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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P4C (primary) + CASE (secondary) = Raised attainment for all

Evidence that the title of this article should be taken seriously can be found here and here.

On 7 October 2018 I wrote to the Fair Education Alliance. This is the gist of what I wrote (italics).

It is important that pockets of low school attainment are effectively addressed. I refer you to this blog post from the internationally respected UCL Institute of Education and the comment from my colleague John Mountford. The IoE are right to identify the varying quality of parent/child communication in the home as a key issue related to language development and that this correlates negatively with social disadvantage. However, as John Mountford points out, it is very difficult and costly to implement effective social interventions.

For example, while ‘Sure Start’ provides valuable support for economically disadvantaged mothers, enabling their access to the workplace, the expected long term educational benefits have failed to become evident. Dr Christine Merrell of Durham University Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre, responsible for a long-term study into the effectiveness of Sure Start was reported in the Daily Mail of 19 April 2012 as stating, “Given the resources put into early years’ initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy and numeracy scores in schools. So it’s disappointing that there’s been no improvement”.

There is, in contrast, a huge amount of evidence in support of school-based interventions, but they have to be soundly based on genuine educational research, not the sort of deliberate statistical  misinformation regularly churned out by the DfE.

The problem is that the sort of market-based interventions favoured by the DfE, as proposed by The Sutton Trust, Social Mobility Foundation, the Education Policy Institute and the DfE’s  favourite Academy Trusts, while often appealing to ‘common sense’, actually retard deep learning and cognitive growth.

Put simply, the pressures applied to ‘low performing’ schools in terms of SATs and GCSE results, arising from league tables and OfSTED, incentivise cognitively retarding, rather than cognitively developmental teaching and learning methods, so resulting in the ‘Attainment Gap’ getting worse rather than better over time.

 In contrast, evidence strongly suggests that P4C rolled out in primary schools and ‘Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education’ (CASE) in secondary schools, would produce dramatic improvements. In our view, Local Authority schools and Multi Academy Trusts would be wise to support such developments in all their schools, starting with those serving the postcode pockets of lowest attainment.

What is actually happening is that the DfE is encouraging Academy Trusts to introduce cognitively damaging punishment/reward based interventions that will, in the long term, limit rather than enhance the life chances of children affected by social and economic disadvantage.

We must, however, be clear that measures that enhance the acquisition of  cognitive growth promoting deep learning will not ‘close the gap’. This is because, although P4C and CASE have been proven to significantly accelerate the cognitive development of slower learning students to dramatic effect, the most cognitively able students also benefit. Performance outcomes by humans in all contexts always lie on a ‘bell curve’ distribution. The reason for this is embedded in the nature and origins of  all life on earth, the evolution of which is driven by chance processes. Wherever there is chance, ‘bell curves’ will be found.

So, if the DfE wants our schools to turn out individuals that are uniformly talented and competent, then it is doomed to permanent disappointment, and a good thing too. Where would we be without the likes of William Shakespeare and Albert Einstein?

Section 1.3 of my book comprises a discussion on how human variation is compatible with equality and fairness.



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In praise of P4C

At the start of 2018, I was appointed governor of a local junior school. And a very good school it is too, with an excellent head and dedicated, hard working teachers. As I had been head of an inner-urban secondary school for fourteen years before retiring in 2003, I thought I would have little to learn about the role of governors, but how wrong I was.

Some changes have been for the better. There is a higher degree of professionally informed engagement now required. But there is also a lot of bureaucracy. Much is of dubious educational value and includes a lot of mind numbing administrative hoop-jumping. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a good example. It is not that this is unimportant, more that back in the days of Local Education Authorities (LEAs), this sort of stuff would have been looked after by an excellent, named LEA officer backed by an efficient team. A week before writing this I attended the first full governors’ meeting of the new school year. This started at 5.30pm and ended close to 9.00pm. The head, the teacher governors and the clerk had already done a full day’s demanding schoolwork before dashing home for family duties/gobble some tea, or just stayed at school to grind through paperwork. I am resolved to roll up my sleeves and take my share of some of the less rewarding burdens.

Which brings me to Philosophy for Children (P4C) and the opportunity the school has given me to engage in some involvement that makes governorship rewarding. I recently attended a P4C INSET session from 3.30 – 5.30pm for all of the teaching staff including the Teaching Assistants and the Head. In contrast to some obviously exhausted teachers, it was easy for me to be enthusiastic and keen to learn. As ever, the teachers rose to the challenge and they too engaged effectively.

So as to keep this article as short as possible please Google, ‘P4C’. There are masses of information on-line.

My first surprise was that the INSET was presented by a self-employed ‘trainer’, whose cost was entirely met from the hard-pressed delegated budget of the school. She was excellent, but I could not help reflecting on the contrast with the early 1970s nationwide LEA roll-outs of ‘Nuffield Science’, with INSET usually led by an LEA ‘Science Adviser’. Science teachers were provided with the ‘Teacher Guides’ and the science prep rooms and stores of every secondary school in the country became stuffed with expensive, brilliantly designed, purpose commissioned, new practical apparatus and demonstration gizmos that I was not only still using to good effect when I retired as a science teacher in 2003, but which I had relied on being available in all the other schools in which I had taught science in the intervening years of my career.

