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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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 unlike 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 way 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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Why schools and teachers are needed for deep learning

I was inspired to write this by a Guardian article of 18 April 2016.

 High-quality, low-cost on-line courses could be used to shift schools away from being ‘exam factories’ and help students keep pace with the threat of automation, according to a new report by the Institute of Directors. The report argues that the internet allows schools to be more flexible and adapt learning towards “a future in which more and more work is taken over by robots or computers”.

This makes no sense at all. Surely in a future world dominated by robots, it would be even more important for humans to have a deep understanding of fundamental science so that they are the masters of robots and not the other way round. Why would the Institute of Directors feel qualified to make pronouncements on the most effective methods of teaching and learning for deep understanding? This suggests to me a tacit assumption that, ‘Teaching is telling and listening is learning‘.

If this is so then why not let the computer do the ‘telling’ and all the learner has to do is to interact with the computer screen in accordance with the on-screen instructions? If you have read the article linked to above, you will be beginning to understand why deep learning will always need not just teachers, but also fellow learners that can cognitively interact with each other as well as with the teacher. This is the definition of a school. 

For the benefit of those that are not science teachers, I want to try to explain, through this example, the power of practical science lessons to inspire, engage and promote understanding. By practical, I mean real, hands on, tactile, feely-touchy, noisy, smelly pupil experience that cannot be replicated by any DVD or on-line computer or tablet representation.

However this example is not applicable just to science teaching. It applies universally to learning about anything that is difficult to understand. It is just as relevant to literature, the humanities and the arts as it is to science and maths.

The topic of ‘electricity and magnetism’ is one that many GCSE science students find difficult and which may therefore be a common ‘turn off’. I am a retired science teacher. I liked to start my series of KS4 lessons on electromagnetism with some practical activities involving that most cognitively demanding phenomenon of electromagnetic induction. The following approach breaks all the (behaviourist) rules by starting with the difficult and complex, which real life always is, and then reaching down to seek a simplifying structure of explanations, rather than the other way round. The first stage in such learning is therefore grounded in concrete experience and is therefore thoroughly Piagetian.

Our science classes usually contained 24/25 students. Groups of five, preferably of mixed ability even if within a setted class are about right, even if there is enough apparatus for smaller groups. This is to facilitate essential social interaction and peer to peer discussion (Vygotsky) in response to the activity.

Each group has a demountable transformer of the sort designed for Nuffield physics in the early 1970s. Every school I taught in from 1971 to 2003 had this kit. I hope this is also true for the new Academies and Free Schools. The transformer consists of two identical insulated coils of enamelled copper wire and two laminated iron ‘C’ cores. One ‘leg’ of each ‘C’ core can be inserted into the centre of each coil. The cores can then be butted together to make a continuous iron loop threading both coils. Modern schools may have a different version of this kit that does the same thing, but for this activity to work the cores, each with its own coil, have to be separable. I have seen demountable transformer kits in science equipment catalogues where this is not case.

One of the coils should be connected to the 12V ac output of a lab power pack. The other coil to a 12V 24W car headlamp bulb in a holder.

The pupils are told to separate the cores then switch on the power pack. The coil connected to it and its core make a scary 50Hz buzzing noise and the core becomes a very powerful and noisy electromagnet. Let the students explore and experience the power of this magnet by encouraging them to play with some iron or steel objects. The very powerful buzzing electromagnet they have made is impressive and causes much excitement and engagement.

Next, with the power pack still switched on, ask a student to take one of the ‘C’ cores and coil in one hand and the other in the other hand and slowly bring them closer so as to butt the cores together into a continuous iron loop threading both coils. The student will feel a very powerful attractive force and will not be able to prevent the butt ends of the two cores crashing together. At this, the 24W lamp suddenly lights brightly even though it is not electrically connected to the power pack. The student will not then be able to separate the cores, so strong is the attraction.

