The failure of science education in English Schools

I was prompted to write this article by a recent telephone conversation with the complaints section of my Electricity Supply company. I won’t bore readers with the details, but if I indicate that it concerned estimated meter readings and the unilateral raising of my monthly direct debit on the basis of flawed projections of annual energy use, then it may strike a chord with many.

The issue concerned the relative significance of my actual meter readings compared with the company’s estimated ones. I finally lost all confidence when the person on the other end of the phone started referring to our electrical energy use in ‘kilowatts per hour’. When I tried to correct her it was clear she did not have a clue about the difference between ‘kilowatts’ and ‘kilowatt-hours’ (the proper unit), let alone that ‘kilowatts per hour’ is just nonsense.

This ignorance of basic science in relation to electrical energy is now widespread throughout all sections of society including in broadsheet newspapers and on the BBC. It emerges whenever electrical power generation is being discussed. For example, it is common for the ‘power’ of a new wind turbine installation to be described in ‘kilowatts per year’ in the same paragraph as a statement of the number of households whose energy needs were being met. The correct unit in each case is ‘kilowatts’ (or more likely megawatts). The error is like stating the speed of a ship in ‘knots per hour’ (1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour).

The distinction is between ‘energy’ (what the householder pays for) and ‘power’ (the rate of production of the energy). The latter rises with the number of customers and the power demands of their households/businesses.

I will return to this later, but not before registering my horror at the same misunderstanding being perpetuated and transmitted to millions of school student watchers of the 2016 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures when the presenter compared the electrical power needs of the TV studio with the number of AA batteries needed to provide it. Despite a short statement that ‘energy’ and ‘power’ were different quantities, the programme went on to seriously confuse the two in a series of further comments and energy transfer demonstrations.

Does this matter except to science ‘nerds’ like me? Of course it does. We would not tolerate being lectured on literature by an illiterate who could not string together a grammatically coherent sentence and who misspelled common words like ‘there’, their’, ‘to’, ‘too’, ‘your’, ‘you’re’ etc.

Science and maths differ from many other subjects in that they get very complicated, very quickly. Despite the assertions of popularisers like ‘Carol Vorderman’, none of it is ‘common sense’. Unlike other science popularisers,  Brian Cox to his credit gets this.

That is probably why it has fallen to science teachers like Michael Shayer and the late ‘Philip’ Adey to assert the validity of the work of Piaget and so lead the way in establishing the essential pedagogic distinction between knowledge and understanding.  Despite the necessity of the former, no amount of it guarantees the latter. As with most of my articles we are back in the territory of both Piaget and Vygotsky, whose pithy statement of the distinction between knowledge and understanding cannot be improved upon.

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

The English education system is been consumed and corrupted by the marketisation paradigm. This has allowed the ‘behaviourist’ philosophy of the business world to infect and corrupt the ruling pedagogy of our school system.

Nothing can better illustrate the dangers than this article on Local Schools Network, together with my reply to it.

But has our education system got worse in these regards? Ask any science teacher with experience from before the marketisation-enabling 1988 Education Reform Act and they will agree with me that it has. This is what I wrote in this article.

On 21 November 2013 OfSTED published a report entitled, Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools. They found that dull teaching – accompanied by a lack of practical work in the subject – was putting pupils off the science subjects. In some schools, not enough time had been set aside in the timetable for pupils to do practical work. Girls, in particular, were likely to ditch physics – with only 11,390 going on to do it in the sixth-form in 2011 despite 159,745 getting two good GCSE passes in science. In addition, a minority of secondary schools were ‘pre-occupied with tests and examination results as ends in themselves’ rather than aiming to improve pupils’ deeper knowledge of the subject. The report points out that getting good grades in science is not necessarily the same as “getting” science.

All this is true but the principles are general and relate to all learning. Practical work is not just necessary for developing ‘practical skills’ but for promoting cognitive development that spills over into all subjects and all learning.

Have things improved since 2013? I maintain that they have not. Not only has the decline in practical work continued, but crucially the exam system has been further degraded to make higher grades ‘more accessible’ to students that lack the cognitive development necessary for deep learning and understanding.

There are also increasing problems in recruiting qualified science teachers trained/experienced in devising, planning and managing practical activities and experiments in science, along with doubts that schools may not still possess the extensive range of cleverly designed  equipment that was provided by LEAs to all schools in the 1970s following the widespread adoption of ‘Nuffield Science’, along with the ‘lab technician’ posts needed to maintain it. The consequent science education crisis is being exacerbated by allowing Academy chains to accredit qualified teacher status, when they may have little interest in encouraging science practical work. This is a serious concern given the lack of effective regulation of Academies and Academy Chains. 

This is not an argument  for special pedagogic treatment on the part of science and maths. Didactic ‘instruction’ and ‘knowledge’ dissemination on the Hirsch model, backed by the harsh discipline needed to keep students ‘on task’ while being literally bored stupid, have elbowed out interactive enquiry and peer with peer debate across the curriculum. I comment here on how Education Endowment Foundation research into effective approaches to teaching and learning is ignored by the DfE that funds the research and by the Academy and Free School Chains that the DfE promote for ideological reasons.

I started my teaching career in 1971. In 1975 I was running a science department at The Bosworth College in Leicestershire. This was then a 14-18 comprehensive Community College whose ‘progressive’ teaching methods would today be widely scorned. Students were on first name terms with teachers including the headteacher and there was no school uniform. A surge of blue denim was disgorged every day from the large number of busses that converged on the village of Desford from its huge, mainly rural catchment area. The boys’ fashion was denim jeans and denim jackets and the girls similar, but sometimes with the substitution of denim skirts. Is the scornful dismissal of the ‘progressiveness’ of the time justified? ‘Discovery’ and ‘project-based’ learning were indeed frequently shallow and insufficiently challenging. And while there were many excellent and inspirational teachers, some were undoubtedly lazy and overly politicised.

But none of this was true of the Bosworth Science Department where we ran a ‘General Science’ CSE Mode 3 course (syllabus and schemes of work designed and assessed by teachers) based on ‘Nuffield Secondary Science’. This was a practically-based course that had nothing in common with the shallow GNVQ ‘vocational scam’ introduced by the Blair government in the late 1990s that was rightly seen off by Michael Gove.

Like the other Nuffield GCE and A Level Science courses taught in the school, Bosworth College General Science adopted a scientifically rigorous approach designed to establish sound foundations and bring about the cognitive development needed to secure deep understanding of the most significant principles of science. There was no setting in the science department, but with year groups of 400+, it was mainly lower ability students that chose General Science rather than GCE courses in Biology, Chemistry and Physics. General Science was not intended as a preparation for further studies in science, but to equip students with sound levels of basic understanding and scientific literacy. The CSE was graded on a scale of 1 to 5. Grade 1 corresponded to a C grade or above at GCE and grade 5 to a GCE grade G. The CSE system defined grade 4 (GCE F) as that ‘to be expected from a student of average ability following a competently taught course of study’.

