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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It is the attainment gap fallacy that is damaging the life chances of FSM children in the north of England and elsewhere

The ‘north/south attainment gap’ claimed to exist by The Sutton Trust, The Social Mobility Foundation, the DfE, the National Schools Commissioner and virtually the entire English educational establishment is a fallacy. The actions taken by the government to ‘close the gap’ through market pressure on allegedly under-performing Northern schools from league tables and OfSTED  is counter productive and having the opposite effect to that which is intended. This has been revealed by this recent BBC News investigation.

The under performing schools  allegation is based on the comparatively poor attainment of  north of England FSM pupils at GCSE, compared to their KS2 SATs scores. A comparison is made with pupils suffering comparable levels of socio-economic deprivation in London Boroughs, where this ‘attainment gap’ is not found. The true explanation for this lies in the different cognitive ability and ethnicity profiles, featured in the BBC report, of London Boroughs compared to ‘white working class’ districts targeted by the ‘attainment gap’ allegations.

The BBC rightly draws attention to the perverse outcomes of the DfE’s ‘Progress 8’ school accountability measure, which uses KS2 SATs as the baseline for measuring the progress made by students at their secondary schools. The fact that neither the SATs themselves, nor their statistical manipulation by the DfE, are fit for purpose gives rise to even greater concerns than those raised in the BBC article.

Recent research by The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) casts serious doubts about the validity of the ‘attainment gap’ claim which is discussed in my articles on the subject here and here.

I have been supported and joined in my investigations by John Mountford, a retired headteacher and former OfSTED inspector. His inquiries have revealed that it is not just Free School Meals (FSM) children in the north of England that are affected, but also in the more prosperous south. This is the letter he has sent to his MP.

Dear Mr Rees-Mogg

Thank you for your prompt reply to my initial inquiry regarding testing in schools (copied below for your convenience). I note that you have referred the matter to Rt. Hon. Nick Gibb and are awaiting his response. I will, in due course take the opportunity to attend one of your surgeries, as suggested. In the meantime, there have been further developments I wish to bring to your attention.

The limited research my colleague and I are engaged upon is, even at this early stage, yielding results that require a response from the DfE. 

The KS2 SATs were revised for 2016. In the original version, the raw marks from the exams were used to set National Curriculum Levels, with the raw mark thresholds for each level determined each year by the DfE. The DfE then determined the minimum acceptable proportion of pupils in every primary school that should achieve Level 4. This was the ‘floor target’ with schools failing to meet it being placed in ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Special Measures’ categories by OfSTED. SATs have always been ‘attainment tests’ based on specified content set out by DfE.

The post 2016 SATs are different. The concept of National Curriculum levels has been abandoned. The DfE now report SATs results on a ‘scale’ with a mean of 100, a minimum of 80 and a maximum of 120. This is ‘explained’ here, except that there is no explanation, just a set of conversion charts, changed each year, to convert raw SATs exam marks to a score on the 80 – 120 scale.

There is no explanation of what ‘attainment descriptors’ apply to the scaled score of 100, nor to any other scaled score including the minimum and maximum of 80 and 120. The only valid statistical alternative to criterion referenced attainment descriptors is norm referenced percentiles. For example the IQ/cognitive ability scale enables percentiles to be obtained for every standard score. It is not clear that the SATs ‘score’ is a standard score at all in the statistical sense. If it was, then the DfE could state the percentile represented by the minimum expected score of 100 for all pupils. In the 2017 SATs, DfE announced that 61% of pupils had met the ‘expected standard’ and attained a scaled score of at least 100. It is therefore clear that the ‘expected minimum scaled score’ of 100 cannot be the 50th percentile if  61 percent attained it last year.

We have asked respected academics of international standing to comment but none have so far made any statistical sense of it. We invite you to take advice from your own contacts in the academic world alongside any response you get from the DfE. It appears that the SATs ‘scale’ of 80 – 120 is not a ‘standard scale’ of any kind. It appears to be an arbitrary creation, along with the conversion tables for converting raw marks into SATs scores. In this context, it is important to note that Cognitive Ability Tests, in contrast, are standardised according to established statistical procedures, which is why they are still employed by grammar schools for their 11 plus selection tests.

The data acquired as part of our research confirms that the SATs results are inflated when compared to Non-Verbal Reasoning test standard scores, and especially for pupils attaining the lower NVR scores. This has serious implications for secondary schools, especially in relation to setting Attainment 8 and Progress 8 targets, especially for those schools with high numbers of FSM children on roll, because we know from data published by GL Assessment, who provide the Cognitive Ability Tests, that FSM children, on average, have lower cognitive abilities.

For example, we have used FoI to obtain the data for the nine  Non Verbal Reasoning Test bands used [for admissions purposes] by one large school. These give the number of pupils in each band in brackets. Underneath each band the mean scaled SATs score for reading and for maths are provided, in that order.

NVR Band 1 (9) corresponds to -2 SD (2nd percentile)

SATs 95, 97

Band 3 (25) to -1 SD (16th percentile)

SATs 102, 104

Band 5 (40) to the mean (50th percentile)

SATs 105, 109

Band 7 (28) to +1 SD (84th percentile)

SATs 110, 110

Band 9 (9) to +2 SD (98th percentile)

SATs 117, 116

NVR Band 1 pupils should presumably be performing at the 2nd SATs percentile. We do not know what SATs score this corresponds to, but it is certainly not 95/97

NVR Band 3 pupils should be performing at the 16th SATs percentile. This cannot be 102/104

NVR Band 5 pupils should be performing at the 50th SATs percentile. Could this be 105/109?

