If you read only one book on education, read this one: Francis Gilbert’s preface to ‘Learning Matters’

New cover with new typeIt is my firm belief this passionate polemic is one of the most important investigations into education published in the last twenty years. Why? There are two reasons:

First, Roger Titcombe really shows you more clearly than anyone else where things have gone wrong in schools.

Second, he offers genuine, practical solutions to the problems.

This is a book both about the tragedy of millions of lives scarred by educational failure, but it also offers genuine hope: it is both a rigorously researched polemic and a guide.

There are a number of things that make Roger Titcombe’s polemical guide so unique. It is written by a teacher but it is not exclusively for teachers, although, I am sure, many will find it essential reading. It combines gritty, no-nonsense analysis with powerful personal stories that show beyond doubt that a toxic cocktail of factors have poisoned our school system.

There have been many books which have outlined the problems of our system but very few have brought together so many disparate elements into a coherent whole: Titcombe’s scope is huge. He not only analyses our school system, but he shows us how children learn, how we think, how free markets work, how marketised education is linked to social disorder and how successive governments have implemented policies that have stopped learning happening in our schools.

It’s worth here going through Titcombe’s central arguments because once you’ve got the “big picture” of what he’s saying, you’ll better appreciate the masterful way he marshals his arguments and evidence.

Throughout the book Titcombe illustrates with a number of powerful examples why our examination system, school league tables and competition between schools since the late 1980s has caused a catastrophic change in the way our pupils are taught. Put bluntly, our schools are making students stupider. This isn’t primarily our teachers’ fault but the fault of a system which encourages students to learn in a very superficial fashion. Instead of learning deeply, students are drilled to pass exams and pretty much forget everything they’ve learnt after they’ve taken them.

What is exceptional about this book is the evidence Titcombe provides to back up his points. This is no woolly liberal diatribe against exams-per-se because Titcombe argues if used sensibly exams can be a powerful tool for helping students learn in a “deep fashion”. Throughout the book, Titcombe refers to Cognitive Ability Tests or CATs for short (a form of IQ test widely used for school admissions) because they are the most reliable measure we have of students’ current cognitive ability levels. You don’t have to be a fully paid-up believer in IQ tests to agree with Titcombe’s points. Personally, I think IQ tests are not always a reliable test of intelligence in individual cases but the general picture they paint is tremendously powerful: they are a much more reliable indicator of the state of intellectual development of a pupil than most external exams, like the SATs tests administered in the UK at the moment. Most serious educationalists would accept Titcombe’s diagnosis: we have a school system at the moment that is very poor at getting children to master the challenging concepts needed to become more intelligent. Titcombe believes that intelligence is plastic: it can be increased or inhibited by the nature of schooling. Sadly, we have the worst of both worlds. We have students who pass their exams with flying colours and think they’re really clever (when they’re not) and a lot of students who have failed their exams and think they’re really stupid (when they’re not). Read this book, and learn just how inane our current exam system is: it makes for damning, chilling reading.

Many commentators – both on the left and right — have said similar things to this but not many (none I would dare to say) have joined the dots in the way that Titcombe has: Learning Matters is superb at tying together many disparate threads. Titcombe manages to show that the shift from a locally accountable school system to one which is both very centralised and market-driven has meant that many schools have chucked “deep learning” out of the window in favour of “quick fixes” to get good exam results. He points out how all of us have been affected by this change: the way we’re taught has wrought an insidious, hidden change in the way we relate to each other as human beings. We have become a society which not only has a social underclass but a “cognitive” one as well. This has made us more dependent in our lives on consumerism, achieving status through spending our money on things instead of relating to each other in meaningful ways.

This is a very brave book because it will alienate people both on the left and right. Many people on the left may have serious problems with the way Titcombe suggests that poorer communities have become dumber, while those on the right won’t like his eviscerating attack on the way a market-driven school system has eroded educational standards. It is a fearless book: Titcombe goes where no serious educational commentator has dared to tread.

Read it and weep, but also note its message of hope. Titcombe shows that it wouldn’t take that much to change things. He welcomes some of the changes recent government has made to the examination system but says that they need to go further. He points out that every teacher could defy the current predilection for superficial learning and modify their practice to teach “deep learning”. I know I’ve changed the way I teach as a result of reading this book.

By Francis Gilbert

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Nature, nurture and human autonomy

Does your family make you smarter? by James Flynn

Book Review by Roger Titcombe

James Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in the academic study of intelligence. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. It is the name given to the large year on year increases in IQ that took place in all developed countries during the twentieth century.

I am a retired headteacher, educational researcher and author. My work is based on the concept of general intelligence. The general intelligence factor ‘g’, accepted as a sound general construct by Flynn, is a concept about which much heat has been generated. If the validity of this construct is rejected, as it still is by some left inclined educationalists, then Flynn’s latest book together with his life’s work will be judged unworthy of serious consideration. To be clear therefore, I am reviewing this book in acceptance of the concept of general intelligence, with the crucial proviso that it is plastic and that it can be enhanced in childhood and subsequently throughout life as a result of both passive and (especially) active interaction with cognitive challenges.

See Sections 1.2 & 1.4 of ‘learning Matters

Notwithstanding the main title, this is what Flynn’s book is mainly about. The subtitle, ‘Nature, nurture and human autonomy’ is a better description of the main thrust of the book. In it he describes how his view of the stability of genetically inherited intelligence has substantially changed. Wading into the nature vs nurture debate Flynn now rejects the pessimistic, anti-educational notion that IQ is largely stable over a lifetime. He argues that intelligence can be changed positively and negatively through ‘human autonomy’, by which he largely takes to mean the life decisions open to individuals in adulthood.

Flynn is now arguing that intelligence is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by most academics that study intelligence. Although he appears not to have given much thought to the impact of school pedagogy, he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  He writes as follows.

“my analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives! University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

“I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current [cognitive] environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

 Flynn is not an educationalist, but his conclusions have profound implications for teachers, schools, national education systems and especially the failures of the ‘reformed’ English system with its emphasis on marketisation, league tables and parental choice.

Flynn’s book has a very useful summary of current theories of intelligence. In it he admits to being very influenced by Oesterdiekhoff, who he describes as, ‘the most original thinker among the continental Piagetians’. See also Sections 1.8 & 1.9 of ‘Learning Matters‘.

Oesterdiekhoff links Piagetian stages to anthropology, He notes that the ‘formal operational’ stage develops only in modern societies, usually sometime between the ages of 15 and 20 and is associated with high IQ test scores. Flynn explains the Flynn effect (large gains in population IQ) mainly in terms of individuals having to come to terms with the cognitive demands of modern societies, which have steadily increased throughout industrialisation and ‘taken off’ in the last two decades of the digital revolution.

The consequence is that school students still at the ‘concrete operational’ (or pre-operational) level at 16 will increasingly struggle with the cognitive demands of modern life and the demands of employers. A ‘cognitive underclass’ is therefore in the making.

See Sections 2.1, 2.2 & 2.3 of ‘Learning Matters

My argument is that marketised schools driven by SATs and GCSE grade ‘C’ performance thresholds are forced to prioritise achieving ‘floor targets’ at any costs. This condemns a large proportion of the school population to 11 years of shallow, degraded behaviourist teaching that, by age 16, will not develop cognitive ability sufficiently for full functioning in the modern world resulting in a vicious circle of failure and alienation.

A study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out on British children in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old had dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the ability range the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points. This apparent recent reversal of the Flynn effect is confirmed by a parallel study carried out in 2005/6 by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg (but not published until 2009) and gives weight to the contention that educational standards in England are falling as a consequence of the degrading of the education system. The decline in KS2 noted by Shayer, Coe and Ginsberg (2007) showed an even bigger effect than that recorded by Flynn: the 11 year-olds were testing at the level of 9 year-olds in 1976.

If environmental factors such as high cognitive challenge can result in growth of cognitive ability over time, as Flynn now asserts,  then it follows that poor teaching of the wrong sort can produce a decline. Shayer and Ginsburg found just such a decline suggesting that the English education system could be ‘making our kids dimmer’ at the same time as stuffing them with ever more qualifications.

See Sections 5.10 & 5.11 of ‘Learning Matters

Referring to the title of the book, Flynn has analysed decades of IQ data to conclude that while the quality of the family environment can raise IQ scores in early years this effect wears off with schooling to virtually disappear by the age of 17. This suggests that contrary to common assumptions, as children progress through the education system the growth of cognition as a consequence of schooling is determined far more by the cognitive demands of the school experience than by any assumed deficiencies in the home background.

This too is a profoundly optimistic conclusion in terms of the potential of the education system for halting the national cognitive decline that is resulting from the corrupting effects of the marketisation of our schools.

However, the right kind of pedagogy is needed.

See Sections 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6, 5.7, 5.8 & 5.9 of ‘Learning Matters

Although not written for educationalists this important book adds to the growing evidence that  ‘intelligence matters’ and that the marketisation paradigm of the English education system is increasingly failing our children.

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Plastic Intelligence, EBacc, and the Cognitive Underclass

I will address these issues in the reverse order that they appear in the title.

The Cognitive Underclass

Section 2.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘ is entitled, ‘The educational and social consequences of ‘failure by definition‘.

If a school is defined as failing for not getting pupils to achieve a C grade in English and maths, what does this say about the pupils that find themselves in this shameful category that is causing the failure of their school and the negative labelling of their communities? The failure label will not be new to most of those involved. The whole of the English education system is now structured with threshold ‘Levels’ that all children, regardless of cognitive ability, are ‘expected’ to achieve from the age of three. In Y6, at the close of the primary phase of education the ‘expected’ attainment in the compulsory SATs exams is Level 4. As with secondary schools and GCSEs five years later, primary schools are designated as failing if they do not achieve the latest arbitrary target.  A persistent proportion of children, especially in poor areas, fall into this failure category regardless of how obedient they are, however much they strive and how many hours, days and months of drilling and revision they have been subject to, only to find themselves on the same relentless treadmill towards GCSE ‘failure’ in their new secondary school.

At the start of the new school year of 2016, as I write this, SATs and GCSEs are on the threshold of major changes, but there will be nothing that alters the basic culture of a system designed to create failure.

On 29 August 2016 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report entitled, ‘5 million adults lack basic literacy and numeracy skills’

The most striking point made in the article is as follows.

England is the only country where the average literacy score of the youngest age group (16-18 years) is lower than that of the oldest age group (55-65 years).

 Katie Schmuecker, Head of Policy at JRF, said:

“In a prosperous country like Britain, everyone should have the basic skills they need to participate in society and build a career. But these shocking figures show millions of adults are being left behind in the modern economy, holding back their potential and the productivity of our businesses suffering as a result. Businesses and community groups must play a leading role in helping people learn the skills they need to be able to find work and progress into better-paid roles – but this needs to be backed by real ambition on the part of government.”