Although the pedagogy of Nuffield Science was flawed by the ‘discovery learning’ approach, which neither reflected ‘the scientific method’ nor how children effectively learn science, without that huge one-off investment in practical science apparatus later significant improvements in science teaching, including Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE), would not have been possible.

Although I came along knowing little about P4C, from the very start of the INSET I recognised much that was very familiar to me, but not to most of the teaching staff, with the possible exception of the head. The P4C motto reminded me of the Nuffield science motto.

I listen and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand

The theoretical underpinnings are shared with CASE, with its emphasis on Vygotskian ‘social learning’ in mixed ability groups. Also present are, cognitive dissonance, metacognition and pupil/pupil and pupil/teacher debating, in which pupils acquire the confidence and skills needed to verbalise their metacognitive processes and to share them,  citing evidence and examples, so as to argue effectively for a point of view.

This first INSET session involved our adult group taking part in some P4C exercises designed for children. In CASE the starting point is a practical activity that generates observations and results that are challenging to explain. In P4C there is a ‘stimulation’ that serves the same purpose. We used a well known children’s story about ‘The Other’ that explores notions and justifications for social exclusion and inclusion. Our adult group was soon engaged in arguing strongly for different points of view. It was easy to envisage that  pupils would become similarly engaged. I was reminded of the post by ‘Disappointed Idealist’ that I wrote about in this article.

We were also shown video clips of 8/9 year-old children, who had been exposed to a lot of P4C teaching, debating profound issues with astonishing levels of confidence and rhetorical ability. For example, there was a debate about whether your brain was (just) an essential organ of your body (like your heart or lungs) or was more than that. How philosophical can you get?

I came to realise that P4C has been around for decades with many hundreds of teachers having been fully trained and become enthusiastic practitioners. The INSET leader stated that P4C has been proven to improve SATs results, but I am not sure that all the staff present were yet convinced. She argued that the mechanism was one of improved pupil confidence and ‘thinking skills’.

At the end of the session I argued that if a child became more capable of high quality metacognition, while combining that with the skill to verbalise and effectively communicate those arguments, then most observers would recognise (correctly) ‘a bright child’. In this article I discuss the pedagogy increasingly promoted by Academy and Free School Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), that rather than developing cognitive ability, the priority must always be paying attention to the teacher in a highly regimented manner within a threatening culture of fear of punishment. Such approaches are incompatible with the methods of CASE and P4C.

This is an extract from the teaching and learning policy of one such MAT.

Sit up straight

At [xxxxx]  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 [xxxxx] 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.

It couldn’t be more different from approaches that are proven to develop cognitive ability. Throughout this website and in my book I argue that making children cleverer will bring about better behaviour and engagement resulting in deeper, higher quality and longer lasting learning.

The problem for the English education system is that the [xxxxx] paradigm is embedded in the ideology of DfE, with OfSTED declining to take an independent view. An example is the ongoing controversy about ‘synthetic phonics’. See this article.

No-one at the DfE is showing interest in the potential for P4C or CASE to raise real education standards even though the evidence is ‘out there’ for all to find. At least the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is taking P4C seriously and has just published its recommendations for secondary science teaching that closely mirror CASEFor that matter, there is little evidence of the DfE showing much interest in any EEF research even though it is part taxpayer funded.



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EEF science recommendations apply far beyond science

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published a seven part guide to improving secondary science teaching.

It is excellent, and draws heavily from Shayer and Adey’s Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE).

I will concentrate my comments on the first part from the EEF guidance (in italics) because it is so counter intuitive. The six sections that follow are also sound, but are likely to be more familiar.

PART 1 Preconceptions: build on the ideas that pupils bring to lessons

Pupils construct their own explanations for phenomena and these ideas may differ from scientific explanations.

Cognitive conflict is an effective way of moving on pupils’ thinking, helping them to reconstruct their existing ideas

Misconceptions can be difficult to shift, but doing so can lead to big gains in learning, particularly for threshold concepts.

Cognitive conflict is at the core of the CASE approach. It is counter-intuitive because it discomforts the learner and the resulting dissonance, if not skilfully handled, can result in alienation and rejection of the entire subject and its teacher. A re-adjustment of the learning culture of the whole school, not just the science department, may be required if the potential gains are to be maximised.

The creation and encouragement  of cognitive conflict involves the selective substitution of  ‘small steps’, ‘practising’, ‘memorising’ and ‘revision’ based approaches, by the ‘mistakes-making’, ‘metacognitive’ and ‘social learning’ approaches needed for cognitive development. This is discussed here.

It is significant that the former ‘small steps’ approaches are often associated with the term ‘skills’ and this too can cause confusion that I discuss in this article.

