National IQs and PISA: it changes everything

This article shows that the East Asian education systems that come out at the top of the PISA rankings sink to the bottom half of the table when national IQs are taken into account.

If a given group of pupils in the same class all have 100 per cent attendance, with the same teacher and the same amount of teacher attention, would we expect them all to perform equally in the end of term exam? Of course not. We would expect the ‘brighter’ pupils to outperform the ‘less bright’ ones. Hundreds of English schools use Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) taken in Y6 as the basis of admissions systems designed to produce ‘balanced comprehensive intakes’ in which the ability profile matches the national ability profile so far as possible. Part 4 of my book, ‘Learning Matters‘ explains how this works in the London Borough of Hackney and at Mossbourne Academy, one of the Hackney schools.

In my article about the government’s ‘Progress 8’ secondary school accountability system, of which I am highly critical, I argue for an alternative CATs – based system.

My evaluation of school effectiveness approach requires the production of scatter diagrams like the one shown in this article for Cumbria schools, where in the 1990s they were produced by the LEA every year, but largely ignored.

Now think about all the schools in England. If they were all equally effective and followed the same curriculum then they would all get equally good GCSE results right? Of course not, but here mainstream educational thinking takes a false turn. The almost universal assumption is that some pupils are disadvantaged by poverty, poor parenting or ethnic discrimination and that this accounts  for their poor performance. There is much talk of an ‘achievement gap’. In my book and in this article, I use evidence from my study of Mossbourne Academy and the Hackney admissions system to argue that this ‘achievement gap’ theory is incorrect. It is cognitive ability that counts. Pupils with similar CATs scores perform similarly regardless of social background or ethnicity. Pupils from more affluent backgrounds perform, on average, better than those from poorer homes because they are, on average,  brighter. Social background and even the quality of parenting make little difference by the age of 16. This is so contrary, not only to what politicians and the general public believe, and more importantly, to what they want to believe, that the facts do not see the light of day in mainstream educational discourse.

The evidence for this is in the latest book by international ‘intelligence expert’ James Flynn and is discussed in my review of his book.

Please now look again at the Cumbria schools scatter chart.

Note that the rank order of schools by GCSE exam results is completely different to the rank order of school effectiveness as determined from the chart. To find this out you have to do a little work. The regression line shows how, on average, GCSE results in Cumbria schools are driven by the mean cognitive ability of the Y11 cohorts in the schools. However some schools do better than average and those are to be found above the regression line. The greater the vertical distance above the regression line, the greater the effectiveness of the school.

You will see that on this basis ‘Gas Street Comprehensive’ (not its real name), with the worst GCSE performance, was more effective than the top performing school (the only selective grammar school in Cumbria).

So I wondered whether the same principle could be applied to the PISA international test results. To find out, I would need the equivalent of CATs scores. That was obviously a non starter so I thought about national mean IQ scores. In England we know there is a good correlation between parental education level and children’s performance at secondary school. The former is driven by parental cognitive ability/IQ. So if I could find data on national IQ scores I could use this as a proxy for the mean cognitive ability of the secondary age pupils in each country. Such national IQ data can be found here, but since publishing this article Richard Lynn has provided me with updated data which has been used in my update to this article. The scatter chart at the end of this article has also been updated.

The principal author, Richard Lynn, is a respected international authority on the study of intelligence. Now some of my readers may begin to get uncomfortable. Discussion of ‘intelligence’ brings to mind the very nasty racist theories of the Third Reich. However unless the validity of ‘general intelligence’ is accepted it is very hard to get past discrimination-based explanations for the huge variety in cognitive competence that exists in the national population. This issue is discussed in detail in Part 1 of my book.

Like Piaget, Vygotsky and the developmental school of educationalists, I believe that intelligence is not fixed at birth, but is plastic. It can be significantly enhanced by the right sort of schooling  and subsequently by the autonomous decisions made by adults throughout life. This too is addressed in James Flynn’s new book. I discuss the importance of ‘Plastic Intelligence’ here.

The scatter chart at the end of this article is the result of my applying these ideas to the 2015 PISA international test results. I entered the PISA test scores for maths for every PISA participating country  on the Y axis, the national IQ data , expressed as percentiles on the X axis and used Excel to compute the regression line. The IQ percentile is the proportion of the national population with an IQ below that figure. For example the mean UK IQ is 100, which is the 50th percentile.

The resulting scatter chart  for the PISA countries is very like my chart for Cumbria schools. There is the same very strong correlation ‘R’ of 88/89 per cent between cognitive ability/IQ and exam performance.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this. Just as the Cumbria selective grammar school got the best GCSE results, the three Asian countries with the top IQs, Singapore, South Korea and Japan, came out top in PISA. However, all three are (like the UK and USA) below the regression line and therefore in the bottom half of the rank order of nationally effective education systems.

So which country has the most effective education system? The answer according to my updated chart is Poland, followed by Ireland and Vietnam. The status of Poland and Ireland in my analysis result as much from the low national IQ score of 92 and 93 as from the good performances in the PISA tests.

So what are the guiding principles of the Irish education system? You can find these set out here in this 2007 government document. Eight years later PISA has vindicated this Irish approach, which is very different to the marketised model of the English system and to the very didactic methods in the East Asian countries that top the PISA results tables.

The basic principles of the Irish education system are those of the developmental school (Piaget, Vygotsky, Shayer, Adey etc) as set out in Part 5 of, Learning Matters’. The parallels to the 2007 Irish government education approach will be obvious to every reader of my book. The following examples begin on p12 of the Irish publication.

The pedagogic principles of the Revised Curriculum which characterise the above learning processes are as follows: the child’s sense of wonder and natural curiosity is a primary motivating factor in learning; the child is an active agent in his or her learning; learning is developmental in nature: the child’s existing knowledge and experience form the base for learning; the child’s immediate environment provides the context for learning; learning should involve guided activity and discovery methods; language is central in the learning process; the child should perceive the aesthetic dimension in learning; social and emotional dimensions are important factors in learning; learning is most effective when it is integrated; skills that facilitate the transfer of learning should be fostered; higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills should be fostered; collaborative learning should feature in the learning process; the range of individual difference should be taken into account in the learning process; assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning.

It is clear that the more collaborative methods of teaching are the most effective.
Pupils also need to develop personal and group skills so that they may cope with the
social context for learning, and in order to retain knowledge most effectively.
Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” underpins many approaches to teaching
and learning in the primary school curriculum – those tasks too difficult for the child
to solve alone can be accomplished with the help of adults/peers, through instruction,
discussion and encouragement while the child internalises the ‘how to do’ bit of the
task as part of his/her inner speech for future reference. Hannan (1996), an independent
expert in how boys and girls learn, develops this idea further, and recommends a
“third/third/third” approach to proximal development, with pupils spending a third
of proximal learning time in friendship pairings/groupings, a third in single gender
non-friendship pairings and a third in mixed gender pairings, so that within one half
term everyone works with everyone else.

Ireland, whose children stand at the 32nd IQ percentile outperform those of the UK at the 50th IQ percentile in maths. Ireland has no grammar schools, no Academies and no Free Schools. Surely the DfE should be looking for inspiration a short distance across the Irish sea rather than at the under performing  systems of East Asia.

The poor performance of these  PISA topping countries on my effectiveness chart follows from their very high national IQ scores.

I give an explanation for the very high national IQs of China, Korea and Japan here.

My findings are so contrary to the mainstream view that they need to be checked. I would be happy to forward my full Excel file on receipt of an email. I will leave it to others to produce the scatter charts for Science and Reading.
















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Bad testing and distorted curriculum in our primary schools

This is a very important publication by Reclaiming Schools/NUT.

 It is about the corruption and degradation of the primary school curriculum in England. It has a large number of contributors with impeccable academic and professional qualifications. It is a great credit to the NUT, to have assembled such an impressive piece of work. It cannot be dismissed as special pleading by the trade union of an employee interest group. It is essential reading for everybody interested in our national education system and that should actually mean everybody. Teachers and parents are an obvious target audience, but it is especially important for politicians and journalists to read it too. The government won’t like it, but it should not be ignored.

