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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The knowledge-based curriculum: self evident, or a Trojan horse for educational regime change?

The purpose of schools is to fill the heads of children with knowledge. Who could argue with that? It’s obvious right?

 ‘Self evident’ has always been a slippery and transient concept.

Ships cannot be made out of iron. Iron sinks, wood floats, so ships have to be made out of wood. It’s obvious, right? Even though iron had been readily available in industrial amounts since 1709, it took another 146 years before Brunel’s SS Great Britain, the world’s first iron passenger ship made its maiden voyage in 1845.

The 18th century theologian, William Paley, famously made the ‘watchmaker’ argument for  the existence of a god. He postulated that if a watch were to be found “on a heath” that we would be forced to conclude that:

the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually answers, who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

He then went on to argue that the human eye, and human beings in general, could not have arisen by chance and that the existence of a divine creator was therefore proven. Who could argue with that? It’s obvious right?

The ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ and ‘creationism’ have believers/supporters in high places. The former is the default assumption of the DfE and now apparently, also OfSTED. The latter continue to allow religious schools to sow doubt in the minds of their pupils about the science of evolution, allowing it to be taught as a ‘theory’ that is contrary to their religious belief and scripture. This, despite ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’ now being accepted beyond doubt within the scientifically literate international community through gene science, which reproduces Darwin’s ‘tree of life’ in precise detail complete with the identification of ‘common ancestors’ and the dating of the branching points.

Professor Colin Richards wrote this in the TES of  11 February 2019.

He challenges the ‘self evident’ assumptions of the DfE and OfSTED. Here are some examples (in italics) from his TES article.

Nowhere is it acknowledged that the curriculum could be described and transacted in other terms [than clearly presented subject knowledge] : [eg] as broad areas, as knowledge domains, as areas of experience or whatever.

Nowhere is the possibility raised of interdisciplinary or, dare I say it, “integrated” work. Those who do not share inspectors’ default subject-centred model are likely to have difficulty convincing them of the value of their approaches.

The idea that the curriculum at any level could be co-constructed or even, on occasion, negotiated with students has formed no part of the thinking of the framework’s constructors. Schools that willingly find at least some curriculum time for students pursuing their own enquiries could find that practice questioned and adversely judged.

The curriculum is to be delivered through whole class teaching. Nowhere in the framework is the possibility raised of either group or individual work.

The challenge for those not sharing one or other, or all of the four (OfSTED/DfE) assumptions, is likely to be an existential one, with threats to their professional identity along with a very heavy workload in the short-to-medium term.

Unwittingly, or perhaps not, the OfSTED framework  currently being consulted on embodies a model of curriculum that is far from value-free or uncontroversial. Some may see it as a positive representation of cultural capital; others as exemplifying back-to-the-Ark thinking.

While having personal sympathy with aspects of the default model, I [Professor Richards] believe that its controversial nature needs to be acknowledged, confronted and, if necessary, contested. The chief inspector is wrong in claiming that the proposed inspection framework represents “evolution, not revolution”. Its default position could perhaps be best characterised as “counter-revolution” or even as “counter-reformation”. [My bold]

To what Professor Richards characterises as a possible ‘counter-revolution’, I pose the question: is it in fact state imposed ideological, educational regime change? I suggest that just such a pattern appears to be emerging.

As I am writing this article, this must read blog by ‘Disidealist’ on the same subject has just arrived in my inbox, from which this is an extract.

Do not underestimate the degree to which education policy is being influenced by the same strains of right-wing authoritarianism which have been festering elsewhere over the last decade. The growth of the “No Excuses” or “Zero Tolerance” cultures which cause so much misery to so many children – particularly vulnerable ones – is not divorced from the resurgence of intolerant authoritarianism elsewhere. And just as such intolerance is encouraged and amplified by the Tory Party over Brexit, social security recipients and immigration, so it is in education. Gibb and Spielman increasingly deliver speeches which sound like Daily Mail comment pieces, extolling the virtues of “tough leaders” who should be praised for saving the deserving children from the undeserving rabble. School “leaders”, always looking for protection from the next Ofsted judgment, know exactly how to sound if seeking the approval of an increasingly belligerent and neo-Victorian DFE and HMCI.

So what is the nature of the school curriculum and assumptions that the DfE and Ofsted wish to overthrow?

Take the proverb, You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Think of the child as the horse,  factual knowledge as the water, and assume that the absorption of factual knowledge is good for children just as drinking water is good for horses.

The assumption of the ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ is that the problem must lie either with the water (the knowledge) or the way in which it is presented to the horse (the child).

The alternative is to focus on the horse (child). Why would it be disinclined to drink the water? Is it possible to develop the thirst reflex of the horse (child)? I write about this here.

This is rightly referred to as a ‘child centred’ approach and dismissed as such by definition as dangerously radical, subversive and threatening to ‘good order’, discipline and ‘right thinking’.

So what is the historic nature of this educational philosophy that is seen as so threatening to our government? The history is that of ‘Constructivism’ as interpreted by Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner in the US, and many others, some of whose work is described in Part 5 of my book.

Constructivism is basically a theory — based on observation and scientific study — about how people learn. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge. To do this, we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know. Read more here. 

In my book, and in the many articles on my website that discuss theories of learning, I use the term ‘developmentalism’ to describe constructivist approaches, because they all have in common the development of personal ‘schemas’ by means of which individuals remodel and refine their individual cognitive framework so as to make sense of their perceptions of the world and the factual knowledge that they encounter. This leads to both deep understanding and cognitive growth, such that the individual becomes wiser and cleverer, and therefore better equipped to evaluate and challenge. This is presumably why authoritarian governments and education regimes regard such approaches by teachers to be so dangerous.

This issue is addressed in depth in three of my articles. Here are the links together with an extract from each one.

The Growth Mindset misunderstood

Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict is central to all teaching for cognitive development. It essentially comprises presenting pupils with factual evidence that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously make initial sense to them, so creating a state of discomforting mental tension. In order for the conflict to be resolved within the mind of the individual learner a personal conceptual breakthrough is necessary. Cognitive development arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs. It is in this context that ‘The Growth Mindset’ defines the learning resilience needed to persevere with the struggle to make sense of facts, phenomena and evidence, with the expectation of failures along the way. ‘Hard work’ is indeed required on the part of learners, but to be useful it has to be directed towards achieving understanding, not ’empty toil’ through repetition, rote learning, revision and testing.

Telling isn’t teaching and listening isn’t learning

While assimilation of facts and knowledge is an essential part of learning it is not enough to secure deep understanding. The decline of teaching for deep understanding is a serious cumulative weakness in the English education system that will be worsened by universal academisation.  The ‘Slow Education‘ movement provides a further explanation of this process. This is what Vygotsky wrote.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

Vygotsky argues that in schools, knowledge is first presented to learners ‘on the social plane’, which at the most basic level could indeed just mean listening to the teacher. For students to acquire understanding they have to individually ‘internalise’ this knowledge. This requires assimilating the new ideas in a way that makes sense to them.

 Constructivism  was the foundation of mainstream learning theory prior to the marketisation paradigm’s increasing rejection of such ‘complicated theorising’ in favour of ‘common sense’ behaviourism.

Why mistakes must be celebrated

Note that lessons that ‘cognitively develop’, require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems ‘just above’ the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models (Vygotsky). Teachers within the ‘closed loop’ behaviourist culture penalise (or humiliate)  children who make mistakes because both punishments and rewards are part of that culture. Behaviourist learning is much more likely to be based on repetition and practising problems they can already do, rather than risking failure and cognitive dissonance from presenting students with problems they cannot readily solve.

History is repeating itself

The following is extracted from this article.

The Reverend Richard Dawes graduated from Cambridge, and became a mathematical tutor and bursar. He was something of a radical and 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 constructivists 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:

This book is remarkable, not just for its advanced approach to teaching and learning, but for its vast subject range, from English, through the humanities and the arts, to maths and science, demonstrating great scholarship and eclecticism in every subject area combined with a consistent pedagogic wisdom that pervades every chapter. As a retired teacher I continue to be inspired by it, and would dearly wish to repeat some of his lesson ideas. It should be compulsory reading for every trainee teacher today.

