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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Enlightenment Now

The case for reason, science, humanism and progress, by Steven Pinker

Book Review by Roger Titcombe.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

I am a fan of Pinker and as well this, his latest book, I possess copies of, The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. I agree with his arguments in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that human society is massively less violent now than in the past. Although he is not an educationist, Pinker has greatly influenced my thinking that led to my book, Learning Matters, and the articles on my website.

This does not mean that I agree with him about everything.

However, the cover blurb, which states that, Steven Pinker is one of the world’s most influential writers on the human condition, is undoubtedly true. He writes on the most profound, complex and frequently counter intuitive issues of science and society and does so with outstanding clarity, precision, enthusiasm and conviction, the latter always backed up by data and evidence. The range and depth of his scholarship is astounding. This is indicated by the chapter titles of Enlightenment Now.

Part I: Enlightenment

Dare to understand

Entro, Evo, Info (Entropy, Evolution, Information)


 Part II: Progress







The environment





Equal rights


Quality of life


Existential threats

The future of progress

 Part III: Reason, Science and Humanism




 Pinker believes that ‘enlightenment values’, when allied with reason, science and humanism have brought us both ‘capitalism’ and ‘democracy’, which, so long as ‘the enlightenment spirit’ continues to prevail, will result in continuing and limitless human progress, as he states in the concluding chapter of his book.

We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to human flourishing. And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity – to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

Wow! Pinker has lot to persuade us of, so how does he do it? The answer is with factual data, reason and argument. The book contains 75 charts all of which have ‘y’ axes that measure and set out a vast range of positive or negative attributes or conditions of humanity, plotted against timelines from the (sometimes distant) past almost up to the present.

His conclusion is universally optimistic: everything is better now than it was in the past and there is no limit to how good it can become in the future.

I don’t fully share his optimism about this, but more of this later. For now, I will just point to a few of what for me are some highlights of the book, the quotes from which are in italics.

On the Law of Entropy

Here Pinker recognises the principle of entropy as the ultimate Law of Nature in that, unlike all others, it has universal application. Newton’s Laws of Motion, from which the concept of energy is derived, undergo a profound rethink at their boundaries with Einstein’s relativity. Entropy is not only needed to fully understand the nature and behaviour of energy, it applies to everything; from the ‘Big Bang’ to the end of time; from steam engines to black holes, on all scales from the smallest, precisely described by the quantum theory, to Einstein’s General Relativity, which gives new interpretations  to the concepts of gravitation, space and time. The quantum theory and relativity  are equally precise and proven within their own scales of application, but so far remain unreconciled with each other.

Perhaps surprisingly for a non-physicist, social scientist, cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author, Pinker’s exposition of the entropy principle is the best I have so far read.  Pinker especially addresses the  entropy of living as well as non-living systems, including its relevance to evolution and the new science of information. This includes territory where many physicists, chemists and biologists have frequently feared to tread with confidence. ‘Enlightenment Now’ is worth reading for this short chapter alone. Here is a taste.

[The] insight of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment was deepened by the discovery of entropy. Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for want of a horseshoe nail.

On education

This is what I obsess about, so I am interested in Pinker’s take on it, especially given that, as far as I am aware, he fails to mention the giants of experimental cognitive psychology, including Piaget or Vygotsky in any of his books. However despite this, as a professional educator himself, he clearly understands their conclusions on what effective education is, and is not about.

Any curriculum will be ineffective if it consists of a lecturer yammering in front of a blackboard, or a textbook that students highlight with a yellow marker. People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems.

 This is mainstream Piaget and Vygotsky.

Pinker is also well versed in ‘The Flynn Effect’, but he needs to read James Flynn’s latest book if he is to straighten out his thinking on inherited and acquired intelligence.

As recognised and discussed in ‘Learning Matters’, Pinker notes that, The Flynn effect is now petering out in some of the countries in which it has been going on the longest, but this has nothing to with ‘Stein’s Law’, as he asserts. The real reason is the degrading of effective learning in US and UK schools through the take-over of our national education systems by extreme ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism.

The subjugation of evidence driven education through the ideological pursuit of ‘pure’ capitalism, has a direct parallel with the subjugation of evidence-driven agrarian science in Stalin’s USSR through the ideological pursuit of a crude interpretation of communism by an ignorant despot. It is putting evidence-light ideology, that Pinker correctly condemns, before the enlightenment principles of reason and experiment. Pinker readily recognises flawed ideology when it is associated with communism, but seems blind to its emergence as a powerful sectarian capitalist development. The degradation of schooling has been recognised and described in the US by educational blogger Nancy Bailey.

With regard to the ‘Flynn effect’, the importance of which Pinker recognises, he is wrong in his assertion that ‘inherited intelligence’ is different in kind from ‘acquired intelligence’. This error is refuted in both theory and practice by the ‘growth mindset‘ movement in the US and the UK.

On Donald Trump

Pinker does not hold back his concern for the damage that has been, and can in future be done by this powerful enemy of the enlightenment values of reason, science and humanism.

Nothing captures the tribalistic and backward-looking spirit of populism more than Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

Trump has demonized immigrants and trade partners while ignoring the major disrupter of lower-middle-class jobs, technological change. He has also opposed the measures that most successfully mitigate its harms, namely progressive taxation and social spending.

Trump believes that environmental regulation is economically destructive; worst of all he has called climate change a hoax and announced a withdrawal from the historic Paris agreement.

While Trump has cultivated a reputation for law and order, he is viscerally uninterested in evidence-based policy that would distinguish effective crime-prevention measures from useless tough talk.

The ideal of knowledge – that one’s opinions should be based on justified true beliefs – has been mocked by Trump’s repetition of ludicrous conspiracy theories.

Most frighteningly, Trump has pushed back against the norms that have protected the world against the possible existential threat of nuclear war. He questioned the taboo on using nuclear weapons, tweeted about resuming a nuclear arms race, mused about encouraging the proliferation of weapons to additional countries, sought to overturn the agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and taunted Kim Jong-un about a possible nuclear exchange with North Korea.

These are just a few examples from Pinker’s selection of alarming ‘Trumpisms’, but despite their threat, he remains optimistic that in the longer term even Trump will be unable to undo a quarter of a millennium of post-enlightenment progress.

Let us hope that he is right.

There are some areas where I would suggest a challenge to Pinker.

The neural network model of conceptualisation and consciousness

A momentous discovery of twentieth century neuroscience is that networks of neurons not only can preserve information but can transform it in ways that allow us to explain how brains can be intelligent.

Neural network connectivity has applications in ‘artificial intelligence’, but it is a very long way from explaining human intelligence. I am with the experimental cognitive psychologists in taking the view that human intelligence is not rooted in a ‘hardware’ of neural networks that can physically and rapidly change their configurations and connections to simultaneously map and facilitate long and short term memory while supporting the understanding of high level concepts like entropy, let alone explaining the ongoing mystery of consciousness itself. Why aren’t ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo’ conscious entities? They certainly have many more orders of magnitude of ‘bit’-processing power than neuron-connected human brains.

Neither is the development of cognition to higher levels, as described by Piaget, compatible with  smooth and systematic growth of neural connections. Cognitive development is bumpy and punctuated by flashes of insight. It is hard to believe that the neural configuration of the brain of Archimedes just after his Eureka moment in relation to the Law of Flotation, was any different after his bath-time flash of inspiration from how it was before.