While scientific concepts are often complex and cognitively challenging, the vital initial barrier for the learner is often that of a subconscious  ‘personal belief’. Newtonian dynamics abounds in examples. A footballer ‘feels’ that ‘impetus’ is being imparted to the ball when it is kicked. That fact that the ball may subsequently slow down seems ‘natural’ on account of the ‘fading’ of this impetus. The footballer may even have the skill to  impart ‘curvature impetus’ in order to ‘bend it like Beckham’. These deeply held beliefs in ‘agency’ may be very hard to shift and may seriously inhibit the understanding of the true links between force, energy and motion set out in Newton’s 1st Law of Motion.

The following is extracted from ‘A Taxonomy of Misconceptions‘ by by David Hestenes, Malcolm Wells, and Gregg Swackhamer.

The term ‘impetus’ dates back to pre-Galilean times before the concept was discredited scientifically. Of course, students never use the word ‘impetus – they might use any of a number of terms, but ‘force’ is perhaps the most common. Impetus is conceived to be an inanimate ‘motive power’or ‘intrinsic force’ that keeps things moving. This, of course, contradicts Newton’s First Law. Evidence that a student believes in some kind of impetus is therefore evidence that the First Law is not understood [my bold].

The ‘linear air track’ is an essential piece of science kit that fascinates pupils in demonstrating that moving objects ‘do not slow down’ of their own accord. This First Law is the threshold concept for accessing a huge chunk of inter-related physics. (An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.) Newton’s 2nd and 3rd Laws are more intuitively ‘believable’.

The necessary understanding cannot be ‘taught’ at all – it must ’emerge’ in an individual, personal, cognitive breakthrough – a ‘Eureka’ moment that is immensely satisfying and pleasurable. Well taught science students should be experiencing more ‘Eureka’ type pleasure than they do cognitive dissonance, while also coming to realise that the former is still usually preceded by plenty of the latter: no cognitive pain – no cognitive gain. The gain/pain ratio can be effectively mediated through co-operative ‘social learning’. The Nobel science laureate Richard Feynman described this process as ‘the pleasure of finding things out‘.

Parts 2-7 of the EEF guide provide more excellent discussion and suggestions for how teachers can help their students attain their own Feynman and Archimedes type ‘Eureka’ moments.

I now come to my criticism of the EEF publication. It is not that there is anything wrong with it – quite the reverse. But the seven points don’t just apply to science. The links to maths are obvious, but also to the rest of the curriculum including the arts and the humanities. For example, Chapter 8 of ‘Learning Intelligence’ edited by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey is entitled, ‘Creating a CA programme in the Arts: the Wigan LEA Arts project’.

Moreover, there are interventions praised in the EEF toolkit that are not subject specific that find their way into the Science Teaching Recommendations, for example, Collaborative learning, Metacognition and Self Regulation.

I suspect that EEF is itself becoming aware of the limitations of the ‘Toolkit’. On 26 April 2018, EEF published its seven part guide to metacognition, which is also excellent.

In my view the problem with the ‘Tookit’ is the ‘scoring’ of the interventions in terms of ‘extra months of progress achieved’. We are back within the ‘skills’ paradigm, where any progress is expected to be gradual and steady. But such progress can be permanently blocked as a result of subconscious personal belief trumping any amount of ‘telling and explaining’ by the teacher and ‘listening and practising’ by the learner. The personal cognitive breakthroughs achievable by the skilled mediation of cognitive dissonance by an expert teacher can overcome cognitive barriers that can otherwise block floods of understanding measured in the years of ‘not getting’ maths and science so often boasted about by the non-scientific component of C P Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’, that still dominates journalism, literature and the arts.

Having spent a large part of my teaching career at The Bosworth College, close to the Bosworth Battlefield in Leicestershire, for me one of the most astounding examples of a cognitive breakthough resulting from decades of metacognition, cognitive conflict, debate and the joy of confirmation through experimentation/excavation, has to be the finding of the body of Richard III under a car park in the City of Leicester. This astonishing event, which it has to be admitted also involved a huge amount of luck, has released a flood of new understanding of that critical period of English history that has in turn ignited further debate amongst Shakespearian scholars, not to mention fierce controversy over whether ‘Richard of York’ should have been interred in York rather than Leicester.

I am not knocking the parallel slow and steady acquisition of skills through example and practise across the full range of a broad and balanced secondary school curriculum. This is also obviously important for scientists, where practical experimental skills are usually essential.

The point I am trying to make in this article is that the teaching methods for deep understanding recommended for science teaching by EEF, are as powerful in history and archaeology as they are in physics and in all cognitively challenging subjects, as repeatedly demonstrated during the research careers of Professors Michael Shayer, Philip Adey and others in the Cognitive Acceleration movement.

It is a pity that EEF does not appear to have recognised this.

