On Corbyn and the Media

“We can fix our failing media by setting journalists and citizens free to hold power to account” (Corbyn, 2018)

This post folows the commotion caused be the speech of Jeremy Corbyn,  that he gave at the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, 23 August 2018. It is my intention here to consider the proposals in light of some academic studies into media diversity and of the views journalists’ have of their profession.

The inference from the speech was that there are low levels of public trust in the media (particularly print) and the impact of the digital revolution. Corbyn (2018) maintains that “we need bold, radical thinking on the future of our media” to prevent the control of the discourse being dominated by a “few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires”. If, as Corbyn says, “a free press is essential to our democracy” and that journalists and media workers need to be “set free to do their best work” how does this stack up under scrutiny?

The reaction from the British press seemed sadly predicatable, for example “We can look forward to stories about glorious increases in tractor production in the Union of British Socialist States“, however the New Statesman was somewhat more positive stating “what’s actually in the proposals is generally to the good”.

Diversity in the media and journalism in particular has been a concern for many years, identified by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) from 2012, 2012 and again in 2017. The situation is seemingly a hard nut to crack. Social class is a significant barrier to entering the profession, with

…a high proportion of journalists having parents or carers in higher-level occupations, (managers and directors – 17% compared with 10% of all employed in the UK, and professional occupations – 48% compared with 19% across the UK) (adapted from NCTJ, 2017).

The Sutton Trust also found that in 2015 more than half (51%) of the UK’s 100 ‘top journalists’ attended fee-paying schools. The top 100 here chosen on their perceived influence on the public debate i.e. the ‘commentariat’.

Given that this speech is political and defines policy, it is wise to examine whether the diversity issue has any effect on journalists political beliefs and introduces potential bias, either consciously or unconsciously. For this  I turn to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Jounalism report, Journalists in the UK (2016).

An interesting view occurs when jounalists are asked about their political stance:

political stance

A little over half (53%) chose a position to the left of centre (on a scale of 1-5) and there is a clear increase in right-of-centre journalists in more senior roles. Of course, such self-reported political beliefs do not necessarily correspond to ‘objective’ assessments of political identity, but it is an interesting discovery.

As Corbyn points out, the ownership of the British media lies generally in the hands of a few powerful individuals and there are those who believe that influences such as ownership, commercial considerations, sourcing practices, and media management by vested interests carry much more weight than the beliefs of individual journalists (see e.g. Herman and Chomsky, 1994). If powerful institutions and individuals can influence what they want published, can supress alternative views and are far better equipped to get their messages across, journalists’ output – however accurate – simply mirrors the material they receive, resulting in a distorted picture of society reflected through the media.

UK journalists most commonly believe that their role in society is to hold those in power to account, to be accurate, and to provide information (Journalists in the UK, 2016). But to hold to these ideals, mearly passing on information is far from acceptable practice in a well functioning democratic society. It is easy to be critical, however commercial pressures are taking toll on journalist themselves resulting in pressure to

“focus relentlessly on the content that we know gives us the most return for our effort . . . and [be] ruthless about content that doesn’t” with regular performance assessments “taking into account audience traffic” to their content (Ponsford, 2015).

Journalists are being made to work longer hours and are being given less time to research stories, resulting in a reliance on unsubstantiated material and being

“…worried about an ‘emphasis on hits over quality’, about ‘traffic-related bonus structure[s]’ creating ‘the wrong incentives’, and about the ‘shift from proper journalism to . . . attention-seeking, fact-free, gossipy clickbait’” (Turvill, 2016a).

As Peston (2014), refelcted “newspapers are filled with reports based on spurious PR-generated surveys and polls, simply to save time and money” and called the “unhealthy deals” done between journalists and PR companies “hideous and degrading”. The credibility of journalism is threatened by excessive PR activity (Jackson and Moloney, 2015).

