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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Schools should be genuinely child-centred – Part 2: Why this is always threatened by marketisation

This is essentially an issue typical of historical interactions between the private and public sectors. It is currently topical in the English education system because the DfE’s marketisation and Academisation policy is now the mainstream educational ideology based on the notion that it is only free market competition that can provide the incentives necessary to raise standards. Unfortunately the incentives in question always include a number that are seriously perverse, such that the result is the lowering rather than raising of education standards.

I am not arguing that public/private partnerships necessarily result in bad outcomes, just that they usually do. The existence of the odd successful example does not therefore invalidate this proposition. The most risky scenario is always where the funding of the ‘enterprise’ is provided entirely by the taxpayer. The negative outcomes (for the taxpayer) do not have to take the form of siphoning off public money into private bank accounts, although this is common enough. In education, the taxpayer provides the ‘magic money tree’ used to fund the ‘executivisation’ of managers that is used to justify grossly inflated ‘performance-based’ salaries. In the NHS the parallel development to Academisation was the creation of ‘Foundation Trusts’. In schools the downside is falling education standards. In the NHS it is the huge and expensive proliferation of quangos and recurrent patient safety scandals resulting in serious harm and deaths. The common factor is the perverse incentives that inevitably arise from marketisation and the executivisation of management that it generates.

Before addressing the specifics of education, I will relate a personal experience of private sector malpractice in relation to public contracts. In the summer of 1964 I was half way through my A Levels. Back then, 16 year-old school leavers could easily find adult jobs paying adult wages. This was to generate the huge ‘youth market’ with lots of spending power that came to characterise the 1960s.

A number of us signed on for a summer holiday job as building site labourers with the construction firm Bryant on the new Druid’s Heath estate near where I lived in south Birmingham. This was crazy. None of us had any experience in the building industry and we were completely useless. The last few thirteen story blocks of council flats were under construction. Every day was the same. We arrived at work in the morning, ate a bacon butty from the canteen and were then directed by the foreman to ‘get lost’ on the upper floors of  a tower block until it was time to ‘knock off’ and go home at the end of the day. These tower blocks were constructed on a rapid build system based on pre-cast concrete walls and floors bolted together. Most have now been demolished. We took no part in their construction, being directed to ‘hide’ in otherwise complete blocks that were being fitted out by carpenters and electricians. This was not without risk, as the very scary lift shafts were without lifts or doors. After a couple of weeks I was recruited into the site office to colour in ‘progress charts’. This was marginally less boring. So what was going on here? It seems unlikely that Bryant would be wasting the company’s money on employing us. Whatever the explanation, this was small beer compared to recent major scandals relating to the role of private companies in the misuse and lack of accountability in the spending of public money. The Grenfell Tower fire is probably the most shocking on account of the scale of the loss of life, but there have been any number of others. The Carillion collapse comes to mind.

So what is my point? Is it that the public sector, unlike the private sector, is never corrupt? No, but the nature of private business provides more perverse incentives, especially when the funding of the business comes from the public purse. In my 32 years as a teacher in five LEA state schools the only improper financial behaviour I ever witnessed was teachers paying for educational resources for their pupils out of their own pockets, which was and remains common.

My example is of a private company with a publicly funded contract, employing school age minors in a dangerous workplace with no regard for their health and safety.

My argument is that, because they can, many Academies and Free Schools fund their excessive management salaries and administrative costs by exploiting their freedoms over admissions and exclusions to recruit children of high ability and reject and/or ‘get rid’ of lower ability children and those with costly Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

Then there are the contracts with ‘Educational Supply and Services Companies’ that appear to have connections with Academy executives. All of this is only possible because of government failure to monitor and properly regulate state funded, but commercially independent Academy private companies, at the same time as persistently inflating their achievements while denigrating LA schools, which are attended by the majority of English children. See this report in Schools Week in April 2016. But more was to follow.

Then there is the shocking and escalating cost of ‘re-brokering’ Academies as the tally of failures discarded by Multi-Academy Trusts continues to rise. Here in Cumbria ‘Bright Tribe‘ comes to mind.

Janet Downs has for years been researching and reporting on DfE misinformation in relation to Academies. This is one of her latest summaries. OfSTED too has been complicit in failing to call Academies to account for abusive treatment of pupils, whic is unsurprising given that  OfSTED chief Amanda Spielman does not seem to understand the fundamental nature and structure of Academy governance in  stating “Given the power and influence of multi-academy trusts, it’s important that they are properly accountable to parents.” Educational journalist Warwick Mansell corrected this in his tweetThey are not accountable at all to parents.

So what would be the characteristics of a child-centred school? The answer is the same as what comes naturally in a child-centred familyall the kids are treated equally and they come first. For example, the developmental progress of all the school’s students must be equally important. In terms of (old) GCSE grades, boosting G to F, F to E to E, E to D, C to B and B to A must be demanding of the same share of the school’s resources and the time of the best teachers as D to C. Instead of aiming to distort the GCSE attainment bell curve distribution by boosting C grades at the expense of all the others, the curriculum policy of my headship school was to move the whole bell curve distribution to the right. This does raise issues of maximising the chances of students progressing to further or higher education, but it does not help students or society if they are crammed to jump exam hurdles without any semblance of deep understanding. On 29 January 2014 I posted an article on the Local Schools Network website with the provocative title, Is school improvement a good thing? This was one of the responses.

Roger – many thanks for your post – it contains so much of importance. I completely agree with you about the false concept of ‘school improvement’. I can give an example from my own experience. To get the percent of maths C+’s up the school employed a range of strategies including the following.

Pupils began studying the GCSE curriculum in Y7 and as soon as they were able to get a C they sat the exam (many of them in Y8). There were many, many resits until the magic C was achieved.

From Y9 the C/D borderline pupils were taught in small groups with multiple teachers – all other groups were larger with just one teacher (and the groups got bigger through the year after each round of exams).

Maths was given more time on the timetable at the expense of everything else. Maths teachers were ‘encouraged’ to provide daily ‘maths intervention’ classes in the morning before school and at the end of the day.

Pupils were rewarded for attendance with free take-away food. C/D borderline pupils were ‘paid’ with shopping centre vouchers if they got their C in Y10 instead of Y11.

Pupils were withdrawn from other lessons to do extra maths in the fortnight leading up to the exam.

Pupils were entered for multiple exam boards.

Pupils were entered for multiple routes (linear and modular) at the same time.

Private tutors were bought in by the school to work one-to-one with individual C/D borderline pupils.

The overall effect was to increase the percent getting C in maths but at the expense of higher and lower achievers in maths. It also impacts on the results in all other subjects because of loss of timetable allocation and withdrawal of students from classes on an ad hoc basis. The pressure on pupils to achieve the pass was immense, destructive and led to lower levels of commitment and motivation in other subjects. Regarding the relationship between use of equivalents and lower attainment in GCSE’s – your point about less skilled teaching staff being employed is correct, but a more important point is that once pupils get used to a much lower level of demand in the ‘equivalents’ lessons they often find it very difficult to raise their game to the level needed to perform in a more demanding subject. ‘Cut and paste’ assignments and poorly structured, low-level brush-stroke analysis is often sufficient in BTECs but is no good in academic subjects like history, English literature or physics.

When it comes to A Levels there should be no question of ‘pruning out’ the lower attaining student cohort at the end of Y12 in order to improve the school’s A Level performance figures. Lots of teenagers are ‘late developers’ in physical, emotional and cognitive terms. I was one such. I found Y12 of the two year A Level physics course almost impossibly difficult, but lots of ‘eureka’ moments occurred during Y13. I only really understood much of the A Level syllabus at a deep level when I came to teach it. One of my great heroes is Michael Faraday. He began his scientific career as a mere lab technician to Humphry Davy, but without his work the achievements of Maxwell and Einstein would have been impossible.

To maximise the development of all pupils the schools needs to have a ‘growth mindset‘ in its true meaning, not a perverted version now used to make the lives of lower attaining pupils miserable. It is also necessary to believe in ‘plastic intelligence‘.

