Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category


An Example of OFSTED’s Inconsistency

July 24, 2014

This is something that has (as you’ll see below) already been pointed out during Michael Wilshaw’s appearance before the House of Common’s Education Committee a couple of weeks ago, but it’s worth bringing up here as an almost perfect example of how the same evidence can be interpreted in different ways by inspectors.

When Oldknow Academy was inspected in January 2013 it was found to be outstanding in every respect. One piece of evidence for this was:

The very wide range of additional activities and extra-curricular opportunities motivates the pupils and results in extremely positive attitudes towards school. For example, pupils love the academy’s farm and the opportunity to look after and interact with a range of animals from goats and rabbits to snakes and geckos. They feel they are fortunate to be in an academy which offers them opportunities such as the week-long visit for 40 pupils to participate in a trip to Saudi Arabia. For pupils who spoke to the inspectors, last year’s trip had clearly been a life-changing experience…

…The academy does all it can to remove any barriers to learning and to ensure that every pupil has equal opportunities to succeed. The large amount of pupil premium funding is used to ensure this happens. Funding has been used to reduce the number of pupils in each class, so that those who need it can have more individual attention. Funding is also used to subsidise uniforms, trips and even large-scale trips, such as the ones to Saudi Arabia, to ensure that any pupil is able to participate.

So clearly, the Saudi Arabia trip was a positive and an example of how equal opportunities were important to the school. Yet when the school was re-inspected during the Trojan Horse affair and found to be Inadequate, the following piece of evidence appeared:

Leaders have not assessed adequately the risks to pupils associated with trips, visitors and links with other institutions. For example, the academy has links with a school in Saudi Arabia but could not tell inspectors whether risk assessment had been carried out on the people or materials that pupils may come into contact with…

…Governors have used the academy’s budget to subsidise a trip to Saudi Arabia for only Muslim staff and pupils. The choice of destination meant that pupils from other faiths were not able to join the trip. Governors who accompany the trip are paid for from the academy budget. Inspectors were told that in 2013 a relative of the academy’s governor joined the trip from Pakistan without the necessary checks having been made.

So inspectors managed to look at the same trip, and the fact that it was subsidised, and in one case use it as evidence of something positive about the school, and in the other case use it to prove something negative about the school.

As I said, this did come up  during the chief inspector’s appearance (alongside another HMI, Andrew Cook) before the House of Common’s Education Committee:

Q57  Chair: If you want honesty about performance from everyone else, is it not also important that you be honest about your capabilities? Lorna [Fitzjohn, Regional Director for the West Midlands] was talking about changes -as were you, Sir Michael—and saying that a rapid turnover of staff contributes to a different picture painted by Ofsted. However, when at Oldknow academy a visit to Saudi Arabia is picked out for particular praise as suggesting the extracurricular activities and the richness of the offer of the school in January 2013, and the self‑same visit is picked out as a particular sign of a cause for concern in April 2014, that does suggest some kind of inconsistency. It will raise questions about your capacity and capability to have an objective assessment when you are involved in a national moral panic and when you are not.

Sir Michael Wilshaw: But it does reinforce the point I had previously made, which is that in the first inspection we looked at a whole range of things, not just governance and leadership. On the second inspection we looked in much greater depth at governance and leadership—and in relation to Pat Glass’ point, we looked at how much money was being spent from the school budget to send children to Saudi Arabia and also whether it was open to all children and not just to some.

Q58  Chair: You would hope that if someone was bang to rights and had made an error, they would just put their hands up, would you not? Is that not what your inspectors would hope for from schools? Is that not what I have just invited you to do? You have just given me a carefully worded explanation of why the clearly unacceptable inconsistency was somehow okay. I would suggest to you it was not and that it would have been better to put your hands up and say, “That particular instance does not reflect well on us.” Would that not be better for the kind of transparency, openness and honesty that we all want to see from everyone?

Sir Michael Wilshaw: We hope we are transparent and honest. I am very keen that the people we inspect have confidence in the quality of our inspections and the quality of our inspectors. I believe the quality of inspection and the quality of our inspectors has gone up over the last few years.

Q59  Chair: Part of that confidence is trust. When you try to make out that it is okay to find exactly the same thing great one minute and a sign of weakness another, and you cannot even say, “That was embarrassing; we got it wrong,” that does not encourage confidence in your systems, does it?

Sir Michael Wilshaw: Before Andrew comes in, I just want to emphasise the point that the two inspections were very different. One looked at a whole range of issues. The second inspection looked at leadership and governance, and was where that HMI could really explore how that money was spent sending those youngsters to Saudi Arabia.

Q60  Chair: Forgive me for being unconvinced. Andrew, convince me.

Andrew Cook: I was on the Oldknow inspection and I think it would be very fair to say, as Sir Michael has just said, that we drilled down very much into some of the safeguarding issues around the trip. It would also be fair to say that this is again a school where staff were completely polarised. There were very many unhappy staff in that school, and many of those staff were beginning to tell us things about the school and unearth evidence that had not been seen before. It was because of that, and because of our focus on safeguarding and looking at the management of that trip, that we identified some concerns about it.

Q61  Chair: It was particularly about the exclusion of some children from it. In truth, while it looked originally like a good, classic example of an enriching activity, it turned out it was rather a narrow, limited and unfairly distributed school good. Is that the point?

Andrew Cook: There was also, as reported, some issues around whether or not all of the safeguarding checks on all of those adults that attended the trip had been done as thoroughly as they should have been done.

Q62  Ian Mearns: That still leaves massive questions in my mind about the first inspection. It really does leave massive questions about the first inspection. A school has been declared outstanding even though all of those shortcomings were there. The problem was that the Ofsted inspectors on site did not unearth any of that. Now that, to me, tells me that there is a significant shortcoming in the regime of Ofsted inspections per se. That is the conclusion that I draw.

Sir Michael Wilshaw: I strongly refute that. We have banged on over the last hour about the reasons why these schools declined. The main reason is because the heads left—were forced out—and there was huge instability. That instability can happen within weeks of the head leaving. That is why I think in the first inspection we did not pick that up: the heads were still there.

So just in case schools were wondering where they stand, what you do can be both evidence for being outstanding and for being inadequate at the same time, it all depends on what the inspectors happen to be looking for at the time and who happens to be in charge at the time of the inspection.

And people wonder why schools are so desperate for any information about what OFSTED really want, and what they will look for.


