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The dangers of sizzle without evidence

As a lesson in self publicity, it was exemplary.

But the backlash following recent comments made by the chairman of the Independent Schools Association, highlights the importance of speakers having sufficient evidence to support what they are saying.

Richard Walden entered the media spotlight last week by claiming that state schools were failing to produce pupils with a moral compass. Specifically excluding the independent sector from the problem, he said:

“the country is turning out too many amoral children because schools cannot find the time to teach the difference between right and wrong, as so much school time is spent on ‘teaching the basics’.

education exams

Richard Walden failed to support his claim that Britain is turning out too many ‘amoral’ children

As the vast majority (93%) of children educated in this country are in the state sector, this is quite an extraordinary claim. And as American astronomer Carl Sagan was keen to point out, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

So whilst we applaud Mr Walden’s use of media-friendly sizzle with remarks like “amoral children” and “moral compass”, we would also look for evidence. Where is the proof for this headline-grabbing assertion? Therein lies the problem. He says his comments were based on a survey he read several months ago, although he could not remember where he read it.

No statistics, no sample size, no explanation of its methods. He can’t even tell us who conducted the survey, so that we can evaluate its authorship and conclusions for ourselves. Instead, there’s just a sweeping generalisation, with nothing to back it up.

Whilst his audience at the Independent Schools Association Annual Conference might accept his comments at face value, the public in general – and the state school sector in particular – are likely to be a little more sceptical.

Indeed, some of them may conclude that using his influential position to publicly criticise huge numbers of children without any evidence whatsoever, and in order to promote his organisation’s interests, was somewhat “amoral” in itself.

My end of term report for Richard Walden: must try harder.