I analyse the devastating history of the inflation of GCSE grades, largely for political reasons, and in response to ‘market pressure’ in Section 1.10 of my book, ‘Learning Matters

When Bosworth College was subject to a full HMI Inspection in the late 1970s, the General Science course was described by the lead inspector as, ‘The best he had ever seen’.

In conclusion, I had better rehearse how electrical energy and power are measured.

All energy is measured in joules.

1 joule is the energy needed to lift a weight of 1 newton (eg a 100g apple) a height of 1 metre.

Power is the rate of expending/providing energy. It is measured in watts.

A power of 1 watt is when energy is expended/provided at a rate of 1 joule per second.

So watts (power) = joules/seconds and so joules(energy) = watts x seconds

These units are too small to be practical in terms of household electrical energy needs, so kilowatts are used in homes (and megawatts in power stations).

1 kilowatt = 1 kilojoule per second

So the practical unit of electrical energy that you are billed for by your energy supply company is the kilowatt-hour (kWh). This is equivalent to a 1 kW electrical appliance switched on for one hour.

Therefore 1 kilowatt hour = 3,600,000 joules (1000 watts x 3,600 seconds)

So the power of a wind turbine installation is expressed in kilowatts (or more likely megawatts).

The units of energy that your energy company bills you for are in kilowatt-hours (kWhs).

The cost of using an electrical appliances in your home can thus be worked out.

Electricity cost = (power of appliance in kW) x (hours used) x (the unit cost per kWh).

This was just a small part of our students’ comprehensive study of the principles and safe use of electrical energy in the home. Students also learned how to read the electricity meters of the time, with their small counter-rotating dials, calculate the energy use and running costs of various appliances,  wire 3-pin mains plugs (new appliances never came with plugs attached in those days) and calculate the fuse ratings needed for appliances of different power and much else besides.

If the lower ability students of a comprehensive school in the 1970s could learn all this, and delight in the practical and experimental aspects of their studies, then why are so many current school leavers and adults, not to mention the public agents of the energy supply companies, along with journalists at all levels of their profession, so woefully ignorant?

We have to assume that this criticism does not also apply to Secretaries of State for Education.

I welcome comments to my articles especially from those that disagree with me.

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Poorer pupils less likely to get into grammars than richer classmates

This Guardian article reports research arguing for the existence of a class-based conspiracy to prevent the children of poor families getting into grammar schools. There are many very good reasons for opposing the re-introduction and expansion of grammar schools, but this is not one of them.

“High-achieving children from disadvantaged backgrounds who perform well at primary school have less chance of getting into a grammar school than their more affluent classmates who perform less well, according to new research. The study, by a team from Bristol University, Warwick University and University College London, says access to grammar schools is “highly skewed” by a child’s socio-economic background.”

The ‘Socio-Economic Status’ (SES) analysis is very thorough, but the conclusions of the study are flawed because of the assumption that KS2 SATs data provide a valid measurement of academic ability.

“Let’s look at two children – one from the poorest SES quintile and one from the least deprived SES quintile – both performing at the 80th percentile of the Key Stage 2 distribution. Despite the same level of academic attainment, our analysis shows that the most deprived pupil has only a 25% chance of attending a grammar compared to a 70% chance for the least deprived pupil.”

But children are not admitted to grammar schools on the basis of ‘academic attainment’ measured by KS2 SATs. The 11+ is an IQ test. It is designed to be a snapshot of general intelligence, which is a far better predictor of ultimate academic attainment than curriculum-specific attainment tests, of which SATs are an example.  Grammar schools have always done this because within the educationally flawed ‘fixed intelligence at birth’ paradigm, it works for them.

The 11 plus is not the only IQ test widely used in the English education system. There are also Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). These are currently provided by GL Assessment, a commercial company that doesn’t like the CAT being described as an intelligence test. CATs are used on a large scale by many Academies and Multi-Academy Trusts as the basis of ‘Fair Banding’ admissions systems, which successfully ensure that comprehensive schools really are comprehensive in that they contain a balanced mix of pupil abilities. CATs test data produce the same social pattern as the 11 plus results, in that the lower bands are dominated by pupils from poor SES families inviting the same false conclusion that the schools that use the tests are somehow discriminating against children from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds.

The fact is that poor SES postcodes are characterised by a significant excess of children with lower average IQ test scores. The 11 plus and Y6 CATs are simply the evidence that this is the case.

Despite the objective truth of this relationship and its profound implications for the national education system, rarely is it admitted, let alone taken into account, even in research carried out by prestigious university institutions like Bristol, Warwick and UCL.

It is why ‘competition’ for pupils in our marketised education system has morphed under commercial institutional pressures to become competition for the most intelligent pupils, in which schools located in posh areas with higher concentrations of more intelligent pupils have an inherent league table advantage over schools in the middle of poor SES council estates, even though the quality of teaching and learning in the ‘posher’ schools may well be poorer.

These facts and their implications are discussed in Part 4 of my book, ‘Learning Matters’, which is about the success of Mossbourne Academy and the Hackney Borough secondary education system and in this article.

There are three types of relationships that secondary schools have with IQ-based admission tests.

Grammar schools – Where the tests are used to ensure that the pupils they admit are intelligent enough to succeed despite often mediocre standards of teaching and learning. There is an important secondary advantage of ‘keeping the riff-raff out’ and so re-assuring snobby parents that their children will not suffer from too close contact with lower class children. This is the real reason for expensive uniforms and rituals that have little beneficial effect on learning.

Fair-banded comprehensive schools – Where the tests are used for the opposite and educationally desirable purpose of achieving mixed ability, diverse social class/ethnicity intakes.

Neighbourhood comprehensive and secondary modern schools – Where there are no admission tests, resulting in the well established pattern that the schools in ‘posh’ areas become successfully established at the top of local school league tables and the schools in poorer areas become labelled as ‘failing’ and drift towards the bottom, in constant fear of OfSTED and academisation. If they have already been academised and fail to ‘improve’, as is likely if they fail to address the low mean cognitive ability of their pupils, they face being ‘transferred’ to whichever MAT can be persuaded and/or bribed by the DfE to take them on. Curiously in our marketised education system ideologically designed to support parental choice of schools, parents have no say in this process whatever.

It is the middle group; comprehensive schools with all ability, mixed social class/ethnicity intakes, that are best placed to successfully confront the flawed ‘fixed intelligence at birth’ paradigm and so transform the life chances of all of their pupils including those from poor communities with low intake IQ scores. This is something that the former Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, well understood even if he was wrong about so much else, including his obsessions with academisation, school uniforms and obsessive discipline.

