The targets which aren't targets
For those of us who work in school, the FFS means targeting, or projections, or, well, you know, something. Senior Management in primary schools refer to FFT or Fischer Family Trust ‘targets’, by which they mean ‘the level which a given child must attain by the end of key stage 2, 3 or 4 or OFSTED/Michael Gove/the bogeyman will get us’. The FFT itself is at pains to say that its data disaster nonsense is actually an ‘estimate’, but I have yet to meet anyone in school who has much of an idea about the distinction, and most senior managers conveniently ignore the FFT’s own advice.
So. FFT ‘targets/estimates’ are used to track children’s ‘progress’ (another pretty much meaningless term given the huge cake sitting below the icing a school adds to a child's educational development). You often find a child will have been allocated a level such as ‘2b’ for their writing ability at the end of Key Stage 1 (Year 2, seven years of age). This means that they are ‘secure’ ‘level 2’ according to a set of APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) criteria – which is a whole new area, and which Liz Truss, Schools Minister, seems to think has vanished from schools. If only.
What the FFT actually does is to magically turn ‘assessments’ into ‘estimates’. These estimates suggest a ‘level’ which children should attain at the end of a phase of their education. And off the back of this comes a whole panoply of terrible analysis, meaningless comparisons and dreadful pressures on children, teachers, senior managers and schools.
Follow the money
Before we get to a detailed look at the mess which this data creates in English education, let's have a look at the history of the FFT to see if it sheds some light on why we are where we are. Mike Fischer, of the ‘Trust’ fame, was the founder of RM plc, a company began as ‘Research Machines’ in the 1970s. It made its fortune by selling computers to schools through the 1980s and beyond, eventually floating in 1994, making Mr Fischer very rich.
Mike Fischer has an interesting life story, and is somewhat of a serial entrepreneur. He has been making money from the educational establishment for a long time, and the FFT is pretty much bank-rolled by the UK government, effectively working as an unaccountable Quango. I say pretty much, since it’s almost impossible to find out very much information which is independently researched. Most information I have turned up – and trust me, I’ve looked – is PR guff of the highest order.
The FFT makes a huge thing of its status as a non-profit company, as if this puts it above anything as sordid as money and profit. What this actually means is that the company has no shareholders but it can still do all the things a profit-making company does, such as enter into contracts, own stuff and pay its staff. The last set of accounts I can find are for 2012, when the company had a turn over of just under £1,000,000, although in 2006, 2007 and 2008 it was considerably higher.
In fact, the company turnover in the name of The Fischer Family Trust dropped by £1,000,000 between 2008 and 2009. The organisation appears to operate under a bewildering number of subsidiaries, however, such as FFT Education Limited, Fischer Education Project Limited and FFTLive. Goodness knows how many subsidiaries there actually are; suffice to say that the FFS is not a single, easily definable entity, and trying to follow the money is not easy.
The money making potential of multiple subsidiaries
In a previous life, I used to do some work for a mutual building society. With no shareholders, and no easy way to raise capital other than via savings made by ‘members’, the top brass couldn’t really justify paying themselves much more than they did. They could, however, set up new businesses which were separate to the building society, install themselves on the boards, and pay themselves for the new roles they’d created. I’m not certain that the ‘Fischer Family Trust’, the ‘FFT’, the ‘FFT Education Limited’, ‘Fischer Education Project Limited’ and ‘FFTLive’ is exactly the same, but it looks strangely familiar to my untrained eye.
What does seem to be clear is that the ‘FFT’ makes its money from government handouts to do questionable things with data. This fits in with Mr Fischer’s analysis of running a business, which he lays out clearly in ‘A Valuable Beginning’. Selling a commodity – like a computer or software for it - is always risky because someone can develop a new way of manufacturing which undercuts you, or a new product which supersedes yours. A business in which you provide a service which cannot easily be replicated – like controlling and analysing data using highly personalised algorithms – is hard to undercut or supersede.
How far, how fast, how unclear?
So, looking at the bit which provides the witchcraft in schools, let’s have a look at what the company itself says it does. Firstly, it was founded in 2001, or possibly 1998, depending which arm of the octopus you’re looking at. Either way, 1998 and 2001? I remember it as if it was yesterday, because it practically was. The ‘FFT’ began to analyse school ‘performance’ data, firstly in a limited number of local authorities. Where? Who knows? They aren’t telling.
Then, by 2004, a mere blink of an eye later, it becomes the manager of the National Pupil Database in England. Here the witchcraft really begins, as the FFT/Fischer Family Trust/Any number of subsidiaries start to develop ways of analysing contextual value added (CVA) information and to lump schools together into Families of Schools (FoS). Both contextual value added and Families of Schools are highly contentious measures, by the way, but let’s move on.
The FFT/Fischer Family Trust/Moonies get their hands on Performance Tables in England by 2006, crunching termly data (which schools are presumably mandated to supply) and get hold of student information from ‘further and higher education’, thus getting hold of data for those in education up to 21/22 years of age…
By 2010, FFT/Fischer Family Trust/the Mysterons were calculating over 250 million subject ‘estimates’ for children from 5 to 18. By 2013, the FFT was providing ‘data’ analysis for school governors too, in the ‘Governor Dashboard’, which will tell governors that certain results are ‘significant’, compare school datasets with numbers less than 100 to national figures (see my post here about this) and split children into ‘higher ability’, ‘middle ability’ and ‘lower ability’.
So from a standing start, the FFT magically becomes the national data manager in next to no time. Then it starts to crunch data based on the ridiculous notion that you can compare the behaviour of particular individuals within a school with national averages as if all children somehow conform to something you can analyse scientifically. And all of this is done in a way which is far from transparent, surprising complex and extremely dubious.
Next week, I’ll have a close look at the most public of the ‘FFT’ data offerings, the Governor Dashboard. In the meantime, if anyone else has any information or observations about the FFS, please comment below.