 This is where the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, repeats the universal error of failing to recognise that what appears to be poor ‘basic skills’ is in reality under developed ‘cognitive ability’.

This is a consequence of the prevailing educational culture being about ‘skills‘, acquired by ‘training‘, rather than ‘understanding‘ that has to be ‘developed‘ through a cognitively challenging pedagogy taught in a way that results in the development of cognition (students get cleverer). The ‘failure by definition‘ paradigm that corrupts the English education system is a consequence of marketisation and the Global Education Reform Movement. It fails to recognise that intelligence matters for students of all abilities and that intelligence is plastic.

The explanation for the shocking conclusion that so many of our school leavers are less capable than their parents and grandparents, is that the latter did not have their education corrupted by marketisation, which is resulting in a ‘training’ culture and the substitution of behaviourist pedagogy for developmental approaches to learning that result in cognitive gains.

The failures of our system are even worse for numeracy than for literacy.

The consequence is that a significant proportion of our school population are already made dimmer by their schools. More ‘skills’ training will just make this worse.

 What is needed is not more ‘skills training’ but better education.

 Why a broad and balanced academic education benefits all students not just the more able

 To help explain this I refer to a recent article from Education Datalab.

Changing the subject: why pushing pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to take more academic subjects may not be such a bad thing

 by Rebecca Allen

This is an extract (my bold).

Critics of the EBacc worry it crowds out the creative subjects, it forces less academically-orientated students into subjects for which they have neither aptitude nor interest, and that it distracts the focus on the core subjects of English and maths for low achievers.

 We find no evidence for the last two of these concerns in schools that have already made substantial curriculum shifts: pupils were more likely to achieve good GCSEs in English and maths, achieve higher average grades across the board, were 1.7 percentage points more likely to be taking an A level or other level 3 qualification after the age of 16 and 1.8 percentage points less likely to have dropped out of education entirely.

 We wouldn’t want to make causal claims about the relationship between EBacc entry and GCSE attainment. It is possible that whatever drove the decision to make radical curriculum changes at these schools was also driving improvement in maths and English, for example.

 But there is a perfectly plausible argument that students who have weak literacy skills at age 14 benefit from taking subjects (such as geography) that involve extensively practising these skills over the next two years.

 Rebecca Allen makes important points, buts gets the reasons wrong. It is nothing to do with ‘skills’ and everything to do with the development of cognitive ability. Higher GCSE grades are a consequence of cognitive gains, as is the reduction in students dropping out of education.

 In my teaching career during the 1980s I spent many years in schools committed to the (then) Conservative government’s Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI). This was extremely successful. It was not about ‘skills training’ at all. To get the TVEI money, which was substantial, schools had to adopt a ‘broad and balanced’, non gender biased curriculum for all pupils of all abilities. In one of my schools, a large Leicestershire 14-18 Community College, I was the ‘Curriculum Vice Principal’. In the other I was  head of an 11-16 school in the socially deprived centre of Barrow-in Furness.

The KS4 timetable models we devised in both schools were similar and met the TVEI requirements. GCSE courses in English (and English literature), maths, double award science, French or German, humanities and core technology (on a rota) were all part of the core curriculum for all students. This also included PE/Games and Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) which included Careers Guidance. This still left two GCSE option blocks for an art/design/technology specialism, music, drama and a second language.

The EBacc curriculum is the current albeit somewhat less broad and balanced version of this approach. In my view it is often wrongly attacked by those who rightly condemn other aspects of  government education policy. All of the Ebacc subjects, and especially maths and science, have significant potential as effective vehicles for cognitive development. A common argument takes the form, why do ‘less academic’ school students have to learn stuff like (for example) trigonometry that they are unlikely ever use in their adult lives?

The answer is that hopefully they will be using their brains a lot and that a well developed mind (a function of the brain) has massive universal positive application.

For example, the single most cognitively developmental field of study may well be Euclidian geometry, the practical application of which in most careers and everyday life is minimal to non-existent. The reason for its potency in developing cognitive ability is that Euclidian geometry, while firmly based in the concrete world of familiar shapes, provides rich routes to the understanding of what ‘solving a problem’ means as well as the formal mental processes required to achieve it. It is also accessible in concrete terms at appropriate levels for students of all levels of development at all Key Stages. Seymour Papert’s computer coding language ‘LOGO’ is a powerful cognitively developmental teaching approach that can be used throughout the primary and secondary curriculum.

However, only if effective teaching methods are used. The principles that underpin cognitively developmental pedagogy are explained here

This article also includes reference to the universal applications of these approaches including in the context of improving safety in a number of industries and the NHS.

The theoretical basis is that of the Cognitive Acceleration  movement developed by Professors Michael Shayer and Philip Adey, which draws heavily on the work of Piaget and Vygotsky.

Part 5 of my book, ‘Learning Matters‘ contains examples of successful cognitively developmental approaches by other teachers and researchers including one from the 19th century.

I also draw upon my own experience of being a science teacher for 32 years. This included teaching students at all levels of cognitive development including the least able. I recall teaching a great many students who could be mistakenly diagnosed as having a lack of ‘basic skills’. I recall one such who struggled with graphs. It took me a while to discover just how deep rooted the problem was. Experienced teachers will be aware of how often ‘weak basic skills’ (easy to fix with more training) are in fact rooted in fundamental cognitive development issues (a consequence of a lack of effective cognitively developmental education).

This student could not find a number on a linear scale if any degree of interpolation was needed. This was not a ‘skill deficit’ but a fundamental cognitive barrier. The student had yet to securely transition from the Piagetian ‘Pre-Operational’ level to ‘Concrete Operational’. This student had a Cognitive Ability Test Score (CAT) of 69. This is more than two Standard Deviations below the mean and is consistent with students at that Piagetian stage.

If this student had been in a school that was not, ‘cognitive development focused’ in which CATs scores were unavailable then the diagnosis would have been, ‘lack of basic skills’ and the prescription, ‘more skills practise needed’. The result would have been more failure, alienation and despair for the student.

This student needed and got specific SEN intervention aimed at establishing Concrete Operational Thinking, under the direction of a Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator (SENCO) who knew what she was doing and with the resources provided through an SEN Statement obtained by vigorous support of the parent by the school in an argument with the LEA.

Piaget provides the best model. The majority of secondary school students will be at the ‘Concrete’ or ‘Formal’ Operational Level, but some students will not have achieved the Concrete stage. This was a case in point. How can graphs be comprehended without understanding the scales on the axes?

A secondary school of 1000 pupils with a national normal ability distribution would contain about 20 such students. Schools with socially and economically deprived intakes (such as my headship school) would have very many more.

The reason why the Rowntree Foundation and employers generally are finding ever greater proportions of school leavers with ‘Basic Skills Deficits’ is because at the same time that the ‘digital revolution’ is making ever greater demands at the Piagetian ‘Formal’ Operational Level, our schools are increasingly adopting teaching methods that inhibit the gaining of this level of cognitive development. This is because the High Stakes for the school, GCSE ‘C’ grade that drives all the school performance measures can be attained through behaviourist ‘skills-based’ quick fix training instead of effective developmental teaching.

The ‘Slow Education‘ movement addresses this issue.

Another factor is the increasing takeover of school management by ‘Executives’ and Management teams that not only have no background in Learning Theory and Education, but also no classroom experience. It is all too easy for such people to believe that if they understand something, then the only explanation for a student not being able to, is either a lack of training (skill deficit) or a lack of motivation (behaviour deficit).

Such ignorance minimises teacher effectiveness, erodes teacher professionalism, maximises student alienation and is ultimately catastrophic as it becomes the paradigm that dominates the national education system.

That is why there is a growing cognitive underclass at the same time that ever inflating school performance benchmarks have provided disastrous false reassurance that all is well.

Confirmation from the academic study of intelligence

I base the following on sections in the latest book by James Flynn, which is subtitled, ‘ Nature, Nurture and Human Autonomy.

Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in this field. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. This is the name given to the year on year increase in IQ that has been taking place in all developed countries for many decades. This is described in Section 1.4 of ‘Learning Matters‘ as follows.

While the relative contributions of possible environmental and cultural factors is fiercely debated, usually generating much more heat than light, growth in societal IQ for non-genetic reasons has been measured and is not in doubt.

This was acknowledged by Herrnstein and Murray in The Bell Curve and these authors first coined the name, ‘The Flynn Effect’ for this phenomenon first described by James Flynn in his studies (1987) of large rises in IQ over time in America.

 However, a study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out on British children in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old had dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the ability range the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points.

 This apparent recent reversal of the Flynn effect in England is confirmed by a parallel study carried out in 2005/6 by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg (but not published until 2009), and gives weight to a key contention set out in this book that educational standards in England are falling as a consequence of the degrading of the education system caused by marketisation. The decline in KS2 noted by Shayer, Coe and Ginsberg (2007) showed an even bigger effect than that recorded by Flynn: the 11 year-olds were testing at the level of 9 year-olds in 1976.

 The Flynn effect has been widely researched and explored in the context of rising IQs. If environmental factors such as good developmental teaching can account for growth of cognitive ability over time then it follows that poor teaching of the wrong sort can account for a decline. Shayer and Ginsburg found such a decline.

 This is a key concept in the argument developed in this book that the English education system could be ‘making our kids dimmer’ at the same time as stuffing them with qualifications. [In other chapters], I show that this can be explained by qualitative shifts in the teaching and learning approaches in the English school system arising from its increasing marketisation. The re-emergence of behaviourist, ‘drill and practise’ teaching has replaced developmental approaches with disastrous consequences.

Section 5.10 of ‘Learning Matters‘ discusses this ‘Anti-Flynn effect’ further in the context of spurious market-driven ‘school improvement’.

Flynn himself has changed his view on the stability of IQ, which he now believes, like me, is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by academics that study intelligence. He appears not to have given much thought to the impact of school pedagogy, but he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  On p27 he writes as follows.

“More important still, my analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

 How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives! University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

 “I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

 My point is that if this is true for adults, how much more true is it for school students in KS4?

 Flynn’s latest book has a very useful summary of current theories of intelligence. In it he admits to being very influenced by Oesterdiekhoff, who he describes as, ‘the most original thinker among the continental Piagetians’.

 Oesterdiekhoff links Piagetian stages to anthropology, He notes that the ‘formal operational’ stage develops only in modern societies, usually sometime between the ages of 15 and 20 and is associated with high IQ scores. Flynn explains the Flynn effect (large gains in population IQ) mainly in terms of individuals having to come to terms with the cognitive demands of modern societies, which have steadily increased throughout industrialisation, but which have ‘taken off’ in the last two decades of the digital revolution.

