The problem with educational research is that it is now so easy to find the data to back up any old nonsensical proposition.
My own razor-sharp research here, for instance, is based on just one wet afternoon’s work over half-term, mulling over the highest and lowest positions in the 2019 state secondary school league tables. The assertion I could make from so doing is that headteachers with beards tend to be the worst in the country.
The evidence? Well, if we start by looking at school websites or local media photos of male leaders at the top 30 Progress 8-scoring schools on the table, we find that there is not a single secular beard – just a couple grown for reasons of religion.
There is, admittedly, a hint of stubble on the faces of the men in charge at Mossbourne Community Academy and Dixons Unity Academy, but plainly not enough facial foliage to have had any adverse effect on their students’ GCSE performances last summer.
I found just two beards in the entire top 50. Male heads at those high-performing state schools were almost universally clean-shaven.
In contrast, when I examined the chins of male leaders at the wrong end of that Progress 8 list (excluding special schools), there was an absolute forest. Of the 17 male heads in the lowest-scoring 30 schools, no fewer than 10 of them had beards.
Blades equal grades
After securing lucrative sponsorship from Gillette or Wilkinson, I could use my research to burst on to that lucrative circuit of conferences and school Insets, selling my overpowering “blades equal grades” message using a suitably smooth sequence of PowerPoint slides.
Current and aspiring male heads could all become clean-shaven within a matter of months. No more growth mindset for them – not after Movember, anyway. I could peddle this for years before some other false prophet drove me out, perhaps spreading the alternative message that the highest-performing heads tended to believe in God. (Perhaps not quite as strong a correlation as there is for beard rejection, but not far off.)
Yes, I am fully aware that my beard conclusions are nonsense and that league tables are nonsense, too: a truly poisonous and unsurprisingly now corrupting influence on education.
My real point here is that career opportunists in education can – more easily than ever – build a whole idea and reputation based largely on a convenient and creative use of data.
Scrolling and flitting
The spurious theory can breed and thrive in education today because we, the customers, have little time, and are thus in no position to scrutinise and challenge.
How many of us, in a typical week, have any time to absorb, analyse and fully evaluate anything, other than our students’ work? The rest of our information-gathering time is too often limited just to reading headlines, clicking, scrolling, and flitting from one item to another.
This is not how it should be. As the nation’s educators, we should all be into conducting research ourselves, rather than merely hoodwinked recipients. We should all have time set aside in our working week for this: we should all be part of some national or global R&D hub, with everyone gaining and improving as a result.
Sadly, in this frantic world of work overload, financial underfunding and said league tables, we are moving further away from such a vision, despite digital technology offering far more potential for in-depth research and collaboration than ever before. (Though ResearchEd and Tes do, in fairness, shine a torch in all this darkness.)
One probability, for instance, is that some busy people will just read the headline and perhaps even choose to take the beard message at, er, face value. They will miss the whole point, which will, of course, further illustrate that point.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire