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 Learning Instinct

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

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

Behaviourist

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

Marxist

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

The Chomsky/Pinker/Piaget/Vygotsky position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through others we become ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples from the rule book.

Sit up straight

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

Listen carefully

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

Never interrupt

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

Track the teacher

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

The beginning and end of lessons

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the inspiration for the ‘Inspiration Trust’?

The answer could perhaps be found here.

 

 

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There is another way and it appears to work

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Cognitive development needs relaxed brains.

 Most secondary school students are competent in many European languages.

 There are no multiple choice exam questions.

 There is no national system of standardised testing.

 Schools are about enabling their students to find happiness.

 There is an emphasis on personal and cognitive development.

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

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

 There is no private school sector in Finland.

 All schools are student-centred.

 There is no business culture in Finnish schools.

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

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

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

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

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

And Janet Downs posted this one.

And Debra Kidd posted this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking out of that maths shite

well that was bloody awful

I apologise to the examiner for the tears on my paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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When is a skill not a skill?

Answer: when it’s a general cognitive ability.

In the behaviourist ideology of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that is increasingly dominating the English school system through the expansion of Academies and Free Schools, the validity of general cognitive ability (intelligence) is denied. What is taught to school pupils is considered to be ‘facts’ and ‘skills’. The assumption is that there is nothing that cannot be learned through the behaviourist methods of instruction and remembering facilitated by disciplined silent listening, lots of practise with similar examples and regular testing, all incentivised through formal regimes of rewards and punishments.

The increasing domination of this ideology can be seen from this recent report in ‘i News’

“Just 3 per cent of teenagers believe problem solving skills and creativity are essential attributes to have on their CVs, according to an in-depth survey into young people’s views of work. Only a fraction more, 4 per cent, believe leadership and social skills are vital for the workplace, while 5 per cent chose self-confidence and the ability to work in a team. The study comes just weeks after the CBI published its annual education and skills report, which revealed that 40 per cent of businesses are not satisfied by the level of problem solving skills among school leavers.”

The ‘i News’ article is illustrated by a picture of a Rubik Cube, implying that solving this classic 3D puzzle is a ‘problem solving skill’. It certainly is a skill, but is it ‘problem solving’ in any general sense? I know it is a skill because my grandson can do it within a minute. There are a number of algorithms (instructions in sequential steps) for achieving this and you can find them from Google. But this is not a general problem solving ability in the sense lamented by the CBI as lacking in our school leavers. A problem solving ability is a characteristic of general intelligence. Unlike solving a Rubik Cube, for which the skill is specific to Rubik Cubes, the cognitive level needed to solve a novel problem is transferable to all problems.

Someone with such an ability will have a high IQ and someone lacking it will have a lower one. What the CBI is really lamenting is that our school system is failing to raise the general intelligence of our school leavers. The truth is worse than that: such general intelligence is in fact in decline – The ‘Anti-Flynn effect’.

The cause of this cognitive decline is the spread of GERM ideology throughout the English education system.

The vector for this contagion is marketisation through the promotion of Academy and Free Schools.

The indicator of the presence of the contagion is denial that conceptualisation is a key feature of deep learning and its replacement by ‘skills training’ on a ‘vocational training’ model.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has shown that the GERM methods are ineffective and that approaches based on the conscious development of personal concepts (metacognition) and their sharing with peers as well as with the teacher are highly effective.

The difference between concept-based developmental learning and the instruction-based GERM methods are stark. Classrooms where effective developmental learning is taking place will be characterised by lots of enthusiasm and talk. See this example of such an approach that is readily transferable to school-based learning.  See also this description of science teaching that shows how the development of understanding needs much more than the rote learning of facts imparted by the teacher.

The cover illustration of my book, ‘Learning Matters’ shows pupils sitting in rows silently listening to their teacher, who is standing in front of the class. One pupil is passing a note to another, “Do you get it coz I don’t ?”.

‘Getting it’ is the objective of deep, developmental learning and is best achieved as a social process where ‘not getting it’ can be freely disclosed and the barriers to understanding discussed between peers as well as with the teacher.

‘Getting it’, is also a phrase that is applied to the appreciation of jokes. All parents will know that very young children often ‘do not get’ the jokes they still delight in having remembered. I strongly suspect a Piagetian developmental explanation for this. Could it be that children need to have developed their cognition from the ‘pre-operational’ to the ‘concrete operational’ stage before they ‘get’ jokes?

I don’t think this is trivial. Can young children be trained to ‘get’ jokes? Is ‘getting’ jokes a skill or a cognitive developmental issue? I am sure it is the latter. I will conclude with this profound quote from Vygotsky.

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.

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The ‘attainment gap’ still misunderstood

This is the latest example from a BBC report of 3 August.

