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A Reply To Fiona Millar’s Latest Exercise in Denialism

April 10, 2012

I should probably leave this alone. I have marking to do and other blogposts to write. But this article in the Guardian deserves a response and I have been banned from their comments for reasons unknown, so I’ll say it here.

I have a certain sympathy for Fiona Millar’s principles. A good quality of education should be provided for all, without any assumptions about what “kids like these” are capable of. I support the comprehensive principle when it means aspiring to a high quality education for everybody regardless of background. Unfortunately, this “levelling-up” vision is often replaced with a “levelling-down” vision in which the political principle at stake is that the children of the better off should be deprived of a high quality education in the hope that this will somehow benefit everybody else. Most advocates of such a position soon abandon it when their own children are the ones to be levelled down. Fiona Millar cannot be criticised on this score. As I understand it, she has sent her children to the local comprehensive. This is also, as I understand it, something she has in common with some of the other founders of the Local Schools Network.

The big issue I have with the Local Schools Network is the way that having, at the very least, foregone some significant educational opportunities for their own children, they try to pretend that they haven’t. This was highlighted to me by a recent Telegraph article about state schooling. There is a noticeable contrast between two educational progressives who sent their children to apparently very poor state comprehensives.

On the one hand, we have Matthew Taylor, of the RSA admitting that there has been a cost to pursuing his principles:

“There’s no question in my mind that my children have done perfectly OK, but they would have done better at [nearby public school] Dulwich College. The facilities aren’t as good and they haven’t had the same level of academic reinforcement from their peers. Working hard and achieving gets you stick from other kids.”

On the other hand we have the denialist account from Francis Gilbert of the Local Schools Network claiming that when he tried private schooling:

“There was an over-academic emphasis, with four-to-five year-olds sitting in silence and being made to read, when there is a lot of evidence that play is more appropriate at that age … I had a visceral feeling those lessons were not appropriate… [When his son was moved to the local state school] He benefited from learning by doing things, which is promoted in the state system, as opposed to the drilling and rote learning he was used to”

Or, in other words, if private schools cause you to learn more, than learning must be a bad thing.

The Local Schools Network is a group of privileged middle class people trying to persuade other privileged middle class people that state comprehensives are a good place to send your kids. Any argument; any claim; any ideology; any lie, is considered acceptable as a tactic  to persuade. It is simply a philosophical dispute within the middle classes about principles. Like much of the London-based, middle class left, they simply do not comprehend that there is a world beyond their social class. In their world a bad local school means extra money on private tuition or the embarrassment of abandoning your ideology; in the world beyond it can mean a guarantee of continuing poverty. In their world a good local comprehensive is a chance to save money and retain the right to be self-righteous at dinner parties; in the world beyond it means a route out of poverty. In their world it is a matter of high principle to put on a brave face and deny the manifest failures of our broken education system; in the world beyond it means writing off working class kids as basically not suited to the kind of education middle class people want for their own kids.

It is this acceptance of a second-rate education system for working class kids, and the denigration of anybody who suggests that they deserve better, that makes the Local Schools Network and its philosophy of high-minded denialism so dangerous. Fiona Millar’s Guardian article collects several of those denialist arguments and excuses for denigrating achievement together.

The first argument is simply the ad hominem that would be aimed at any dinner party guest careless enough to mention that they were considering avoiding their local comprehensive. The idea that the comprehensive system has failed is “usually promoted by people who have never been in a comprehensive school, don’t use them for their own children, or who read the Daily Mail”. This actually tells us more about Fiona Millar’s social circle than the argument in question. Comprehensive schools are full of teachers who send their kids to the local private or selective schools because they know the system doesn’t work. Working class areas are full of people who regret how the local comprehensives failed them and their family. These are simply not the people she mixes with. She only ever meets people who, having realised the system is failing, are able to steer clear of it. The millions stuck with it either personally or professionally are too far removed from her. It is more likely that somebody has read about schools in crisis in the Daily Mail, than seen it with their own eyes. Just in case there is any doubt that, to her, the issue is not what schools are like in reality, but what principles you adhere to, she responds to the point about what comprehensives are like in real-life, with an explanation of what the word “comprehensive” means in theory. More extreme denialism then appears in the form of a claim that standards have risen, as if O-level results or university entrance in the 60s is remotely comparable to GCSE results and university entrance now.