The consequence is that school students still at the ‘concrete operational’ (or pre-operational) level at 16 will increasingly struggle with the cognitive demands of modern life and the demands of employers.

My argument is that marketised schools driven by GCSE grade ‘C’ performance thresholds are forced to prioritise achieving these at all costs. For a large proportion of the school population this is addressed through behaviourist approaches that do not develop the cognitive ability necessary to function in the modern adult world, but crucially, they are simultaneously cheated out of the slower paced developmental learning of basic English and maths enjoyed by their parents and grandparents. This deficit then inhibits access to a cognitively developmental broad and balanced (eg EBacc) curriculum resulting in a vicious circle of failure and alienation.

The only way to break that vicious circle is not more ‘skills training’, but more cognitive development at all Key Stages, but especially in KS4. This is a key argument for a broad and balanced curriculum for all students of all abilities up the age of 16.

 What is the evidence of cognitive plasticity at KS4?

 It can be found in the background research carried out by GL Assessment, commercial provider of the Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) widely and increasingly used in the English education system.

This has concluded that CATs scores are not stable and that significant gains can be made during the secondary school years. Be clear: this is not gains in attainment. It is gains in intelligence.

 In its FAQs, GL Assessment makes the following statement.

Reasoning scores can and do change over time. For a minority of pupils, these changes may be quite substantial. The mean scores for a group of pupils or even a whole school can also change substantially, for example where there has been an intervention such as the National Literacy or Numeracy Strategies (NLS/NNS), or Cognitive Acceleration through Science (CASE) or Philosophy in the Classroom thinking skills approaches.

So school students can be taught to be cleverer. It depends on them receiving the right kind of educational experience.

 More ‘Basic Skills Training’ in KS4 as advocated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will just result in more of the wrong kind of educational experience.

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Bringing back grammar schools would lower the national IQ

The new Conservative Prime Minister has indicated her willingness to allow the creation of new grammar schools and selection at age 11 in the English education system.

The arguments of the proponents are as follows.

  1. It will increase social mobility by providing a better education for bright children from poor backgrounds.
  2. We have academic selection for post-16 education so why not at 11?
  3. Bright children make better academic progress in grammar rather than in comprehensive schools.
  4. Grammar schools get better exam results than comprehensives.
  5. Less academic children are better suited to a more practical education.

The opponents argue:

  1. You can’t create new grammar schools without also creating new secondary moderns, whatever you call them.
  2. Less able children do better in fully comprehensive schools than they do in secondary moderns.
  3. Although grammar schools get better exam results than comprehensives this is because of their selective admissions and the overall performance of schools in fully comprehensive areas is better than in areas that have selection for grammar schools at age 11.
  4. It is socially destructive to divide families and communities by selecting children for different schools at age 11.
  5. The 11 plus test does not reliably select children with the most academic potential anyway.
  6. The 11 plus test encourages affluent parents to pay for private tuition to pass the 11 plus selection and this is unfair because poorer parents cannot afford to do this.
  7. Grammar schools are highly socially as well as academically selective.

The evidence favours the arguments of the opponents rather than the proponents. Much of it is explained in Henry Stewart’s article here and through other articles and comments on this website. Regrettably it appears likely that, as with so much else that has gone wrong with the English Education system under both Labour and Conservative governments, the evidence is unlikely to be a major factor in the ultimate decision of Theresa May’s government.

My argument against grammar schools and any kind of selection at age 11 between or within schools is different.  Academic selection at age 11 lowers our national IQ.

My book, ‘Learning Matters‘, argues the case for a developmental approach to education. It is based on the idea that attainment, in all its forms and contexts, is founded on general abilities and that it is the job of schools to recognise and to promote the development of these underlying abilities. At the same time a school should be maximising students’ attainment in their academic studies and nurturing the physical, artistic and social skills that grow out of these talents and abilities. My book draws heavily on the work and ideas of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

Although the basis for the routine work of Educational Psychologists for more than half a century and the current Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) based admissions systems for hundreds of state funded schools since the inception of the Academies programme, the general intelligence factor ‘g’ is a concept about which much heat has been generated. Many left inclined educationalists still begin any discussion in this area with an IQ denial statement of some form. ‘Learning Matters’ addresses these concerns in detail and includes a discussion of Howard Gardner’s, ‘Multiple Intelligences’ and Steven Gould’s, ‘The Mismeasure of Man’, much quoted by many on the left to support their discomfort with ‘general intelligence’.

Chapter 12 of ‘Bad Education – Debunking Myths in Education’ (2012) edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon, also addresses the myths of both ‘intelligence fixed at birth’ and ‘multiple intelligences’. My arguments against grammar school selection are based on the validity of general intelligence as set out by Adey and others, but with the insistence that although resilient, such general intelligence is plastic and that its development should be the priority of all good schooling.

Plastic general intelligence is a significantly different concept to ‘fixed intelligence conferred at birth’. It opens the door to the development of the intellect of all children (and indeed adults) through good quality education. However much educational practice commonly believed to be ‘good’ is in fact ‘bad’ because it does not result in cognitive growth. That is a theme that runs throughout ‘Learning Matters’.

Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University wrote in his book, ‘The Blank Slate

I find it surreal to find academics denying the existence of intelligence. Academics are obsessed with intelligence. They discuss it endlessly in considering student admissions, in hiring faculty and staff, and especially in their gossip about one another. Nor can citizens or policy makers ignore the concept, regardless of their politics. People who say IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to the execution of a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child’s IQ by 5 points, or the presidential qualifications of George W. Bush. 

For those that are interested in further exploration of these arguments I recommend the ‘Afterword’ by Charles Murray in the ‘The Bell Curve‘ (R.J. Herrnstein, C. Murray, 1994). This book gained notoriety mainly for a section on racial and ethnic variations in IQ. While I disagree with the authors about the plasticity of cognitive ability of which, not being educationalists, they  appear to be ignorant, I judge their book to be a work of great scholarship and moderation on the question of general intelligence. It is unjustifiably reviled by many on the left of politics.

In an email to me of March 2012 Philip Adey, now sadly deceased, wrote the following:

you are right about the intelligence problem; the left are frightened by it and the right give it too much credence. I have been trying to argue for years that once you accept that general intelligence is plastic, it ceases to be the bogey-man ushering in racism etc. and becomes a great opportunity.

The main theme of ‘The Bell Curve’ is that intelligence matters, individually, collectively and nationally. It sets out in detail, with powerful supporting evidence, how higher IQ is positively linked with the vocational performance of all workers in all fields, including those involved in manual labour.

Like many towns, our local refuse collection service is now outsourced to a private company whose vehicles display a notice, ‘WARNING – OPERATIVES AT WORK’, suggesting that an education that develops general intelligence through providing studies in academic subjects would be wasted on ‘operatives’, whose function is merely to do as they are instructed as fast as possible. In our town this includes having to run alongside their vehicle in order to keep up with it.

But as well as earning a living, ‘operatives’ have to make choices about how and where they live, their purchases, diets and lifestyles. It is obvious that not only are such choices of profound importance for the individuals concerned they also have ramifications for the quality of our national life and our prosperity. It is not patronising to recognise that in a market economy exploitative predators lurk, seeking to trap the unwary into making irrationally unwise decisions.

‘Operatives’ may also be parents. It is well established that the children of better educated parents do better at school.

‘Operatives’ also have the vote. See my article about the educational implications of the EU referendum.

But won’t an academic education be wasted on children whose cognitive ability is less developed? See the story of ‘Helen’.

What is value of an academic education to children whose cognitive ability is less developed? It is because of its potential for making ‘less able’ children cleverer and wiser. This is true at all levels at which academic studies are taught. Not only would the UK benefit from a better educated general population, but why shouldn’t we have cleverer, wiser and better informed refuse collectors, plumbers, electricians, bus drivers, care workers etc?

What does ‘non-academic’ mean? How is ‘academic’ to be defined and measured? The results of the cognitive ability tests (CATs) used by Academies to regulate their admissions display the classic bell curve continuous ‘normal distribution’. There is no distinctive level of performance in such tests, or any other tests, that could validly divide a population into academic and non-academic streams.

All you can say is that pupils with lower scores generally find academic studies more difficult. But does this mean they shouldn’t be allowed access to them? Pupils are ‘turned off’ learning by poor teaching using inappropriate and undifferentiated teaching methods, not by the subjects themselves. What about technology and the arts? Are these subjects academic or vocational? Are we to assume that our most academically able pupils should be directed away from cooking, dance, drama and art, or that less academic pupils don’t need to study and understand history, geography, literature, science and a foreign language?

Section 2.3 of ‘Learning Matters’ is entitled, ‘The creation and growth of a cognitive underclass’. In the context of my book I outline the causes of the growing English cognitive underclass as being rooted in the neoliberal marketisation paradigm that is driving the English education system. When I wrote my book, bringing back grammar schools was not on the government’s education agenda. They had enough problems promoting their wretched and failing Academisation and Free School policies, which were also damaging social mobility.

So we come to the crux of my argument against grammar schools. Every new grammar school creates at least three similar sized secondary moderns. How can these schools still meet the GCSE ‘C’ grade performance thresholds imposed by the government? Only by abandoning any serious  attempt to provide a cognitively demanding, broad and balanced education, through developmental teaching methods. Such empowering education will be replaced by training and the teaching methods of behaviourism will dominate. This already happens in comprehensive schools that have an intake cognitive ability profile skewed towards lower CATs scores.

These teaching methods do not result in cognitive development and will not make our school leavers cleverer or wiser, which is what is really needed.

Even when the marketisation and competition model is finally abandoned along with the ‘Tyranny of testing‘ required to drive it, secondary modern schools will find it more difficult to provide a full, broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils.

Part 4 of ‘Learning Matters’ is a case study of ‘Mossbourne Academy’ and the Hackney LA’s policy of ensuring all-ability intakes in its secondary schools, LA maintained and Academies alike. I argue that the main factor in the success of Mossbourne Academy is down not to its Academy status, but to its all-ability intake. The first Principal of Mossbourne Academy and the current (2016) Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is very clear about the superiority of all ability comprehensive schools compared to a mixture of grammar and secondary moderns. This is from a Guardian article of 14 December 2013.

In comments that put him on a collision course with education secretary Michael Gove, who has expressed support for grammar schools. Wilshaw said: “Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: 3%. That is a nonsense. What we have to do is make sure all schools do well in the areas in which they are located.

But will degradation and impoverishment of the education available to 11 plus failures be more than made up for by ‘grammar school excellence’ for the more able? The following questions are crucial.