If the number and complexity of neural networks and their connective configurations really did directly map higher order cognitive function in humans, then there would be no doubt about the intellectual superiority of men compared to women, given their much larger brains and therefore greater number of neurons (16 percent more). This is neither evidenced in male and female IQ test scores nor regarded as a serious proposition.

It seems clear to me that the mysteries that underpin the power and developmental potential of the human mind are more likely to be revealed through the experimental study of its mental software than its neural hardware.

Sustainability and limitless economic growth

Pinker is dismissive of ‘greenism’ and ‘sustainability’ and makes some strong arguments. He is right that, ‘The stone age did not end because of a shortage of stones’. However, the UK fishing industry was certainly decimated by a shortage of fish leading to EU ‘sustainable’ fishing quotas, which appear to have been effective in maintaining stable fishing industries in EU states. Pinker would argue that fish farming will fill any sustainability gap. However, fish waste and left over food spill out from farming nets into the ocean, causing nutrient pollution. This may lead to oxygen depletion in the water, which can stress or kill aquatic creatures. In addition, antibiotics or pesticides used on farmed fish can affect other marine life or human health. These nutrients and chemicals sink to the ocean floor, where they may impact its biodiversity. Fish crowded together in nets or pens are more susceptible to stress, which can foster disease and parasites that may then spread to wild species. Farmed fish sometimes escape into the ocean, breeding with wild species and affecting the population’s overall genetic diversity.

Pinker is right that there is still scope for huge increases in food production through the application of science to farming, especially in the developing world, and he speculates about ‘pivoting’ to limitless new scientific innovations that include, genetically modified organisms, hydroponics, aeroponics, urban vertical farms, robotic harvesting, meat cultured in vitro, artificial intelligence algorithms  fed by GPS and biosensors, the recovery of energy and fertilizer from sewage, aquaculture with fish that eat tofu instead of other fish, and who knows what else – as long as people are allowed to indulge their ingenuity.

But there are environmental downsides to intensive agriculture and meat production, which Pinker tends to play down. He is a strong advocate of democracy, which he rightly sees as a prime ‘enlightenment virtue’, but can he be confident that ‘enlightened’ voters will share his future preferences in relation to limitless growth of production versus the conservation of our natural environment?

Pinker is no ‘climate change denier’ and clearly recognises the dire risks to our planet through anthropogenic global warming, but his solutions are the massive expansion of nuclear power and if necessary, geo-engineering (eg modifying the upper atmosphere of the entire planet to reflect sunlight) rather than limiting consumption and switching to renewable energy sources.

Is there a crisis of neo-liberal capitalism?

If there is Pinker does not mention or allude to it. There is little evidence in his book that he has fully considered the negative consequences of the ‘neo-liberal’ economic models that are increasingly challinging the ‘mixed economies’ that he applauds in his chapter on ‘happiness’, other than recognising that the US and the UK are seriously negative outliers in the general global pattern that GDP growth per capita = increased population happiness. (See fig 18 – 1)

I conclude with some recent pessimistic news stories from the UK that challenge the view that economic growth really can be limitless and that capitalism can be relied on to solve all our present and future problems.

Growth of life expectancy is in decline

The incidence of violent crime is escalating

Suicide and self-harm rates in prisons are at all-time high

Access to housing is in a state of crisis especially for young adults

Rough sleeping is escalating alarmingly in our towns and cities

The drug related death rate is escalating, especially in Scotland

Children in UK mental health hospitals ‘not improving’

Food bank use is at a record high

Steven Pinker may be criticised, vilified even, by ideologues on the political left and the right, but whatever labels some may seek to pin onto him, this cannot detract from the scholarship and integrity of his thoughts. ‘De-platforming’ as a strategy of the closed minded is all too common and profoundly anti-enlightenment. This book will enrich our understanding and arm all of us that believe in honest debate and arguments based on evidence, for whom ‘Enlightenment Now’ is essential reading.

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Beyond the exam factory: alternatives to high-stakes testing

This is the title of a publication by ‘More than a score’.

More than  a score is a broad coalition established by the largest teachers’ union the NUT (now part of the NEU), parents’ organisations, academic researchers, and specialist associations for school subjects, primary schools and early education. This publication arose from a More Than A Score seminar at Oxford University in March 2017.

It is described, and can be downloaded from this post on the ‘Reclaiming Schools’ website.

The ‘Reclaiming Schools’ introduction states the following.

“Assessment in English schools is not designed to help children learn. Its main purpose is to police schools and teachers, and it does untold damage in the process. Primary school tests are causing stress to children, demoralising teachers, and providing little useful information to parents. They narrow the curriculum and penalise schools in the most disadvantaged areas.”

This stimulating new book presents strong arguments against the present system and opens up real alternatives. It draws on a wealth of experience over many decades, in England and internationally. It presents examples of assessment methods which have been eclipsed in English schools due to the pressures of ‘accountability’.

I entirely agree with the underlying premise of this book, which needs to be read by every teacher, parent, politician and educationalist in the UK. I will summarise the scope of the content and conclude my endorsement with some further comments of my own.

Part A

Section 1 Assessment and the accountability machine

Ofsted inspection and the betrayal of democracy (Michael Fielding)

A malediction upon management (Fred Inglis)

The illusions of measuring linear progress (Reclaiming Schools)

Section 2 Assessment and the developing child

Homo Sapiens 1.0: human development (Pam Jarvis)

Baseline testing: science or fantasy? (Terry Wrigley)

Democratic alternatives to early assessment (Guy Roberts-Holmes)

Section 3 General proposals

Assessment – what we stand for (More Than A Score)

Some modest proposals (Terry Wrigley)

Assessment in English 3 to 11 (John Richmond)

National tests in Denmark (Jakob Wandall)

Part B

Section 1 Formative assessment

Science inside the black box (Paul Black and Christine Harrison)

Verbal feedback (Flora Barton)

Denmark: learners setting goals (Kirsten Krogh-Jespersen)

Germany: Being positive about diversity (A. von der Groeben)

Section 2 Diagnostic assessment

Synthetic phonics and the phonics check (Margaret M Clark)

What could replace the phonics check?(Jonathan Glazzard)

Miscue analysis EAL assessment framework for schools (Bell Foundation)

Section 3  Supporting teachers in summative assessment

Assessment of primary writing in 2016 (Ros Wilson)

Teaching by numbers: experiences of writing (Nerida Spina)

Assessing A-level English Literature (John Hodgson)

Assessing primary literacy through grammar (John Hodgson)

Grammar and Great Literature (John Richmond)

Section 4 Observation

The Primary Language Record revisited

Assessment through talk (Valerie Coultas)

Maths is more than the right answer (Gawain Little and colleagues)

Section 5 Portfolios

Assessing primary humanities using portfolios (Tony Eaude)

Assessment by portfolio (Kathe Jervis)

Portfolios as evidence (Grant Wiggins)

Portfolios for summative purposes (David Pearson and colleagues)

Section 6 Authentic and holistic assessment

Assessing creative learning (Grant Wiggins)

A generic rubric for assessing creativity (Grant Wiggins)

Assesssing the sixth form ‘masterpiece’ (Eddie Playfair)

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) (David Leat)

Authentic assessment through rich tasks (Queensland: New Basics)

Final comment: The grassroots speak (John Coe, National Association for Primary Education)

My following comments are based on the OfSTED ‘Inspection Data Summary Reports’ (IDSR), which were received by all English primary schools by January 2018.

