Absolute vs Relative

A recent episode of Radio 4’s “More or Less”, addressed the issue of Progress 8, which is obviously interesting to me as a teacher. However, it was the discussion about poverty in the UK which most caught my attention.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) recently hit the headlines by pointing to statistics which showed that the number of children from working households who are in poverty has significantly increased in the last ten years. They claim that the main drivers of this have been cuts to in-work benefits and restrictions on public-sector pay. The government’s response: It doesn’t recognise the TUC analysis; there are one million fewer people living in absolute poverty.

There a few extra details in the programme, but the gist is that both claims are correct. Relative poverty is increasing, but absolute poverty is decreasing. So the question really about which we value as a society? In the UK, my feeling is that the focus should be on relative poverty (although what I have written next has made me question this slightly!). Indeed, I’m surprised that there are many people at all living in absolute poverty: I know I live in a social bubble, but I suspect that the government figures are not based on the international definition as set by the World Bank.

Returning to education, I feel that a similar debate that has been ‘raging’ on twitter for a few months now (perhaps even longer), boils down to the same issue.

Is Ofsted biased against schools in more deprived areas? Clearly, many people on twitter are convinced by Stephen Tierney’s recent blog post  on the topic and regular references to this graph:

It shows that schools with a high proportion of White British children receiving Free School Meals are judged, on average, much worse than schools who have fewer children in this group. The immediate conclusion is that Ofted is biased against these schools. Surely the proportions should be the same for all types of schools? No.

Why not? Because Ofsted’s standards are absolute, not relative. As Jason Bradbury and Sean Harford explain, the evidence shows that when looking at schools with the same Progress 8 measures, inspectors actually give more generous judgements to these ‘most deprived’ schools.

This thorough treatment of the issue points out that there are many reasons why it’s difficult for schools in ‘deprived’ areas to attain the same absolute standards as schools in more affluent areas. However, this doesn’t mean that we should instead use relative judgements: that would be to accept that it’s ok for children growing up in disadvantaged areas to go to schools with lower standards.

What the analysis does show, however, is that it’s much harder to run a good or outstanding school in underprivileged areas. As a result, perhaps management and staff in these schools should be rewarded / treated with leniency to a greater extent than those in prosperous areas? Similarly, should these schools be funded more generously?

Overall, this has got me thinking about whether we need to get better at teaching the key idea of ‘Absolute vs Relative’ in maths classrooms. Up until now, I haven’t taught it explicitly… another one to add to my scheme of work, perhaps.

(Disclaimer: although I am rather convinced by Ofsted’s blog, I don’t think it proves beyond all doubt that there is no bias: judgements clearly account for progress 8 weaknesses, but to what extent?)

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