Spot The Difference Part 3

July 22, 2014

I’ve commented previously on the difference in Tristram Hunt’s views before and after he became part of Labour’s education team. So far I’ve commented on:

However, these are pretty small issues compared with the one that most often leads middle class Labour politicians to fail their own supporters. This is the issue of whether working class kids should aspire to the same levels of academic achievement as middle class kids, or whether other people’s children need to take a “non-academic” route, perhaps one that involves working with their hands.

On this issue, Tristram used to sound almost Gove-like in his views. From “The forward march of Labour restarted?” in November 2011:

What then are the contemporary sociological forces that the left needs to understand and seek to grasp? … I would highlight four in particular… [the] [t]hird [is]: the crisis of educational attainment. Despite major strides in improving educational standards after 1997, we cannot be satisfied by Britain’s slide down the international rankings. In 2000, British 15-year-olds ranked fourth in science, seventh in reading and eighth in mathematics. By 2009, those rankings had slumped to 16th, 25th and 28th respectively. Unsurprisingly, this crisis is most pronounced among those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2010, only 16 per cent of pupils achieved a grade C or above in the subjects that will become the English baccalaureate. For children eligible for free school meals, this figure falls to a staggering 4 per cent (House of Commons 2011). This could have major long-term implications for the Labour movement. It is not hard to see how a lack of educational attainment could combine with the decline in living standards and the decline of skilled or semi-skilled manual work to form a toxic cocktail of entrenched disadvantage.

So back then he thought that it was a “crisis” that more students, particularly FSM students, didn’t study Ebacc subjects and a decline in the importance of manual work made neglecting this problem a particularly great risk.

However, the Tristram Hunt of 2014 has a completely different attitude to the importance of academic qualifications and the importance of manual work. From a local newspaper article entitled “Shadow education minister Tristram Hunt: It’s vocation, vocation, vocation for Labour” in May 2014:

Mr Hunt, who is MP for Stoke on Trent, believes many of the region’s young people will benefit from a more hands-on approach.

He told The Journal: “One thing Labour would change quickly is the current lack of focus on technical and vocational education. That means decent apprenticeships and a more flexible curriculum that suits the needs of each region and its young people going forward…

“I think a lot of young people begin to get bored by their learning environment and that is why a one-size-fits-all curriculum simply doesn’t work from region to region. We need to make education relevant and interesting. It’s about raising young people’s aspirations, not putting them off.”

Labour’s reforms would also involve greater responsibility being placed on schools to track what their pupils go on to do, whether it be further education, training or work.

Schools that fail to ensure pupils progress in this way would face losing funding, with the money used to transform careers guidance in those schools and going to local employers to develop partnership programmes offering structured careers advice…

He said the proposals would address the talents of the “forgotten 50%” of young people who want to pursue vocational routes through education.

And perhaps even more disturbingly in an interview in the Guardian last month:

So we do talk for a while about vocational and technical education, where Labour proposes “a revolution in apprenticeships, putting business in the driving seat” and new Institutes of Technical Education to provide “gold-standard delivery” of a proposed technical baccalaureate. The latter would be one of two optional streams – the other would be a general (presumably mainly academic) baccalaureate _ within a national baccalaureate for 14- to 19-year-olds.

Would these supersede GCSEs and A-levels, as many teachers wish? Hunt replies – to my complete lack of surprise – that they wouldn’t. “But GCSEs and A-levels won’t be the be-all and end-all. We’re trying to get away from the exam factory model.” He explains that the new Bacc will have four components: the established exams, including those that lead to vocational qualifications; an extended project; maths and English for all; and “personal development skills”

There’s something of a myth that Hunt has done badly as shadow education secretary because he has failed to disagree with the Tories enough. This is mistaken. When it comes to the key controversy of recent years, the debate over the idea that an academic education is the best option for all children, Hunt has not just disagreed with the Tories, he’s disagreed with himself. Is Labour really going to go into a general election telling aspirational working class parents that Labour’s top educational priorities in government will be concentrating resources on non-academic options for children who are “bored by their learning environment” and on assessing “personal development skills”? I could see this happening when Stephen Twigg was shadow education secretary, but Hunt is capable of so much more if he was just encouraged to follow the convictions he held when he got the job.


Towards a Blue Labour Agenda on Schools Part 2

July 20, 2014

As I mentioned here, I recently attended the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar. Obviously my motivation was as much to do with being a Labour activist as it is to do with being an education blogger, although one of the main reasons for attending was to hear from a couple of people I have met through education blogging. That said, given the subject matter of this blog, I only intend to reflect here almost exclusively on those aspects of discussion I thought are relevant to the education debate.

I consider myself to be, ideologically, Blue Labour. I like it when Labour politics are broad enough to be presentable in churches, mosques, factories, shop floors and on the doorstep in deprived areas, rather than the preserve of life-long political professionals, journalists and under-achieving members of the middle class who get very angry while watching Question Time on a Thursday night. I like it when people’s politics are shaped more by their workplace, their parents and their neighbours than by a university education or what they read in a newspaper. I like it when you don’t have to apologise for not following the latest ideological fashion (you noticed?) or dismiss the mass of the population as brainwashed by the Daily Mail. There’s probably very few who like the label “Blue Labour”, but a lot of the grassroots of the Labour Party, particularly in the heartlands, combine an affinity to the Labour Party with a conservatism about the power of politicians or public servants to determine values or culture for the rest of society.

However, I also have an educational agenda. I think that the disastrous involvement of the left with progressive education may have stemmed from a wider ideological failing of seeing state education as a tool by which an enlightened middle-class could deconstruct and re-engineer culture and society rather than as a way to meet working class aspirations. I think this has resulted in two terrible ideas. Firstly, the idea that the working class needed to be protected from the bourgeois culture of the educated by not being taught the same content as those in private or grammar schools. Secondly, the idea that while (with middle class supervision) the lot of the working class as a whole could be improved, the individuals within that class must be told to “rise with your class, not beyond it” (in the phrase I heard from Scottish educational David Cameron late in the 43rd minute of this video). Both attitudes, while left-wing on the face of it, have helped restrict education to an elite. I do see Blue Labour ideas as challenging the paternalism of these attitudes and potentially challenging Labour’s intermittent but frequent lapses into signing off on the ideas of progressive education.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the Blue Labour seminar was a relatively small affair, despite being advertised online, it seemed fairly exclusive. It was actually a bit disconcerting to be greeted personally by the key people on arrival, which doesn’t tend to happen at any political events (or for that matter education events) I normally attend. A lot of the people there already knew each other and there was far more of a sense of it being about like-minded people sharing ideas with each other, than the building of anything larger or an attempt to reach a wider audience. Even though there was a Twitter hashtag for the event it often looked like I was almost the only one tweeting, and part way through there was a warning to be careful about tweeting names as well as ideas. I will, where I’m not quoting something already public, try to follow this advice in this blog, although I suspect it might be an over-reaction to a past history of Blue Labour people being condemned for various forms of political incorrectness when expressing utterly unremarkable opinions.