“The very poorest children in England have fallen even further behind their non-disadvantaged classmates since 2007, research says. The Education Policy Institute study suggests the most disadvantaged pupils are more than two years behind their classmates when they sit their GCSEs. These children were those entitled to free school meals for 80% of their time at secondary school. The Education Secretary has warned of a social mobility emergency. And in a recent speech, Justine Greening highlighted some areas of the country with an “entrenched disadvantage” – where low skills and poor employment were found in a downward spiral alongside underachieving schools.

 The EPI report Closing the Gap? acknowledged the disadvantage gap had been entrenched in the education system for generations and that successive governments had tried to tackle it.”

This last paragraph is true and it is sad that the repeated failure of successive governments to, ‘close the gap’ has not led to a more fundamental examination of the issue, which involves asking deeper questions about the nature of ‘the gap’. I have written about this many times.

There is indeed a gap. It is a cognitive ability (general intelligence) gap. It is not one that be closed because of the fact of natural variation, which is precisely described by the statistical normal distribution (bell curve).

For example, measured on the UK IQ  scale (UK mean = 100), the mean Singapore IQ is 9 points higher (73rd percentile). This means that only 27 per cent of the UK population have an IQ equal to or greater than that of the average Singaporean. However, the IQ population profile of Singapore has the same bell curve pattern as that of the UK. The difference is that while the mean UK IQ is 100, the mean Singapore IQ on the same scale is 109. The whole Singapore bell curve is shifted upwards on the IQ scale while maintaining the same mathematical form.

Is this important? Of course it is. It means that on average Singaporeans are brighter than Brits and explains why Singapore tops the PISA international school pupil performance ratings. It also means that school pupils with attainment at the low levels that concern the Education Policy Institute and Justine Greening are thinner on the ground in Singapore than they are in England. Does this mean that the Singaporean school system is better than that of those in the UK? Not necessarily. When the international PISA test results are adjusted to take account of mean national IQs, then both Singapore and England come out badly. I explain and discuss the implications of this here and here.

So what is the real reason for the ‘gap’ reported by the EPI? The answer is simple. The ‘gap’ is an attainment gap (GCSE performance). But GCSE attainment is driven by cognitive ability. How do we know that? Firstly, from the common experience of teachers all over the world that some school pupils are brighter than others and that other things being equal (eg quality of schooling), brighter pupils do better in academic attainment tests than less bright pupils.

Secondly, we have the hard statistical evidence. In the 1990s the Cumbria LEA purchased ‘Cognitive Ability Tests’ (CATs) from NfER and all Y7 pupils in its secondary schools took these tests. This included my headship school. The results were used by the LEA to drive extra funding for schools on the basis of the number of pupils in each school whose CATs scores fell below a designated level. This was the ‘non-statutory SEN allowance’ for Cumbria schools. Throughout my headship I sat on the LEA head’s committee that managed the taking of the tests and the Cumbria system of non-statutory SEN funding. Several clear patterns emerged from the Cumbria wide CATs data.

The first was that in general its schools tended to perform at GCSE in accordance with their mean intake CATs scores. Each year the LEA used this information to plot a chart that recorded GCSE performance against mean Y7 CATs score for every school and a regression line was produced. This identified the schools above the regression line (good performers) and those below it (poor performers).

The second pattern was the vast range in the mean intake CATs scores of Cumbria schools. My school had the lowest (score 85, 16th percentile), but despite this we were always well above the regression line. The Cumbria school performance ‘league table’ based on this intake cognitive ability mediated basis was quite different to that of the government’s published School Performance Tables..

The third pattern was that each school’s GCSE performance was inversely related to the school’s Socio-Economic Status (SES) data, of which Free School Meals eligibility  was a good proxy. In other words there was indeed  an ‘attainment gap’ between FSM pupils and the rest, however in general all pupils, FSM and otherwise performed according to the CATs score regardless of parental affluence.

The fundamental reason for the ‘attainment gap’ is that pupils from poorer backgrounds tend to have lower cognitive abilities. This is why the ‘attainment gap’ persists despite all the government initiatives, ‘zero tolerance of failure’, head sackings, school closures and Academisation and Free School promotions. None of these have worked because they are remedies for an incorrect diagnosis of the problem. They are the educational equivalent of ‘blood letting’, where the response of doctors to failure of the patient to respond was to take more blood, ultimately ending in death. The analogy with the education policies of New Labour and Conservative governments is apposite.

