TESS Article 17: The Rule of Optimism

With the current review of child protection in Scotland following the tragic circumstances of Baby P in Haringey I thought it timely to reflect upon my own experience as head of service and now acting director of education and children’s services on this crucial area of work.

It’s been my great privilege to work with colleagues in children’s social work in East Lothian who have patiently educated me about their role, responsibilities and challenges they face on a daily basis.

I think teachers sometimes have an ill-informed view of social workers to be politically correct, naive, do-gooders who are scared to make tough decisions. However, the reality of social work as I’ve come to learn, is radically different from that perception.

There are two extremes which social workers could adopt which would make their jobs easier. At one end they could adopt an approach where any allegation of abuse or neglect results in immediate removal of the child from the home. At the other end they could trust parents and carers to do their best for children and never remove the child from the home.  Unfortunately life is never quite that simple and it’s into this messy world that social workers live their professional lives

A key feature of a social worker’s practice is an awareness of the ‘rule of optimism’, which was first used to explain how health and social workers were screening or filtering out many of the cases with which they were involved. This was done by social workers applying overly positive interpretations to the cases they were assessing.

I’m relatively new to the concept of the “rule of optimism”, although when translating the same rule to my life as teacher I can now see the luxury afforded to teachers in comparison to the sometimes life or death decisions faced by social workers.

There would appear to be four reasons for the application of the “rule of optimism”. The first is referred to as “cultural relativism”, whereby behaviour, which would normally be defined as deviant, is excused due to the belief that members of one culture have no right to criticise other cultures by applying the standards of their own culture.

The second reason relates to a general assumption in society that parents love their children. Under this assumption social workers can sometimes be seen to interpret all evidence of child abuse under a positive assumption about the nature of the parent-child relationship. In such circumstances a social worker requires almost incontrovertible proof that abuse has taken place – which is many cases is not possible.

The third reason for social workers erring on the side of the “rule of optimism” are the very negative consequences for families if the identification of neglect or abuse turns out to be mistaken.

The fourth, and most perhaps most compelling reason – and one that is completely counter intuitive to the general public – is that children’s lives tend to end up better if they stay in their natural home – even if that home is very dysfunctional.

As I stated earlier, my natural tendency as a teacher was always to adopt a “rule of optimism” and I would still say that this is probably the case for many of my colleagues in schools. Yet what I find so admirable about my colleagues in children’s social work is that they are prepared to make the “tough” call and to be conscious of the dangers of over-optimism.

In my role as Director of Education and Children’s Services and as Chair of the Child Protection Committee I have a duty to support colleagues who have to make such calls in their daily duties. The sophisticated balance of judgement between the needs of the family and needs of the child make it one of the toughest jobs imaginable.  Whatever, else we do as managers of social workers we must ensure that no child who is suffering neglect and abuse in the family home is “neglected” by us by our desire to always see the best.

So the next time you are thinking about how easy it must be to be social worker just remember what it must be like to make the decision to remove a child from the family home – or just as difficult – to leave the child in the family home.


Implementing A Curriculum for Excellence – Situation Statement


Apologies for the squint photo of the above model.  I’ll post something a bit more comprehensive later in the week.  Click on the photo for an enlarged version.

In the following post (which will – eventually -be very long) I’ll attempt to use the Program Logic Model to describe a possible national implementation strategy for A Curriculum for Excellence.

Stage 1 Situation Analysis

Description – The situation is the foundation for logic model development. The problem or issue that the program is to address sits within a setting or situation–a complex of sociopolitical, environmental, and economic conditions. If you incorrectly understand the situation and misdiagnose the problem, everything that follows is likely to be wrong.

Take time to understand the situation and carefully define the problem. This may be the most important step. As you do so, consider the following questions:

  1. What is the problem/issue?
  2. Why is this a problem? (What causes the problem?)
  3. For whom (individual, household, group, community, society in general) does this problem exist?
  4. Who has a stake in the problem? (Who cares whether it is resolved or not?)
  5. What do we know about the problem/issue/people that are involved? What research, experience do we have? What do existing research and experience say? UWEX

Situation Analysis of Scottish Education (the following situation analysis draws heaviliy upon the Executive Summary of the OECD Report on the Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland ,Dec 2007)

A major challenge facing Scottish schools is to reduce the achievement gap that opens up about Primary 5 and continues to widen throughout the junior secondary years (S1 to S4). Children from poorer communities and low socio-economic status homes are more likely than others to under-achieve, while the gap associated with poverty and deprivation in local government areas appears to be very wide.