It would seem then that the implication is that as journalists are under pressure to produce content, often to drive traffic to media sites to generate advertising revenue (as sales and revenue of mainstream media organisations are in freefall) they have decreasing opportunity to research stories or corroborate evidence and live up to their ideals of holding power to account.

For journalism to retain (regain) it’s credibility as a profession and to play it’s vital role in protecting the democracy of our country, Corbyn’s speech suggests that the policy proposed is essential and most likely welcomed at grass roots level, giving power back to jounalists and away from the powerful elites.

Au Revoir

And so the end. The end of what has been, for me, a long and sometimes perilous journey of MA study. It has been a revelation and I would recommend anyone to do it while you can. Having felt like Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” at the start of this, I built it and I’m glad you came. I have enjoyed reading your entries and trying to make sense of them through Foucault’s poststructuralist lens. I regret not being able to share this with my dad who was an educational missionary himself. No doubt he would have joined in with his usual irreverent humour. As Costner says ““I never got to play catch with my Dad”.

This final blog is solely for your self reflection, what you have thought about your own and the other respondents perception of the use of data. But perhaps more importantly, has taking part made a difference to you in any way and do you “think otherwise”?

So, if you could take a little time to pen a reflective entry on your thoughts and your own journey through this process it would be much appreciated, even if you have only read and posted little.

Resistance is Futile?

Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but refuse what we are. (Foucault 2002a, p. 336)

As leaders, one of the main roles we undertake is to develop specific strategies to improve performance against our own data and the national data. It is at this level, the level of our daily practices, that we can see how power operates through the accountability regime.

What has become apparent from the previous posts is that there is a tension, between our undertaking of particular practices in pursuit of measurability and the subversive  day-to-day resistances to these practices, resistances that we use in our quest to attempt to be more authentic to the needs of our college and students.

Various academics claim there is an increasing need to consider leadership as a form of resistance (e.g. Ryan 1998, Zoller & Fairhurst 2007, Thomson 2008) to intense compliance structures and expectations in education. These forms of leadership are in contrast to the pervasive influence of the accountability agenda, the reliance on heroic representations of leadership, and also what Nigel Wright calls “bastard leadership” (Wright 2001, 2011).

According to Foucault, power is a relation between individuals or groups of individuals, not a thing held or owned by individuals to be used. Power is something that is exercised, or is “a set of actions upon other actions” (Foucault 2002a, p. 341), the “conduct of conduct” (note that Foucault preferred the term “counter conduct” to resistance).

Power, as Foucault stated:

… applies itself to immediate everyday life, categorises the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him that he must recognise and have others recognise in him. It is a form of power that makes individuals subjects. (Foucault 2002a, p. 331)

We can conclude that we have been subjectified (become subjects) by our use of and compliance with data driven accountability. For Foucault, one can become subjected to someone else’s control and dependence and maybe more importantly, to one’s own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge (Foucault 2002a, p. 331). So while we can aim to be authentic to the needs of our college and students, maybe we ought to start with ourselves.

How do we fight this subjection and participate in the “art of not being governed quite so much” (Foucault, 1997e, p. 29)? Foucault argued that this could be achieved through a form of critique, a “care of the self” and “care of others” through truthful discourse and self-reflection.

A critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based…to do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy (Foucault, 1981, p. 456).

I hope that your participation in this blog so far has provided a space for that form of critique, which can work

“as an act of defiance, as a challenge, as a way of limiting these arts of governing and sizing them up, transforming them, of finding a way to escape from them” (Foucault, 1997, p. 28),

a space within and between the accountability discourse which allows you to exercise a form of counter-conduct and develop advocacy for our students and be more authentic to yourselves.

To do this, there has to be engagement in discourse and practice that

“will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing or thinking what we are, do, or think” (Foucault, 1997f, pp. 315-6).

However, there are costs to be considered here, the costs of constant vigilance, the costs of a commitment to a kind of “permanent agonism” (Burchell, 1996, p. 34), the possibilities of ridicule and precarity – what Lazzarato calls the “micro-politics of little fears” (2009, p. 120).