Whatever the limitations of the event’s structure for reaching a wider audience or prompting productive action, it served as almost constant mental stimulation for me. It seemed like every speaker and  every member of the audience had something interesting to say. A fair number had implications for education even if they weren’t directly about education. The key note speech by Ruth Davis, which can be found here, raised the question of the role of science in politics, in a way that reminded of the debate over research in education, warning against both the extremes of “classification, measurement, and codification” hollowing out other methods of understanding, and “the mad, the bad, or the silly” believing that “we make our own reality”. Remarks from Lord Glasman about the word “progressive” (and how it is not something you want to hear from your doctor) probably amused me as a teacher (and critic of “progressive” education).

A session about “Challenging Left Orthodoxies” with several different speakers also touched on issues relating to education mainly because some of the worst orthodoxies on the left have been used to justify progressive education. One speaker identified “anti-authoritarianism” as such an orthodoxy, and directly connected that to the rise of “child-centred” education. Another identified the rhetoric of “challenging orthodoxies” as something of a recurring narrative in the Labour Party, something I am also familiar with from education (see here, particularly the comments). The other speaker identified “post-modernism” as the worst of the orthodoxies that limit the effectiveness of the left, observing that it makes academic discourse a problem as it assumes relativism. He quoted an unidentified university lecturer as advising him that “you never see a poor post-modernist”. Obviously, I don’t endorse the use of an ad hominem argument, but hard to miss how in education a post-modern scepticism about science, tradition, morality or reason is remarkably often used by those with power in institutions to resist calls for a change in the status quo, rather than to challenge privilege.

After lunch there was, and this was the major reason I’d wished to attend, a panel on “Education, Community and Family” which included my fellow education blogger Michael Merrick (who writes Outside In). He was the only panellist to talk mainly about education (although another spent time explaining why he has sent his children to private and faith schools despite pre-existing convictions to the contrary). Michael’s talk can be found here and is well worth reading. His argument that a belief that education was for employment led to a belief that academic education was not for all, and to reinforce class segregation, went down particularly well. Another panellist’s response to this seemed to suggest that some assumed that he was asking for more respect for vocational qualifications, where as I assumed he was suggesting that they might be part of the problem. He also questioned the focus on social mobility:

For social mobility effectively means, in contemporary parlance, the ability to move away from those you know and love. With the heavy implication that failure to do so somehow represents a mournful loss of potential and indeed choosing to do so is itself a signifier of success.

And again, another panellist seemed to assume that this was a reference to Michael Young’s critique of meritocracy as anti-egalitarian, rather than, as I took it, a criticism of a narrow view of what the well-educated should aspire to. Finally, his most controversial point was to suggest that free schools and faith schools served to build a stronger sense of community, which is not really something I’d ever considered about free schools. It is certainly worth considering whether complaints about an “atomised” school system on the left actually reflect a concern about an atomised bureaucracy rather than atomised communities.

While there was further discussion around education, most of it reflected fairly conventional debates. At one point a Birmingham City Councillor claimed that the creation of free schools had created the perfect situation for “Trojan Horse style” problems, which, given the irony of the source, will probably stick with me as the best possible evidence that debate over Trojan Horse is largely about allocating blame according to the opinions one already held. Perhaps the only other point to make me reflect on education, was when it was suggested that a symptom of the modern condition was people who hate their parents. It made me wonder whether that forms the motivation for many who (in R.S. Peters’ phrase) see schools as “orphanages for children with parents”. Do people who want schools to take over more and more of the parental sphere in providing values, compassion and guidance in life, have the faults of their own parents in mind?

I realise the two posts on Blue Labour may have wondered into some fairly obscure territory, and I do intend to let it drop here, but I thought it worth sharing some of these reflections. Education politics is fundamentally about values, but it is staggeringly rare to find outlets in politics where one can discuss values explicitly rather than assuming them. Too often in politics moral superiority is to be assumed, but never justified.  Even the most obviously ethical components of political discussion are treated as purely technical matters where the underlying principles are already agreed, and only the mad or depraved would doubt them. At the very least, Blue Labour has been willing to challenge that type of thinking.


Towards a Blue Labour Agenda on Schools Part 1

July 13, 2014

Last weekend I went to the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar for a day of discussion about “Blue Labour” ideas. Blue Labour is the movement that developed out of the ideas of Lord Glasman. Despite Glasman being an academic and and member of the House of Lords, the core Blue Labour ideas, roughly speaking, revolve around the idea of a Labour party rooted in working class communities (including faith communities) rather than in Westminster and the chattering classes. I intend to blog about what ideas were discussed that were most relevant to education debate in the next day or two. However, I remembered that I had already written about this for the now defunct “Old Politics” blog in a response to another blogpost that also is no longer available.

I have to give a few warnings first. I wrote this in July 2011 for a political blogger. As such, it is more political than my usual comments and for an audience not familiar with my arguments. Also, I clearly was more prone to jargon then than I am now, and I apologise in advance for the phrase “managerialist quasi-market” which sounds like the sort of thing that I’d criticise the BERA social justice blog for using . At least one link won’t work (but I haven’t edited it out). If you are more interested in the education discussion than the politics, please don’t be put off by the first few paragraphs, it does become easier to read.



So far, schools are an area where Blue Labour appears to have been least able to make a contribution to policy. Blue Labour is sceptical of the possibility that the paternalistic middle classes can genuinely meet the interests of the working class through public spending on the part of the state. The British state school system is a public service which is dominated by middle class interests, beliefs and concerns, yet decisive in its power over the interests and aspirations of the working class in a way that is the antithesis of Blue Labour thinking. However, in this case, Blue Labour cannot even appeal for rescue to a pre-welfare state tradition of education, because while there may be positive things to be said about the contribution of church schools, workers education societies and other forms of education that existed independently of the state in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, nobody can suggest that these bodies were not either equally paternalistic or equally inadequate at empowering the mass of the working class.

That said, a scepticism about the existence of a state education system is not a credible position for Blue Labour thinkers either. The middle classes desire education for themselves and are willing to pay for it. The withdrawal of the state from the education system would not create comprehensive community-run civil institutions, it would create a free market in which the lion’s share of the good of education was captured by the well-off with a small amount saved for the most able.