NVR Band 7 pupils should be performing at the 84th SATs percentile. Could this be 110?

NVR Band 9 pupils should be performing at the 98th SATs percentile. Could this be 116/117?

This is like taking the bottom of the regression line and moving it up so that -2SD becomes 96 instead of 70, which we are informed is statistical nonsense. We hypothesise that this pattern results from primary schools, having a high proportion of low NVR pupils, resorting to cramming and coaching methods to meet the DfE floor target. Such children will have understood little and forgotten most of it by the end of the summer holidays, which is what hundreds of secondary schools report as the reason why they buy the Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) to reliably inform diagnostic and target setting interventions for their pupils. 

So, it emerges from our analysis that SATs scores are systematically inflated for pupils of lower cognitive ability, and the lower the cognitive ability score, the greater the inflation.

 I apologise for the volume of detail contained herein, but real life is rarely simple.  As you will appreciate this is a matter of great importance. The fate of individual pupils and schools depends on this system being transparent and reliable. Clearly, this could potentially threaten the robustness of the whole examination system. As such, we believe it to be an urgent matter, requiring a thorough investigation.


John Mountford


These data represent clear evidence of the general inflation of SATs scores compared to Cognitive Ability Test (CAT) scores for the same pupils, especially for those of lower cognitive ability.

We have also obtained SATs and CATs data for the 2017 admission cohorts of two schools in the south of England. These schools do not use CATs to drive ‘fair banding’ admission systems, but are purchased  to screen their Y7 intakes for a variety of purposes including target setting and the diagnosis of barriers to learning. These data confirm the EEF findings that the alleged FSM ‘attainment gap’ is common to all schools including those judged by OfSTED to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

School A  (101 students, FSM 10)

Mean KS2 Standard Scores

GPVS (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling): cohort – 105, FSM – 102

Reading: cohort – 103, FSM – 101

Maths: cohort – 102, FSM – 99

Mean CATs Scores (percentiles shown in brackets)

Verbal: cohort – 99 (47th), FSM – 96 (39th)

Non-Verbal: cohort – 95 (37th), FSM – 88 (21st)

Quantitative: cohort – 96 (39th), FSM – 88 (21st)

Spatial: cohort – 97 (42nd), FSM – 91 (27th)


School B (308 students, FSM 37)

Mean KS2 Standard Scores

GPVS (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling): cohort – 107, FSM – 104

Reading: cohort – 106, FSM – 102

Maths: cohort – 105, FSM – 101


Mean CATs Scores (percentiles shown in brackets)

Verbal: cohort – 101 (53rd)), FSM – 94 (34th)

Non-Verbal: cohort – 98 (45th), FSM – 91 (27th)

Quantitative: cohort – 101 (53rd)), FSM – 93 (32nd)

Spatial: cohort – 102 (55th), FSM – 96 (39th)


Normal Distribution data points are always clustered around the mean (100) with fewer data points towards the extremities of the distribution. Percentiles show the percentage of the general population with that score or below. (eg a mean score of 100 represents the 50th percentile). Because the SATs standard scores are not standard scores in the statistical sense, they cannot be converted into percentiles. (eg the score of 100 does not represent the 50th percentile, but some arbitrary percentage decided each year by the DfE)

The data from these schools are highly informative.

  1. The SATs scores are generally inflated compared to CATs. We believe that this is a consequence of their high stakes nature and susceptibility to ‘gaming’ through extreme coaching and cramming. Secondary schools need CATs data before they or anybody else can form valid judgements of the progress of their students. The SATs based judgements used to justify the ‘attainment gap’ argument of the DfE, the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation lack appropriate statistical validity. As stated in the BBC article by the heads of schools with high proportions of ‘white working class’ pupils, the current system is indeed ‘institutionally toxic’ towards their schools.
  1. The SATs scores of FSM pupils are slightly depressed, but CATs scores are hugely so. This confirms GL Assessment national data that shows that FSM children on average have significantly reduced cognitive abilities. Please do not shoot the messenger. This is factually beyond dispute.
  1. School B has a higher mean cognitive ability intake than School A. Therefore, all other things being equal (quality of teaching etc) it should get better GCSE results and a higher league table placing. But the ‘Progress 8’ measure is statistically incapable of validly differentiating between schools with different ethnic mixes (BBC article) and with different proportions of FSM (our research), making it unfit for purpose. 
  1. Cognitive ability is not fixed at birth, nor by anything else.  Although it is often ignored, considerable expertise exists in relation to how cognitive ability can be raised throughout life, but especially through the school years through the right approaches to teaching and learning.

Put simply, instead of cramming our children with knowledge for SATs and GCSEs in ways that inhibit cognitive development, our pupils deserve educational experiences of the highest quality that make them cleverer and wiser, as well as more knowledgeable. Ways of achieving this are well established (eg by the EEF), although not specifically recognised by OfSTED or promoted by the DfE.

This leads to the inevitable conclusion that SATs are not fit for purpose and that the DfE, OfSTED, The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation have got the ‘attainment gap’ completely wrong.

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The Sutton Trust defends its approach to the attainment gap

I have received this response from The Sutton Trust to my article questioning the ‘attainment gap’.