Pages 1-5, contain factual summary data for the school in terms of pupil numbers, FSM eligibility, absence, exclusions etc, but also ‘Prior attainment measures‘, the validity of which are questionable for many sound reasons that are set out throughout the ‘More than a score publication’. I will highlight some quotations from, ‘More than a score’  (in italics).

Schools [come] under pressure to improve test data at any cost.

But KS1 ‘prior attainment’ compared to attainment at KS2 is likely to be higher in a separate Infant and Junior School system than in a Primary School. The same ‘high stakes’ effect takes place between the primary and the secondary sector. Assessment at age 11 is supposed to aid transition from primary to secondary education. Unfortunately, cramming for KS2 tests is now so intense that secondary schools no longer trust the results: children are frequently retested on entry to Y7.

Early assessment is a very poor predictor of later achievement. It should not be used to judge the subsequent ‘value added’ by teachers or schools. The most experienced Baseline test provider can only make correct predictions for 4 children out of 10 in terms of their likely attainment just two years later.

The entire accountability system depends on a [false] assumption that children normally make smooth linear progress from one stage to another, and therefore that teachers can be judged according to ‘value added’.

Page 6 is entitled ‘Trends over time’ and purports to display ‘progress rank’  based on ‘prior attainment’. It gives an impression of precision that is false because it is based on dubious and insecure ‘prior attainment’ measures.

As Tom Sherrington points out in the secondary context, It’s all so convoluted; so removed from what learning looks like, turning ‘Progress’ into some kind of absolute metric.

The remaining pages 7 – 14 provide more statistical padding inflated with dubious information in ever finer detail, that includes identifying the progress (or lack of progress) of individual pupils.

The fundamental flaw is that identified by Pam Jarvis. The key word is development and in her contribution to Section 2, Pam outlines the complex neuronal stages in the development of infant cognition. I don’t know if Pam is a ‘Piagetian’ (like me), but although he didn’t talk about neurons, Piaget was equally clear that such development is certainly not smooth and linear, but punctuated by stages of accelerated progress. Although there is a relationship with the age of the child, this is very approximate and varies enormously between individual children. See this simple description of Piagetian stages.

The ‘approximate age ranges’ given the table are in fact even wider, such that a primary school year group could well contain children at all three of the later Piagetian stages, especially given the developmental time difference between August and September born children at such young ages.

The DfE and OfSTED are right to presume that the school experience should be expected to have a positive effect on the rate of cognitive development of infant and junior age children, but this must be layered on top of the underlying age-related ‘unfolding’. Furthermore, the introduction of, ‘More than score’ correctly makes the following observation.

“It is often claimed that high-stakes assessment raises standards – that without it teachers and heads would become complacent. It is true that scores in national tests and exams have had an upward trend over the years, but much of this is due to more intensive test preparation. Despite the rising test scores at age 11, England’s performance in the international PISA assessment remains mediocre. One hypothesis is that SATs requirements have become a distraction from longer-term cognitive development.”

 I certainly believe the last sentence to be true and write about it here

My hypothesis, an invitation for others to argue about, is that degraded and corrupted curriculum involving the large scale abandonment of pupil practical activity in science lessons and the increased substitution of crude behaviourism for developmentalism as the ruling pedagogy in English schools, combined with successive perverse outcomes arising from the operation of the imposed market are combining to produce an ever tightening spiral of real educational decline that continues to manifest itself in new and often surprising ways.”

Professor Alastair Sharp wrote another important article on the same subject.

I will conclude with what could well have been Alastair’s essential summary of the message of, ‘More than a score’.

“Is it not time we paused to re-think what is being done in the name of education? Why this obsession with measurement? High stakes exams were never this frequent when I was young. We have always accepted the need for assessment: it can be motivational, as well as judgmental. But over–testing is obstructing education. It is time to do something about it.”

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The EEF casts new light on ‘The Attainment Gap’

This article was updated on 30 January 2018 to reflect further important information received.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published what is probably the most comprehensive study yet on ‘The Attainment Gap’, which has been the principal concern of ‘The Social Mobility Foundation‘, ‘The Sutton Trust’ and successive incarnations of the Department for Education and its Opposition shadows over the last three decades.

The EEF summarises ‘The Attainment Gap’ as follows.

“The gap in outcomes between those students from the least well-off backgrounds and their classmates is already evident by the time they begin school, aged 5. Over the next 11 years of full-time education, it worsens [to] grow from age 5 to 16:

  • there is a 4.3 month gap at the start of school between disadvantaged children and their classmates;
  • this more than doubles to 9.5 months by the end of primary school; and
  • then more than doubles again, to 19.3 months, by the end of secondary school.”

‘The Attainment Gap’, is based on DfE school performance data at KS1, KS2, and KS4. These data are primarily intended to drive the marketised education system in terms of OfSTED judgements and league tables. This makes them ‘high stakes’ measures for schools, which has implications for their validity.

There is a moral dimension of ‘The Attainment Gap’ arising from those students from the least well-off backgrounds performing worse than their more affluent classmates. This has led to the political right using the issue to condemn comprehensive schools in favour of academic selection and/or extreme regimes of instruction-based teaching backed up by coercive sanction-driven discipline systems.

The fundamental reason for the apparent ‘attainment gap’ is that pupils from poorer backgrounds tend to have lower cognitive abilities. That this fact is unrecognised, ignored or rejected for ideological reasons is why the ‘attainment gap’ has persisted despite all the Labour and Conservative government initiatives, ‘zero tolerance of failure’, head sackings, school closures, Academisations and Free School promotions of recent decades.

None have made any impression because they are remedies for something that does not exist, based on an incorrect diagnosis of the problem.

The key EEF findings are as follows. 

  1. The widest attainment gaps relate to FSM and SEN pupils, but not those that have English as a second language.

While it is often assumed that not having English as the first language must be a significant disadvantage for primary pupils, the facts do not support this. The EEF study is just the latest to come to this conclusion.

Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) data, however, do show a clear link with Socio-Economic Status (SES), for which eligibility for Free School Meals (FSM)  is a reliable proxy. This relationship between poverty and cognitive ability has been known to heads and governors of secondary schools for decades, which is why after the 1988 Education Reform Act compelled all schools to compete on the basis of the raw aggregated attainment of their pupils, those schools that had powers over their admissions policies (Academies and Religious Schools) were increasingly inclined to find ways of cutting down the numbers of FSM, and therefore less cognitively able, children they had to admit.

For many years the Cumbria LEA produced CATs/School Attainment data that showed this relationship, so enabling judgements to be made about the relative effectiveness of its schools that took account of the cognitive ability profiles of admission cohorts. When Labour took control of the county council it banned the production of these performance data. For the whole of its period of office, successive Labour governments regarded any mention of schools’ cognitive ability admissions profiles as being, ‘an unacceptable excuse for failure’. This has remained the view of subsequent Conservative-led governments leading directly to the continuation of ‘The Attainment Gap’ fallacy.