  1. Is the quality of teaching better in grammar schools than in comprehensives?
  2. Do grammar schools support the learning of bright children from poorer homes better than comprehensives?

There is no evidence that either is the case. As Head of OfSTED, Sir Michael Wilshaw should know.

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The girl who broke into lessons

Although anecdotal accounts need to be treated with caution, they can be very powerful in explaining and illuminating issues. This article features one such anecdotal account published on his website by ‘Disappointed Idealist’ in his last article as a teacher. I do hope his site remains accessible as ‘disidealist’ has published some excellent articles.

His piece, entitled ‘11 Years a teacher‘, comprises a frank and illuminating account of a number of experiences and incidents that many teachers will recognise and warm to. This article concerns Number 4, in his list. For the sake of clarity the quotations from his website are in italics, and everything else is my work. I will refer to ‘disidealist’ as DI.

Helen was a “different” child when I began teaching her at the beginning of Year 10 for GCSE history. She was on the school’s SEN register, although there seemed to be a lack of clarity as to whether the issue was autism, or Asperger’s, or both. Her target grade was an “E”, and to be honest, this was optimistic. She liked history because, in her mind, History was essentially the classroom equivalent of watching Horrible Histories – a succession of facts, preferably gory or shocking, to be recounted irrespective of the question in front of her. She would interrupt a lesson on Renaissance medicine with a factoid about Roman emperors, or illustrate a discussion on the Freikorps in Weimar Germany with a list of Henry VIII’s wives and how they died.

Every teacher in an all ability comprehensive school will have met students like Helen. Helen may indeed have been on the ‘autistic spectrum’, but had this been the case there should have been a clear and specific diagnosis by a Educational Pshychologist and Helen should have had a Statement of Special Educational Needs. It looks as if she did not have a Statement and was on the school’s SEN Register classified as having, ‘Moderate Learning Difficulties’. If the school had Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) data then the Local Authority would have defined MLD as having a score below a specific threshold. This would commonly be one Standard Deviation below the mean (-1SD), which is a CATs score of less than 85 (16th percentile). In the absence of a Statement the school would be expected to fund appropriate SEN support for Helen from its Delegated Budget. Had Helen been assessed by an Educational Psychologist then she would have an IQ score on the same standard scale as the CATs score. I retired in 2003 from the headship of a school with a very high proportion of SEN students. The way schools manage Special Needs may have changed since then.

Why is this important? It is because of the fact of continuous human variation. Any large nationally representative sample of students who take CATs tests (a form of IQ test) will produce test scores that fit the Normal Distribution (bell curve). In the absence of a Specific Learning Difficulty (eg dyslexia) every student on the distribution is as ‘normal’ as every other in terms of natural variation. In other words there is nothing ‘special’ or abnormal about Helen. About 70% of students in a nationally representative comprehensive school population will have scores between -1SD and +1SD.

This is a vast range of ability. If you believe in Piagetian stages, as I do, then any nationally representative all-ability Y10 year group will have high proportions of students at the ‘Concrete’ and the ‘Formal’ stages with perhaps a handful at the ‘pre-concrete’ stage, depending on the size of the school. Y10 students at the ‘Formal’ stage will be more likely to have above average CATs scores (101+) and students at the ‘Concrete’ stage will be more likely to have below average CATs scores (99-).

This is the point at which the reader now needs to read my articles about ‘Learning from Mistakes‘ and ‘Plastic Intelligence‘. If you want more then you need to read my book, ‘Learning Matters‘.

If your brain is now hurting and you think all this is rather heavy, then I am not going to apologise. Education really is both very complicated and profoundly counter-intuitive. ‘Common Sense’ actually leads to false conclusions, which is why our education system, run by people that know nothing about education, and who ignore the advice of experts are making such a mess of it. Now some more from DI about Helen.

In practise GCSE questions, if I told her exactly which question we were going to attempt, and then also told her, step by step, exactly how to answer that question, so that she was effectively trying to reproduce notes she was given by me just minutes before the task, then she was occasionally able to reproduce enough of the previously spoon-fed information to scrape a C, if I marked generously, squinting through rose-tinted glasses. However, left to her own devices, or without advanced specific instructions in how to answer a known question, her answers would be a random collection of facts which rarely had anything to do with the question at hand. Recognising this, after the first term of Year 10, the school decided to withdraw her from History lessons, in order to give her more time for maths and English.

Helen is therefore a student who fails to understand ‘hard stuff’ however much she tries, or however well DI explains it. This is because her cognitive development has not yet reached the level that enables her to make personal sense of all the facts and information she is being fed. As DI so clearly recognises, Helen cannot assemble these facts into any kind of personal mental framework that makes sense to her. She takes out of lessons a muddle of facts. There is little understanding. This does not mean she does not enjoy her History lessons as the facts clearly fascinate her. Vygotsky explains her situation with great clarity.

“As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level”

 However, the school management now takes an interest in Helen’s curriculum. They rightly suspect that in DI’s academic GCSE History class, where DI tries hard to develop knowledge of historical facts into understanding historical issues in relation to arguments and evidence, as well as ‘what happened when’, Helen will struggle and be unlikely to get a ‘C’ grade at GCSE. Her exam result in History will therefore be of no use to the school, where all sub ‘C’ grades are useless in OfSTED and League Table terms.

If I told her exactly which question we were going to attempt, and then also told her, step by step, exactly how to answer that question, so that she was effectively trying to reproduce notes she was given by me just minutes before the task, then she was occasionally able to reproduce enough of the previously spoon-fed information to scrape a C.

Had DI been prepared to modify his teaching of the whole class along those lines he might have ‘trained’ her and the rest of the class to get a ‘C’, but at the expense of deep and lasting understanding.

 In some schools, especially those in ‘high performing’ Multi Academy Trusts, DI and every other KS4 teacher would have been instructed very clearly by the senior management to do just this. The instruction would have been to adopt the knowledge-based, ‘mastery approaches’ that have been shown to maximise ‘C’ grade performance. This is because schools need ‘C’ grade passes and failure to achieve this is very high stakes for the school and especially for the head (or ‘Executive Principal’ as he/she is now more likely to be called).

You now need to read my article about ‘Behaviourism‘ to understand what this implies.

Clearly it is best for DI’s school for Helen to have a curriculum that maximises ‘C’ grade passes by her attending extra English and maths classes for more intensive teaching to the test, cramming and revision. The fact that her resulting understanding of these subjects will be no better than her understanding of History matters not a bit. DI makes clear that while his school is subject to the same OfSTED and market pressures as every other, the interests of individual students are still respected.

The problem for students like Helen in other schools forced to undertake such behaviourist cramming is that it is a deeply boring and unpleasant experience. This is likely to result in disinterest that may morph into disruption and insurrection unless a harsh disciplinary regime is imposed. This is the social dimension of behaviourism that always goes with the pedagogic dimension. It does nothing to improve enjoyment of school.

Helen yearned for the humane, interactive, relationship-focussed teaching of DI, regardless of her difficulty in making sense of what he taught her. So she rebelled.

So I was more than a little surprised when Helen turned up in my next lesson. I spoke to her gently and told her she needed to be elsewhere. She looked glum, but gathered her things and left. Then, a couple of days later, she turned up to the next lesson. This time, when I told her where she had to be, she seemed almost tearful. She looked at me pleadingly as I escorted her to the door. She still turned up to the next lesson. This time a Deputy Head appeared in the classroom looking for her. Apparently, Helen was running away from her extra maths and English lessons to come to History. I delved deeper, talking to the SEN support, and discovered that Helen said she “loved” history. She liked hearing the facts. She felt comfortable in that classroom.

In addition to her academic problems, Helen suffered from the worst affliction any teenager can suffer in a secondary school. She was “The Other”. She was socially isolated. Nobody would choose to sit with her unless compelled. If I ever wanted students to work in groups, none would ever voluntarily include her, so I ensured that I directed her into the safe company of the nicest kids in the class who would, at best, benignly ignore her, but would at least avoid looking too uncomfortable. At breaktimes and lunchtimes I would see her walking or sitting around the site, always alone. Every school has such children, and it is one of the most intractable problems of secondary school. There may be parents out there who don’t care about such social isolation as long as their child’s academic results are high (indeed, much Govian discourse seems to assume that hierarchy of priorities) but I’ve never yet met such a parent.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how, or why, but I found myself emailing the Deputy, and said that I wanted Helen back in History. Reminded that her result was likely to be a U, I agreed, but noted that her results in all her subjects were likely to be U’s, so where she was made little difference, and if she actually liked three of her lessons in a week, who were we to take that away from her? The Deputy agreed, generously noting that she wouldn’t hold Helen’s result against me when the figures were compiled. Helen was back in the class.

When I welcomed her back, the other kids exchanged glances in that knowing, eyebrows-raised way that all girls seem to have perfected by Year 10: arch and dismissive. They weren’t nasty kids – quite the reverse. They were just normal 14/15 Year-olds, and as such as prone to excluding “The Other” as all such adolescents. What they didn’t realise was that they were now my objective for Helen. I couldn’t make Helen get a top grade in History GCSE. I couldn’t “cure” her condition. I couldn’t force other kids to be her friend. But in that class, three times a week, I made the weather, and so I set myself two goals: firstly, she was going to have a good time in those lessons so that school wasn’t an unrelenting grind of failure and misery; and secondly – by Christ – she was going to be included in my classroom.

You will have to read DI’s account on his website as to precisely how DI went about this difficult task. I get the impression that like most teachers, his knowledge of Vygotsky may be quite limited. However DI instinctively understands the value of relationships and the essential role of social learning as the precursor to Helen internalising her developing understanding. DI was adopting a Vygotskian  pedagogy.

She’d been back in the class two lessons when I struck. Everyone was quiet, working on a question, so I knew the others were listening.

“So Helen…?”

She looked up. I could  feel the rest of the ears in the classroom turn in the direction of this welcome distraction.

“I feel I have to ask you this, as you’re the only student I’ve ever had who illegally runs into my lessons, as opposed to out of them.”

Heads swivelled towards Helen.

“But let me get this straight. You were offered three lessons a week in the inclusion suite. Comfy chairs, tea and biscuits, one-on-one attention from a highly-trained professional. And you threw all that away to come back here?”

Helen nodded, nervously.


“I don’t know.” She had a clipped, rapid-fire way of speaking, without the inflexions and cadences of her peers. “I just like it.”

I raised my eyebrows incredulously. “You like…” I held up the textbook on that day’s page “…how forceps use in medieval births could rip the heads off babies in the womb?”

“Well, not that. I just like history.”

I frowned. “Ah well, I understand that. Many students in this school never have the privilege of being taught by me.” Groans and eye-rolls from some of the class.

