Divided and Conquered?

04Feb14

So I was on Twitter.

@TeacherROAR – who I follow – retweeted an item from @NUTSouthWest – who I don’t – which in turn quoted figures from an article in the Independant.

I followed the conversation and was struck by this tweet to another tweeting teacher.

followed by:

I responded in turn and a not particularly pleasant slanging match ensued. I had two main issues, one about Twitter and the other about teacher solidarity. Maybe I didn’t express myself well in 140 characters – but more on this limitation in a moment. EDIT: And this is without even considering the actual figures incolved, of which more added at the end.

Firstly, I don’t think anyone assumes that a retweet means total support of the original message. In fact, sometimes it’s intended as mockery! But if you quote figures, and someone asks you about them, it’s reasonable to justify or explain. I think. If it turns out they’re wrong, I’d see it as only fair to tweet a follow-up. Accountability, yes? Online we only have our reputation as currency. Challenging figures or opinions isn’t the same thing as an attempt to censor opinion, and for what it’s worth, I agree that if we only have exaggerated figures to use as propaganda we’ve got no chance. As I tweeted to @sidchip64, a ‘roar’ without anything to back it up is just bluster.

Secondly, I can just imagine Gove or his minions rubbing their hands together and laughing, watching those who teach fighting with each other instead of him. Dismissing a challenge from another teacher is rude. I expect my students to question what I say – often I demand it. But I expect better of any professional who works in a classroom. Solidarity means we work together to get it right, and that includes good statistics. It doesn’t mean we unquestioningly back a colleague who’s wrong.

Maybe it’s about a limited medium. I often find this on Twitter – great for tips, bad for clear ideas. Soundbites, not critical debate. So I suggested to @TeacherROAR that it wouldn’t be hard to clarify what they meant – and justify it – in a blog. For some reason this was seen as a demand and so I decided to do it myself. Half an hour later, here we are. I feel better for it, anyway.

So what I didn’t include last night – and, believe it or not, woke up thinking about at half-five this morning – is a point of view on the numbers. They got attention, obviously. That was the point. But I think it was poor of the Independent to quote from a report by the Sixth Form Colleges Association – a report I haven’t yet found, but that may be due to lack of caffeine – which makes a direct comparison between the annual funding for their students and that spent on setting up free schools this year.

Now, it would be fair to say that I’m very dubious about free schools, in particular the application and set up process. Laura McInerney explains these concerns much more eloquently and expertly than I could. But that doesn’t mean we should misuse data in this way. Making the last year’s nine free schools (some or all of the total?) and their current 1557 students liable for the entire cost of setting them up – when the assumption is that these costs would actually be spread over the foreseeable life of the schools – is wrong. If I can be forgiven a physics example, it’s like working out the kWh cost of electricity from a nuclear power station using all the commissioning and decommissioning costs but only a single year of electrical output.

Picking numbers out of the air, if each of those nine free schools costs £3m to run this year (which would make the set up costs £35m) then the cost per student comes to a little over £17000. If their costs are £2m annually, then the figure is £11500 or so. Now, these figures are still too high – but they’re more realistic, unless each of those schools is to shut down after a single year being open.

Yes, I agree that free schools haven’t always been set up where they’re actually needed, so you could argue the costs are wasted. Yes, I know that this year a lot has been spent, potentially to the detriment of sixth form colleges. But I’d be prepared to bet that back when the colleges were set up, some people claimed they were a waste of money. And I’m sure they were justified by looking at the benefits over time, not just costs in the first year. If we want to be taken seriously – and this goes back to my first point – then we must justify the numbers we use, or we are building our argument on very weak foundations.

A final quote, this time from much longer ago.

If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.

Benjamin Franklin

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4 Responses to “Divided and Conquered?”

  1. I find Twitter the perfect vehicle for what I wish to say – concision can be a strength but then I had years of running poetry writing workshops – the art of making in a small space is a lot of fun. It is difficult trying to remain dispassionate at time especially if people are downright verbally abusive and it’s easy to get drawn in. I agree about retweeting – depending on connotations and context it can mean almost anything. If you leave a big enough ellipsis someone will fill it with some sort of emotional or intellectual poyfilla real or imagined. The other trap not to fall into is thinking anyone really cares enough or that anyone’s view on social media has any traction in the wider world unless amplified by mainstream media for their own purposes.

  2. I was feeling a bit fuzzy on this till the nuclear power station example cropped up. Thanks, feel clearer now! I still find the degree of fury that people seem comfortable to vent in tweets pretty disconcerting – and I think as soon as a to and fro sort of conversation gets going, there should be a “you’ve exchanged 5 tweets, get thee to another space to discuss this properly” rule. Which, I guess, is what a blog is. I love the idea of emotional and intellectual polyfilla the last commentator raises – it’s so easy to read so much into so little if you’ve got a lot of stuff in your head that wants to find some sort of external validation or a sufficiently real-looking windmill to tilt at…

  3. 4 Mark

    “Solidarity means we work together to get it right, and that includes good statistics. It doesn’t mean we unquestioningly back a colleague who’s wrong.” I think this is exactly the right position. As an outsider (not a teacher, although generally think central government should have minimal influence over teaching), I lose sympathy for teachers (or anyone else for that matter) extremely rapidly if they are willing to use blatantly dodgy stats to back up their position. And if they can’t even take being pulled up when they do so, then I just wish they weren’t a teacher at all.


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