 The only way I can do it any kind of justice is to quote a few key paragraphs from the contribution of each author. Then you need to read it for yourself.

It is essential that the troubles of primary education are exposed and debated. That is why the National Union of Teachers is pleased to publish this collection of articles. The Mismeasurement of Learning explains how primary education got into its present state; it draws from the experiences of teachers and researchers to make a detailed analysis of the way that assessment works; it opens the door to thinking about alternatives.

 Kevin Courtney, General Secretary, National Union of Teachers

  1. What this publication sets out to do: activists and academics together

Even though some strident voices would have us believe otherwise, there is a place in the busy lives of teachers for theory. There is also a case for looking carefully at evidence. It seems odd that such an obvious point even needs to be re-stated. But teachers, teacher educators and, of course, students and parents, have been faced with a barrage of policy that has been driven by dogma, ideology and good old-fashioned prejudice for over twenty years. This pamphlet, along with its predecessor, Reclaiming Schools, attempts to recover some of that lost ground. Of those voices which have attempted to drown out knowledge, expertise and experience, none has been more important and influential than that of Michael Gove. He claimed in 2011, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that student-teachers found university-based teacher education ‘too theoretical’. He dubbed academics who opposed his curriculum plans as ‘the Blob’

Dr Jon Berry, University of Hertfordshire

  1. How testing took centre stage

Regular national testing of all state school pupils, which has become such a controversial matter in recent years, was not in evidence until the late 1980s. How did it come into being? Two key factors certainly contributed. There was a heightened demand for accountability in all public services, and that was combined with a political move to apply the principles of marketization to school education.

So, in a nutshell, the Thatcher government of 1987 gave us national testing and no later government has been minded to abolish it. Few people imagined, however, that national testing or GCSE results would provide the foundation for a punitive and all embracing surveillance system, involving the publication of results, calculations of ‘value added’, ‘floor targets’, Ofsted judgements, naming and shaming, performance reviews and performance pay for teachers, and forced academies.

This is how testing took centre stage – surely it is time now to look for an exit.

Professor Roger Murphy, Emeritus Professor of Education, Nottingham University

  1. Campbell’s Law… or how the language of numbers does a disservice to our children

‘the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor.’ ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure.’

Such ‘corruption’ lies in ‘teaching to the test’, ‘being selective of pupils who are likely to do well in the tests’, ‘concentrating on subjects in which pupils are to be tested’. Warwick Mansell, in his book Education By numbers: The Tyranny of Testing gives an account of the ‘games teachers play’ and how the results of the test scores can affect parental choice, head teachers’ pay, teacher promotion, and indeed closure or forced academisation.

Professor Richard Pring, Emeritus Professor, Oxford University.

  1. Testing times and the thirst for data: for what?

The emphasis on tests has made teachers and pupils depressed, harm themselves, and even turn suicidal. Highstakes testing and an oppressive data-driven accountability system de-humanise what should be an experience of enrichment, creativity and fun. Schooling is being reconfigured from being a public service to a business, and business demands data through testing.

The school’s management is also negatively affected by the obsession with capturing data by tests. Rather than showing effective leadership and vision by taking creative and considered risks, managers are expected to bean-count, account, measure everything and be as conservative and prudent as possible. The expectation is that they set further targets to be more conservative and prudent than the last time to get more for less the next time.

Dr Alpesh Maisuria, University of East London

  1. Developmentally informed teaching: challenging premature targets in early learning

Maria Montessori created a developmental model that proposed ‘planes’ of development in which children’s abilities to learn and theorise become progressively more sophisticated, while Jean Piaget specified four distinct stages, involving gradual development towards more abstract thought. Contemporary cognitive psychologist Professor Alison Gopnik presents copious empirical data to support her view that formal instruction in early childhood ‘leads children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present children look ‘for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options’. Stage-based theories of human cognition have also received support through neuropsychology.

Despite a century of empirical and theoretical advances however, the state education system has never become sufficiently informed about the human developmental process. Additionally, the school starting age has effectively become earlier since children are now expected to enter school at the beginning of the school year when they become 5, meaning that inevitably some are only just turned 4. Children are also immediately subject to statutory assessment, which means that formal teaching, particularly in literacy and numeracy, often begins during the pre-school period. The Early Years Foundation Stage (from birth to five) has 17 goals against which a summative assessment must be made at five; while the phonics check creates severe downward pressure.

In conclusion, the ‘too much, too soon’ approach and exposure to overwhelming competition puts children at severe risk of psychological harm. The entire system must be radically reconsidered, including nursery education to age 7, firmly based upon independent and collaborative discovery, to provide a strong foundation for later, more formal modes of learning and for mental health within a society that functions for the good of all.

Dr Pam Jarvis, Leeds Trinity University

  1. ‘Datafication’ in the early years

The nursery and reception teachers we interviewed explained how they were increasingly subjected to the demands of data production. They were aware of the pitfalls, cynical about the purposes of data, and yet they found their working lives constrained by exhaustive demands for the production and analysis of data.

‘The school’s outstanding status must be maintained’ The interviews showed how heads came under pressure, and how this can distort good practice.

I should be in classrooms supporting colleagues but I spend far too much time looking at assessment data and it is for proving to OFSTED that we are great. But actually I would be far more effective if I were in class and the children would benefit more.” (Primary school deputy).

Even very young children are being labelled as ‘failing’, and indeed headteachers are required to notify parents whether their child has passed or failed the Year 1 phonics test. One Reception teacher mentioned that some of the lower attainers were labelled Special Educational Needs (SEN) so as not to harm the teacher’s performance data (Roberts-Holmes, 2015). The detrimental effects upon children’s well-being were demonstrated by one teacher’s comments: “I am now pushing information into three-year-olds rather than developing meaningful relationships. Even in the nursery I now feel that pressure. If a child doesn’t recognize a number or a letter I go ‘aggghhh’ and hold my breath. Ihave to remind myself the child is three and not yet ready for it.” (Reception teacher, primary school)

Guy Roberts-Holmes and Alice Bradbury, Senior Lecturers, UCL Institute of Education

  1. An old and professional alternative to the present system

Today’s political discussions of education assume that imposing a fact-heavy national curriculum and rigorous testing will raise the standard of education. Those of us who were active in primary schools before the 1988 Education Act should speak out and demonstrate that there were excellent teachers guided by their professionalism long before the politicians made their forays.

As a young tutor at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham, in what we then called ‘teacher education’ (not ‘training’), coupled with a research brief, I set out to encapsulate good practice in local primary schools. The resulting report Nine Hundred Primary School Teachers (1978) described the results of a massive study of classrooms carried out with a team of 30 research assistants. Lady Plowden, in her Foreword, wrote: ‘This most comprehensive report on the practices of primary education in Nottinghamshire gives a great deal of information about the day by day work of a large number of teachers. … There does not seem to be any danger of the schools in Nottinghamshire moving into the so-called ‘progressive methods’ in which ‘children do as they please’. … I believe that a national survey would similarly show that throughout the country teachers are in general responsibly structuring children’s experience in the classroom’

 Rather than destroy all this, the political task should have been to find ways of bringing all teachers to this high level of professional excellence. This required a recognition that, beyond the traditional 3 Rs, there should be concern for the emotional, social, creative and physical all-round development of every child.

Emeritus Professor Michael Bassey, Nottingham Trent University

  1. Flawed arguments for phonics

Even in a class where no child can yet read, there will be wide differences in their understanding of the critical features of print. A few children entering school can already read silently and with understanding, but most still need support to master written language in this new disembedded medium. The powerful place of commercial interests in determining government policies, the materials recommended, and even the supplementary funding for the teaching of reading is disturbing. Since 2010 the government and Ofsted have insisted that the method of teaching reading should be synthetic phonics, claiming this is backed by research. In fact,systematic reviews of existing evidence support only the following claims:

  • There is benefit from the inclusion of phonics within the early instruction in learning to read in English, within a broad programme.
  • There is not evidence to support phonics in isolation as the one best method.
  • There is not evidence for synthetic phonics rather than analytic or a mixture of approaches.

