Sunday, 13 July 2014

Tories discuss stripping benefits claimants who refuse treatment for depression

From today´s Sunday Telegraph:

According to the government, 46 per cent of benefit claimants receiving Employment and Support Allowance, the main benefit for ill and disabled people, have mental health problems.
Estimates based on government figures suggest the state spends up to £1.4 billion a year – more than £3.5 million per day - on ESA for these claimants with mental health issues.
That's 260,000 claimants.
So if you can cure 50% of them of depression at a cost of £2700 per person, the cost will be £700m and the benefit will be £700m.

For £2700 per person, I will happily volunteer to be the therapist.  And I only need to get a 50% cure rate.

Tory MPs allege that claimants are just unwilling to avail themselves of the services available.  Obviously they don't know that the waiting list for CBT is several months in many areas, and the alleged benefit of CBT doesn't kick in for 6 months anyway.  

Monday, 7 July 2014

How to reduce crime through literacy part 2

The adult population of the UK is 51 million.
10% of them are Scottish.
5.2 million adults are illiterate in England ( reading age of 11 or below).[1]  So probably 5.5 million adults are illiterate in the UK.  (I’ve seen large numbers banded about for Scotland but I don’t believe them!)

9.2 million adults in the UK have criminal records.[2]
Let us assume that 25% of these actually went to prison.
(I checked with Howard League for Penal Reform but even they don’t know the total number of people who have been to prison, so I am using this as a rough way of getting the number.)

So we’re assuming that 2.3 million UK adults have been to prison.

48% of criminals have a reading age of 11 or below.[3]

So let's work with a manageable sample:

1000 people leave school.
102 will be illiterate (5.2 million out of 51 million).
45 will go to prison (2.3 million out of 51 million).
48% of prisoners are illiterate.  Which is 22 of them.

So of our 102 illiterates, 22 of them will end up in prison.

That’s 20%. 

Let's just emphasise that.  If we've got our assumptions correct, for every child you allow to leave school illiterate (reading age of 11 or below), a fifth of them will end up in prison. 

So let’s say we halve the number of illiterates leaving school, then maybe only 11 of our illiterates end up in prison instead of 22.
So we could reduce the prison population by 11/45 which is about 25%.

Let's just emphasise that.  If we reduce the number of illiterates leaving school by a half, we could reduce the prison population by a quarter.

(We haven't proven causality here of course, we're just saying there's a jolly good chance that we're right!)

But can we reduce the illiterates by half?

In our research trial of our literacy program ReadingWise English last year, in one secondary school, 30% of the struggling readers went from “illiterate” (below reading level 1) to literate (level 1 or above) in just a 20 hour intervention.  In fact their average reading age increase was 23 months.

That was only 20 hours.  So yes, we can reduce the illiterates by half.
At a rough cost per child of £262[4] for the software and say £3,000 for a Teaching Assistant for one week for 10 children (salary and premises and amortise a computer), so that’s £300, so let’s be conservative and say £1000 per child total cost.

And you’ll save £37k per prisoner.  Not to mention the staggering rest of the cost of policing and arresting and trying the poor buggers.   So that’s £5k against a lot more than £37k.
A no brainer.

My case rests.

[4] £5000 for a school of average 939 pupils with 20% of them on the program.

The smokescreen of stats in medicine, and how to reduce crime

Here is a s
uperb article about the failure of doctors to understand statistics, especially in screening, which leads to completely wrong recommendations. 

Gigerenzer, the clever guy at the centre of this article, suggests a standard set of questions to ask your doctor after he/she has prescribed whatever treatment/screening they urge you to do:
What are the alternatives?
What's the benefit and what's the harm?
Please tell me this in terms of absolute numbers. If 100 take this medication and 100 people don't, what happens after five years?

I am particularly struck by the third question.  I think this would be a lovely thing to apply to education research papers.
If you take the effect our English literacy program ReadingWise English has on 11-year-olds who have reading problems, and increase the term to say, 10 years, the answer is likely to be something like this:
If a struggling 11 year old does our program, he's going to have an average bump of 1 year in reading age.  If his pre-programme reading age was 9, you would expect him to go through secondary school learning very little, go into unskilled employment.  Or be chronically unemployed.  And the chances of the chronically unskilled ending up in prison after 10 years are x per 1000.
Whereas the bump of just one year in reading age would be enough to give him/her the confidence to actually pay attention to his/her secondary schooling, and get at least some vocational training, and therefore his/her chance of ending up in prison would be y per 1000.

So what are x and y?

There is a study by researchers at Northeastern University in the US which used a range of census data to find this out.  They concluded that "about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.

If we extrapolate these numbers, we would get:
  • If 100 stuggling readers do NOT do ReadingWise English, 10 end up in trouble with the law.
  • If 100 struggling readers DO do ReadingWise English, 3 end up in trouble with the law.
That is a massive difference. 
Yes, yes, you are saying, but that's the USA, not the UK. 
You're right, and I need to research these numbers for the UK, BUT I think it's an entirely predictable that a short sharp boost in literacy for struggling readers in UK secondary schools could make a serious impact on the crime rate.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The conventions of Randomised Control Trials are too limiting

I just read a research paper slamming "synthetic phonics" and extolling "whole language".
Why do academics have to come down on one side or another like they are supporting a football team?

This to me epit​omises a fundamental problem that wrecks scientific research - we can't cope with cognitive dissonance.
Our culture requires us to assess stuff on one scale from good to bad, and then come up with a binary conclusion - it's good, or it's bad. 
What's wrong with a curate's egg - good in parts, bad in other parts?

Synthetic phonics (one of my pet subjects) has lots of good points.  "Whole language" (the other team) has lots of good points.  They are not mutually exclusive. 
The problem with most research is it's looking for a holy grail of "your one single hypothesis is probably true".   Everyone bow to the Probability Deity.

It's present in our justice system - a person is either guilty or not guilty.  What if he's partially guilty?  I know you can't be partially pregnant.  But you can be partially guilty.  You can be partially right.  You can be an almost complete shit and still be nice to your mother.

This problem besets research into vital development procedures which effect the lives of millions.
Some very smart people from MIT, I think it was, did a study which found that the benefits of microfinance initiatives are not proven.
That is so not helpful.
What we need is to know all the aspects of microfinance that are beneficial, and to what degree.
And what aspects of microfinance as it is now practiced are not beneficial, and what can we do about it.

We ourselves (ReadingWise) just did an RCT where we came up with the probability that our literacy program worked.  (It did, and remarkably well.)
That's all very well.
But what are its good bits, and how far do they work?  What aspects of it don't work so well?  That's what we need to know.  Shades of grey, please.  But we are trapped in an academic culture that disapproves of that.  As it so happens, I'm writing a supplementary paper where I can go into these shades of grey.  But to get a research trial published, you have to follow a very restrictive set of conventions which just don't help illuminate the issue you are trying to explore.

So please, academics, it's time to drop this convention of proving just one hypothesis with one parameter.  It's just so arbitary.  So 20th century.  

Test yourself - is Luis Su├írez (the footballer with a habit of biting people) a good or bad person?  You probably thought bad, because he bites people.  But maybe he looks after his Mum and donates lots of money to orphanages.  See - nothing is completely black and white.