The second argument is a claim that since the eighties local authorities don’t run schools. Schools did become considerably more autonomous at that time. However, the power of local authorities to wreck schools cannot be underestimated. I have worked in an authority where schools were told to exclude no student at all, no matter how badly behaved they were. I have worked in a school which went into chronic decline because the local authority would no longer support the federation that had been overseeing its improvement. I have sat through so many INSET sessions where local authorities sent idiots to lie to us about what methods of teaching work best or how best to deal with disruptive children. I am more concerned with standards than structures and, of course, things have changed recently, but nobody can really doubt that local authorities can have a decisive influence over schools. Weak headteachers invariably listen to local authorities first.

The third argument is the usual Local Schools Network preoccupation with statistical measures of which types of school do best. They have some carefully selected statistics suggesting academies are, on average, no better than non-academies. The DfE has some equally carefully collected statistics suggesting academies are, on average, slightly better than non-academies. The idea shared by both is that once you have your statistics about what happens on average you are fully qualified to make decisions in specific cases. Back in the real world, the success of schools will depend on the competence of the people running them, be they SMT, academy chain or local authority and anybody making a decision about the running of the school because of what happens “on average” will discover too late that it turns out that the people they have given control to may actually be far below average. If she’d oppose a school joining the ARK Schools chain, then she’s seriously misguided. If she opposes a school working with the RSA, then I will cheer her on.

The fourth argument is, I think, an attempt to quell the hype around Michael Wilshaw, the man in charge of OFSTED. She points out that Mossbourne Academy, the school he is famous for running, in on the site of the infamous Hackney Downs school which was shut down in 1995, but is not the same school. This is true, and some newspaper reports have incorrectly tried to suggest he “turned around” a failing school, so this is a fair point. However, we should not forget that defenders of Hackney Downs claimed that its location was a key part of its problems. Nor should we forget that even the Guardian admits that in Wilshaw’s first headship (at St Bonaventure’s Roman Catholic school in Newham) he “transformed … a struggling school into an outstanding one”. Regardless of whether it was a turnaround or a new school, Mossbourne is an example to others. If it is only allowed to be an example of what new schools can do rather than what academy conversion can do, then I’ll expect her to keep that in mind next time she discusses free schools.

I would rather have written all this in the comments on the Guardian article, but as my posts to the Guardian website are “premoderated” it is unlikely that anybody would have got to read it anytime soon. Please feel free to post a link to this there. And while you’re there, please also feel free to mention what your experience of comprehensive schools has been like. I wouldn’t want Fiona Millar to think you were reading this blog because it chimed with something you’d read in the Daily Mail.

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56 comments

  1. How does this:

    “There was an over-academic emphasis, with four-to-five year-olds sitting in silence and being made to read, when there is a lot of evidence that play is more appropriate at that age … I had a visceral feeling those lessons were not appropriate… [When his son was moved to the local state school] He benefited from learning by doing things, which is promoted in the state system, as opposed to the drilling and rote learning he was used to”

    Equate to this:

    Or, in other words, if private schools cause you to learn more, than learning must be a bad thing.


    • Because you learn by reading and drill not by playing.


      • 1) “He benefited from learning by doing things [in the state sector], as opposed to the drilling and rote learning he was used to [in the private sector].”

        So what amounts to ‘the state sector benefited his learning more than the private sector’ is equated to “if private schools cause you to learn more, than learning must be a bad thing”.

        I find this is curious and can’t see the equivalence. Can you clarify?

        2a) Is it true that 4-to-5 year old children learn more by reading and drill than they do by playing?

        2b) In fact your statement

        “Because you learn […] not by playing.”

        seems to indicate that you believe that 4-to-5 year old children do not learn by play at all. Is that your belief?