The phonics check costs around £260,000 a year to administer (printing, distribution,collation of results), not to mention teachers’ time, and substantial payments to commercial organisations such as Ruth Miskin Training for promoting a particular teaching method. According to the government’s own evaluation ( 2) the phonics check has brought no benefits:

‘There were no improvements in attainment or in progress that could be clearly attributed to the introduction of the check, nor any identifiable impact on pupil progress in literacy for learners with different levels of prior attainment.’ (p. 67)

Despite this, the Government is even considering making children who fail the phonics check in Years 1 and 2 retake it in Year 3. The assumption that the needs of those who fail to reach the arbitrary pass mark on this test may still be met by a continuing focus on synthetic phonics as the solution to their problems seems naive.

Margaret M Clark OBE, Emeritus Professor, University of Birmingham Visiting Professor, Newman University

  1. A focus group discussion with Teesside primary teachers

The benefit of focus groups over individual interviews is that participants can build on one another’s experience and understandings to form a coherent picture. Here an NUT organiser and a Reclaiming Schools researcher meet with three primary teachers in Teesside. [some selected replies]

What has been the impact of this year’s tests on your children?

 T1: He was an absolutely fantastic reader, he could tell you all about what had gone on, but he was going to fail his tests because they were too hard, and he was just sat rocking and crying in the corner of the playground. That’s what the tests are doing to our children.

 How have the new tests affected the childrens’ curriculum?

 T3: None of my children are reaching national expectations in anything except one or two in PE. The curriculum is setting our children up to fail. Only the very brightest children are going to be able to succeed.

Is there any one particular test you found that you had an issue with?

 T2: The very first words: ‘Maria and Oliver are attending a party in the garden of a house that used to belong to Maria’s family.’ A party in the garden of a house?

‘They sneak away to explore the grounds.’ None of our children are likely to have their own home, and if they do, it’s not likely to be anything like that. A lot of our children live on council estates, their parents are on very low incomes, they don’t the space to go and explore like it says in there. ‘Going away to explore’ sounds like it’s a park or somewhere like that. They don’t have the opportunity, so already that first paragraph is turning them off the whole passage.

T3: Looking at the third passage now, the dodo, it doesn’t look as if there’s anything that the children can relate to. ‘Discovery is helping to rehabilitate the image of this much ridiculed bird.’ That question really threw the children. The question, ‘What does rehabilitate the image of thedodo mean? And they’re given four options: restore a painting of the dodo, rebuild the reputation of the dodo, repair a model of the dodo or review accounts of the dodo. That’s way beyond their experience and their range of expression.

 Who do you hold responsible?

 T1: The Government.

T2: Yeah, I think they’re using our children as guinea pigs and they’re trying all these new things out, and they’re not working. They’re not benefitting our children at all.

T3: They’re using us as political pawns. I think they want us to fail. They want the children to fail so they can academise our schools. 

  1. Mathematics: conceptual understanding or counting by the rules?

Where the preamble talks about ‘a highly interconnected discipline’, the main body of the document is a list of disparate skills and knowledge. Each is preceded by ‘pupils should be taught to’, with few links drawn across different areas of mathematics and no emphasis on exploration or understanding. Significantly, the word ‘understand’ appears only twice in the whole document.

Along with the scrapping of the calculator paper and the proposed introduction of a times tables test, this change sends a very clear signal to children that mathematics is about memorising facts and using ‘standard’ written methods, with pencil and paper, for computation and not about conceptual understanding, mathematical reasoning or solving problems.

Gawain Little, Primary school teacher, Oxfordshire

  1. Primary arts are in trouble

In KS2 nearly a third of state primary schools devote only an hour a week to art and design. This is an alarming picture. It suggests that in many schools across the country children are missing out on foundational cultural learning experiences. This places the onus on parents. But research shows that lower income parents struggle to provide extracurricular arts activities for their children (Sutton Trust 2014), and that parents with higher qualifications are much more likely to ensure that their children spend more than three hours a week engaged in cultural activities outside of school (SQW Consulting 2013). This is clearly an unacceptable situation – leaving engagement in cultural education to parent’s capacity to pay is a recipe for a geography of cultural inequity. Parents with lower income depend on their children’s school to ensure the entitlementto arts education as described in the national curriculum.

Professor Pat Thomson, University of Nottingham

  1. Assessment and testing in Wales

Devolution of power to the Welsh Assembly in 1999 has enabled Wales to set its own educational direction. In the main this has been a distinctive and highly progressive journey. We have eschewed the marketization of education; we don’t have any grammar schools, academies or free schools; we do have a tiny private sector but a very large comprehensive one, including many bilingual schools.

In 2010, however, some disappointing PISA results for Wales led the relatively new education Minister to turn his back on this approach. Eventually a Literacy and Numeracy Framework was introduced accompanied by national tests each year in reading and numeracy for pupils from Year 2 to Year 9. This was part of a heightened accountability agenda including Estyn inspections and regular ‘challenge’ processes for schools from their local authorities.

So the Wales devolution journey has been a mixed one. We have used the opportunity to strengthen our public education system and to develop progressive policies such as the Foundation Phase and the Welsh Bac. On the other hand, we have also fallen under the neoliberal-inspired juggernaut that uses testing and accountability in an attempt to improve ‘scores on the doors’, with scant respect for the quality of education experienced by students and the professionalism of teachers. Watch this space!

Professor David Egan, Cardiff Metropolitan University

  1. Everyone’s educational future is always in the making: Learning without Limits

‘Learning without limits’ is an emergent movement to challenge the ways in which assumptions are often made that children have a fixed amount of ‘ability’ or ‘potential’. It rejects the placement of young children in ‘ability groups’ which can so easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy by placing a ceiling on children’s opportunities to learn. Early testing tends to encourage such assumptions that ‘ability’ and ‘potential’ are measurable and fixed.

What animates fixed ability thinking, and the prophetic pedagogy associated with it, is the belief that children come in kinds. Each child can, and must, be categorised as soon as possible into the bright, the average, and the less-able, or (as with the renewed clamour for grammar schools) segregated into ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’. It is asserted that different kinds of children require different kinds of curriculum, supposedly tailored to their essentially-different needs. Scores play a vital part in this sorting and sifting, for they enable crude comparisons and ranking of children.

A more educationally productive way of thinking about the learner would not only recognise the learner as unique, but would see him or her as always capable of remaking (and not merely receiving) knowledge and culture provided conditions are right. It would acknowledge that everyone’s educational future remains unwritten, unpredictable, open to change, and that the teacher has power to affect that future for the better by actions and decisions undertaken here and now.

Dr Patrick Yarker, University of East Anglia

  1. Speeding up the treadmill: primary tests and secondary exams

Every stage of schooling is seen in terms of readying pupils for the next stage, with no regard to what is appropriate at a particular age. The irony is that speeding up the treadmill in primary school is likely to undermine the real foundations of later development. Firstly, many pupils are experiencing a very narrow curriculum, with little beyond maths and a distorted version of English. Children in more disadvantaged areas suffer even more from this reduced experience, due to the greater pressure placed on their schools. Secondly, an increasing number of young children will experience the stigmatising impact of failure. This kicks in as early as the phonics test in Year 1, when parents are told whether their child has passed or failed. The elaborate nonsense of the KS2 grammar test represents a final blow: a signal that children are incompetent in their own language because they cannot label the parts! The 2014 National Curriculum was designed (if we can use that word) by aggregating targets from the top-scoring countries in the PISA international tests and pushing them down the years. English seven-year-olds are now expected to acquire the maths and science of nine-year-olds in Singapore or Finland. The resulting frustration could do lasting intellectual and emotional damage.