A second challenge relates to the need to build on the strong platform of basic education through socially broader and more successful participation in upper secondary education and greater equity in Scottish higher education. Inequalities in staying-on rates, participation at different academic levels of national courses, and pass rates in these courses are a concern. So, too, are the number of young people leaving school with minimal (and in some cases no) qualifications and the  comparatively high proportion in precarious transition.

A third challenge relates to static levels of achievement in national qualifications over the last eight years at a time when other countries are showing improvement in comparison to Scotland.

 Local authorities have only limited influence over the curriculum in schools and over the full range of learning opportunities available to the communities they serve. Promotion of change in schools is hampered by the vulnerability of schools to adverse perceptions and judgements based on examination results. Although local authorities are the  employers of teachers and the builders of schools, their influence is limited by wider arrangements which have a centralizing and conforming effect.

Schools need substantial freedom of action within a framework of agreed goals and  outcomes to vary the courses and to offer programmes which best address these challenges. Greater management freedom in these two areas needs to be part of a compact with local government which establishes expectations in exchange for autonomy, and encourages and protects innovation and risk-taking through an authoritative mandate.

 The OECD review considers that greater flexibility is needed in arrangements linking local councils to the Scottish Government, and linking schools in turn to local government. But without greater flexibility in arrangements relating to curriculum, examinations, and qualifications, more autonomy for councils and schools will not go far.

Any analysis of the situation in Scottish Education must also recognise  that budgets are under extreme pressure and this is likely to be the case for a number of years as the global recession impacts upon the Scottish economy and public services in particular.

Stage 2 Priority Setting

 Description: From the situation comes priority setting. Once the situation and problem are fully analyzed, priorities can be set. Seldom can we undertake everything so we have to prioritize. Several factors influence your determination of focus; these include your mission, values, resources, expertise, experience, history, what you know about the situation, and what others are doing in relation to the problem.

Priority Setting for Implementing A Curriculum for Excellence

  • Greater school autonomy within a local government framework
  • Improving learner attainment and achievement
  • Local authority Curriculum Frameworks within swhich schools can develop their own curriculum
  • Closing the achievement gap

 Stage 3 Assumptions

Description: Assumptions are the beliefs we have about the program and the people involved and the way we think the program will work. This is the “theory” we are talking about: the underlying beliefs in how it will work. These are validated with research and experience. Assumptions underlie and influence the program decisions we make. Assumptions are principles, beliefs, ideas.

Assumptions about the Implementation of A Curriculum for Excellence

 I’ve already explored this in a previous post – see Clarifying Asumptions


  • Teachers are professionals who want to make a positive difference to children’s lives;
  • Where teachers are empowered to work together they can create outstanding learning environments for children and young people;
  • Teachers naturally want to talk and learn from each other about their practice;
  • Teachers want to engage in dialogue about their own educational practice with a view to improving their craft.
  • The school is the key unit of curricular creation and professional development.
  • Schools should be encouraged to create curricular models which suit their own context
  • School leaders can create environments where teachers want to learn.
  • Teams of teachers working collectively towards a common purpose can have a more positive impact upon practice than any other strategy.
  • Teachers are partners in the curriculum development process.

More to follow……

Logic Modelling – Outcomes

This post is one of a series linked to The Logic Model – getting a social return on investement?

Perhaps the most difficult element of the entire Logic Model rests with the definition of an outcome. 

Here are two definitions from the University of Wisconsin and The Kellog’s Foundation:

University of Wisconsin 

  1. Outcomes are the value or changes for individuals, families, groups, agencies, businesses, communities, and/or systems.
  2. Outcomes include short-term benefits such as changes in awareness, knowledge, skills, attitudes, opinions and intent.
  3. Outcomes include medium-term benefits such as changes in behaviors, decision-making and actions.
  4.  Outcomes include long-term benefits (often called impact) such as changes in social, economic, civic, and environmental conditions.