Then ask the student to switch off the power. The two cores will immediately separate and fall apart. Now for the astonishing bit. Ask the student to switch the power pack back on and repeat the experiment, but this time try to stop the cores finally coming together. This is very difficult and requires great strength. The idea is to get the cores within a centimetre of each other. There will be much buzzing and drama and the 24W lamp will begin to glow dimly even though the cores are not touching. If they crash together then the student can try again after switching the power pack off. All the students in the group should then try to make the lamp just glow while maintaining an air gap between the butt ends of the cores. This is massively exciting and engaging.

This activity will eat time and the students should be allowed to play and experiment with the phenomenon, without too much domination by the teacher, just a bit of help when necessary.

The students should be asked to discuss with each other what they have experienced reminding them that the lamp lights even when it is not connected by wires to the power pack, and it even glows when the iron cores are not even touching. The students will already be very familiar with lighting lamps by connecting them into electric circuits, but that is not what is happening here. Somehow energy is jumping between the two cores to make the lamp glow, but how and why?

If there is time they can try putting pieces of card between the cores and trying other experiments of their own. At the end of the lesson tell the students that they will not discover the full truth of what is happening until the end of the series of lessons on this topic, but the process of finding out will begin next lesson!

If I was to conduct this lesson for an OfSTED inspector I would likely fail – no three part lesson plan (in fact not much of a lesson plan at all), no lesson objectives written on the board, no worksheets and no final summary session bringing it all together, to tell the class what they should have learned. This is because none of the students will, in fact, understand anything yet, but they will certainly be keen find out.

The following series of lessons would then proceed with the usual Michael Faraday style class experiments with appropriate references to the great man and pointing out that he was not a trained scientist but a lab technician who literally electrified the world by doing just what the class was doing. Without the hands-on experiments of Faraday, Maxwell could not have produced his work on electro-magnetic waves and Einstein his Special and General theories of Relativity. Fortunately, Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein did not have their learning inhibited by the availability of on-line learning and pronouncements like those of the Institute of Directors over 100 years later. 

It is important to use beefy amounts of power in such an experiment. A 24W lamp gets very hot and the surge of energy when it lights through electromagnetic induction can be felt through many senses. The 50Hz buzz gives a powerful sense that something is vibrating and that this is significant in some way. It is important for pupils to experience phenomena directly through the senses whenever possible as this prepares the mental ‘soil’ for concepts to take root and have meaning for the individual learner. Practical experiences and engagement are of value not so much for any factual knowledge gained, as at this stage that may be diffuse and uncertain, but for the personal cognitive development and engagement that the experience stimulates in the learner.

There is a danger that a group may try to repeat the activity using 12V dc rather than ac. This is potentially very cognitively rewarding, as surprisingly the lamp does not light even when the cores are together in a single iron loop despite the magnetism being just as strong. Even more curiously, the lamp flashes briefly when the power pack is turned on and off.

The danger here is that on dc, the coil connected to the power pack may overheat, so experimenting with dc instead of ac probably needs another more controlled activity in a later lesson.

I offer this lesson suggestion not as a model, but as an example to be discussed and criticised. It raises further pedagogical questions that I have never fully worked out. For example, how to manage such a lesson to get the best outcome for the girls in the class, whose excitement in such contexts may be less easy to stimulate than my own for a whole raft of complex reasons that women may be able to explain to me. Should the teacher dictate the make up of the groups, or let the pupils organise themselves? Should the teacher insist on mixed sex groups? Would this be counter-productive and just feed stereotypes on who does, and who just watches?

I would hope that science teachers in a science department would be encouraged to develop their own ideas, like this one, for further practical science activities and discuss and share them in science department staff meetings, along with other ideas for promoting deep understanding. If such meetings are always dominated by agendas passed down from the non-teaching Executive Principal, or by issues of behaviour and discipline, then a lot of whole school developmental work will be needed amongst the staff as well as the pupils. The culture of behaviourist managerialism that comes with academisation may well not be able to cope with this.

So if any members of the Institute of Directors are reading this and you do not agree with me, then please leave a comment on this article.