Research by John Goldthorpe has shown that children of similar cognitive ability but different social origins have very different chances of educational success. Similarly, an overwhelming body of evidence tells us that high-quality teaching can have a significant impact on pupil attainment and their outcomes later in life.  We know that the quality of teaching matters more for poorer children too.  

This is why the Sutton Trust will continue to focus on improving educational opportunities for young people from less advantaged backgrounds, to give them the chances they need to reach their full potential.

  1. The Goldthorpe Research

‘The effects of social origins and cognitive ability on educational attainment: Evidence from Britain and Sweden’ (2014)

This is a long and complex sociological treatise, which I have referred to my academic correspondents for comment. However, Note 1 at the end of the paper states:

“One question that we do not address is that of the relative importance of social origins versus cognitive ability in regard to educational attainment”.

 This being the case I admit to puzzlement as to why The Sutton Trust feels that this research supports their argument that cognitive ability is so unimportant that they never mention it.

I then turned to the internet for a glimpse into the extensive work of eminent Oxford sociologist, Dr John Goldthorpe, and found the following.

In his lecture tonight (2016) at the British Academy, Dr John Goldthorpe FBA, a sociologist at the University of Oxford, will outline why having more educational qualifications than your parents and grandparents has not translated into better social mobility chances for those from less well-off families.

 Dr Goldthorpe will also outline research showing that people born in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s have been less often upwardly mobile than their parents and grandparents, while an increasing number of men and women have started to drop down the social ladder. He attributes the upward mobility from the 1950s to the 1970s to a major expansion of professional and managerial positions in that period, and dubs it the Golden Age of social mobility.

It is argued (Goldthorpe 2013), primarily on account of various limitations of the available data, [that] the economists’ finding of declining mobility is open to question; and, further, that because no explicit distinction is made in their work between absolute and relative rates of mobility, its reception, among politicians especially, has been attended by considerable confusion. An alternative to the consensus view is put forward, based on extensive research by sociologists into social class mobility, which is seen as better capturing the inter-generational transmission of economic advantage and disadvantage. This research indicates that the only recent change of note is that the rising rates of upward, absolute mobility of the middle decades of the last century have levelled out. Relative rates have remained more or less constant back to the inter-war years. According to this alternative view, what can be achieved through education, whether in regard to absolute or relative mobility, appears limited. [My bold]

  1. The Sutton Trust ‘Mission Statement’

“Similarly, an overwhelming body of evidence tells us that high-quality teaching can have a significant impact on pupil attainment and their outcomes later in life.”

Of course this is right, but unless The Sutton Trust believes in stable IQ conferred at birth through genes, high-quality teaching must be that which promotes cognitive development (in which The Sutton Trust appears to have no interest). In either event, I fail to see that the work of John Goldthorpe  (“what can be achieved through education, whether in regard to absolute or relative mobility, appears limited”), supports, “why the Sutton Trust will continue to focus on improving educational opportunities for young people from less advantaged backgrounds, to give them the chances they need to reach their full potential.”

Here, I am with the Sutton Trust rather than Goldthorpe, but the aim, “to give them the chances they need to reach their full potential”, is revealing of the Sutton Trust’s confusion in suggesting that school students have ‘a full potential‘, presumably conferred at birth through genes. My heart sinks whenever I see the ‘reach their full potential‘ phrase, for the reasons explained in this article.

The crucial assumption of Labour’s proposed National Education Service is that developmental education is never wasted on anybody, of any age, from the cradle to the grave. 

Like Professor of Applied Psychology, Michael Shayer, James Flynn and the mainstream international academic community to which they belong, I accept the general intelligence construct ‘g’ as not only valid and meaningful, but essential in any consideration of developmental learning and the effectiveness of different approaches to bringing it about.

What may be new to both ‘g’ accepters and ‘g’ deniers is the fact that cognitive ability is plastic throughout life even if its maximum plasticity corresponds with pre-adult developmental spurts. Not only is intelligence not fixed at birth through genes (or anything else), neither can it be permanently limited (rather than just damaged) by poverty or poor parenting.

This does not mean that all learners are capable of attaining the same level; the Bell Curve of natural variation applies. The important principle is that all learners, at any level, can always develop their cognition and that all such development is worthwhile, not only to the individuals concerned, but to society as a whole.

That is why Labour’s ‘National Education Service’ is such a powerful idea.

The pedagogy of developmentalism is founded on Piagetian epistemology and Vygotskyian approaches to teaching and learning based on metacogition and social interaction. It is all about the development of cognitive ability on the basis that this is the driver of attainment in all contexts that require deep understanding rather than just factual recall.

The theoretical basis of UK Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) originally produced by NfER- Nelson and now GL Assessment, completely contradicts the assertions of The Sutton Trust. The predictive data contained in the main body of the GL Assessment Report, which is the basis of my earlier article, makes no mention of social class or socio-economic status, yet produces what it claims to be highly reliable predictions of educational outcomes related to cognitive ability test (CAT) scores.

This is just one example from a library of CATs data going back many decades. If these claims are false then the CATs tests are worthless, yet the purchasers (schools in huge numbers) pay a lot money for such data even though the DfE SATs data that the Sutton Trust exclusively uses for its flawed claims about the attainment gap, come free.