The following is taken from Education in England: a brief history by Derek Gillard, which is highly recommended.

A provision was introduced by the Committee of Council on Education into the Revised Code for 1862 (often called ‘Lowe’s Code’ after the Committee’s vice-president who devised it). The result of this regulation was the organisation of elementary schools on the basis of annual promotion. Classes in the senior department were named standards I to VI, roughly corresponding to ages 7 to 12. Right from the start there was much opposition to these arrangements. Teachers objected partly to the method of testing, but mainly to the principle of ‘payment by results’ because it linked money for schools with the criterion of a minimum standard. Thus the higher primary work  which was beginning to appear before 1861 in the best elementary schools [for example as in Dawes’ school at Kings Somborne] was seriously discouraged by Lowe’s Code. The curriculum became largely restricted to the three Rs, and the only form of practical instruction that survived was needlework.

Furthermore, the standards themselves were defective because they were based not on an experimental enquiry into what children of a given age actually knew, but on an a priori notion of what they ought to know. They largely ignored the wide range of individual capacity, and the detailed formulations for the several ages were not always precise or appropriate. [sounds familiar?]

 The philosophy of this dark period was shockingly close to the ideology of marketisation that now dominates the education systems of England and the US. How can recent government education policy be so ignorant not just of how children learn, but of the history of English education itself?

Fans of Charles Dickens will be reminded of the wretched pupils at the mercy of Thomas Gradgrind in ‘Hard Times’. Although gloriously over the top, Gradgrind exemplifies the absurdity of the ‘knowledge based’ curriculum that is seeing a revival in our Academies and Free Schools. It is also worth comparing Gradgrind’s pure form of ‘bucket filling’ as a theory of learning, with the richness of developmental practice in Richard Dawes’ school in Kings Somborne.

The dates are interesting. Hard Times was first published in 1854. Dawes’ masterpiece, Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction was first published in 1847. The historical pedagogical tussle between the Dawes and Gradgrind approaches was resolved firmly in favour of Gradgrind.

The darkest aspects of that history are  being repeated 150 years later.

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England’s invisible kids: government condoned negligence?

This was the subject of the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme broadcast on 4 February 2019.

As the number of children leaving school in favour of home education doubles, Dispatches asks why, and if parents’ rights to remove a child are coming before the education, or safety, of children.

But the concern should not stop here. The programme also addressed the issue of unregulated schools that masquerade as ‘home education support centres’. These are mainly operated by religious organisations that the DfE seems reluctant to challenge.

And there is more, not mentioned on the programme. What about the quality and reliability of DfE claims for the success of its marketised education policies? For example, the claim that, ‘A record number of pupils are now taught in good or outstanding schools‘, is regularly parroted. But what if that OfSTED success is achieved by ‘off rolling’? See this New Statesman article of 20 September 2018 and Guardian articles of 26 June and 6 November 2018

Here are some quotes from these articles.

The schools regulator OfSTED has identified 300 schools with high levels of so-called off-rolling, where pupils disappear from the school register just before GCSEs. It has found that more than 19,000 pupils who were in year 10 in 2016 vanished from the school roll by the start of year 11, the year when pupils sit their GCSEs. While many of those pupils moved to new schools and reappeared on roll elsewhere, around half disappeared without trace, raising concerns that a number will have dropped out of education altogether. (Guardian 26 Jun)

The practice of off-rolling has come to prominence over the last couple of years. Education Data Lab, an influential research group, first flagged up the problem as early as 2015, pointing out how schools were ”losing” large numbers of vulnerable and low attaining children, with up to 20,000 children missing from mainstream education by GCSE time. To make matters worse, these pupils are largely disadvantaged, with those eligible for free school meals and looked-after children most likely to be affected. The problem is particularly severe in parts of inner London. (New Statesman 20 Sep 18)

Education Guardian looked at England’s 50 largest academy trusts and 50 largest local education authorities, and compared the number of pupils in year 11 in 2017-18 – the students counted when GCSE results are published – to the number in year 10, a year earlier. The findings reveal a consistent pattern in some chains of year groups shrinking substantially. The same four trusts fill the top four places in our table on 2017-18 data and on data for 2016-17. The trend of disappearing pupils appears to be happening at a higher rate in the academies sector. (6 Nov 18)

It is not as if this issue is new.

On 16 January 2011, BBC Newsnight featured unofficial exclusions from Academies and the effect this was having on the proportions of pupils not entered for GCSE English and maths. The BBC had researched the following data based on the 2010 GCSE results.

In Academies 3.5 percent of pupils were not entered for English and maths GCSEs compared to 2.0 percent in Local Authority Community Schools. 21 percent of Academies had fewer than 95 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than double the proportion of any other school type). 9 percent of academies had fewer than 90 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than triple the proportion of any other school type). 2 percent of academies had fewer than 80 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE whereas all other school types had zero percent of schools which fall within this bracket.

However, to be ‘off-rolled’ you have to get into the school in the first place.

Janet Downs wrote about this in April 2014.

This is an extract from her Local Schools Network article.

“It might be best if you looked elsewhere”. That’s what one school told a parent of a child with special needs (SEN), said the Children’s Commissioner. The Children’s Commissioner heard evidence of how schools deter SEN children and said parents of SEN pupils had been put off from applying for a school place because of “negative messages”. It wasn’t just parents of SEN children who could be discouraged, but less affluent parents too, the Children’s Commissioner found. Many schools required expensive uniform from an exclusive source despite clear guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) to keep uniform costs to a minimum. The Commissioner discovered schools serving the same neighbourhood could nevertheless have very different intakes. This raised the question whether the admission system was contributing to inequality whereby one school had a disproportionate number of previously high-attaining pupils while another had an intake skewed to the bottom of the ability range.

The DfE and OfSTED must have been well aware of these issues for the best part of a decade. What have they done about it? We are now into 2019 and the Dispatches programme suggests that, if anything, ‘missing kids’ is a growing problem. So why has there been such a lack of action? Here are some suggested answers to this question.

  1. Academies appear to be offending far more than LA maintained schools, but are their misdeeds being overlooked by the government?

It is as if the ‘missing kids’ issue, along with the growing use of abusive discipline in Academies is seen by the government as regrettable, but unavoidable collateral damage in its policy of educational regime change in which knowledge-based school curriculum is intended to replace the dangerously lefty formerly mainstream developmental models of Piaget, Vygotsky (and Bruner in the US), by the long academically discredited behaviourism of B F Skinner.

This desired regime change requires the replacement of the state school system brought about by the 1945 Education Act, by the state funded, but privatised Academies introduced by New Labour to implement the 1988 Education Reform Act, which imposed customer choice and competition onto all schools where previously the predominant culture was one of co-operation and collaboration.

The DfE, with the collusion of OfSTED, has promoted these Academy schools and disparaged LA schools ever since the first Academies opened. The shock troops of regime change were to be provided by OfSTED, which replaced and absorbed the formerly politically neutral Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools (HMI).

A small special team of HMIs was created that was uniquely allowed to lead OfSTED inspections of Academies. A Protocol agreed between the now renamed Department for Children, Families and Schools (DCFS) Academies Division and OfSTED (revised November 2004) states that this select team was necessary, “to ensure that a consistent approach is adopted”. Two HMI members of this Academies inspection team represented OfSTED in regular meetings with the Academies Group at DCSF to monitor the progress of Academies and also to plan inspections and brief inspectors of possible predecessor schools in areas where feasibility studies for the introduction of Academies had taken place.

All this was carried out by the same Labour government that had shortly before supported and assisted the US in its violent policy of political regime change in Iraq.

Government promotion of Academies and the disparaging of Local Authority (LA) schools is continuing as Janet Downs notes here.

Section 3.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘, contains many examples from OfSTED inspections of the early Academies. This is one example.