“But surely,” I go on “you should have realised that in returning to history, you were also going to have to share your class once more with this pointless rabble?” I gestured to the class with an expansive arm sweep. Howls of indignation and protest arose, which I quickly stilled.

“I don’t know”, she looked nervous, unused to the spotlight being on her.

“I thought you were better than them, to be honest, Helen. A bit more sensible. A bit more able to see which side your bread was buttered on. But you let me down. Given the chance to spread your wings and fly for freedom, you just dashed back into the cage and locked the door behind you. You muppet.”

Helen blinked. Inside, I was experiencing the sort of stomach gymnastics which usually accompany getting too close to a long drop with no barriers. On the outside, I was maintaining a mock-sneery face of head-shaking disappointment.

One of the other girls, a loud, brash future-landlady-of-a-rough-pub type, broke the breath-held silence. “Don’t worry Helen, he’s just taking the mickey. He’s like that with all of us.”

“Us”. “US“. I couldn’t have scripted it better. I could have leapt across the classroom and hugged that student. I wasn’t ready to end my career on the sex-offenders’ register though, so I remained impassive.

“Tsk. Carry on answering questions 1 to 4, while I continue to ponder the failings of humanity.”

“Mr C,” asked another girl “Do you really just hate all people?”

“Only the daft ones in my history classes. Now shut up and get on with it.”

Grumbles, mutterings, moans.

I glanced up furtively at Helen. She was smiling. I’m not sure she understood exactly what the joke had been, but she knew that she had been involved in the joke. For once, she’d been on the same team as the other students in a human interaction, rather than just sitting separately in the same room.

After that, it was gentle progress. I can recall different milestones:

  • The first time Helen piped up with a random fact and one of the other students said “Helen, you’re so mad!”, but with a big smile on her face, and on Helen’s, as they engaged in rudimentary friendly banter of the kind which is second-nature to all students, but which she’d been excluded from for so many years.
  • The first time I asked them to get in groups of three, and two girls, without waiting to be asked simply shouted across the room “Helen, come join us”.
  • The first time I came into the classroom after lunch to find the girls in there as usual, but Helen sitting in – not near, but IN – a group on the desks, while they chatted about whatever the hell they were chatting about.
  • The first time Helen actually threw a barb back at me. I can’t recall what it was now. I doubt it was particularly sophisticated. But she used the limited latitude I grant the students to occasionally have a pop. And the class roared. They screamed with laughter. Helen had thrown one at Mr C. They turned around to congratulate her. One even high-fived her. She looked like she’d won the world championships. I felt like I had.
  • The first time I saw her talking to one of the girls in our class, outside at lunchtime. I don’t want to over-egg this – she didn’t become school captain, or win any popularity prizes from her peers. But she had a group of girls who, in many ways, adopted her as one of their own. And they said hello to her. And because they said hello to her, others did too.

For two years, for at least three lessons a week, she knew that she would be in a room where she was liked, included, treated as an equal, and could read about a few more historical facts while this was all happening. She smiled a lot.

She got an E in History GCSE. It was her joint best result. I don’t think it mattered a bugger.

This is where I beg to disagree with DI. It does matter that students like Helen get a proper education at secondary school. A proper education is not a handful of ‘C’ grades that generates the performance bonus of the ‘Executive Principal’, but which results in little lasting, deep understanding, zero cognitive development and a shameful misrepresentation of the value of her ‘C’ grades in avoiding a minimum wage job on a zero hours contract.

This is where it may help to look again at my article about ‘Plastic Intelligence‘ and the scope for schools helping their students to become cleverer, wiser and healthier throughout life.

DI has decided to leave the teaching profession after just 11 years. I can understand why from reading the articles on his website. They express deep frustration and anger at the way the English Education system is being degraded for ideological reasons. Unfortunately he is very far from alone. The rush to the door out of the profession seems to be accelerating. The government euphemism for this is, ‘retention issues’.

His last post has drawn a large number of positive comments, all in similar vein. This comment is both typical and true.


July 18, 2016 at 2:19 pm

Thank you so much for this. I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end; so many memories and one day I hope to be able to look back and reflect in the same way.

It’s really refreshing (and right) to see someone espousing the virtues of relationships – not data, or teaching styles, or fads, but the core thing that will be there for all teachers, no matter what. It’s sad that some people seem to think relationships don’t matter – this blog shows they do.

Good luck in your future endeavours.

DI’s reply is also spot on.


July 18, 2016 at 6:46 pm

Since my first days training, I’ve always believed relationships to be absolutely central to the whole concept of school and learning. After all, without relationships, all teachers are simply boring audio-books at the front of a classroom.

What I have in common with DI, is that I too left early from the teaching profession. In my case it was after 32 years in a number of excellent schools. The difference is that I started in 1971 and have known life before the 1988 Education Reform Act and the disastrous Blairite turbo-marketisation and Academisation of the school system that followed.

I was also lucky enough to be seconded in 1981/82 by the Leicestershire LEA, fees paid, full time, onto the Leicester University Master of Educational Studies course where I Iearned all this Piaget, Vygotsky, Shayer & Adey stuff that I believe to be of vitally important continuing relevance.

I retired from all employment on a decent pension giving me the opportunity to continue to oppose the marketisation and degradation of the English education system. If you too agree with me, DI and all his website supporters, then please join the struggle to rescue our children from our increasingly privatised, factory system of education. Read my book and spread the word. You don’t have to buy it. You can use the ‘look inside’ function on Amazon or order it from your Public Library (if you still have one).

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Piaget, Newton and the EU referendum

This week (20 June), former Chancellor and Tory elder statesman Ken Clarke stated that the referendum should never have been called because the issues were ‘too complicated’ to be decided in such a way. Is this a profoundly undemocratic, elitist  statement, or does he have a point? And why am I writing about this on my education website?

I will address both questions by considering the fact that although humans and our hominid ancestors have been hurling rocks at each other and their prey for around three million years it was not until 1589 that anyone (Galileo) tested the universally held assumption that when dropped, heavy rocks fall faster than lighter ones.

We do not have to be taught this to believe it. I was brought up on a South Birmingham council estate, where I had many friends. We all had bikes and in the late 1950s/early 60s we would make long cycle journeys together through the nearby Warwickshire and Worcestershire countryside. A favourite destination was the ‘Lickey incline’ between Bromsgrove and Blackwell, the steepest on any main railway line in the UK. There is a bridge over a lane near the summit of the incline where we could clamber up the bank to trespass on the railway and watch the drama of the steam locomotives making the ascent from close up. And what drama! Heavy Birmingham bound expresses usually hauled by a named Jubilee class locomotive would be banked at the rear by either the massive 2-10-0 locomotive based at Bromsgrove for the purpose, or by up to three small but powerful pannier tank locos.

That part of Worcestershire is both beautiful and hilly. The outward journey involved the descent of ‘Weatheroak Hill’. We freewheeled down a few feet from each other without using our brakes reaching frightening speeds, long before the era of cycle helmets. We were all of different weights and so were our bikes. The Raleigh ‘All Steel’ bicycle was popular and a heavyweight, while some of us had sportier and lighter bikes. We all expected the heaviest child on the heaviest bike to ‘win’ the race to the bottom of the hill. This did not happen. I would like to claim that we all rolled down the hill exactly together, but this didn’t happen either. Some rolled slightly faster than others, but with no clear link with the weights of boys and their bikes. As a physics teacher I understand this now in terms of the different resistances (drag forces) on the bikes related to wind and road friction, but then, the whole thing remained a puzzle to this curious child, but I still believed heavy objects fell faster than light ones even though our bike rides showed this not to be the case.

Fast forward now to my attempts to teach mass, weight and the acceleration of gravity to my secondary school science students. The vast majority of the general public do not have any coherent understanding of these issues. I fear that my 36 years as a science teacher failed to make much impact on this depressing fact. Why is it so difficult to understand?

We start with the idea that the force of gravity attracts all objects to the earth, so they fall when you drop them – easy to understand. Then, heavy objects are pulled by gravity more strongly than lighter ones – also easy to understand. So when you drop them, heavy objects will fall faster – wrong – but why?

Heavy objects are heavier because they are more massive. Heaviness is weight. Massiveness is mass. They are not the same thing, even though in everyday life and in the old Imperial system of units no consistent distinction is made. Weight is a force properly measured in Newtons. Mass is ‘amount of stuff’ measured in kilograms. A 100g apple weighs about 1N (except on the moon or if it is in ‘free fall’). Getting trickier isn’t it? Crucially, masses also have the property of ‘inertia’. This is ‘resistance to being moved’. The greater the mass/weight, the greater the inertia.

Now stop thinking about dropping masses/weights and think about racing cars. They need high acceleration. To achieve this requires a strong engine (high force) and low mass/weight (less inertia).

The force of gravity on a massive object is large (it is therefore heavy). But the massive object also has greater inertia (resistance to being moved). These effects cancel each other out. When you hold a heavy object in your hand you can feel the large force of gravity on it (it is heavy). However, you cannot feel its large inertia because you are not trying to move it. So in a dropping weights context, in your direct experience, weight trumps inertia. Gravity tries to accelerate the heavy mass but the effort of gravity is resisted by the inertia of the mass exactly enough to ensure that all masses experience the same acceleration when they fall regardless of their weight. The mathematics of this involves very simple algebra and is quite beautiful.

Piaget classifies one dimensional variation (eg bigger masses are heavier) as a ‘concrete’ operational cognitive challenge. Bigger masses have more inertia (and hence lighter racing cars are needed to win races). This is also a one dimensional ‘concrete’ cognitive challenge.

Dropping objects and thinking about their rate of fall requires both weight and inertia to be considered at the same time. Piaget classifies this as a ‘formal’ operational cognitive challenge because it involves multiple interacting factors.

Philip Adey and Michael Shayer were both science teachers concerned with the issue of ‘difficulty’ (why some students can understand hard stuff while others can’t). This remains controversial. Some argue that it is to do with ‘working memory’, which is presumably a physical property of the brain related to neural networks and connections. Piagetians like Adey and Shayer are clear that it has nothing to do with memory at all. The progression from ‘concrete’ to ‘formal’ thinking is developmental in the sense of the sophistication of personal cognitive software, not neurons. It is determined by both age-related and experience-driven development of individual cognitive software. At any given moment a mixed ability secondary class will contain ‘concrete’ and ‘formal’ thinkers. The latter will be able to understand the distinction between mass and weight and why Galileo was right, provided they have a competent teacher. The ‘concrete’ thinkers will not, however hard they try and regardless of how much they memorise Newton’s Laws of Motion, the size of the bribe offered or the ability of the teacher. Professor Brian Cox would do no better than me.