The value of CATs, completely ignored by the Sutton Trust, has been extensively researched by Professor Steve Strand of Oxford university. For example, his article, ‘Consistency in reasoning test scores over time’, first published, 16 December 2010, of which the following is the abstract.

Background: UK schools have a long history of using reasoning tests, most frequently of Verbal Reasoning (VR), Non Verbal Reasoning (NVR), and to a lesser extent Quantitative Reasoning (QR). Results are used for identifying students’ learning needs, for grouping students, for identifying underachievement, and for providing indicators of future academic performance. Despite this widespread use there are little empirical data on the long term consistency of VR, QR and NVR as discrete abilities.

Aims: To evaluate and compare the consistency of VR, QR and NVR scores over a 3 year period, and to explore the influence of the secondary school on pupils’ progress in the tests.

 Sample: Data were collected on a longitudinal sample of over 10,000 pupils who completed the Cognitive Abilities Test Second Edition in year 6 (age 10+) and year 9 (age 13+), and GCSE public examinations in year 11 (age 15+).

Methods: Correlation coefficients and change scores for individual pupils are calculated. Multilevel modelling is used to determine school effects on reasoning scores and GCSE public examination results.

Results: The results reveal high correlations in scores over time, ranging from 0.87 for VR to 0.76 for NVR, but also show around one sixth of pupils on the VR test and one fifth of pupils on the QR and NVR tests change their scores by 10 or more standard score points. Schools account for only a small part of the total variation in reasoning score, although they account for a much greater proportion of the variation in measures of attainment such as GCSE. School effects on pupils’ progress in the reasoning tests between age 10 and age 13 are relatively modest.

GL Assessment formerly published an on-line guide to its previous (CAT3) edition of its tests, where I found the following statement..

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

If Professor Strand were to look harder where developmental methods of teaching and learning and are practised, he may find more evidence for the plasticity of cognitive ability. However his conclusion that, “Reasoning tests make excellent baseline assessments for secondary schools” is increasingly accepted by educationalists, except it would appear, those at the Sutton Trust.

  1. Evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)

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

The EEF conclusions are discussed here.

In so far as the Sutton Trust’s position is concerned, the ‘killer’ EEF finding is that:

The gap persists in all types of secondary schools.

Attainment 8 scores for all pupils is higher in ‘Outstanding’- or ’Good’-rated schools, than (on average) in schools rated as either ‘Requires improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’.

However, the size of the Attainment 8 gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is all but identical across all four Ofsted-rated categories of school.

It is not, as might be expected, a problem that predominates in schools classified as under-performing: it is found to a similar degree in all types of schools.

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

This is devastating  for The  Sutton Trust and its argument that the attainment gap can be closed by improving the chances of admission to ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools of children less affluent backgrounds. They must surely now be forced to look again at the ‘The Attainment Gap’ and what it tells us about the best way to raise the attainment of all students of all abilities from all social backgrounds.

I await their further comments.

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Like any country, talent is spread evenly, it’s education and opportunity that isn’t – (or not)

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening has been speaking at the Sutton Trust.

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening’s powerful words [that form part of the title of this article] at the Carnegie-Sutton Trust Best in Class summit aptly sum up the social mobility landscape Britain faces today.

This is indeed the underlying assumption of not just The Sutton Trust, but the entire ‘Social Mobility’ establishment, which appears to include the Labour opposition as well as the Conservative government. This is made clear by the following Sutton Trust statement.

This event follows our earlier summit in London in 2016 where we raised important questions around teacher development, and how disadvantaged pupils can have fair access to the best schools and the best teachers.

The underlying assumption is that within a competitive education market system, some schools will always be better than others (because that is the nature of markets) and that social mobility requires the manipulation of the market so that the children of poorer families have a better chance of getting into them. But what of the children, rich or poor, that don’t get into the ‘best’ schools? Their life chances will presumably be worse, but no matter, because so long as this disadvantage is equally shared out in some kind of ‘fair lottery of life’, then that provides the best national educational provision that we can hope for.

How different it is in Finland where, according to PISA, educational standards are higher than they are here. According to my national IQ – related analysis, for maths, England is found at 49th place, whereas Finland comes out at 8th.

Finland does much better than England even in the flawed ‘raw’ PISA analysis, so what are they doing right in the land of the midnight sun?

Some of the answers can be found in this video by US journalist Michael Moore.

The following key characteristics emerge from the video.

There is no national system of standardised testing.

 Schools are about enabling their students to find happiness.

 There is an emphasis on personal and cognitive development.

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

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

 There is no private school sector in Finland.

Whenever the Finnish education system is compared with the UK, it is often argued that its apparent superiority arises from the fact that Finland has a more equal society, with much higher levels of social mobility. Is it not more likely that its highly effective education system, in which there is no competition for school places and no role whatever for ‘market forces’, has successfully brought about those very high levels of social mobility that are the root cause of its success?

Let us take another look at Justine Greening’s statement.

 “Like any country, talent is spread evenly – it’s education and opportunity that isn’t”

 What if this too is the wrong way round? What if ‘talent’ is not in fact ‘spread evenly’ at all, but is highly variable in complex patterns? How can we find out? Fortunately, GL Assessment, who market Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) has done this for us, with the results summarised on p10 of this document.