Academisation has taken away the ability of Local Authorities to impose economically and therefore cognitively balanced catchment areas and has brought about an admissions free for all. This has resulted in those schools located in affluent post codes (therefore admitting fewer less bright children on the basis of proximity) getting better aggregated exam results, climbing the local league tables, having more Y7 applications and therefore being able to deny entry to ever greater numbers of poorer pupils living further from the school, so increasing the mean intake cognitive ability, therefore getting better exam results etc. etc.

The converse has happened to schools located in the heart of poor communities. This admission inequality issue has been successfully addressed by the introduction of CATs driven fair banding, which while being widely adopted by Academies, has not been available to LA schools, except in the London Borough of Hackney. I investigated this in detail using real CATs data in my study of Mossbourne Academy and the Hackney Fair Banding admissions system. This appears as Part 4 of my book, ‘Learning Matters’.

That school students from less affluent postcodes achieve less well than their more affluent classmates is therefore explained by the associated differences in mean cognitive ability, which also accounts for the generally lower attainment of students with various categories of SEN.

  1. The gap persists in all types of secondary schools

Attainment 8 scores for all pupils is higher in ‘Outstanding’- or ’Good’-rated schools, than (on average) in schools rated as either ‘Requires improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’. However, the size of the Attainment 8 gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is all but identical across all four Ofsted-rated categories of school. It is not, as might be expected, a problem that predominates in schools classified as under-performing: it is found to a similar degree in all types of schools. An EEF chart shows the GCSE outcomes (Attainment 8 scores) for disadvantaged pupils and non-disadvantaged pupils grouped according to their school’s overall effectiveness, as assessed by Ofsted.

‘Outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘Special Measures’ schools in closing ‘The Attainment Gap’.

The entire focus of government education policy has been directed onto increasing the numbers of pupils in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools. At successive Prime Ministers Questions, regardless of what Jeremy Corbyn actually asks, Theresa May never fails to mention the success of post 2010 Conservative governments in increasing these numbers.

Yet the EEF finds that this has had no effect at all on reducing ‘The Attainment Gap’. This is a devastating fact that calls into question the entire rationale of both government education policy and the relevance of OfSTED in improving the attainment of lower attaining students.

Schools have been recently receiving their Inspection Data Summary Reports (IDSRs) from OfSTED. This is the latest national framework for judging school performance and effectiveness. It has replaced ‘RAISEonline’ and before that the PANDAs that I was familiar with as a headteacher in the 1990s. The methodology is to attempt to judge the attainment and progress of pupils in KS1, KS2 and KS4 in each of four groups. The first three of these relate to Low, Middle and High attainers in the previous Key Stage (or in the Reception Year for KS1). But the fourth category is ‘Disadvantaged’ pupils, which is those eligible for FSM.

The OfSTED judgements for all schools will therefore depend on the progress made by those pupils in the school judged to be ‘disadvantaged’ by their eligibility for FSM. The IDSA goes further by identifying such pupils in ‘scatterplots’, the implication being that their individual progress or lack of progress will count for or against the school’s overall OfSTED judgement. However such pupils may well be performing in accordance with, or better than their CATs scores and still be judged to be ‘underperforming’ on the false assumption that they have average cognitive abilities when these are in fact lower. Without CATs data is impossible to determine any independent effect of eligibility for FSM on attainment.

However, if there is indeed no ‘attainment gap’, and all school students perform, on average, in accordance with their cognitive ability as determined by CATs, then a lower performance by the ‘disadvantaged’ group is exactly what should be expected. This will result in schools being penalised by OfSTED just for having greater proportions of FSM pupils in the school. Despite constant denials, this has always been the general pattern of OfSTED school judgements.

This is exactly what has happened. The ‘left establishment’ blogsite ‘Reclaiming Schools’ published this article on 30 January 2018.

“Schools in North East England are under attack again. According to Progress 8 scores, its schools are the least effective in the country, with the highest percentage coming ‘below the floor’. But Progress 8 is a flawed and misleading measure. It assumes that social factors make no difference. Once again, the Government are in denial about poverty and the economy. It’s so much easier to attack teachers again.”

This reaction is entirely predicable. The political left prefers to interpret ‘The Attainment Gap’ as a form of prejudicial class-based discrimination further confirming the malign outcomes of growing social and economic inequality. The ‘Reclaiming Schools’ schools article goes on as follows.

“Poverty has a big impact on pupils’ progress: on average, students on free school meals score -0.5 on Progress 8. (-0.5 is also the threshold for ‘below the floor’.) Schools with large numbers of FSM students are far more likely to score below. In the North East, 17% of students are FSM (13% nationally). In some places it’s worse:

  • 24% Middlesbrough
  • 23% Newcastle
  • 20% Sunderland
  • 19% South Tyneside
  • 19% Hartlepool.

Not surprisingly, all these areas have large numbers of schools ‘below the floor’.”

It is not ‘poverty’ that is the cause of the lower attainment, but the lower mean cognitive ability that prevails in these impoverished communities. I can see why this truth is difficult to accept for Labour politicians and the trade unions, but the truth it is. We know this from ‘GL Assessment’, the commercial marketer of the national Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) formerly provided by NfER. P10 of this 2009/10 report provides the irrefutable data.

The 146,075 students without FSM obtained a mean combined score of 102 (55th percentile)

The 27,536 FSM students obtained obtained a mean combined score of 92 (30th percentile)

The purpose of the Report is given in its introduction.

GL Assessment provides updated tables and progress charts to enable schools to estimate
pupils’ GCSE subject grades based on their CAT scores. This report explains how to use these tables and charts. It also gives guidance on setting targets and discussing them with individual pupils. Information on how the estimates (or indicators) were developed, and on how to calculate estimates for groups, is included in the appendix. The results of a recent large scale study looking at the relationship between CAT scores and pupil/school factors is included at the end of the appendix [p10] for your information.

It could not be clearer. The attainment of FSM students would be predicted to be far below their more affluent classmates. See the charts for maths in Figure 1 of p2. These predicted that while 75% of non-FSM students were predicted to obtain a C+ grade, only 28% FSM students would be so predicted. Similar extreme differences can be found in other predictions of attainment.

Where the ‘Reclaiming Schools’ article is correct, is that the schools in the North East are indeed being unfairly targeted. On the basis of the GL Assessment predictions, the schools would appear to have obtained far better GCSE results for their FSM students than their CATs scores would have predicted.

I am the former head of an inner-urban school in Barrow-in-Furness, where the mean intake CATs score was 85, but the astonishing progress of our students was never recognised as unsurprisingly the aggregated GCSE results never met the ‘floor targets’ of the time. No head or Labour politician could ever argue locally that the reason lay with the low mean Cognitive Ability of the admission cohorts. The eventual ‘solution’ was the closure and demolition of all three mainland non-religious schools in the town and their replacement by an £multi-million Academy scheme that proved to be a massive failure from its opening, leading to hundreds of Barrow pupils now travelling by bus and train every day to attend the LA schools in the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston.

All of this is confirmed by a ‘Schools Week’ report that concluded that schools with lower FSM numbers were more likely to be judged ‘outstanding’ and/or to improve their OfSTED grades.

As the concerns  from both ends of the political spectrum play into their own deeply rooted belief systems, there is little political appetite in any of the main political Parties or the unions for questioning whether the  ‘Attainment Gap’ actually exists.

