Tag Archives: statistics

Freakonomics

My friend’s father used to work as a chartered accountant – the antithesis, I thought, of being a teacher, with all of its vocational baggage. Counting beans is not, after all, the stuff of which callings are made. There were other stark differences, evident on the walls in his house, albeit not so much in the quality of the artwork; more in the absence of Pollock-style spatterings, created as the occupant exploded from stress. To widen the gap a little further, my friend’s dad earned a very comfortable salary, and was able to stuff enough financial mattresses to cushion the blow of retirement. Counterparts in education often fall hard; ye can spot them by their bruises.

And he must have been blaahdy bored, diligently counting legumes day after day after day, n’est-ce pas? No variety; no human folly; no…Well, no. Do remember that it was an accountancy firm that colluded with those dastardly Enron execs, enabling them to benefit from the company’s demise while the little people were shafted. And Arthur Andersen, as it was called back then, has hardly been alone in offering its hand in marriages of convenience with dubious partners. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems that I too have worked for an accountancy firm, despite never having been an accountant.

The big guns of the accountancy world have long been major recruiters of graduates, mopping up green talent on the ‘milk round’ each year. The TDA and assorted in-school training schemes are now fixtures on the same circuit, using much the same language (brisk, business-like, bristling with numbers) and imagery (suits, inspirational PowerPoint presentations, hand-gestures from the TV correspondents’ manual of superfluous non-verbal signs). And in both fields, one soon discovers that a talent for cooking the books is prized, even if the outcomes are a little hard to swallow.

Enron execs wanted to convince (aspiring) shareholders that the company’s stock was good and its finances buoyant. In common with other dodgy dossiers, Arthur Andersen ‘sexed up’ the company’s accounts, reporting healthy profits year-on-year when, in truth, things were nosediving. Any documents with the potential to deflate this inflated vision were shredded with alacrity. Not dissimilarly, governments have sought to convince the electorate that all is well in education – or, at least, a lot better – by reporting escalating pass rates, reductions in exclusions and improved attendance figures. The role of the accounting firms is taken by schools, churning out reams of spreadsheets that chart apparent progress.

When my friend’s accountant dad took a principled stance with one company – refusing to fudge figures and, thereby, pull the wool over small shareholders’ eyes – his days were numbered. When Natasha did the same over her students’ progress reports, a similar fate befell her. Her class’ previous teacher had dealt with the requirement that students make two sub-levels of progress in the same way as his predecessors: by ensuring that the paperwork – data sheets, reports – said they had. So it must have been true. Natasha pointed out that the students’ abilities did not match their marks. Their work had been assessed too generously, leaving her to teach them skills it was claimed they already possessed.

Though unsuccessful in their attempts to convince her of the error of her judgements, senior managers still tried to persuade Natasha to sustain the narrative of steady progress. She, however, felt strongly that the best interests of all concerned lay in more honest reporting of the children’s achievements – even though it was a course she knew could upset some parents and result in her having to deflect bucketfuls of flak on someone else’s behalf. The management team realised how much of a wrongun it had on its hands, and set about reminding Natasha of her dispensability. She resigned just over a term later, teetering at the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Laurie, meanwhile, was relieved to move from a school riddled with behaviour problems to one that had been presented with an award for reducing its exclusion rate. Encouragingly, he was greeted on his first day with the words, “So, you fell for all the propaganda too?” A more direct inkling that something was amiss occurred when he witnessed behaviour pretty much anyone would recognise as sanction-worthy going unpunished. Repeatedly. A child firing a BB gun on school premises suffered no punitive consequences as “It wasn’t a rifle”.

Emphasising what hadn’t taken place seemed to be the modus operandi of choice, when explaining away the absence of any kind of sanction – including, obviously, exclusion. When two Year 10 students threatened him outside school with a thorough stabbing, Laurie knew that nothing would be done; after all, they hadn’t got around to delivering any blows yet. The school had not improved its students’ behaviour to achieve its award; it had, simply, stopped excluding them for acts that previously would have merited such a response. Ministerial back-slaps were the reward for comely figures and an underlying policy of negligence.

As this demonstrates, statistics – such as those documenting attendance – are an integral part of the jigsaw that proves the in/competence of a given government. The proposed hike in the school-leaving age to eighteen is, obviously, not a ploy to reduce the documented number of NEETs; it’s simply a wise extension of care, to prevent the untold damage that ensues when students are absent from classes. Many schools impose fines on families whose children miss school, as a way of encouraging attendance. Or, perhaps, deterring absence. Not quite the same thing, thinks I.

Clearly, habitual absences indulged on a whim will disrupt most students’ education, especially in subjects that are cumulative in nature. However, at points in the year when schools have begun winding down in anticipation of the holidays, one has to wonder about the nature and extent of the damage suffered by missing a couple of days at the end of term to take advantage of cheap flights bound for interesting – possibly educational – destinations. Not participating in the pre-vacation festival of food additives, or the ceremonial cutting of the birthday tray-bake is hardly conducive to benefits-reliance and extensive therapy in one’s adult years.

Attendance figures only record the presence of bodies in classrooms. In many – hopefully, most – cases, the pupils will be there through choice: because they are stimulated and energised by the learning opportunities at their disposal, by the brilliance of their teachers and by the different kinds of social interaction made possible in a safe environment. And because their families recognise how vital attendance is to their children’s all-round development – including, but not confined to, the ability to bag ‘a good job’ somewhere down the line.

However, the motivations for attending remain handily unarticulated in official records. The lay reader is left to assume that the statistics reflect a high level of engagement on the part of the students, brought about by high levels of provision within the schools. They do not record the numbers of fines issued, the badgering phone calls that tutors are forced to make when a pupil is genuinely ill or, even, bereaved. Or the dire warnings about how the children will suffer irreversibly if they drop half a percentage point below the school’s attendance target. And they certainly don’t record the fact that these figures make up a significant part of someone’s – headteacher’s/local authority’s/politician’s – performance management review.

The Enron scandal eventually led to the corporation’s bankruptcy, while Arthur Andersen, one of the five largest partnerships of its kind in the world, was effectively dissolved for its complicity in the biggest auditing scam in American history. Mendacious financial reporting enabled the corporation to hide the true nature of its failed projects, albeit not indefinitely. Unlike Enron’s shareholders, the electorate cannot file a forty-billion-dollar lawsuit against those who led it up a creek and then half-inched the paddles. It can, however, take a more critical attitude towards the platitudinous figures that politicians brandish, like quantitative shields against qualitative interrogation. It could even place its crosses elsewhere on the ballot paper.

My friend’s dad would respect that.