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Definitive research that shows teaching for cognitive development can permanently raise general intelligence in pupils of all abilities

This 1999 paper by Professor Michael Shayer is of enormous significance for the future of the English education system and the way that school students are taught in our classrooms. It emerges at a critical time, when the UK government, through academisation, is stepping up the pressure on schools to enforce teaching through a diametrically opposed ideology, which is more likely to stunt than to promote cognitive growth.

Shayer’s paper is concise, clearly written and readily accessible to the non-specialist reader. I recommend that it is read now, before progressing with the rest of this article.

My commentary

 Page 1


This report presents data from the 1999 GCSE results of schools which started to use ‘Thinking Science’, the curriculum materials of the Cognitive Acceleration though Science Education (CASE) project, in 1994 assisted by a 2-year PD programme offered at King’s College, London. CASE is delivered in Years 7 and 8, so this is the most recent opportunity there has been to investigate the long term effect of CASE on students’ academic achievement. Data from eleven schools were analysed. Selection of the sample is described and brief characteristics of the schools given. Unlike previous reports on the effects of CASE, this sample includes selective schools with relatively high-ability intakes. The method of Value-Added analysis employed is to look at the mean ability of a school’s intake to Year 7 and at the mean grades and percentage grade C and above obtained in GCSE examinations taken at the end of Year 11. For a set of control (non-CASE) schools it is possible to establish what mean GCSE grades would be expected from any level of intake. Note how closely, in the control schools data, the schools’ GCSE results for a school are determined by the level of the school intake at Y7. The extent to which the actual GCSE grades obtained by the CASE schools exceeded these expectations can then be measured. The analysis is shown for GCSE science, mathematics, and English. In every subject and for every school CASE seems to have created real ‘Added Value’ on academic achievement, and in the great majority of instances this reaches statistical significance. The long-term, far-transfer effect of CASE is once again confirmed, and is now extended to include selective schools with above-average ability students.

Page 2

In order to assess whether a school’s GCSE results are good or not it is necessary to compare them with the results of schools with similar Year 7 intakes. This means that we need some common measure of the ability of students entering the school. The way this is done for the CASE project is to administer a Piagetian Reasoning Task (PRT) to the whole school intake soon after they  start Year 7. Similar results have been shown using CAT tests.

I assume CATs scores were not available for some or all of the schools.

PRTs have been shown to be good predictors of future learning in major school subjects, particularly in science and mathematics. Thus from the mean intake level for a school it is possible to estimate the most likely set of mean GCSE grades that will be obtained by that school.

This is the same method that I used to predict PISA scores on the basis of national IQs, in this article.

Page 3

We now come to the results. These are summarised in the charts (Figs 1-6). These bear a striking similarity to the Cumbria LEA GCSE results/CATs  chart , which can also be found in this article.

The schools on my chart correspond with the control schools on the Shayer charts. Shayer uses percentiles on the X axis, not standard scores, which is better, but crucially they all demonstrate the high correlations between the GCSE measures and the PRT/CATs scores, which is important confirmation of the inherent soundness of the argument that cognitive ability/IQ is the prime driver of GCSE attainment. The Shayer charts show (yet again) that this is true not just for science, which was the context for the CASE intervention, but also for maths and English.

Note also the huge range of intake abilities of the schools. School H is below the 20th percentile and school C is above the 65th. Shayer makes the important  point that this huge range is typical of the enormous differences in intake abilities of secondary school admission cohorts. In this, once again, the Shayer charts are very similar to the Cumbria chart. Professor Gorard’s recent work comes to the same conclusion in terms of Socio-Economic Status (SES)

Page 9

I will let the conclusion of the Shayer paper speak for itself. It is impossible to over-emphasise the huge significance of this piece of work.


The data presented in this report confirm the substantial effect of Cognitive Acceleration (CA) methods on students’ academic achievement.

There is a long-term effect – it lasts at least three years after the end of the CA intervention. There is also a far-transfer effect: although the CA reported here was delivered by science teachers in science lessons with activities set in a science context, the students who experienced the activities attained significantly higher grades in English GCSE.

By far the most likely mechanism by which this happens is that the CA activities have a fundamental effect on students’ general ability to learn, and that they can then turn this generally enhanced learning ability to bear on all school subjects.

This confirms the conclusion of the more recent work carried out in Finland.

But these data are more than just the latest in a long line of evidence for the long-term,  far-transfer effect of CA (see endnotes). For the first time, data from two selective schools have been obtained and although the sample is not large, it is sufficient to falsify the hypothesis that ‘CA only works with less able students’. If you look back over the figures and tables presented in this report, you will see that school B, a girls’ grammar school, and school C, a boy’s independent school, have consistently made amongst the largest gains in GCSE grades, beyond those even they would have expected.

The data of this report add significantly to the already strong evidence for the consistency and generalisability of the effect of Cognitive Acceleration.