In [another] academy just 9% of pupils gained an A*-C in double award science, 5% in history, 2% in geography, 1% in French and 3% in German, yet 48% gained 5+A*-Cs. The only comment in the 2006 OfSTED inspection report related to these results is, “The secondary phase curriculum is satisfactory”. The judgements on the sixth form were however damning. The curriculum provision was graded as “inadequate, lacking breadth and balance, and offering only a limited range of courses”. The Lead Inspector did not make the obvious link between the poverty of provision for mainstream academic subjects at KS4 and the ability of the school to provide a full range of opportunities in the sixth form. The report said nothing about the expertise and qualifications of the teaching staff and their consequent ability to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils. It was not just the curriculum in the sixth form that was judged inadequate, but also the general provision of education and services for meeting the needs of these learners. This would seem to have been a clear judgement of inadequacy of the sixth form as a whole, inviting the conclusion that the school was failing to give its sixth form students an acceptable standard of education; normally a signal for the imposition of Special Measures or at least a Notice to Improve. However, this is what the Lead HMI Inspector wrote in her post-inspection letter to pupils:

We were thrilled to see the huge improvements since our first HMI visit over a year ago. Your GCSE results were really good. The principal, the headteacher and the academy leadership team have worked really hard and it’s paying off. Your academy is remarkable. We hope that your academy, with your help, just keeps getting better and better. [My bold]

I leave it to the reader to judge the objectivity of such comments.

  1. If the attainment data of the many thousands of missing pupils were included, a much poorer picture of national educational attainment would result.

Could this be why the government has done nothing to ensure that ‘home education’ is properly regulated? The Dispatches programme provides graphic evidence of the inability of LA Children’s Services departments to secure even the welfare of home educated children, let alone an acceptable standard of education. LA officers have no right of entry into the homes of home educated children, let alone to inspect how they are being educated. The Dispatches programme featured the death through neglect of one such ‘missing’ child. Unlike the cases of the deaths of babies and pre-school children, which brought about government inspections of Social Services departments resulting in major improvement plans, no government promoted interventions on a similar scale have taken place in relation to ‘missing children’. Before OfSTED became involved in the inspection and regulation of childminders, LAs had responsibilities and powers of inspection, which have always been far more extensive than for school age children educated at home.  LAs lack the powers to check that such children are alive and healthy, or even still in the country, let alone the standard of education they are receiving. Many LAs report that they are now so starved of funds they would not in practice be able to safeguard such children even if they had the necessary powers.

  1. The government is in favour of religious schools as a matter of principle

Even though OfSTED acknowledges that there are many hundreds of illegal unregistered religious schools it appears to have no powers of entry, let alone inspection. I find this incomprehensible given the constant trickle of very concerning evidence about a range of unacceptable practices in these unregulated organisations that often pass themselves off as ‘home education support centres’.

  1. Impact on PISA judgements

The government continues to worry about the outcomes of these international tests as revealed here. See also my comments on this important article.

How much worse would the English PISA judgements be if the many thousands of ‘missing’ pupils were included in the PISA pupil samples selected to take the international tests? There are many reasons why the PISA results are suspect, but the effect of these missing children must be highly significant and is never mentioned.

It was not always like this

I was a secondary head in Barrow-in-Furness from 1989 until 2003. Throughout this period, before the disastrous local Academisation programme was implemented in 2009, Cumbria County Council had a large, well staffed Education Welfare Service. In Barrow the Education Welfare Officers (EWOs) worked from the impressive local education offices in the town centre. They were aware of every child in the town aged from 4 – 18. They achieved this through their powers to enter schools and inspect registers. A major responsibility was to monitor child welfare and encourage attendance through home visits in support of the schools. They also advised and supported parents whose children may have come into conflict with the school. EWOs frequently attended meetings between parents and school staff and were skilled at helping resolve conflicts. Parents with such issues could see their local EWO by visiting the local Education Office. Our school EWO team was excellent. They supported and had confidence in our school. Our school’s lead EWO enrolled her own children in our school. I had a good relationship with the school’s EWO team as did the pastoral team of the school.  The ‘dark arts’ of off-rolling could not have gone unnoticed in Barrow.  The EWOs would have passed on any concerns and the LEA would have taken action.

Everything changed with Academisation. The LA EWO service has no right to inspect the registers of Academies, let alone support parents in disputes with the school. The EWO service had to ‘sell’ its support services to the new Academy schools. Unsurprisingly there were few takers from these increasingly autocratic institutions. About eight years ago the LA also abandoned its regulatory relationship with its own schools, which now have to purchase a primarily ‘attendance chasing’ service from the LA using the delegated budget. Some, but not all, LA schools do this, frequently ‘sharing’ an EWO between two or more schools. Less EWOs are now needed adding to the shrinkage of the service first brought about by Academisation. The prestigious Local Education Office was sold off for retail development and demolished apart from its listed Art Deco facade.

The Cumbria LA still appears to be doing its best. I found this on the website.

Do you know of a child who is not receiving an education? We are concerned about any child living in Cumbria who is missing from education. It may not only be their educational attainment that is at risk, but also their safety and welfare. If you know of a child living in Cumbria who you believe may be missing from education, please use the form below to report your concern. Alternatively call or email the Children Missing from Education team in the appropriate area, please see the details below. You do not have to give your name and all responses are treated confidentially.

This website page is not easy to find. It is better than nothing, but nowhere remotely close to replicating the level of regulation and protection of school age children routinely achieved by the former LEA EWO Service. In making this observation, I am not intending to criticise the Cumbria LA. I am sure they, like other LAs, are trying to do their best.

It is hard not to rage against these changes and the way that the education and welfare of so many thousands of children appear to be being sacrificed on the altar of marketisation and Academisation.

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Academisation and Progress 8 – the twin drivers of educational failure

This article contains many quotes from others (follow the links). All such quotes are in italics. The blog site ‘Reclaiming Schools’ has published another well-argued article about Progress 8 .

Progress 8 was supposed to be a fair measure of secondary school ‘effectiveness’. New research confirms that it is seriously biased against schools with more disadvantaged pupils. It is vital to expose this injustice because scoring ‘well below average’ on Progress 8 triggers consequences such as an early Ofsted, forced academisation or transfer to a more ruthless MAT. Poor Progress 8 scores can also lead to families avoiding schools they assume to be of poor quality.

The Progress 8 methodology has also been used by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation as the basis of flawed but persistent claims of a north/south ‘Attainment Gap’ allegedly caused by the failings of northern schools. I wrote about this extensively throughout 2018 starting with this article.

Cognitive ability (CATs) 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.

 It was evident from its inception that Progress 8 was seriously flawed. I wrote about this in 2006 here and here.

Progress 8 will have perverse consequences, as market-based incentives always do, because although he ended the curriculum and exams scam of the Blair era, Michael Gove failed to recognise that the marketisation paradigm is still corrupting, stultifying and degrading the school experiences of our students and their teachers. Progress 8 will fail to capture the essential qualities at the core of high quality, developmental education.

 The ‘fit for purpose’ doubts of Progress 8 were raised some time ago by Tom Sherrington on the headguruteacher website. Fundamental statistical issues that he raises do not appear to have been addressed. I quote from his article as follows.

It’s all so convoluted; so removed from what learning looks like, turning ‘Progress’ into some kind of absolute metric. To begin with, there is an input measure – a fine sublevel – that is derived from the raw scores on two tests in different subjects.  If you read my posts The Data Delusion or The Assessment Uncertainty Principle, you will see how far we move away from understanding learning even with raw marks.  However, it appears that raw marks in different subjects are to be put through a convoluted mincing machine where 74 and 77 become 5.1.  One number representing EVERYTHING a student has learned at KS2. On average. But then we get to the crux.  Despite all the four sig fig nonsense, we actually end up with an outcome, in the worked example, where Progress 8 is 0.3 +/- 0.2.  In other words; 95% certain to fall somewhere between 0.1 and 0.5.  (Coincidentally, these are the same numbers for my school.).  What we end up with is a super-crude 1 significant figure number falling somewhere within a range that is bigger than the number itself.  Essentially, the whole palaver divides the Progress measure into three categories: Significantly above; average; significantly below.  That’s it.  The numbers actually don’t tell us anything significant at all.

