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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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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Can within-classroom inequalities ever be closed?

I return to the work of Professor Rebecca (Becky) Allen, Director of the Centre for Education Improvement Science, UCL Institute of Education, who has published a set of three articles analysing the fallacies peddled by DfE, the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Foundation, the Education Policy Institute and others that are so frequently and uncritically echoed in the mainstream media. I discuss her first two articles here.

I now move on to her third article, which addresses profound issues at the heart of the debate that Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman raises in her letter to the Public Accounts Committee, which is currently causing tension within OfSTED and the DfE.  Janet Downs discusses this here.

The following selection of quotes (in italics) from Becky’s third article are my attempt to summarise her arguments. My comments are in square brackets.

I used to think social inequalities in educational outcomes could be substantially reduced by ensuring everyone had equal access to our best schools. [However EEF research found that ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘Special Measures’ schools in closing ‘The Attainment Gap’.]

That is why I devoted so many years to researching school admissions. Our schools are socially stratified and those serving disadvantaged communities are more likely to have unqualified, inexperienced and non-specialist teachers. We should fix this, but even if we do, these inequalities in access to experienced teachers are nowhere near stark enough to make a substantial dent on the attainment gap. In a rare paper to address this exact question, Graham Hobbs found just 7% of social class differences in educational achievement at age 11 can be accounted for by differences in the effectiveness of schools attended [my bold].

Despite wishing it weren’t true for the past 15 years of my research career, I have to accept that inequalities in our schooling system largely emerge between children who are sitting in the same classroom [my bold]. If you want to argue with me that it doesn’t happen in your own classroom, then I urge you to read the late Graham Nuthall’s book, The Hidden Lives of Learners, to appreciate why you are (probably) largely unaware of individual student learning taking place. This makes uncomfortable reading for teachers and presents something of an inconvenience to policy-makers because it gives us few obvious levers to close the attainment gap. [But you have already argued convincingly that the ‘attainment gap’ is a distraction. Pupils become inattentive and frustrated when they are bored, or more seriously, when despite their best efforts they don’t understand what the teacher is going on about and the school culture is so oppressive that they are afraid to ask the teacher and not permitted to ask their peers for help.]

New cover with new type

In an increasing number of Academies and Free Schools the two students illustrated on the cover of my book would get a detention, or even ‘solitary confinement’ for revealing their cognitive discomfort in such a way. Such punishments would no more enable the understanding of complex concepts than does the ‘instructional’ approach of the teacher.

So, what should we do? We could declare it all hopeless because social inequalities in attainment are inevitable. Perhaps they arise through powerful biological and environmental forces that are beyond the capabilities of schools to overcome.

It is true that inequalities are indeed inevitable, but this does not mean that schools are powerless to enhance inherited levels of intelligence.

The basis for the incredible diversity of patterns of life on earth is evolution through natural selection. Natural selection is driven by inequalities between offspring. Rare, large scale differences can emerge through genetic mutations, but significant smaller scale differences are the inevitable result of sexual reproduction. The reason why sexual reproduction is near universal amongst  dominant species of complex animals and plants is because it has so successfully driven natural selection through the generation of diversity of offspring. Every parent with more than one child knows that siblings (except identical twins) often vary greatly in temperament, personality, physical ability, talents and intelligence.

Schools need to adopt the same policy that comes naturally to parents – unconditional love, celebration and support for all their children to develop their abilities and talents without limit. No sensible parent expects ‘equality’ of attainment between their children in all aspects of their talents and abilities. Before the disastrous marketisation of the English education system, the common law dictated that schools and teachers should always be guided by the principle of ‘in loco parentis’ – respond as would a reasonable parent.

This principle is as sound now as it has ever been and all schools should act on it at all times.

If you read a few papers about genetics and IQ it is easy to start viewing schools as a ‘bit part’ in the production of intelligence.

