resides across the system and in the most unlikely of places.

In truth, few schools are really much better than any others. Your school is not that special – get over it. It probably isn’t as good or bad as people keep telling you it is. We are all part of the same compost heap. That means either we can wallow in how much we all stink, or we can believe we collectively hold the power to help beautiful things grow. I prefer to think the latter.

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