Grammar schools recruit pupils of IQ 115+ (more than 1 SD above the mean) so there is little need for them to further develop the intelligence of their pupils in order to retain their league table superiority and social class differentiation compared to neighbouring non-selective schools. While some of the best grammar schools may be challenging their already able pupils to further develop their general cognitive levels, the popularity of selection with the parents of 11 plus successes provides no incentive to change traditions of complacently poor practice in many of these schools.

Comprehensive schools/secondary moderns in poor areas are always fighting against the market pressure of league tables and the ever present threat from OfSTED regimes driven by ‘floor targets’ and dodgy performance measures.

What is the educational solution for schools located within low SES communities?

Urban schools can move into the second category by adopting the Hackney solution of CATs driven banded admissions systems. This does not prevent the operation of the market competition, but it does place limits on the numbers of pupils that can be admitted to each ability band. For example Mossbourne Academy has four admission bands based the quartile-defining CATs scores: Band A 110+, Band B, 100 – 109, Band C 90 – 99 and Band D 89 and below. At Mossbourne there are 50 places in each band in each new Y7 intake.

The poor SES Mossbourne local community results in a large excess of applicants for Band D, while Band A can be ‘topped up’ with pupils from more affluent areas further from the school or in neighbouring Boroughs. The unsuccessful Band D applicants will find places in nearby schools operating the same LA managed system. In the absence of banded admissions Mossbourne would fill up with low SES Band D pupils that live closest to the school, with no spaces left for the more able pupils that live further away. This is what sunk Mossbourne’s predecessor, Hackney Downs School.

Under the Hackney banded admissions system all of the schools are protected from becoming low ability sink schools. Within the Borough the more popular schools can still attract a higher mean IQ admission cohort and so, other things being equal, secure ‘better’ GCSE results, but not by much, which is probably the best that that can be achieved in a marketised system.

The result has been the huge improvement in outcomes for all pupils in the Hackney secondary system. It is only possible because the Hackney Academies are far sighted enough to recognise the advantages to all of the schools of ceding their Academy-based admissions powers to the Local Authority. This is regrettably, so far a unique development.

More rural areas have schools with large natural catchments that are inherently reasonably mixed in terms of the ability/social class profile. Banded admissions would bring few advantages to such schools with the major disadvantage of unsuccessful applicants being faced with having to attend schools many miles from their homes.

Inner urban comprehensives still have to work hard to combat cultural challenges to the establishment of a mutually supportive and vibrant learning community of co-operatively assertive pupils. This article explains how this was achieved in my inner-urban headship school from 1989 until my retirement in 2003.

What is the explanation for the Bristol/Warwick/UCL study conflating KS2 SATs driven ‘academic attainment’ with IQ/cognitive ability?

Poor SES communities characterised by low average IQ children are served by primary schools that are permanently threatened with closure (and the sacking of the head) for failing to meet floor targets. Such schools can fall victim to educational snake oil salespersons that promote behaviourist, knowledge-based, abusive discipline approaches, that the Conservative Party, the DfE and Donald Trump all love.

These methods do not develop cognitive ability or much else besides Gradgrindian conformity and obedience. They may actually make children dimmer and therefore less likely to do well on IQ tests used for secondary school admissions including grammar schools. Their methods work with SATs but not CATs or other IQ tests. Hence the illusion of ‘high academic attainment’ that does not translate into passing the 11 plus. Worse still, there are now secondary Academy Chains and individual schools that use these behaviourist methods to cram pupils for GCSE, with the same claims for success. See this article and my comments to it.

In our primary and secondary schools the DfE seems determined to make the quality of teaching and learning worse and the experience of our children and their teachers even more dismal.

In summary, grammar schools do not discriminate against children from poor backgrounds. They just insist on an IQ test threshold for admissions. It has long been established that the children of well-educated parents do better at school. The CATs data show that, whether by nature, nurture or both, such parents tend to produce higher IQ children. The higher the level of parental education, the less likely are the families to live in areas characterised by poor SES. They can afford to move ‘up the housing ladder’, so they do. Therefore high IQ children will be scarcer on the ground in low SES areas resulting in the pattern observed in the research.

It was not the case in the 1960s where I grew up.

It is worth pointing out that this pattern was hugely intensified by Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous policy of selling council houses at a huge discount to tenants. Fifty years later a high proportion of these well built and roomy homes with front and rear gardens are now owned by private landlords resulting in a historically low level of home ownership. Increasingly poor and aging children are still living with their parents. We children of the 60s were launched into a high degree of independence in our late teens/early 20s to enjoy swinging Britain, free university education supported by maintenance grants (not loans) and full employment in proper pensionable jobs.

There is therefore no class-based discrimination in admissions to grammar schools, just ongoing market based corruption and degradation of the primary school curriculum combined with costly, ideologically driven fragmentation of the secondary school system that damages the opportunities of all pupils to attend inspirational schools  that prioritise the development of individual cognitive and other abilities through co-operative endeavour.

Academisation, Free Schools and now this proposed reintroduction of grammar school selection to those parts of England that are well rid of it, will just waste £millions when per-pupil funding of established and successful comprehensive schools is being drastically cut for the first time in many decades.

I set out a step by step plan to really raise both educational attainment and the mean IQ of our school leavers here. The latter is the essential prerequisite for the former and is essential if our democracy is to reject the wave of economic and political populism that is threatening all of our precious public services.

I welcome comments to all my articles including from those that disagree with me.

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Good relationships are central to deep learning and cognitive growth

Once again, Henry Stewart has posted an important article on Local Schools Network. Henry reproduces a speech by a former head, which he introduces as follows.

Two years ago Sir Alasdair Macdonald gave this speech at the Happy Schools conference, organised by the Guardian and my own company, Happy Ltd. Reading it again I believe it deserves a wider audience. Sir Alasdair focuses on values, relationships and trusting your people as the keys to a great school.

Henry is right that the points made by Sir Alasdair, which lie at the heart of Henry’s own core values, are not just important for schools and school leaders, but for also for other organisations. Lego is one of the world’s most successful companies. Like good schools, it is absolutely dependent on innovation, co-operation and high workforce morale. This is what Lego states about it’s core values.

As we continue to experience global growth, we are joined by many new employees each year. It is important to us that everyone at the LEGO Group experiences their workplace as a highly motivating and engaging place to be. For us to live up to employees’ expectations and to continue being a desirable workplace, we annually measure our employees’ level of motivation and satisfaction. This gives management a better understanding of how our employees experience working for us and to get crucial input for making improvements.

Sir Alasdair’s speech needs to be read in full, but here are some excerpts.