Coincidentally, on the very day that I am writing this article, our local newspaper carried an article about the alleged failing of a local Academy School.

Schools fall below the government’s performance threshold if pupils fail to make enough progress across eight subjects, with particular weight given to English and maths. A secondary is considered to be below the government’s floor standard if, on average, pupils score half a grade less (-0.5) across eight GCSEs than they would have been expected to compared to pupils of similar abilities nationally. Four other schools in Cumbria; the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle, Netherhall School in Maryport, Whitehaven Academy and Dallam School in Milnthorpe, were also included.

But the DfE does not measure the ‘ability of students’ nationally – it uses only the high stakes KS2 SATs scores. Where Cognitive Ability (CATs) data are available my colleague John Mountford has shown that SATs scores are inflated generally, and especially so for FSM and SEND pupils, who are always over-represented in schools that serve socially disadvantaged catchments.

 Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Performance tables can never tell the full story of a school and we urge parents and governors not to place too much weight on them.

“The secondary school performance tables are inherently flawed in that the headline measure of Progress 8 which is used to judge the performance of schools effectively penalises schools which have a high proportion of disadvantaged children. The effect of this is to stigmatise these schools, making it more difficult to recruit headteachers and teachers and demoralising pupils, parents and communities.”

I happen to know quite a lot about the recent history of Walney School, which is situated on Walney Island, separated from mainland Barrow-in-Furness by a bridge across Walney Channel. In 2009 the three mainland Barrow non-religious secondary schools, Parkview, Thorncliffe and Alfred Barrow were closed as a result of a locally very unpopular and ultimately disastrous  Academisation scheme supported by both the Conservative and Labour groups on Cumbria County Council. The driving force for the closures was the allegedly very poor GCSE results of Alfred Barrow School, where I had been head since 1989, retiring in 2003. Despite the school receiving a good HMI Report (1990) and successive good OfSTED reports in 1995, 1998 and 2004 (under my successor), it failed its OfSTED in 2007. Curiously, Parkview and Thorncliffe schools also failed OfSTEDs around the same time. The County Council Education Department along with all the pre-2007 inspectors, were well aware that the reason for its low GCSE results, which based on intake CATs scores, were actually remarkably good with lots of A and A* grades and good progression to further and higher education.

The Alfred Barrow admission cohorts never varied much from a mean CATs score of 85 (-1 SD). This placed the average pupil admitted at the 16th percentile. In a year group of 100 there would typically be only 10-12 pupils with above average (100+) CATs scores. Despite that pattern we always had, scattered throughout the year-groups, a small number of very able pupils in the 120 -130+ CAT score range. The senior Education Welfare Officer and a high proportion of the school’s employees, including teachers, admitted their own children to the school. This included our youngest child.

Cumbria  Education Department realised that the school could not be closed with any realistic hope of any successor on the same site getting better results. Alfred Barrow had a roll of about 550, with Parkview and Thorncliffe having about 1000 each. So the plan was to close all three schools and replace them with a single new build Academy on part of the huge Parkview site, most of  which could be sold off for lucrative executive housing. Thorncliffe School met the same fate. The assumption was that if the 550 very low average ability Alfred Barrow pupils were diluted by the much higher numbers from Parkview and Thorncliffe, then the new Academy should be able to rise to the challenge. This hope may have had stood some chance of being fulfilled had a significant proportion of the Alfred Barrow teachers been taken on by the Academy. This did not happen. None of the senior Alfred Barrow team were willing to transfer and neither did most of the other teachers, so virtually nothing of the successful Alfred Barrow practice was taken on by the Academy.

The new Furness Academy turned out to be a failing school disaster from the outset, about which a book could be written. This was despite an innovative proximity based admissions policy approved by Secretary of State Ed Balls. The innovation was that admission to the new Academy was based not on proximity to the Academy but to Walney School. Pupils that lived nearer to Walney School were not to be admitted to the new Academy. The effect was to transfer most of the former town centre Alfred Barrow, very low CATs score catchment area, to Walney School, which itself soon found itself in prolonged Special Measures eventually resulting in Academisation that has not prevented its (almost certainly unfair) new classification of being one of the worst schools in England despite having recently emerged from its Special Measures status.

As for Furness Academy, it was swiftly deserted by most parents living in the posher (higher CATs scores) parts of the former Thorncliffe and Parkview school catchment areas. These pupils now travel daily by bus and by train (when the Northern Rail services are running) to the very successful LA comprehensives in the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston (that have greatly benefited from this influx). More than 200 pupils per day make this journey, while the Furness Academy roll has drastically dropped. The original Furness Academy sponsors (University of Cumbria, Furness (FE) College and Barrow Sixth Form College) were removed by the DfE and replaced by nuclear submarine manufacturers, BAE Systems.

So marketisation, Academisation, floor targets, Progress 8 and league tables continue to wreak devastation not just on the now fragmented Barrow-in-Furness school system, but also arguably on the town itself following the destruction of its former popular, coherent and non-competitive LEA managed education provision.

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The Pupil Premium – OfSTED National Director responds

I have recently written a number of articles on the subject of the ‘Attainment Gap’ and the ‘Pupil Premium’. Having discovered the email address for Amanda Spielman from her letter to the Public Accounts committee, I have tried to engage her on these issues in relation to her recent statements about shifting the focus of inspections away from KS1, KS2 and KS4 performance data.

These attempts are invariably intercepted, eventually resulting in a bland restatement of current policy that fails to address the serious, fundamental issues that I, along with many others, are trying to raise. Progress, however, has now been made, as the latest of these replies is signed by HMI Sean Harford, National Director (Education). His letter to me was received as an uncopyable pdf email attachment. In it he states:

During Inspections, inspectors will ask schools how they are spending the Pupil Premium and its impact on outcomes for pupils“.

There is a link to the current DfE guidance for schools on school attainment and progress data, but no engagement whatever with the issues raised with Ms Spielman in this article, to which I had requested a response. So here is another try in the form of an open letter published on my website.

Dear Mr Harford,

Thank you for your letter of  13 December 2018.

In the article I sent to Ms Spielman I link to the articles by Professor Rebecca Allen of UCL Institute of Education that I discuss here and here.

The central issues are the true nature of the ‘disadvantage’ that the Pupil Premium (PP) is designed to address, how this can be validly quantified and the nature and validity of the data used by OfSTED inspectors to judge whether a school has been successful in using the PP to overcome the assumed disadvantage.

The nature of disadvantage that generates the Pupil Premium

The DfE criteria are as follows.

In the 2018 to 2019 financial year, schools will receive the following funding for each pupil registered as eligible for free school meals ( FSM ) at any point in the last 6 years: £1,320 for pupils in reception to year 6. £935 for pupils in year 7 to year 11.

 It is therefore clear that the assumption of the DfE is that the disadvantage arises from parental poverty. However Professor Allen points out that degree of parental poverty is not reliably indicated by FSM.

The OfSTED criteria for judging the effectiveness of school’s interventions

The pupil-based data stored and used by OfSTED to judge a school’s use of PP is based on attainment in KS1 and KS2. These ‘prior attainment’ data generate ‘expectations’ for improved individual pupil attainments needed in the next Key Stage to ‘narrow the gap’ with non-FSM pupils. Despite the fact that DfE data has failed to produce national evidence of any ‘gap narrowing’ as a result of this PP policy (despite false DfE claims to the contrary), schools continue to be subject to harsh OfSTED judgements and enforced interventions should PP pupils not reach their prior attainment-based targets.

DfE has made it clear that it does not collect or have any regard to ‘ability’ rather than ‘attainment’ data and has shown no interest in the work of my colleague, John Mountford, who has compared Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) with SATs data for cohort and FSM pupils in a number of secondary schools along the M4 corridor.

CATs results are statistically standardised and reported on the IQ scale that has a mean of 100 and a Standard Deviation (SD) of 15.