        • 1) The objection, unusually when paying for your child to be educated, is to the activities that are most obviously educational. A small child’s natural capacity to learn without being taught is no excuse for not teaching and even less excuse for finding education “inappropriate” for one’s child.

          2) Obviously I am being flippant about play. Very young children learn from almost anything and play is an important part of development. But the distinctive feature of schools is not that children happen to learn, but that deliberate learning is caused, usually through teaching. A child may learn in a playgroup just as an adult may learn from taking a bus to the local library and reading some books there. However, rejecting a school for not being a playgroup would be as ludicrous as rejecting a university for not providing bus tickets.


          • 1) As I see it you are asserting that you are a better judge of what is best for the child: The parent says his child was benefiting from “doing things”. You think that the child was withdrawn from the “most obviously educational” activities where “more learning” would have taken place for that child.

            Despite the improvement the parent says he saw, he should have left his child in the school with “rote learning” and “drills” as that would have been better for him.

            Is that correct?

            2) Again you are asserting an equivalence I find puzzling:

            Finding a book in a library does bear some, maybe strong, resemblance to play, in the sense that in the playgroup the child is free to explore where their mind takes them, and in the library they are free to choose whichever book they find interesting.

            If that is what you intended then I can make sense of it, but you then go on to equate “not being a playgroup” with “not providing bus tickets”.

            I can’t make any sense of that as I cannot see the analogy between the play and the transport.

            Would it be more accurate to make the equivalence “not being a playgroup” with “not providing a library”?


          • Quiet reading comes under the heading of ‘doing things’, but drilling and rote learning do not involve quiet reading, so the initial statement in this thread is confused.


      • Anyone who actually states that children do not learn by playing is displaying an astonishing ignorance of child development.


        • Anyone who states that playing is the same as learning displays an astonishing lack of understanding of learning.


  2. As an American I have long been intrigued by the charter school principle. Some are worse than the public schools, others much better. I spent 2 days visiting one great chart school called KIP (Knowledge is Power). Depite lower per student funding and less technology, I saw students from disadvantaged backgrounds from an area of badly underperforming schools achieving at very high levels. The emphasis at these schools was on personal and academic discipline and the belief that learning is a valuable activity in and of itself and does not alwyas have to be ‘fun’ ‘active’ or cater to ‘differing learning styles,’ The school motto was ‘no heat, no pressure, no diamond.’ In short, come to school to work hard and be challenged, not entertained. Any other principles for education are undermining the purpose of education.


    • I would like to add to the above comments. Frequently this blog tries to defend a teacher centered classroom. I have no doubt that the teacher as expert is an important part of every classroom, but the type of rote learning and ‘sit, read and memorize’ approach to learning does not take into account changes in technology, changes in society and, fundamentally, changes in the basic family structure. Guiding students through quality resources where they learn to develop critical research research and presentation skills is fundamentally superior to presenting them with ‘the right answers’ and having them uncritically regurgitate it back. In fact, most of the pedagogical ideas I hear on this website remind me more of Soviet pedagogy.

      Also, could some of you bring your comments back to the pedagogical debate. I read this blog because I like the challenge of the debate.


  3. ‘no heat, no pressure, no diamond.’

    what a great quote! I’m stealing that right there…


  4. In what way “premoderated”? That’s a very disturbing suggestion.

    Lt. General Hector F. Dreedle


  5. Your argument would be so strong if only you hadn’t misunderstood the value of play for the under fives. All the European countries have a play-based curriculum for the under fives and masses of research point to the importance of young children learning through play. I do agree, however, that it has no place in secondary schools where teachers are encouraged to ‘entertain’ children from deprived backgrounds as if they were incapable of developing a mature learning style.


    • I still feel that this is one of the big problems we have in education, is the idea that *anything* which might result in learning is the responsibility of schools and teachers and can be considered to be an education. This is objectionable partly because it may obstruct deliberate and effective learning, but also because it may miss aspects of life other than education. Children should be allowed to play because it’s fun. God forbid that it has to serve some adult’s purpose.