I think there is a tendency with the media in particular, and the politicians and so on, to think that ‘Happy Schools’ is somehow a soft option. That somehow it’s going back to the 80s where we put our arms round children and didn’t have high expectations.”I don’t think it is that at all and certainly wasn’t the perspective of the school where I was Headteacher  We had outstanding Ofsteds, we had very good exam performance, we had very little gaps in terms of pupils. So it is about still having incredibly high expectations.

I think relationships are at the core of good schools. I think headteachers are key within that. However I also think for me personally, perhaps even more important than that, is the idea that everyone in the school – adult, teacher, sports staff, pupil – has potential and is capable of doing whatever they are currently doing better.

I know of no schools where the majority of staff can’t be trusted and yet we base our model on the minority, and often it’s a tiny minority, who can’t. One of the great things to do is to keep a little bit of money, have a slush fund. When people come to you with a great idea you can actually support it.

I think in schools when you get that really strong core value mindset about relationships and about belief in people, you are going to get consistency. By that I mean the way the headteacher interacts with the staff, and that has got to be the way in which the staff interact with the pupils.

This last point crucially also applies to the way that pupils interact with each other. The direct link with learning is made clear in this article.

Lessons that develop cognition and so raise intelligence require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems above the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models. Teachers are now often taught never to allow children to fail to solve problems because this reinforces failure (the behaviourist model), whereas for cognitive growth children need to learn in a culture that supports and encourages learning from mistakes.

 Vygotsky asserts that understanding first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then does it become internalised by individuals. The key point is that in a school the resolution of cognitive conflict in individual learners works best as a social process. The participants assist each other in grappling with the shared cognitive conflict. This is called peer to peer learning. It requires high quality social relationships in the classroom. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a comprehensive school where such high quality relationships existed and it became a career goal to eventually achieve it in my headship school. Pupils have to trust each other and not fear humiliation by the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings.

A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism will not provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to ignite. Obviously nothing can be achieved where informality degenerates into anarchy and chaos reigns. Great demands are placed on the teacher, who needs the skills to be able to promote positive self-sustaining, reasoned discussion between pupils. This is very difficult to achieve and the hallmark of a good teacher, supported by like minded professional colleagues working in a school that supports such a culture.

There are regrettably a growing number of schools, led by the Academy and Free School movement, many feted by the DfE, where relationships between school managers and teachers, teachers and pupils and pupils with their peers are so limited in depth and quality that this type of high level learning will be impossible. If cramming and repetition, reinforced by rewards and the shame of failure, have any effect at all on individual cognition then it is cognitive depression, leading to rejection of challenging concepts and consequent alienation.

In this article I explain at length how such good pupil-teacher and pupil-pupil relationships were built in my headship school, which was closed in 2009, six years after I retired, along with two other successful comprehensives, to be replaced by a single Academy that has struggled from its opening and has now been taken over by Trident submarine manufacturer BAE Systems.

As in many such inner urban schools, when I took up my headship classroom relationships involved a considerable degree of disputatious pupil feuding and bullying that significantly disrupted learning. However, much inherent goodness, kindness, humour, charm and co-operation came with it. This typically applied to parents as well as pupils. I had previously served in some excellent comprehensive schools with some outstanding heads that had a deep understanding of education.

I understood from playing my own part in such good practice that a simplistic, harsh discipline-based response to pupil disruption was counter productive in terms of the quality of classroom relationships needed for deep learning.

If our school was to be successful, given its very unpromising intake ability profile, we would have to aim far higher than mere compliance on the part of our pupils. My university experiences had led me believe in the ideas of ‘plastic intelligence‘ promoted by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. Like me, they had both been science teachers who had grappled with the problem of ‘difficulty’. How can school students be developed so as to understand ‘hard stuff’, such that the cognitive gains that results from the learning process also boosts their transferable general intelligence?

Once formed, the School Council decided its own agenda for change and school improvement. The first and most important project was to construct an ‘Anti-bullying policy’ and a structure for resolving bullying and relationship problems in accordance with the principles of the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’. This was seen as the key to eliminating disruption to learning and laying the foundations for the metacognitive and collaborative learning approaches needed for the developmental pedagogy of the school.

The School Council needed education and training. This was arranged in after-school sessions by the Deputy Head, who initially recruited some local professional counsellor experts to assist. These were paid for by the school. This later became an entirely in-house operation as expertise was developed.

Great importance was given to ‘Assertiveness Training’. The ‘passive/assertive/aggressive’ spectrum was explained and explored through role play and discussion. Our pupils were taught and trained in the skills needed to be assertive in all aspects of their lives. This empowered and enriched their relationships with peers, teachers and any out of school authority figures they may meet. It directly supported the developmental learning strategies of the school that involved ‘metacognition’, peer to peer and collaborative learning approaches like those now recognised as especially effective by the Education Endowment Foundation as explained here and here.

A very important effect on school culture related to how our more and less able students were perceived by their peers. Comprehensive schools are often accused of not protecting able, hard working students from bullying and attacks on their confidence and esteem from less able peers. Our most able School Council members and officers readily gained respect and esteem from peers through being able to independently demonstrate their accomplishments in public speaking, managing meetings, conflict resolution intervention and general wisdom and good sense.

The School Council was absolutely mixed ability in nature. Many students that received support in our SEN department, including a number with SEN Statements, were heavily involved. This gave our less academically  developed  pupils the confidence to become engaged resulting in some astonishing transformations as it was perceived that mature good sense and wisdom could be developed and demonstrated by everybody.

When I look back on my teaching career, which began in 1971, I recognise three stages in my professional development.

The first stage essentially comprised learning how to survive in the job.

The second involved mastering the skills of class control which, looking back, relied heavily on keeping pupils busy. This was largely based on worksheets (differentiated of course). This approach undoubtedly resulted in calm purposeful lessons and some significant learning, but it took my full time secondment to the Leicester University ‘Master of Education Studies’ course in 1981/82 for me to realise the vital importance of teacher education, especially in relation to theories of learning.

This led to the third stage of my development, in which I came to recognise that ‘compliant busy pupils’, which may be close to Nirvana for NQTs in challenging schools, was not enough. In order to maximise cognitive development, which should be the foundation purpose of all schooling, it was necessary to loosen the rigidities of the traditional classroom and risk the challenging pedagogy of introducing cognitive dissonance and the ‘Growth Mindset’ approach.

Which brings me back to Henry Stewart and Sir Alasdair’s speech.

“The more power you give away, the stronger you become”

And the higher will be the achievement of the pupils at all attainment levels, the greater the commitment of the staff and the happier all concerned will be, including parents and employers.

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The Growth Mindset misunderstood

The width and depth of this misunderstanding is demonstrated in this Guardian headline.

New test for ‘growth mindset’, the theory that anyone who tries can succeed – Researchers are going to examine the theory from American psychology that has taken UK schools by storm. Can it improve Sats results?