We are now back in the more familiar subject territory of my website. Secondary school pedagogy should be focussed onto getting the maximum proportion of students through the concrete/formal barrier, because then they will not only be able to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion, but other hard stuff in other subjects too. And this includes Economics, which is full of trade-offs like weight/inertia and which also makes cognitive demands at the formal operation level.

So at last we come to the EU referendum. There are two main ‘dimensions’ in the EU leave/remain debate.

The first is ‘immigration’ – less immigration good – more immigration bad. This is not only easy to understand it resonates with very deep evolutionary fears. For all but the most recent hominid history the greatest threat to your survival and that of your children was from the ‘tribe over the hill’ that has a tendency to attack your tribe, kill the men and boy children, carry off the women and girl children into sexual slavery and plunder your assets. Racists have always played on such primitive fears, often with great success.

The contrary argument, more immigration good – less immigration bad can also be made, but it is much more complex. It involves formal operational thinking, which can also be characterised as the dominance of the rational (Kahneman System 2 mind) over the instinctive/reactive (Kahneman System 1) mind.

Then there is the second dimension – trade with Europe good – trade barriers with Europe bad. This involves complex economics and is clearly in the formal operational thinking category.

This second economic dimension can be exploited through fear of less individual wealth.

However, even if this is effective, it has to be balanced in the mind against the immigration dimension. Immigration is like the weight of the object in your hand. It can be directly sensed. It is ‘concrete’. The economic argument is like the inertia of the object in your hand. It cannot be sensed – its existence must be reasoned. It is ‘formal’.

If I am right, for concrete operational thinkers ‘immigration’ will trump ‘economics’, while for formal operational thinkers the economic arguments may prevail.

The result is therefore likely to depend on the relative voting proportions of concrete and formal operational thinkers in the UK population.

Ken Clarke is right and therefore as a ‘remainer’ I am pessimistic about the outcome.

There can be no clearer example of why the English education system must be reformed so as to produce over time a cleverer, wiser and healthier population. The dismal behaviourist pedagogy of marketisation and GERM will produce the opposite effect. It must be replaced by developmentalism or else our democracy will end up degrading our society rather than enriching and uplifting it.

This is the subject of my book, ‘Learning Matters‘.

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Bullying in schools

Bullying in schools

In my experience as a parent, teacher, headteacher and grandparent, few schools are effective at addressing bullying of their pupils. In fact it is worse than that. The response of many schools is more likely to worsen, rather than improve the plight of the victim.

A bad sign in school literature and pronouncements from the head is the bald statement, ‘Bullying will not be tolerated in our school’, or something similar. This suggests that bullying is primarily a disciplinary offence that will be dealt with extremely firmly by punishing bullies. The problems with this are as follows.

  1. The perceptions of ‘victims’ and ‘aggressors’ are likely to be strongly held and completely different. This often includes their accounts of what has happened.
  1. A complaint of bullying made by a pupil to a teacher or a parent may not be true. Even where it is mainly true, it is unlikely to include the whole truth.

This means that the most common response of schools will not work and will be more likely to make matters worse. This is why.

The usual scenario is that a complaint reaches a teacher from a victim by one pathway or another. Even this is unlikely in some schools because of the ineffective way in which schools often deal with such complaints. Hopefully, a victim does make the complaint personally to a teacher. The next most promising is that a friend of the victim makes a complaint to a teacher. More problematic is when the parent of the victim makes a complaint to the head. The reason why the last is problematic is because the victim will be likely not to have told the whole story to the parent and because the parent will often expect the school to provide a swift response by disciplining the alleged bully so severely that they are deterred from repeating the alleged bullying. Common requests from parents are for the alleged victim to be moved to another class or to another school.

The most common response from a teacher will be to ‘speak to the alleged bully‘ – BIG MISTAKE. Almost as bad is if the teacher refers the issue to a more senior colleague and that teacher, ‘speaks to the alleged bully‘. The alleged bully will be likely to either deny the offence, or else make a counter allegation of some kind.

The school then has the problem of whom to believe. There is no simple solution to this. Natural justice demands an investigation. Such an investigation would involve a great deal of time and effort on the part of the school with no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome. The problem here is not the demands on the school – all bullying incidents should be fully investigated, but the diminishing likelihood of a positive outcome after such a false start in addressing the issue. This is the point at which many schools operate a default policy, which is to gloss over the complaint and threaten both pupils with severe consequences if any of the alleged misdeeds by either the ‘victim’ or the ‘bully’ are ever repeated – SECOND BIG MISTAKE. The consequences of this will be at least one and sometimes all one of the following.

  1. The ‘victim’ feels that they are being blamed for the bullying.
  1. The ‘bully’ feels that they are being falsely accused.
  1. The parent of the ‘victim’ will be angry and demand a meeting with the head for, ‘blaming my child for being bullied in your school‘.
  1. The parent of the ‘bully’ will be angry and demand a meeting with the head for ‘falsely accusing my child of bullying‘.
  1. The parents of the ‘victim’ will go to the local newspaper to complain about the school.
  1. The head of the school will make a ‘PR-speak’ statement to the newspaper.
  1. The ‘victim’ may now be bullied more, either inside or outside of school.
  1. It will now be harder to determine the truth about what really happened as both sets of parents will be alienated.
  1. The parents of the ‘victim’ may seek to remove their child from the school and seek a place in another.
  1. The school will have suffered some deserved reputational damage, not because it actually ‘harbours and protects bullies’, but because it fails to deal effectively with bullying.

Bullying by cliques or ‘gangs’ 

The same principles apply, but this is more difficult to deal with. It is potentially so serious that a great deal of effort on the part of the school is justified to prevent the growth of cliques and gangs in the first place. At Alfred Barrow we sometimes had bullying cliques based on friendship groups, but we never had gangs identified by ethnicity, religion or criminal behaviour.  All I can suggest is that the establishment of a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural School Council would be especially beneficial and important.

The importance of the Equal Opportunities Policy

Such an overarching ‘Bill of Rights’ is an essential precursor to an effective anti-bullying policy. This is because conflict resolution is then not just a matter of settling, ‘who did/said what’, but more importantly, whether what was done/said was, or was not, in accordance with the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’. This latter is something that can readily be objectively agreed, whereas the former is more difficult to establish.

If you have not already done so you now need to read my article about ‘School Councils

The Alfred Barrow Anti-Bullying Policy

The foundation principles were as follows. 

  1. All complaints and reports of bullying would always be investigated. The issuing of threats, to be enacted in or out of school, constituted bullying regardless of whether the threats had been carried out. 
  1. The objective was primarily to produce, by agreement, an enduring solution to a social problem, not to ‘punish’ bad behaviour. 
  1. It was a ‘no blame’ approach. 
  1. Any agreement reached had to comply with the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’. 
  1. Admissions of wrong actions and mistakes, together with apologies, firm assurances about future conduct and appropriate ‘restitution’ measures (if appropriate) were required. 
  1. Any such assurances applied anywhere and everywhere, in and out of school. 
  1. Any breaches of such assurances were serious and were likely to result in a formal referral to the Governors’ Disciplinary Committee, which had the power to invoke permanent exclusion if necessary. 

The ‘No Blame’ approach did not imply that blame was assumed to be equally shared between the parties. However complicated, it was usually the case that an ‘aggressor’ and a ‘victim’ could be identified in relation to what had taken place. The ‘No Blame’ approach simply meant that the primary purpose was to achieve a lasting settlement in accordance with the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’, rather than to seek ‘punishments’ or ‘justice’ that went beyond that. We found that whenever victims were asked about the outcome that they most wanted, the response of, ‘an end to the bullying’, was always far more important than punishment of the aggressor.

Over the entire period of my headship we never subsequently had to permanently exclude any pupil in relation to bullying after a settlement agreement had been reached through the ‘Anti-Bullying Policy’. In the final years of my headship, no pupil was excluded at all, fixed term or permanently.

The process

All pupils were expected and encouraged to report instances of any behaviour contrary to the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy, whether they were personally involved or not.

All School Council students were trained in relation to the ‘Equal Opportunities’ and ‘Anti-Bullying Policies’. School Council students were expected to give advice to other pupils if asked. They were NOT prefects arbitrating over disputes. There was a general culture in the school of peer-peer discussion. All pupils including School Council members were expected to report incidents and problems to teachers.

If a pupil made a bullying disclosure to a teacher then it would always generate a response. Initially the Head of Upper or Lower School would interview the complainant, followed by a joint meeting with the alleged ‘aggressor’, with a view to coming to a prompt solution by agreement. School Council students could help with this process.

If it became apparent that the problem was more serious, the Deputy Head would then carry out further interviews with the alleged victim noting their account of what had happened/was taking place and the names of any witnesses. The Deputy Head would then interview the witnesses. There would then be an initial conflict resolution meeting involving the Deputy Headteacher, Head of Year, the ‘victim’, the ‘aggressor’ and witnesses. The victim would be required in the meeting to make the complaint against the alleged aggressor. If there was no agreement about what had been alleged then the witnesses would be asked to state what they had seen. If the conflict could then be resolved on the basis of the further evidence and disclosures no further action was necessary.

If the conflict was not resolved and/or a parental approach was made to the school on behalf of either party, then a formal Anti-Bullying Resolution Conference would be held. This would be held around a large antique oval conference table in my office. Those present would include The Deputy Headteacher, the Head of Year, the ‘victim’, the ‘aggressor’, witnesses and one or more members of School Council, and often me. The meeting would be recorded to video-tape by means of a camera mounted on the wall of my office. All present were informed that the meeting would be so recorded.

It was always explained to all present that the purpose of the meeting was not to punish or to seek to attribute blame, but to come to a solution of the problem. Both the ‘victim’ and the ‘aggressor’ were encouraged, with the help of the witnesses, to come to an agreed account of what had happened together with personal accounts as to the degree to which their conduct had been reasonable/acceptable, or not. A further discussion then took place in relation to whether any restitution was required (eg repair or return of property).

It was explained that there was no requirement for the ‘victim’ and the ‘aggressor’ to ‘make friends’. Everyone has the right to make their own decisions about who they like and who they don’t.  However firm commitments in relation to the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ would need to be made. These were purely about behaviour and the requirement to be civil at all times, to co-operate with each other in lessons if required by the teacher and to refrain from any future aggressive or hostile behaviour or actions, specified and/or general.

Appropriate promises were then made, on camera, witnessed by all present. The consequences of breaking the agreement were explained.

The ‘victim’ and the ‘aggressor’ were then told that their parents would be invited into school to see me and the Deputy Head to be shown the video of the Resolution Meeting, to discuss what had take place and the school’s proposals for resolving the issues.

These meetings then duly took place and in the vast majority of cases all concerned were happy with the outcome.