  1. Regional variations in ‘disadvantaged’ pupil attainment

The EEF reports as follows.

Looking at the attainment gap on a regional basis, it is the performance of pupils in London which stands out. [The EEF tables] show that a majority (51%) of London’s FSM-eligible pupils achieved A*-C grades in GCSE English and maths in 2016. In the neighbouring South East barely one-third of FSM-eligible pupils did so. London’s attainment gap was 19 percentage points; the South East’s was 34 percentage points. FSM-eligible pupils in London were 52% more likely to get 5 or more good GCSEs in 2015 than FSM-eligible pupils in other parts of the country.

The reasons for the transformational improvements in pupils’ outcomes in London in the past 15 years have been much debated. It is not possible to identify for sure why it happened – the causal mechanisms – as the reforms introduced were not robustly evaluated. Researchers have proposed a number of plausible explanations for what has been termed ‘the London effect’, notably: improvements at primary schools from the late 1990s; the London Challenge and other initiatives within secondary schools; and a significant influx of pupils from high-attaining immigrant families.

The last line is significant. While it likely that ‘high attaining immigrant families’ are likely to be a factor, such high attainment matches the higher than national average mean cognitive ability scores of some ethnic groups that are strongly represented in London schools.

This is especially relevant to London, not just because of the high proportion of children from immigrant parents, but also because so many schools take the CATs tests provided by GL Assessment, enabling cognitive ability data to be taken into account by the schools.

The London data are therefore critical to my argument, because it is established that although many immigrant communities remain over-represented in all manner of negative social data, the children nevertheless perform at school according to their (sometimes higher) cognitive ability, not their (often lower) parental affluence.

This effect helps account for the success of so many of the Hackney secondary schools, including Mossbourne Academy, as described and explained in my book, ‘Learning Matters’. My research on matching CATs scores to the GCSE performance of individual students in my own Cumbria headship school showed that there was no significant link between eligibility for FSM and attainment for students with similar CATs scores.

Mossbourne Academy and other Hackney schools have in the past been praised by OfSTED for the high attainment of ‘disadvantaged’ pupils. However the ‘fair banding’ admissions system in effect ‘reserves’ spaces in the high CATs score admission bands for FSM students with high CATs scores. Such students perform well (in accordance with the CATs score) despite their FSM ‘disadvantage’. High FSM postcodes, while being characterised by lower mean CATs scores, still contain some pupils with high CATs scores and ‘fair banding’ admissions policies can find and accept them.

Regrettably the EEF has not included CATs data in its analyses, so it is unable to test my assertions. If it revisits its work, I am confident that it too will conclude that ‘The Attainment Gap’ is an illusion arising from the failure to recognise that FSM eligibility is, on average, not just a proxy for Social Economic Status (SES), but also cognitive ability.

The data needed should be readily available from the Hackney LA, other Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) that use ‘Fair Banding’ admission policies, as well as from GL Assessment.

  1. How can the ‘Attainment Gap’ be successfully addressed?

Clearly, it does not need to be reduced if it does not actually exist. However, the ‘EEF Toolkit’ does contain important evidence for improving the levels of understanding of all school students through effective teaching and learning approaches. The problem with this is that the DfE and many Academy and Free School MATs do not seem to take any notice of the EEF toolkit conclusions, preferring their own evidence-light marketisation ideology-based approaches.

The true pattern is that cognitively developmental approaches are the most effective. The educational developmental trajectory of school students is not fixed by their CATs scores or anything else. This is demonstrated from the five reports published by EEF in July 2017.

Two approaches that work are as follows.

Dialogic Teaching

“Dialogic Teaching aims to improve pupil engagement and attainment by improving the quality of classroom talk. Teachers are trained in strategies that enable pupils to reason, discuss, argue and explain rather than merely respond, in order to develop higher order thinking and articulacy. The programme uses video review, print materials and in-school mentoring to support teachers’ practice across English, maths and science lessons.

This trial found consistent, positive effects in English, science and maths for all children in Year 5, equivalent to about 2 months additional progress.”

This is consistent with other EEF trials focusing on cognitively challenging talk, such as ‘Philosophy for Children’, and ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’. The consistent results across subjects and the lack of any subject specific content in the training suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than their knowledge in a given topic.”

This EEF conclusion is important as it recognises that the successful approaches are not based on the learning of factual content but on stimulating and supporting the development of general cognitive ability. Put simply, the pupils made more progress because the teaching and learning methods used made them cleverer. It is important to note that pupil’s confidence and performance improved in all subjects, not just the ones directly relevant to what the ‘classroom talk’ was about. This is the claim of the long-standing ‘cognitive acceleration‘ movement led by Michael Shayer and the late Philip Adey, backed by a huge amount of peer reviewed research.

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science

“Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (TDTS) is a programme that aims to make science lessons in primary schools more practical, creative and challenging. Teachers are trained in a repertoire of strategies that aim to encourage pupils to use higher order thinking skills. For example, pupils are posed ‘Big Questions’, such as ‘How do you know that the earth is a sphere?’ that are used to stimulate discussion about scientific topics and the principles of scientific enquiry.”

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science appeared to have a positive impact on the attainment of pupils in science. Overall, Year 5 pupils in schools using the approach made approximately three additional months’ progress.”

This too was an initiative based not on ‘telling by the teacher and listening by the pupils’, but on the development of general cognitive ability through metacognition, pupil/pupil and pupil/teacher talk.

These are followed by three approaches that are not based on cognitive development and are much less effective .

The EEF and the Sutton Trust could have an important role in changing the ruling pedagogy of the English school system for the better, but they first need a rethink about the true nature and actual pedagogic implications of ‘The Attainment Gap’

I welcome comment and debate in response to this article.

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Graduates don’t rate their degrees

Given Labour’s bold and exciting proposals for a free cradle to grave National Education Service, failures in the further and higher education sectors are also issues for schools.

We are lucky to have six grandchildren, who bring us great joy. The eldest of these will soon be thinking about university and naturally we hope the younger ones will follow: or do we?

My wife and I are both from council house, working class backgrounds and we were the first from either family to go to university. All of our children attended local comprehensive schools in the 1970s and 80s and they too all became graduates and progressed to professional careers.

So what as gone wrong? According to a recent ‘YouGov’ poll, there is considerable dissatisfaction on the part of recent graduates.

“new YouGov Omnibus research among more than 500 current students and recent graduates shows their views on whether university is worth it. It finds that more than a third (35%) of those with a student loan who graduated between 2010 and 2017 disagreed that the “costs of going to university were worth it for the career prospects/learning I gained”.

A lot of the gripes are unsurprisingly related to money, tuition fees and student loans, which helped bring out the youth vote for Labour in the June 2017 General Election.

“When it comes to the costs of a degree, YouGov’s research also finds that there is significant pessimism among both recent graduates and current students with loans about whether they will ever be free of the burden of repayments during their working life. When asked how long they expected it would take to pay off their student loan, 41% of both recent graduates and current students say they don’t think they ever will.”

The government’s Teaching excellence framework (TEF) results 2017, also caused a stir revealing widely disparate teaching standards, including a surprising number of long established, prestigious institutions in the lowest (bronze) category along with perhaps the more expected former non-university Colleges, raised to university status by the Blair higher education reforms and his ambition for half the population to become university graduates.