Kellog’s Foundation 

  1. Outcomes determine the extent to which progress is being made toward the desired changes in individuals, organizations, communities, or systems.
  2. Outcome questions seek to document the changes that occur in your community as a result of your program.
  3. Usually these questions generate answers about effectiveness of activities in producing changes in magnitude or satisfaction with changes related to the issues central to your program. 

I’m particularly attracted to the notion of short, medium and long term outcomes. Where short term benefits relate to learning, medium term benefits relate to changes in behaviour, and long-term benefits relate to changes in social conditions (which links back my starting point of a Social Return on Investment.


As I’ve been working through these series of posts over the holiday period I’ve relied more and more heavilyy upon the outstanding resources provided by the University of Wisconsin Program Development and Evaluation Unit. Never before have I come across such a comprehensive and useful learning resource freely available on the web. So much so that my original intention to describe the Logic Model “in my own words” has been rendered superfluous. Nevertheless, It has been an exceptionally useful learning process and has enabled me to really come to grips with a field of study which I believe has enormous potential for those of us involved in public service.

In my last post in this series  I’ll try to use the model – as described by UWEX – to map out an implementation strategy for A Curriculum for Excellence.

I’d like to see if the model also has any potential for teachers planning their work – any takers?

The following extract from their outstanding on-line learning resourcefrom the University of Wisconsin shows the difference between outputs and outcomes.

Outputs vs. Outcomes

Try not to confuse outcomes with outputs. Outputs are the activities we do or accomplish that help achieve outcomes. Outcomes are the results of those activities for individuals, families, groups, or communities. Look at the following examples.
Outputs – Activities Outcomes
  • The program trains and empowers community volunteers.
  • Community volunteers have knowledge and skill to work effectively with at-risk youth.
  • Program staff teach financial management skills to low-income families.
  • Low-income families are better able to manage their resources.
  • The camp experience provides leadership development opportunities for 4-H youth.
  • Campers, aged 12-15 years of age, learn new leadership and communication skills while at camp.
  • An annual conference disseminates the latest forage research.
  • Forage producers in Pasture County know current research information and use it to make informed decisions.
Here’s another way to look at the difference between outputs and outcomes:
  Outputs: Is the client served?   Outcomes:Has the client’s situation improved? (Hatry, 1999)


Logic Modelling – Activities and Outputs

This post is one of a series linked to The Logic Model – getting a social return on investement?

Activities are the things that we plan to do to try and achieve a desired outcome, e.g if I wanted to feel less hungry (OUTCOME)  – I would go for a meal (ACTIVITY) – the food I ate would be the (INPUT) – and the (OUTPUT) would be the meal itself. The Logic Model for the above would be as follows:

-INPUT (food)

      – ACTIVITY (go for a meal)

               –OUTPUT (eat the food)

                      –OUTCOME (feel less hungry)

                             –IMPACT (maintain health and well being)

Note that the very close relationship between ACTIVITY and OUTPUT – in some models they both appear under outputs but I think there is a difference between planning to carry something out and actually seeing it through to completion.

Perhaps it might help here to quote from The Kellog’s Foundation on the difference between Activities and Outputs:

Activities are the processes, techniques, tools, events, technology, and actions of the planned program. These may include products – promotional materials and educational curricula; services – education and training, counseling, or health screening; and infrastructure – structure, relationships, and capacity used to bring about the desired results.

Outputs are data about activities and are the direct results of program activities. They are usually described in terms of the size and/or scope of the services and products delivered or produced by the program. They indicate if a program was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose.” A program output, for example, might be the number of classes taught, meetings held, or materials produced and distributed; program participation rates and demography; or hours of each type of service provided.

Another way of distinguishing between Activities and Outputs is to think of Outputs as being specificcally related to the intended audience or participants, for example, if the activity was to lead to the development of imporoved links beteen primary schools and secondary schools, then the output would be the number of sessions, the number of participants, the materials produced.