Over and against these however, there are the costs of silence and who bears them. If we take Foucault seriously we must confront the problem of standing outside our own history, outside of ourselves, and do the ethical work on ourselves to bring authenticity and moral purpose back to our profession and practice.

For the penultimate question then:

If we are being ‘‘disciplined’’ by data into being particular types of people, and at the same time our ethical practice is determined by institutionally defined process and procedure, how do we reconcile ourselves as moral subjects of our own actions (Foucault 1984d), tell the truth and care for our selves and each other?

Data wants to be human

So as the final blog of 2017, I thought I’d be less academic and have a bit of festive fun.

Now some would call me a geek (the wife does quite often) so in order to live up to my unfounded reputation I’m going to introduce you to a character called Lt. Commander Data, who some of you may know from Star Trek. Some ‘Trekies’ claim that the series of Star Trek represented a journey for Lt Commander Data on ‘his’ (an android) road to becoming more human.

I chose to believe that I was a person, that I had the potential to become more than a collection of circuits and sub-processors.”  Data, 2369 (“Rightful Heir“)

So, Data would like to know what you would like ‘him’ to give to you for Xmas and the new year (going forward) that would help you to become more of a missionary and Data to become more human.

Happy Xmas and a happy New Year bloggers!

Speaking back to the numbers

From my previous post, it seemed clear that your desire to talk about education in terms of its higher purposes, like individual fulfilment, creativity etc. was strong, yet the proxy goals of passing tests, hitting targets and delivering measurable outcomes remains very real in your day-to-day lives.

This is regrettable but understandable. With principals fearing for their colleges, and leaders fearing for their jobs, our data driven accountability system has come to dominate almost everything some institutions do. The transformation of complex educational processes into data points that can be used to sort, order, benchmark, compare, and rank has the effect of distorting professional priorities and practice and develops a growing sense of alienation, as teachers are compelled to focus on outputs over individuals (Allen, 2014).

We see lots of data, usually in the form of numbers. Numbers assume a form of objective reality that is apparently beyond question (Taubman, 2009) because they’re seen as ‘scientific’. It seems as though it is not possible to speak back to the numbers because the numbers speak for themselves. Roberts-Holmes (2015) has called this the “datafication” of teaching and Stephen Ball (2015) describes it as the “tyranny of numbers.

The question is, when so many of us complain about this and want something different, why is there “very little evidence of overt resistance and precious few hints of covert resistance” (Hall & McGinity, 2015, p. 12) and this could “…be something about the way that teachers define themselves and their role that made resistance unlikely” (Hutchings, 2010, p. 112).

Those of us wishing to survive, or thrive, under this form of control have had to reconstitute ourselves as “neoliberal professionals” (Ball, 2003). Individual contribution is what counts, made possible by the datafication of many of the pedagogical and organizational aspects of college life. Under this control, passing judgement on yourself or on others, becomes the ideal mode of talking about teaching (Hall & Noyes, 2009).

As individuals then, our struggles with the accountability system become highly individualised as we, as ethical subjects, find our values challenged, or displaced, by the voice of the numbers. Of course there are some who embrace the system and have done very well out of it, the ‘gamers’ i.e. school leaders whose priorities and practices are shaped by the demands of the accountability system, who play the system to get the best outcomes. In more extreme cases, they either exhibit a range of unethical practices or succumb to more explicit examples of career ending dishonesty (Turner, 2016).

At the opposite end of the scale are the ‘missionaries’, school leaders who simply refuse to play this bureaucratic education-by-numbers game; leaders whose decisions are shaped, not by the government’s agenda, but by their own sense of mission — by the higher purpose to which they have dedicated themselves and their institution. The risk to ones career here of course is equally high.