In the late 1990s the English education system was hit by a devastating epidemic of bad education spawned by Tony Blair’s meetings with a small number of heads that believed they had discovered the holy grail of spectacular school improvement, now referred to as the Vocational Equivalent Scam, which was comprehensively debunked by the Wolf Report of 2011. About the only good thing Michael Gove did as Education Secretary was to implement the findings of this report. This sad and shocking era in our educational history is described in fully evidenced detail in Part 3, ‘Spectacular School Improvement’ of  my book.

In the 1980s, as curriculum Vice-Principal of a large Leicestershire Community College, I was very involved in the Conservative government’s Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI). Instead of encouraging 14+ students to narrow their curriculum by taking up educationally and vocationally useless 4 GCSE equivalent GNVQ (later BTEC) courses, in order to access the generous TVEI funding then available, it was necessary to do the opposite: require all students, boys and girls, of all abilities to follow the same, large, broad and balanced core curriculum that kept all career options open for as long as possible. In my headship school we used the same TVEI-based approach to provide the inspiration and cognitive challenge needed to develop our students to become not just better educated (with more girls following demanding courses in science and technology), but also cleverer and wiser in the process, by using the teaching methods of Shayer and Adey’s ‘Cognitive Acceleration’.

As a Cumbria head I was part of a working party that devised the LEA approach to the non-statutory SEN formula element of the delegated budget. This was based on the screening of all Y7 pupils using Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). Schools received allowances based on the number of pupils scoring below designated threshold levels. Our school CATs scores were very low with a mean score never greater than 85 (-1SD, 16th percentile), which meant that the average cognitive ability (general intelligence) of our intake was no greater than that of the lowest 16% of the general population. This was by far the lowest of all Cumbria schools by some margin and possibly the lowest of any comprehensive school in the UK. Nevertheless, all pupils followed the same academic curriculum. In KS4 all students studied the same core academic GCSE subjects of English (with most students also taking English literature), maths, double award science, integrated humanities, design & technology and French (with set 1 also taking German). There were just two Option subjects available out of music, drama, art (including pottery), food science and computer science. Non-exam information technology, personal social and health education (PSHE), careers, PE and games were also in the core curriculum, which was taught in mixed ability groups except for maths, science and French/German, which were taught in ability sets. RE was addressed in the integrated humanities course. All of the Options were taught in mixed ability classes. Much pastoral and School Council based work was carried out by form tutors in their mixed ability form groups.

We had a voluntary after-school ‘Study Club’ on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays that provided for a number of interest-based ‘clubs’ (eg Scrabble and short game Monopoly, cooking, sports team training and coaching, drama production rehearsals etc) There were also additional GCSE subjects including history, geography and general studies (in addition to core integrated humanities), physics or biology (in addition to core double award science) and GCSE PE. These additional GCSE classes mostly involved very small groups. For example, I taught the GCSE physics group of 4-6 students in my office. Our school also ran LEA supported community adult education classes in GCSE maths and English from 7.00 – 9.00 pm on weekday evenings. Our KS4 students could join these evening classes free of charge.  Our alcohol-free ‘Basement Bar’ leisure venue was open to our students and their friends Monday – Thursday every week. This was run by our School Council students and a part time qualified youth worker ‘Bar Manager’ paid by the school. A small number of adults joined the daytime KS4 art and pottery lessons working alongside the students.

We provided free musical instrument tuition (with loan of instrument) to any pupil with the necessary interest and talent. We also supported sporting talent. For example, although we did not have competitive Rugby League teams, we supported a residential training week with London Broncos for a talented Y11 student. As well as Netball teams, we were pioneers in girl’s Basketball, reaching the national finals in my last year as head. The school financed the coach travel for the team, school staff and parents to ‘away’ fixtures. We maintained a small stock of freshly laundered school uniform items that could be lent to parents.

How could the school finance all of this? By making a virtue of our huge involvement in SEN teaching and support. The very low intake CATs scores resulted in a large boost to the delegated budget, such that we were by far the best funded secondary school in the county. Some Cumbria heads resented this and for a while the LEA allowed representatives from other schools to inspect our CATs testing sessions to quash suggestions that we were deliberately sabotaging the performance of our pupils, which was of course nonsense. We also actively encouraged parents to seek SEN statements, with our SENCO supporting parents at SEN tribunals when necessary. Some of our very large SEN generated income was used to support the mainstream curriculum that included extra provision for our small number of very able students. The LEA was not happy with this, wanting individual pupil-based accountability for the SEN-based sums generated.

We argued that our approach was justified because although there was some limited withdrawal from lessons, the success of our SEN work was based on the recognition of the importance of the social plane for effective learning (Vygotsky). This required participation in the school’s mainstream teaching philosophy of encouraging shared metacognition though peer-teacher and peer-peer interaction. Our School Council played a vital role in establishing this learning culture. This cannot be emphasised enough and is described at length in this article.We trained our own Teaching Assistants on our accredited NVQ3 course. Some of these eventually undertook teacher training and obtained Qualified Teacher status.

In this ongoing pedagogic argument with the LEA, we were supported by a visiting HMI. Note the recent views on this subject by Professor Becky Allen, who asserts that the current Pupil Premium accountability regime is ineffective and needing of reform in accordance with our approach.

Despite our very low mean CATs score intake, the proportion of B, A and A* GCSE grades increased year on year. The results in French and German were the best in the town. In a number of GCSE subjects we often had students in the exam board’s ‘top  five’ in the country. The local Rotary Club ran an annual school ‘debating competition’ and a university challenge type general knowledge quiz. We often won these, such that the judges were accused of ‘working class bias’ by some the schools from the posher parts of the town. Many of our students have gone on to high performing professional careers, but respect for privacy prevents me giving identifiable examples.  In November 2018, I was invited to a school reunion event in a town centre social club. I was amazed at how far some of our ex-students had travelled. There was a Head of Department in a large Scottish School and a senior member of the Royal Household! The local ex-students were very pleasant and positive about their school experiences, as they always are when I meet them in the Barrow Aldi.

I particularly remember when a group of us northern heads were summoned to a meeting with the newly appointed Education Secretary David Blunkett, somewhere in Whitehall. His opening gambit was to ask us ‘what we were doing running schools that were so bad that we would never send our own children to them’. Our son was a pupil in my school at the time and went on to become a national leader in his eventual professional career. That was just the start of New Labour’s disastrous mismanagement of the education system as Thatcher’s flawed marketisation reforms were embraced with more vigour than Keith Joseph and her government ever managed.

Just as parents fight for the interests of their children, a child-centred school should surely fight for the interests of their pupils.

After the Balkan wars in which there was UK military intervention, a number of refugee families from Kosovo were moved into temporary communal accommodation in Ulverston. They were later re-housed in Barrow and the Cumbria LEA appointed an excellent community liaison officer in Barrow to help the families to integrate and enrol their children into local schools. The families organised themselves into a group with a small committee of spokespersons that had some English. They visited all the local primary and secondary schools and then made the group decision to enrol all the children in our school and our nearest primary feeder. The children had limited English learned at school as a second language and were represented in almost all of the year groups in our school. The families were Muslims and along with their children, had suffered varying degrees of trauma during the war. They all rapidly became fully integrated in the school and the local community making no special religious demands. All of the children were delightful, did not self identify through headscarves or in any other way, were well behaved, sociable and generally more able than the school average. They integrated fully, were accepted into friendship groups and made rapid academic progress helped by extra English as a second language tuition provided by the LEA.

After a few months one of the families told us they were relocating to Manchester to join a larger Kosovar community there. A few weeks later they were back, reporting bullying at the new school and hostility from the host community.

Eventually the eldest of our Kosovar students, twin boys, moved up to Y11. I taught them science. They were very popular, hard working, able and forecast to attain good GCSE grades. The family wanted to settle in the UK so that the boys could go to university. However the Home Office had other ideas. The family received a letter threatening to deport them back to Kosovo now that hostilities had ceased. They were eventually required to attend an immigration tribunal in Leeds. I accompanied them to provide character references and support. I was cross examined with some hostility by the Home Office counsel. He accused me of having the ulterior motive of wanting to retain the children in our school for the benefit of the school. I happily concurred, adding that the family were also an asset to Barrow and to the UK in general. They were given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. I am not sure what happened to all the other families and their children, but I hope they too remained and made successful new lives for themselves in the UK.