But this would be a mistake. Part 4 of ‘Learning Matters’ comprises my study of the importance of admissions systems to the effectiveness of schools, using the example of Mossbourne Academy in particular and the London Borough of Hackney in general. Mossbourne demonstrated that a good, well resourced comprehensive school can, to a very considerable extent, overcome disadvantageous home backgrounds such that the strong link between cognitive ability and attainment persists, despite variations in Social and Economic disadvantage (SES).

Similarly, children’s home lives heavily influence attainment, but how we organise our schools and classrooms is an important moderator in how and why that influence emerges [my bold].

I disagree with Sir Michael Wilshaw about a great deal (especially his enthusiasm for academisation), but he is right in his confidence in the power of comprehensive schools to enhance the life chances of pupils of all abilities, from all social backgrounds and for his persistent, soundly-based criticism of the destructive impact of selective schools.

Focusing on inequalities in cognitive function rather than socio-economic status

In earlier blogs I have argued that noting the letters ‘PP’ on seating plans does not provide teachers with useful information for classroom instruction. I think paying more attention to variation in cognitive function within a class has far more value than their pupil premium status [my bold][You are right.]

The neuroscience of socio-economic status is a new but rapidly  growing field and SES-related disparities have already been consistently observed for working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and attention. There is much that is still to be understood about why these inequalities emerge, but for a teacher faced with a class to teach, their origins are not particularly important [my bold].What matters is that they use instructional methods that give students in their class the best possible chances of success, given the variation in cognitive function they will possess. 

But what we also now know is that ‘instructional’ is a poor descriptor of the collaborative approaches to teaching and learning that have been proven to enhance cognitive development in all pupils regardless of SES.

Implications for the classroom

There are a number of very successful schools I have visited where shutting down the choices about what students get to pay attention to during class is clearly the principal instrument for success.

But, there is dangerous circularity here. ‘Successful’ schools are presumably those that get ‘outstanding’ judgements from OfSTED. But there is growing evidence that OfSTED inspectors have favoured extreme, punishment-based, oppressive approaches. This incentivises schools to adopt such methods.

I am glad I have visited them, despite the state of cognitive dissonance they induce in me. On the one hand, I am excited to see schools where the quality of student work is beyond anything I thought it was possible to achieve at scale. On the other hand, their culture violates all my preconceptions about what school should be like. Childhood is for living, as well as for learning, and I find it uncomfortable to imagine my own children experiencing anything other than the messy classrooms of educational, social and interpersonal interactions that I did [my bold].

But beware – the Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) that tend to impose such approaches are often the very ones that increasingly concern the Chief Inspector of Schools in relation to ‘off-rolling’ and other ways of seeking to ‘unload’ the pupils unlikely to boost the GCSE results of the school.

There is also growing evidence that the apparent success at GCSE achieved through ‘zero tolerance’ enforced by harsh discipline does not survive well from Y11 to Y12 in terms of the take-up of demanding academic subjects at A Level, because students have been so ‘turned off’ by their KS4 experience. Even when such courses can be filled, the drop out rates are often high. This has led to OfSTED concerns.


The pupil premium, as a bundle of cash that sits outside general school funding with associated monitoring and reporting requirements, isn’t helping us close the attainment gap. [True, but in your Part 1 you correctly stated that] tracking whether or not ‘the gap’ has closed over time is largely meaningless, even at the national level [my bold].

We shouldn’t ring fence funds for pupil premium students, not least because they may not be the lowest income or most educationally disadvantaged students in the school. We should stop measuring or monitoring school attainment gaps because it is a largely statistically meaningless exercise that doesn’t help us identify what is and isn’t working in our school. In any case, ‘gaps’ matter little to students from poorer backgrounds; absolute levels of attainment do [my bold].


Why absolute levels of attainment are far more important than futile attempts at ‘gap closing’.

Let us consider an analogy with physical ability and health. I am a member of a Nuffield Health Club gym and swimming pool in Barrow. Members can have a ‘physical ability check’. Let us hypothesise that ‘physical ability test scores’ (PATs) could be provided on a standardised scale like IQ.