I was a beneficiary of Harold Wilson’s ‘technological revolution’, graduating in 1969 from a free university education supported by a generous means tested maintenance grant. Our children followed, attending universities in the 1980s and 90s, still free from tuition fees. Our eldest got a maintenance grant, but the last two had student loans. In 1982 I was seconded by Leicestershire County Council from the school at which I was then teaching onto a full time Masters Degree course in Education at Leicester University, on full salary with daily travel expenses. This was career and life changing. My readers can largely blame this for my blogs.

I wonder how Harold Wilson would view the degradation of our higher education system and the downgrading of the public education function that it once so proudly embodied.

The ‘degradation’ has come slowly but surely. Our eldest graduated from a long established northern university in 1994 with a first in Chemistry. I will always remember the Vice Chancellor’s stirring address at the degree congregation. The broad subject of this was ‘public obligation’ and the duty of graduates to acknowledge society’s investment with right conduct and public service wherever possible.

Now move forward to 2001 and our youngest’s engineering degree congregation at another long established northern university. The Vice Chancellor’s address could not have been more different. This was a bragging, self-congratulatory, PR spin, endorsing the ‘world class entrepreneurial status’ of the university under his management.

It was then that I realised that higher education had been privatised. In terms of public service, it has gone downhill ever since as Blair’s reforms took their intended course and the inevitable consequences have unfolded. This model of Vice Chancellor has since been further developed along with levels of remuneration their predecessors would have neither dreamed off nor approved.

What then are the consequences, apart from thousands of impoverished graduates with no hope of obtaining graduate employment or paying off their debts? There is certainly the loss of Local Authority controlled Further Education colleges, which had many positive roles of which supporting local industry apprenticeships and a wide variety of vocational qualifications was just one. In the November 2017 Budget the Conservative Chancellor tried vainly to put a positive spin on the current dire independent UK economic forecasts (even without the impending Brexit catastrophe), blaming this on historic low productivity, without acknowledging the downgrading of our publicly financed and locally accountable FE College system and its transformation away from public education .

FE Colleges did so such a lot. There was adult education on a massive scale. In the City of Leicester, Charles Keene FE College provided a pre-university course for mature students, many of whom were mothers who had taken their first tentative steps back into education through daytime classes (sometimes alongside school students) at Leicestershire’s 14-18 Community Colleges. Such courses had affordable course fees with discounts and exemptions for the unwaged and those in receipt of benefits.

In a welcome recent article, Fiona Millar appears at last to have accepted the necessity for the rebirth of Local Education Authorities if Labour’s National Education Service is to be realised.

However, nothing yet very radical from Labour on Higher Education Reform, where the abolition of tuition fees will not be achievable, without significant structural change and the rebirth of an extensive, comprehensive, locally accountable FE College sector. This needs to be built into the economic devolution plans of the ‘Midlands Engine’, ‘Northern Powerhouse’ etc., but not forgetting the needs of swathes of rural and smaller urban communities throughout the UK.

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The Learning Instinct

The inspiration for this article is Steven Pinker’s 1994 book, ‘The Language Instinct’, in which he builds on Chomsky’s assertion of the existence in the human genome of a universal grammar, as the explanation for the astonishingly rapid development of language skills in human infants. I am now of course immediately immersed in a longstanding controversy, which I am academically unqualified to debate, except to say that I believe that Pinker has got it broadly right.

As in other aspects of learning theory, there seem to be three distinct threads.


This is a ‘blank slate’ position in which the development of language is generated and reinforced by the responses of first the mother and later the extended family, to random sounds generated by the baby. Positive responses and rewards mould the growing linguistic skill of the child so as to generate the deep structure of the native language. There is no ‘universal grammar’.


This is also a ‘blank slate’ theory of ‘nurture overcoming nature’ in which the moulding agent is the culture and teaching regime in which the child grows up. It is akin to the general Marxist denial of ‘human nature’ and its assertion that being brought up in a socialist culture will, of itself, counter the negative human urges of greed and competitiveness that result from being brought up in a capitalist culture.

The Chomsky/Pinker/Piaget/Vygotsky position

This accepts the genetic inheritance of a ‘universal grammar’ that facilitates rapid infant development of language, but which requires social interaction for the inherited framework to assemble the specific language patterns and vocabulary of any particular native speaker. Academic linguists are naturally interested in researching and writing papers about the differences and alleged contradictions between the approaches of the four. However, I am more interested in what they have in common, with particular reference to the vital developmental role of socialisation. This is because I assert that Chomsky’s genetically inherited ‘universal grammar’ is the communicative sub-set of a similarly genetically inherited ‘universal learning facility’ possessed by all humans, the behavioural indicator of which is ‘curiosity’. The genes facilitating language development ‘kick in’ soon after birth. The curiosity that drives other learning, appears to peak before adulthood. Human autonomy and social culture, however,  can encourage curiosity-driven learning throughout life.

The Nobel physicist Richard Feynmann wrote a book about this, as has internationally renowned researcher of intelligence, James Flynn.

In terms of the facilitation of deep learning, curiosity is the essential fundamental cognitive urge. I characterise curiosity-driven ‘deep learning’ as that which builds ascending levels of cognitive sophistication (Piagetian plastic intelligence) as distinct from the ‘training’ that can be achieved through passive study, instruction and memorisation on the behaviourist learning model.

Vygotsky took the view that just as language learning is a social process for which talking and conversation are fundamental necessities, the same is true of all deep learning. Here are some of his thoughts.

The true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual.

By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.

Through others we become ourselves.

What children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.

The child begins to perceive the world not only through his [or her] eyes but also through his [or her] speech.

Human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.

 … People with great passions, people who accomplish great deeds, people who possess strong feelings, even people with great minds and a strong personality, rarely come out of good little boys and girls.

Which brings us to the pupil rule book of the Academy Trust that runs ‘Great Yarmouth Charter Academy’. It can be found and downloaded here.

[Author’s note : this link no longer appears to work – is the school reconsidering its approach?]

Here are some examples from the rule book [at the time of writing this article].

Sit up straight

At Charter you sit up straight at all times and you never slouch. Teachers have a seating plan and you sit at the seat they have allocated. When you read you always follow the text with your ruler, with both hands on the ruler. This helps you concentrate, so you remember more and understand more. When you are not writing or reading you sit up straight with your arms folded. Your teachers will instruct you: “3,2,1 SLANT!” Everyone will sit up extra straight, eyes front, looking at the teacher. You will follow their instructions first time, every time. The same rules apply to all, so are fair to all. No exceptions.

Listen carefully

At Charter you listen to every single word your teacher says very, very carefully. You especially listen to instructions very, very carefully. You don’t pick up your pen or your ruler, or anything else, until your teacher gives you the signal.

Never interrupt

Your teacher is the expert. You never interrupt your teacher when he or she is talking. If you are confused, or unsure what to do, let the teacher finish what he is saying and then put up your hand to ask a question. Sometimes you will receive demerits and detentions. Sometimes you may even be put in internal isolation. This will be because your teachers have decided that your actions were rude or damaging to your education. You may think your teacher was unfair. The teacher’s decision is final. You never answer back.