‘Thinking Science’- The curriculum materials of the CASE project, by Philip Adey, Michael Shayer and Carolyn Yates. 2nd edition published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1995

‘The Long-term effects of Cognitive Acceleration on students’ school achievement’, November 1996 by Michael Shayer, Centre for the Advancement of Thinking, King’s College London, 1997

‘Really Raising Standards’. by Philip Adey and Michael Shayer, Routledge, 1994






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North-south schools divide not supported by evidence

This is the title of a Guardian article which appeared on 11 September 2018. The following (in italics) are excerpts.

Major study of 1.8 million pupils also challenges ministers’ claims children do better in academies and grammars.

Claims that schools in the north of England are worse than those in the south are based on myth and bad data, according to a large-scale research project that calls into question the education policies of successive governments.

The study also challenges the idea that selective grammar schools or academies are more likely to improve pupil progress overall than community comprehensives, tracing the progress of 1.8 million pupils, their social, family and economic backgrounds and the type of schools they attended.

The analysis of three annual cohorts of 600,000 pupils each was carried out by Prof Stephen Gorard, director of the Durham University evidence centre for education, who says he found no evidence that schools in the north or north-east are differentially effective or ineffective with equivalent pupil intakes.

This is important support for my arguments that the ‘attainment gap’ is an illusion and that northern schools are being unfairly criticised for low educational standards compared to schools in the south of England. The ‘north/south attainment gap’ claimed to exist by The Sutton Trust, The Social Mobility Foundation, the DfE, the National Schools Commissioner and virtually the entire English educational establishment is a fallacy. The actions taken by the government to ‘close the gap’ through market pressure on allegedly under-performing Northern schools from league tables and OfSTED  is counter productive and having the opposite effect to that which is intended. Professor Gorard’s conclusion is that the exam results of northern schools compared to those in the south accurately reflect the intake characteristics of those schools. He writes as follows.

“What my new analysis suggests is that schools in some areas are not doing a worse job, they simply do not have an equivalent mix of children,” he says. “The most important factor that determines school test and exam results is not the quality of teaching or leadership but who they teach, the proportion of pupils who are disadvantaged through poverty, family circumstances or special educational needs and most crucially the length of time they have been disadvantaged.”

Although Professor Gorard is only half right, this half which is correct is of enormous importance. For decades, both Labour and Conservative governments have dismissed such arguments as ‘making excuses for failure’ and that what is needed is for schools to appoint strong ‘Executive Principals’ to independent, market-oriented Academy and Free Schools, freed from the namby-pamby interference of Local Authority Education Departments and their ‘inspector advisers’ who have wasted their careers studying how children learn at university and applying it in their often considerable teaching experience. Professor Gorard has found that, contrary to decades of pro-Academy propaganda in which OfSTED has been deeply complicit (see Section 3.2 of my book, ‘Learning Matters’), these schools have performed no better than more poorly funded and resourced LA schools, and in some cases, spectacularly worse. The following is where Professor Gorard has, in my view, been misled.

“The most important factor that determines school test and exam results is not the quality of teaching or leadership but who they teach, the proportion of pupils who are disadvantaged through poverty, family circumstances or special educational needs and most crucially the length of time they have been disadvantaged.”

 It seems to be a classic example of, ‘putting the cart before the horse’. Schools that get poorer aggregated GCSE results do indeed take in a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils, but in terms of school attainment, they are disadvantaged by lower cognitive abilities. It is not that poverty reduces cognitive ability, but that lower parental cognitive ability results in poverty, and damaged family circumstances and special educational needs and lengthens the period of time for which cognitive development is likely to be stunted.

 I grew up on a huge 1950s South Birmingham Council Estate covering several square miles. Nobody told me I was a social housing child and there was no suggestion that living in a council flat disadvantaged me at school.

 I can see why any researcher would be led into this error. Whereas Socio-Economic Status (SES) data is everywhere, cognitive ability data is hard to find: hence there are any number of studies based on SES, but very few based on cognitive ability. But, the data are out there. The largest database is currently owned by the private company, GL Assessment,  which markets the Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). This company also acquired decades of data built up by NfER-Nelson, which previously marketed the CATs. GL Assessment is not bound by the Freedom of Information Act, and keeps its data secret. However, a valuable and highly illuminating nugget was posted on-line in 2010.

P10 of this report features valuable data giving mean cognitive ability scores linked to SES, ethnicity and special needs data.

During my Cumbria headship from 1989 until my retirement in 2003, I was  part of an LEA working group that administered the Y7 CATs testing of all Cumbria pupils. The LEA produced this chart that plotted the GCSE performance of the school against the mean intake CATs score. (I first published this chart elsewhere, changing the name of the county and my headship school.) The key features of the chart are the high correlation between intake CATs scores and GCSE performance and the fact that from local knowledge it was clear that the position of the school on the CATs score axis reflected the relative affluence of the school catchment.