1. A ‘bell curve’ distribution (like IQ) would result.

2. There would be a ‘PATs attainment gap’ related to SES (like IQ).

3. As in Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) scores, the Cumbria coastal band associated with  low CATs scores would be replicated with PATs scores. See my previous article.

4. Part of PATs scores would be attributable to genetic inheritance (think Usain Bolt and Simone Byles) and part to environmental factors (training) , with ongoing debate as to the relative weightings (as with IQ).

5. PATs scores would indicate general physical ability that transfers to other physical activities and sports (think Usain Bolt and football), just as general intelligence/cognitive ability transfers across different cognitive challenges in different subjects (eg music).

As a gym member I witness high levels of obesity and poor health, such that many older members (and some younger) struggle to walk up and down the pool, while the fitness machines and high intensity exercise classes cater for the younger sport and ‘body shape’ enthusiasts.

So what should be the aim of the gym? To achieve physical ability equality, or to maximise the health and physical capabilities of all members at all levels of health and fitness? It is obviously the latter and the benefits to the costs of the NHS, welfare/disability benefits and to individual mobility and quality of life would be huge, for even modest gains in absolute levels of health and physical fitness.

So why should it be any difference for cognitive ability and performance? The national benefits of raising the cognitive ability of the whole population from school children to the very old would be massive. I discuss some of these here and here.

There is a direct transfer to physical and mental health. Millions of people make irrational decisions about nutrition in response to clever marketing, and millions more suffer disastrous mental health consequences, including suicides, from becoming addicted to forms of gambling, like fixed odds betting terminals and ‘betting in play’ during televised football matches that disproportionately entrap those with lower absolute levels of cognitive ability.

Daniel Kahneman makes a huge contribution to this field through his distinction between ‘System 1’ (fast and reactive) and ‘System 2’ (slow and cerebral) thinking.

I first came across Daniel Kahneman by accident on listening to BBC Radio 4 in June 2012, when he was being interviewed about his new book. He repeated the following puzzle and the programme presenter asked the audience to phone in their solutions.

A bat and ball costs £1.10 in total.

The bat costs one pound more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

System 1 provides the almost instant answer of 10p, which is of course incorrect. The correct solution requires the conscious slow thinking in the cerebral cortex that Kahneman refers to as System 2. Everybody has a System 1, primed for action. You can find the explanation here.

Many pupils in genuinely good primary schools are taught to acquire System 2 thinking ability in KS2 (eg through P4C). Genuinely good secondary schools will extend this to still more pupils in KS3 (eg through CASE) to maximise the attainment of the highest GCSE grades in all subjects in KS4.

None of this will be happening in many of the ‘outstanding schools’ that use the ‘instructional’ methods that Becky’s instincts and experience rightly judge to be so repugnant.

I conclude on the same theme by expressing strong support for Labour’s ‘National Education Service’ and Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary. This is an exciting idea that provides real hope and optimism for the future in the current depressing times of Trump and Brexit.







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More evidence-based argument on the ‘attainment gap’ fallacy

I refer to the work of Professor Rebecca (Becky) Allen, Director of the Centre for Education Improvement Science, UCL Institute of Education, who has published a set of three articles analysing the fallacies peddled by DfE, the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Foundation, the Education Policy Institute and others that are so frequently and uncritically echoed in the mainstream media. The following selection of quotes (in italics) from her articles are my attempt to summarise her arguments. My comments are in square brackets.

Part 1  The pupil premium is not working: Do not measure attainment gaps

We think about attaching money to free school meal students as a Coalition policy, but the decision to substantially increase the amount going to schools serving disadvantaged communities came during the earlier Labour Government. However, [this] icing on the cake turned out to have a slightly bitter taste, for it came with pretty onerous expenditure and reporting requirements.