Track the teacher

This means you keep your eyes on the teacher whenever he or she is talking. You never turn around – even if you hear a noise behind you. You don’t look out of the window. You don’t lose focus. You really, deliberately concentrate on what the teacher is saying at all times. You look at the board. You listen. You read. You practise the work set in silence. You deliberately try to understand and to memorise the information and the processes you have been taught. If someone tries to distract you, raise your hand and tell the teacher.

The beginning and end of lessons

It is essential that you make your way very quickly and efficiently between classes. You walk between lessons in single file, eyes front. You don’t talk. You can chat to your friends in the playground in the morning, break time and lunch time. At the end of each lesson you stand behind your chairs in silence. Your teacher will use the last five minutes of each lesson to pack away, ask you questions, and get you ready to go off to your next lesson. Lessons start and end very efficiently and calmly at Charter. We do not teach right to the very last second and then pack away in a rushed and inefficient manner. You pack away exactly as instructed. You do not talk to your friends. You remain focused on the task of packing away and then you track the teacher. You fold your arms and go back into a slant. Around two minutes before the end of your lesson your teacher will give you the signal and you will stand in silence, and your teacher will dismiss you row by row. You will say thank you to your teacher as you leave the classroom. Your teacher will ask you questions as you wait. He or she will choose pupils to ask by name rather than with hands up. When you get to your next lesson you wait outside for your teacher. You never enter a room without your teacher’s express instruction. Being on time is a sign of politeness. Being late is rude and disrespectful. When we line up we have eyes front, shoulder against the wall, we never turn around, our bags are off our backs, we are silent. We move along corridors in single file, we do not turn to our friends, we do not speak, we keep eyes front. Our job is to move very quickly, efficiently and politely between lessons. We remain in single file and we wait if another class is passing in front of us. When we line up we take our bags are off our backs and hold them in our hand. We line up – eyes front and shoulder against the wall and leave space for other people to pass. We never go to the toilet between lessons or in lesson time. The toilets are open before lessons and at break times. You should not go to the toilets in the last five minutes of break to ensure you do not miss a single second of lesson time.

In 2017, this school received publicity about aspects of its behaviour policy including deterring pupils from ‘claiming to be ill in order to get out of lessons’ by the teacher offering said child, a ‘puke jug’. You will find critical articles about such approaches here and here.

The columnist Janet Street Porter wrote an article in the Independent praising this school’s behaviour policies. Similar approaches, according to a Guardian article, also appear to have the widespread support of delegates to Conservative Party Conferences, some Conservative Party supporting newspapers and also OfSTED.

The ‘Inspiration Trust’ does not appear to especially encourage the role of pupil’s curiosity in deep learning. Great Yarmouth Charter Academy appears instead to inhibit curiosity in favour of pupils, ‘tracking the teacher at all times’, while being in general fear of being, ‘put in internal isolation’.

This suggests that the school and the Inspiration Trust are either ignorant of Vygotsky’s theories of  ‘social learning’ or else they have no truck with them. I am with Chomsky, Pinker, Piaget and Vygotsky.

Where is the inspiration for the ‘Inspiration Trust’?

The answer could perhaps be found here.



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There is another way and it appears to work

I recently received this link to a video posted on Facebook.

It is presented by Michael Moore and appears to have been made on a visit to Finland, where he interviewed teachers and school students.

Many years ago major changes were made to the Finnish education system when it was performing as poorly as the US and UK systems are now. This has resulted in Finland climbing the PISA international league tables of school performance.

The following points about the Finnish education system are made in the video. I have listed them roughly in the order that they appear.

There is little or no homework because school students have better things to do.

 Finnish students do better because they spend less time in school.

 Cognitive development needs relaxed brains.

 Most secondary school students are competent in many European languages.

 There are no multiple choice exam questions.

 There is no national system of standardised testing.

 Schools are about enabling their students to find happiness.

 There is an emphasis on personal and cognitive development.

 The best school for every student is always the neighbourhood school.

 There is no competition between schools because all schools strive to be the same.

 There is no private school sector in Finland.

 All schools are student-centred.

 There is no business culture in Finnish schools.

 Students are treated more like adults than is the case in US schools.

The educational ideas that currently drive the Finnish education system originated in the US, but have since been abandoned there.

Play and socialisation are very important in the Finnish education system.

And finally, it is clear from the video that are no school uniforms.

About the same time that I received this link ‘Disappointed Idealist posted this article.

And Janet Downs posted this one.

And Debra Kidd posted this one.

Some time ago I also wrote an article about another route to high educational standards.

Michael Moore’s video and these articles need to generate an overdue national debate. It is time that the ever increasing abuse of children in state financed English schools was challenged.

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Harder 2017 GCSE exams with hardly any fall in the pass rates: what’s the problem?

Cue the usual media images of girls gleefully celebrating their results and Executive Principals extolling the excellence of their schools. There was lots of coverage of the new 1-9 grading system and the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, explaining that the exams had been made harder so that the English Schools system could catch up with the world leaders in East Asia. See the correct, and very different, interpretation of international PISA test results here.

Why was any reform needed if the exams could be made harder but about the same proportions of pupils passed at the equivalent grades to the old system? Nick Gibb explained that this was because of  ‘the tailored approach’.

You can read about this in the Ofqual guide, but the essence is captured in this sentence.

“The first award of all new GCSEs will be based primarily on statistical predictions with examiner judgement playing a secondary role.”

In other words Ofqual ensured that students obtained the grades that Oqual decided from its statistics that they ought to have got, rather than the grades examiners would normally award from the raw marks obtained.

No wonder the students were so pleased on exam results day, because according to the twitter storm that followed the end of the maths exam in June quite a few appeared to be suffering from EPTSD (Educational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The following tweets were typical:

Walking out of that maths shite

well that was bloody awful

I apologise to the examiner for the tears on my paper

I hope the grade boundaries are as low as my self esteem

The last comment turned out to be prescient as the Daily Telegraph picked up.

The BBC certainly didn’t. They could have found it in the Ofqual handbook, where, in the higher tier maths paper, the average  threshold raw mark for grade 4, equivalent to the former GCSE grade C used for decades by OfSTED to judge schools from ‘failing’ to ‘outstanding’, is given as 18 percent, with about ‘half marks’ needed to get the new grade 7 (former grade A). For some exam boards the grade C threshold was even lower, as the Telegraph pointed out.

Last year, 35 per cent was required for a pass in Maths with Edexcel, while this year the pass mark has dropped to 17 per cent. Similarly, last year students taking a Maths GCSE with OCR needed 30.5 per cent to get a pass, compared to 15.3 per cent this year. Under AQA, the pass mark for Maths was 35.4 per cent last year, which has fallen to 19.2 per cent this year.

Far from ‘raising standards to those of the best education systems in the world’, the grade boundary threshold marks had to be halved in order to keep the pass rates similar to those of the previous year. This means that the same grades could be achieved with half the number of correct answers.

OK, this was the higher tier paper where many of the questions were aimed at the top grades, but even in the foundation tier paper, where the highest grade possible was still C, a pass mark of only 51 percent was needed.