In the last six months John Mountford and I have been researching the link between Free School Meals eligibility and SATs and CATs scores. CATs data have been hard to come by in the north of England as there are comparatively few schools that take them. However John was able to find a lot of data from schools along the generally prosperous M4 corridor. The relative affluence of school catchment areas makes little difference to the general pattern, which is that SATs scores are inflated compared to CATs and especially so in schools that have high proportions of FSM pupils. It was also almost always the case that the CATs scores compared to SATs, for FSM pupils were lower (and often much lower) than for non-FSM pupils. This is discussed in my article refuting the claims made by Dr Rebecca Montacute of the Sutton Trust. Some of the SATs/CATs data, that we obtained from schools using Freedom of information, are set out in this article.

Unsurprisingly, describing a cognitive ability deficit as a ‘disadvantage’ is discomforting, but cognitive ability can be raised, which is the hugely optimistic consequence of the recognition of the plasticity of general intelligence.

Professor Gorard concludes as follows.

“The data shows that despite all these whizzo ideas for subsets of schools, underneath it all we have reasonably good teachers and reasonably good schools across the country. Once we know the effect of long-term disadvantage on attainment, then we can direct money to help those children get to what should be a universal entitlement, for example, based on the length of time they have been eligible for free school meals.

“We have to determine through evidence what works best and provide it for everyone.”

Certainly we need to direct resources to combat disadvantage. But this means changing the priority of teaching and learning in all schools and for all pupils, from hitting exam results targets for league table purposes or to avoid falling below high stakes ‘floor targets’, to enhancing cognitive ability, targeting especially those pupils most in need of general cognitive gains.

This article describing a breakthrough in Finland shows what could be achieved.

Returning to the Cumbria LEA policy of Y7 CATs testing for all pupils, this was introduced in 1990 as part of the Local Management of Schools (LMS) formula. This contained a provision for ‘Non-statutory Special Needs’. All LEAs then provided significant extra funding to support pupils with learning difficulties short of those requiring a formal Statement. Unlike other LEAs this element of the Cumbria formula was driven not by FSM eligibility, but by CATs scores. There was a sliding scale of ‘pupil premium’ for all pupils with CATs scores of less than one Standard Deviation below the mean of 100 (85). A high proportion of these pupils were eligible for FSM and had other SES issues, but it was the low CATs scores which the school could directly address that resulted in their SEN, not their SES issues that the school had little influence over.

CATs scores can also draw attention to ‘specific learning difficulties’ like dyslexia. Pupils where there were large differences in scores on the three CAT sub-tests were always further assessed by our SENCO, supported by excellent LEA SEN advisers. This often led to Statements for specific learning difficulties. The use of FSM as a proxy for low CATs scores has driven the ‘attainment gap’ fallacy that Professor Gorard has only partially debunked.

Teaching approaches for the acquisition of deep understanding and cognitive development are well established in the UK. However, they are not promoted by the DfE, nor are they adopted by most Academy and Free Schools. Part 5 of my book, discusses many of them. I also recommend the ‘Lets Think‘ and ‘Slow Education‘ websites.










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Some consequences of GCSE grade inflation

GCSE is the ‘common exam at 16+’ created by the merging of the GCE and CSE systems. I entered university in 1965 on the basis of the national ‘matriculation’ entry requirements. These required GCE passes (C+) in five subjects including English, maths and a foreign language, plus a minimum of two A Levels at grade E or above.

This September, places were available at, for example, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) for the BSc Midwifery course. The published entry requirements are five GCSE passes at grade 4 or above plus two A Levels or an appropriate BTEC qualification, although it is also made clear that entry to this degree course is still possible by other routes without these qualifications. These entry requirements for midwifery degrees appear to apply to all English universities.

A first impression  might be that not that much has changed, but this is far from the case. Let us concentrate on the GCSE requirements. In 1988, when the GCSE was created it had a seven point scale from A – G. This historically would have covered only the top 60% of the ability range, but the raising of the school leaving age to 16 in 1972 required the CSE, and hence the GCSE, to be accessible to the full comprehensive intake. Grades D – G became ‘level 1 passes’ and grades A – C became ‘level 2 passes’.

The key fact is that in 1965 a GCE C grade was just three rungs down from an A which incorporated the maximum possible attainment, on the seven rung scale. The A grade GCSE was later devalued by the introduction of A*, and in 2017 by the 1 – 9 numerical GCSE grades, which in effect added A** (grade 9) above A*. These changes were in themselves inflationary because they devalue the status of the intermediate grades, especially A and C. Should teaching and learning standards in our schools have risen so high that increased proportions of students were gaining the A grade, then plainly the exams needed to be harder. The alternative explanation is that as a result of competition for entries between the examination boards, the exams actually got easier, and this was the reason for the increase in A grade passes. The 1997 Labour government was especially cavalier about GCSE standards, as evidenced by its promotion of the GNVQ scam. In 2015 I  wrote about how marketisation-based  ideologies always lower educational standards, while creating the illusion of raising them.