There is so much more I could write on this subject, but this is already a very long article. I will conclude by returning to the title. I hope I have outlined what can be achieved through ‘child-centred’ comprehensive schooling and that I have explained why these advances in educational attainment can never be achieved in a marketised education system that is always compelled to prioritise the interests of the school before that of its individual pupils. I live in hope that not all of the Alfred Barrow School achievements will be lost for ever and that a genuine child-centred education system will eventually re-emerge.

I write about how this could come about here.





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Schools should be genuinely child-centred – Part 1: special educational needs and safeguarding are connected

Why are increasing numbers of children being physically restrained in mainstream and special schools?

On 25 February 2019 TES carried a story about physical restraint of school pupils. The DfE commented on the story as follows.

“At times, it may be necessary to use reasonable force to restrain a pupil – for example, to break up a fight in order to protect teachers and other pupils”

Fair enough, nothing new there and no-one would argue with that, but then on 26 June, the physical restraint of schoolchildren was featured on Ch4 News.

It referenced a concerning January 2019 report by the Challenging Behaviour Foundation which mainly concerns practices in Special Schools, but then I played the Ch4 News clip again and noted that the first parent interviewed, ‘Viv’, clearly stated that her child was a pupil in a mainstream primary school. When she questioned her son about an incident in which he suffered injury from being restrained by two teachers, he had great difficulty identifying the occasion she meant from his routine experience of regular, painful, often prolonged restraint.

I was head of an inner urban comprehensive secondary school for 14 years, retiring in 2003. Our school admitted a high proportion of  pupils with a wide variety of Special Educational Needs (SEN). Restraint was never used in our school as a classroom behaviour control strategy. In fact, I had never heard of such a thing in my entire 32 year career as a teacher. Our own children, all born in the 1970s, not only never reported being restrained at school, they had never witnessed it applied to any other pupil. This is important, because if Viv’s son had indeed been subject to systematic physical restraint on a large number of occasions, then this must have been witnessed by hundreds of other pupils creating a chilling school culture of fear that is profoundly inhibiting of quality, developmental education. So what is going on? Is this a particular feature of Academisation? Is OfSTED aware of it?

There have been huge cuts in funding and support for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN)

On taking up my present junior school governorship, the greatest shock has been the dramatic reduction in SEN funding and provision, with the school largely having to fund such support from the delegated budget. The 1981 Education Act had brought about major reforms and to a considerable extent also triggered the resourcing needed to support the expensive Statementing system, and later following the 1988 Education Act, the Non-Statutory SEN element of LEA delegated budget funding formulae.

This comprehensive and detailed NUT report sets out the progress that resulted from the 1981 Act, so making clear the scale of the current retraction of LA support and the persisting severe under-funding that followed from the austerity policies of the 2010 Coalition government.

Do children now need safeguarding against the actions of their schools?

I am asking who is now taking effective responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of our schoolchildren while they are attending their schools? This especially applies to Academies where LA Social Services are reluctant to intervene when they certainly would if neighbours reported such treatment by parents. My teaching career began in 1971, when the ‘In Loco Parentis’ principle made it clear that safeguarding was the responsibility of schools and teachers. This was reinforced by the spirit of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, which imposed a general statutory ‘duty of care’, but who would have imagined that 45 years on children, and especially those with SEN, could be in need of protection from the abusive actions of their schools?

This was also the theme of a follow-up feature on Ch4 News on 27 June 2019 in which presenter Jackie Long stated:

They are barely, it seems, through the school gates before getting excluded – pupils as young as five years old who are being sent out of mainstream education. Extraordinary new figures out today reveal almost 6,000 pupils between the ages of five and ten are in pupil referral units or alternative provision across England – an astonishing increase of 85 per cent since 2011. 

Can excluding children so young from school ever be justified and what has happened to them since? The answer is even more shocking. The Education Select Committee Report of July 2018 stated:

Pupils in alternative provision should be able to access GCSEs and technical
qualifications. However, we were told that 1% of children in alternative provision get five good GCSEs with English and maths but 99% do not. A high proportion of offenders detained in youth custody and prisons have been permanently excluded from their schools. As schools are well aware of these disastrous outcomes, it is increasingly being argued that the unjustified excluding of children from school is abusive.

By the time of our 1998 OfSTED (the last under my headship), after the introduction of our ‘behaviour curriculum’ and School Council based policies, all exclusions, fixed term and permanent, had for some time been reduced to zero. This inspection resulted in a very favourable report. The school also passed its next OfSTED inspection six years later in 2004, a year after my retirement.

Is it ever justified to administer drugs to control the behaviour of school pupils?

This first became an issue in my headship school in the mid 1990s, when we admitted a boy into Y7 who had been diagnosed with ADHD. The School Medical Officer prescribed Ritalin. This was effective in that he became easier to teach at school and caused less stress to his parents at home. However, I wasn’t happy with the decision and (unsuccessfully) challenged it with the LEA. Pupils with SEN (with and without Statements) formed a large proportion of our intake. I argued that this boy should have had an SEN Statement to pay for in-class support from a trained Teaching Assistant, in the same way that other Statemented pupils were supported by the school. Ritalin prescriptions were much cheaper, and his parents supported the medication, but where was the evidence that they were safe in the long term?

That was back in the days when SEN was well funded and LEAs employed large teams of expert SEN advisers who worked with schools, so it is no surprise that since SEN funding has been so drastically cut along with the LEA specialist teams, the administering of behaviour controlling drugs, including Ritalin to ever younger schoolchildren appears to have hugely increased.

May children need protection from the actions of their parents?

I wrote about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as far back as 2014, stating that schools and Local Authorities needed to take the lead. Little seems to have changed. There has since been a tiny number of successful prosecutions, but more alarmingly, there are still no systematic policies in place for the screening of children and the detection of this life-changing abuse. The only way this can be achieved is through appropriately funded, democratically controlled Local Authorities, which must be required by law to maintain registers of all children living in their area. Such registers should contain information about the school attended and any issues of concern raised by the school or members of the community. GPs and hospitals should also be legally required to report signs of abuse.

LEAs used to maintain large teams of Education Welfare Officers (EWOs) with powers to enter schools, inspect registers  and raise issues with heads. In Cumbria they were extremely effective. They now barely exist and even LA schools have to ‘buy in’ their services using the delegated budget. It is not just FGM, but other forms of abuse inflicted by parents such as ‘breast ironing’ and forced marriages along with those inflicted by schools including abusive discipline and off rolling, that need LA empowered systems for them to be effectively addressed.

There is a relatively new development that rarely reaches the media. This concerns pre-pubescent children being given strong hormonal drugs to prevent the onset of puberty. This was addressed by the BBC. Here is a medical view that is reported in more detail here.

Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh  point to a recent and dramatic increase in young people receiving treatment for gender identity issues. One of many examples they use: Gender Identity Development Service in the United Kingdom saw a 2,000 percent increase in referrals in seven years—from 94 children in 2009-2010 to 1,986 in 2016-2017. While more and more gender-dysphoric children are getting treatment, the authors argue that very little is known about the full spectrum of psychological and physical consequences stemming from puberty suppression and cross-sex hormone therapy. While they often are pushed as a fully reversible, harmless, and cautionary treatment option, the reality, according to the authors, is that children, parents, and doctors are making decisions in scientific ignorance. Their paper challenges three key claims.

 First, that the treatment is reversible. Puberty blockers are presented as a “let’s just hold off puberty” solution, meant to delay the development of the most prominent features of a child’s biological sex while the child wrestles with his or her gender identity. But Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh argue that it remains unknown if regular sex-typical puberty will resume following suppression. Indeed, “there are virtually no published reports, even case studies, of adolescents withdrawing from puberty-suppressing drugs and then resuming the normal pubertal development typical for their sex,” according to the authors.