Some years ago I wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper that addressed this issue, but the then education editor would not publish it unless I removed any suggestion that poorer pupils were on average less cognitively able than more affluent ones, despite this being a fact readily verifiable by GL Assessment who now market the CATs, and every school and Multi Academy Trust that uses them, usually to drive ‘fair banding’ admissions policies. The London Borough of Hackney, in which all the pupils have been taking CATs in Y6 for many years, also has the data that show this relationship. Part 4 of my book, ‘Learning Matters‘, contains a case study of the implications of Mossbourne Community Academy’s CATs driven banded admissions policy for its curriculum and GCSE results. Mossbourne, The (Hackney) Learning Trust and GL Assessment all assisted in this work, which has been shared with them. None have ever challenged its conclusions.

The relationship between poverty and cognitive ability has been known to heads and governors of secondary schools for decades, which is why after the 1988 Education Reform Act compelled all schools to compete on the basis of the raw aggregated attainment of their pupils, those schools that had powers over their admissions policies (Academies and Religious Schools) were increasingly inclined to find ways of cutting down the numbers of FSM children they had to admit. The most common approach has been to vastly increase the cost of the compulsory school uniform, but many other strategies are in use. LEAs were also well aware of this relationship, which is why most tried to achieve cognitively balanced intakes by imposing catchment areas that contained a mix of affluent and poor postcodes. Academisation destroyed the ability of Local Authorities to impose catchment areas and introduced an admissions free for all. This resulted in those schools located in affluent post codes (therefore admitting fewer less bright children on the basis of proximity) got better exam results, climbed the local league table, had more Y7 applications and were therefore able to deny entry to ever greater numbers of poorer pupils that lived further from the school, so increasing the mean intake cognitive ability, therefore getting better exam results etc. etc. The exact converse happened to schools located in the heart of poor communities. This admission inequality issue was solved by the introduction of CATs driven fair banding, which was not available to LA schools, except in Hackney.

The fact that poorer postcodes tend to produce lower cognitive ability pupils is not controversial. In every society for which we have data, educational achievement is positively correlated with their parents’ level of education or with other indicators of socio-economic status. This topic is central in social science. What remains controversial is the range of speculation as to the reason for this pattern, ranging from genetic inheritance, through qualitatively different parenting, to class and ethnicity based discrimination by teachers and schools.

It is not necessary to get into any of this, because regardless of the mechanisms, the result is that better educated parents, that tend to raise more cognitively able children, are usually more successful in their careers and so can afford to live in more affluent areas. This tendency towards social stratification has grown in recent decades. I write here from my personal experience of the cognitive decline of a South Birmingham council estate.

If the foregoing is not shocking enough, it is not the worst consequence of the misunderstanding of the real nature of the ‘attainment gap’.

This arises from the general failure of the government and the increasingly  ‘business culture’ background of leaders of schools that are immersed in the ‘marketisation’ paradigm to recognise the fact of plastic intelligence and the opportunity that this provides for schools to teach in a way that increases the cognitive ability (general intelligence) of all their pupils including the most cognitively disadvantaged.

I write about the profound potential benefits of Labour’s proposed National Education Service here.

Unfortunately, in the marketised English education system, the response of the government to low attainment is to blame the schools, resulting in the sacking of heads and mass Academisation. This being the case it is no surprise that heads with lots of FSM children may be panicked into ‘quick fix’, behaviourist approaches to improving their school’s exam results. This has a theoretical underpinning from the neo-con economic movement of the US that inspired Margaret Thatcher and her ideological disciple, Tony Blair. I write about this here.

With the privatisation and marketisation of the English GCSE Examination Boards these methods can appear to work, but with the consequence of abusively severe pupil disciplinary systems and shallow ‘training based’ learning that suppresses the development of cognitive ability and fails to equip pupils for transition to cognitively demanding higher education. The consequence is an ‘Anti-Flynn’ effect of declining national IQ.

When it comes to variations in attainment between pupils it is necessary to understand not only that this cannot be reduced, but any attempt so to do makes the ‘gap’ wider (as EPI reports) and degrades the education system as a whole by robbing all pupils of all abilities of their entitlement to a cognitively development education throughout life.

The solution to unacceptably low standards is not to try to ‘close the gap’, or mathematically impossible attempts to bring the poorer achievers up to the average, but to develop the cognitive ability of all pupils at all levels in the bell curve distribution, while simultaneously addressing specific gaps in knowledge and understanding. In other words we must stop trying to deny the bell curve, or attempting to squash the ends into the middle, but lift it as a whole to higher levels for all pupils of all abilities. Slower learners may justify greater investment in aspects of their learning development to help them overcome specific cognitive hurdles, but not for the purpose of reducing the ‘gap’ between the highest and lowest achievers. This is not only doomed to fail, but its pursuit, by raising apparent attainment through the behaviourist approaches of didactic instruction backed by incentives and harsh discipline, risks damaging the cognitive development and deep learning of all pupils.