Indeed, perhaps the easiest argument that can be made about a Blue Labour position on education is that it would object to the commodification of education, whether through a free market or a managerialist quasi-market, in which parents and children simply become customers of educational service providers. Blue Labour is in a position to suggest an increase in the influence of communities on education, for instance, Maurice Glasman suggested the following administrative changes:

…what Blue Labour would say is that there should be a third, a third, a third. A third of power with parents, so that the schools are genuinely places where they have power over the education for their children; a third with the teachers so that we can really honour the vocation and expertise of teachers and then a third with the funder, whether that would be the local authority or the state. A third, a third, a third.

Given the gulf that exists between teachers and governors, and often between parents and the parental representatives on governing bodies, this idea could well be an improvement on the status quo. However, it leaves untouched the difficult issues of schooling: the questions of what should be taught to whom and where. In the absence of Blue Labour having any obvious policy positions on this, we have seen a couple of attempts to navigate a Blue Labour direction in schools policy, where those involved have simply tied themselves to existing masts.

Firstly, in his chapter of “The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox” James Purnell declared (admittedly with some caveats which I have not quoted):

Mutuality, reciprocity, and organization are good guides to what is insufficient about empowerment. But they do not replace it. For example, they’re not a guide to renewing education policy. In fact, in education, we need to go further in a New Labour direction, not turn around… people should be able to choose a school for their child

More recently, in their article [no longer available] on the Blue Labour Blog two ex-teachers Jim O’Connell-Lauder and Jamie Audsley argued for a social engineering model of schooling, actually using the phrase “a tool of social justice” and suggesting that individuals (parents, children and even teachers) can, through reforming schools into democratic institutions, be transformed into “democratic citizens”.

This notion of schooling, where the state and its enlightened administrators decide what type of people the masses should become is an extension of the Every Child Matters agenda that became dominant in the later years of the last Labour government, which in turn was simply a new manifestation of the progressive tradition in education, where academic aims are side-lined by political, cultural, social or emotional concerns. It is also in the opposite direction to Blue Labour’s confidence in the existing values of working class communities, and scepticism of middle class liberal values.

So, having set out how little Blue Labour has so far been able to say about education, where do we go from here? At the very least, perhaps the following questions are worth considering (and I make no pretence that these questions don’t heavily reflect my own personal concerns and beliefs about education):

1) How can we ensure that the educational outcomes for working class children are not simply what middle class professionals think are appropriate for “children like these”? Much educational debate, for instance the debate over selection, or over the value of qualifications, assumes that there is a significant class of usually working class “non-academic” children who must be appreciated for being different rather than given greater opportunity to succeed. Not everyone can become a professor at Oxford, but it should not be the role of Labour politicians to cap working class aspirations.

2) How do attempts to “include” badly behaved children in the classroom, regardless of their behaviour, reflect the values of working class communities? If Blue Labour respects the conservatism of working class parents, then there can be little reason for letting a child from a disciplined home environment, where the authority of adults is respected, endure the chaos of a permissive school environment run by middle class liberals where poor behaviour by a child is seen as a social or emotional problem to be treated therapeutically, rather than an attack on the interests of other children.

3) How can Blue Labour change the top-down culture of schools? While some comment has been made about central government initiatives that create paperwork or interfere with school management, very little attention has been given to the way in which classroom teachers are managed. How many teachers in a school should have a management responsibility? How much of a teacher’s work should be open to continual scrutiny by managers?

4) How much should teachers and schools be concerning themselves with non-academic aspects of children’s lives? Blue Labour criticises the bureaucratic welfare state, and should be the first critic of schools where the dominant culture brings to mind management consultants trying to frustrate social workers, rather than that of an academic institution.



Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 3

July 8, 2014

In this final post on the debate over Andrew Davis’ phonics pamphlet I respond to the arguments addressed to me in this post by David Aldridge. There are quite a few arguments (and points) in that post (one might even suggest more than in the original pamphlet) and I will attempt to answer them in turn.

1) There is a “false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers”.

I pointed out last time that this is not Davis’s argument. It is also lacking as a response to me given that I have more than once disagreed with simply trying to ape medical research too closely (for instance here and here). Regardless, the reason we should listen to the empirical evidence on phonics is not because it is exactly the same as other forms of research, but because it consistently gets the same result. The evidence tells us that whenever we look into the matter, we find (with a good degree of reliability) that the more children are taught with phonics, and the less they are encouraged to guess words from other information, the better they end up being able to read. This is all we really need it to tell us. As with Davis’s actual argument, Aldridge’s is an argument that empirical research could not ever tell us what it has already told us. Engaging too directly with the argument for why phonics research wouldn’t work would be like going back to look for flaws in the arguments of those who said flying machines could never be built. We know the argument is wrong. The only thing that makes Aldridge’s argument seem vaguely more plausible is that Davis’s argument implied that the evidence couldn’t exist, whereas Aldridge implied that it cannot be of the right type. However, neither’s descriptions of the inevitable flaws in the evidence can account for the evidence that has been found. Davis’s argument would lead us to believe no evidence exists. Aldridge’s argument would lead us to believe that the evidence could not reliably tell us anything one way or the other. Both are evidently wrong.

2) Systematic Synthetic Phonics is “exclusivist” and my position on this “is not abundantly clear” as I have both “strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches” and suggested that SSP does not prevent use of certain other techniques in the teaching of reading.

The confusion here probably comes from being unfamiliar with Systematic Synthetic Phonics. SSP is about learning to decode written words using the phonetic information in them. This is incompatible with methods of identifying words that ignore some or all of the phonetic information. So this rules out trying to recall the whole word (or a large chunk of a word) as if it was a hieroglyph. It prevents guessing what a word says from the context rather than decoding it. It doesn’t allow for partially decoding a word and guessing the remaining parts. It would discourage the teaching of vague “meaning-getting” skills that are meant to compensate for those whose decoding is so lacking in fluency that they cannot decode and pay attention to meaning at the same time. (If I have opposed “comprehension strategies” before, it is this I was objecting to). It does not, however, rule out any part of learning to read that doesn’t discourage paying attention to phonics. So there is no prohibition on improving vocabulary (including finding out about the meaning of words). It doesn’t rule out telling stories. It doesn’t ban books with pictures in, as long as they are not used to guess what words in the text say.  It positively encourages (and includes) working to be able to distinguish phonemes in spoken language. Now the principle here is not difficult and I’m able to grasp it as a layman. If a “method” involves either learning or guessing words using something other than the phonetic information in the word (thereby discouraging use of SSP) then it has no place in SSP, but that is all that is “exclusivist” about SSP. The confusion comes from the habit denialists have of rebranding guessing and whole word learning as things like “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy”. If denialists hadn’t suggesting that encouraging readers to guess more, and decode less, was merely adding extra tools to be used to decode then I don’t think phonics would ever have been seen as “exclusivist”. This is not some deep ideological objection to spending time in the primary classroom on anything but phonics, it’s just the same sort of practical objection that would stop a teacher handing out calculators in the middle of a mental arithmetic test. If you genuinely favour the teaching of phonics, why would you suddenly say “stop decoding and guess”?

