Evidence, and Other Omissions
Posted Feb 12, 2010

Evidence, and Other Omissions

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Last month saw the publication of two reports on education, both widely publicized in the national press on 20 February.

The first was the Cambridge Primary Review on the condition and future of primary education in England directed by Robin Alexander.

The second was the Civitas (Institute for the Study of Civil Society) report, Music, Chess and other Sins: Segregation, Integration, and Muslim Schools in Britain. This claims that “some Muslim schools are threatening the social cohesion of Britain by promoting a fundamentalist version of Islam that encourages children to despise the British society in which they live and to confine themselves to enclaves.”

Robin Alexander, the Director of the Cambridge Primary Review, is a Fellow of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Warwick, and President, British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE) 2008-9.

The day his report was published, he was interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme. Asked about his findings, he replied immediately that they were not “his” but the outcome of the “massive evidence base” gathered for the report. This included “820 written submissions, many of them from major national organisations; reports on 87 regional and 9 national soundings sessions and over 140 other meetings; and 28 surveys of published research commissioned from leading academics and drawing on nearly 3000 published sources.”

Robin Alexander’s formidable reputation as a researcher and educator committed to methodological excellence is based partly on his notable work in comparative and cultural studies in education. His book Culture and Pedagogy was based on four years of fieldwork and three years of analysis and writing, and won top education book prizes in the United States and Britain.

The day after the publication of the Cambridge Primary Review last week, a glowing leading article appeared in The Guardian. It relates how the team led by Robin Alexander “have delivered a shattering verdict” on the state of primary education. In short, the government’s blinkered focus on a narrow utilitarian curriculum and its obsession with testing have severely compromised children’s rights to a broad and balanced education, with the arts and humanities as the most prominent casualties of this distortion. The Guardian leader praises Alexander’s “humane and rational report” which is “widely supported by teachers”, and describes it thus:

“The Cambridge report is one of those rare documents which one reads and then says: yes, that’s exactly how it is, that’s what is wrong with the way things are being done and, yes, that’s the way a better system ought to be run…Mr Alexander has written a report that ought to define the collective approach to primary education for a generation.”

The same leader added this sad reflection on the lack of veracity and abandonment of higher ideals in modern political culture: “In the past, reports of this authority and quality were often commissioned by governments which were genuinely concerned to obtain the full facts and best advice for dealing with difficult problems and respectful of politically inconvenient conclusions too. Nowadays, largely because of political fear of inconvenient findings, such reports have to be privately financed and written independently, as this one has been.”

While Robin Alexander is a distinguished scholar highly respected for his impeccable regard for carefully collected evidence, the Civitas report is notable for its total lack of regard for the accepted norms of creditable research. This is only too clear from its admission in the summary of the report that no observation of any kind was carried out in gathering the ‘evidence’ which is supposed to inform its findings. Instead, conclusions are reached largely on the basis of selective scrutiny of external websites to which certain schools display links. The “methodology” is reminiscent of that of the Middle Eastern Research Institute, which, as Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations once told the Washington Post, aims to find the “worst possible quotes from the Muslim world and disseminate them as widely as possible.”

In its statement of “What We Do”, Civitas undertakes to “support informed public debate and encourage consensus” by providing accurate factual information on today’s social issues,  publishing informed comment and analysis,  and bringing together leading protagonists in open discussion.”

But no investigation which totally fails to interact with the object of its inquiry, whether through study of its curricula and resources, classroom observation or other forms of engagement, including direct contact with pupils, parents and teachers, can pretend to be “informed”, to have collected “accurate factual information” or to have brought protagonists together in “open discussion”.  One need only contrast this with the massive evidence base of the Cambridge Primary Review to understand which report has the genuine respect for the ideals trumpeted by Civitas, and which has not.

The Foreword to the Civitas report claims that in some of the Muslim schools they have “studied” (but, in fact, have not studied at all) children are taught to “reject the Western tradition of learning through discussion and argument” and hold in contempt the “liberal ideals…that we should learn to be self-critical and teach ourselves the disinterested pursuit of truth.”

But it is hard to see how “learning through discussion and argument”, the development of “self-criticism” and the “disinterested pursuit of truth” can be served by a report which honours none of these things but which sets out instead to engineer mere confirmation of preconceived biases.

The Schools Department, responding to claims made by Civitas in 2008 that Ofsted inspections were “superficial” and “worthless” and do not give a “well-rounded picture” of schools, said that “Civitas pretends to take an objective view but has based its conclusions on conjecture and the opinions of interested parties.”

Yet, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has now apparently responded to the latest Civitas report by announcing that about 20 to 30 independent faith schools will be investigated by Ofsted following “concerns” that have been raised about “practice in a small minority” and “whether they are effectively preparing pupils for life in wider British society”. The proposed review will examine the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils at small religious schools. A spokesman from the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that schools must “assist pupils to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures in a way that produces tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions.”