 Second, that the treatment is harmless. “Puberty suppression hormones prevent the development of secondary sex characteristics, arrest bone growth, decrease bone accretion, prevent full organization and maturation of the brain, and inhibit fertility,” Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh write in a Supreme Court brief filed in the Gavin Grimm case. They go on to list other possible side effects of cross-gender hormones, oral estrogen, and testosterone, including sterility, coronary disease, cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, and breast cancer.

Finally, that the treatment is cautionary. The authors note that the best, most-cited studies conclude that most children with gender dysphoria come to embrace their birth sex. But Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh warn hormone therapy often solidifies a child’s gender dysphoria, driving him or her to persist in identifying as transgender, instead of allowing for the likely result: growing out of it. “Gender identity for children is elastic (that is, it can change over time) and plastic (that is, it can be shaped by forces like parental approval and social conditions),” write the doctors, warning that if gender-affirming care causes children to continue identifying as the opposite sex, children will be exposed to hormonal and surgical interventions they otherwise would not need. Instead of accepting hormone suppression without question, Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh instead recommend treating it like what it is: a radical experimental therapy carried out on children.

At the age of 72 I am shocked by this. We have children, all now in their 40s. They have completely different abilities and personalities. We have many grandchildren. These are also quite different from each other. This is equally true of the children and grandchildren of other relatives and friends. In my teaching career I have taught large numbers of (non twin) siblings. It is unusual for them not to differ markedly in personalities, attitudes and dispositions. This is surely a general pattern that is widely observed in families.

It is the inevitable consequence of gene mixing through sexual reproduction, which dominates all life on this planet for a reason: the resulting genetic variation in offspring is favoured by the mechanisms of evolution.

Of course we love all our grandchildren in all of their diversity. Their parents equally taught them to love and respect themselves, making the most of their diverse talents. It is of direct relevance to this article that schools should have the same attitude to individual diversity. They must at all times be fully inclusive.

I recognise that the views of younger generations are changing and may be different, but the primary role of adults must surely be to encourage the healthy development of children and safeguard them from harm. Who is now protecting the children when adults make dubious decisions that threaten their welfare? The child health crisis arising from growing parental rejection of vaccination is another example.

The lower legal age limit for consenting to the making of permanent changes to one’s body is 18 (adulthood). This applies to having tattoos, regardless of parental consent. I cannot see why it should be easier for an emotionally  unstable child to chemically delay their puberty with parental consent than it is for them to unwisely get a tattoo that they may regret in later life.

The fact is that unlike gender, sex is binary, permanent and the chance consequence of whether an X or Y sperm gets to fertilise the egg of the mother. Why would any parent condone subjecting their daughter to the risks of hormonal drug therapy when so many opportunities have been opened up for adult women? A decision to marry a man and have his children is now a choice, not an automatic social expectation. Women can now aspire to be professional footballers or boxers, Chief Executives or Prime Ministers, film stars or High Court Judges.

Inevitably, a wide variety of views are held on this issue, but the Statutory Guidance is clear, from which I quote the following.

Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is defined for the purposes of this guidance as: 

  • protecting children from maltreatment 
  • preventing impairment of children’s health or development.

Administering drugs to delay the onset of puberty clearly impairs the development of the child. In a hospital setting a child with a life-threatening  illness may require such therapy. For example in the treatment of cancers, a parent is likely to consent to their child’s taking such drugs. Gender dysphoria in children remains controversial and is not life threatening. Whatever the views of parents and educationalists it appears that puberty delaying drugs are being increasingly administered to children with the consent of schools and some doctors, but in the absence of sufficient formal safeguarding. This cannot be right.

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Priests, parents or the state: who should be responsible for children’s education? – Part 3: the role of parents

In Loco Parentis

Throughout my teaching career the legal and professional advice to schools and individual teachers was at all times to act In Loco Parentis (as would a reasonable parent). This principle appears to give status to the role of parents, but in recent years government edicts have weakened this. Here are some examples. Would the following actions of a parent be reasonable?

Allowing their child to attend the marriage of their parents on a school day.

Allowing their child to attend the funeral of a sibling on a school day.

Taking their child on a much needed family holiday at a price they could afford in the last week of the Summer Term when nothing much is going on at school.

Withdrawing their child from SATs against the wishes of the school.

I would say, quite possibly, but the parents could be fined and the courts may imprison them if they refused to pay. This seems absurdly disproportionate. So we don’t hear a lot about In Loco Parentis these days.

School relationship and discipline policies

I grew up in a white working class community where the parental advice to me, if hit by a bullying child, was ‘was to hit them back as hard as I could’.

For 14 years I was headteacher of an inner urban, white working class secondary school where the parental culture sometimes conflicted with the school’s ‘relationships and anti-bullying policy‘.

I had no problem with insisting that parents instruct their children to comply with the school’s policies as supported by the governors and the ‘School Association’ (PTA). Eventually our students, through School Council, would usually persuade their parents that the school’s policy was the right approach and parents overwhelmingly supported it when quizzed by OfSTED inspectors.

But what about the extreme forms of school discipline that are spreading in Academy schools , which are supported by the government and unchallenged by OfSTED? Surely parents, not to mention Local Authority Social Services departments, should have a voice about the imposition of cruel and unreasonable punishments .

Religious Assemblies and RE

Should Roman Catholic/Muslim/Jewish parents be able to withdraw their children from school assemblies? It was never an issue in my headship school, because although we often invited local Ministers of Religion as guest speakers in our weekly Friday Assembly, it was on the condition of no prayers and no mention of God. We had a regular panel of such contributors who rose to the challenge brilliantly, enjoyed coming into our school and had excellent relationships with our students. Over the years we had many OfSTED inspectors present in our assemblies and no criticisms were ever made. Religious Education should comprise the factual study of the beliefs and practices of the many versions of Christianity practised in the UK together with the world’s major religions. This should be a vital, compulsory part of the curriculum for all pupils, especially for the children of parents that have a particular faith, because Ministers of Religion at places of worship cannot be relied upon to provide accurate factual information about other faiths.

The future of allegedly ‘failing schools’

There have been many parental campaigns against forced Academisation following OfSTED inspections. This is one example.  It is right that such parental resistance is spreading because there is growing parental concern about the competence and accountability of Academy Trusts such that there is growing parental support for the return of failing Academies to Local Authority control, which is strongly resisted by the government for ideological reasons.

It is surely right that local parents should have a say about whether private companies should be allowed to run their schools, rather than democratically accountable Local Authorities.

School governance

Sixty percent of English schools remain under the stewardship (not control) of Local Authorities (LAs). Parents have a well established legal role in the governance of LA schools (but not Academies). This is set out in the DfE document, The constitution of governing bodies of maintained schools Statutory guidance for governing bodies of maintained schools and local authorities in England, August 2017. The following extracts are relevant.

12. The governing body as a whole should take responsibility for understanding what parents think, while acknowledging that being parents themselves, parent governors have valuable knowledge and perspectives about the school to bring to bear in discussions and decisions and guarantee that there is always a link between governance and the parent community.

10. The governing body must operate, collectively, in the best interest of pupils, not as a collection of individuals lobbying on behalf of their constituencies.

18. While it is essential to build a strong and cohesive non-executive team, the most robust governing bodies welcome and thrive on having a sufficiently diverse range of viewpoints, such that open debate leads to good decisions in the interests of the whole school community. Notwithstanding the role of foundation governors in a faith designated school, governing bodies should be alert to the risk of becoming dominated by one particular mind-set or strand of opinion, whether related to faith or otherwise.

Sex education in Primary Schools

Anderton Park is a Birmingham LA maintained community primary school with no religious designation. Its governance is therefore subject to the 2017 Statutory Guidance. The governing board is responsible for the strategic direction of the school, including the delivery of the curriculum, raising standards and setting targets.  This responsibility includes monitoring the school’s Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) provision, ensuring this meets the needs of all pupils and reflects the community the school serves.