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Why Labour’s National Education Service is such a powerful idea

Mellissa Benn wrote about this in a Guardian article of 18 July 2017:

There could not be a more favourable time for the development of a fresh vision for state education, one that is, in the words of one senior leader, “based on ethical service with the re-professionalisation, and trust, of teachers at its heart.” The market-driven policies of the last decade have pretty much run into the ground. Free schools and mass academisation are no longer considered the cure-all for social or educational inequality; parents are beginning to rebel against a narrow curriculum, too much testing and rogue school admissions systems; and there is unease about heads of multi-academy trusts earning two or three times more than the prime minister, while teachers’ pay has crawled up just 1%. More generally, there’s a feeling of a vacuum in authority and policymaking at the heart of government, particularly after the failure of May’s grammar school initiative.

If more support for Melissa’s argument is needed, as I write this article it has emerged that the marketisation of the English education system has brought about a huge increase in the proportion of lessons taught by unqualified teachers in our schools.

This reflects the fundamental change in teaching methods brought about by marketisation spreading to, and so corrupting Local Authority schools, as well as Academy and Free Schools. Business focused Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) are responsible for this ideology, supported by the Department for Education and uncritically condoned by OfSTED, the government’s puppet school regulator.

Academisation is the English implementation of the ‘Global Education Reform Movement‘. It results in the replacement of ‘Headteachers’ by ‘Executive Principals’ and the domination of the ‘behaviourist’ assumptions that flow from the culture of ‘training’ that MATs impose onto their schools. I am not criticising training. I want the people that drive the 125+mph trains that take me to London to be well trained. Such training requires learning the BR drivers’ handbook by heart and lots of practise in simulators.

But training is not education, ‘telling’ is not ‘teaching’ and ‘listening’ is not learning.

This is because while the memorising of facts is an essential part of learning it is not enough to secure deep understanding. The decline of teaching for deep understanding is a serious weakness in the English education system that will be worsened by the universal Academisation that the government is seeking to bring about.  The ‘Slow Education‘ movement provides further comment on this process, but perhaps the clearest exposition comes from Vygotsky.

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.

Unqualified teachers ‘delivering packages’ in the role of ‘instructors’ within the behaviourist business paradigm of ‘training’, rather than cognitively developmental education, can indeed ‘deliver’ this sort of teaching more cheaply and with less risk of ‘insurrection’ than employing university educated teachers backed by their professional associations.

A National Education Service would be about much more than schools. It would build on Harold Wilson’s legacy of the Open University and the parallel tradition of LEA provision of adult education classes in schools and FE Colleges. In the 1980s and 90s I was fortunate to teach in a Leicestershire 14-18 Community College where adult classes and mixed adult/sixth form student classes took place in the daytime as well as evenings. The OU was not the only route to higher education for adults without academic qualifications, nor was it necessarily the best given the inevitable isolation of independent study compared to the peer to peer, seminar type arrangements possible in adult education classes. I personally know of Secondary Modern educated adults that attended daytime classes at a Leicestershire 14-18 Community College, followed by a pre-university course at Charles Keene FE College in the City of Leicester, culminating in an Honours Degree at Leicester University and a professional career.

All such opportunities have been lost with the demise of Local Education Authorities.

In my headship 11-16 inner urban comprehensive school, from which I retired in 2003, we ran a full adult education programme of evening classes supported by Cumbria County Council, which school students could also attend (free of charge). Maths and English classes were popular to support their GCSE studies. We also accepted adults from the local community into our daytime school GCSE Art classes in years 10 & 11, where they worked on drawing, painting and pottery alongside our school students. All of this is now history in our state education system, where the mean, dispiriting and dulling effects of privatisation are extending far beyond the dismal Gradgrindian curriculum imposed on our young people in so many Academies and Free Schools. As for the idea of adults (not police checked) from the local community mixing with 15/16 year-olds in lessons; this would now be seen as a shocking invitation to paedophiles even though such classes were continuously supervised by an experienced teacher, and that the vast majority of our students from the age of 11 walked to and from school through the centre of a town presumably teeming with paedophiles, as thousands of school students did (and many still do) in towns and cities throughout the country.

Of fundamental importance to adult education was the philosophy of developmental education, which is characterised by the inspiring personal challenges of the related social and cognitive nature required by the developmental, rather than behaviourist, approach that I promote in all my articles and in my book ‘Learning Matters‘.

The crucial shared assumption of a National Education Service would be that developmental education is never wasted on anybody, of any age, from the cradle to the grave. This has a powerful parallel with the NHS, which has the same principle of cradle to grave entitlement to healthcare.

It is no co-incidence that our NHS is increasingly threatened by the same privatisation agenda that is wrecking the English school system.

Like Michael Shayer (Professor of Applied Psychology), 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 ‘developmental spurts’ before adulthood. 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, poor parenting or bad schooling. This does not mean that all learners are capable of attaining the same level; the Bell Curve of natural variation always 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 understanding rather than just factual recall.