It would be hard to get more misunderstandings into a headline.

First, it is not the theory ‘that anyone who tries can succeed’.

This is an especially dangerous misunderstanding as it implies that anybody of any age who does not understand something has just not been trying hard enough. This false notion feeds much of the behaviourist disciplinarianism  that is currently corrupting the English and US education systems and is being used to justify restrictive, rule-driven regimes for school pupils, especially in schools that have adopted the Hirsch knowledge based approach which is explained in this BBC News story.

Hirsch misdiagnoses the difficulty some of his students have in understanding his lessons.

“It wasn’t that they lacked reading ability. It wasn’t even that their vocabularies were excessively small – it was just basic factual information they lacked, which would enable them to understand what they read.”.

The Hirsch solution to understanding hard stuff is to first learn by heart the basic knowledge. According to Hirsch, failure to understand derives from failure to learn the basic facts. Who would argue with that? It appeals to common sense, but when it comes to how learning actually takes place, common sense is frequently wrong, as it is here.

A digression on the general common sense fallacy is needed. It cannot be easily summarised except to state that the laws of nature and the nature of reality are frequently contrary to common sense. This is especially true in relation to learning and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. Here are some suggested references.

The Unnatural Nature of Science, Lewis Wolpert (1993, new edition 2000)

Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (2011)

See also this article

Learning Matters, Roger Titcombe (2015)

The clearest statement of why Hirsch is wrong is perhaps this from Vygotsky, who is the main historic learning theorist whose work underpins ‘The Growth Mindset’.

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

 As a retired science teacher I know from more than thirty years of classroom and laboratory experience that  Vygotsky is right. Take, for example, Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

Force = Rate of Change of Momentum

Understand it? No? Perhaps this is because although force is not too hard to understand (a push or a pull), what about momentum?

Well, momentum = mass x velocity

 Does that help? Thought not. Is this just because you don’t remember what mass and velocity are, or because you confuse mass with weight? Then there is, rate of change. What does that mean?

If I gave you a list of all the scientific terms involved in Newton’s Second Law of Motion and forced you to learn their definitions by rote so you could chant them on demand, would you then be guaranteed to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion? The answer is no and the reason is that given by Vygotsky. Piaget’s life work also helps a lot. In order to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion a student must have attained a sufficient level of cognitive sophistication. Piaget describes this level as ‘formal operational thinking‘. Kahneman calls it ‘System 2 Thinking‘.

‘Alice’ a hypothetical student whose cognition is at the formal operational level, who understands Newton’s Laws of Motion, will also be able to apply her System 2 thinking ability to all concepts that are similarly hard to understand. ‘James’, a student whose cognition has not developed to that level will not only be unable to understand Newton’s Second Law of Motion, he will have the same difficulty with any other concept with the same level of cognitive demand, including those outside maths and science, no matter how hard he tries or how much ‘basic knowledge’ he learns by heart.

Crucially if you give Alice and James a cognitive ability or  IQ test at the stage in their education where Alice understands, but James does not, Alice will come out with a higher score than James. ‘The Growth Mindset’ insists that this is not a fixed difference between them. It is possible that James can be taught to develop the same level of cognition as Alice, but not by memorising facts.

 All teachers know that ‘clever’ students can understand harder stuff than ‘duller’ students, so schools put them in higher streams or sets and leave the duller students in lower streams or sets where they will not face constant failure. How can Hirsch be sure that his students that fail to understand his lessons do not ‘lack ability‘? Has he tested their general cognitive ability levels?

The ‘Growth Mindset’ is not about forcing James to ‘work harder’, it is about teaching James how to learn in such a way that his cognition develops to the level where he can understand harder concepts. The ‘Growth Mindset’ demands the rejection of ‘fixed intelligence’ combined with the recognition of the essential role of failure in the acquisition of understanding.

Forcing pupils to learn things by heart in the absence of understanding makes them not cleverer but dimmer, by denying them a transformative experience of failure and mistakes. For failure to be constructive the learner must be able to consider and evaluate possible reasons for the lack of success, then have another try. This requires the second essential element of ‘The Growth Mindset’, which is called ‘metacognition‘. The pedagogy of ‘The Growth Mindset’ is designed to develop the process of personal individual metacognition by testing it against the metacognitive suggestions and ideas of other students through peer to peer discussion assisted by interventions from the teacher in the form of, ‘what if‘ questions.

Talking and discussing with peers is therefore a key feature of ‘Growth Mindset’ teaching and learning.

 It is not, therefore, going to take root in a school culture that discourages talking where the assumption is that teaching is ‘telling by the teacher’ and learning is ‘listening by the learner, followed by silent rote learning reinforced by regular testing. Of course teachers must impart facts and provide explanations and students must listen to their teachers and to each other, but this is not enough without personal engagement with the essential concepts.

This explains why the ‘Growth Mindset’ does not mean than anyone can understand anything if they try hard enough, and also why English Academies and Free Schools that restrict pupil conversation and have coercive, punishment driven behaviour policies will not succeed with this approach.

To move on to what the ‘Growth Mindset’ actually involves requires consideration of the second major fallacy in the Guardian headline. The theory is not originally from ‘American psychology’. Although much recent excellent work has been published by Carol Dweck in America, the core principles were established by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

The concept of ‘plastic intelligence’ and the development of a practical pedagogy based on its principles are largely down to the lifetime work of Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. You can read about this here.

A very good easy read guide to ‘The Growth Mindset’ is, ‘The Growth Mindset Pocketbook‘, Barry Hymer & Mike Gershon (2014)

Here are some quotes. My comments are in square brackets.

For those with fixed mindsets, challenges carry with them the prospect of ‘failure’ and the consequent ‘exposure’ of a limited intelligence.

 When children learn that sticking at tough, challenging tasks leads to changes to their brains [I prefer minds – I am suspicious of neuro-babble] that make them smarter [cleverer], we have a way of disrupting fixed mindsets and reinforcing growth mindsets.

Shayer and Adey’s ‘Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education’ (CASE) predates ‘The Growth Mindset’, which draws on the same principles. ‘Learning Intelligence‘ (2002) is a collection of articles from various authors that demonstrate applications of the Cognitive Acceleration approach in a variety of subjects for pupils of all ages.

Section 5.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘ addresses principles of ‘The Growth Mindset’ through the work of Shayer and Adey. Here are some quotations.

Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict is central to all teaching for cognitive development. It essentially comprises presenting pupils with factual evidence that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously make initial sense to them, so creating a state of discomforting mental tension. In order for the conflict to be resolved within the mind of the individual learner a personal conceptual breakthrough is necessary. Cognitive development arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs.