We should return to the Charter for Primary Education as a compass to re-orientate us towards a meaningful, sustainable education through secondary school and into adult life. ‘Successful learning and development takes time. Good primary teachers… pay heed to children’s existing knowledge and understanding and cultural backgrounds. Learning never takes place in a vacuum. Learning in symbolic forms (abstract language, mathematical symbols, scientific rules etc.) should build upon and work with the child’s experience, use of the senses, and creative and experimental activity…Children have the right to a broad and balanced curriculum that allows them to develop their talents in all areas.’ Assessment needs to reflect this.

Dr Terry Wrigley, Visiting Professor, Northumbria University

  1. Three assessment myths

Harder tests raise standards of achievement. Not so: the absolute reverse is true. When you pitch the level of difficulty so far above the heads of the children that half of them fail, you separate assessment from the act of learning itself. In this way you distort school life and reduce it to mere preparation for the next test. True standards of achievement are lowered by such testing. Hard pressed teachers, fearful of the future of their schools and perhaps their own jobs, ditch their initial training and their professional knowledge of what is best for their pupils and coach them to meet the demands of the tests. This coaching is not good teaching because the techniques are quickly forgotten once the test is over. No wonder secondary schools don’t trust SAT’s results!

Test results are accurate as a measure of progress through primary school. This is largely nonsense. In good schools children learn so much beyond the core skills and we need to judge progress over the whole field of children’s development. For too many schools coaching for improved test performance provides results which indicate only that there is progress in dealing with tests. Furthermore the results are expressed in figures, a score, and figures imply a level of accuracy which is spurious since assessment can only be approximate.

Teacher assessments can’t be trusted. This particular myth reflects the more general lack of trust in the profession evidenced by politicians as they use children’s test results as a means of holding schools accountable. In fact we can trust teacher assessments a good deal more than we can trust the scores achieved in ‘one shot’ tests of children coached to perform and then, inevitably, forget.

John Coe, National Association for Primary Education

  1. Since Christmas, I have only taught Literacy and Numeracy’: what the 2016 SATs taught us

 It’s by now a 25-year story: teachers’ work has become more intense. Their autonomy has diminished. Pedagogy, curriculum and assessment are determined centrally, and underpinned by a system of accountability that is increasingly precise and demanding.

In May, at the end of the SATs week for Key Stage 2 pupils, the NUT asked its members in primary schools to complete a survey on their experience of primary assessment. The results were immediate and striking. In just a few days, more than 6000 teachers replied, including nearly a thousand who identified themselves as heads and senior leaders. As well as answers to tick-box questions, they supplied more than 5000 written comments – a vast and passionate spreadsheet of experience. The survey scores indicated a high level of agreement about key features of the new system and the manner of its introduction. 97% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that primary assessment arrangements have been well managed by the DfE. Their ‘write-in’ comments were strongly worded. “Shambles” or “shambolic” were used more than 100 times. “Chaos”,“fiasco”, “farce” and “disgrace” were frequently employed terms. Ever-changing and contradictory guidelines, late communications, leaked test papers, and very high demands on teacher workload were all repeatedly mentioned.

The problems of the system were foretold in the 1990s; few could have imagined they would reach such an acute and critical state. If the Government are incapable of untangling the mess, only concerted action from parents and teachers will stop further damage to children and their education.

A version of this article was published on the website of the British Educational Research Association, August 2016.

Ken Jones, Senior Policy Officer, NUT Emeritus Professor, Goldsmiths, University of London

Some further reading:


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Why are Chinese children such high achievers? Is it a matter of ‘wen’ and ‘wu’?

1. Is it the schools, the parents or the children?

The Chinese education system regularly scores highly in the international PISA tests, such that some UK educationalists seek to replicate the Chinese approach in English schools. The following is from a recent Daily Mail article.

Half of primary schools will adopt the traditional Chinese method of maths teaching in a Government drive to stop British youngsters falling behind their Asian counterparts. They will ditch ‘child-centred’ styles and instead return to repetition, drills and ‘chalk and talk’ whole-class learning. Teachers will be offered training, textbooks and advice on how to adopt the ‘Shanghai maths’ method. Youngsters in the UK lag way behind those in China, Singapore and Japan in international league tables of numeracy [my bold]. Critics blame ‘progressive’ teaching styles that focused on applying maths to real-life scenarios in an effort to make the subject more interesting. They say this has led to confusion and stopped children learning the basics.

 But what if the real reason for the greater competence of Chinese children is just because they are more intelligent?

In July 2015 DfE published a report entitled, ‘Ethnicity, deprivation and educational achievement at age 16 in England: trends over time’

Buried in this document are data on the attainment of children of different ethnic groups in the English education system. On p31 there is a table giving the percentage of pupils gaining 5EM in every year from 2004 to 2013. Pupils of Chinese ethnicity performed best in every year. In 2013 5EM for Chinese pupils was 78.1% compared to 60.1% for all pupils.

So even when Chinese children are educated in the (presumably inferior) English school system they still perform significantly better than any other ethnic group.

We know that 5EM is strongly predicted by scores on Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) taken in Y6. The data on CATs scores by ethnicity can be found here.

The standard scores for Chinese children in 2009/10 (with percentiles in brackets) are as follows.

Verbal 101 (53rd), Quantitative 110 (75th), Non Verbal 112 (79th)

So while Chinese children performed only just above average on the Verbal test, their performance was way above average on the Quantitative (maths) and Non Verbal (patterns) tests. Maybe the lower performance on the Verbal test is because a significant number of the children had English as a second language or for some other linquistic/cultural reason. However it is clear that my hypothesis is confirmed.

Children of Chinese ethnicity residing in England are much more cognitively able (cleverer) than the average.

The high performance of Chinese children in English schools (the same pattern is found in the US) is usually put down to ‘high parental aspirations’ and ‘a culture of studiousness instilled by the family’.

However CATs tests are a form of IQ test. There is no body of knowledge to be studied and pupils do not normally undertake any kind of preparation before taking CATs tests (unlike the 11 plus). Although parental aspiration is widely believed to be a major cause of the achievement gaps in the English education system, there is little hard evidence to support it. My own study of Mossbourne Academy suggests that the effect is minimal. It’s cognitive ability that counts.

So having concluded that the apparent success of the Chinese education system can be explained by the fact that Chinese children are on average very clever, how has this come about? However uncomfortable this may be to accept, it would appear that Chinese cleverness must be, at least in part, a genetically inherited rather than a learned trait.

My hypothesis is that it is derived from the relative importance of ‘wen’ and ‘wu’ in Chinese culture going back hundreds of years.

 2. Can memes get into your genes?

 Memes are ideas, behaviours, or styles that spread from person to person within a culture.  Memes are a concept invented by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as the cultural equivalent to genes. Whereas genes are spread through sexual reproduction, memes are spread by cultural vectors such as fashion. Susan Blackmore wrote a controversial book called, ‘The meme machine‘.

This discusses wide ranging biological and cultural phenomena including in Chapter 9, ‘Meme-gene co-evolution’. This sets out the hypothesis that memes can drive genetic evolution in particular directions. Blackmore suggests that such meme driven evolution can account for the rapid evolution of large brains in humans and for the development of language. It is fascinating stuff – read the book!

3. Sexual selection

Darwin’s now universally accepted (in the world of science) explanation of evolution is based on natural selection, which is the mechanism by which species can change and new species can emerge over millions of years as random genetic variations that produce small advantageous feeding or reproductory changes in individuals can be inherited by their offspring so as to aggregate over long periods of time into major changes that give the illusion of design.

Since the invention of farming and stock rearing humans have learned how to produce changes in species through artificial selection, which is commonly called selective breeding. Farmers and stock breeders have been manipulating the sexual reproduction of animals and plants for hundreds of years to produce more and better foodstuffs. Apart from replacing random mutations by human design, the major difference from natural selection is the timescale. Whereas natural selection usually operates on a timescale of millions of years selective breeding can produce major variations in species in just a few generations. Dog breeding is another example.

