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'Why do rich people think they can tell us how to run schools?'

Philanthropists have a huge influence in education – but it's the teachers who know what works best, writes Joe Nutt

Wealthy education foundations_editorial

Philanthropists have a huge influence in education – but it's the teachers who know what works best, writes Joe Nutt

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hit the news again recently after the Rand Corporation issued a damning verdict in its final report on the foundation’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative. All credit to Rand for not attempting to sugar a bitter pill the size of a golf ball by concluding, laconically, that the initiative did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation, particularly for LIM (low-income minority) students.

The US has a famously optimistic, positive view of philanthropic giving, but when the $212 million that the foundation contributed had to be supplemented by another $363 million from the US taxpayer, then a rethink about whether or not this constitutes philanthropy seems in order.

The same situation exists in the UK, albeit on a much-reduced scale. The Sutton Trust spent a mere £5.6 milllion last year but is arguably the most influential educational organisation in the country. It is, in essence, the vehicle for private equity millionaire Sir Peter Lampl’s social mobility philanthropy, backed up by central government funding and money from other charities, including the Impetus Trust and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, although it’s not easy to work out where the money comes from.

However, it’s not actually the financial aspect of this kind of activity that interests me. I’m far more intrigued by the apparent naivety that fuels it. The Rand report’s recommendations on the Gates Teacher Effectiveness Initiative must be the most expensive in educational history. I could name a good number of colleagues I’ve worked with, on numerous national and international educational programmes, who could have saved them the trouble.

Chief amongst Rand’s recommendations is this: "A near-exclusive focus on TE (teacher effectiveness) might be insufficient to dramatically improve student outcomes. Many other factors might need to be addressed, ranging from early childhood education, to students' social and emotional competencies, to the school learning environment, to family support. Dramatic improvement in outcomes, especially for LIM students, will likely require attention to many of these factors as well."

'Schools aren't vehicles for social mobility'

If that wasn’t enough to make anyone with experience of how real schools function within struggling communities shrug and shake their head in sheer disbelief, this sublimely adroit statement should do it: "Reformers should not underestimate the resistance that could arise if changes to teacher-evaluation systems have major negative consequences for staff employment." Put rather less diplomatically – if its reform that floats your boat, making teachers accountable for what their pupils achieve might not be an intelligent move.

When you think that recommendation is made about a programme that was financed and driven by a hugely successful global business, you really do start to wonder if somehow the word “incentive” got dropped from the induction handbook. Although having worked widely in the technology sector, I can see exactly how this happened. Differentiating between the intrinsic motivation that many teachers seek from their work, and the extrinsic motivation without which the commercial world ceases to function, would have been far too subtle a business, for any business I’ve ever worked for or with. Assuming that what we do in business is better was, as Rand diplomatically pointed out, unwise.

The Sutton Trust hasn’t pinned its colours to such a monochrome mast, but its mission to use education to drive social mobility, backed so enthusiastically by Theresa May’s government, certainly flies in the face of much of the research I’ve read on this. Professor John H. Goldthorpe, Oxford sociologist and leading researcher in the field, makes this unequivocal statement in his lecture, Social class mobility in modern Britain: changing structure, constant process delivered in 2016: "The historical record clearly suggests that to look to the educational system to provide a solution to the problem of inequality of opportunity is to impose an undue, and I would say an unfair, burden upon it."

So why did the Sutton Trust, when it spent some of its vast pile of cash last year commissioning a report on The State of Social Mobility in the UK – a report which cites John Goldthorpe’s research no less than 10 times – not even mention his advice or conclusion, which is "leave social mobility to look after itself"?

Although it’s amusing to consider how many commuting teachers would probably love to tell the CEOs of a number of railway franchises face-to-face how to run their business, in reality they know their limitations. Teachers don’t generally go around telling supermarket managers where to put their coconuts. So why do wealthy individuals think they can tell schools how to be better schools?

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue

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