SATs results are now reported on a scale of 80 – 120 with a ‘minimum expected’ score of 100 for all pupils. This looks like a standardised IQ scale, but it can’t be, because DfE reported that in 2017, 61% of pupils exceeded the ‘expected’ score of 100. This being the case, the mean national attainment could not have been 100 (the mid point of the 80-110 scale)

The lack of statistical validity of the KS2 SATs attainment scale is discussed in detail here.

Despite the lack of statistical comparability between SATs and CATs scores, the patterns found by John Mountford still point to unavoidable  problems with the DfE assumptions.

CATs are now marketed by GL Assessment and were previously by NfER-Nelson. They have long been used by many Academy schools and MATs as the basis of ‘fair banding’ admissions policies approved by DfE to ensure cognitive ability balanced intakes. 11-plus grammar school admission tests have long been constructed on the same basis, which is to assess levels of cognitive function/IQ rather than recall of taught knowledge.

Unlike SATs, CATs are reliably predictive of GCSE performance based on huge amounts of data collected over many decades. Secondary schools that do not use them for admissions purposes are increasingly screening all their Y7 pupils with CATs because of a widespread belief by secondary school leaders that SATs are often inflated as a result of their high stakes nature incentivising ‘gaming’ and shallow ‘cramming’, rather than teaching for deep learning and that they therefore lack validity as base-line measures for judging pupil progress.

 This is currently being raised as a serious issue by Amanda Spielman, the OfSTED Chief Inspector with widespread support across the education system.

In his study, John obtained data from 11 secondary schools where the intake FSM ranged from 4% to 44%.

In every school, the SATs scores were significantly higher than the CATs scores.

Both SATs and CATs scores for FSM (and therefore PP) pupils were on average significantly lower than the Y7 cohort mean with no clear relationship with the overall FSM percentage in the intake.

The FSM pupil SATs scores were on average 3.19 points below the cohort  means.

The FSM pupil CATs scores were on average 7.56 points below the cohort means.

Further support for this pattern can be found in the national CATs data on p10 of this document published by GL Assessment.

These are reproduced below with the corresponding percentiles (percentage of population scoring below) in brackets.

Not FSM pupils 

Verbal Reasoning 102.0 (55th)

Quantitative Reasoning  101.2 (53rd)

Non Verbal Reasoning  102.1 (55th)

FSM pupils

Verbal Reasoning  91.7 (28th)

Quantitative Reasoning  93.2 (32nd)

Non Verbal Reasoning  94.1 (34th)

It is therefore clear that there is a huge gap between Non FSM and FSM pupils, but it is a cognitive ability, not an attainment gap.

This being the case, not only is the DfE/OfSTED  attainment/ pupil premium gap assumption based on a completely false premise, but so therefore is the OfSTED inspection policy in relation to SATs data in general and to PP in particular.

On 14 December, an important and highly relevant blog was published on the ‘Reclaiming Schools’ website from which the following is quoted (in italics).

major government-funded study  [Influences on Children’s Attainment and Progress in Key Stage 2: Cognitive Outcomes in Year 6] run by Oxford University tracked large numbers of children from nursery school to leaving school.

 Children of mothers with GCSE as their highest qualification had Key Stage 2 scores around the national average (i.e. the 50th percentile rank). The average score of mothers who had no qualifications was well below average – around the 30th percentile. Few of these children score above average in SATs, and some are right at the bottom.

 The average score for children whose mothers had university degrees (or NVQ level 4) was very high – averaging at the 78th percentile. Very few of these pupils score below average, and many will leave primary school with SATs scores near the top.

 Well educated parents are able to pass on many educational benefits to their children. [my bold]

 The hidden differences between schools and areas

There are enormous differences between different parts of England in terms of adult qualifications. Partly this is the result of the brain-drain south – graduates moving towards London for suitable work. Two areas can even have similar Free School Meals levels but differently qualified adult populations. Imagine for example two areas showing 20% FSM and 80% non-FSM. Maybe very few of the FSM children have graduate parents. But suppose in one area the 80% non-FSM includes many graduates, and far fewer in the other. This is not unusual.

Compare for example Kensington and Chelsea (London) with North East Lincolnshire (Grimsby). The free meal data is almost identical, since affluent Kensington and Chelsea contains some areas of extreme poverty.

Kensington and Chelsea – 49% disadvantaged, 21% current FSM

North East Lincolnshire – 41% disadvantaged, 19% current FSM

In the former, 64% of adults have degrees, but in the latter it is only 22%. This more than explains the proportions of pupils passing their KS2 SATs (70% and 51%). Nationally 39% of the adult working-age population have university degrees (or other qualifications at NVQ4). In most of London it is well above average, even in areas which have traditionally not been regarded as affluent and which include serious pockets of poverty:

Hackney 59%
Islington 62%
Lambeth 67%.

In many poorer northern areas with rundown coastal towns and de-industrialised cities it is in the 20s:

Hartlepool 22%
Blackpool 23%
Knowsley 23%
Middlesbrough 26%
Hull 27%
South Tyneside 29%.

No account is taken of this very important factor when local authorities and schools are judged by league table position or Ofsted. The teachers serving the poorest populations are simply told to try harder. [my bold]

Of course this doesn’t mean it’s right for children growing up in Grimsby to achieve less than those in Chelsea, but it’s pointless and offensive blaming their teachers. To change this we need a dramatic political change.

There is nothing new about this. The fact that school attainment is very strongly correlated with parental level of education has been established for decades.

Well educated parents are indeed able to pass on many educational benefits to their children. But what is the mechanism of this?

Is it that better qualified parents are more able to help their children with their homework, or that more cognitively able parents produce more cognitively able children? It seems likely that the latter is the case and that both ‘nurture’ and ‘nature’ play a part.

The key fact is that it is parental education, not relative affluence/FSM eligibility that is the main driver. The children of less well educated parents consistently fare worse in the education system regardless of relative affluence. Child development experts point to the amount and quality of conversation that takes place in the family home as the key driver of cognitive development. As we have noted, this has only a tenuous link with FSM eligibility, so it is not surprising that an FSM-driven PP policy is likely to be ineffective, provide poor value for money and victimise schools serving communities with low levels of parental qualifications.

In KS1 and KS2 an effectively targeted PP driver should surely be related to the developmental level of the child. Experienced teachers are far more expert in forming diagnostic judgements about the developing abilities of their pupils than OfSTED Inspectors, pre-armed with invalid data, spending a short time in a school. Where a developmental ‘gap’ is identified then PP funding can support appropriately targeted development enhancing interventions. Of course accountability for the outcomes of school approaches to teaching and learning is required. This article explains how this can be achieved.

In KS3 and KS4 the PP driver cannot be SATs, because these are flawed ‘high stakes’ measures primarily devised to drive competition between schools in a marketised education system that perversely incentivises inflated scores. Here too, it is clear that criteria based on dodgy measures of attainment targeted at FSM pupils will result in the misdirection of resources to meet high stakes, statistically flawed ‘attainment’ targets, when it is cognitive development where the fundamental ‘gap’ lies.

The obvious solution is to scrap SATs and replace them with CATs screening of all pupils at the start of Y7. This was the Cumbria system in the early years of Local Management of Schools when LEAs were able to distribute considerable resources and funding under their ‘Non-Statutory SEN’ budgets. The Cumbria ‘PP’ at ascending funding levels was driven by CATs score boundaries at various levels below 85 (-1SD). The Verbal, Quantitative and Non-Verbal Reasoning CATs sub-tests informed further diagnosis of the developmental deficit of each individual pupil. I discuss this here.

Nature, however, also has a role. Although the ‘Reclaiming Schools’ blog authors are uncomfortable with inherited cognitive ability/IQ, it would be unsurprising if cognitively able women tend to seek out their cognitive equals when selecting the fathers of their children. Recognising that our genes make a significant, though currently unquantifiable contribution to educational outcomes has to be viewed as a factor that helps explain why the children of cognitively able parents tend to do well at school. I have always taken the view that it is best for schools to concentrate on things they can influence rather than those they can’t.

Given what we now know about the scope for cognitive enhancement of all pupils through appropriate approaches to teaching and learning, this surely represents life chance enhancing opportunities for all pupils of all abilities, that teachers should and would be excited about, rather than threatened by. 