Sexual selection is where sexual preferences (ie culture/fashion) influence the success of individuals in the mating game. The classic example in nature is the evolution of the tail of the male peacock. Despite this having apparently negative survival utility, in that it is cumbersome and makes the possessor readily visible to predators, at some time in the past some peahens decided that males with big colourful tails were the most fanciable (a peahen meme that was a proxy for health). This meme then spread and hence the peacock’s useless but beautiful (to us) and irresistibly alluring (to peahens) tail.

This is a very brief and simplified description of sexual selection. It is discussed extensively in Chapter 9 of Dawkin’s, ‘The Selfish Gene’ and gets a whole chapter to itself in, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ (Chapter 8).

We are getting closer to ‘wen’ and ‘wu’.

 4.’The Peone Pavilion’

This is the title of a hugely popular Chinese folk tale dating from the 16th century. It has been made into a modern ballet, which at the time of writing was being performed by the National Ballet of China at the Lowry at Salford Quays in Manchester.

I had been mulling this article in my mind for years, when I saw a plug for this performance on BBC North West Tonight and did some research on the folk tale.

The result was a ‘Eureka’ moment for me that prompted this article.

5. ‘Wen’ and ‘Wu’ in Chinese culture

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

I found that the Chinese memes for sexually attractive to women masculinity underwent major changes around the time that ‘The Peone Pavillion’ was written. Since ancient times it had previously 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 written by H.R. van Gulik, entitled Sexual Life in Ancient China.

This is not currently a best seller at £141.39 per copy.

At that 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, and the nudes of the erotic albums show them with heavy chests and muscular arms and legs.

The decline of wu reached its bottom during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912AD) to be superseded by wen. Ardent lovers were preferably 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 was the underlying cultural assumption in ‘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 anything like as much as greeky young mathematicians.

So there we have it. Chinese intelligence superiority 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 mixed comprehensive school? I don’t think so, however it is an explanation for Chinese superior intelligence.

6. How to introduce the wen meme into a low attaining UK comprehensive school

I have already described elsewhere how this can be achieved through proper school councils (not the shallow ‘pupil voice’ initiative 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.

However, such was the extreme over abundance of very low CATs score pupils, the significant, life enhancing cognitive ability gains across the school were still not enough to lift the aggregated results of the school over Labour’s ‘good school by definition’ defining floor targets, so the school was eventually closed in 2009 as part of an Academy reorganisation, along with the two largest schools in the town in 2009, six years after I retired .

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 the intellectual, cultural and technological powerhouse of the UK instead of, like many other working class northern towns, remaining a stubbornly persisting example of ‘the attainment gap’.

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Piaget, Kahneman, Flynn and Donald Trump

After the EU referendum I  wrote an article which began by drawing attention to comments made by Conservative Party elder statesman, former Chancellor and Secretary of State for Education and Science, Ken Clarke MP. He stated that the referendum should never have been called because the issues were ‘too complicated’ to be decided in such a way.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also concluded as follows:

Other things being equal, support for leave was 30 percentage points higher among those with GCSE qualifications or below than it was for people with a degree.

 Many commentators have drawn parallels between the election of Donald Trump as US President and the UK Brexit vote. The educational profile of Trump voters certainly echoes that of Brexit voters.

The Canadian, ‘Globe and Mail’ published an analysis of the characteristics of Trump and Clinton Voters.

The vote laid bare a sharp divide on education. Ms. Clinton fared better among the more highly educated, winning among college graduates and holding a substantial lead among those who had done postgraduate study. Those with high school or less, as well as those with some college, preferred Mr. Trump by healthy margins. According to Pew Research, Mr. Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree, 67 per cent to 28 per cent, is the largest since the election of 1980.

 In my Brexit article, I argued that the immigration issue was ‘one dimensional’: less immigration = GOOD; more immigration = BAD. Readers of my articles and my book will know that I believe that Jean Piaget was essentially correct in his description of the hierarchy of stages of cognitive sophistication that are involved in learning and that the understanding of one dimensional variation characterises the ‘concrete operational’ stage. You can think of it like the ‘slider’ on your computer screen that you can move up or down to increase or decrease the sound volume.

In contrast, economic issues are more complex, multi-dimensional  and are likely to require Piaget’s ‘formal operational ‘ thinking ability if they are to be comprehended. Even if this were not so, the ability to make rational sense of full access to the EU Single Market where full access = GOOD, less access = BAD, at the same time as the immigration dimension, inevitably makes EU withdrawal a ‘multi-dimensional’ problem that requires Piaget’s, ‘formal operational’ stage of cognitive ability.

The link with educational attainment is clear. To successfully progress to 16+ academic qualifications also requires formal operational thinking. Since higher academic qualifications usually result in better paid employment in the both the UK and the US, the link between voting patterns and relative affluence is also explained.

Daniel Kahneman’s relevance comes from his assertion that humans have two discrete modes of thinking that he refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a result of human evolution and is to a major extent written into the human genome. It is the ‘fast thinking’ that is linked to survival in evolutionary terms. It is very good at solving certain kinds of problems very rapidly but frequently fails spectacularly with complex problems associated with scientific and mathematical concepts for which millions of years of evolution have not prepared us, other than giving us large brains with a highly flexible cerebral cortex. Kahneman describes System 1 as “a machine for jumping to conclusions”.

System 1, ‘fast thinking’ corresponds to Piaget’s ‘concrete operational’ thinking. Kahneman’s System 2, ‘slow thinking’, is a product of developmental education. It corresponds to Piaget’s ‘formal operational stage of cognitive development’. College educated adults are likely to have the ability to address a problem through their System 2 thinking ability. A significant proportion of adults never develop their cognitive ability to the formal operational/System 2 level. Even those adults that do possess System 2 thinking ability, often do not use it.

Kahneman gives this, now famous, example.

 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 usually evokes an instant answer of 10p from everybody, including formally capable mathematicians, which is incorrect. The correct solution requires the conscious deployments of slow thinking that Kahneman refers to as System 2. Everybody has a System 1, primed for action, but it is also the default instant reaction of well educated adults that fail to consciously apply their System 2 ability and ‘jump to a conclusion’.

To find the correct solution to Kahneman’s puzzle and understand why it is so educationally important, see this article.

James Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in the academic study of intelligence. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. It is the name given to the large year on year increases in IQ scores that took place in all developed countries during the twentieth century, but which now appears in some to have gone into reverse (the anti-Flynn effect).

Flynn now rejects the pessimistic notion that IQ is fixed at birth and largely stable over a lifetime. He argues that intelligence can be changed positively and negatively through ‘human autonomy’, by which he means the life decisions open to individuals in adulthood.

Flynn is now arguing that intelligence is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by most academics that study intelligence.

Although he appears not to have given much thought to the role of school pedagogy, he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  In his latest book he writes 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.”

 If, as Flynn asserts, intelligence remains plastic throughout adulthood then it is surely even more plastic though the school years. The central argument of my book, Learning Matters, supported by data from real school case studies, is that since the 1988 Education Reform Act our schools have been driven by league table competition in the opposite direction to teaching for cognitive development and this has impeded the development of plastic intelligence in our pupils.

Whereas it is the least able that stand to gain the most from improvements in their cognitive ability it is these pupils that have been most likely denied such opportunity on account of suffering degraded teaching at KS1, KS2 and KS4 as teachers have been forced to pursue the SATs L4 and the GCSE ‘C’ grade results needed for the survival of their schools, above all other educational considerations.

By compelling schools to be subject to a market in school choice, exercised by parents on the basis of simplistic school performance indicators in the context of privatised examination boards competing to sell their exams, school curriculum and teaching methods have become degraded resulting in a significant real decline in educational standards despite the illusion of school improvement. The irony is that the 2010 Conservative-led coalition government under Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove had, unlike his New Labour predecessors, recognised this decline but Gove and his successor have been ideologically and disastrously blind to its causes. See my article about the anti-Flynn effect here

 Much current teaching in schools that is commonly believed by the government to be ‘good’ is in fact ‘bad’ because it is ‘teaching to the test’ and does not produce cognitive growth.

Why has this happened? It is a consequence of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that now dominates the English Education system.

