Monday, 13 May 2013

The Ofsted Effect - Network Effects & Feedback Loops

In previous posts I've looked at the similarities and differences between start ups and education and I've imagined what would happen if "Education Inc" went looking for investment... What would happen if your school/college was an internet start up during the 1990's internet bubble?

Would your school/college have been Or would your brand be more likely to have an over inflated share price which would have floated down the Amazon and your brand being washed away?

Is there any way to assess how a school/college would stand up to the variances of such a volatile and over subscribed market environment?

Maybe a good place to start is to look at two very powerful effects that helped a lot of companies, and seems to me to apply to schools and colleges too. These are "Network effects" and "Positive feedback loops." Before explaining these principles, a quick question;

"How did I find out about Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, EBay, Amazon, LinkedIn, Wikipeadia"

Was it because a friend recommended the site to you? Did you also find this site so good that you recommend it to your friends to join it? As more of your friends visited the site, did you visit it more often? And for longer?

This is an example of network effects and positive feedback loops in action.

Network Effects 
Communication platforms are of more value when they have reached critical mass; telephones, e-mail, mobile phones, social media etc have less value when there are only 100 people subscribing to the service than when there are 1 million. The more people from your friends/group/network subscribing to a service the greater value it will have to you. 

Positive Feedback Loops
The more positive the experience for users the better the network becomes. If you like a site you will invite others to join you, the more people from your network who join, the more relevant the conversation becomes to you – the more time you spend in this space.

Do Network Effects & Feedback Loops in Education?
What is the network effect and what kind of feedback loops (positive or negative) do the various stakeholders have in education? How are the network effects and feedback loops in education established? I'm sure many would argue that "The Ofsted Effect," as well as other factors, can have some far reaching consequences and a long term impact for individual schools and colleges.

National Network Effects
Government - Whether intentional or unintentional, positive or negative, what does the rhetoric do for schools & colleges?

What impact does "Education! Education! Education!" or "You're exam are too easy" or  "Doesn't XYZ country have better schools" have on educators, parents and students?

Press - What is the ratio or positive/negative press regarding teachers, education and young people?

Employers - Feel that there is a growing gap between business needs and what education provides or more critically "Generation Whine" and 80% of school leavers unsuitable for work (But what these stakeholders don't see is just how much parents influence key areas of development or how constrained educators are to make the necessary changes). 

League Tables - Drive up demand at schools/colleges with good results and sees a mass exodus from the "Not so good schools"

Local Network Effects
Ofsted - Being as objective as possible, what is an Ofsted result being published in public meant to do?

If anyone suggests "To give the user choice" you might have any one of a number of questions to challenge this statement! If someone were to say "it is a way for property developers to push house prices up in certain areas" then you might be inclined to agree them. For example;

Feedback Loops - Failing Schools
Those that can avoid a "failing school" will do so, the network effect helps Ofsteds assessment to become a self fulfilling prophecy. This feedback produces the same kind of impact to what AOL, Netscape and Friends Reunited/My Space experienced when people found that Internet Explorer and Facebook was a better user experience... Mass exodus!

Parents - Any parents that can (ie have the money) will change schools. The effect here is that there is a drop in admissions which affects the schools budgets.

At a time when the institution should be concentrating on the institutions' culture, it is having to worry about making ends meet!

Students - The parents who leave will be the middle classes who value education more, so are quite likely to include the "More intelligent/motivated/able students" which leaves a cohort of "Less able students"

So when the next set of exam result tables are produced this demonstrates that Ofsted was correct in its assertion that this is indeed a "failing school/college"

Staff - What kind of impact might the following have on the school/college culture and staff morale;

1) Being told your a little bit more rubbish at your job than you were 2-3 years ago,
2) Seeing a reduction in student numbers and budget, which

3) Could lead to redundancies and increased workloads and instability for students and staff    
4) Less staff having to deal with potentially more disruptive classes with less able students

How  are staff going to feel about going to work every day prior to the inspection?

LeadershipIt's a brave leader indeed who accepts turning a school like this around because if improvements are not made then it would appear that the Principal may be risking "career suicide" 

From what I can see all that this system seems to do is try to apportion blame and create a culture of fear and suspicion, at a time when trust, cohesion and collaboration is needed more than ever to sort out whatever problems might exist. 

Feedback Loops - Successful Schools
The mass exodus from the failing schools means that those who can change schools do so. Because they value education enough to relocate they will be more supportive, and more able to support, their children with their learning outside the school/college... and have more disposable income for extra curricular activities.

The feedback loops here are positive and mean that the school/college receives more applicants than they have places for, and are in a position where they can choose the best and brightest applicants.

The chain of events become self fulfilling and one where people in the catchment area for a "good school" introduce new neighbours with the less conventional
 "Welcome to the neighbourhood... do you know that you're in the catchment for XYZ school, never mind unpacking... better get your name on the waiting list?" To which the new neighbour replies "Oh we know that's why we got the house"

Further Education
These network effects and feedback loops appear to have continued and are perpetuated in Further Education, as

1) Over the years FE appears to have gained the reputation as "the poor relation" to HE... and not enough is done to shift this perception. 

I truly detest the "Cinderella" status that FE has... who came up with this? I've never heard any students use this term? 

This single statement suggests how badly FE is in need of a re-brand because until this is addressed any talk of comparing FE with the German vocational system is just that...all talk!