3) I defend “a one size fits all approach to teaching”as if I see “so-called ‘learning styles’ as the obvious alternative”.

This is one of those contentious issues in all types of discussion in teaching. In so many debates any suggestion that there is a wrong way to teach something is immediately faced with the suggestion that it is the right way for some particular child or group of children. On the face of it, the flaw with making this suggestion indiscriminately is obvious. Some methods are just not going to work, or just not work particularly well, for anyone. Beyond that there is the disturbing possibility that false assumptions about how certain types of child will require something different can lower expectations in line with existing prejudices. It is also an easy way to blame a teacher when a child doesn’t learn something if it can be claimed that every child can learn everything easily providing the correct method is used. It is also highly lucrative to sell silly gimmicks that will enable teachers to reach those students who are hardest to teach and differences in “learning styles” are one explanation used to justify those gimmicks.

Now, these considerations (which do include the nonsense of “learning styles”) indicate reasons why I think the burden of proof over suggestions that certain students need different teaching methods should be with those making the suggestions. There are, however, some undeniable differences between children. Some children have learning difficulties. Capacity of working memory and other cognitive abilities will differ between children. Children also vary in their prior knowledge. I have no problem in taking account of any of these. The contention appears to be over how much variation in teaching should be allowed in light of these differences. Nobody can deny that SSP will differ in effectiveness between children. Some children seem to learn to read with little support; others really struggle. Different methods of teaching might be used to address some of these differences. However, if one wishes to use this as an argument against SSP working best for all, the claim would have to be that some children benefit from methods, like learning whole words or guessing from context, which ignore phonetic information and discourage decoding. It is this that there seems to be a remarkable lack of evidence for.

There is not even consistency in the claims about which children the alleged exceptions to the effectiveness of SSP apply to. When the denialists were at the height of their power SSP was relegated to being a method for those with dyslexia. Now, I more often hear it claimed that it is those with dyslexia who most require the denialist methods instead of phonics. Admittedly, I also hear it claimed that phonics is unnecessary for the most able readers (here, at least, there is a plausible chance that they might have absorbed a large amount of phonic knowledge before anyone taught it to them explicitly making some phonics instruction redundant). Given the confusion, it seems better to assume that children learning the same system of writing will require the same knowledge of phonics, unless there is good evidence to the contrary, and being either faster or slower to learn than other children should not be considered evidence of needing the denialist methods, only more or less time spent on phonics instruction.

 4) The phonics check will force teachers to concentrate “on the method of synthetic phonics rather than another approach or combination of approaches that might equally or better promote their success with reading but will not be relevant to the phonics check”.

This one is simply begging the question. The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively. This may well deter methods that are alleged to be a form of phonics teaching but which don’t actually result in good phonics knowledge. It will also deter methods of teaching reading that ignore the evidence on phonics. Neither of these is a bad thing, unless you have already made the decision to ignore the evidence or to teach phonics ineffectively.

5) The argument that teachers should become consumers of educational research in order to identify the ‘best’ method for achieving a particular educational outcome, so that they can then employ this method across the board, neither empowers teachers nor improves the educational experience of their students.

This strikes me as missing the point of “evidence-based” teaching. The reason that many teachers are interested in research is not to create a monolithic list of activities that must be carried out in order to teach. We’ve seen that doesn’t work. It is to protect us from such demands. To read the debate on phonics you’d think there was never an era when phonics teaching was marginalised or pushed out. You’d think that no phonics denialist ever had power or influence and no teacher was ever forced to use denialist methods. In reality, there’s no shortage of stories from the 80s and 90s of teachers using SSP having to hide what they are doing from their managers. There are plenty of people who became marginalised because they spoke out against the phonics denialist orthodoxy. There was no freedom to skip the “Searchlights” model of the NLS. We are still suffering from their apparently exclusive domination of primary teacher training in our universities and many sensible people leave teacher training wedded to bizarre notions like the belief that “reading” is a synonym for “comprehension” or the idea that an enthusiasm for books must always precede the ability to read them.

Teachers will always be under pressure to teach a particular way, even if it is from fashion, training and school level pressure rather than national policy. When I argue for an evidence-based profession, I am arguing that teachers should know the evidence and that the trump card when resisting pressure to teach in a particular way is being able to say “but the evidence shows this is not a good idea” without it getting you singled out as a troublemaker. I believe our professional judgement will hold more sway if it is professional judgement backed up by evidence and rational argument. If anything has brought about the statutory phonics check it is teachers ignoring the evidence on phonics or, worse, pretending to teach “phonics” while actually teaching children to guess rather than decode. I don’t want evidence-based practice to create a new orthodoxy, I want it to establish the rules by which orthodoxies can be resisted and overthrown. Evidence will never tell us exactly how to teach, but it will expose when we are mistaken or, worse, when we are dishonest. While we should have plenty of freedom to make our own decisions, we should not be arguing for the principle of making decisions based on ignorance or irrationality. I don’t want the freedom to teach by telepathy or to encourage children to rub their brain buttons. I want the freedom to make informed and reasonable judgements and that requires an informed and reasonable profession.


Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 2

July 3, 2014

In this post from yesterday I went over the problems with Andrew Davis’ pamphlet on phonics. It had media publicity at the time of its publication for a reference to phonics teaching being “almost a form of abuse” and argued that we should ignore the research on systematic synthetic phonics because we could not identify whether those methods have actually been used.