The relevance to the election of Donald Trump is that GERM originated under President G W Bush in the US in the form of an ideologically neoliberal marketised education system characterised by the ‘Charter Schools’ movement. Tony Blair accepted this ideology and paved the way for it to be imposed on the English education system, through ‘Academisation’.

GERM results in the abandonment of teaching methods that develop cognitive ability in favour of methods that are more effective in meeting the narrow exam performance criteria needed to drive the market in school choice. In the English system this has meant the high stakes SATs L4 and GCSE C grades that have been artificially and arbitrarily chosen as performance indicators for parents to choose schools.

GERM favours behaviourist teaching methods based on the rote learning of facts.

Cognitive development, however, is secured through developmental approaches to teaching and learning. Cognitive gains are achieved through a pedagogic culture that celebrates and builds on mistakes rather than incentivising success and punishing failure. This approach is maligned in the US and English GERM culture as ‘progressivism’ and has been discouraged in our schools by successive governments.

The US had a head start on us with GERM and has been degrading the US education system for the last three decades as noted by the American educational blogger, Nancy Bailey.

I began this article by drawing attention to the link between education and the way people have voted in the UK EU referendum and in the US presidential election. I have just watched Jeremy Corbyn on the Andrew Marr show blaming Brexit and the election of Donald Trump on the failed economic policies of austerity giving rise to the angry and alienated ‘left behind’ in the former industrial areas of the UK and US. He is not wrong about this, but he is failing to also recognise that these ‘left behind’ voters are still coming to irrational false conclusions and giving powerful effect to them in the ballot box; the one place in Western democracies where we really are all equal.

Irrationality and prejudice are a consequence of the failure of education. This failure is not one of school students failing to meet government imposed exam result targets in sufficient numbers, but a much deeper one concerning the degradation of the quality of learning resulting from that very domination of schooling by marketisation.

This degradation is captured by the ‘anti-Flynn Effect’, where the cognitive development of our school students has been inhibited such that an increasing proportion lack the cognitive sophistication needed to see through the right wing populism that is currently riding a wave in the UK and the US. The following changes to our education system need to be made.

  1. All school students at all levels of cognitive ability, at all ages, must receive the same high quality, broad and balanced education. C grades at GCSE (or the new equivalents) that drive market success for schools must not distort the curriculum and educational quality of provision. Because everybody has equal power in the ballot box, all of our children are entitled to the equal quality of education needed to make rational democratic decisions.
  2. It is therefore obvious that academically selective secondary schools must be brought within a comprehensive system driven by the need to maximise the cognitive (and other) development of every student.

So although the rise of right wing populism in the UK and the US has many complex causes it is facilitated in both countries by corruption of the education systems through marketisation and privatisation. Following  Brexit and the election of Trump this is only likely to be further promoted. Therefore my book, Learning Matters, is not just relevant to saving the English Education system, but also for combating the future threat to liberal democracy exemplified by these political shocks.


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More problems with Progress 8

My article, ‘Why maketisation invalidates Progress 8‘, addresses the concern that the production of high stakes performance measures for schools is susceptible to gaming or even something more like cheating or worse.

In October 2010 Perry Beeches school, an 11-16 Local Authority controlled community comprehensive in Birmingham, was widely featured in the national media as the ‘most improved school in the UK – Ever‘. By 2016, Perry Beeches School, now part of a Multi Academy Trust, was in the news for very different reasons.

During 2010 and 2011 I carried out a detailed study on the curriculum and the approaches to teaching and learning that lay behind the ‘Most Improved School Ever‘ claim. This resulted in an article in the education journal ‘Forum’.

In the article I wrote as follows.

The stakes for schools are very high indeed so no one can blame heads and governors for opting for a formula that produces success in the system that schools are forced to be part of. This fact would have been especially pressing in the recent past at Perry Beeches where the school’s former attainment of only 21% good GCSEs including English and maths led to changes brought about by the new head. Vital issues, however, relate not just to league table status but to progression to high-quality vocational education and training and to access to university for children attending comprehensive schools threatened by the ‘failure’ label and by an Ofsted system driven by the same narrow focus on floor targets (raw results levels below which are deemed by the Government to be unacceptably poor).

 The article raised questions back then, about whether the changes to the curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning brought about by the need to succeed in the market are in the best interests of students and the education system. ‘Progress 8’ is an attempt to ‘nudge the market’ in a direction designed to address such concerns.  My conclusion five years on is that unforeseen, perverse outcomes inevitably emerge as described in Part 3 of my book. ‘Learning Matters‘.

In this article I will raise doubts as to whether the Progress 8 measure is fit for purpose even within its own terms of reference. It is produced by the aggregation of two high stakes sets of national ‘test results’, five years apart.

On its past record, by the time this year’s SATs results are processed alongside the GCSE results of secondary schools in five years time, the government is likely to have substantially changed once again the entire basis of the KS2 National Curriculum and the SATs tests used to measure attainment on it.

The ‘fit for purpose’ doubts of Progress 8 were raised some time ago by Tom Sherrington on the headguruteacher website.

The issues he raised do not appear to have been addressed. I quote from his article as follows.

It’s all so convoluted; so removed from what learning looks like, turning ‘Progress’ into some kind of absolute metric.

To begin with, there is an input measure – a fine sublevel – that is derived from the raw scores on two tests in different subjects.  If you read my posts The Data Delusion or The Assessment Uncertainty Principle, you will see how far we move away from understanding learning even with raw marks.  However, it appears that raw marks in different subjects are to be put through a convoluted mincing machine where 74 and 77 become 5.1.  One number representing EVERYTHING a student has learned at KS2. On average.

But then we get to the crux.  Despite all the four sig fig nonsense, we actually end up with an outcome, in the worked example, where Progress 8 is 0.3 +/- 0.2.  In other words; 95% certain to fall somewhere between 0.1 and 0.5.  (Coincidentally, these are the same numbers for my school.).  What we end up with is a super-crude 1 significant figure number falling somewhere within a range that is bigger than the number itself.  Essentially, the whole palaver divides the Progress measure into three categories: Significantly above; average; significantly below.  That’s it.  The numbers actually don’t tell us anything significant at all.

I suppose that, as long as we recognise this, we’ll be OK.  However, I worry that people will not really understand much about this and they will assume that scores of 0.5, 0.4 and 0.3 are really different; people will assume that schools will have performed better than others even though, within the limits of confidence, that assumption doesn’t hold up.  If the error bars overlap – essentially we have to assume that the data doesn’t tell us enough to tell the schools apart.   Similarly, if one school ‘improves’ from Prog 8 0.1 to 0.2 from one year to the next, actually they’re kidding themselves.  The error bars will overlap to the point that there’s actually a chance they did worse.

Will people listen?  Of course not.  We’ll get league tables of Progress 8 measures ranking schools; Governors and prospective parents across the land will be fretting about the school next door having a higher score – all based on the most convoluted algorithm founded on the data validity equivalent of thin air; a number that says nothing of substance about how much learning has taken place over the course of five years.  Nothing.

Is the progress ‘boost’ due to the pupils themselves or due to something the school has done? The honest answer is that we can’t tell from the data we have available. And because we can’t resolve this conundrum it means that Progress 8 is not a measure of school effectiveness.”

Take note people; take note.  It is NOT a measure of school effectiveness[my bold]

Tom Sherrington’s article produced a large number of comments. Here is an example.

Schools are already playing the Progress 8 game. As 3 of the 8 slots are reserved for EBacc subjects SLTs have recognised that SEN students who may not ordinarily opt for EBacc may adversely affect their Progress8 score. Therefore these students have been encouraged to take EBacc subjects. A school near me has the whole of Year 10 taking Triple Science. It might not be in the interest of the students but it makes the data look good!

POSTED BY MG | MAY 4, 2015, 3:43 PM

It would be hard to find a clearer example of a perverse outcome driven by the pressure of marketisation.

Over a decade ago I came up with a better approach to judging the effectiveness of secondary schools. In my scheme the input data are Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) not SATs scores. These have two advantages.