Why video the ‘Resolution Conference’?

This was necessary to deal with the possible scenario in which the ‘aggressor’ went home and gave their parents a different account of the Resolution Conference to that which had actually taken place. It was not unusual for the aggressor to comply fully around the oval table, admit various misdemeanours and make the necessary promises, only to go home and tell the parents that, “Mr Titcombe made me admit loads of stuff I hadn’t done“. Wherever possible we tried to arrange for an Education Welfare Officer (EWO) to be present for the meeting with the parents.

I have been disparaging about the common responses of schools to bullying. A few years ago our granddaughter in Y4 was being bullied by a small group of boys. There was a racist element to the bullying. I was very impressed by the way the head dealt with the problem. All the basic principles of our policy had been followed. The school has its own version of our ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ expressed in more specific terms appropriate to a primary school.

Instead of videoing pupil agreements, the head’s approach was to require the bullies to write their own account/admission of what had taken place. The head then wrote to the parents inviting them into school for a meeting enclosing their children’s signed accounts/admissions.

The Alfred Barrow policy and approach met with OfSTED approval and contributed to our good reputation in the town for good discipline and behaviour.

The way in which the school approached bullying issues soon became common knowledge within the school community including pupils and parents. It was explained and reinforced in assemblies and tutor group time. This was informed by accounts from pupils that ‘leaked’ out from the processes. ‘What happens in Titcombe’s office’, became well known.

The result was a declining incidence of bullying and continuing improvement in the quality of relationships at all levels in the school.

Alfred Barrow Equal Opportunities Policy



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School Councils – misunderstandings, misuse and missed opportunities for learning excellence

Although this could be one of the most important articles on my website in relation to improving the effectiveness of learning in schools, its subject does not feature at all in my book, ‘Learning Matters‘. The reason is that the experience of developing the understandings about School Councils that I will try to communicate in this article are a consequence of my very personal journey through the headship of the last school in which I taught, from which I retired in 2003.

I did not want to write a deeply personal book in relation to my headship school, which was closed in 2009 along with two other larger schools as part of a disastrous academisation plan forced onto the town of Barrow-in-Furness in the face of unprecedented local opposition. A time may come to write the history of that conflict, but that time is not now and it is a task for someone else. It is not the subject of this article.

The school in question, my last headship school, was The Alfred Barrow School, the oldest secondary school in the town of Barrow-in-Furness, having its origins as the Barrow ‘Higher Grade School’ when it opened in 1888, evolving successively into Barrow Grammar School, the Alfred Barrow Secondary Modern (Boys and Girls) Schools and finally the Alfred Barrow (comprehensive) school.

I became headteacher in 1989. The school was not an immediately attractive proposition and I was one of only three called for interview. One of the candidates then withdrew, leaving just two of us. Like most schools at that time it had suffered chronic under-investment in every aspect of its functioning since the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. The buildings, although structurally sound and otherwise fit for purpose, were in a poor state with weather penetration and the consequences of some misguided and poorly designed ‘modernisations’ and extensions carried out at various times over the post-war period.

In 1988, Cumbria County Council attempted to close the school. This was fiercely resisted not only by local people but also by the heads and governors of two of the other three non-religious secondary schools in the town. This was probably influenced not so much out of solidarity with Alfred Barrow, but from a desire not to take on its catchment area, which contained, and still contains, some of the poorest and most socially deprived electoral wards in England, located in the centre of this northern, industrial, white working class town.

The local resistance campaign was successful, the closure plan was dropped and I became the next (but not the last) headteacher. For me it was love at first sight and together with mainly the staff I inherited, rather than subsequently appointed, the pupils and the parents, some remarkable successes were achieved. Most of these were in large part enabled through the Alfred Barrow School Council and the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ on which it was based.

The staff were a mixture of those that had served in the former Secondary Modern Alfred Barrow Boys, very traditional and in some respects typically ‘brutal’ (but nevertheless fondly remembered), Alfred Barrow Girls, pioneering and educationally forward looking, and the teachers from the other schools that had emerged from the comprehensive re-organisation of the late 1970s when there was competition for all the jobs in the new comprehensives, with many of the unsuccessful applicants from the predecessor schools ending up at Alfred Barrow.

Crucially there had also been some key appointments to the newly designated Alfred Barrow comprehensive school from successful established comprehensive systems in other parts of the country, of which I was the latest example, having been Vice Principal, and for a while Acting Principal, of a very large rural/suburban Leicestershire 14-18 Community College, where the culture could not have been more different.

The Alfred Barrow staff that I inherited contained sufficient good teachers, with some outstandingly good, to support a staffing policy based on collegiality, respect for past experience and evolution of practice based on a shared decision making structure. The only drastic policy change made immediately was the designation of all parts of the school as strictly ‘No Smoking’. Previously the staff room was a smoke-filled fug and senior staff including the Head and the Deputy Head smoked in their offices.  Evolution rather than revolution was a largely successful approach. I enjoyed overwhelmingly  strong, if not unanimous, staff support throughout my 14 year headship.

The backgrounds of the pupils and their parents were, with a few exceptions, the same as mine, classic white industrial working class. Barrow is a former steelmaking town with a long-standing shipbuilding industry, which remains the dominant employer and the driver of the local economy. I do not perceive my class background as in any way an advantage. The M.Ed degree, which I gained from Leicester University from a one year full time secondment in 1981/82, certainly was.

Like many such inner urban schools, classroom relationships involved a considerable degree of disputatious feuding and bullying that significantly disrupted learning. However, much inherent goodness, kindness, humour, charm and co-operation came with it. This typically applied to parents as well as pupils. I had previously served in some excellent comprehensive schools with some outstanding heads that had a deep understanding of education. I understood from playing my own part in such good practice that a simplistic, harsh discipline-based response to pupil disruption was counter productive in terms of the quality of classroom relationships needed for deep learning.

If our school was to be successful, given its very unpromising intake ability profile, we would have to aim far higher than mere compliance on the part of our pupils. My university experiences had led me believe in the ideas of ‘plastic intelligence‘ promoted by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. Like me, they had both been science teachers who had grappled with the problem of ‘difficulty’. How can school students be developed so as to understand ‘hard stuff’, such that the cognitive gains that results from the learning process also boosts their transferable general intelligence?

The Cumbria LEA introduced Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) screening in Y7, primarily to drive ‘additional resources’ in the new Local Management funding formula for its schools. This served us well. It was a CATs-led, rather than a ‘proxy’ FSM-led ‘pupil premium’ driven directly by developmental learning difficulties, not social deprivation. The Alfred Barrow admission cohorts never varied much from a mean CATs score of 85 (-1 SD). This placed the average pupil admitted at the 16th percentile. In a year group of 100 there would typically be only 10-12 pupils with above average (100+) CATs scores. Despite that pattern we always had, scattered throughout the year-groups, a small number of very able pupils in the 120 -130+ CAT range. The senior Education Welfare Officer and a high proportion of the school’s employees, including teachers, admitted their own children to the school. This included our youngest child. In 1989, when I took up the headship,  our middle child was admitted to Barrow Sixth Form College and the eldest commenced her degree course at Sheffield University.

Many experienced educational leaders have since told me that they have never seen a more challenging intake ability profile. The foundation principles of our curriculum response to this challenge are described, explained and justified in my book, ‘Learning Matters’. It is based on our view that the primary necessity was to develop the ‘plastic intelligence‘ of our pupils so as to enable them to benefit from a fully comprehensive ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum for all pupils in which academic rigour was never compromised, but adapted and exploited as the medium for developing cognitive ability. We were as much concerned in our unrelenting pursuit of cognitive growth with achieving E, D, B, A and A* grades as with C grades at GCSE, with all pupils regarded as having equal entitlement to a high quality, developmental education and the opportunities so provided. The curriculum was based on that required by the Conservative government’s TVEI (Technical and Vocational Initiative) that had been followed in my Leicestershire Upper School. The basic curriculum principle was to provide a non-gender specific broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils that included science and technology subjects. There were no specifically vocational elements pre-16, the idea being to enable all students unrestricted access to all post-16 career pathways. The Alfred Barrow curriculum followed this pattern. There were no 4 x C grade GCSE GNVQs offered at any time during my headship.  

It was widely suspected that the LEA did not actually expect the school to succeed, and they arranged a full HMI Inspection in 1990 only six months into my headship. Subsequent OfSTED inspections followed in 1995 and 1998. These were then very thorough and involved large teams for a full week. All were passed with some ease, the 1998 Inspection report was especially strong, delaying the next inspection until 2004, a year after my retirement. This was also passed. The first and last OfSTED inspection to be failed was in 2007, under my successor, just as the school was being identified for an academisation plan, which would bring ‘Building Schools for the Future’ funding to the LEA. Coincidently, the other two schools under the same consideration also got into trouble with OfSTED during the same period.

In 2002, Alfred Barrow was subjected to major enlargement and refurbishment of facilities driven by its over-subscription and projected future demand for places. This £multi-million investment, together with similar large sums spent on the other Barrow secondary schools, provided an outstanding quality of accommodation for all of the town’s schools in a uniform 11-16 school/Sixth Form College/FE College  system that was working very well in terms of progression to employment, Further and Higher Education. The new Cumbria LEA was created in 1974. In my view it had done a good job in Barrow up to the election of the 1997 Labour government. Things then got progressively worse as the usually Labour dominated County Council implemented the Blair education policies.

The Academisation plan that emerged in 2007, whose Funding Agreement was eventually signed off by Labour Education Secretary Ed Balls, involved the complete demolition of the two other schools for speculative private housing. Alfred Barrow only avoided demolition because its main 1988 building is Grade II listed. The latest plan is for the site to become an NHS GP-led Health Centre.

On taking up the headship in 1989 many curriculum and pastoral projects soon got under way. These always involved the full decision making structure of the school organised into a hierarchical  framework of Department and Pastoral Teams, Pastoral and Curriculum Senior Committees and the School Policy Committee. All the teachers in the school were involved. This structure drew strongly on my Leicestershire Community College experience. The ‘foundation’ projects were the creation and development of the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’, which became the bedrock on which all school policies including the curriculum were subsequently based. The Alfred Barrow School Council (students) and The Alfred Barrow School Association (governors and parent volunteers), were the first manifestations of the Equal Opportunities Policy.

The School Council structure was designed as follows.