Yours sincerely

Roger Titcombe

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Bullying in schools – update

This update of my article of 25 April 2016 has been prompted by the recent case of the children of a Syrian family being bullied and the aggression recorded on a mobile phone then posted on social media generating millions of views prompting this Guardian article (30 Nov 2018), claiming that racist bullying in schools is now a serious problem generating huge numbers of exclusions.

All the popular but mistaken approaches analysed in my earlier article are being repeated with the predictable outcome of making the problems worse, but now with an added enhanced racist dimension that has been stirred up and encouraged by the national debate about Brexit that I write about here.

Two quotes from the Guardian article (in italics) are used to structure my arguments.

Last year, 4,590 cases of racial abuse among school students were deemed serious enough to warrant fixed or permanent exclusion, up from 4,085 in the previous year.

The usual response is for schools to deter bullying through punishment and/or exclusion. Both make the problem worse because they fail to address the underlying issues. Exclusion isolates the offender from the positive social pressures that should arise from peers in a healthy school culture. Facts will be disputed and punishments perceived as unjust, feeding far right xenophobia so pushing offenders, their parents and supporters towards racist political groups.

The alternative response to all forms of bullying, which works, is the much misunderstood ‘No Blame’ approach.

‘No Blame’ does not seek to deny the existence of aggressors and victims. It actually requires more thorough in depth investigations of the actions of all the parties to disputes and alleged bullying.

The important distinction is in the desired outcome, which is not to punish, but to permanently resolve relationship issues through a process in which all parties are compelled to reflect on their actions. This results in admissions and apologies along with restorative arrangements (if appropriate). There are also promises in relation to future conduct that have force not just in school, but at all times and in all places.

In the Alfred Barrow School system described in my earlier article,  this ‘settlement conference’, which took place around the oval ‘peace table’ in the head’s office, was always attended by both the alleged bully and the victim, the Deputy Head linked to the School Council, any witnesses that may have been called out of lessons to confirm or contradict factual issues and often also School Council members and other teachers (eg Form Tutor, Head of Year and the Head).

Crucially, the whole process was recorded by a fixed camera set up for that purpose. The parents of the alleged bully and victim were then separately invited into school to view the recording of the process. Almost always this would prove to be the final stage, ‘quenching’ any remaining smouldering of  the dispute. Punishments were never involved.

Experts put the surge in racist incidents down to increased hate crimes and bigotry in society at large, with some also pointing to the decision made during the coalition government to remove a duty on schools to monitor the incidence of racist bullying. However, others said the spike could be due to a zero-tolerance approach to racism.

The concept of ‘hate crime’ is not necessarily helpful. Even if effective ‘thought police’ existed, there is no way of enforcing ‘correct thinking’ onto individuals. Violent crime, assaults and bullying are unacceptable regardless of any presumptions of motivation. A drunken dispute in a town centre pub on a Friday night that results in a broken beer glass being thrust into someone’s face is the same crime regardless of any presumed motivations of the perpetrator or the ethnicities of the aggressor and victim.

The surest defences against such incidents will always be cultural and good schools will always be those that encourage and facilitate the maximum possible amount of high quality, educationally enhancing, social interchange between school students. This is why proper School Councils are such a powerful force for social progress as well as cognitive development.

‘Zero tolerance’ policies of any kind are blunt, ill-targeted, lazy responses that only ever inflame issues and inhibit the acceptance of personal moral responsibility and the resulting social, moral and cognitive development. The rise in ‘zero tolerance’ cultures in Academy MATs supported by the DfE and OfSTED may well be feeding the ‘spike’ in racist incidents that the Guardian reports.

In my articles on bullying I describe the practice that was developed in my headship school, Alfred Barrow, in Barrow-in-Furness during the 1990s. We became a ‘zero exclusion’ school where excellent student attitudes and behaviour were noted in successive OfSTED reports. Those were the days when an OfSTED inspection  comprised a team of up to twelve inspectors embedded in the school for a whole week, not the current visit of one or two inspectors spending a few minutes in a handful of lessons having already made their mind up about the school grading from the exam results data provided by the DfE. The following is from the 1998 Alfred Barrow OfSTED Report.

Relations within the school are good between staff and pupils and among the pupils themselves. There is a welcome for visitors and standards of courtesy are high. Bullying is not a problem: the school has a considerable reputation as an innovative leader in the field of anti-bullying. This good work, praised in the last inspection [1995] has been continued and further developed. The school is justifiably proud of its work to discourage bullying. Parents and pupils are confident that bullying will be effectively dealt with. Pupils are willing to exercise responsibility when opportunities for this occur. Their attitude to the School Council and its influence shows this. Since the last inspection the number of permanent exclusions has fallen to nil. [In fact ALL exclusions had by then fallen to nil].

It is also relevant that in the late 1990s, following the UK military intervention in the Balkan conflict, a group of 12 Kosovar Muslim refugee families were re-housed in Barrow. Their children of all secondary ages were admitted to our school. With the support of an excellent dedicated LEA officer based in the regional office (long gone), these pupils became fully integrated and made excellent academic and social progress, moving on to good careers and some to university. Many still live in the town. However, one family moved to Manchester to join former neighbours. After two weeks they returned to Barrow and re-admitted their children to our school. They stated that their children had been bullied in their Manchester school and that they did not feel safe there.

On one occasion I travelled to Leeds to support one of our Kosovar families in an immigration hearing where they were being threatened with deportation back to Kosovo following the end of the conflict. I testified that their children (twins in Y11) were outstanding students expected to get good GCSEs, study A Levels at Barrow Sixth Form College and progress to university (which all turned out to be true), and that they and their parents were an asset to the town. The barrister for the Home Office argued that my motivation for defending the family from deportation was that the school’s exam results would be negatively affected; something that I did not deny. Their deportation threat was lifted and I believe they are all now UK citizens.

Needless to say none of our Kosavar refugee children ever suffered any bullying at the Alfred Barrow School.

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Pupil Premium accountability

Professor Becky Allen of the UCL Institute of Education has written important articles about the Pupil Premium (PP) that I discuss here and here.

It is perfectly reasonable for OfSTED to demand accountability for additional funding generated by the PP. Professor Allen draws attention to the frequency of critical comments like this in OfSTED reports.

“The leaders and managers do not focus sharply enough on evaluating the amount of progress in learning made by the various groups of pupils at the school, particularly the pupils eligible for the pupil premium …”

My articles support the reservations of Professor Allen about the perverse outcomes that arise from attempts to determine such accountability. However, the determining of accountability remains necessary.

This is my solution to the problem in secondary schools. It is based on relating GCSE attainment to Y7 cognitive ability data for all pupils  including those identified as PP using the current DfE criteria.

1. Screen all intake Y7 pupils with Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs).

This will establish the same general patterns in relation to SATs, CATs and Social and Economic Status (SES) data that John Mountford found in his research that is reported here.

These data have been further summarised by John as follows.

School A B D E F G
% FSM 12% 10% 9% 7% 7% 22%
SATs Y7 mean 105.68 103.45 105.91 106.42 107.07 105.22
CATs Y7 mean 100.26 96.76 105.92 104.76 109.38 97.86
FSM SATs mean 102.41 100.33 104.00 106.05 104.44 98.18
FSM CATs mean 92.91 90.80 98.83 102.13 97.28 89.93
Cohort – FSM SATs  3.27 3.12 1.91 0.37  2.63  7.04
Cohort – FSM CATs  7.35 5.96  7.09  2.63  12.1  7.93


School H I J K L
% FSM 44% 15% 15% 4% 15%
SATs Y7 mean 100.68 105.42 105.42 109.14 106.57
CATs Y7 mean 95.58 103.35 103.35 107.61 105.71
FSM SATs mean 100.32 101.83 101.83 104.33 102.37
FSM CATs mean 94.77 92.85 92.85 97.77 97.25
Cohort – FSM SATs  0.36  3.59 3.59 5.11 4.2
Cohort – FSM CATs 0.81  10.5 10.5 9.84 8.46

The data for school C are omitted because of comparability issues.