An obviously incoherent argument mixed with a lack of any evidence, and a tasteless comparison with child abuse, would, of course, be an embarrassment to anyone engaging in a serious debate. But denialists do need to be able to refer to texts by educationalists in order to give the impression of intellectual legitimacy to their position. While I don’t want to go over Twitter discussions about the pamphlet (suffice to say many of its most ardent admirers seem unfamiliar with its content) it’s worth commenting on a couple of blogposts which attempted to defend it. The first is here. In it, the obvious criticisms that its claims are unsupported with evidence, and in defiance of the evidence, are defended by an appeal to the nature of philosophy:

However, empirical and philosophical questions have important differences between them which are the subject of this essay. Andrew Davis is a philosopher. The type and scope of his research is defined by the limits of his discipline. This is also my response to the third objection [the claim the pamphlet was mere speculation]: he is a philosopher, this work is theory. Therefore, it is not “speculative” to write what one thinks because in this field what one thinks is precisely the research itself. When Davis says what he has written is the result of three years’ work we have no reason to doubt him unless we believe that mental work is not meaningful or real, and if we believe that then quite frankly we should never be anywhere near a classroom.

The idea that the abstract nature of philosophy means that any claim, no matter how at odds with evidence, can be seriously entertained is one I would associate more with critics than supporters of philosophy. For instance, Lawrence Krauss’s claim that “philosophy used to have content” which science has gradually taken away paints philosophy as some kind of abstract nonsense of no consequence to those who study the real world. While I am quite happy with the idea of philosophy consisting of thought and reasoning rather than empirical evidence, philosophy is still meant to be thought about something. A philosopher of science will need to study some science and they would not claim, that whatever experiments have been conducted they cannot provide evidence of gravity. A philosopher of history will need to study some history and they would not claim that whatever books historians have written, none of them could provide grounds for saying the battle of Waterloo happened. A philosopher of law will need to study some law and would not claim that, whatever laws have been passed, none of them could prohibit burglary. The correct way to philosophise about the teaching of reading involves first studying how we teach children to read, not claiming that it has never actually been studied. An argument that it cannot be studied does not create a gap for philosophy to fill, it makes philosophical consideration as impossible as any other type. Davis’ argument that we can never isolate a specific way of teaching reading does not simply prevent the possibility of empirically measuring the effectiveness of the method, it also prevents us identifying any features of a reading method that a philosopher could reasonably consider. A teaching method that is so lacking in distinct features or consequences that we cannot identify it when we use it or observe it, is also a teaching method that we cannot imagine using and whose consequences no philosopher can deduce. If the ample evidence that synthetic phonics is the most effective method of teaching children to read is “a fantasy”, then how much more fantastic is the evidence-free claim that it is almost a form of abuse?

Another blogger, Dave Aldridge, tries a different defence. Instead of defending the actual pamphlet he defends an imagined, less extreme version of the pamphlet. The actual pamphlet contains a number of  claims about it being impossible to observe or identify the teaching of synthetic phonics, some of which I quoted last time, but just to be thorough I will list examples here.

In the editors’ introduction, the argument is summarised with phrases such as:

Whatever it is that empirical researchers take themselves to be doing when they investigate synthetic phonics, he maintains, they are not investigating a specifiable method of teaching reading… there are no such things as specifiable methods of teaching.

In the author’s overview he writes:

 I am going to argue that research into the teaching of reading involves some fantasies. These take the form of imagining that specific teaching methods could be identified, and that their efficacy would be open to empirical investigation.

In the outline of the argument he writes that one of the contributions of the book “is to show that much of the research purporting to support any one ‘method’ of teaching reading is flawed in principle” and that in sketching out the various ways to teach reading:

My point… is not to offer a definitive account or typology, but rather to question the very possibility of classifying reading strategies in any meaningful way. I am not assuming that the approaches described are necessarily independent of each other. Indeed, I contend that when examined in any kind of depth, none of them can, or should have, any clear and coherent identity

In the chapter giving the fullest justification of this argument Davis claims to argue “that certain types of empirical research into strategies for teaching reading are … based on fantasies of specifiable teaching interventions…”.

Yet, despite this ample evidence that Davis is indeed claiming that specific teaching methods, and synthetic phonics teaching in particular, cannot be identified, Aldridge instead claims that:

Davis’s argument rests not so much on the non-existence of method as the false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers.

Aldridge then attempts to argue for the much weaker claim that the evidence for phonics cannot be of the standard of these other types of research. While Davis did briefly assert that his arguments for ignoring the research evidence showed that evaluating teaching methods was different to testing drugs or fertilisers, his argument at no point hinged on the reverse implication, i.e. that if teaching methods are different to drugs then they cannot be evaluated. If this argument has not been made then no amount of differences between types of research can be used to support Davis’s claims. While this new argument may be of interest, and I hope to deal with it later, it does not actually match the argument of the pamphlet which remains as far-fetched and incoherent as ever.

Much of what remains in Aldridge’s post (and a subsequent post) is directed at me, rather than the discussion of Davis’ pamphlet in general, so I will hope to deal with it in a separate post.


Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 1

July 2, 2014

According to this article on denialism in public health, one of the tactics most often used by denialists is the use of:

…individuals who purport to be experts in a particular area but whose views are entirely inconsistent with established knowledge. They have been used extensively by the tobacco industry since 1974, when a senior executive with R J Reynolds devised a system to score scientists working on tobacco in relation to the extent to which they were supportive of the industry’s position. The industry embraced this concept enthusiastically in the 1980s when a senior executive from Philip Morris developed a strategy to recruit such scientists (referring to them as ‘Whitecoats’) to help counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. This activity was largely undertaken through front organizations whose links with the tobacco industry were concealed, but under the direction of law firms acting on behalf of the tobacco industry. In some countries, such as Germany, the industry created complex and influential networks, allowing it to delay the implementation of tobacco control policies for many years.In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed a Global Climate Science Communications Plan, involving the recruitment of ‘scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science [who can] help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases’. However, this is not limited to the private sector; the administration of President George W Bush was characterized by the promotion of those whose views were based on their religious beliefs or corporate affiliations, such as the advisor on reproductive health to the Food and Drug Administration who saw prayer and bible reading as the answer to premenstrual syndrome. A related phenomenon is the marginalization of real experts, in some cases through an alliance between industry and government, as when ExxonMobil successfully opposed the reappointment by the US government of the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Phonics denialists often use a similar tactic. So much so that you can often predict which “authorities” they will end up quoting. Perhaps Stephen Krashen, an American professor who is reported to have claimed “[A]ny child exposed to comprehensible print will learn to read, barring severe neurological or emotional problems”. Perhaps one or all of of the trio Torgerson, Brooks and Hall who managed to do a review of the evidence on phonics which rejected all but 4 of the studies on reading comprehension and then concluded that what remained was insufficient to support the consensus that phonics teaching benefited comprehension. Perhaps Michael Rosen, the children’s author who described phonics as “barking at print”. Perhaps Henrietta Dombey, another educationalist, who, despite not being any kind of neurologist, gave us her interpretation of brain scans as part of an argument against phonics. The same denialist organisations will also pop up again and again, particularly NATE and UKLA. There’s no shortage of people with opinions that are against phonics, often with highly respected positions in the education establishment, but with an utter lack of good evidence for those opinions. While some denialists will catch you out (for instance, Dr Mary Bousted pretending her PhD was about phonics) mostly you encounter the same people and sources again and again.