Now fast forward to 2018, thirty years after the 1988 Education Reform Act, which provided the legal framework for the marketisation of the English education system based on encouraging competition between schools and privatising the GCSE examination boards, which then began to compete with each other to sell their syllabuses and examinations to schools. GCSE exam entry fees began to rise, eventually becoming a significant drain on the budgets of secondary schools following the imposition in 1990 of Local Management (LMS).

I have chosen midwifery as an example of potential damage to society caused by educational qualification inflation.  It is a profession, like doctors and airline pilots, where life and death decisions frequently need to be made as a normal part of the job.

Recall that in 1965, GCE (later GCSE) grade C, was just three rungs down from the highest rung (A), on a seven rung ladder. In 2018, GCSE grade 4 (C) is six rungs down a nine rung ladder. This implies that the minimum cognitive ability percentile needed to become a midwife could have halved. But it gets worse. Back in 1965, our teachers told us that the C grade pass mark in GCE was about 40%. In 2018, according to their website, in the Pearson GCSEs the grade 4 (C) boundaries in the higher tier exams were:

maths – 21%

combined science (double award) – 25%

In 2017 it was even worse.

What this means is that in 2018 school leavers who got wrong answers or failed to answer 4/5 of the paper in maths and 3/4 in science (presumably the harder questions), are gaining access to midwifery degree courses. A high proportion of NHS maternity units are ‘midwifery-led’ and not supervised by obstetric consultants.

In Scotland entry to midwifery training requires SQA Highers with minimum grades BBBC including English and Biology or Human Biology. Highers are equivalent to English AS Level qualifications.  They have a four grade scale  A – D, of which C+ is regarded as a pass. So in Scotland entry requirements are much higher than in England, suggesting  a far higher minimum cognitive ability percentile than in England.

Readers of my articles will know that I believe that Piaget’s Formal Operational cognitive level is of great significance for the ability to make rational decisions on the basis of evidence. While a majority of Scottish midwifery trainees will be at this Piagetian level, this is now much less likely to be the case in England.

We all know that there is a huge shortage of midwives, which is already worsening as a result of BREXIT, but I hope no-one is going to argue that, instead of the higher tier GCSE, the  foundation tier courses, designed for less cognitively able students, are appropriate for school leavers aspiring to midwifery degrees.

I have recently read a book by a retired American obstetrician, Amy Tuteur MD, entitled ‘Push Back – guilt in the age of natural parenting‘.

Interestingly, the Amazon review responses are completely polarised. Overall it gets three stars, but 55% of the reviews award five stars with 45% awarding the minimum of one star, with very few in between.  Here are examples.

***** This book is absolutely essential reading for anyone who values evidence-based argument and solid science over the unexamined ideologies of the present-day natural-childbirth and attachment-parenting movements. 

* Scaremongering, non evidence based and disempowering. Trust your instincts and push back against this!

This reflects the tensions in the English NHS between obstetricians, most midwives and a well organised and deeply embedded minority of ‘natural childbirth’ advocating midwives inspired by an extreme form of feminism. Amy Tuteur writes:

[the latter] are fond of catchphrases like ‘trust birth’ and ‘pregnancy is not a disease’. They insist that obstetrics has ‘pathologised’ childbirth and [they] can display a shocking and callous fatalism by dismissing infant deaths with the dictum that, ‘some babies are not meant to live’.

The 2015 Kirkup investigation into the deaths of babies and mothers in the Furness General Hospital maternity unit of Morecambe Bay trust found that 11 babies and one mother had died avoidably. The Kirkup Report  identified that an “over-zealous pursuit of the natural childbirth approach” was a factor in the deaths.

Ten years have passed since the Morecambe Bay investigation, and its wide ranging conclusions and recommendations, all accepted by the Morcambe Bay NHS trust. Its maternity services have been transformed for the better. The Chief Executive was awarded a Damehood and moved on to take charge of a much larger NHS trust. The head of midwifery has also been promoted out of the trust and, crucially, the ‘natural birth’ ideology presently no longer dominates maternity care at any of its maternity units.

Yet earlier this year an apparently even greater scandal emerged at Shropshire and Telford NHS trust. This was reported by the BBC on 31 August 2018.

The BBC gave this example of a mother whose baby had died.

Throughout her 36 hour-long labour at the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford [the mother] was refused a caesarean section several times and had a natural birth during which her son’s shoulder was trapped.

On the same date the Daily Mail published an article from which the following is extracted.

More than 60 babies and mothers are feared to have died or suffered devastating harm at a maternity unit. An investigation began last January into 23 suspicious incidents at the Shrewsbury and Telford hospital trust. But the Mail can reveal that this number has almost trebled to an estimated 63.

The vast majority of the cases involve the deaths of babies and mothers during childbirth. The rest include babies suffering lifelong harm. Some parents say they were pressured into natural births in midwife-supervised units.