      • This I wholeheartedly agree with.


  6. As I’ve written elsewhere Andrew… listening to Fiona Millar on education is like listening to Simon Cowell on Proust.


  7. In my experience, children require very little encouragement to play. All day, my three year old has been saying over and over “play with me, daddy, pleeease.”

    I find it a little implausible that the current high levels of functional illiteracy in school leavers can be attributed to the fact that they didn’t play enough as children. On the other hand, I can just about believe that they didn’t drill enough.


    • delightfully put sir- this should be chiselled into the desk of every head teacher and education chief.


  8. I remember very clearly learning to read. I was three (it was 1955), and my mother, a Froebel-trained teacher who’d gone back to teaching when my father had pneumonia, took me into the nursery school where she was employed. I was allowed to go up into the Big School (what we’d now call ‘reception’) for half an hour a day while my contemporaries had an afternoon nap (mattresses all over the floor), where I found out all about Janet and John and their dog, and (occasionally, and very excitingly) discovered how many words I could read from what I now know to be the Burt Reading Test.

    This is not just to indulge in nostalgia and bore you all, but to point out that I didn’t distinguish between ‘play’ and ‘learning': in fact, if my memory is to be trusted, I preferred those reading lessons to everything which adults would have described as ‘play’, nothing of which I now recall. There’s enormous satisfaction in learning and achieving, and just because lookers-on see children being ‘drilled’ and ‘reading in silence’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the children are bored and discouraged. (Heck, reading in silence is still my favourite activity, especially if there’s a box of chocolates on the edge of the chair…)


    • I prefer drinking in silence…but yes point taken..

      I have long thought that frequent periods of silent work, be it reading, listening, writing or drawing kinda suggests proper engagement with the work by the individual (whatever their age)

      I have nothing against group work or play too – in moderation.


  9. Banned from the Guardian comments page! I want to marry you and have your babies.


    • Huh. You’ll have to share him.


  10. Where does it say he’s banned? He’s objecting, as I understand it, to his comments being ‘premoderated’. Why are they being premoderated? Is ‘the Guardian’ concerned about possible libel, for instance? As a wide range of views often appear in the comments, it’s hard to believe that, foolish as this blogger’s posts often are, his comments have been banned because of his actual views. (Marry him and have his babies by all means, but maybe find a better reason?)


    • “Where does it say he’s banned?”

      Er – could it just possibly be the bit where he says: “I have been banned from their comments for reasons unknown”?

      Just sayin’…


      • Just for clarification, on a busy site like a newspaper website, being pre-moderated *is* being banned from current discussion,


        • Yes, but it’s quite important to know what you were ‘banned’ for. Then people can make their own judgement about whether the paper’s decision was reasonable.


          • Which part of “for reasons unknown” don’t you understand?


          • Sorry – I don’t claim to have read your whole blog and all the comments. Is this the way you talk to the kids? Could explain a lot!.


          • I love it when somebody who has just been plain abusive starts getting indignant at remarks that are merely abrupt and unsympathetic.

            Obviously, if a child behaved as you have then I would not take the mickey, I would send them out. Obviously if somebody comments on a blogpost I would assume they have read it.


          • You’d send them out? Where?

            Would you care to justify ‘abusive’?


          • I know you didn’t read the blogpost, but surely you’ve read your own comments?


          • I said I hadn’t read right through the blog and hadn’t read all the comments.


          • Do tell us – what could it explain?


          • In over 40 years’ experience in schools, I have often found that the teachers who regularly complain about discipline are often those who provoke poor behaviour by their rudeness.


          • And my experience tells me that blaming the messenger is a way of sweeping a problem under the carpet.


        • Let’s try to get a sensible answer again. Some readers may think, as you appear to, that your comments are out of line with the ‘Guardian’ view and so your comments are now pre-moderated which you say is the same as being banned. You believe your views are being censored.

