Off-rolling – is this just the tip of the ethical iceberg?

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At university, if we want to initiate some kind of intervention in schools as part of a research project we would be expected to review the British Educational Research Association’s (BERA) guidelines. This guideline is full of sensible advice such as:

Researchers should immediately reconsider any actions occurring during the research process that appear to cause emotional or other harm, in order to minimise such harm. The more vulnerable the participants, the greater the responsibilities of the researcher for their protection.  (BERA, 2018, p.19)

So the first thing we have to consider is the likelihood of the intervention causing harm to the pupil. And the second thing we need to consider is that a pupil’s ‘vulnerability’ amplifies our need to protect the child from harm.

Now let’s turn to schools. If a member of staff in a school or group of schools wishes to initiate some kind of intervention as part of an evidence informed project to increase outcomes for the pupils or schools what guidelines do they have to follow? Well, the answer is, quite simply, none. Yet, if they did the same project in their school as part of undertaking a PGCE or Master’s then it would have to go through the exact same ethical approval process as described above.

It is important and worthwhile at this stage to set out that I am not talking about low level interventions of the sort that schools and teachers do all of the time. I’m talking about practice which could cause harm. And to vulnerable pupils in particular.

Let’s take off-rolling as an example. Here we see that staff in a school or group of schools have decided to create an intervention. The intervention could possibly benefit the pupils in the school cohort through redistribution of resources. It could even hypothetically benefit those who leave the school through the process of off-rolling. As part of an ethical approval process you would evaluate the likelihood of harm falling to those who are being off-rolled and look at the outcomes for them after they leave mainstream schooling.  Well, it turns out the outcomes for those who leave mainstream schooling are poor: 1-6% get their 5 good GCSEs. That’s considerable harm. Then you evaluate who is being off-rolled. Well, it turns out it is SEND pupils amongst others. I think we can safely say that they meet the term ‘more vulnerable’. This intervention would have died at the proposal stage at the table of the ethics committee. Even internal off-rolling such as a grammar school preventing Year 12s from moving to Year 13 if they did not attain specific grades would most certainly fail the ethical test.

But here is the rub. These schools that are off-rolling pupils are ‘compliant’. They meet the requirements that are set out by the accountability framework. The DfE doesn’t approve, OFSTED doesn’t approve, the children’s commissioner for England doesn’t approve, parents struggle to get provision for the SEND children or a second year of A level education for their children and yet despite this, schools are ‘compliant’.

So is that the requirement? That schools have to be ‘compliant’ and that this does not take into account ethics? Should not all major decisions of this type have to go through an internal ethical panel which in itself is reviewed and checked by an external ethical body? If schools are to be more evidence informed does it not also follow they should be ethically sound? Should governors and trustees also be part of this ethical process and receive training?

Before you say this is unworkable, consider how it is done at university. If a student proposes an intervention they have to write a section on ethics setting out how it meets the ethical requirements. It is reviewed by a qualified tutor. There is an ethics board for more contentious interventions. At each stage, if there is any doubt about the intervention, it is passed up further through more senior boards, staffed by more experienced and qualified senior professionals. The bigger the proposal, the more scrutiny for ethics it attracts.

The government could legislate against off-rolling easily and the affected schools would all change their actions and become ‘compliant’ again. Until the next ethically challenging idea thought up to affect outcomes within the accountability framework. Wouldn’t it be better to also have a headteacher’s body draw up a code of ethics similar to that from BERA and for all teachers and schools to use this when considering evidence informed interventions for their pupils?

What happens when you ask your pupils to write 10% braver?

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Photo by Lukas Hartmann on Pexels.com

I observed one of my PGCE English trainees teaching her top set Year 9 all girls group. Following a very inspirational first half of the lesson, where the class really impressed us all with the depth of their comments, reflections and ability to engage with really quite sophisticated ideas through oracy, they then had to take those ideas and express them in written format. What emerged was writing that whilst grammatically correct and stylistically appropriate, lacked the originality and interpretation that had appeared in the earlier oral exchanges. Oracy in English is an important topic and will feature in this year’s NATE conference (National Association for the Teaching of English). High quality oracy can be a powerful tool in English, but it also needs a good link to powerful writing.