The current controversy surrounding the school has been extensively covered by the BBC and the Guardian. I strongly urge that these BBC and Guardian articles are read before continuing with this article. The context of parental protests appears to involve the Birmingham Pride march, the ‘Trojan Horse’ disputes of 2014 and the ‘No Outsiders’ teaching materials. Colin Diamond, the author of this ‘Schools Week’ article writes:

In 2014 the Trojan Horse episode brought national opprobrium to education in Birmingham. The proud tradition of leading-edge practice and innovation, which was particularly strengthened during the era when Tim Brighouse was chief education officer, had been undermined by people seeking to run inner city schools along Islamic principles. The defining feature of Trojan Horse was the infiltration of governing bodies with the aim of narrowing the curriculum and introducing teaching driven by the 2007 Muslim Council of Britain publication, ‘Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools’. The DfE’s Clarke Report and Birmingham City Council’s Kershaw Report both found substantial evidence of damaged governance, school leaders being undermined and pressure to introduce Islamic ideals.

This has echoes from my earlier article, which refers to literature from one such pressure group that seeks to target LA schools located within Muslim communities, where ‘white flight’ has resulted in their pupil populations becoming exclusively comprised of children with Muslim parents. Material published on the internet argues that such schools should be taken over by new Muslim Academy chains, within which all pupils and their teachers must adhere to the Muslim faith. It is easy to see why the proponents of exclusive schools for the children of Muslim faith parents want such schools to be Academies, because the Statutory Guidance for LA schools appears to prohibit just such a development. The following, from my article on ‘the role of the state‘ is therefore also relevant.

In my view, while there was need for reform, there is a great deal to be said in favour of LEAs. These were overseen by elected local councillors appointed to the powerful Education Committee. LEAs were led by a ‘Chief Education Officer’ or ‘Director of Education’. This post was always held by a person with professional experience at a high level in the world of education. Social Services Departments were separate, led by a Social Services Director.

Tim Brighouse was one such ‘highly able and experienced’ Director of Education of the Birmingham LEA. In Birmingham’s LEA days neither the current Anderton Park  controversy, nor the previous ‘Trojan Horse’ affair would have come about and this is why.

  1. LEAs had the power to define the ‘catchment areas’ of  their schools. The Birmingham LEA would have imposed ethnically and socially mixed catchment areas throughout the city. This power was removed by the 1988 Education Reform Act that prioritised the parental choice that has resulted in ‘white flight’ and Muslim parental domination of many schools located within particular postcodes.
  2. The Birmingham LEA had a large Education Welfare Service, which supported by the Director of Education, would have played an effective role in defusing tensions between parents and schools.

This role has been left to the local Labour MP, Roger Godsiff,  Labour MP for Birmingham Hall Green, which includes Anderton Park Primary School in Sparkhill.  Mr Godsiff has said he has “concerns” about the appropriateness of teaching children aged four and five about the existence and equality of same sex families.

It is important to point out that the law does not require LGBT issues to be taught to four and five year-old children. However, I can’t imagine any primary school head or teacher disagreeing in principle with a ‘No Outsiders’ policy. A child with ‘two mummies’ or ‘two daddies’ must feel welcomed, comfortable and supported by the school. But primary schools have long welcomed children with one mummy and no daddy, one daddy and no mummy (single parent families) and no mummy or daddy (‘looked after children), without any controversy or need for specially targeted resources. Birmingham is a huge city with an extremely diverse population. So why has this issue has become so bitter and the cause of such high levels of local anger and distress? The reported comments of most of the parents seem reasonable enough to suggest that dialogue between the parents and the head could lead to a resolution, probably around what is considered ‘age appropriate’. It is also puzzling that the Governing Body has never been mentioned in any of the media coverage of the dispute. Has the Governing Body considered this matter in accordance with the requirements of the Statutory Guidance, which states that the views of parents and the school community should be taken into account?

Perhaps the BBC can offer guidance. There are two dedicated children’s channels. CBeebies is targeted at children under six. CBBC is targeted at children from 6 – 15. ‘The Dumping Ground’ programme has included story lines about same sex relationships and gay adoption. The latter has proved to be controversial with ‘Mumsnet’. Mumsnet cannot be described as a homophobic organisation and none of the opinions expressed appear to be based on religious objections. While the issues are clearly debatable in relation to a programme on CBBC, there is surely little possibility of them ever being deemed suitable for CBeebies. This suggests that those Anderton Park parents objecting specifically about such issues being raised with four and five year-olds have a case. There are a great many other Birmingham primary schools where the majority of parents have the Muslim faith. They all appear to be coping with the new sex and relationship regulations without difficulty. As previously noted, there are organised elements of the Muslim community opposed to integration with British society that are only too ready to exploit cultural conflicts like this, which is surely a good reason for avoiding them.

On the general issue of parental rights in relation to the education of their children at school, it is a complex pattern. I argue in this article that some need strengthening (in relation to the lack of accountability of Academy schools), others need to be respected and addressed by Governing Bodies in accordance with the Statutory Guidance. And the DfE needs to tackle the issue of the proponents of exclusive religious schools exploiting the freedoms of Academy status to achieve their profoundly damaging aims.

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Priests, parents or the state: who should be responsible for children’s education? – Part 2: the role of the state

You can read Part 1 ‘The role of religion’ here.

The first important step is to point out the difference between the state and the government. This is from what Robin Alexander wrote in the Cambridge Primary Review Trust blog at the time of the 2015 General Election.

the checks and balances vital to education in a democracy have been swept away, and without local mediation schools have little protection from ministers’ caprice, megalomania or what NAHT’s Russell Hobby calls their ‘crazy schemes’ – those back-of-the-envelope bids for media headlines that teachers and school leaders are forced by legislation or Ofsted’s compliance checks to implement, regardless of their cost to children’s education or teachers’ self-esteem.

Little appears to have changed, except for the worse. The education regulator, OfSTED once claimed to be independent of the government, but that is now so obviously ridiculous that the government’s ‘education policy enforcer’ no longer talks in such terms.

My colleague, John Mountford, has long argued for the creation of a permanent ‘National Education Commission’ to prevent meddling by ideologically driven arms of the government. But if we don’t want governments interfering in the education system, what should be the role of the state? It largely comes down to providing the public money to implement and fund an education system guaranteeing that all children have access to taxpayer funded free education in good state schools. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland this is now a devolved responsibility.

However, as I write this, PM candidate Dominic Raab has stated that in his view marketisation of the education system has not gone far enough and that he would favour allowing new educational businesses to run our schools on a ‘for profit’ basis. It is hard to see how a new National Education Commission could prevent an elected government taking such a step if that was the government policy.

The Education Act of 1944 was steered through Parliament by R.A. Butler, the Education Minister of the National Government.  The Act provided free secondary education for all pupils. At the end of World War II, the government, still in shock from the recent rise of fascism in Europe, was anxious to prevent the ideological takeover of education that had happened in Germany.  Similar takeovers had taken place in Italy, the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan. Although of a very different order of concern,  the policy of the present UK government to impose ‘British Values’ on our schools, still strikes a discordant note with me.

For these reasons the 1944 Education Act deliberately removed the government from any role in the state education system beyond paying for it. The provision and administration of schools was devolved to Local Education Authorities (LEAs), which were the responsibility of elected County Councils or their urban equivalents. The schools themselves enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in relation to what was taught and the teaching methods used, including the use of corporal punishment, which persisted until 1987. Individual teachers also enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in relation to their classroom practice. While there was no National Curriculum, LEAs exercised a great deal of influence and support through the maintenance of large teams of Advisors. Schools had Boards of Governors, but these usually had little influence, with meetings often taking the form of  a pleasant discussion with the Head over tea served by polite and able girls conscripted by the Home Economics Department. Regulation of standards was the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools (HMI), which then, unlike OfSTED now, was truly independent of government and greatly respected by schools and their teachers.

In my view, while there was need for reform, there is a great deal to be said in favour of LEAs. These were overseen by elected local councillors appointed to the powerful Education Committee. LEAs were led by a ‘Chief Education Officer’ or ‘Director of Education’. This post was always held by a person with professional experience at a high level in the world of education. Social Services Departments were separate, led by a Social Services Director.

In my view the abolition of LEAs following the 1988 Education Reform Act and the consequent marketisation of the education system has been disastrous in terms of both access to local schools and educational standards.