          The premoderation is explained thus:

          ‘There is a further exception to the overall reactive-moderation approach adopted by the Guardian website: in isolated situations, a particular user may be identified as a risk, based on a pattern of behaviour (e.g. spam, trolling, repeated/frequent borderline abuse), so a temporary filter can be applied to anything they post, which means that their comments will need to be pre-moderated before appearing on the site.

          This is a temporary measure applied by moderators to a very small handful of people based entirely on patterns of actual behaviour, and should result relatively quickly in either their posting ability being suspended completely if no improvement is shown, or the filter being removed. The decision to do either of these things would, again, be based on that user’s behaviour and activity during the pre-moderation period.’

          I don’t expect you’ve been guilty of spam or trolling…….


          • I’m fairly certain I haven’t broken *any* of the rules.


          • On the environment pages and on matters concerning Israel there’s a whole raft of people who, simply because they disagree with the paper, have been banned. Some call the pages ‘Comment macht frei’

            It gets really ridiculous sometimes on some threads as more comments are removed than stay or where people reply to comments which have been removed without trace.

            I understand there are simple ways to get back on but I’m with Marx on this one (Groucho not Karl).


          • So…….you’re not actually banned but subject to pre-moderation. (It’s surprising that someone as pedantic as you appear to be can keep misrepresenting the matter in this was.) But, in fact, it suits you to be ‘banned’ is what you’re really saying, isn’t it? How do you know that other people have been actually banned ‘simply because they disagree with the paper’. Where’s your evidence? A question you’re fond of asking, I believe.


          • Can you please refrain from any further personal attacks? The comment threads are for discussion not name-calling. I object to being banned *without reason* by the Guardian. That does not mean that I think everything should be acceptable in comment threads and I am concerned that you seem to be either deliberately trolling or genuinely unable to cope with people disagreeing with you without making personal criticisms.


          • I am really interested in hearing your evidence for the attack you make on the Guardian. You reply by threatening to ‘ban’ me. Odd.


          • O.K. so you cannot think of any reason at all why you have been put into the pre-moderation category? And so you think that you are being censored? Is that it? By your own bizarre definition of abusive (as applied to me), I would think it quite likely that some of your comments were considered ‘borderline abuse’. If so, we have no way of knowing whether you have been treated unfairly as neither you nor the Guardian seem willing/able to cast any light on this matter.

            When you send kids out for being ‘abusive’, where do you send them to? Is your school well-managed so that there is somewhere/someone identified who can look after all the ‘abusive’ kids who are sent out by you and others until the abuse can be investigated? Or do you just send them out of the door and abnegate all responsibility for them? I only ask because I have seen both things happening in different schools, and sometimes in the same school when some staff don’t bother to follow the procedures.


          • Is there a point to any of this?


  11. If Mr Taylor is willing to post daft/abusive comments here without even reading the original post perhaps he should be put into ‘pre moderation’ as he seems so keen on the practice….


  12. I am really interested in hearing your evidence for the attack you make on the Guardian. You reply by threatening to ‘ban’ me. Odd.

    I have not made an attack on the Guardian, I have mentioned that they have banned me from debate by putting me in perpetual pre-moderation without giving me any reason and without any obvious violation of their rules. I am not sure I can provide evidence for this, but then I’m not sure why I need to. It would be a pretty peculiar thing to make up or try to fake.

    I am not threatening to ban you. I am simply pointing out that people should be able to post here without your personal attacks and that I take a dim view of trolling.


    • You’ve misunderstood. I’m genuinely interested in hearing your evidence backing up the allegation that you’ve made about ‘the raft of people’ who have been banned ‘simply because they disagree with the paper’. I understand that you can’t provide evidence as to why you have been ‘banned’ as you are certain that you have not contravened the rules in any way. But I’m not abusing you by saying, that, quite understandably, you ask people who make claims to show you the evidence. Your reaction, and that of your fan, is to abuse me as a troll. Very adult.


      • I haven’t made that allegation.