Research by the government funded Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) shows that higher ‘specific attainments in particular subjects’ are achieved as an indirect consequence of teaching for general cognitive development, than through the behaviourist ‘knowledge-based’, discipline-enforced instructional methods that are taking over the English school system through the neo-liberal Global Education Reform Movement led by Academy and Free School MATs, resulting in the destruction of public education through democratically accountable local institutions. I write about this here and here.

The problem for many on the left is that much of the international academic community that has researched cognitive development is still ignorant of the evidence for plastic intelligence and therefore remains obsessed with arguments about heritability issues. The fact that what we are born with, is far less limiting of our developmental potential than was previously thought, changes everything.

A notable example is the case of James Flynn, a ‘superstar’ of the international academic community that studies ‘intelligence’, who defined the ‘Flynn Effect’, which is the tendency for mean national IQs to increase over time in all countries with developed national education systems. The Flynn Effect is itself an obvious clue to the plasticity of intelligence. Significantly, the Flynn effect has gone into reverse in the English marketised education system and so has become an ‘anti-Flynn effect‘.

Flynn reveals his acceptance of plastic intelligence, and of developmental models of cognition in his latest book, which I review here.

Flynn writes powerfully as follows.

“my analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives! University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

 “I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current [cognitive] environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

The relevance to Labour’s National Education Service is obvious.

Further evidence for plastic intelligence and its potential for development throughout life comes from the work of David Eagleman that I write about here.

Eagleman produces fascinating evidence for the plasticity of cognition enduring not just through our youth, but into old age. Some of this evidence is from a longitudinal study of Nuns, in terms of how physical deterioration of the brain associated with dementia and confirmed through most-mortem brain analyses does not necessary match cognitive function measured prior to death. It appears to show that continuing mental challenge can result in the maintenance of high function plastic intelligence even as brain tissue is lost to age-related disease.

This suggests that although there are time windows of rapid potential cognitive development in early childhood and adolescence, all is not lost to individuals deprived of optimum cognitive stimulation at those times. I refer to this in Section C5.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘.

If Shayer and Adey are right, and I believe they are, then such developmental potential applies to all children including those born into deprived backgrounds. If a child’s brain is indeed ‘irrevocably shaped’ in the first three years of life then schooling won’t have much impact and spending a lot of taxpayer’s money on it will indeed be in vain.

This relates to my study of Mossbourne Community Academy (Part 4 of ‘Learning Matters‘). If the rejection of plasticity is correct then Mossbourne’s excellent exam results and progression to university of children from severely deprived homes (Section 4.14) shouldn’t be happening, because the ‘impaired synapse connectivity’ of early years deprivation should trump any later pedagogic intervention and limit educational attainment. A comprehensive school like Mossbourne (not run by a MAT at the time) very importantly shows that it doesn’t have to. Eagleman shows that neural plasticity has the potential to compensate for earlier impairment.

The potential for Labour’s National Education Service to dramatically improve the UK quality of life goes beyond the benefits to individuals of enhanced general intelligence, significant though they are.

There are also benefits to individual health that can not only be aggregated to the national level, but also have major implications for our economy, levels of taxation and general well being. Given that the NHS treats every ailment of every person for free out of general taxation, any connection between enhanced national IQ and health have enormous economic implications. The evidence for just such a link is overwhelming. It is not even necessary to discuss intelligence directly for the link between educational attainment and health to be clear. The conclusions of this US study undoubtedly also apply to the UK.

Socioeconomic status (SES) is usually measured by determining education, income, occupation, or a composite of these dimensions. Although education is the most commonly used measure of SES in epidemiological studies, no investigators in the United States have conducted an empirical analysis quantifying the relative impact of each separate dimension of SES on risk factors for disease. Using data on 2380 participants from the Stanford Five-City Project (85% White, non-Hispanic), we examined the independent contribution of education, income, and occupation to a set of cardiovascular disease risk factors (cigarette smoking, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and total and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol). The relationship between these SES measures and risk factors was strongest and most consistent for education, showing higher risk associated with lower levels of education. Using a forward selection model that allowed for inclusion of all three SES measures after adjustment for age and time of survey, education was the only measure that was significantly associated with the risk factors.

It is therefore reasonable to expect Labour’s National Education Service to result in a significant improvement in levels of education (and I argue, therefore mean general intelligence), so resulting in profound positive health, economic and other benefits and improvements to the quality of life of UK citizens.

The risks and social costs of dementia in our aging population currently feature at a high level in our national discourse and were a major issue in the 2017 General Election affecting the result. The following is from Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Several studies have suggested a link between mentally-stimulating leisure activities and a lower risk of dementia. Other studies have linked spending more time in education with a lower risk and research is ongoing in these areas.