The money must be spent on pupil premium students, and not simply placed into the general expenditure bucket. Schools must develop and publish a strategy for spending the money. Governors and Ofsted must check that the strategy is sound and that the school tracks the progress of the pupil premium students to show they are closing the attainment gap.

Using school free school meal eligibility as an element in a school funding formula is a perfectly fine idea [actually it’s not – see later], but translating this into a hypothecated grant attached to an actual child makes no sense. The first reason why is that free school meals eligibility does not identify the poorest children in our schools. [my bold]

This was well known by researchers at the time the pupil premium was introduced thanks to a paper by Hobbs and Vignoles that showed a large proportion of free school meal eligible children (between 50% and 75%) were not in the lowest income households. One reason why is that the very act of receiving the means-tested benefits and tax credits that in turn entitle the child to free school meals raises their household income above the ‘working poor’.

Children who come from households who are time-poor and haven’t themselves experienced success at school often do need far more support to succeed at school, not least because their household financial and time investment in their child’s education is frequently lower, their child’s engagement in school and motivation could be lower and the child’s cognitive function might lead them to struggle [my bold]. These are social, rather than income, characteristics of the family. [Except for cognitive function, which mine and John Mountford’s research shows to be the major factor.]

Yes, there are mean average differences by pupil premium status in attendance, behaviour and attainment. However, the group means mask the extent to which pupil premium students are almost as different from each other as they are from the non-pupil premium group of studentsWhy do we like these ‘gap stories’? We like them because we humans like the pattern forming that group analysis facilitates, and having formed the [false] gap story, we are then naturally drawn to thinking of pupil cases that conform to the stereotypesYour school’s gap depends on your non-Pupil Premium demographic. Tracking whether or not ‘the gap’ has closed over time is largely meaningless, even at the national level [my bold].

Part 2  Reporting requirements drive short-term, interventionist behaviour

Equally, we want these schools to provide rich cultural experiences that the students might not otherwise afford. And yet, many of these things we’d like schools to spend money on aren’t central to the question of how we should spend money to raise attainment (remember, the pupil premium is supposed to be used to raise attainment) [But can we be sure of that? It depends what they are.] Beyond the obvious provision to help make home life matter less to education (e.g. attendance and homework support), we struggle to make highly evidenced and concrete recommendations, in part because ‘money’ has a poor track record in raising educational standards in general. The Education Endowment Foundation was established alongside the pupil premium with the expectation they would identify effective programmes or widgets that schools could then spend money on. Unfortunately, most [but not all] trials have shown that [such] programmes are no more effective than existing school practice, and in any case free school meal eligible children do not disproportionately benefit from them [my bold].

Ofsted comment on pupil premium expenditure and attainment more often than not, even during short inspections. In a sample of 663 Ofsted reports we reviewed from the 2017/18 academic year, 51% mention the pupil premium and well over half of these assert that inspectors can see the monies are being spent effectively! Where their comments are critical of pupil premium expenditure, they rarely make concrete recommendations that could be useful to anyone [my bold], except to the industry of consultants and conferences that help schools solve the riddle of how to spend the pupil premium [in a way that satisfies OfSTED]. These are example quotes from inspection reports (with the one mentioning external review appearing regularly):

 “The school does not meet requirements on the publication of information about the pupil premium spending plan on its website”

 “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 …”

 “An external review of the school’s use of the pupil premium funding should be undertaken in order to assess how this aspect of leadership and management may be improved”

To be clear, as a parent whose own children are educated in one of the most poorly funded counties in England, I am gravely concerned about how the current funding crisis is damaging both the quality of the experiences they have and the well-being of their teachers. But equally, as a researcher in this field, I would not be able to give a school well-evidenced advice about how to use money to close the attainment gap [my bold]. I think this is because improved classroom instruction isn’t something it is easy to buy. Is it [even] possible to teach in a way that disproportionately benefits those in the classroom from disadvantaged backgrounds? [my bold]

 [The answer to this is no, but it is possible to enhance the cognitive ability of all students, which is of greatest benefit to those where the starting point is lowest.]