This is a common problem in English lessons. Trying to translate sharp and insightful ideas that emerge at the thinking process through oracy and then trying to capture them in written format. It doesn’t always flow from one to the other and all English teachers work hard on this process with their pupils.

When we were discussing the lesson afterwards I mentioned that I had seen the hashtag #10braver featured in the women’s ed hashtag #WomenEd which I follow on Twitter and that I thought it would be an idea for the PGCE trainee to tell the girls in the class about this movement, to give them their work back and then ask them to rewrite it ‘10% Braver’. She could then ask them to reflect metacognitively afterwards on what the difference was and if they indeed were, as Arsene Wenger would say, playing with the handbrake on. It’s quite a typical strategy for English teachers. You are telling them about real life people using English within their actual lives and asking the pupils to respond just like others in society do.

Now this anecdote makes for a nice story –  this little narrative about my PGCE trainee and the 10% Braver hashtag and I’ve certainly told it a few times. However, having told this story recently to some of my peers they then said – so what happened next? It was a good question. When the trainee was next in I asked her – what happened next? And asked her to write the next bit of this blog.  This is what she wrote:

From my teaching experience to date, one of the most frustrating elements of the classroom environment can be managing the transition from class discussion to extended writing tasks. Often, students will provide wonderful verbal responses to topics which they can then emulate and extend upon. The well coined phrase of ‘but I don’t know what to write’ then rears its head; leaving the teacher wondering if they were in the same room, or indeed, taking part in the same lesson.

Having discussed this with my subject tutor at the university who is keen on educational research and strategies to combat such things, the concept of ‘10% Braver’ was introduced into my teacher toolkit (and is now constantly called upon!). Whilst the suggestion was originally designed to help make the female students in my class take risks in their writing, I have found that is it equally as beneficial to my male students. They also respond to this kind of exhortation feedback.

Returning to the original class, below is a sample of work taken from a female student in year 10; the italicised response is the 10% braver piece of writing – I have also included some student voice reflection about why she felt empowered.

‘Within this extract Shakespeare presents the relationship between the witches and Macbeth as disrespectful. This is shown when Macbeth says ‘midnight hags!’ The use of the exclamation mark suggests that he is shouting at the witches. Also, the use of the noun ‘hags’ shows Macbeth has no respect for the witches identity.

This negative bond is shown further on in the extract when Macbeth says to the witches ‘I charge you.’ This shows there is an imbalance of power between them and implies that Macbeth wants ultimate power of them.’

[The work was then peer assessed and reviewed by the teacher – the target was: to be ‘10% Braver’ in her response.]

‘This is implied with the verb ‘speak’ because it is a very demanding tone of language. Also, it suggests he doesn’t treat them with respect as ‘speak’ includes a plosive which gives a harsh/nasty sound to the Macbeth speech.’

When asked about the impact of the feedback, the student said: ‘I felt 10% Braver writing my target response because I was encouraged by my peers and my teacher. This gave me the confidence to go outside of my comfort zone and express my opinions within my writing. Usually, what stops me from writing like this is that I don’t want to write the ‘wrong’ thing within my answer. By someone saying ‘do it,’ it boosts my confidence and makes me believe in myself.’

As an ITE educator and as an English teacher, I think this shows that we need to think about how we get pupils to express their ideas, about how the pressure of performance works and what it is they are trying to avoid as much as they are trying to achieve. In the blog, 10 things they hate about your subject, I was trying to unpick ‘large’ issues with performance. What I think this blog shows is that there are micro-performance issues happening at all sorts of levels: from the Year 10 English classroom right up to senior leaders in education. The nature of high stakes in modern life is holding many back from achieving and expressing what they really want to say and do. There’s a message here. We need to start getting everyone in education to be 10% braver.

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