Given that lessons are apparently not being learned from the Morecambe Bay tragedy despite the comprehensive report of Dr Kirkup, and that the ‘natural birth’ movement is still promoting home births and midwifery-led NHS maternity units, is it appropriate that GCSE grading decisions imposed by the government should be further lowering the bar for admission to midwifery degree courses?


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Exclusions and extreme punishments are becoming the norm in the English education system

The Guardian of 2 September 2018 carried this story from which I quote as follows (in italics).

Parents have criticised the use of isolation booths at secondary schools across the country, after concerns were raised about the “zero-tolerance” behaviour policies run by some academy trusts.

Guardian analysis found this week that 45 schools in England excluded at least 20% of their pupils in the last academic year. The Outwood Grange Academies Trust – which runs 30 schools across Yorkshire, the Humber and the east Midlands – ran nine out of the 45.

Outwood Academy Ormesby in Middlesbrough topped the list, with 41% of its pupils receiving at least one suspension in the last academic year.

Parents with children at schools in the trust raised concerns that, as well as the high levels of exclusions, many schools were also using “consequences rooms” – small booths in which a child sits alone and in silence for hours on end as punishment for breaking school rules.

According to Outwood Grange Academies Trust’s behaviour policy, “the rule when in detention and in the consequences room is occupy and ignore”.

“Students cannot sleep or put their heads on the desk. They must sit up and face forward,” it adds.

When in the booths, children are not allowed to “tap, chew, swing on their chairs, shout out, sigh, or any other unacceptable or disruptive behaviour”.

“You will be allowed to go to the toilet up to a maximum of three times during the day (maximum five minutes per visit),” the policy reads. “You must use the closest toilet and go directly there and back. You will be escorted to get your lunch, but you must stay silent.”

Pupils may complete work they have brought themselves but they do not have to.

Another mother, whose son goes to a school in Yorkshire run by the Delta Academies Trust, said he was “just a regular kid” and there had never been serious concerns raised about his behaviour before the school’s new discipline policy was introduced.

“Then he got 22 hours in an isolation booth in one week and he was just an absolute mess,” she said. “He came out at the end of the day and he didn’t look well. His legs were shaking and he could hardly string a sentence together. He looked completely done in.

The ‘isolation booth’ punishment described in the Guardian article appears to go further than ‘solitary confinement’, which is banned for children under a UN Convention.

In December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted the Nelson Mandela Rules, the revised 122 Rules of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The Mandela Rules “represent a universally accepted minimum standard for the treatment of prisoners, conditions of detention and prison management, and offer essential practical guidance to prison administrations.” The Mandela Rules state that solitary confinement “shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review.” The revised UN Rules also reiterate that solitary confinement should be prohibited for children.

According to the Guardian article the ‘small booths’ used to ‘isolate’ the child, not only restrict the vision of the child, but a strict posture is required to be maintained at all times during the many hours over which the child may be detained in this way. (Students cannot sleep or put their heads on the desk. They must sit up and face forward – children are not allowed to tap, chew, swing on their chairs, shout out, sigh, or any other unacceptable or disruptive behaviour).

‘Solitary Confinement’ as defined in the prison system refers to locking the prisoner in a cell and denying them human contact, but they are presumably allowed all the other freedoms denied to children forced to occupy these isolation booths. Presumably the consequence for a child getting up and walking away from the booth, or a parent going up to the school and insisting on their liberation would be permanent exclusion and the consequent loss of the right to a normal education. The child would be referred to the Local Authority, probably found a place in a Pupil Referral Unit and so denied access to mainstream teaching with disastrous implications for life chances, not to mention mental health. Local parents would know this from the school’s exclusion record.

The Guardian article goes on as follows,

Like Outwood Grange, the Delta Academies Trust, which runs 46 schools across the country, said pupils were given a number of warnings before being put in isolation and that wraparound support was provided for them.

“It is not unusual in secondary schools for students to have periods of time in isolation as a result of persistent defiance and disruptive behaviour,” said a spokesperson.

“This is the case in both local authority schools and academies and is an effective measure to reduce low-level disruption and truculent behaviour, which is widely reported as having a deleterious effect on the quality of education in our country. Obviously students who are in isolation will complain they don’t like it; that is because it is a punishment for disrupting other children’s education.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is up to schools to decide what forms of discipline they adopt, as long as they are lawful and used reasonably. If a school chooses to use isolation rooms, pupils’ time in isolation should be no longer than necessary and used as constructively as possible.”

Has the DfE considered whether these isolation booths are ‘rooms’ or in fact smaller confined spaces in which natural instinctive actions of children are forbidden? The Academy in question appears to rule out any educational function for the isolation booths, which are for punishment purposes only. Does this meet the DfE requirement that ‘forms of discipline’ should be as constructive as possible? What happened to the principle of ‘in loco parentis’? Does it still apply? Teacher training taught us that any actions we took in our role as teachers must be consistent with the actions of a reasonable parent. How should social workers judge the use of ‘punishment booths’ by the parents of teenage children?

I have written many articles relevant to this Guardian story. Here are a few.









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