  1. All KS4 Forms would elect Form Representatives.
  1. All KS4 students together with everybody on the school payroll including the teachers, administrative and catering staff, cleaners and site managers, all of whom we employed directly under Local Management, formed the electorate for choosing the four principal School Council Officers, on a ‘one person one vote basis’, with no gerrymandering by the Senior Management Team. These key elected student officer posts formed the Chairs (one boy & one girl) and Vice Chairs of the new School Council.
  1. KS3 Forms elected representatives to the ‘Lower School Forum’, with each Form having its own designated KS4 School Council ‘Liaison Representative’ to provide advice, support and a direct link to the School Council for younger pupils. Senior staff support was provided by the Pastoral Heads of Upper School(KS4) and Lower School(KS3) and their deputies, all co-ordinated by the Deputy Headteacher (pastoral), who was a major driving force and inspiration behind the whole project. She had formerly taught in Alfred Barrow Girl’s School. Her direct involvement clearly established the School Council as a major priority of the school giving it status is the eyes of students, parents and staff. This was a very important factor in its success.

Once formed, the School Council decided its own agenda for change and school improvement. The first and most important project was to construct an ‘Anti-bullying policy’ and a structure for resolving bullying and relationship problems in accordance with the principles of the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’. This was seen as the key to eliminating disruption of learning and laying the foundations for the metacognitive and collaborative learning approaches needed for the developmental pedagogy of the school.

Various other projects came along and evolved over time. Not all were confined to school-based matters. The Alfred Barrow School Council worked with the Barrow Education Welfare Service and some local LEA officers to create the Barrow Youth Forum involving KS4 student representation from all the schools. This met in the town’s Civic Centre/theatre complex called, ‘The Forum’. The Youth Forum was supported by Barrow Borough Council and assisted by some Borough and County Councillors and a very forward looking local Police Superintendent. The Alfred Barrow School Council very largely ran the town’s Youth Forum. The local ‘Furness Lions’ charity was also a strong supporter. It ran an annual  evening ‘Sheltered Shopping’ event in the local Asda in which School Council students helped older people with mobility problems do their shopping. Staff and the Alfred Barrow School Association also assisted. Asda were very happy with it. This was never entirely without its challenges. If you have read ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole’, by Sue Townsend then the ‘Bert’ character may come to mind.

Sadly, nothing remotely like any of this now exists in the town.

Designated School Council members attended the regular meetings of Governor’s Sub-Committees along with parents from the Alfred Barrow School Association. The School Council Chairs attended the full formal Meetings of Governors.

It was very important to establish what the School Council was NOT.

 It was NOT a ‘prefect’ body.

 It was NOT a group of ‘trusties’ to do ‘chores’ for teachers.

 School council members did NOT supervise pupils or do any ‘duties’ under the supervision of teachers.

The major time commitment of all School Council members was to the ‘Anti-Bullying Policy’. This was initially in relation to its design and deciding on its method of operation and then its implementation, which was continuously demanding, but massively effective.

The School Council needed education and training. This was arranged in after-school sessions by the Deputy Head, who initially recruited some local professional counsellor experts to assist. These were paid for by the school. This later became an entirely in-house operation as expertise was developed.

Great importance was given to ‘Assertiveness Training’. The ‘passive/assertive/aggressive’ spectrum was explained and explored through role play and discussion. Our pupils were taught and trained in the skills needed to be assertive in all aspects of their lives. This empowered and enriched their relationships with peers, teachers and any out of school authority figures they may meet. It directly supported the developmental learning strategies of the school that involved ‘metacognition’, peer to peer and collaborative learning approaches like those now recognised as especially effective by the Education Endowment Foundation as explained here and here.

There was an annual residential School Council Training event that took place over a weekend in a four star hotel in nearby Grange-over-Sands, which specialised in ‘business conferences’. We had a close relationship with this hotel, whose owner strongly supported our school and its aims in relation to School Council Training. The hotel subsidised our annual training operation, which took place in the public and conference rooms of the hotel alongside other private guests and corporate users. All involved in the training enjoyed dinner in the public dining room of the hotel on the Saturday evening.

This was a tremendously educational and motivating experience for the students. It was also always a major PR coup for the school to be seen working in and sharing facilities alongside the corporate adult world and private guests, which occasionally included celebrities from the worlds of sport and entertainment. There was no charge to the students. The School Council and its work was financially supported by local businesses and various grants achieved from fund raising as well as through the CATs-driven LEA school funding formula. It was also central to the Alfred Barrow programme of the local Education Action Zone (EAZ) sponsored by Furness Building Society during its limited life.

What did our School Council achieve? Through its role in implementing the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ it transformed the entire culture of the school. The anti-bullying work was key. The issues related to the current controversy over sexual harassment of female students were well understood and addressed. Only the internet dimension is new. Such problems have always existed. Our own daughters suffered in the 1980s in their Leicestershire comprehensive schools.

School Council members and officers gained confidence, articulacy and personal skills of lifelong value and this informed and elevated the entire student and staff culture of the school. Such was our success that it became nationally recognised and our School Council Officers were invited to explain our approach through an address to MPs in the House of Commons in 1993 and again in 1995.

A very important effect on school culture related to how our more and less able students were perceived by their peers. Comprehensive schools are often accused of not protecting able, hard working students from bullying and attacks on their confidence and esteem from less able peers. Our most able School Council members and officers readily gained respect and esteem from peers through being able to independently demonstrate their accomplishments in public speaking, managing meetings, conflict resolution intervention and general wisdom and good sense.

The School Council was absolutely mixed ability in nature. Many students that received support in our SEN department, including a number with SEN Statements, were heavily involved. This gave our less academically  accomplished pupils the confidence to become engaged resulting in some astonishing transformations as it was perceived that mature good sense and wisdom could be developed and demonstrated by everybody. I could give examples of many cases of the latter, but will not, for fear of identifying individuals in their current adult lives in what remains a close-knit community.

There were some occasions when unfortunate choices did emerge from School Council Officer elections, which were never ‘fixed’ by the school. That’s democracy. Events then took their course and lessons were learned by all concerned. School students have peer group hierarchies driven by all sorts of social interactions lubricated by the vigorous, turbulent and richly hormonal cultural context of the age group. We were often surprised and delighted at the ‘unlikely’ individuals that emerged at the top of this hierarchy to be elected as School Council officers. This culture of respect and tolerance translated directly into the learning culture of the classroom. I was a teacher for more than thirty years and I have never seen relationships of this quality in any other school. OfSTED inspectors were always similarly impressed, with their judgements fully documented in their reports.

I fear that very little like it is now taking place in our increasingly marketised and academised education system. After I retired in 2003 I did some work with ‘School Councils UK’ and attended some training sessions that schools had paid for. The organisers were well meaning and tried hard, but compared to our Alfred Barrow work, they were pretty clueless, as were the usually junior staff that the schools had provided to accompany their pupils on these ‘training events’.

School Councils cannot be effectively imposed onto schools and their pupils as a result of an imposed DfE initiative and a day’s training.

To be successful they require a whole school approach to everything about a school. They do not fit with the GERM culture at all.

I will conclude with a selection from the many successful projects and initiatives that emerged through the participation and engagement of the School Council.

The Anti-Bullying Policy

This needs an article to itself

The adult education provision

We ran a programme of Evening Classes in co-operation with the Adult Learning provision of the County Council. This no longer exits. Our KS4 students were encouraged to join (free of charge) the adult GCSE English and maths classes, whose members of all ages often remarked on the value of such mixed generation classes. Sometime one or two adults joined our GCSE art, sculpture and pottery GCSE Option groups for daytime classes. We enjoyed superb facilities.

The Basement Bar

This alcohol-free bar and leisure venue was located in the school basement. School Council were heavily involved in the design and running. A Bar Manager post was created and funded from the delegated school budget. It was open from 7.00 to 9.00pm on week nights overseen by the Site Manager present for the Adult education classes. This was open to students from other schools in the town and unlike the rest of the school had full disabled access. No serious trouble was ever experienced. This facility still physically exists unchanged in the ghostly boarded up basement of the school.

Study Club

This was the ‘extended curriculum’ of the school. It applied to the time from the end of the compulsory school day at 3.15, to 4.30pm, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The same time on Tuesdays was reserved  for all school staff meetings for which a schedule was published at the start of each new school year. By long-standing tradition the nearby shipyard closed at lunchtime on Fridays so there were never any after-school activities on Fridays.

Study Club attendance was open to all pupils of the school of all ages on a voluntary basis. Some of the KS4 curriculum was taught at this time. All pupils studied ‘Integrated Humanities’ and Double Award Science as part of the core curriculum. However additional optional GCSE classes in history, geography, physics, chemistry and biology were provided in Study Club time for those students who were considering taking these subjects at A Level. Some students took GCSE PE for which the theory parts were taught in Study Club time.

Study Club was also used for rehearsals for music and drama productions, sports team practise sessions and for Boys’ and Girls’ basketball matches in which Alfred Barrow competed in national league and cup competitions. A floodlit playground was used for the ‘go-cart club’, which manufactured and tested its own vehicles built in the Design & Technology Department. There were also floodlit inter-school Netball matches.

In the Lower School(KS3) there were educational Board Games like chess and Scrabble, not to be underestimated in value for pupils who would not have experienced playing them at home. Other school staff came up with various other special interest ‘Study Clubs’.

The voluntary nature of Study Club was important in relation to the quality of the learning and participation that took place. Attendance was encouraged through the issue of personal Study Club cards with spaces that could be ‘stamped’ to prove attendance. At the end of every school term there was a special Saturday coach trip to Preston for Study Club pupils with sufficient attendances and their parents. School staff and governors also participated. There was no charge for these trips. This is the closest the school ever came to the use of ‘behaviourist’ incentives.

The Breakfast Service

Breakfasts were provided from 8.30 until 9.00am every morning. A long queue outside the main entrance to the school always formed because on admission to the school a numbered school lunch ticket was issued. This determined the place in the lunch queue for the school meals service. By this means supervision of the dining hall was much simplified and reduced. There were no year group rotas for meal service times. The catering supervisor just checked the ticket numbers in the queue to ensure that the holders were in strict ticket number order with no queue jumpers. This meant that the first pupils in the Breakfast Club queue in the morning were also the first to be served for lunch. On arrival at school the pupils were usually greeted by a senior member of staff (often me) who would hand out the numbered tickets. These were retained at the lunchtime meal service till, to be issued again the next day. The system also suited later arrivals to school because those students would know roughly what time they would be served in the lunch queue and so could just turn up at the right time rather than have to wait in a long queue.

The Pelican Crossing near the rear gate of the school

This was provided only after a long School Council campaign of lobbying the County Council Traffic Department for a safe route to the nearby town centre shops.

There is much more, but I think readers will by now have got the picture.

Sadly all this has gone forever. The replacement Academy school provides nothing like it. Little recognisable appears to remain elsewhere in the marketised English education system and I don’t see it being a priority of the proposed universal academisation programme.

Reader comments to this article are welcomed.




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