I very much support John Mountford’s campaign for a National Education Commission, but I do have concerns about some practical issues.

How would the members be appointed?

How could a government be prevented from packing it with its ideological stooges?

Do enough University Departments of  Education and Professors of Education to provide expertise and academic guidance now exist?

I correspond with Professor Michael Shayer. On this last point he suggests not. Where are the likes of Ted Wragg, Maurice Holt and Philip Adey?

Comments please!

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Priests, parents or the state: who should be responsible for children’s education? – Part 1: the role of religion

These are profound issues about which there is little consensus in the UK. Elsewhere in the world states and societies are increasingly coming to radically different and conflicting conclusions.

The history of public education in England

This is a huge subject, but fortunately we have Derek Gillard, who appears to have made it his life’s work to compile a definitive record complete with authoritative references. Derek is in my view a national hero, because not only is he constantly updating and extending this massive task, he makes it all free to access. Thank you Derek.

The United Kingdom was slow to introduce compulsory education due to the upper class defending its educational privileges. In England and Wales, the Elementary Education Act 1870 paved the way for compulsory education by establishing School Boards to set up schools in any places that did not have adequate provision. Attendance was made compulsory until age 10 in 1880.

The Church of England has a long history of involvement in the English education system, which is reflected in the legal requirement for daily acts of worship and weekly religious education lessons, although in my 32 years as a teacher I have taught in many schools, including my headship school, where neither took place. Such religious intrusion into state education systems is illegal in most countries of the world including those with highly religious populations such as the US and in France, where Roman Catholicism is strong.

The first part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” The ‘establishment clause’, as it is commonly called, is meant to protect individuals from the establishment of an official state religion.

In the secular French education system, school students are taught about different religions. There is no Christian or any kind of worship.

In England, the Church of England (the Established Church) is deeply embedded in the state education system, as it is in the UK political system, with its bishops sitting in the House of Lords and the prohibition of a Catholic monarch. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair apparently felt he could not convert to Catholicism until he resigned as Prime Minister. This reflects centuries of religious wars throughout Britain and Ireland. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the Roman Catholic church is also allowed to run its own state funded schools within the state school system, as are other faith organisations. A faith school teaches a general curriculum, but which has a particular religious character and/or formal links with a religious or faith-based organisation. The term is most commonly applied to state funded faith schools, although many independent schools also have religious characteristics. There are various types of state-funded faith school, including Voluntary Aided (VA) schools, Voluntary Controlled (VC) schools, and Faith Academies.

Schools with a formal faith designation may give priority to applicants who are of the faith, and specific exemptions from Section 85 of the Equality Act 2010 enable them to do that. However, in the past, state-funded faith schools have always had to admit other applicants if they could not fill all of their places and must ensure that their admission arrangements comply with the School Admissions Code.

It appears that Church of England (CoE) primary schools have become increasingly ‘Goddy’ in recent years. Most primary schools have always gone in for plenty of praying and at least a bit of hymn singing. In the 1990s my headship secondary school drew its intake from a number of CoE and ‘county’ junior/primary schools, but the experience of ‘Goddyness’ on the part of pupils appeared to be much the same in all of them. As far as I was aware, our CoE feeder schools did not require parents to be married, attend church regularly or obtain a reference from the vicar. All this appears to be changing with local bishops often requiring a more robustly Christian approach in the culture of their CoE schools. This is despite the clearly expressed view of Archbishop Justin Welby that CoE schools should be more inclusive rather than less.

Both Labour and Conservative governments have generally supported compulsory daily acts of worship, RE lessons and faith schools. The current government seems set on encouraging more faith schools and giving them extra powers to limit the admission of pupils of different faiths or none. Although this remains deeply controversial, the Labour opposition seems reluctant to get involved.

What has been the effect of Academisation?

Both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches were at first lukewarm about Academies, but now there are many CoE and RC Academy Trusts. There are also non-denominational evangelical Christian Academy Trusts.

It is clear that the present (2017) Conservative government is strongly committed to faith schools, wants more of them, and is open to their admissions arrangements being more exclusive.

This is contrary to the 1870 Education Act, Section 7 of which, entitled the ‘Conscience Clause’, was required to be displayed in a prominent position in every Elementary School. This included the following statements.

It shall not be required as a condition of any child admitted into or continuing in the school, that he attend or abstain from attending any Sunday school, or any place of religious worship, or that he shall attend any religious observance or any instruction in religious subjects in the school or elsewhere (Part 1).

Any scholar may be withdrawn by his parent from such observance or instruction without forfeiting any of the other benefits of the school (Part 2).

The school shall be open at all times to any of His Majesty’s Inspectors, so, however, that it shall be no part of the duties of such inspector to inquire into any instruction in religious subjects given at such school, or to examine any scholar therein in religious knowledge or in any religious subject or book (Part 3).

 I wrote about Section 7 here.

It is also the case that at least some clergy of the time had no problem with the principle of secular state education. The Reverend Richard Dawes graduated from Cambridge, and became a mathematical tutor and bursar. He was something of a radical and he upset his academic peers by advocating the admission of dissenters to the university.  In 1837, he left Cambridge to become a country vicar in the parish of King’s Somborne in Hampshire. He adopted a novel approach to teaching based on engaging pupils through the examples of the ‘common things’ found in their everyday lives, which were used as objects of study and experimentation. In this he was anticipating Piaget and the later developmentalists in his emphasis on grounding lessons in practical activities to provide a ‘concrete’ foundation for progression to abstract theorising. Having his pupils enthusiastically undertake practical activities in groups indicates a social approach quite different from the normal punishment driven, authoritarian instruction and repetition typical of the period that is so powerfully described in the contemporary works of Charles Dickens.

In 1847 he published his masterpiece, which is a teachers’ guide to how to implement his methods: Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction. Dawes insisted on cheap editions being widely available. Many editions were published. The 1857 7th edition can be viewed on-line here

Read more about the brilliant Richard Dawes here.

Not only do many faith schools fail to meet the former requirements of Section 7 of the 1870 Education Act, they also commonly fall short in teaching basic science in respect of the age of the earth, ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’ and anything else that their Principals, Governors and/or Academy Trusts feel is in conflict with their religious faith or teaching. Read about one example here and others here.

At the time of writing this article a conflict between Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham and a number of it is mainly Muslim parents remains unresolved. The protests spread to Anderton Park from Parkfield Community School in Alum Rock, where parents raised a petition in January claiming some of the teaching contradicted Islam. The “No Outsiders” scheme, created by one of its teachers, Andrew Moffatt, had been running at the school since 2014. It was formed to educate children about the Equality Act, British values, and diversity, using storybooks to teach children about LGBT relationships, race, religion, adoption and disability. I will return to this specific issue in Part 2 : The role of parents and the state, to follow.

Neither Anderton Park, nor Parkfield Community Schools in Birmingham are faith schools, but there appear to be pressure groups that seek to convert some Local Authority (LA) Community Schools into Islamic faith schools by exploiting changing government policy in relation to faith schools.

I have seen literature from one such pressure group that seeks to target LA schools located within Muslim communities, where ‘white flight’ has resulted in their pupil populations becoming exclusively comprised of children with Muslim parents. Material published on the internet argues that such schools should be taken over by new Muslim Academy chains, within which all pupils and their teachers must adhere to the Muslim faith and accept the precepts of Sharia Law.

It is easy to see how inflammatory this could be in feeding the rhetoric of far right populist politicians. This is presumably why the government, through OfSTED, now requires the concept of ‘British Values’ to be taught in all schools. How can a direction of travel towards Muslim Academy Trusts be opposed while Church of England, Roman Catholic and Evangelical Academy Trusts are not only encouraged to proliferate, but given further freedoms to restrict the admission of children whose parents are from other faiths or none?

It seems to me that an updated version of Section 7 of the 1870 Education Act is badly needed. I have seen little about this in Labour’s education plans.







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Greta Thunberg: what we can learn from her example

The following are my personal views arising from Greta’s words.