Hundreds of schools buy expensive CATs from GL Assessment to drive ‘fair banding’ admissions systems. Other schools buy the CATs to screen their Y7 pupils for diagnostic and targeting purposes. If asked, such schools say that the extensive SATs analysis provided for free by the Department for Education is not up to the job. Why should this be?

In many primary schools, especially those threatened by DfE and OfSTED floor targets as a result of a low mean intake cognitive ability, Y6 is primarily devoted to ensuring that the school does not meet the dire fate that results from falling below those floor targets. This means that cognitively developmental teaching (which is what the pupils from poorer backgrounds most need), is abandoned in favour of coaching and cramming, which may actually make their pupils dimmer, while lifting the school over the floor targets, but landing the secondary to which they transfer with inflated SATs scores that produce ‘Attainment 8’ and ‘Progress 8’ targets they cannot meet. Thus is the ‘attainment gap’ created.

When it comes to ‘academic talent’, which Justine Greening believes to be ‘evenly spread’, she must mean cognitive ability/IQ, either gifted through genes, developed through parenting and schooling, or all three. The purest form of cognitive ability/IQ could be regarded as ‘Non-Verbal Reasoning’ (recognition of patterns and relationships) as tested by the third of the Cognitive Ability Tests reported on p10 of the GL Assessment summary. Let us examine how ‘evenly spread’ these ‘talents’ really are in terms of CATs scores, which are reported on the IQ standard scale where the national mean is 100 and the Standard Deviation is 15.

  1. Ethnicity

Highest mean score – 112 (79th percentile)

Lowest mean score –  90 (25th percentile

These are enormous differences. If neighbourhood schools are located in areas where different ethnicities predominate then the effects on the exam performance of equally effective schools that serve them will be massive. England is hugely ethnically diverse, so the idea that associated cognitive ability patterns are ‘evenly spread’ across the country is plainly nonsense. A close study of the mean ethnic cognitive ability differences reveals a complex pattern that provides no succour to racists, because mixed race children tend to have significantly higher mean cognitive abilities. There appears to be a ‘hybrid vigour’ effect from maximising gene mixing along with no evidence of disadvantage from the resulting cultural diversity. Bilingualism in children is an established cognitive as well as cultural advantage.

  1. Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) 

1 Standard Deviation above mean – 104 (61st percentile)

1 Standard Deviation below mean – 97 (42nd percentile)

These too are large differences. It has long been well established that the children of more highly educated parents do better at school and the converse. More cognitively able parents tend to have better paid jobs and live in areas of more expensive housing. It should not be surprising that they tend to pass on these advantages to their children through genetic and cultural mechanisms.

  1. Entitlement to Free School Meals (FSM) 

Not entitled mean score – 102 (55th percentile)

Entitled mean score – 94 (34th percentile)

These data confirm the previous pattern.

The key, unavoidable conclusion is that we are a diverse nation in all manner of ways that include mean cognitive abilities related to both ethnicity and affluence. The assumption of the ‘social mobility’ establishment, that variations in educational outcomes are the consequence of differential access of a cognitively uniform population to ‘good schools’ is not supported by the evidence.

The truth is that ‘good and outstanding schools’, as defined by DfE performance measures echoed by OfSTED inspectors who really should know better, are overwhelmingly those that can attract sub-groups of pupils with higher cognitive abilities. Every secondary head knows this, but the scope for LA community schools to do anything about it is now very limited. Local Education Authorities (LEAs) knew this and the best of them manipulated catchment areas to provide cognitively ‘balanced’ intakes, which had the additional benefit of at the same time producing cultural diversity. Academy and religious schools can design their own admissions policies that can free them from any competitive disadvantages of being primarily neighbourhood schools.

Some such Academy admissions arrangements, like ‘fair banding’, are both reasonable and educationally desirable. Others are manipulative, devious and dishonest. I know of an urban Academy school whose admissions policy was based not on proximity to the Academy, but negatively, on proximity to a neighbouring LA school serving a poorer neighbourhood. If two pupils lived equal distances from, but on opposite sides of the Academy school, pupil A, living in an affluent neighbourhood, and pupil B living in a deprived neighbourhood, pupil A could gain admission over pupil B even though she lived further from the Academy than pupil B. This is because pupil B could have lived closer to the neighbouring LA school than to the Academy. This admissions device was not enough to save the Academy from ‘Special Measures’, while condemning the LA school to the same fate, which was then itself forced to become an Academy.

The greatest threat to social mobility is not allegedly poor secondary schools, but the imposition for ideological reasons of a marketised education system that corrupts teaching methods through the ignorance of politicians and Academy bosses that favour ‘behaviourist’ over ‘developmental’ approaches to teaching and learning while politicians, the media and the public misunderstand the real reasons for the differences in aggregated exam results between secondary schools, which do not validly measure the quality of education provided by the schools.

What is even more shocking is that I am not able to freely make this entirely rational, evidence-backed case, because of a taboo about mentioning cognitive ability or general intelligence. The Guardian newspaper deletes any such comments on its education articles and the NUT website, ‘Reclaiming Schools’, does the same. I live close to a shipbuilding town. It is as if the design office was forbidden from taking account of the Principle of Archimedes. John Mountford and others discuss the IQ taboo here.

I will conclude by anticipating some misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise) that might arise from this article.

  1. I am not suggesting that intelligence is immutable, whether arising from nature, nurture, or most likely, both. Part 5 of my book ‘Learning Matters’ describes many developmental approaches to teaching and learning that enhance cognitive development. More can be found here and here.