2. Produce a ‘scatter-chart’ showing the GCSE attainment of each pupil against the Y7 CATs score for that pupil

The following chart appears in a number of my articles illustrating how to validly compare the GCSE attainment data for different schools taking proper account of differences in mean intake cognitive ability.


However, instead of the X axis showing the mean intake CATs scores of schools, it should be used for the Y7 CATs score of every individual pupil. The data points of PP pupils on the chart, would be labelled (eg with a different style of data point). The measure chosen for the Y axis could be the DfE defined ‘Attainment 8’, or other measure chosen by the school to recognise more attainment in technical and creative subjects. The school would have to make the case for the chosen measure with OfSTED.

As in the above chart, the regression line (that Excel can produce for you) shows the average performance of pupils in the school in relation to their individual CATs scores. Students appearing above the regression line have done better than the school average and  those appearing below the regression line have done worse.

On the basis of John’s and national data published by the CATs provider GL Assessment (p10), it would be expected that PP pupils would be bunched towards the left hand side of the chart on account of their lower mean cognitive abilities. However any such students that appear on or above the regression line have closed any SES gap between them and their non PP peers. The general pattern for the school will be obvious from the chart.

3. The school should then reflect the outcomes in terms of its curriculum and teaching and learning policies

How should schools best combat social and educational disadvantage? This is addressed in this article.  Becky (Professor Allen) has also pointed to the answers to this question in her articles.

We both agree that a change in DfE policy should result in higher proportions of educationally disadvantaged pupils in school intake cohorts generating enhanced general funding for the school to reflect the increased costs of the effective teaching and learning methods (for all pupils) that are needed. 

Even in the absence of any change in DfE policy, schools can and should use approaches to teaching and learning for all pupils that are proven to be effective. For example, those recommended by EEF for science teaching, that in fact work across the curriculum.

Primary schools can help themselves and their secondary colleagues, by also using cognitively enhancing approaches such as P4C. Further cognitive enhancement can be stimulated by changing school cultures as explained here. Don’t be put off by the title of the article – it really is relevant.

In terms of how the DfE should determine the amount of extra funding to be delegated to schools, together with how to hold schools accountable for outcomes, I believe the answer to both questions was provided by the Cumbria LEA in the early 1990s. I was one of the Cumbria heads that served on the LEA Working Party that devised the approach, so I know in detail how it worked. In those days there were substantial ‘Non-Statutory Special Needs’ funds to be distributed to schools through the funding formula of each LEA. Unlike other LEAs, Cumbria rejected a formula based on FSM in favour of Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) data obtained from screening all Y7 pupils in October of the intake year. The Cumbria formula then delegated additional funds to schools, not individual pupils, through a formula driven by the numbers of pupils with CATs scores at various threshold levels below 85 (-1SD). Where there were significant differences in the scores on the three sub-tests (Verbal, Non-Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning), the CATs profiles for each pupil should prompt further testing for Specific Learning Difficulties (SLD), so enabling specific intervention for individual students, reflecting Becky’s important point about the diversity of learning needs.

Such charts have further uses. They are an even better way of presenting data for schools to evaluate their own standards and progress than the Cumbria CATs/school GCSE performance scatter-graph. This is because they can provide fine detail information over time for the school. The regression line enables the mean GCSE performance for the school to be calculated for sub-groups of cognitive abilities. For example, schools like Mossbourne Academy have ‘fair banding’ admissions policies, in which there are admission limits for each CAT band. Mossbourne. like many Academies have quartile bands.

A: 110 and above

B: 100-109

C:  90 – 99

D: below 90

The mean GCSE performance of the school for each quartile boundary can be read from the regression line, including the mean school performance for pupils of national average cognitive ability (CATs score = 100)

If in successive years the school becomes more effective in terms of teaching and learning then the school GCSE performance at each quartile boundary will increase (and vice-versa). Finer detail is also available. For example there may be differences in improvement/deterioration between the ability bands.

So GCSE attainment /pupil CATs score scatter-graphs and regression lines can not only provide sound pupil premium accountability, but much else besides for driving school improvement.

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Combating juvenile knife crime – is there a role for schools?

I have just watched Emily Thornbury on the Andrew Marr show (11 Nov 2018) being asked about the view of the London Mayor that, “the problem would take a generation to solve”. Ever the journalist, Marr was trying to get her to contradict London Mayor Sadiq Khan. In her response she emphasised the depth of the problem and the vital role of education in solving it.

This will have been interpreted by most as ‘educating young males not to carry knives’. This usually results in lots of ‘sagely nodding’ by the police, politicians and the worthy, while the murders appear to be continuing unabated. The other controversial ‘remedy’ is ‘stop and search’. Given the large numbers of young black men that are said to be causing the problem, what should be done with those found carrying knives? Our prisons are already barely under control, violent and full of drug users all of whom have eventually to be released, so how would it help?

To be clear, although it has been reported that the vast majority of youths involved in knife crime have been excluded from school, I am not suggesting that the health and safety of pupils in any school should ever be compromised by the presence of violent, drug dealing members of criminal gangs. But if schools could help prevent the formation of such groups in the first place such exclusions would not be necessary.

Part 1  School Councils

What if the solution lies primarily not in the education of boys, but of girls?

 I now jump to Professor Becky Allen’s post (Part 3) about the pupil premium, but not in relation to ‘closing the gap’.

Graham Nuthall’s New Zealand studies showed how students live in a personal and social world of their own in the classroom:

They whispered to each other and passed notes. They spread rumours about girlfriends and boyfriends, they organised their after-school social life, continued arguments that started in the playground. They cared more about how their peers evaluated their behaviour than they cared about the teacher’s judgement…

I have written previously about the role of the School Council in my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness. If you are to make sense of my argument in this article, you will need to start here.

Barrow-in-Furness has more than its share of social problems, but knife murders is not one of them. I have lived and worked in the neighbourhood for thirty years and although they may have happened, I cannot recall a single case, so what possible relevance can a Barrow comprehensive School Council model have? So, assuming you have read my article about it, I will try to explain.

My assertion is that over a decade, the School Council structure and systems fundamentally changed the nature of the boys’ and girls’ peer group hierarchies in our school.

I am now no longer in my comfort zone of science education and learning theories and must dip into sociology while also recalling my own childhood and the pupil peer cultures in the many schools in which I have taught.  As a primary age child growing up on a terraced street in 1950s Birmingham, the junior school age boys’ peer group was based on who was the ‘hardest’ and most daring. A fair bit of fighting was involved to establish dominance, but such fights ended when the first combatant started ‘blarting’ (Brummie for crying) and dominance had therefore been established.  At my selective single sex secondary school a similar hierarchy structure remained, encouraged by the PE department’s school rugby team culture. The school’s approach to settling pupil disputes was to arrange ‘boxing matches’ to settle them. Shouts of ‘Fight, Fight’ would ring out in the playground and then pupils would mass in a ring around the combatants to encourage the violence and try to prevent the teachers from intervening.

As we grew older this hierarchy status also began to involve bragging about sexual conquests. In co-educational comprehensives this is when the girls’ dominance hierarchy melds with the boys. The musical ‘Grease’ seems a fair reflection on the general idea.

I suspect that most women will recall their own school peer hierarchies in which the girls first compete to be in the friendship group of the dominant females. This later evolves into competition for the attention of the most dominant males, but also generates a competing inverse hierarchy of unwanted ‘slut/slag’ status, which is the basis of most girl on girl school bullying.

The Alfred Barrow School Council addressed all that, but we did not know or even suspect that this would be the result when the initiative was started. The initial purpose was as a vehicle for genuinely combating all bullying which, according to successive OfSTED inspection reports was very successful, with our School Council officers explaining it to MPs in Westminster on two occasions.

In KS3 there were ‘form group’ based elections to the ‘Lower School Forum’, much as in present ‘Pupil Voice’ practice. However, every KS3 form also had a KS4 member of the School Council ‘attached’ for registration and form meetings to assist in the organisation of discussions, the resolution of bullying and disputes, and to take any KS3 issues for formal discussion at a KS4 School Council meeting.