Speaking of which is it any coincidence that the EU's strongest economy has a different level of respect for vocational education?

The "university as the only route" and anything else being less desirable reminds me of one of Henry Ford's observations;

"I could not possibly do the same thing day in and day out, but to other minds, perhaps I might say to the majority of minds, repetitive operations hold no terrors... Those who have what might be called a creative type of mind and who thoroughly abhor monotony are apt to imagine that all other minds are similarly restless and therefore to extend quite unwanted sympathy to the labouring man who day-in and day-out performs a exactly the same operation" 

I wonder if this is kind of thinking that "creative type minds" have had in the past is the reason for the current "Cinderella" image?

2) All other routes that the most vulnerable and marginalised groups previously had have slowly, but surely, been removed as a result of some bright sparks' policy decision. 

In "Raising Boys" Stephen Biddulph highlights the importance of male role models outside the home, which helps to instill & reinforce core values. 

You might argue that up until the 1980's the "old apprenticeships" fulfilled this role and this entire infrastructure was removed with YTS schemes.

What is one of the big issues of the day in education? We are seeking high and low for "Mentors" to assist educators with student progression and development?

Regardless of the reasons the absence of this kind of influence means that FE have to deal with students with a huge spectrum of "value systems" as well as a huge variation of academic ability.

Steve Prefontane was demolarised after a poor performance that the 1976 Olympic 5,000m and during a training session his coach said 

"If you're gonna run, be at the track and I'll give you the workouts; if your gonna stop running, then do that. You decide. I can't coach desire" Bill Bowerman

This means that FE have to deal with some serious issues that beggars belief! To listen to educators tell you that some of their students get through 10 years of education and are not able to read or have the level of motivation they do is, in itself, something of an education!

FE used to be the first choice of further education for many, today it appears to be the one of the last. 

Bad Schools? Bad Parents? Creating Bad Environments? 
I fully appreciate that this situation is not necessarily down to school teachers and that parents have a role to play BUT, at the same time, it is important to note that "Bad parents don't make bad schools" But what do you expect will happen when you publically state that a school is failing?

Surely it doesn't take a genius to consider that the consequences will be that "Those that value education will make alternative arrangements, those that don't or are less mobile/more vulnerable will remain. The overall network effect is, like AOL, Netscape and My Space - mass exodus and the feedback loops are ABC school is great and XYZ is really bad - the drop in results and facilitates what has been dubbed "The Big Sort"

Change Agents
Before being accused of being just another critic who is able to type (badly) and has an internet connection, lets say a dynamic leader does come in and is looking to bring in the changes, what kind of support can they expect? From some of the stories I have heard, it would appear to be that the kind of support any dynamic change agents looking to turn the situation around can expect is... a lot of resistance!

People and organisations who are charged with improving the outcomes of our young people are unable or unwilling to get behind the vision - without a positive culture and the necessary buy in what are the chances of success? 

Regulating What? There is no Regular anymore...
Where else in today's economy do you have an organisation which basically says

"Our service isn't as good as it used to be but its not our fault and 
unless you've got a lot of money (for a new house or private edu), you must keep using it... No you can't change or upgrade your service..." Bizarre or what!

Then there is the bigger issue of in this fast paced changing world... who even says that the skills that regulators are looking for are as relevant as they once were? All the learner voice policies in the world doesn't change the fact that we have 2.5 million people unemployed, 1 million of these being young people.

As a life long learner I have read countless books on successful people, education systems and organisations and there are definitely common attributes, if you were to compile these and compare them with Ofsted's requirements, I wonder how much overlap there would be?

Three of the most common qualities that I continually encounter are passion, motivation and the ability to figure problems out or overcome challenges (aka "Learn how to learn"). Based on this criteria the outstanding schools might be ones that;

"Helps students find what their passions are and helps remove any obsticles that would prevent them from pursuing, and achieving, their career goals"

How different would the Ofsted landscape be if we compared "outstanding schools/colleges" with colleges that have the most productive students - for example the schools that have the highest ratio of students in employment, or offer the best ROI for students... or even Gross National Happiness) and, more crucially, would we find that these schools were all found in the middle class areas? What does this tell us? That disadvantages exist and parents play a crucial role? 

Education! Education! Education!
Whether we consider the various groups or commentators, the high unemployment figures or the skills shortage we know that change is needed, which surely includes how education is assessed.

In his book "How the Mighty Fall" Jim Collins details the 5 stages of decline that struggling  organisations go through. 
"Every institution is vulnerable [to decline], no matter how great. No matter how much you’ve achieved, no matter how far you’ve gone, no matter how much power you’ve garnered, you are vulnerable to decline. There is no law of nature that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top. Anyone can fall and most eventually do" Jim Collins

From what I can see it appears that the current inspection system is self fulfilling, as it sets in motion a series of network effects and feedback loops that can have detrimental and long term consequences. 

This looks like a system that appears to be far from outstanding and surely "could do better," I wonder if the experiences above will resonate to any extent with colleges that have had a poor inspection grade.   

If this does resonate then I would highly recommend that you check out Jane Jacobs account of how Chicago and Boston "Unslummed" their areas instead of the more mobile uprooting to the suburbs and Andrew Mawson "The Social Entrepreneur" and his work in Bromley in Bow.

No comments:

Post a Comment