Cognitive ability can however be inhibited by bad approaches to teaching and learning. Unfortunately these are often the very approaches feted by the government and rewarded by OfSTED. They inevitably arise from the perverse incentives that flow from a marketised education system.

  1. It is well established that East Asian ethnic groups have high national IQs. The GL Assessment figure of 112 is the same as that widely measured in many other studies. The mistake is to look at the PISA studies where East Asian countries score highest and conclude that this high IQ is conferred by their excellent education systems. There are two problems with this. The first is that East Asian children born in the US and UK that pass through the deeply flawed education systems of these countries still record the same high cognitive ability/IQ scores and are massively over-represented in the top universities of both countries and elsewhere in the world.
  1. The second problem is that the education systems in these East Asian countries are in fact poor, worse even than ours. This is revealed in my IQ mediated analysis.

This study is the basis of one of the most widely read articles on my website, with the number of visits increasing by the week from all over the world. It has been validated and endorsed by international academics of the highest standing. It has been widely circulated and so far no challenge to the methodology has been received.

  1. How do national/ethnic IQ differences arise? There is no need to resort to theories of ancient racial superiority. Culture can play a role, but not through the false Lamarckian theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Cultural memes can get into your descendant’s genes through sexual selection in relatively few generations. This article provides a possible explanation.

To conclude, cognitive ability data show that the Sutton Trust and Justine Greening have got social mobility all wrong. The north/south attainment gap disappears when cognitive ability differences are taken into account. Failure to do this is resulting in the impoverishment of the curriculum of primary schools and invalid judgements of secondaries.

The victims are children of all abilities that are denied the rich, developmental, inspirational state schooling that should be a human right, all sacrificed on the altar of free market ideology.



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Bird’s eggs, common sense and school discipline

On 31 March 2018, I watched a BBC 2 Sir David Attenborough programme about birds’s eggs. Although I have only a modest interest in garden birds, largely through my granddaughters, I should not have been surprised at the profound implications that flowed from another masterpiece of communication from this brilliant scientist and presenter. Sir David described many examples from the science of avian eggs that exemplify the ‘common sense’ fallacy.

I will start with the blue tit. This tiny bird and garden favourite lays lots of very small eggs. The female bird sits on the eggs to incubate them. The rate of development of the embryos depends on the incubation temperature. So ‘common sense’ tells you that the female blue tit would sit on the eggs for longer in cold weather than when the weather is warm. Wrong. When blue tits are observed, the incubating behaviour is the other way round, but why?

It turns out to be much more complicated, with many other unrecognised factors involved. The newly hatched chicks are tiny, bald and dinosaur like. As the eggs are so small, the hatchlings are born in a relatively undeveloped state, with voracious appetites supplied by the adult birds providing the most nutritious food, which is baby caterpillars. These only appear over a time interval of a few Springtime weeks. If the blue tit chicks were to hatch too soon when there are no baby caterpillars, they would die of starvation. Somehow, the mother blue tit ‘knows’ this, so she tunes the development of the embryos to ensure that this does not happen. She does this by reducing the amount of incubation provided in colder weather.

A second example relates to the shape of guillemot eggs. These are unusually long and ‘pointy’. Scientists have for decades tried to explain this. Guillemots lay their eggs on tiny, overcrowded ledges on vertical cliffs. So the ‘common sense’ answer was that their ‘pointy shape’ stops them rolling off the ledges. Except that it doesn’t. Experiments showed that rounder shaped eggs were no more likely to roll off.

The true explanation has nothing to do with the ledges at all. Guillemots lay large eggs from which the chicks develop in an advanced, feathered state of development. They are fed with small fish which the parents catch by diving below the surface propelled by their wings. The chicks need a lot of fish. The bodies of adult guillemots are slim and streamlined for efficient flying and diving. A large round egg would not fit down the oviduct of this slim bird, so it has to be long and ‘pointy’.

The subtext is the power of Natural Selection to produce such a compelling illusion of design in the variety and complexity of life on our planet. The counter-intuitive, anti-common sense nature of truth is explained in ‘The Unnatural Nature of Science’ by Lewis Wolpert. The illusion of intelligent design through Natural Selection is the subject of Richard Dawkin’s classic ‘The Blind Watchmaker‘.

So what has this to do with Education? There can be no better example of the ‘common sense’ fallacy than that everybody who has been to school has a view. That these views are nearly always hopelessly ill-informed and wrong is well illustrated by the comments on the regular ‘Secret Teacher’ feature in the Guardian newspaper. Education is immensely complex, which is why the mainstream media do such a bad job of reporting on it. It is not that journalists are lazy. They just lack the specialist knowledge required.

Within Education, there is no topic more guaranteed to spawn ‘common sense’ fallacies than school discipline. Our national tragedy is to have a school system where such fallacies appear to be shared not just  by the public, but by Education Ministers and Executives of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). An example can found in this article.

The ‘common sense’ argument is that school students are naturally disinclined to study and prefer to be rude, disruptive and unruly. Over 180 years ago The Reverend Richard Dawes showed that this was not true in King’s Somborne School in Hampshire, where he became headteacher.

In contrast, Charles Dickens satirised the common sense fallacy in his 1854 book, ‘Hard Times’.