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Demonstrating the top five EEF Toolkit teaching interventions using the kitchen sink

It is necessary to first read this article. What follows is an explanation of the top five most effective teaching interventions according to the research summarised in the EEF Toolkit. These are as follows.

 Very Effective

1= Metacognition and self-regulation (8)£****

1= Feedback (8)£***

Fairly Effective

3= Collaborative learning (5)£****

3= Oral language interventions (5)£****

3= Peer tutoring (5)£****

The Toolkit explains them as follows (italics).

Metacognition and self-regulation

Meta-cognition and self-regulation approaches (sometimes known as ‘learning to learn’ approaches) aim to help learners think about their own learning more explicitly. This is usually by teaching pupils specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate their own academic development. Self-regulation means managing one’s own motivation towards learning. The intention is often to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from during learning activities.

There is a bit more to it than that. In ‘Learning Matters‘, metacognition is explained as being aware of your own thinking process. It implies that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by silently but consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. The idea is that as learners experience cognitive development they also develop a metacognitive ability that can be characterised as ‘higher level thinking’ (in Piagetian terms). ‘Self regulation’ is often now referred to as ‘resilience’. Resilience describes that quality by which learners approach problems with confidence, persistence and a willingness to discuss, reflect and research. There is more here.


Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome. It can be about the learning activity itself, about the process of activity [or] about the student’s management of their learning or self-regulation.

It is closely linked with metacognition and addressed in depth here.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative or cooperative learning can be defined as learning tasks or activities where students work together in a group small enough for everyone to participate on a collective task that has been clearly assigned. This can be either a joint task where group members do different aspects of the task but contribute to a common overall outcome, or a shared task where group members work together throughout the activity.

 Oral language interventions

All of the approaches reviewed in this section support learners’ articulation of ideas and spoken expression, such as Thinking Together or Philosophy for Children. Oral language interventions therefore have some similarity to approaches based on Meta-Cognition, which make talk about learning explicit in classrooms, and to Collaborative Learning approaches, which promote pupils’ talk and interaction in groups.

See also this Local Schools Network article.

Peer tutoring

Peer tutoring includes a range of approaches in which learners work in pairs or small groups to provide each other with explicit teaching support.

In my view this is best understood and approached through Vygotsky’s emphasis on ‘social plane learning’ and his ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD). The ZPD is the learning space between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers. Vygotsky viewed interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky believed that when a student is in the ZPD for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance will give the student enough of a “boost” to achieve the task.

All of EEF’s ‘top five’ interventions share the common fundamental understandings and approaches of developmental learning described by Piaget and Vygotsky.

Kitchen sink learning

As grandparents, my wife and I take a keen interest in the education of our grandchildren. Some of this is recorded in ‘Learning Matters‘ where I refer to the developing cognitive ability of our six-year old granddaughter. What follows is more recent and describes some kitchen sink experimentation with her (now 10) and her younger sister. The children were asked to do the following with a deep kitchen sink, a tumbler, some thin card, a sharp point to make a hole in the card, a drinking straw with a flexible end and a feather.

  1. Fill the sink with water, then attach the feather to the inside bottom of the tumbler with a small piece of sellotape..
  2. Invert the tumbler with the feather inside and push the tumbler down into the water in the sink until it touches the bottom. Will the feather now be wet?
  3. Remove the tumbler from the water and examine the feather. Is it wet? – No.
  4. Now remove the feather and carefully fill the tumbler to the rim. Cut some thin card to fit over the top of the tumbler avoiding air bubbles as best you can. While holding the card in place, invert the tumbler. Now take your hand away from the card. Does the water fall out? – No.
  5. Now repeat the experiment again but this time first bodge a hole in the piece of card. Will the card still stay in place when the tumbler is inverted? If so will the water pour out from the hole? – Yes and No.
  6. Now immerse the tumbler (without the card) in the water sideways so that it becomes full of water. Now, while holding it under the water turn the tumbler upside down then gently lift it partially out of the water. What happens to the water in the tumbler? – It stays in the tumbler.
  7. Now, holding the tumbler with the open end still submerged under the surface of the water, take the drinking straw and bend the flexible end up into a hook shape. With the other hand hook the bent end of the straw into the inverted top of the tumbler then blow gently into the other end of the straw. This is tricky – it could be a two person task. What happens now? – bubbles are blown into the tumbler which rise to the top (the bottom of the tumbler), expelling the air.