The latest “go to” expert without evidence for the phonics denialists is Andrew Davis. Another educationalist (although as I understand it, this time with a maths background)  he wrote a pamphlet for the once prestigious Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. This received some publicity at the time of publication for the sensationalist claim that teaching a child with systematic synthetic phonics was “almost a form of abuse”.  A recent letter in the TES (admittedly one whose signatories include Davis himself, Brooks, Torgerson, and representatives of UKLA and NATE) cited it and started the discussion going again, so I thought I’d take the time to look at it. However, it turned out I had already discussed it here. In that post I noted Davis’s main argument:

In this short book I am going to argue that research into the teaching of reading involves some fantasies. These take the form of imagining that specific teaching methods could be identified, and that their efficacy would be open to empirical investigation. I show that if any schools were actually implementing such strategies, the adults responsible would have abdicated their role as teachers. In reality, implementations of SP in any one school will not and should not precisely resemble those in other schools and in any case, current research into SP ‘effectiveness’ is not informed by a detailed blow by blow description of what actually happens in the classrooms concerned. Hence, it is never really made clear what the research is actually investigating. If teachers are actually teaching, there will be and should be nothing common to all SP programmes. The effects of drugs or fertilisilisers can, of course, be investigated using orthodox scientific methodologies, but we lack the equivalent here in terms of teaching approaches.

I then responded to this argument:

Now, the limits of scientific methods to isolate and evaluate what happens in the classroom is a real issue. I’m certainly sceptical about a lot of education research for that reason. However, the claim that we could never, even in theory, objectively evaluate a teaching method is as extreme a denial of science as anything you will hear from homeopaths or creationists (who are also often prone to claim that science cannot hope judge their claims). The claim that all the research in an entire field (not just the hundreds of studies on phonics, because this argument applies equally to all teaching methods) is a particularly extreme one. It entails that all those who have conducted empirical research in teaching methods were mistaken, and all those who found statistically significant results were deluded. Not only that, but if they were to test more extreme cases, say the efficacy of teaching by telepathy, their results would still be invalid and teachers would be fully entitled to teach telepathically. To dismiss empirical research on this scale is as extreme as dismissing all the evidence of climate change, in fact it is pretty much the same argument, that we cannot aggregate data, that climate change denialists use.

As a note, I should probably add that the defence could be made that the author, despite using an argument that could be applied to all research into teaching methods, actually meant to treat phonics as a special case; that it is only in the case of phonics or perhaps synthetic phonics specifically that researchers would have no idea what method was being used. But if it is inherently impossible to identify the teaching methods used as phonics, or synthetic phonics, why write a pamphlet condemning a policy encouraging synthetic phonics? If the teaching method is indistinguishable from other methods, it cannot possibly be enforced. The policy would be meaningless, and can safely be ignored. The argument assumes the very thing that would make the argument irrelevant. You cannot oppose the imposition of a teaching method by arguing that there is no method being imposed.

I also pursued this with Davis himself on the TES forum here (where he posts as “ded6ajd”) but couldn’t get a clear argument from him  He admitted his argument would cast doubt on more teaching methods than just systematic synthetic phonics, but he wouldn’t identify clearly where we could draw the line on which teaching methods were observable and which weren’t, or identify the wider consequences of his claim.

The problem is not simply that Davis has speculated but not found new evidence (although that does invalidate some of the uses this pamphlet is put to in arguments), it is that he has rejected existing evidence because of a speculation. The possibility that it is impossible to objectively evaluate a teaching method is not one which can reasonably be entertained without paying due attention to the examples in the real world of people objectively evaluating teaching methods. Apparently without considering the claims of a single study, Davis, in the words of the editor, concludes that “[w]hatever it is that empirical researchers take themselves to be doing when they investigate synthetic phonics … they are not investigating a specifiable method of teaching reading”. Davis’s argument is to claim that research methods which have already worked in practice would not work in theory. Just as speculation against the possibility of space flight might be considered flawed in light of the apparent existence of space shuttles, the speculation that there can be no actual evidence for phonics is flawed in light of the existence of evidence for phonics. All the speculation in the world that we cannot attempt to evaluate phonics is worthless in face of the fact people have evaluated phonics.

Of course, while the extreme nature of the claim should be highlighted, and it justifes the use of the word “denialist” to describe the argument, an extreme position could still be correct. Unfortunately, this mistake is not made in isolation. It is part of a pamphlet which argues against the imposition of teaching methods, particularly the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. As I argued above, if teaching methods (or even just the methods of teaching reading) cannot be identified then they cannot be imposed, for there can be no possible consequence for not implementing them. Nor can the claim that teaching synthetic phonics is “almost a form of abuse” be squared with the picture painted of an invisible, undetectable method. I suspect that if Davis truly believed that teaching methods were as unidentifiable as he claimed, he wouldn’t concern himself with the detail of primary literacy policy, he would be considering the consequences of this insight for the whole system. How much of what is done in education assumes that teachers and observer can identify what method they are using? Phonics is a minor detail if teachers are genuinely that ignorant of their actions.

There are other claims and material in the pamphlet that I could have explored. There is plenty of the usual denialist misconceptions about the nature of reading and meaning, and attempts to rebrand the usual denialist methods as another brand of phonics, but it is this self-defeating argument which (other than a citation of Torgerson et al by the editor in the introduction) is the only real attempt to address the empirical evidence on phonics. This, perhaps, misled me to think that nobody would actually pay much attention to this pamphlet, but it has been cited again and again in online debate and there have been attempts to defend it from the obvious criticisms.

In part 2 I will address some blogposts defending this pamphlet.


The International Language of Edu-Platitudes

June 23, 2014

Here’s something to take you back. Here are the aims of the 2007 National Curriculum:

The curriculum should enable all young people to become:
• successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
• confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives
• responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown (not that I suggest you read it all):

Screenshot 2014-06-23 at 19.59.00 - Edited

Somebody on Twitter recently pointed out to me that this is not dissimilar to the aims of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (written in 2004 but officially implemented in 2010). Its purposes were as follows:

Our aspiration for all children and for every young person is that they should be successful learnersconfident individualsresponsible citizens and effective contributors to society and at work.