Indeed they should.  So let’s not mask the wider national problem of inter-cultural ignorance within mainstream society by passing the buck to a few Muslim schools. Inter-cultural education, as required by the Diversity strand of the National Curriculum Citizenship programme, is an essential part of that broad and balanced education which the Cambridge Primary Review tells us is in dire need of reclamation within the mainstream educational system.

The Civitas report, instead of pointing the finger at the impoverished education in the arts and humanities supposedly represented by a few Muslim schools (but without a shred of evidence to back up its claims) would have done more service to society by actually living up to the commendable principle of “self-criticism” which it upholds as one of the “liberal ideals” of Western civilization, and pointing the same finger at the endemic marginalisation of the very same subjects within mainstream education, for which Robin Alexander and his team provide convincing evidence.

The Head of Geography at a school in Preston recently wrote a letter to The Times lamenting the neglect of geography in the school curriculum and its “possible terminal decline” brought about by what he called “the Government’s blinkered focus on core and vocational qualifications”.  He makes this telling point: “At a time when global warning, migration, globalisation and sustainability are dominating the news, to allow the subject arguably best placed to cover and debate these issues shows an education system heading in the wrong direction.”

We may tend to think that geographical illiteracy is particularly endemic in the USA. In a previous article (“Knowing Where We Are”, emel, February 2007) I reported that the Vice-President of the American Geographical Society has gone so far as to accuse geographical illiteracy as the factor that led Americans to be “hoodwinked” into war. “In a world where the gap between political rhetoric and reality is growing by the day,” he wrote,  “public accountability is impossible in the absence of a basic level of global understanding.” A survey carried out in the USA in December 2005 found that six out of ten Americans aged 18 to 24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the world, despite media exposure about the country since the invasion.  More than 40 per cent could not locate Pakistan.

But we have no cause to be complacent. Far from it. A report commissioned by the British Council in 2007 found that “British schoolchildren are now bottom of the class when it comes to international awareness”. This survey of 4,170 11- to 16-year-olds in 10 countries (including the USA) found that British youngsters were the least likely to make the effort to understand current events in the world or to learn a foreign language. When asked if they would go out of out their way to understand international issues, only 28 per cent of UK youngsters replied “yes”. In Brazil, the figure was 69 per cent. Even more worrying is the fact that many teachers mistakenly believe that bilingualism and multilingualism among their pupils is a problem rather than an asset.

The Cambridge Primary Review is exemplary in its respect for the quality of evidence which, as The Guardian leader says, underpins “a report that ought to define the collective approach to primary education for a generation”. It is these positive exemplars and embodiments of excellence which we need to publicize. So let me tell you about about an exemplary model of pluralism in an English primary school which totally vindicates my confidence in the fitrah of young people if only they can be given strong, positive, humane, visionary leadership which gives ample space for respectful co-existence, mutual recognition, active engagement, and transforming love.

There was a remarkable picture which took up the whole front page of The Independent newspaper on 26 July, 2006. The headline above it reads: “26 Pupils. 26 Languages. One Lesson for Britain.”

The picture showed 26 smiling, happy children from Uphall Primary School in Ilford, England, with their headteacher. The children depicted speak 26 different languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujerati, Somali, Swahili, Russian, Polish, Bengali, Shona, Yoruba, Tamil, Turkish, Dari, Pashto, Lingala, Xhosa, Filipino, Dutch, Lugandan, Mina, and Bravanese. Three out of ten of these children are asylum seekers or refugees.  The total number of languages spoken by all the children in this school is 52, and 90% of them speak a language other than English at home. When they leave almost 100% of them are bilingual.

As the headteacher, Andrew Morrish, said:  “The racial harmony in school is marvellous – children do not see anyone as different. In 20 years’ time if some of these children were world leaders, the world would be a better place.”

An OFSTED inspection report described the school as “outstanding”. Despite the fact that almost all the children have English as an additional language, 79% of them reach the expected standard in English in National Curriculum tests for 11-year-olds, and results in general are in line with the national average.

The caption under the picture reads: “These children come from all over the world. Some say they reflect an immigration crisis. But as ministers unveiled a crackdown [on immigration], their school was being lauded. Shouldn’t this teach us something?” asks the newspaper.

Yes, indeed it should. This is the hopeful future, and the vanguard are our young people. It puts to shame the mutual incomprehension fomented by those whose goal is to divide us along national, cultural, linguistic, religious or ideological lines. I want to head off into the future with the children of this exemplary school and I urge us all to do the same.

First published in emel Magazine, May 2009