Any teacher experienced in examining will recognise this as very odd indeed. In the 1980s, I was a CSE Chief Examiner (and later a GCSE Chief Examiner) in the days when comprehensive school students took CSE or GCE exams. This was like the two tier system in GCSE maths. CSEs had a top grade 1, equivalent by definition to a GCE C, which became GCSE grade C when GCE was replaced. The other benchmark was CSE grade 4 (GCSE F). This was defined as the grade that a student of average ability could expect to obtain having followed a competently taught course of study. That this grade now appears so low may seem bizarre, but was perfectly rational given that prior to comprehensive reorganisation, 11 plus failure children didn’t take any exams at all. It is fully explained in Section 1.10, ‘The history of GCSE grades’, of my book, ‘Learning Matters‘.

CSE covered GCSE equivalent grades G to C, as does the foundation tier of GCSE maths. However to get a C equivalent grade in the CSE system a raw mark of about 70 percent was needed, rather than the 51% in the 2017 Foundation Tier GCSE maths. This after what we have been led to believe has been thirty years of continuous school improvement involving hundreds of schools being closed and replaced by Academies.

GCE maths was like the higher tier of GCSE maths. The GCE had passes graded from A-C, with D & E grades added later. These all passed directly into the new GCSE with G & F added to the bottom and A* added later to the top. The new GCSE grade 4 (C) is ‘expected’ of students regardless of ability, upon pain of repeating the exam throughout years 12 & 13 until grade 4 is achieved (or not).

In GCE exams, teachers and students were told that a raw mark of about 40 percent was usually needed for a C, compared to 15 percent in the 2017 maths higher tier GCSE. But perhaps the questions in the GCE exam papers were easier? You would not find many retired teachers that believe that, with most arguing that the converse is the case.

The most striking feature of the English education system from the 1980s to the present day has been unprecedented grade inflation on an astonishing scale. Michael Gove, Nick Gibb and the Conservative government are right to recognise this.

Who is to blame for this educational catastrophe? The chief villain is certainly Margaret Thatcher, whose marketisation enabling 1988 Education Reform Act created the inflationary engine that drove the process, just as her ‘tenant’s right to buy council houses’ was the engine of equally disastrous parallel house price and rent inflation. The current housing crisis is linked to the persisting low GCSE attainment levels in deprived communities. It was not always so.

Only now are the truly dire consequences of the advances on both neo-liberal battle fronts becoming apparent.

Tony Blair’s, 1997 Labour government not only failed  to revoke the 1988 Education Act and Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’, but twisted the marketising screw even tighter by legislating for the destruction of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) by creating independent Academy schools. It was these Blair promoted Academies that formed the vanguard for the most extreme grade inflation throughout the ‘vocational scam’ years, whereby four GCSE C grade equivalents could be achieved through single courses with 100 percent rates taking up the same lesson time or less than GCSE maths or English; all under the nose of OfSTED, which appeared not to notice any problem.

All of this is documented in detail, with supporting evidence, in Part 3 of ‘Learning Matters‘ entitled, ‘Spectacular School Improvement’.

Presumably in 2018 all the remaining GCSE subjects still on the A*-G grade scale will fall into line with maths, English and English literature and adopt the 1 – 9 grading system, however it is not clear what will happen to raw mark grade thresholds and standards. Can we expect further drastic reductions in the marks needed to obtain the grade 4 standard (C) as we have seen in maths?

What about GCSE maths in 2018? Ofqual suggests that the 2017 pass mark manipulation is to be a ‘one off’, but how should the Ofqual statement be interpreted?

The grade standard established in the first award will be carried forward in the second and subsequent years. The same approach will be used for the first awards of grades 1 to 7 in all new GCSEs as has already been confirmed for new GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths. This approach uses key reference points between current (alphabetical) and new (numerical) grades to set grade standards in the new qualifications. The ‘tailored’ approach’ will be used to set standards for grades 8 and 9 in all new GCSEs in the first year they are awarded, including English language, English literature and maths. The standard established in the first award for grades 8 and 9 will be carried forward in the second and subsequent years.

Unless the 2018 papers are made easier it is hard to see how the grade mark thresholds can be raised, unless the understanding of the students undergoes a considerable improvement. The whole approach of the government seems to imply that by making the exams harder and restricting the awarding of the higher grades, then the deeper understanding required will come about naturally through market forces as schools compete on the basis of proportions of cohorts gaining the new grades 8 & 9 as well as grade 4.

However deeper understanding can only result from more cognitively developed students and/or more effective teaching and learning.

In his far reaching and exceptionally well-informed Local Schools Network article, Matthew Bennett sees the apparent new quest for ‘deeper learning’ to be something very different in reality, as full-on ‘for profit’ Multi Academy Chains’ complete the privatisation journey, rendering the new MAT private education companies highly profitable through the replacement of teachers by computerised instruction and testing software.

I have copied the following from his article including his links.

Technology will play a critical role in this next stage.  Computer-based, online instruction – marketed as ‘blended’ or ‘personalised’ learning – is already a reality in the USA, where it is rapidly being adopted by charter school networks.  Ark and other academy chains are seeking to bring it to England (see here).  From a commercial point of view, it has huge advantages:  it allows drastic reductions in labour and plant costs – what Ark calls ‘staffing and school design efficiencies’ – and the opening of new markets in products and services created by the growing ‘ed tech’ industry.  As Rupert Murdoch announced – a bit prematurely – in 2011, the automation of teaching will finally make possible the exploitation of a $500bn market by profit-making companies.

The current accountability system – which involves measuring the performance of all students using the same tests, taken at the same time – is now an obstacle to that goal.  The next wave of edu-businesses will have their own proprietary curricula, and their own proprietary testing systems.  The curricula will be digital, delivered by computer.  So will the tests, which will be ‘embedded’ in the online ‘instructional content’.  Personalised learning is based on the real-time tracking of students’ performance in online tests;  it is essentially a system of continuous testing, which produces vast amounts of data.  (Ark are busy developing a new cloud-based service, Assembly, which will collect data from school ‘management information systems’, for the use of ed tech companies.)

This data, as US campaigners like Emily Talmage and Alison McDowell argue, could form the basis of a whole new investment market, based on social impact bonds.  This is a new type of investment vehicle developed and tested here in the UK, with help from ex-Ark employees like Toby Eccles, the founder of Social Finance UK.  It has been enthusiastically picked up by Goldman Sachs, who used social impact bonds to make a solid return on pre-school programmes in Utah and Chicago (see here).  Some key Ark people – Ron Beller, Jennifer Moses, Anthony Williams – are former Goldman partners.

This is the reason why Amanda Spielman is seeking to convince us that ‘there is more to a good education than league tables’.  It’s also the reason why Trump’s education secretary Betsy deVos, in her Senate confirmation hearing, sidestepped the question of whether all state-funded schools – both public and charter – should be held to the same standards of accountability (‘I support accountability’).

So instead of promoting a change in teaching methods designed to secure cognitive development and genuinely deeper learning, using the methods that the government sponsored Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has found to be effective, the new GCSEs are likely to result in a much more sophisticated version of the existing behaviourist training and business culture that EEF finds to be ineffective.

If we are indeed hoping to raise school attainment to Chinese/Singaporean levels of attainment, then we will need to raise the cognitive ability levels of our students to their much higher levels. I have suggested how this could be done, but it would be a long-term project.

More depressingly, it will not happen so long as our education system is dominated by the current marketisation, managerialism and privatisation paradigm.

Labour’s National Education Service could provide the foundation for such reform, but only if Labour finally break ranks with all the mistaken assumptions of the Labour education policies of the past.


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