This supports the conclusions of the nuns study reported by David Eagleman. It appears that while education cannot prevent the physical loss of brain tissue, it can mitigate the effects by remodelling the remaining brain tissue to make it cleverer.

The social implications of general intelligence have been most famously and comprehensively researched in the US by Herrnstein and Murray and published in their book, ‘The Bell Curve‘.

This book remains highly controversial and is dismissed and rejected by many on the left. I can understand this because the authors do not believe in ‘plastic intelligence’. They make this clear in Chapter 17. However, they are not educationalists and in this respect I believe them to be wrong. However they do recognise in the same chapter that, “Raising intelligence significantly, consistently and affordably would circumvent many of the problems [of low IQ] that we have described.

PART II is entitled ‘Cognitive classes and social behaviour’ and addresses issues relating low cognitive ability to poor outcomes in terms of poverty, schooling, unemployment, idleness, injury, family breakdown, welfare dependency, parenting, crime, civility and citizenship.

However uncomfortable the conclusions, the evidence, methodology and statistical soundness of their work is not disputed by serious academics.

Here in the UK these discomforting social patterns are often explained by the left, not in relation to cognitive ability, but in terms of class, ethnic or religious discrimination. Of course such discrimination persists, but I produce evidence to take issue with these explanations in relation to the UK ‘educational attainment gap’ here.

I will conclude with what I see as one of the most interesting and profoundly socially relevant sections of the Bell Curve research.

It is that improvements in cognitive ability result in enhanced vocational performance for jobs at all levels of cognitive demand including the most menial. This is very important to our education system where the value of providing cognitively challenging education for students at lower cognitive ability levels is still questioned.

It is the justification for 11 plus selection for grammar schools and for selection within schools into ‘vocational’ and ‘academic streams’ on the false basis that it is only worth developing the intellect of the most cognitively able. The rest are argued to be ‘more suited’ to cognitively undemanding ‘vocational training’ from the age of 14. I reject this in all my published work and am happy to cite this example from ‘The Bell Curve’.

In the following quotation a ‘busboy’ is the lowest level of employee in an American restaurant.

Being a busboy is a straightforward job. The waiter takes the orders, deals with the kitchen, and serves the food while the busboy totes the dirty dishes out to the kitchen, keeps the water glasses filled, and helps the waiter serve or clear as required. But complications arise. A busboy usually works with more than one waiter. The restaurant gets crowded. A dozen things are happening at once. The busboy is suddenly faced with queuing problems; with setting priorities. A really good busboy gets the key station cleared in the nick of time, remembering that a table of new orders near that particular station is going to be coming out of the kitchen; when he goes to the kitchen, he gets a fresh water pitcher and a fresh condiment tray to save an extra trip. He knows which waiters appreciate extra help and when they need it. The really good busboy is engaged in using his cognitive ability when he is solving the problems of his job, and the higher his cognitive ability the more quickly he comes up with the solutions and can call upon them when appropriate.

The point is one that should draw broad agreement from readers that have done menial jobs: intelligence helps.

So Labour’s National Education Service will not only raise educational standards in our schools, but will bring profound benefits to all aspects of our national life.

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Is the EEF failing to see the wood for the trees?

For many years the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which is part funded by the Department for Education, has been evaluating approaches to teaching and learning in English schools.

“The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is an independent charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, ensuring that children and young people from all backgrounds can make the most of their talents. We aim to raise the attainment of 3-18 year-olds, particularly those facing disadvantage; develop their essential life skills; and prepare young people for the world of work and further study.

We do this by generating evidence of what works to improve teaching and learning, funding robust trials of high-potential programmes and approaches which have yet to be tested. We then support schools, nurseries and colleges across the country in using evidence so that it has the maximum possible benefit for young people. Founded by the education charity the Sutton Trust, as lead charity in partnership with Impetus Trust, the EEF received a founding grant of £125m from the Department for Education. With investment and fundraising income, the EEF intends to award as much as £200m over the 15-year life of the Foundation.”

I have no reason to doubt the quality of EEF educational research or its potential for raising standards in our schools, but it has a serious problem that is deeply embedded in its founding objective. It is dedicated to “breaking the link between family income and educational achievement.”

This is not surprising given the association with the Sutton Trust, which also bases its work on the same false assumption that such a link exists.

I explained this fallacy in the first article on my website in January 2015. This coincided with the publication of my book, ‘Learning Matters’. This false link continues to be accepted without question by the government, the mainstream education community, the Labour Party, the NUT and the media in general. The truth is that it is cognitive ability (general intelligence) that drives school attainment. For pupils with similar levels of cognitive ability there is no significant link with parental affluence. The illusory causal association is a result of the actual link between cognitive ability and parental affluence.