        • Mr Taylor: you may be genuinely interested, but no one else is. As for ‘adult’, how adult is it to pester for answers which are (a) irrelevant to the discussion, and (b) not going to be given?

          I don’t think I’m abusing you by calling you a troll, merely defining you.

          “In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
          [Wikipedia]

          You’ve certainly been off-topic and disrupted normal on-topic discussion for the last n posts, where n = any number equal to or greater than I can be bothered to count. However, I’m grateful that you’ve provided a useful displacement activity (I should be marking coursework…).


          • I think Mr Taylor thinks that a comment I made came from Andrew Old. Easy mistake ‘Caroline’ ‘teachingbattleground’ –
            Almost interchangeable.


  13. Somehow a discussion about teaching methods, comprehensives and Fiona Millar has been hi-jacked by purely ad hominem attacks and turned into an unutterably tedious series of demands by Troll Taylor. If you’d be kind enough to ban him, OA, the rest of us can go back to arguing the topic, and TT can spend the next few weeks enjoying himself hugely by boring the pants of everyone else in his staffroom wittering on about the fascist nature of this blog and the evil martinet who ruins the life of his pupils by sending them out of the room and being rude to them. Everyone wins!

    Alternatively, I suppose, we ought simply to refrain from feeding the troll.


  14. I apologise to you and to Caroline for muddling you up. Perhaps she would like to share her evidence? And, of course, as it was Caroline who preferred to be banned, I apologise for that comment as well. You, I presume, would like to be able to take part in the Guardian comments debates in real time. I wonder if you’ve tried asking them why they’ve given you a yellow card? For what it’s worth, if it were true that people were banned because they disagreed with the paper, I would be as opposed to that as would anyone else who values free speech.


  15. “a particular user may be identified as a risk, based on a pattern of behaviour (e.g. spam, trolling, repeated/frequent borderline abuse), so a temporary filter can be applied to anything they post,”

    I have read OldAndrew’s blog for as long as it’s been there (in various places) ; I have read him on the TES board and indeed argued vehemently with him on there. I’d say this is 3 or 4 years and possibly longer.

    I’ve never read a comment from him that could be described as those above. At all. He is invariably unfailingly polite (albeit obviously annoyed) when posting.

    However his views will not go down well on the Graun because they do not like them because they are grounded in reality not educational theory. He points this out to people who write utter nonsense (like Millar regarding the supposed improvement in standards). Politely.

    My view is that the Left posters have been whinging about him to the Graun because of his ‘unacceptable’ views. Their definition of ‘unacceptable’ is anything that doesn’t tally with their pet view of the world.


  16. This Taylor comes over as a member of a SMT unwilling to accept the real reason for events and continually probing until he gets the answer he wants. Usually thoroughly unprincipled charlatans who know exactly what to say to whom and when, constantly undermining their colleagues to advance themselves.

    The sort of useless idiot that has made my last 12 years ten times as difficult as it ought to have been. “Yes but was he looking at you when he called you a cunt?” “He’s offered to apologise Sir” Yet when someone calls Mr Taylor a cunt they’re straight out the door. Nailed you eh Mr Taylor? One hundred and eighty!


    • I have let this comment through only because I had already let through insulting comments from Phil Taylor. However, can I please remind people that comments are not for name-calling?

      Thank you.


      • Thank you. In fact Judge nutmeg’s assumptions are entirely unwarranted – he could not be more wrong. I have always believed that kids have to understand that adults run schools and that they must do what these adults ask or tell them to do. It is hard to think of a more flagrant and damaging disregard of the authority of the school than for a kid to swear at a teacher. I nearly always excluded kids for this offence and often faced abuse and threats from parents and a total lack of support from the LEA.


  17. in that case Phil, let me assure you that by doing what you did, (most) staff would had respected you and you did a favour for each and every kid in the school.

    Ironically I think you did a favour for the kids you excluded too.

    And i admire anyone willing to stand up to bullying parents and incompetent and misguided LEAs.

    It seems to me then that on perhaps the biggest issue of all, you and OA are on the same page…..



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