The KS4 School Council was also based on ‘form elections’, but the ‘leadership team’ comprising the two joint Chairs of School Council (a boy and a girl) and their deputies were elected annually on a one person one vote system in which the electorate comprised all KS4 students together with every adult employee of the school, including teachers and all non-teaching staff, science and technology technicians, Site Manager, office staff,  catering staff and cleaners, all of whom were directly employed by the school. The only senior staff involvement was support for the process from the Deputy Headteacher.

These elections involved candidate statements and ‘electioneering’. The ‘deputy’ posts were filled by the candidates with the next highest numbers of votes. The School Council officers and elected members undertook training and adopted their own significant responsibilities in relation to the ‘Anti bullying policy’. They also attended Governor’s sub-committee meetings along with non-governor parents who were active members of the School Association (PTA).

Our School Council, with the support of LEA staff in the Area Education Office (long gone and demolished), set up and led the ‘Barrow Youth Forum’, which drew in students from the other secondary schools in the town and was supported by the County Council Youth Service (also long gone) and local Borough and County Councillors. Strong support was given by the most senior Police Officers based in the nearby Police HQ. A designated experienced police officer liaised with our School Council and was a regular visitor to the school recognised, respected and chatted to by students of all ages.

School Council Training was in-depth and included an annual residential weekend using the conference and dining facilities at a prestigious four star hotel in nearby Grange-over-Sands, alongside corporate and other guests. The costs of this were subsidised by the hotel, whose manager strongly supported our school.

Those elected to the Chair and Deputy Chair positions increasingly came to be our brightest and most able students rather than the ‘peer group leaders’ that might have been more popular before the School Council was established. Of the total electorate, up to 300 were KS4 students, far outnumbering all the adults, making it obvious that these posts were not filled by ‘trusties’ chosen by the head, nor did they have any ‘prefect style’ pupil supervision status or roles. Our students were increasingly voting for their studious, responsible, confident and articulate peers, who consequently drifted to the top of the informal girls’ and boys’ peer group hierarchies. To gain acceptance within their social groups it increasingly became necessary to become, at least to a degree, studious, responsible, confident and articulate themselves. By such means a great many unlikely personality transitions came about.

In contrast the ‘Head Boy’, chosen by the Headmaster in the selective boy’s school that I attended, was a figure of derision, along with the tassle on his school cap and the bands (denoting rank) on the cuffs of his blazer, which could only be obtained from the poshest school uniform shop in Birmingham.

Our School Council Officers and others became increasingly impressive gaining rhetorical and organisational skills in organising and participating in formal meetings within and outside the school. It will have been previously noted that the average intake CATs score to our Y7 never rose above 85 (-1SD, 16th percentile) but our School Council officers increasingly came to comprise our most able minority, with high CATs scores, without any intervention on the part of the head or any other teacher.

The local Rotary Club ran a number of inter-school competitions including a ‘public speaking competition’ and a ‘University Challenge’ type quiz, each needing teams of students. Supported also by our broad and balanced KS4 curriculum, our teams often won these competitions, much to the annoyance of the schools in the posher parts of the town. A consequence was that the ‘highest status’ girls in our school became increasingly socially aware rejecting any suggestion of dishonest, violent or criminal conduct, as were the vast majority of our pupils, most of whom lived in some of the poorest electoral wards in England.

This contrasts with the knife crime culture that is the subject of this article. I am arguing that such cultures are sustained because their male peer group leaders can attract high status girls through their violence and consequent ability to offer ‘protection’, thus leading to my suggestion that educating girls so as to change their ‘boyfriend choice’ criteria is far more likely to bring about the desired culture change than inviting the boys to render themselves ‘defenceless’ within their own peer hierarchy, in the absence of  any ‘payback’ in terms of high status girl ‘pulling power’.

I am reminded of the lyrics of this version of the song, ‘Frankie and Johnny’.

Frankie and Johnnie were lovers,
Lordy, how they could love,
They swore to be true to each other,
True as the stars above;
He was her man, but he was doing her wrong


Part 2  ‘Wen’ and ‘Wu’

What if any violent culture that first transitioned from ‘memes’ to ‘genes’, is reversible?

This is rather more speculative. Once again you will need to read a long article first. The following is from the conclusion.

‘Wen’ and ‘Wu’ in Chinese culture

In ‘The Peone Pavilion’ folk tale, I was struck by the description of Liu Mengmei, the object of the young woman’s desire. Unlike the dashing male heroes of Western folk tales, Lui Mengmei was a quiet, physically unprepossessing studious type – a bit of a nerd in fact. Given that this story is commonly regarded as the Chinese equivalent of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, I found this interesting to the point of researching sociological treatises on the culture of Chinese masculinity.

I found that the Chinese memes for male sexual attractiveness underwent major changes around the time that ‘The Peone Pavillion’ was written. Since ancient times it had followed the Western, dashing warrior (wu) stereotype. Historical records show that the ‘wu’ spirit lingered in Chinese society until the early Qing (1644AD-1912AD) dynasty, and was recognized as late as the Ming dynasty (1368AD-1644AD). The following description is from a book by H.R. van Gulik, entitled Sexual Life in Ancient China. At the time Ming athletics were still admired, young students practised boxing, fencing and archery, and riding and hunting were favourite pastimes. Thus bodily strength was one of the recognized attributes of a handsome man. They are depicted as tall and broad shouldered. The male nudes of the erotic albums of the time depict heavy chests and muscular limbs. The decline of ‘wu’ reached its nadir during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912AD) to be superseded by ‘wen’. Ardent lovers became depicted as younger men without beard, moustache or whiskers. The ideal lover is describe as a delicate, hyper-sensitive youngster with pale face and narrow shoulders, passing the greater part of his time dreaming among his books. Thus ‘wen’ (geeky) masculinity has prevailed for many centuries as the dominant masculine sexually desirable to women meme in Chinese society and is the underlying cultural assumption of ‘The Peone Pavilion’, which given its continuing universal popularity, suggests that this remains the case.

Further evidence that this is so comes from the current status of (usually young male) private maths tutors in the Chinese education system. These individuals are apparently the celebrity objects of desire of female students. David Beckham and other male A List UK and US celebrities would appear not to stir the desires of Chinese females as much as geeky young mathematicians.

So there we have it. The fact of high Chinese intelligence could be down to the overriding influence of the ‘wen’ masculinity meme in Chinese society as healthy, dominant females have expressed their sexual preferences for the most intelligent male (wen) stereotypes so disseminating the ‘wen’-fancying meme. Is this the culture of the average UK  comprehensive school or indeed UK society in general? I don’t think so.

How to promote the ‘wen’ meme in a low attaining UK comprehensive school

I have previously described how this can be achieved through proper School Councils (not the shallow ‘pupil voice’ model promoted by the government). It certainly began to work at my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness. Our 16th percentile average CATs score intake began to produce an explosion of A/A* grades at GCSE, ‘top 5 in England’ exam performance in a number of GCSE subjects and many former students progressing to top universities and careers in Law, Nuclear Engineering and Patient Safety in the NHS, to name but a few. I recall in particular, a mixed race boy with a troubled background who moved to Barrow from a tough part of Manchester with his single parent mother to enroll in our school. He is now a graduate science teacher specialising in physics.

However, such was the extreme abundance of very low CATs score pupils that significant, life enhancing cognitive ability gains across the school, were still not enough to lift the aggregated results above New Labour’s ‘good school by definition’ floor targets. The GCSE grade distribution peaked at ‘D’, which should have been cause for celebration, rather than OfSTED denigration after until Acadamisation became promoted by New Labour. The Alfred Barrow school was eventually closed in 2009,  six years after I retired, as part of a disastrous Academy reorganisation along with the two largest schools in the town.

Who knows, if only the educational lessons of our School Council had been learned, rather than bulldozed out of existence, Barrow-in-Furness could, in a few generations of ‘wen’ driven meme dissemination, have become a real Northern intellectual, cultural and technological UK Powerhouse instead of, like many other working class northern towns, remaining an example of ‘the attainment gap’, which Academisation or anything else fails to close.

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