I discovered this initially through my experience as a Cumbria head from 1989 to 2003, when I was a member of the LEA working group on the use of cognitive ability tests (CATs) for driving additional funding in the Cumbria school funding formula. Many years later, I carried out a case study of Mossbourne Community Academy (and the Hackney Borough Education Service in general)  in relation to the role of  CATs driven banded admissions arrangements in improving GCSE attainment. This is described in detail in Part 4 of my book. If the EEF, Sutton Trust, DfE, the Labour Party, the NUT or anybody else wishes to question this then they should ask ‘The Hackney Learning Trust‘, which is the schools division of Hackney Borough Council.

The Hackney Learning Trust has full and comprehensive CATs, GCSE and FSM data going back many years. It is a fact that, on average, FSM children perform in a similar manner to other children with similar CATs scores. This is true, on average, for all children regardless of parental affluence. The illusion of the ‘affluence attainment gap’ is a result of the well established  pattern of less affluent postcodes having a disproportionate number of lower CATs score children. This too is of course, on average. All schools and admission authorities that have CATs based ‘fair banding’ admission policies have the quantitative data that demonstrates this well established relationship.

This also emerged from my Mossbourne Community Academy study, with the data set out in by book. It can be confirmed by the Hackney Learning Trust. Any experienced comprehensive school head will know that this is true. It is why schools that have the power to set their own admission policies (eg Academies, Free Schools and some religious schools) may seek to deter the children of less affluent parents, which they rightly recognise as less likely to achieve the benchmark DfE and OfSTED aggregated SATs and GCSE results, thus threatening the future of the school and the job of the head.

Before Local Management of schools, Local Education Authorities (LEAs) usually tried to achieve balanced cognitive ability school intakes by manipulating school catchment areas so that all schools admitted their ‘fair share’ of pupils from less affluent postcodes. Some LEAs tried harder than others in this regard, with no clear relationship with the political party that controlled the Education Committee.

To be clear, I am not saying that parental upbringing has no effect on school attainment, just that parental affluence has a minimal effect compared to cognitive ability. Grossly abusive parents clearly disadvantage their children in many ways including school attainment.

As I make clear in all my published work, the importance of cognitive ability/general intelligence does not mean that this is fixed through genes or upbringing. It is plastic and can be substantially developed or inhibited by good or bad schooling, as borne out EEF research.

The problem for the marketised English education system is that ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools can be poor when it comes to developing cognitive and other abilities, while schools ‘requiring improvement’ or even ‘failing’ can be much better in this regard. Sadly school ‘performance data’ now always trumps the judgement of the few experienced (former HMI) school inspectors that remain in the system.

The findings of EEF research for specific initiatives (the ‘trees’) form a coherent pattern (‘the wood’), which EEF only hints at, that supports my argument. I first wrote about this here and here.

This is especially clear from the five reports published by EEF in July 2017.

Dialogic Teaching

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

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

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

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

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science

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

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

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

Success for All

Success for All (SfA) is a whole-school approach to improving literacy in primary schools. All teachers and senior leaders are involved, with the school receiving a total of 16 training and support days. Teachers receive pedagogical training – for example on effective phonics teaching – and teaching materials such as structured lesson plans. For the school leadership team there is support in areas such as data management, ability grouping and parental engagement.”

 This was completely different in nature to the previous two initiatives. It is all about the transmission of knowledge and information through learning packages ‘delivered’ in a structured manner to children in ability groups, with the whole process overseen by school management  through testing and ‘data management’. No mention of pupil talk or social interaction of any kind. Most primary teachers would recognise the mainstream current orthodoxy promoted by the DfE and enforced through OfSTED.

This trial found that Reception pupils in SFA schools made a small amount of additional progress compared to pupils in other schools after two years. The effect was slightly larger for pupils eligible for free school meals, but in both cases it was smaller than those found in previous evaluations.

EEF has no plans for a further trial of Success for All.

Challenge the gap

Challenge the Gap (CtG) is a school collaboration programme designed by Challenge Partners that aims to break the link between disadvantage and attainment. The main components of CtG are: after-school workshops drawing on published research and evidenced practice; focused in-school interventions with a selected cohort of disadvantaged pupils; cross-school collaboration and practice development; and practical tools and resources for use in schools and additional online materials.  Each school is assigned to a ‘trio’, comprising one ‘Lead’ school, which has demonstrated effective practices for reducing the attainment gap, and two ‘Accelerator’ schools, for which closing the attainment gap is a major priority. The programme lasts for a year, during which expertise is transferred from Lead to Accelerator schools. Schools initially target programme activity at a small group of disadvantaged students (12–15 in each school), with a view to rolling out the best practice more widely across the school and sharing what they have learned with new partner schools in subsequent years. The different approaches in each Lead school mean that practices vary between each trio.