Part 3  Can within-classroom inequalities ever be closed?

This last part of Becky’s Pupil Premium analysis is so important that it warrants detailed consideration. She raises very important issues about the culture of classrooms and whether extreme approaches to directing the attention of students (that rightly concern her) are justified. They are not!

I will return to this in my next article.

So how should schools best combat social and educational disadvantage?

Becky has pointed to the answers to this question.

  1. Higher proportions of educationally disadvantaged pupils in school intake cohorts should result in enhanced general funding for the school to reflect the increased costs of the effective teaching and learning methods (for all pupils) that are needed. 
  1. Forget all the nonsense about ‘Closing Gaps’. 
  1. 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.

In terms of how to 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 most 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 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 needs.

My school had a strong relationship with the South Cumbria Dyslexia Association, which led to our providing rent free accommodation for the Barrow Dyslexia Centre in return for dyslexia awareness training for our teachers and free specialist tuition for our pupils in the Centre, which provided for pupils from other schools on a fee-paying basis. We found that such tuition benefited many more pupils than just those with a positive dyslexia diagnosis, with those with more general literacy problems also being greatly helped by the same approach. This relationship was highly praised in successive OfSTED inspections.

All this has to be seen in the context of the very proactive LEA wide approach to SEN, which was called One in Five, this being the proportion of Cumbria pupils estimated to have SEN in some form. This led to the formation of a brilliant team of area SEN advisers and an area Educational Psychologist to support school staff. Cumbria was a national leader in adopting a modified form of the Reading Recovery programme pioneered in New Zealand and implemented in area ‘Literacy Centres’ which took local primary children during the school day for short-term  programmes.

The Cumbria formula provided for much more effective support than the present ‘Pupil Premium’ for generally cognitively challenged pupils as well as those with diagnosed SLD because it could lead to higher quality teaching and learning across the curriculum in which in our school the example of Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) played a prominent role. There were many (too many to cover in this article) other significant initiatives in our school that supported a co-operative learning culture that has been consistently endorsed by EEF. These included our elected School Council and the Alfred Barrow School Association (parents). Members of both attended Governors Sub Committees alongside governors and teachers. It was clear that parents living in some of the most socially and economically deprived electoral wards in England were learning from their children about effective approaches to teaching and learning and positive social values.

This is an appropriate point to explain the demographic profile of Cumbria, one of the largest counties in England, but one in which average ‘shire county’ affluence masks a narrow coastal strip running from Carlisle in the north to Barrow-in-Furness in the south characterised by white working class communities lacking in ethnic and cultural diversity that continue to suffer greatly from the austerity policies of the post 2010 Coalition and Conservative governments.

Visitors to the Lake District are often unaware that this coastal strip had a major role in the industrial revolution (with the invention of the Bessemer Converter) and remained heavily industrial until the decline that began in the early 1970s that closed heavy industries and has ever since blighted huge swathes of northern England. The Victorians developed  iron ore and coal mining that supported an iron and steel works at Workington that produced railway rails for the UK and much of the world, together with an even larger one at Barrow that provided steel for the shipbuilding, armaments and general engineering complex that is now BAE Systems, manufacturing the nuclear submarines that provide for the UK nuclear deterrent. Another other  main industry is the Sellafield nuclear waste processing site near Whitehaven, a major employer from Barrow to Carlisle.

The Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) profiles for Cumbria schools match this demographic, with very low mean intake scores along the coastal strip. My school, Alfred Barrow, was consistently less than 85 (16th percentile), with mean intake scores steadily rising as you move east towards the M6 corridor that connects the prosperous communities of Kendal and Penrith. The LEA produced this chart annually, showing the mean GCSE attainment of each secondary school spread along the X axis of mean intake CATs scores.