Before I became a head in 1989 I was fortunate to have worked in a very diverse range of state secondary schools. These included the traditional Wyggeston Boys’ Grammar School in Leicester, where the young David Attenborough himself was a pupil, and the radical Leicestershire Plan 14-18 Bosworth College, where there was no school uniform and the students addressed the teachers and the head by their first names. You can read the obituary of the Principal that appointed me here.

I was also fortunate to be seconded on full pay to the Leicester University M.Ed Studies course in 1981/82, where I studied theories of learning.

By the time I was appointed head of The Alfred Barrow School, in the urban centre of Barrow-in-Furness in 1989, I was sure that the ‘learning instinct’ of children was stronger than any ‘disruptive instinct’ and could predominate in a school that had the right approach to teaching and learning, and that repressive, violent and coercive discipline fuels bullying and bad behaviour as well as inhibiting the metacognitive and group communication skills that promote personal and cognitive development.

In retrospect, there were many shortcomings with teaching and learning at The Bosworth College, but student indiscipline was not one of them. Teaching and learning at Wyggeston Boys’ School also had shortcomings, but in very different ways. The traditional grammar/independent school culture resulted in occasional outbreaks of the worst pupil indiscipline I saw in my entire career in teaching. Very clever boys would wheedle at weaknesses in teachers and extreme, skilfully synchronised disruption could result. The corporal punishment regime only encouraged a culture that was very far from optimum in terms of what could have been achieved with such bright students. I refused to ‘witness’ canings of pupils in my form, by the Head of Year. Despite this I enjoyed good relationships with the outstanding science staff from whom I learned a great deal in terms of deep subject understanding. Wyggeston Boys School became Wyggeston Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in the belated Labour City of Leicester comprehensive reorganisation, more than a decade behind the Conservative Leicestershire County Council.

At The Alfred Barrow School we achieved an outstanding level of student co-operation and behaviour that was recognised by OfSTED and a variety of other LEA advisors and other professionals that came into the school, including ‘Advanced Skills Teacher’ (AST) assessors who were regular visitors, conferring this status onto many of our staff. Our students got to understand what the assessors were looking for and invariably delivered an impeccable performance in support of teachers that they liked and trusted.

You can read more about our approach here.

Deeply flawed ‘common sense’ extreme coercive and abusive regimes of school discipline are on the increase in Academies and Free Schools.

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Cambridge Analytica, Daniel Kahneman, the anti-Flynn effect and education

Every Facebook user should be aware of the business model of ‘free’ social media type services. It is to collect personal data and then sell it for the purpose of individually targeted adverts. If you interrogate Google, within hours you will get an advert on your Facebook page linked to your Google query. It is no use getting upset about this as it is in the Ts & Cs and has long been accepted

However, the Cambridge Analytica scandal crosses a new threshold in terms of the use of personal data ‘farmed’ from the likes of Facebook. You can view the Channel Four News expose here

The collection of sophisticated personal information to sell on to unscrupulous political campaign teams so that they then target emotionally tuned fake news and propaganda onto susceptible individuals to gain their votes would be a serious corruption of the democratic process – if it is allowed to operate it could become a fatal flaw.

The ultimate defence surely lies in having a well-educated population that is immune to such attacks. This is illuminated by the work of Daniel Kahneman and his identification of System 1 fast, gut thinking, and System 2 slow, cerebral thinking. This article links Kahneman’s powerful ideas with the failings of our marketised education system.

And this article explains why such attacks on the democratic process would be far less effective in countries whose education systems emphasise cognitive development rather than the passing of crude exams for market accountability purposes.

The Flynn effect is the well established pattern of national IQ scores rising over time in countries with effective education systems. The anti-Flynn effect is the name given to the more recent evidence that in the last two decades it has gone into reverse in a number of countries including the UK, with profound implications including that our national IQ could be in serious decline and/or that our national educational system and the ‘Facebook culture’ are now increasingly inhibiting the cognitive growth of our school students and the adults that emerge from our education system.

This recent article by James Flynn himself and Michael Shayer, both internationally respected academics, explains the issues.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, raw IQ test scores were increasing at about 15 points per decade. According to the Flynn and Shayer paper, they are now declining, possibly at an even faster rate, the turning point being 1995.

In the paper, Michael Shayer reports that the decline in the incidence of Piagetian Formal Operational thinking in the UK population is dramatically higher than the decline recorded by IQ tests. The following are quotes from the paper. Piagetian Formal Operational Thinking corresponds to Kahneman’s System 2 Thinking.

After our analysis, we will suggest two tentative hypotheses. First, trends on conventional tests show those at most risk of IQ decline are high school students aged 14 to 18. However, Piagetian results in Britain imply losses at earlier ages. Second, Piagetian tests signal something extra: conflicting trends between top scorers (those at the highest or formal level of cognitive development) and those in the early stages of the next level (concrete generalization). Large losses at the formal level may be accompanied by gains at the concrete level. We will argue that conventional IQ tests can show this phenomenon but are less likely to do so.

 The Piagetian results are particularly ominous. Looming over all is their message that the pool of those who reach the top level of cognitive performance is being decimated: fewer and fewer people attain the formal level at which they can think in terms of abstractions and develop their capacity for deductive logic and systematic planning. They also reveal that something is actually targeting that level with special effect, rather than simply reducing its numbers in accord with losses over the curve as a whole. We have given our reason as to why the Piagetian tests are sensitive to this phenomenon in a way that conventional tests are not. Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity. They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset? During the 20th century, society escalated its skill demands and IQ rose. During the 21st century, if society reduces its skill demands, IQ will fall. Nonetheless, no one would welcome decay in the body politic.