  1. They are IQ type tests not based on the study and recall of any syllabus or body of knowledge. They are therefore not susceptible to the high pressure pre-test, past paper based rote learning and cramming that so degrades the Y6 experience of our pupils and their teachers.
  2. It usefully challenges the assumption that because SATs results correlate well with GCSE performance, then value added is best judged on the basis of prior attainment as measured by SATs. The alternative, correct view is that all academic attainment at all ages is actually mediated by general intelligence (cognitive ability), which is reliably currently measured by the CATs taken by thousands of pupils in Y6 for the purpose of ‘Fair Banding’ admissions systems. It is because cognitive ability drives both SATs and GCSE results that this fallacy has resulted and has come to dominate the English education system.

This flawed assumption distracts from the fact and educational potential of plastic intelligence, which if accepted, changes the whole purpose of education at all Key Stages from ‘attainment’ measured by SATs and GCSEs for the main purpose of producing school performance indicators to drive an artificially imposed market choice by parents, to developing to the full the cognitive and other abilities of all students.

My school effectiveness approach requires the production of scatter diagrams as shown below. This is in fact for Cumbria schools where in the 1990s they were produced by the LEA every year, but largely ignored. But that is another story.

As Tom Sherrington points out, it is just not possible to produce any simple numerical parameter that captures school effectiveness. My regression diagram enables the identification of what look like the most effective schools as those above the regression line. It would be difficult to translate such diagrams into a performance measure for driving league tables. That is another advantage. Apparent school effectiveness (or not) should be the starting point for school inspection and evaluation not the automatically produced conclusion.

It is interesting to note that the school (not its real name) with the worst GCSE performance (below the floor target) and by far the lowest intake ability, looks to be more effective (above the regression line) than the highest performing school (on the regression line).

Using single numbers to drive parental choice and OfSTED judgements of schools is massive folly.


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Why marketisation invalidates Progress 8

My book, ‘Learning Matters’, was published before ‘Attainment 8’ and ‘Progress 8’ were finalised and published. This article is therefore something of a postscript.

I have downloaded and studied the DfE publication, Progress 8 and Attainment 8 measure in 2016, 2017, and 2018, Guide for maintained secondary schools, academies and free schools, October 2016

You can find it here

It takes some digesting, but its purpose at least is clear. All quotations are in italics.

Progress 8 aims to capture the progress a pupil makes from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school. It is a type of value added measure, which means that pupils’ results are compared to the actual achievements of other pupils with the same prior attainment.

The new performance measures are designed to encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum with a focus on an academic core at key stage 4, and reward schools for the teaching of all their pupils, measuring performance across 8 qualifications. Every increase in every grade a pupil achieves will attract additional points in the performance tables.

Progress 8 will be calculated for individual pupils solely in order to calculate a school’s Progress 8 score, and there will be no need for schools to share individual Progress 8 scores with their pupils.

It sets out to use the market mechanism to compel all secondary schools to provide a broad and balanced academic education for all students, defined mainly by the EBacc subjects. Unlike many on the liberal left, I have no problem with this direction of reform of the curriculum, but my argument in support of it is completely different to that of the government.

What can be wrong with having well educated plumbers, actors, motor mechanics, shop assistants, footballers, tennis players, care workers etc. as well as more broadly educated teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers?

Of even more importance is the richness of such a broad and balanced curriculum as a vehicle for engaging, inspiring and developing the intellect of all students at all stages of cognitive development through well established developmental teaching and learning methods that are proven to be effective. This principle is described and explained in this article.

So what is wrong with the Progress 8 approach? Any teacher that tries to read the DfE paper will start to worry. The shear detail and complexity of it is boggling. Does teaching school students things they need to know, in a way that they can understand, and which develops their general intelligence in the process, really have to be this instrumental and suffocatingly dull, depressing and off-putting to teachers?

My answer is, maybe if it works.

In order to fully understand why it will not work, it is necessary to study some research recently carried out by the BBC ‘Newsnight’ Team. To understand my argument it is necessary to carefully read the whole of this article, from which the following is extracted.

Four researchers had access to 160 secondary school academies in England, building a dataset that covered the tenure of 411 head teachers. The research, by Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard, is being published in the Harvard Business Review. Their work found that heads tended to fall into one of five “types”

“Surgeons” are head teachers who act decisively to try to turn around schools. On arriving in a school, they exclude an average of around a quarter of the final-year students and drive resources into final-year students. They fire around a tenth of staff. They have a dramatic immediate impact.

The clear finding here is that surgeons appear to make the most dramatic improvement in the short term, averaging around a 10% improvement per annum in exam results with only a slight loss of financial strength.

That remarkable performance in improving GCSE results explains why ‘surgeons’ are the most sought-after heads. The paper reveals that they are paid, on average, £154,000 a year. ‘Philosophers’ get £103,000 and ‘architects’ just £86,000. ‘Soldiers’ and ‘accountants’ both get about £100,000 a year. ‘Surgeons’ are also most likely to get awards. Almost two-thirds have a national honour, like a knighthood.

There are, however, profound problems for the system with the strategy pursued by the ‘surgeons’. Their strategy is about rapid turnaround, so they invest aggressively in children about to take exams, and exclude tough children up-front. ‘Surgeons’ dropped into a school would be expected to get rid of an average of 28 per cent of final year students to dramatically boost that year’s exam results. That generates rapid improvement in results. But it is not sustainable. Many of these heads leave within two years – and the ‘surgeons’ schools’ results decline rapidly in the year after the head moves on.

Their strategy is time-limited – you can only improve results modestly through removing pupils. And if a school has moved resources from younger children to focus on those taking exams imminently, eventually it will have to deal with children whose education was damaged by the strategy at the start of secondary school, when resources were diverted from them into older children.

The four other ‘categories’ of head teacher produce less spectacular GCSE results, but better long term performance for their schools and by implication, for the quality of the education provided to their students.

So what has this to do with ‘Progress 8’?

Progress 8, like everything else about the English marketised education system, is focused onto producing a concise school performance indicator that drives school parental choice in a system of competitive school league tables and the OfSTED school inspection and reporting system, which bases its school gradings on the Progress 8 outcomes rather than on qualitative judgements of teaching and learning observed by skilled, experienced and independent inspectors. OfSTED has evolved into a system of short inspections by a small number of inspectors armed with performance data that has already been processed to determine the outcome of the inspection for the school. The classroom visits are largely to provide context and examples for the final report.

The Progress 8 system is just the same in this respect except that the freedom of judgement of the inspectors is even more constrained as demonstrated by the threatening sections.

Floor standard

The floor standard for a school is the minimum standard for pupil achievement and/or progress that the Government expects schools to meet. Floor standards do not apply to special schools, independent schools, pupil referral units, alternative provision or hospital schools.

 In 2016 (or 2015 for those schools that chose to opt in a year early), a school will be below the floor standard if its Progress 8 score is below -0.5, and the upper band of the 95% confidence interval is below zero. If a school’s performance falls below this floor standard, then the school may come under scrutiny through inspection. Confidence intervals are explained in more detail on page 21-22 and in Annex D.

Schools in which pupils make on average one grade more progress than the national average (a Progress 8 score of +1.0 or above) will be exempt from routine inspections by Ofsted in the calendar year following the publication of the final performance tables.

 Coasting schools definition

The Education & Adoption Act 2016 introduced new provisions to define schools that are ‘coasting’. In March 2016 the government published its response to the consultation on coasting schools. This confirmed that a ‘coasting’ school was one where data showed that over a three-year period, the school had failed to ensure that pupils reached their potential.

The document also set out the Department’s proposed definition of a coasting school. This is based on the same performance measures that underpin the floor standards. In 2016, a secondary school will be coasting if: 

  • In 2014 fewer than 60% of pupils achieved 5 A*-C at GCSE (including English and maths) and less than the national median achieved expected progress in English and in maths and; 
  • In 2015, fewer than 60% of pupils achieved 5 A*-C at GCSE (including English and maths) and less than the national median achieved expected progress in English and in maths; and 
  • In 2016, the school’s Progress 8 score is below -0.251 

A school will have to be below the coasting definition in three consecutive years to be defined as coasting. 