This activity can include all five EEF interventions, all of which depend on the ‘cognitive conflict’ that arises from each unexpected, and therefore curiosity stimulating outcome. Such ‘cognitive’ conflict is vital to all developmental learning, which can then proceed as follows.

Inverting the filled tumbler with the piece of card on the top then letting go (of the card) is a sure-fire jaw dropper and attention capturer. It works with any thickness of card that is  not too thin so as to get waterlogged and soggy. Beer mats are good. I haven’t tried it with a pint of beer in a pub, but it should work. Look out for it now on You Tube!  It also works fine with cling film and perhaps more surprisingly with cooking foil – no need to wrap it round the sides of the tumbler, just push it into place onto the top of the tumbler.

  1. The children are asked why the feather does not get wet in the first experiment, why the card and the water stay in place in the second, why bodging a hole in the card makes no difference, why the water stays in the inverted tumble as it is lifted out of the water and why blowing into the straw removes the water from inside the tumbler.
  2. Let the children spend some time thinking about what they have seen and experienced and ask them to try to work out why surprising things happened (metacognition and feedback).
  3. Encourage them to come up with their own ideas and then debate their metacognitive hypotheses with each other (collaborative learning and oral language interventions).
  4. Then the teacher introduces some facts and information about air pressure. Does this help the children modify their hypotheses? Encourage more discussion. The teacher then feeds in more questions and hints until one of the children begins to understand. He/she then shares this emerging understanding with the other children (peer tutoring).
  5. Then leave the children to play with the tumbler, card, feather and to invent  their own experiments (fun – its allowed/encouraged!)

There is a further intervention called ‘Bridging’, which is a feature of ‘Cognitive Acceleration’ practice. EEF have not researched this. In this example this would involve asking the children to think about sucking drinks up a straw -what is really happening? Then there is ‘cling film’. Why does it stick to smooth surfaces (but not rough ones)? How do rubber suckers work? If possible show how window glass fitters handle large heavy slabs of plate glass – with big suckers!

All this takes up a lot of time, but there are three vital advantages compared to the ‘teacher telling/pupil listening under threat of sanction’ method.

  1. Deep learning and understanding that is more than memorising what the teacher has said.
  2. The cognitive ability of the learner has been permanently developed. (the learner has become cleverer through the process of engagement with the problem).
  3. This developmental cognitive gain is transferable to all learning.

The last advantage is by far the most important in KS1/KS2 where the main pedagogic aims should be developmental – raising cognitive ability/general intelligence.

Imagine a school where all subjects are taught this way. This is an example in science, which readily lends itself to the approach, which was the initial basis of Shayer and Adey’s ‘Cognitive Acceleration’ project, which can be adapted to all subjects including English, maths the humanities, arts design and technology as explained in their book, ‘Learning Intelligence‘. There are some great ideas for working with five year olds. I love the green dinosaurs and red mammoths activity – you will have to read the book. However no methodology, however effective, should be treated like a religion. Other kinds of lessons can still be taught, teachers can explain and demonstrate things, videos can be watched, notes can be made and tests can be taken.

Such an approach cannot be imposed on teachers as a national initiative. School leaders have to understand it and believe in it first. Teachers then have to be trusted to discuss it in departments and staff meetings. Dissent has to be tolerated and met with rational debate, not the pulling of rank.

Schools should become ‘institutions of learning’ that include the teachers and all other staff in the learning process.

Does Morgan and Gibb’s compulsory academisation plan suggest such a future?

I don’t think so.

Are teachers willing to be bullied into submission?

I hope not.


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