Unreliable evidence

Last Thursday’s council meeting was a lively affair – especially the bit about the chief executive’s pension that you weren’t allowed to see.
Of most interest to me was the debate on the amalgamation of Hakin and Hubberston Schools, and the sham consultation exercise that preceded the decision.
Much of the case for the merger was predicated on the assertion that this bigger school (500+ pupils) would lead to better educational outcomes for the children.
So I typed “School size – educational outcomes” into Google and up came a large number of links to research papers on this topic.
All the ones I read seemed to support the view that the optimum size for primary schools was somewhere in the range 150-400 pupils and schools larger than this led to poorer outcomes, especially for children from deprived backgrounds, of which there are not a few in the Hakin/Hubberston area.
So, in my response to the consultation which was presented to Cabinet in February, I suggested that a digest of this research would help to inform the Cabinet’s decision.
After all, they prattle on endlessly about “evidence based policy” so here was a chance to show that this was more than a convenient soundbite designed to give the impression that they knew what they were talking about.
As you’ve probably guessed this information wasn’t provided, and none of the Cabinet asked for it.
Of course, when you have already reached a conclusion and you are casting around for evidence to support it, you are hardly likely to welcome facts that point in the other direction.
This cherry-picking of the evidence is what is known a confirmation bias.
There’s a lot of it about!
When I mentioned this during the debate, I received a ticking off from the cabinet member for education Cllr Sue Perkins, who seems to imagine that her elevation to high office has endowed her with superior wisdom.
Cllr Perkins would do well to remember that what the philosopher Francis Bacon said was: “Knowledge itself is power”. He didn’t say it worked the other way round.
Undeterred, she scolded me:
“The idea that you can come up with some information off the internet to prove one side of the argument is,  I can assure you that I can come up with a lot of information off the internet to prove the other side of the argument”.
Fair enough – but let’s see it, then.
Just asserting that you can do something isn’t enough even from a lofty Cabinet member’s perch.
She concluded: “The big school that I represent is a brilliant, well thought of, well respected school”.
This was a reference to Pembroke Dock Community School, of which more later.
I explained that, when I spoke of information on the Internet, I wasn’t referring to the sort of half-baked ramblings you might read on that other website, but peer reviewed academic papers from university research departments.
Cllr Perkins was unimpressed.
“I’m glad you did that,” she said, “but you can still go to two professors and come up with different arguments”.
I’m afraid that’s what passes for logic in IPPG circles.
As Aristotle taught us, both arguments can’t be right and the only way to settle the matter is to read the papers and reach our own conclusions.
As it happens, I haven’t come across a paper that supports Cllr Perkins’ view, though, as I haven’t read everything that has been written on this subject, I can’t be sure they don’t exist.
However, as Cllr Perkins claims that she can come up with “a lot of information off the Internet” proving her side of the argument, I look forward to receiving the links.
In conclusion, Cllr Perkins said: “They [Welsh Government] won’t accept two schools that close together. It would be in my opinion completely wrong to build a wonderful new school for one group of pupils [Hakin] and across the road have another school [Hubberston] in the same condition [as it is now]”.
But, of course, that’s exactly what the council did in Llangwm where a new school [Cleddau Reach] was built, but, after pressure from the parents, Hook about a mile up the road was allowed to remain separate.
The report before members states: “However previous experience would indicate that when faced with making a choice for their children parents invariably opt for the new school” .
Now “invariably” is a very strong word which my dictionary defines as meaning: “In every case or on every occasion; always”.

As it happens, a few weeks ago I got into conversation with the member for Hook, Cllr Michael John, on this very subject and he told me (confirmed at Thursday’s meeting) that, since the opening of Cleddau Reach, the numbers attending Hook School had gone up.

But the biscuit for cod logic must go to another statement in the report: “It should be noted that many of the children affected by this proposal have not yet been born and therefore their parents are unlikely to have responded to the consultation”.
So, if the real-life consultees don’t come up with the required answer, you can always rely on the hypothetical views of hypothetical parents of hypothetical children.
Sounds like something from Monty Python.
The next item on the agenda was the proposal to consult on a reorganisation of the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock federation of schools.
There are ten schools in the federation stretching from Angle to Lamphey and all stations in between.
Four of these schools are classed as small, all of which are good or outstanding (G or S). Of the remaining six, three are classed as G or S, while the other three “need to improve outcomes for learners”.
The biggest of those in need of improvement is Pembroke Dock Community School which Cllr Perkins described as a “brilliant”
Not a view shared by Estyn, it would seem.
You have to wonder if someone who can describe as “brilliant” a school with a “need to improve outcomes for learners” is really up to the task of driving forward Pembrokeshire’s failing education system.