The LEA never made as much use as it should of this CATs-based analysis. Political control of Cumbria County Council tends to swing from Labour to Conservative with Lib Dems often holding the balance of power. Sadly, during a period of Labour control some years ago, the LA county wide system of CATs testing was abandoned. I was told by a Labour councillor that there was no way they were going to have the voters in the coastal towns that voted Labour ‘smeared’ as being ‘dim’. You will have to take my word for it that nearly all of the schools with a mean intake score below 95 (37th percentile) were indeed in this coastal band. However with the loss of universal CATs testing, the basis for a statistically sound approach to school accountability was also lost. Schools towards the left of the chart, with lower intake CATs scores automatically received higher levels of extra funding. The regression line divides all the schools into those performing above, from those performing below the Cumbria average (above and below the regression line) providing a sound basis (unlike that currently used by OfSTED) for a discussion with school leadership teams about the efficacy of the teaching and learning arrangements in their schools.

Alfred Barrow School had the lowest intake CATs score in the county by far. Two thirds of our pupils were in the bottom third  of the national cognitive ability range. A typical intake of 100 pupils would usually contain only about 12 with CATs scores of 100 or above with two or three above 120. You might think that such a school would be a basket case, but this was far from the case.

The school received successively improving inspection reports in 1990 (pre-OfSTED HMI), 1995 and 1998 and also did well in 2004, a year after I retired, despite never once exceeding the floor target introduced by the new Labour government. The inspectors had sound, irrefutable data on which to base their judgements. Y11 GCSE results were listed student by student in descending order of CATs scores. It was not just those with low CATs scores on admission that did relatively well, the proportion of A and A* grades also rose steadily. This excellent attainment pattern matched to CATs scores strongly suggested that general cognitive ability had been significantly raised across the ability range in accordance with the school’s belief in the plasticity of general intelligence.

We often had students in the ‘top 5’ nationally in a number of subjects. One visiting HMI commended our ‘business model’, which was based on maximising additional formula funding to enhance curriculum provision and provide pupil support initiatives that other schools could not afford. We soon became oversubscribed and in 2002 the LEA had to enlarge our capacity by 150 pupils with a £multi-million expansion/refurbishment  project, all of which has since been demolished.

Unlike other schools we used Local Management to reverse all the outsourcing inherited from the LEA, directly employing all of our own non-teaching staff including cleaners and catering staff on union rates and the Local Government pension scheme. Large numbers of these staff , along with teachers (including me) enrolled their own children in the school. A new Head of Maths moved her child from a posh private school in the east of the county.

I recall being summoned to a heads meeting in London with David Blunkett, the new Secretary of State for Education. He started by asking the assembled heads why parents should send their children to ‘failing schools’ where less than 25% of students were achieving 5+A*-Cs at GCSE, where none of them would send their own children! New Labour was soon to address this through the GNVQ scam. About the only thing Michael Gove did right was to rid our schools of this corruption and curriculum degradation.

The great majority of our students did well on leaving us at 16, with excellent career progression including many achieving good A levels at the Sixth Form College and progressing to top universities. In September 2018, I attended an Alfred Barrow reunion. Many ex-students (some now in their 30s) with an astonishing range of successful careers had travelled long distances from as far as London and Scotland.

Sadly, Alfred Barrow School, along with the two other non-religious secondaries on the town mainland were closed in 2009 as part of a disastrous Academy re-organisation, from which the Barrow school system is yet to fully recover, with hundreds of Barrow pupils now travelling by bus and train (when running) to Local Authority schools in the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston, while BAE Systems has taken control of the Academised secondary schools.

The Alfred Barrow site is to become a Health Centre. Two other secondary schools have been demolished and replaced  by posh housing estates, while the excellent co-ordinated school system provided by the former LEA has been destroyed at the secondary level with the primaries increasingly threatened by aggressive Academisation.







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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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In praise of P4C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sit up straight

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

Listen carefully

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

Never interrupt

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

Track the teacher

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

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

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

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



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