Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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3/4/16: we try to do one thing...

You may remember this blog post in which I reviewed the book, "Portfolios of the poor", and noted that the intention eg. to provide insurance policies to the poor is often not realised in practice, with policy holders not able to find the money for the excess being charged.

This idea that we intend to do one thing but end up doing something else is something I've been thinking about recently in connection with some work I'm doing examining the nature of 'strengthening education systems'.  This raises a number of questions: what exactly is an 'education system'?  How do we go about strengthening systems in a sustainable way?  How do we know that we have succeeded in doing so?  And as previously considered in this blog post, to answer the last question we need to distinguish between input and output measures.  So, we may have built new school buildings (and local businesspeople may have benefited considerably from this, which itself can be a confounding issue) but are children learning more?  The inputs might be in place, but what about the outputs?

I came across a great example of an intention gone wrong recently in this publication:

World Bank. (2004). Making services work for poor people: world development report. Washington D.C.: World Bank.

A large car repair business decided that it needed to improve its customer service and offer incentives to its employees for doing so.  How do you know what you have good customer service?  One answer, one might reasonably consider, is because satisfied customers return to you in future.  So, an incentive scheme was put in place, offering bonuses to employees when their customers came back paying for further work.

All fine except for one thing: some employees (I hope a small minority but my source is not clear on this point) worked out that the simplest way to ensure that customers returned for future car repairs was to ensure that something additional is wrong with their car when they took it away.  This resulted in cars being sabotaged and a huge class action against the company running into tens of millions of dollars.

So, the management of the company intended to do one thing, and ended up doing something quite different.

But the example I really want to consider this week is school attendance.  Attending school is a good thing to do.  Education increases life chances of individuals and paves the way for an improved economy for countries and regions.  One big problem in this part of the world is keeping girls in school beyond the primary years, with pressure to stay at home doing domestic chores and also to get married at a very young age.

Two incidents stick in my mind which help to make the point here.  When I was a young teacher I had in my tutor group a boy, Andrew (not his real name) who was absent virtually every Wednesday, turning up on the Thursday with a note from his mother saying that he had been ill with a sore throat / headache / upset stomach / sore throat and headache / sore throat and upset stomach / headache and upset stomach (I don't think he ever had all three simultaneously).  I look back now and consider that I should have raised a concern as to whether this was parent condoned truancy and suspect that, had this happened now, UK schools would have pursued this.  But in the spirit of the age of the time I simply accepted what I was being told.  (I would note that it is also possible that there was some underlying health problem, but, having been there at the time, I strongly suspect that parent condoned truancy was closer to the mark).

The other was when I attended a meeting which was concerned, in part, with a 15 year old boy who was very bright and had done extremely well in tests in year 9 at the age of 13.  Statistical models used by UK schools therefore predicted that he would be getting a good collection of GCSEs.  The problem was, he hardly attended school at all in years 10 and 11, spending more time in magistrates' courts than in the classroom.  Even had he turned up to the GCSE exams, he would have been able to pick up some marks through sheer weight of intellect, but if you don't know the importance of the year 1066, you're not going to be able to figure it out in the examination hall.  What this meant was that this boy was going singlehandedly to bring down a key indicator being used to assess schools, as to how much progress pupils made in the last two years of compulsory schooling.

So, attendance at school is a good thing.  If it's just a minor cough, off you go.  Routine medical and dental appointments should, if at all possible, be arranged out of school hours, whether that be late afternoon, weekends or school holidays.  Family holidays should be taken in the school holidays - I note that the intention behind the relevant sections of the 1944 Education Act was to permit absolutely no more than 10 days off in a year if that was totally avoidable, not to give an entitlement of 10 days per year as it is sometimes understood.

And alongside all of this, in the name of keeping things as positive as possible, schools have organised treats for children achieving perfect attendance, and this is good, isn't it?  Positive reinforcement alongside various monitoring mechanisms at the other end?

Well, no, it's not quite so simple as this.  If children are really ill, then it is better for everyone - that child, the rest of the class, the teacher - for that child to get well as soon as possible.  If you're really not able to concentrate there's no point in being there, and considerable value in staying at home.  And there are, additionally, exceptional reasons why children should quite legitimately be away from school for a day or two.

This point was thrown into sharp relief in this news story in which a girl was unable to go on an end of term treat for those with a 100% attendance record - because she'd missed one day to go to her mother's funeral.  There are a number of details which are not entirely clear, eg. whether the family spoke with the school first or went straight to the media to complain.

But let's examine this situation from a logical perspective.  One might consider that, given this very particular set of circumstances, the girl should have been allowed to go for the treat with her classmates.  If so, we have now established the precedent that there are exceptions to the 100% attendance rule.  So, what other exceptions might reasonably be allowed?  A child seriously ill in hospital who makes valiant efforts to keep up with the work sent by the teachers?  That would seem to be reasonable.  A child whose absence is backed up with a doctor's note?  Yes, so would that.  But - is it really a good use of doctors' time to be writing notes for children, legitimately ill at home but not needing medical intervention beyond what the parents can provide?  If no, then we allow children onto the treat for 100% attendance if they've been away backed up with a parent's note.  Which therefore means that we allow Andrew (as above) to attend with his endless Wednesdays off with sore throats / headaches / stomach aches.

Which means that we are completely defeating the purpose of the treat in the first place, to encourage good attendance.

Incidentally, the end of the story with the girl attending her mother's funeral is that her school discontinued the treat for attendance.  Whilst I understand this response, there's part of me which thinks it was a bit of a shame, that there may be some way of incentivising good attendance without disadvantaging those with entirely legitimate reasons for being away.  But I'm not at all sure how this is operationalised.  Basically we need a definition of legitimate absence which is something other than having a note from the parent.  What should this be?  I don't know, and am interested to hear any thoughts on this matter.  But be warned - any suggestions will be interrogated with the same rigour as the treat for 100% attendance as above!

The general point here is that it's easy to be so flexible that there are no standards, no accountability.  It's also easy to be so fixed on our goals in trying to achieve one thing that we cause unintended problems around us.  Having high standards whilst also being flexible is hard.  Very hard.  I try to do this in my role as a middle manager in a University setting and am by no means convinced that I succeed.  May our Almighty God grant us wisdom as we look to live for Him, combining high standards with flexibility in a manner which brings honour to his Name.

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