 It is in this context that ‘The Growth Mindset’ defines the learning resilience needed to persevere with the struggle to make sense of facts, phenomena and evidence with the expectation of failures along the way. ‘Hard work’ is indeed required on the part of learners, but to be useful it has to be directed towards achieving understanding, not ’empty toil’ through repetition, rote learning, revision and testing.

 Metacognition means being aware of your own thinking process. It implies that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. The idea is that as learners experience cognitive development they also develop a general metacognitive ability that can be characterised as a higher level thinking skill in itself. Einstein described such thinking as ‘thought experiments’, but everybody can be taught to do it.

Lessons that develop cognition and so raise intelligence require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems above the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models. Teachers are now often taught never to allow children to fail to solve problems because this reinforces failure (the behaviourist model), whereas for cognitive growth children need to learn in a culture that supports and encourages learning from mistakes.

 Vygotsky asserts that understanding first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then does it become internalised by individuals. The key point is that in a school the resolution of cognitive conflict in individual learners works best as a social process. The participants assist each other in grappling with the shared cognitive conflict. This is called peer to peer learning. It requires high quality social relationships in the classroom. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a comprehensive school where such high quality relationships existed and it became a career goal to eventually achieve it in my headship school. Pupils have to trust each other and not fear humiliation by the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings.

 A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism will not provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to ignite. Obviously nothing can be achieved where informality degenerates into anarchy and chaos reigns. Great demands are placed on the teacher, who needs the skills to be able to promote positive self-sustaining, reasoned discussion between pupils. This is very difficult to achieve and the hallmark of a good teacher, supported by like minded professional colleagues working in a school that supports such a culture.

 There are regrettably a growing number of schools, led by the Academy and Free School movement, many feted by the DfE, where relationships between school managers and teachers, teachers and pupils and pupils with their peers are so limited in depth and quality that this type of high level learning will be impossible. If cramming and repetition, reinforced by rewards and the shame of failure, have any effect at all on individual cognition then it is cognitive depression, leading to rejection of challenging concepts and consequent alienation.

 Not only is ‘The Growth Mindset’ approach not an American innovation, but many of the learning interventions involved, which I have described, have been researched by the DfE funded ‘Education Endowment Foundation’ (EEF). The results of their work and the fact that the conclusions have been largely ignored by the Academy and Free School movement, which is ideologically obsessed with ‘fixed mindset’ approaches, is discussed here.

The thoughtful teacher and education blogger Debra Kidd comes to similar conclusions with regard to the corruption and misunderstanding of ‘The Growth Mindset’ movement. She writes about this here.

The international PISA research into the effectiveness of national education systems comes to similar conclusions as the EEF. My analysis of the results from the latest (2015) round of testing reveals the key relationship between mean national intelligence and the mean national scores on the PISA tests. I go on to show that when student cognitive ability is taken into account the international league table of school system effectiveness is completely changed.

I also speculate on the nature of national cultures that gives rise to differences in mean national intelligences here.

The ‘Growth Mindset’ approach, when not misunderstood and corrupted to justify ‘fixed mindset’ school cultures, allows optimism that the considerable scope for improving the level of intelligence of the general population may lead to population-wide improvements in the quality of knowledge and understanding of the many complex issues confronting UK society and the world as a whole as well as enabling our school leavers to play a full part in our national life and economy.

However the national education systems of the UK and the US are currently following ideologies that lead in the opposite direction and there is little indication that this going to change any time soon.

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National IQs and PISA: update

Since I published this article I have received a lot of email correspondence from internationally respected academics. The general thrust of this has been to confirm the general validity of my approach. However Professor Richard Lynn informed me that my national IQ data were out of date and provided me with the update published in the appendix of his book, ‘ Lynn & Vanhaned Intelligence: A Unifying construct for the Social Sciences,’…

I have to emphasise that I am using these IQ data for the purpose of interpreting the 2015 international PISA test results. Others may use the data for other purposes and come to conclusions that I do not support. However, Lynn’s IQ data now come fully referenced as to sources and include updates resulting from the Flynn effect, along with confirmation that the Flynn increase in IQs over time has ceased for pupils in the UK, as noted in Section 5.10 of, ‘Learning Matters’ where I explain this in terms of the degradation of the English education system caused by marketisation.

Most usefully the updated IQ data are given for various ages. In my corrections I either use the median values or those not above but as close to age 15 as possible. This removes the weakness in my previous analysis of using adult IQs as a proxy for the average national IQs of the students taking the PISA tests.

I fully understand that the details of my analysis depend on the quality of the IQ data. This is not uniform, as Lynn makes clear that the evidence base for some countries is much more limited than for others. I note that Lynn has been criticised for underestimating black African IQs. I can easily see why many educationists find the whole IQ field such dangerous territory that they keep well clear. However in relation to my analysis it should be noted that for all countries if IQs are revised upwards then the effectiveness of the education system is revised downwards.

Lynn’s IQ data comes with this foreword.

These IQ have been obtained from the administration of tests of intelligence and the IQs have been calculated in relation to a British mean of 100 and standard deviation of 15. All IQs have been adjusted for Flynn effects, i.e. secular increases in IQ. Flynn effect adjustments up to the year 1980 are 3 IQ points per decade (Flynn, 1987) for all tests except the Progressive Matrices, for which they are 2 IQ points per decade reported for Britain by Lynn and Hampson (1986). The same adjustments are made for children from 1980 onwards, but for those aged 14 years and above no adjustments have been made because for these, IQ ceased to increase in Britain (Lynn, 2009).

Where data for more than one study in a country have been reported, the mean of the two studies is given, while where there are three or more studies, median IQs are given in the last row for each nation as the best estimates of the national IQs derived from intelligence tests. IQs of multi-racial societies are calculated by weighting the IQs of the races by their proportion in the population given in Philips (1996). Descriptions of many of the studies and how the IQs are calculated are given in Lynn (2006). 

Not everyone may be familiar with scatter charts and their interpretation, so in this update I am presenting the conclusions in the form of a list of the top 30 countries in 2015 PISA maths on the basis of my national IQ mediated outcomes. I also produce the data for the East Asian countries that top the PISA ‘raw results’ table, but this time in order of the raw results, but also including the place in my  IQ mediated league table. Finally I give the IQ mediated UK and USA data as these are of obvious interest.

The scatter chart in my earlier article has been updated using Lynn’s latest IQ data and can be viewed alongside my ‘league table’ list for those (like me) that like scatter charts. As will be noted from what follows, the top country is Poland, closely followed by Ireland.

How I obtained my national IQ mediated list.

The first step was to rework the scatter chart using the corrected IQ data provided by Professor Lynn to produce the updated regression line. This produced a correlation between national IQ and PISA maths scores of 89 percent (compared to 88 percent previously). This shows a very strong link (remarkable even) between IQ and performance in the PISA maths test. Note that as in my previous article I have used IQ percentiles rather than standard IQ scores (mean = 100, SD = 15). The IQ percentile is the proportion of the population with that IQ score or less, so an IQ score of 100 represents the 50th  percentile. IQ Percentiles can be found from IQ scores by consulting published tables. This link  also contains a good explanation of IQ.