In-between the gamers and the missionaries lie the pragmatists, the fence sitters, in neither camp, all of them are subject to the magnetic pull of these two poles. The need to meet the performance targets on which their own careers, and those of their colleagues, depend, and the instinct always to put the educational and developmental interests of their students first. Goodrich (1920/1975) called this the “frontier of control”.

On the basis then that we’re not all about to march on the DfE with burning pitchforks (although it has merits) how do we speak back to the numbers? One option is to quit, which, as Ball (2003) indicates, is simultaneously an act of resistance and capitulation.

Alternatively, we can engage in a dialogue about troubling questions and as we begin to question our own ethics and values, we question not only what we do, but who we are. “It requires the deconstruction and recreation of the self and a certain capacity to examine ourselves critically” (Ball & Olmedo, 2013, p. 89).

I hope that this Blog will progressively become a “critical space” in which it is possible to develop an alternative discourse, a refuge or asylum, a forum for “being” and for “being yourself” (Duckworth et al., 2016, p. 13). As we are able to share concerns, care of the self (ethically) becomes care for each other. Transforming individual concerns into shared understandings becomes central to developing the collective responses required to make significant change possible.

And behind all these aims is one over-riding objective: to help those of us who lead and teach reclaim ownership of their institutions, their profession and their practice.

So friends and colleagues, be angry, be sad, be determined, but most of all be you. I leave you with this song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcJ4C0pTGDw

Who are you? Has data shaped who you are now and what you have become? Do you like this version of ‘you’ or is the real you fighting to get out?

Data is a good thing, right?

I have been in this profession since 1995 and I am able to hold in my head the memory of what the teaching was like back then, I can also remember what the job was like in the early 1980s when my dad was a teacher and later Head of English in a deprived mining town secondary school. Remember the good old days of no accountability? At school I affectionately recall Fag Ash Lil, who spent every maths lesson outside chain smoking while some of us tried to work from our text books and ignored Ian S hitting David N with a chair.

Ever since the Education Reform Act of 1988 accountability has become established in England, supported by the ever-increasing use of data and data-systems that cyclically process test and examination results to feed back to eager recipients. Colleges were introduced to the accountability regime following the publication of The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 which …

…gives the Further Education Funding Council (the Council) the duty to ensure that satisfactory arrangements exist to assess the quality of education provided in colleges within the sector (FEFC Circular 93/28, 1993)

It is difficult to argue against the fact that over the last twenty years data and accountability systems have played an important role in improving FE and 6th Form Colleges. The benchmarking data on levels of retention and achievement in England in the Further Education Funding Agency (FEFC) report (2000) showed that:

achievement rates for students aged between 16 and 18 studying for qualifications at notional level 3 increased from 75% to 77% between 1996-97 and 1997-98, building on an increase from 73% in 1995-96” (p1).

Data from the national achievement rate tables 2015-16 now tells us that in 2016, the achievement rate for this group had increased to 93% and the transparent use and publication of accessible data now helps parents make informed choices. The Test-Data-Inspect model has worked and no one has yet come up with an alternative.

However, despite the improvements there has been constant criticism. Most of this has been centered around Ofsted and the increased workload that data driven accountability has (inadvertently) produced and of course, the sense of loss of “professionalism” and trust.

Dr. Becky Allen argues that the main impetus for change has to come from school leaders, since they have created the audit culture. We know in our hear-of-hearts that it is impossible to audit teaching and learning accurately – respected academics worldwide tell us this. Dr Allen says…

“leaders need to learn to live with this uncomfortable truth and stop asking for lesson plans, performing book scrutiny, reviewing marking and collecting tracking data”.

However, expecting us to reverse years of learned behaviour, without any guarantees of protection from those demanding figures, data and proof, requires considerable bravery on our part.

Are league tables all that matters? Obedience or survival?
blog1image1 blog1image2

So, given the improvements that have and which can be made through the use of data and associate systems, why is there such a barrage of criticism and bad press? And just how brave are you?