On climate change

Like Greta, I am with David Attenborough and the climate scientists. I actually believe Greta understates the seriousness of the crisis. It seems unlikely that the increase in mean global temperature will be kept below 1.5 deg C. Here I agree with the arguments of George Monbiot in this Guardian article.

He identifies the  crux of the problem as being embedded in the nature of capitalism.

Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity. Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources. Last week a paper in the journal New Political Economy, by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, examined this premise. They found that while some relative decoupling took place in the 20th century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly as economic growth), in the 21st century there has been a recoupling: rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth. The absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears impossible while economic growth continues. Green growth is an illusion.

All life on Earth relies on the self-sustaining balance between respiration and photosynthesis that has evolved over the last 4 billion years. I was taught at school in the 1960s that this has resulted in a stable equilibrium concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of 300 parts per million. This has now risen in a few decades to more than 400 parts per million and is still rising. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. Two things should be beyond dispute. The first is that the rise in concentration of this key ‘greenhouse’ gas is a result of the industrial activities of humans driven by the exploitation of fossil fuels. The second is that such a rapid and drastic change is bound to have profound global ecosystem consequences.

Even in the unlikely event that the 1.5 deg C target limit is not exceeded, so much irreversible damage has already been caused to the Earth’s climate-based ecosystems that millions of people in the parts of the world most affected by climate-driven catastrophe are now likely to either die or be driven to migrate in extreme desperation to the more temperate northern latitudes, fuelling massive political instability and the growth of state fascism.

So Greta is correct to argue for the response of extreme urgency that she articulates as ‘the need for panic’.

On the fact that she is a mildly autistic KS4 schoolgirl

Greta describes her Asbergers syndrome as a gift not a disease. Given the quality and clarity of her writing and speech making, who could argue with that?

However, in the Academised, marketised English education system, that is not how such autism is perceived by the business bosses of Multi-Academy Trusts, as indicated by the worsening off-rolling scandals that the government seems so disinclined to effectively address. However, autistic spectrum students can still experience great unhappiness even in good comprehensive schools that rightly place importance on the quality of relationships. Greta herself acknowledges that she struggles with social relationships in school. If schools rightly value social relationships as central to development and internalisation of deep understanding there is a clear challenge that must be explicitly addressed in the management of teaching and learning so as to recognise the diversity of responses of individual students.

I discovered that the Principal of Greta’s school is Sirrka Persson. She is a ‘facilitator’ within ‘Human Dynamics Sweden’. This is a quote from their website.

Many testify that they previously assumed that everyone thinks the same way, but that they now have an increased understanding and acceptance of each other’s differences. Human Dynamics has definitely benefited collaboration and is a simple aid to increase understanding of both their own and others’ way of working, being and developing.

Perhaps our schools too can learn from Ms Persson, who has posted her support for Greta on Facebook.

Until I retired in 2003, I was head of an inner urban comprehensive in Barrow-in-Furness for 14 years. We occasionally had students with Asbergers, who were supported with some success, but that was back in the days of generous SEN funding, Statementing and support from an excellent LEA local SEN team. We taught autistic spectrum awareness to all our students as part of our Anti-Bullying policy. This is important, as many serious problems can be avoided if classmates and other students are taught to be aware of the potential for social misunderstandings with students that may have a different way of thinking and responding to social contexts.

However we also had a severely autistic student with whom we could not cope.  Displays of  hostility and aggression towards other well-meaning students combined with extreme destructiveness towards the school can become too difficult to manage in a community comprehensive and require specialist provision, but what is certain is that policies of ‘silent corridors’ and solitary confinement in ‘isolation booths’ will never be acceptable solutions.

On whether school students need a right of ‘Agency’

Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. While thinking about Greta Thunberg’s support for peaceful direct action, I came across this article by Tom Sherrington. I am convinced of the importance of this now that Academy MAT practice, supported by OfSTED and the DfE is so firmly moving in the opposite direction that I have copied the following from Tom’s article.

If  school regimes are permanently very tight, they’re not really giving students room to develop agency. It always strikes me as odd when schools with silent corridor policies talk about this in terms of wanting their students to walk tall, matching anyone from the local grammar schools and independent schools – none of which impose silent corridor regimes. Student behaviour isn’t truly impeccable unless students are choosing to behave impeccably – is it? Hyper-controlled behaviour is still basically a deficit model, where students aren’t trusted  – not yet.  Real agency comes when, having learned to value the truer freedoms afforded by good behaviour, students continue to behave impeccably whilst having the freedom not to. And what about learning?  If you are never given the chance to make a choice, how do you learn to make a good one?  To choose a good book? To pursue a line of enquiry beyond the set curriculum in a rigorous manner rather than a shallow one?  What’s the point of placing maximum emphasis on teaching kids to read if we don’t then later allow the possibility that students can teach themselves things by reading? Perhaps even by reading things they’ve chosen to read?  Some teachers are horrified – deeply sceptical, scoffing loudly into their twitter feeds – at the suggestion that it might be instructive to ask students for their views about things they want to learn about, ideas about the kinds of activities they value in terms of their own learning.   I remember being 14 and having some pretty clear ideas about this.  As a teacher I’ve learned a great deal from students and often been surprised and delighted by their ideas about the curriculum.  In a culture of high expectations and serious pursuit of excellence, students can bring a lot to the table, using their experience or perspectives to enrich and enhance your own.

 Just because you might never have had the joy of teaching students with great ideas doesn’t mean that students can’t ever have them.  In fact it may be that your refusal to allow for student agency in relation to their curriculum has held them back. [my bold]

I’ve written about this extensively under the title ‘co-construction‘.   Of course, you don’t just dump students in the deep-end and proclaim the virtue of the great struggle.  No.  You teach them to swim, set up a ramp of incremental challenge and, when ready, you let them jump in.  You build their capacity for independent learning gradually over time, moving from being tight and structured to a more open approach as their agency develops.   If that’s not an explicit goal, I don’t think it happens.  I’d suggest the same should apply to behaviour. 

[In my headship school, this principle was a core value. It was built into our ‘Behaviour Curriculum’]

One of my all-time favourite things to see in a school was when, at KEGS, I found a group of Y9s unsupervised in a classroom during lunch.  They informed me that I’d stumbled upon the new, independently initiated, KS3 Debating Society where the motion in hand was ‘This house would invade North Korea’.  The debate was underway with a self-appointed chair, two teams and an enthusiastic audience. That seems like true agency to me.  In my view, school culture should allow things like this to happen – at least in the end.  There are safety and safeguarding considerations, of course  – and this is very context specific.

But real agency has to be fuelled by trust so at some point trust has to be given. That requires a belief that whilst students must first learn to be trustworthy, ultimately, having learned, they should be trusted. [my bold]

The concept of ‘agency’ has for too long been absent from educational discourse and Tom’s article is timely. It surely cannot any longer be ignored in the wake of 16 year-old Greta’s astonishing achievement and leadership.

On the need to confront the government with their lies and speak the truth to power

Greta clearly needs no advice on this, as is evident from her speech to MPs, from which this is an extract.

The UK is, however, very special. Not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting. Since 1990 the UK has achieved a 37% reduction of its territorial CO2 emissions, according to the Global Carbon Project. And that does sound very impressive. But these numbers do not include emissions from aviation, shipping and those associated with imports and exports. If these numbers are included the reduction is around 10% since 1990 – or an an average of 0.4% a year, according to Tyndall Manchester. And the main reason for this reduction is not a consequence of climate policies, but rather a 2001 EU directive on air quality that essentially forced the UK to close down its very old and extremely dirty coal power plants and replace them with less dirty gas power stations. And switching from one disastrous energy source to a slightly less disastrous one will of course result in a lowering of emissions.

But perhaps the most dangerous misconception about the climate crisis is that we have to “lower” our emissions. Because that is far from enough. Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5-2.0 deg C of warming. The “lowering of emissions” is of course necessary but it is only the beginning of a fast process that must lead to a stop within a couple of decades, or less. And by “stop” I mean net zero – and then quickly on to negative figures. That rules out most of today’s politics.