327 schools opted in to Progress 8 in 2015. For these schools, if they meet the definition above, but in 2015 have a Progress 8 score of -0.25 or above they will not coasting. 

Schools will be excluded from the coasting measure in 2016 if: 

  • they have fewer than 6 pupils at the end of key stage 4; or 
  • less than 50% of pupils have key stage 2 assessments that can be used as prior attainment in the calculations of Progress 8; or 
  • the school closes within the academic year (except if they reopen as a converter academy2). 

Schools will be excluded from the coasting measure in 2014 and 2015 if: 

  • they have fewer than 11 pupils at the end of key stage 4; or 
  • less than 50% of pupils have key stage 2 assessments that can be used as prior attainment in the calculations of expected progress; or 
  • the school closes within the academic year (except if they reopen as a converter academy). 

Any school that is excluded from the coasting measure in a particular year cannot be defined as coasting until it has three consecutive years of data that meets the coasting definition. No school will be identified as coasting until after the revised 2016 secondary performance tables are published in January.

Subject to Parliament agreeing to the Regulations, the coasting definition will apply to all mainstream maintained schools and academies with the relevant key stage 4 data. It will not apply to PRUs, special schools, alternative provision academies or maintained nursery schools.

I had to pinch myself to realise the extent to which these threats will now dominate the school experiences of heads, teachers and their students.

It does not seem to have occurred to the DfE statisticians that this monumental package has at its heart a fatal flaw – a classic case of not seeing the wood for the trees.

The judgements are based on the results of high pressure SATs exams taken over a short period in Y6 to establish the base line ‘prior attainment’, followed by the results of  high pressure GCSE exams taken over a short period in Y11.

The assumption is that all the thousands of hours of teaching and learning that took place in between can be validly and reliably reduced to a single Progress 8 measure for every student (kept secret from them), which are then aggregated to form a judgement on whether the school should fail and close or succeed in the market: on whether the head should get the sack or a huge performance related pay rise and a knighthood.

So what about the BBC Newsnight research?

If all schools are incentivised to appoint ‘surgeon’ type heads (in primary as well as secondary schools) that rapidly move onwards and upwards after producing dramatic exam results for their schools, what if Secondary school A is fed in Y7 by a Primary School who took their SATS under a ‘non-surgeon’ head, but these same students five years later take their GCSEs in Secondary school B ruled by a ‘surgeon’ head in the full flush of his/her epic GCSE results generating reforms – or vice-versa?

At the beginning of this article I implied that my book, ‘Learning Matters‘ has nothing to say about ‘Progress 8’, but it has. Part 3 is entitled, ‘Spectacular School Improvement’. This is mainly about the disastrous consequences of Blair’s spectacular school improvement that was driven by the ‘Vocational Equivalent Scam’, designed to justify the education policies of the time. But Progress 8 will have perverse consequences, as market based incentives always do, because although he ended the curriculum and exams scam of the Blair era, Michael Gove failed to recognise that the marketisation paradigm is still corrupting, stultifying and degrading the school experiences of our students and their teachers. Progress 8 will fail to capture the essential qualities at the core of high quality, developmental education.

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Nature, nurture and human autonomy

Does your family make you smarter? by James Flynn

Book Review by Roger Titcombe

James Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in the academic study of intelligence. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. It is the name given to the large year on year increases in IQ that took place in all developed countries during the twentieth century.

I am a retired headteacher, educational researcher and author. My work is based on the concept of general intelligence. The general intelligence factor ‘g’, accepted as a sound general construct by Flynn, is a concept about which much heat has been generated. If the validity of this construct is rejected, as it still is by some left inclined educationalists, then Flynn’s latest book together with his life’s work will be judged unworthy of serious consideration. To be clear therefore, I am reviewing this book in acceptance of the concept of general intelligence, with the crucial proviso that it is plastic and that it can be enhanced in childhood and subsequently throughout life as a result of both passive and (especially) active interaction with cognitive challenges.

See Sections 1.2 & 1.4 of ‘learning Matters

Notwithstanding the main title, this is what Flynn’s book is mainly about. The subtitle, ‘Nature, nurture and human autonomy’ is a better description of the main thrust of the book. In it he describes how his view of the stability of genetically inherited intelligence has substantially changed. Wading into the nature vs nurture debate Flynn now rejects the pessimistic, anti-educational notion that IQ is largely stable over a lifetime. He argues that intelligence can be changed positively and negatively through ‘human autonomy’, by which he largely takes to mean the life decisions open to individuals in adulthood.

Flynn is now arguing that intelligence is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by most academics that study intelligence. Although he appears not to have given much thought to the impact of school pedagogy, he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  He writes 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.”

 Flynn is not an educationalist, but his conclusions have profound implications for teachers, schools, national education systems and especially the failures of the ‘reformed’ English system with its emphasis on marketisation, league tables and parental choice.

Flynn’s book has a very useful summary of current theories of intelligence. In it he admits to being very influenced by Oesterdiekhoff, who he describes as, ‘the most original thinker among the continental Piagetians’. See also Sections 1.8 & 1.9 of ‘Learning Matters‘.

Oesterdiekhoff links Piagetian stages to anthropology, He notes that the ‘formal operational’ stage develops only in modern societies, usually sometime between the ages of 15 and 20 and is associated with high IQ test scores. Flynn explains the Flynn effect (large gains in population IQ) mainly in terms of individuals having to come to terms with the cognitive demands of modern societies, which have steadily increased throughout industrialisation and ‘taken off’ in the last two decades of the digital revolution.

The consequence is that school students still at the ‘concrete operational’ (or pre-operational) level at 16 will increasingly struggle with the cognitive demands of modern life and the demands of employers. A ‘cognitive underclass’ is therefore in the making.

See Sections 2.1, 2.2 & 2.3 of ‘Learning Matters

My argument is that marketised schools driven by SATs and GCSE grade ‘C’ performance thresholds are forced to prioritise achieving ‘floor targets’ at any costs. This condemns a large proportion of the school population to 11 years of shallow, degraded behaviourist teaching that, by age 16, will not develop cognitive ability sufficiently for full functioning in the modern world resulting in a vicious circle of failure and alienation.

A study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out on British children in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old had dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the ability range the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points. This apparent recent reversal of the Flynn effect is confirmed by a parallel study carried out in 2005/6 by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg (but not published until 2009) and gives weight to the contention that educational standards in England are falling as a consequence of the degrading of the education system. The decline in KS2 noted by Shayer, Coe and Ginsberg (2007) showed an even bigger effect than that recorded by Flynn: the 11 year-olds were testing at the level of 9 year-olds in 1976.

If environmental factors such as high cognitive challenge can result in growth of cognitive ability over time, as Flynn now asserts,  then it follows that poor teaching of the wrong sort can produce a decline. Shayer and Ginsburg found just such a decline suggesting that the English education system could be ‘making our kids dimmer’ at the same time as stuffing them with ever more qualifications.

See Sections 5.10 & 5.11 of ‘Learning Matters

Referring to the title of the book, Flynn has analysed decades of IQ data to conclude that while the quality of the family environment can raise IQ scores in early years this effect wears off with schooling to virtually disappear by the age of 17. This suggests that contrary to common assumptions, as children progress through the education system the growth of cognition as a consequence of schooling is determined far more by the cognitive demands of the school experience than by any assumed deficiencies in the home background.

This too is a profoundly optimistic conclusion in terms of the potential of the education system for halting the national cognitive decline that is resulting from the corrupting effects of the marketisation of our schools.

However, the right kind of pedagogy is needed.

See Sections 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6, 5.7, 5.8 & 5.9 of ‘Learning Matters

Although not written for educationalists this important book adds to the growing evidence that  ‘intelligence matters’ and that the marketisation paradigm of the English education system is increasingly failing our children.

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