However correlation is not causation. This is very important. For example, there is a strong inverse correlation between pupil attainment in GCSE and socio-economic measures like Free School Meals (FSM). This has led virtually the entire UK educational establishment and the media to the conclusion that social deprivation causes low school attainment. This has led a whole industry from the Sutton Trust to Alan Milburn’s ‘Social Mobility Commission’ to create a class discrimination/parental skill deficit construct of an ‘Attainment Gap’, that is wholly false.

So more than correlation is needed. There has to be a credible mechanism, backed by evidence, that it is primarily high IQs that drive high attainment in school exams and in particular the PISA tests that are designed to test deep learning and sound reasoning where there is no specified knowledge content.

What does IQ measure? It is the ability to come to valid conclusions about the meaning of observations/evidence/patterns and logical propositions. In short it is general reasoning power. So is it credible that a student with well developed ‘reasoning power’ will do well  on the PISA maths test? Of course it is.

If you think I am making a meal of something obvious, it has been suggested that my method lacks validity because students in East Asia that become good at maths acquire a high IQ in the process and it is this that explains the high IQ of East Asian students, rather than a high IQ makes it easier to become good at maths. Since I am a strong believer in plastic intelligence, this notion cannot be dismissed out of hand. Indeed it seems likely that the national education systems at the top of my league table do promote cognitive/IQ development. The problem is that the East Asian teaching methods, being based on rote learning from direct instruction are not effective in promoting cognitive development  however much they may appeal to Daily Mail readers and the educationally illiterate politicians in charge at the DfE. This is being increasingly recognised by educationalists in those countries.

We must be clear about what a national IQ means. It does not mean that all East Asian students are cleverer than English students. The results of IQ tests produce the classic Gaussian Normal Distribution of continuous variation, as do the measurements of all individual human traits (eg weight, height) and competences.

Having established the validity of the regression line as a description of how success in the PISA maths tests varies with IQ, we can move on to what to do with it.

If you have studied GCSE maths you will know the general formula for a straight line graph:

y = mx + c

m is the gradient/slope of the line and c is the value where the line crosses the axis. Excel works out this value for you and it is displayed on my updated scatter chart. In terms of the quantities on my scatter chart the formula becomes:

predicted score = 3.1293 x (IQ percentile) + 344.95

Note that the numbers for m and c arise entirely from the data in the chart. When I updated the chart with the revised data these numbers changed, but only slightly.

By substituting the national IQ data into the formula I obtained the predicted average PISA maths score of countries whose students have that average IQ. However the correlation is not 100 percent. Assuming that some national education systems are more effective than others the actual PISA scores are above (more effective education system) or below (less effective system) the predicted score. The underlying assumption is that had all the national education systems been equally effective then the actual PISA scores would have been the same as the predicted scores and would therefore lie on the regression line. For this to be true a large sample size is needed to allow for individual students being ill on the day/being distracted by a personal crisis, etc. The PISA system claims to provide appropriately large samples of students that are representative of the full national student population.

It is also important to recognise that a given high national PISA score could be as much down to high performance of the less cognitively able students in the sample as by the average or the most able. In other words it is not possible to conclude from the national PISA scores that high/low attainers are more/less effectively taught in one country rather than another, although deeper digging into the data does reveal such patterns, which is another reason why the PISA tests and their analysis are such a rich resource for educationalists.

To compare the effectiveness of national education systems all that is left is to subtract the predicted score from the actual score to produce a residual.

Residual = Actual Score – Predicted Score

The formula can be entered into the Excel worksheet, which then then does the calculations.

So here is my IQ mediated PISA maths national education system league table in reverse order of the residuals.

The numbers after the country are IQ, actual score, predicted score, residual

 1. Poland, 92, 504, 437.9, 66.1

2. Ireland, 93, 504, 445.1, 58.9

3. Vietnam, 94, 495, 452.9, 42.1

4. UAE, 83, 427, 385.3, 41.7

5. Portugal, 95, 502, 460.4, 41.6

6. Slovenia, 96, 510, 468.6, 41.4

7. Lithuania, 92, 478, 437.9, 40.1

8. Finland, 97, 511, 476.7, 34.3

9. Estonia, 99, 520, 493.0, 27.0

10. Denmark, 98, 511, 484.8, 26.2

11. Russia, 97, 494, 476.7, 17.3

12. Qatar, 83, 402, 385.3, 16.7

13. Greece, 92, 454, 437.9, 16.1

14. Lebanon, 82, 396, 380.9, 15.1

15. Canada, 100, 516, 501.4, 14.6

16. Belgium, 99, 507, 493, 14.0

17= Romania, 91, 444, 430.7, 13.3

17= Italy, 97, 490, 476.7, 13.3

19. Germany, 99, 506, 493.0,13.0

20. Montenegro, 87*, 418, 405.3, 12.7

21. Trinidad & Tobago, 87, 417, 405.3, 11.7

22. Switzerland, 101, 521, 509.9, 11.1

23. Netherlands, 100, 512, 501.4, 10.6

24, Israel, 95, 470, 460.4, 9.6

25. Spain, 97, 486, 476.7, 9.3

26. Australia, 98, 494, 484.8, 9.2

27. France, 98, 493, 484.8, 8.2

28. Czech Republic, 98, 492, 484.8, 7.2

29. Cyprus (Greek), 91, 437, 430.7, 6.3

30. Thailand, 88, 415, 411, 3.3

* estimated IQ

The next 10 countries are in order of their actual maths score

48. Singapore, 109, 564, 572.1, -8.1

39. Hong Kong (China), 106, 548, 549.9, -1.9

45. Macau (China), 1o6, 544, 544.9, -5.9

47. Tapei (China), 106, 542, 549.9, -7.9

62. South Korea, 106, 524, 549.9, -25.9

9. Estonia, 99, 520, 493.0, 27.0

15. Canada, 100, 516, 501.4, 14.6

8. Finland, 97, 511, 476.7, 34.3

6. Slovenia, 96, 510, 468.6, 41.4

19. Germany, 99, 506, 493.0,13.0

As noted in my earlier article, there is an issue in China in relation to the average IQ levels in each area of this vast and diverse country. The Lynn data do not provide regional breakdowns. In this update the IQ figure has been revised upwards from 100 to 106, which explains why China comes out worse in my IQ mediated table.

The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) countries.