The project found no evidence that Challenge the Gap (CtG) increased average attainment for either primary or secondary school pupils, overall. The security of the primary school results is low to moderate, and the security for the secondary school results is low.

The findings are different for children eligible for free school meals. FSM eligible children in CtG primary schools made 2 months’ additional progress compared to similar children in other schools, while FSM eligible children in CtG secondary schools made 2 months’ fewer progress compared to similar children in other schools. The smaller number of FSM eligible students in the trial means that these results are less secure than the overall findings

“The overall primary school findings, however, are of low to moderate security, meaning that we have limited confidence that they happened as a result of CtG. FSM findings involve fewer pupils and are likely to be less secure than the overall finding. In secondary schools there was no impact on the cohort overall, and a negative impact (also of two months) on the progress of children eligible for free school meals. This indicates that the gap might be widening in secondary schools. The secondary school results are of low security, meaning that we cannot be confident that they happened as a result of the intervention.”

The EEF findings were generally negative, especially given the relatively high cost per pupil of the intervention.

However, if there is no gap, it is hardly surprising that this initiative struggled to close it.

 Achieve Together

 “Achieve Together is an initiative devised and delivered by Teach First, Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust, to support leadership development and collaboration within schools in disadvantaged areas. Achieve Together offered subsidised leadership development training for teachers in middle and senior leadership roles, and placed graduates into schools. Beyond the programmes, Achieve Together offered a range of support to facilitate collaboration and alignment across these programmes, with participants working together on a school improvement impact initiative.

“The study provides no evidence that pupils’ GCSE outcomes improved in the participating schools, compared with a group of similar schools. While all of the schools used the individual programmes offered by the charities, approaches to the accompanying school improvement collaboration differed. Some schools were positive and teachers felt it improved their reflective practice. In other schools participants considered it resource-intensive and found it difficult to align the individual programme activities into a single project. Overall, the study provides no evidence that this version of Achieve Together is an effective way to improve GCSE results over and above any impact of the individual charity programmes.”

EEF funded this evaluation to test whether schools in disadvantaged areas would benefit from three leading education charities –Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders – working together to improve school outcomes.”

The answer was a clear, ‘No’.

What is the reason for this failure?

Could it be that ‘Teach First’ substitutes ‘on the job training‘ in Academy Schools directed by Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), for traditional ‘teacher education‘ in an academic  university setting that includes the full study of theories of learning? In other words ‘Teach First’ could be lacking in sufficient academic understanding of how children learn. As for the other charities that have since changed their names, see this Schools Week article from which I quote as follows.

School minister Nick Gibb said the report by Ambition School Leadership “underlines the need” to focus the government’s efforts in the ‘opportunity areas’. He added: “Excellent school leadership will be vital so we welcome the work of Ambition School Leadership in training the next generation of school leaders and their focus on areas with historically low levels of social mobility.” Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust have more than 18 years’ experience of developing aspiring leaders, and between them, have trained more than 3,500 school leaders. Today’s report found that in order to stop the decline in progress, there must be an increase the number of “high-quality” leaders in the ‘opportunity areas’ and better support for those in post. Toop said his newly merged organisation could now address that need by “offering participants end-to-end development pathways covering all levels of leadership”. He added: “Our professional networks have become stronger and more diverse, delivering more peer-to-peer support.”

The jargon is familiar as is the ‘magic money tree‘ that has funded these failures. The false assumptions are not only that an ‘achievement gap’ exists, but that the problem lies with failures of ‘leadership’, implying that teachers are not being ‘effectively led’ and that the solution is a new model army of leaders without either classroom teaching experience or academic qualifications in education or how children learn, but are well versed in the 21st century business models of corporate leadership of organisations, of which schools are just another example of the failure to apply the neo-liberal principles of market capitalism.

I write about this further here.

In conclusion, I have been a bit hard on EEF. I have no reason to doubt the quality of their work. (I do have doubts about the ‘months of additional progress’ success criterion.) The EEF findings are important, as is their tentative speculation that there might be an important general pattern emerging.

“The consistent results across subjects suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than subject knowledge alone. This is backed up by evidence summarised in our Teaching and Learning Toolkit that advises metacognition approaches – strategies that encourage pupils to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning – are a particularly effective way of improving results.”

Many more examples of this approach are given in Part 5 of ‘Learning Matters‘.

The EEF conclusions are all very true, and in need of stronger expression,  but no sign whatever of a change of course on the part of our Conservative government or the Trump-led education ‘reforms’ in the US, where the current behaviourist takeover of the school systems on both sides of the Atlantic, that is so damaging, had its origins.

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

The same applies to Jeremy Corbyn, Angela Rayner and the NUT.

I welcome comment, challenge and debate about the content and conclusions of this and my other linked articles.

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