One of the biggest problems in recent years is that schools and local authorities have seen the implementation of the activity as being an outcome in itself – whereas it’s only an job half done.  This is best exemplified in some recent national initiatives which have been output focused – as opposed to outcome focussed.

National examples of Outputs presented as Outcome Led Initiatives:

There are a number of National examples of output led initiatives – which have not had any specific linkage to OUTCOME.

All of the above operate on the ASSUMPTION that the output will lead to a positive outcome for children – without specifically stating what that outcome will be.  The problem with developments such as these is that authorities, governments and schools can say “We have implemented the Policy” but the only measure of success is whether the output was achieved.  So for all that there might have been a massive investment in the implementation of the policy – there are no accurate means of judging if there has been any positive social return from that investment, aside from saying it has been spent.

The challenge for those of who might wish to use the Logic Model to improve aspects of education that we must try to avoid confusing Outputs with Outcomes.

I will explore this in more depth in my next post


Logic Modelling – Inputs

((READING%ofStudentsWithLGns + MATH%ofStudentsWithLGns)x%Tested)
—————————————————————— x 100
(TotalProgramCostPerWeightedFTEStudent / DistrictCostDifferential)

This post is one of a series linked to The Logic Model – getting a social return on investement?

The concept of inputs in education has the potential to cause two quite different reactions.

On the one hand there is the understandable demand for more inputs or investment in the system.  More money, more resources, more technology, more teachers, more books, more support,  more time, etc, etc. The underlying assumption being that more inputs will lead to better outcomes.

On the other hand there is a general distaste at any attempt to objectively judge the return on these inputs or investments. I can imagine the negative reaction of many teachers and parents to  Florida’s Department of Education Return on Investment Index – as set out below 

Return on Investment (ROI) Index

Florida’s educators and policymakers are frequently asked to explain how funds appropriated for education are spent and how effectively these funds have been used to generate school and student performance. Because funding for education is an investment in Florida’s future, the shareholders (Florida’s citizens) have an interest in the return provided by this investment.Evaluating schools’ educational return on investment (ROI) can help answer key questions about the direction of education in Florida, including the following:

  • How can we measure the success of our efforts?
  • How do we know whether we’re accomplishing what we set out to do?
  • How can we make informed decisions about the ongoing use of our resources?

To assist in answering these questions, the Florida Department of Education has developed the ROI website, which includes an ROI index calculation for schools. The ROI index provides an indicator of a school’s cost-effectiveness by combining two key measures of the delivery of educational programs: costs and learning gains.

In very general terms, the ROI index is determined by dividing the percentage of students with learning gains by the program costs per weighted full-time equivalent student at the school. Higher learning gains result in a higher ROI index if costs are the same. Higher costs produce a lower ROI index if learning gains are the same. Schools with high learning gains and low costs will have the highest ROI indexes. Schools with low learning gains and high costs will have the lowest ROI indexes. For more information about the formula for ROI, see the ROI Technical Descriptions section of this document.

It’s into this difficult world that I am trying to track a course where we can establish some link between investment, and social return on that investment but in a way which helps us to improve education and not just spend our time collecting data in order to justify the spend(note that the Florida system is based upon Return on Investment – not Social Return on Investment)

It’s here that Stephen Downes’ recent comments are of real help:

I’m not suggesting that it (improvement) is difficult to define – I am suggesting that there is no single thing you can call ‘improvement’.

I’m saying you shouldn’t use a term like “improvement” – you should state specifically what it is you want to increase in schools and then as whether *that* is something I would or would not seek to see in schools.

I agree with Stephen here about improvement being something which must be attached to something which is being specifically done to lead to an outcome, e.g. the introduction of interactive whiteboards. It’s in relation to such specific projects that we should be attempting to judge the impact of such an investment, learning from that, and then building that learning into future projects.

The bottom line here is that I don’t want to go down the line of trying to measure overall school return on total investment.  I already know that a small school has a much greater cost per pupil – and therefore a much lower return on investment than a large school.  However, I am interested in getting teachers, school leaders, parents, education officers, civil servants, and politicians to adopt a much more rigorous view on the relationship between inputs and outcomes – in much the same way as Dragon might do when investing their own money in a venture.