49. UK, 100, 492, 501.4, -9.4

53. USA, 98, 470, 484.8, -14.8

Regional IQ variations probably apply in most countries and almost certainly in the UK. In England, school attainment is much lower in the former industrial northern towns that have suffered economically from de-industrialisation following globalisation. For example I have CATs data for Barrow-in-Furness that produce a mean CATs score for the town of 92. Other northern towns will be similar. In the London Borough of Hackney, the subject of my study reported in Part 4 of, ‘Learning Matters’, I give a figure of 97 for the mean CATs score.

Scotland and Wales have even higher proportions of de-industrialised, poverty blighted towns than England. It is therefore highly likely that the UK average IQ of 100 is made up of a higher figure for England balanced by lower figures for Scotland and Wales. This being the case the Scottish and Welsh governments would be very foolish not to take this into account in evaluating the PISA scores for those countries compared to England. There is no indication that the devolved governments are doing this. My advice to the Scottish and Welsh governments would be to introduce universal Y6 CATs testing in all schools. It would certainly be a great mistake to believe that the English SATs regime is a good model to be copied.

The IQ mediated league table differs massively from that published by PISA based on the raw test scores. This is to be expected. Consider a school that has Cognitive Ability Test scores (CATs) for all it pupils. Assume this school teaches maths in four ability sets. Set one contains the CATs top quartile (score of 110 or greater). Set four contains the bottom quartile (score of 90 or less). The Head of Maths wants to rate the effectiveness of the teachers of each set. Quite obviously he could not do this on the basis of the average GCSE grades obtained in each set. He/she would have to take account of the average CATs scores by using a method like that described in this article.

The current grammar school debate in England is degraded by the often deliberate failure to recognise this statistical fact.

So what do the the most effective national education systems based on my analysis have in common? PISA published a very thorough analysis of the 2012 tests. A huge range of different approaches to pedagogy were evaluated. A similar analysis of the 2015 results will doubtless soon follow. In England the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is funded by the government to evaluate pedagogic interventions and initiatives. The problem is that the government largely ignores its findings in favour of its free market dogma.

All of the education systems towards the top of my list are therefore worthy of study. This is not a job for me, but here is some information about the top four.

In top position is Poland. After the 2012 PISA round the Daily Telegraph published an article extolling the Polish education system quoting Education Secretary  Nicky Morgan as claiming that the English education reforms were based on the Polish success. Nothing could be further from the truth as noted by PISA education guru Andreas Schleicher in the same article.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD director of education and skills, stated: “The UK has pretty much been flat in terms of learning outcomes at least until 2012, despite a very significant increase in spending.

He said that the UK should be doing much more to check what difference education reforms make to children’s lives.

The OECD’s research also warns that the UK has some policies such as grouping pupils by ability in class, and giving families choice over schools, that could “hinder equity” – meaning they may not help to create an equal school system for all pupils.

The Polish education system has been completely reformed in recent years. The new system is described in detail here. Does it follow the English model of the creation of an artificial market in schools driven by large scale statutory testing of pupils primarily to drive league table competition between schools? It does not.

Second comes Ireland. I described the Irish education system  in my earlier article. Again there is almost nothing in common with the English marketised model.

Third we have Vietnam. This may come as a surprise, but not to Andreas Schleicher, according to this BBC article.

Not just rote learning

These students are expected to leave education not just able to recite what they have learned in class, but to apply those concepts and practices in unfamiliar contexts.

In Vietnamese classrooms there is an impressive level of rigour, with teachers challenging students with demanding questions. The teachers focus on teaching a few things well and with a great sense of coherence that helps students to progress. Teachers in Vietnam are highly respected, both in society as well as in their classrooms. That may be a cultural trait, but it also reflects the role that teachers are given in the education system, which extends well beyond delivering lessons in school and embraces many dimensions of student well-being and support.

Teachers are expected to invest in their own professional development and that of their colleagues, and they work with a high degree of professional autonomy.

Respect, autonomy and high pay for teachers. No mention of testing driving marketisation. Time for a visit to Hanoi, Justine Greening. Why not take Michael Gove with you to learn where he went so wrong? The educational performance of Vietnam is especially impressive given the comparatively low level of public spending by the communist government and lack of infrastructure investment, which must be linked to the lack of an efficient tax system and the highly entrepreneurial nature of its informal and largely unregulated economy. The school system makes do with cramped buildings and at least in primary education, a two shift system in which the school week of six days is made up of half day shifts, so doubling the number of pupils that can be enrolled in each school. Education, however, has a very high priority.

Fourth is UAE. This really is a surprise. Once again we have a country that has recently reformed its entire education system and certainly not on the UK or East Asian model. UAE school students have an average IQ of 83 (13th percentile). Compare this with Singapore (73rd percentile). Yet the UAE students achieved a PISA maths score of  427. What PISA score was being achieved by the very low proportion of Singaporean students with an IQ of 83? What would be their chances of passing the high very high stakes national exams in the Singapore and Chinese systems? All students in these East Asian countries appear to have desperately pressured school lives. This is not good for cognitive development.

This is from a publication of the Embassy of UAE in the USA

Education reform focuses on better preparation, greater accountability, higher standards and improved professionalism. In addition, rote instruction is being replaced with more interactive forms of learning [my bold], and English language education is being integrated into other subjects, such as math and science. The Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), the Dubai Education Council (DEC) and the UAE Ministry of Education (MOE) are each tasked with education reform, while preserving local traditions, principles and the cultural identity of the UAE.

Education at primary and secondary levels is universal and compulsory up to the ninth grade. This takes place in a four-tier process over 14 years:

  1. 4 to 5 year-olds attend kindergarten
  2. 6 to 11 year-olds attend primary schools
  3. the preparatory stage caters for children aged between 12 and 14 and
  4. 15 to 17 year-olds attend secondary schools.

A note of caution is needed here. The fourth place of UAE  is very much down to the very low IQ score of 83. This is from a single study.

So what can we say about the UK (49th) and USA (53rd) systems?

There is clearly very little to be positive about that is for sure. Even more depressing is that the frantic pace of reform is to be stepped up with more testing, more Academies and Free Schools, more faith schools with their own enhanced sectarian admissions rules and now the imposition of selective grammar schools. It would be hard to come up with proposals to make the national education system worse.

The most important message to the DfE is the key role of cognitive ability in driving higher attainment. This needs more of the well-proven developmental pedagogy that the ideology of marketisation is replacing with knowledge-focussed rote learning and behaviourism, enforced by ever more draconian and abusive systems of harsh discipline.

The potential for raising standards through exploiting the potential of ‘plastic intelligence’ is explained here, and the dire consequences of further attempts to ‘close the gap’ are set out here.

This article describes how cognitive developed can be enhance through fundamental changes to school culture.

And finally if we are looking to the long term,  this article explains how Chinese and other East Asian countries came to have such high national IQs.

I am very happy to discuss any issues related to the validity of the arguments/data in this article either through ‘Comments’ or privately at:



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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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