 Since the Brexit referendum there has been considerable media coverage of socially deprived northern towns with a high proportion of ‘leave’ voters. These towns have been characterised by the government as having poor schools that have created an ‘attainment gap’. This ‘gap’ is in reality a mean cognitive ability deficit caused not by individual schools but by the marketised education system.

TV News programmes have regularly sent reporters onto the streets to do vox pop interviews with the locals. It is hard not to be shocked by the poor quality (regardless of the side taken) of popular responses, where thoughtful rationality is in dire short supply, and trite phrases unrelated to evidence, predominate.

It is also a fact that that it was overwhelmingly the less well educated sectors of the US population that voted for Trump. This fits with the likelihood that individually targeted social media propaganda is more likely to be successful with Kahneman System 1 (Piaget Concrete Operational), rather than System 2 (Piaget Formal Operational) thinkers.

Which is a powerful democratic argument for reforming the UK education system to prioritise cognitive development over SATs and GCSE testing designed primarily to drive the marketised school performance accountability regime brought about by the 1988 Education Reform Act, which preceded the 1995 date of the emergence of the anti-Flynn Effect by just seven years.

So what would such a reformed education system look like? This is the main subject of the articles on my website and the arguments and evidence presented in my book.

However, a strong insight can also be gained through the work and publications of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

There are two threads that are becoming increasingly dominant in EEF research into effective learning approaches.

The first is ‘metacognition’. This arises from Piagetian developmental, concept-based models of learning in which students are encouraged to explore their personal mental models of problems and phenomena and so refine and upgrade them. Einstein’s ‘thought experiments’ come to mind, although everybody at every age can develop their cognition through this process.

The second thread draws on the work of Vygotsky in emphasising the importance of the social context of learning and the power of ‘group work’ that requires the expressing, discussing, evaluating and challenging of the individual metcognitively created conceptual frameworks of the group members.

A recent article by Debra Kidd describes effective approaches to achieving this.

The following websites also promote and explain the sort of cognitively developmental education needed to increase the cognitive sophistication of the population and so defend democracy.



Welcome to More Than a Score

Comments on my articles are welcomed.

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Enlightenment Now

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

Book Review by Roger Titcombe.

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

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

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

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

Part I: Enlightenment

Dare to understand

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


 Part II: Progress







The environment





Equal rights


Quality of life


Existential threats

The future of progress

 Part III: Reason, Science and Humanism




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

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

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

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

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

On the Law of Entropy

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

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

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

On education

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

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

 This is mainstream Piaget and Vygotsky.

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

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

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

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

On Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us hope that he is right.

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

The neural network model of conceptualisation and consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

Sustainability and limitless economic growth

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

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

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

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

Is there a crisis of neo-liberal capitalism?

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

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

Growth of life expectancy is in decline

The incidence of violent crime is escalating

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

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

Rough sleeping is escalating alarmingly in our towns and cities

The drug related death rate is escalating, especially in Scotland

Children in UK mental health hospitals ‘not improving’

Food bank use is at a record high

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

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Beyond the exam factory: alternatives to high-stakes testing

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

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

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

The ‘Reclaiming Schools’ introduction states the following.

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

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

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

Part A

Section 1 Assessment and the accountability machine

Ofsted inspection and the betrayal of democracy (Michael Fielding)

A malediction upon management (Fred Inglis)

The illusions of measuring linear progress (Reclaiming Schools)

Section 2 Assessment and the developing child

Homo Sapiens 1.0: human development (Pam Jarvis)

Baseline testing: science or fantasy? (Terry Wrigley)

Democratic alternatives to early assessment (Guy Roberts-Holmes)

Section 3 General proposals

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

Some modest proposals (Terry Wrigley)

Assessment in English 3 to 11 (John Richmond)

National tests in Denmark (Jakob Wandall)

Part B

Section 1 Formative assessment

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

Verbal feedback (Flora Barton)

Denmark: learners setting goals (Kirsten Krogh-Jespersen)

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

Section 2 Diagnostic assessment

Synthetic phonics and the phonics check (Margaret M Clark)

What could replace the phonics check?(Jonathan Glazzard)

Miscue analysis EAL assessment framework for schools (Bell Foundation)

Section 3  Supporting teachers in summative assessment

Assessment of primary writing in 2016 (Ros Wilson)

Teaching by numbers: experiences of writing (Nerida Spina)

Assessing A-level English Literature (John Hodgson)

Assessing primary literacy through grammar (John Hodgson)

Grammar and Great Literature (John Richmond)

Section 4 Observation

The Primary Language Record revisited

Assessment through talk (Valerie Coultas)

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

Section 5 Portfolios

Assessing primary humanities using portfolios (Tony Eaude)

Assessment by portfolio (Kathe Jervis)

Portfolios as evidence (Grant Wiggins)

Portfolios for summative purposes (David Pearson and colleagues)

Section 6 Authentic and holistic assessment

Assessing creative learning (Grant Wiggins)

A generic rubric for assessing creativity (Grant Wiggins)

Assesssing the sixth form ‘masterpiece’ (Eddie Playfair)

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) (David Leat)

Authentic assessment through rich tasks (Queensland: New Basics)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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