It is not just its climate change policies that the government lies about. It is so arrogant that it feels able to constantly state obvious rubbish like, ‘cutting police budgets is not linked to the rise in violent crime’, and ‘Universal Credit is not linked to the proliferation of food banks’. An example is Damian Hinds statements about the value of KS2 SATs, which are comprehensively trashed in this article on the Reclaiming Schools website from which this is an extract.

Firstly we are told that children’s learning is assessed through national standardised tests ‘all over the world, from France to Finland and America to Australia’. This is not exactly a lie, just ‘economical with the truth’. Finland, as is well known, does not use national tests until age 18. France has recently introduced some national tests, but very light touch (20 minutes in length). ‘In most US States,  they happen annually.’ True, but anyone who thinks they raise achievement should look at the international PISA assessments where the USA, like England, bounces along the bottom.

Hinds goes on to argue that ‘these assessments do not exist to check up on our children’ but ‘to keep account of the system, and those responsible for delivering it’. If SATs are there to check the system is working, PISA does that already – and shows that it is working poorly.

The second argument is different: to check on the ‘deliverers’, the teachers. Is this supposed to reassure the parents of over-stressed children? England is a laboratory for control and surveillance. Here standardised tests link to league tables, link to Ofsted, link to performance pay, link to academisation, link to market competition… to create a total system of stress and suspicion. It is no use Hinds arguing that ‘all over the world, schools guide children through tests without them feeling pressured.’ He presides over a nightmare system which leads headteachers to pass the pressure down the line to teachers who pass it on to pupils – a system held together by fear and stress. It is disingenuous to pretend it’s just an attitude problem. Hinds continues: ‘Imagine if the government announced that it was going to ban dental exams or stop opticians measuring our eyesight. People would be rightly horrified’.

Indeed, but surely dental exams and eye tests are for the individual’s good, not to question the professionalism of dentists and opticians. [my bold]

On the wisdom of children

Our grandchildren are a great joy and this can even apply to the programmes they watch on CBBC. One such is ‘So Awkward’. This is a comprehensive school soap, but ‘Grange Hill’ it isn’t. Far from being a gritty depiction of an urban comp, this is set in a fictitious ‘smart blazer and tie’ school in an affluent suburb.

However, its writers must include ex-secondary teachers because school life and the ‘awkward’ stresses felt by teachers and their and adolescent students are so sharply and hilariously observed. There have now been a great many episodes so its brilliantly talented young cast is now suffering the ‘Harry Potter’ effect and very obviously ‘growing up’ with each new series.

The recurring theme of ‘So Awkward’ that is so relevant to this article is that the school students are always so much wiser than the adults: the parents, teachers and the headmistress.

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Greta Thunberg teaches us more than the truth about climate change

On 11 February 2019, Greta posted the following on her Facebook page. I am copying it here partly so I can link to it in future articles about education, but mainly because it is so inspiring that it brought tears to my eyes. 

As the rumours, lies and constant leaving out of well established facts continue, please share this newly updated clarification about me and my school strike. Please help me communicate this to the grown ups who lie about me and family so that I can focus on school instead.

Recently I’ve seen many rumours circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate. This is no surprise to me. I know that since most people are not aware of the full meaning of the climate crisis (which is understandable since it has never been treated as a crisis), a school strike for the climate would seem very strange to people in general.

So let me make some things clear about my school strike. In May 2018 I was one of the winners in a writing competition about the environment held by Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish newspaper. I got my article published and some people contacted me. Among others was Bo Thorén from Fossil Free Dalsland. He had some kind of group with people, especially youth, who wanted to do something about the climate crisis.

I had a few phone meetings with other activists. The purpose was to come up with ideas of new projects that would bring attention to the climate crisis. Bo had a few ideas of things we could do. Everything from marches to a loose idea of some kind of a school strike (that school children would do something on the schoolyards or in the classrooms). That idea was inspired by the Parkland students, who had refused to go to school after the school shootings.

I liked the idea of a school strike. So I developed that idea and tried to get the other young people to join me, but no one was really interested. They thought that a Swedish version of the Zero Hour march was going to have a bigger impact. So I went on planning the school strike all by myself and after that I didn’t participate in any more meetings.

When I told my parents about my plans they weren’t very fond of it. They did not support the idea of school striking and they said that if I were to do this I would have to do it completely by myself and with no support from them. On the 20 August I sat down outside the Swedish Parliament. I handed out fliers with a long list of facts about the climate crisis and explanations on why I was striking. The first thing I did was to post on Twitter and Instagram what I was doing and it soon went viral.

Then journalists and newspapers started to come. A Swedish entrepreneur and business man active in the climate movement, Ingmar Rentzhog, was among the first to arrive. He spoke with me and took pictures that he posted on Facebook. That was the first time I had ever met or spoken with him. I had not communicated or encountered with him ever before. Many people love to spread rumours saying that I have people ”behind me” or that I’m being ”paid” or ”used” to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ”behind” me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation.

I am not part of any organization. I sometimes support and cooperate with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself. And I do what I do completely for free, I have not received any money or any promise of future payments in any form at all. And nor has anyone linked to me or my family done so. And of course it will stay this way. I have not met one single climate activist who is fighting for the climate for money. That idea is completely absurd.
Furthermore I only travel with permission from my school and my parents pay for tickets and accommodations.

My family has written a book together about our family and how me and my sister Beata have influenced my parents way of thinking and seeing the world, especially when it comes to the climate. And about our diagnoses. That book was due to be released in May [2018]. But since there was a major disagreement with the book company, we ended up changing to a new publisher and so the book was released in August instead. Before the book was released my parents made it clear that their possible profits from the book ”Scener ur hjärtat” will be going to 8 different charities working with environment, children with diagnoses and animal rights.

And yes, I write my own speeches. But since I know that what I say is going to reach many, many people I often ask for input. I also have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. I want everything to be absolutely correct so that I don’t spread incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.

Some people mock me for my diagnosis. But Aspergers is not a disease, it’s a gift. People also say that since I have Aspergers I couldn’t possibly have put myself in this position. But that’s exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been ”normal” and social I would have organized myself in an organisation, or started an organisation by myself. But since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead.

I was so frustrated that nothing was being done about the climate crisis and I felt like I had to do something, anything. And sometimes NOT doing things – like just sitting down outside the parliament – speaks much louder than doing things. Just like a whisper sometimes is louder than shouting.

Also there is one complaint that I ”sound and write like an adult”. And to that I can only say; don’t you think that a 16-year old can speak for herself? There’s also some people who say that I oversimplify things. For example when I say that “the climate crisis is a black and white issue”, ”we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases” and ”I want you to panic”. But I only say that because it’s true. Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ”stop it”. But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Because either we limit the warming to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial levels, or we don’t. Either we reach a tipping point where we start a chain reaction with events way beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. And when I say that I want you to panic I mean that we need to treat the crisis as a crisis. When your house is on fire you don’t sit down and talk about how nice you can rebuild it once you put out the fire. If your house is on fire you run outside and make sure that everyone is out while you call the fire department. That requires some level of panic.

There is one other argument that I can’t do anything about. And that is the fact that I’m ”just a child and we shouldn’t be listening to children.” But that is easily fixed – just start to listen to the rock solid science instead. Because if everyone listened to the scientists and the facts that I constantly refer to – then no one would have to listen to me or any of the other hundreds of thousands of school children on strike for the climate across the world. Then we could all go back to school.

I am just a messenger, and yet I get all this hate. I am not saying anything new, I am just saying what scientists have repeatedly said for decades. And I agree with you, I’m too young to do this. We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue.

And if you have any other concern or doubt about me, then you can listen to my TED talk ( https://www.ted.com/search?q=greta+thunberg+the+disarming ), in which I talk about how my interest for the climate and environment began.

And thank you everyone for your kind support! It brings me hope.

PS I was briefly a youth adviser for the board of the non profit foundation “We don’t have time”. It turns out they used my name as part of another branch of their organisation that is a start up business. They have admitted clearly that they did so without the knowledge of me or my family. I no longer have any connection to “We don’t have time”. Nor does anyone in my family. They have deeply apologised for what has happened and I have accepted their apology.

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