And in more detail:



And just, in case you thought this sort of thing was only found in the British Isles, here is the Australian version, from the Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals, made by all Australian education ministers in 2008.

These goals are:
Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes  equity and excellence
Goal 2: All young Australians become:

  • successful learners
  • confident and creative individuals
  • active and informed citizens

And in more detail:

Screenshot 2014-06-23 at 20.13.05 - Edited

Screenshot 2014-06-23 at 20.14.53 - Edited

Screenshot 2014-06-23 at 20.16.27 - Edited

I have commented on the English version before (here and here) but I will summarise the problems here.

  1. There are far too many aims, particularly if you break them down. As a result nobody could ever use it to make decisions. Almost any option would be covered by something. Inevitably, no school could directly implement these principles as written, and it is left open to a multitude of “experts” to interpret them.
  2. Most of the aims fail to reflect that the primary purpose of education is academic. They are about attitudes, opinions and feelings not about learning.
  3. The one academic category, i.e. “successful learners” contains more items about how students should learn and their attitude to learning than about what is learnt.
  4. A lot of this is vacuous or circular jargon. For instance, being “successful” isn’t an aim, you can only succeed if you already have an aim.

None of these problems seem to have stopped the cut and paste merchants. None of it seems to have offended the politicians. None of it seems to have been seen as contentious by the educational establishment. In the Scottish case I read here that:

…CfE (in respect of those core principles) retains all-party support in parliament. Furthermore, our research, and my recent professional interactions with teachers suggest that the teaching profession remains largely in support of those same core principles.

It’s a shame if that’s how people feel in any education system. It’s a loss of confidence in the ability to identify and directly teach what is worth knowing. But, of course, these are all from the progressive tradition in education. There is an alternative. Here, by way of contrast, are the aims of our new National Curriculum (yes, this is the entire section):

3.1 The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human
creativity and achievement.

3.2 The national curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of
core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.

Not perfect, but a direct endorsement of the academic purpose of education. In my view, it is official permission to teach.


Drawing the Line Between Research and Propaganda

June 18, 2014

One of the complaints most often made about the education research community is that large parts of it are disinterested in objective research and more interested in ideology. At times this is taken to the point where no distinction is drawn between promoting personal opinion and promoting research. I came across an interesting example earlier. I found a new blog called “Respecting Children and Young People“. It was unusual in that its posts were written by academics. However, although they mentioned research they were clearly writing about opinions rather than evidence.

For instance, one wrote:

We need to achieve a balance between different aims of education: not only economic but cultural, ethical, personal and democratic. We need to move beyond segregation by ‘ability’ and towards personalisation based on agreement with learners, individually and collectively, on how best to move forwards – ‘learning without limits’.

We can learn from less restricted European countries, including new forms of learning which involve problem-solving, enquiry and creativity. We need to balance written exams with more authentic (and challenging) forms of assessment based on research, design and projects. This way we can at last create a common curriculum which is both accessible and challenging, experiential and intellectual, which relates to immediate realities but opens new horizons, which aspires to equality and quality together.

Another wrote:

Classrooms need to be transformed from the stressful, task-driven, target-led overly competitive environments they are currently. And while the 3Rs are important, teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories, and well informed about contemporary global issues are equally, if not more, important. There is a great deal of scope for widening currently narrowly conceived teaching and learning opportunities, and for developing ‘disruptive pedagogies’ that encourage student to question,  as well as develop social and political awareness. A revalorizing of vocational and working class knowledges and a broadening out of what constitutes educational success beyond the narrowly academic is long overdue.

So far this is no different than what can be found in the educational pages of The Guardian on a fairly frequent basis. But what intrigued me was that the website’s about page included the logo of BERA, the British Educational Research Association. This is meant to be part of BERA’s contribution to the debate about education policy. As is so often the case in education, a (so-called) research agenda is indistinguishable from a political one. After I tweeted about this, there followed a twitter discussion with the person apparently responsible for the site:

Perhaps the conflation of research and propaganda should take nobody by surprise, although even I am a bit taken aback to hear that opinions can be given weight by “debate” with people who don’t disagree with them. But let’s face it, there are world famous professors of education who act as little more than propagandists for their favoured ideology, so political activism on the part of a “research” organisation should not be a surprise. However, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the following text on the BERA website:


We believe that the development of a world-class education system depends on high quality educational research. But this is field where policy decisions are often driven by ideology rather than evidence.

BERA seeks to counterbalance the politicisation of education by carefully presenting the findings of the best in independent and critical research, through our projects, publications, responses to official consultations and other work on current issues.


How to Argue for Progressive Education

June 10, 2014

A few weeks back, just after the publication of Progressively Worse, I noticed how few serious attempts there were to argue for progressive education on the basis of anything resembling empirical evidence, or coherent reasoning. Out of frustration, I tweeted a guide to arguing for progressive education in the way is it normally done on Twitter and in blogs.

Here is the full list:

  1. Disagreement with a progressive is a personal attack.
  2. Personal attacks on traditionalists aren’t personal attacks.
  3. If all else fails, object to the tone of somebody’s argument.
  4. Claim nobody really disagrees with you and anyone who says they do is wrong.
  5. Anyone who disagrees, hasn’t understood (but make no attempt to remedy the misunderstanding)
  6. Disagreement is only acceptable from certain types. Non-teachers or new teachers are not allowed.
  7. Anyone who disagrees with you, just doesn’t care as much as you do. Which is a lot.
  8. Education debate should be beyond politics.
  9. If you disagree with me, then you have the wrong sort of political views.
  10. Claim anyone who disagrees is oppressing, harassing or restricting professional autonomy.
  11. Claim that your views are based on science.
  12. Claim science doesn’t apply here.
  13. Object to a word used in an opposing argument, but reject all alternative words for expressing the same idea too.
  14. Observe that anyone disagreeing thinks they are right and imply this is a bad thing.
  15. Claim to agree with the opposing argument, than continue to act and talk as if you don’t.
  16. Have a conversation with another progressive about how wrong the opposing argument is.
  17. Have a chat with another progressive about how vile the person disagreeing with you is.
  18. If anything you said was too offensive to defend, claim it was satire or irony.
  19. Complain that, while logically correct, the opposing argument is not really persuasive.
  20. Deny all knowledge of the debate you are having (including your own position and arguments).
  21. Claim, without justification, that the flaws in your argument apply to the opposing argument.
  22. Claim it works for your students. (Provide no evidence).
  23. Accuse anyone who is not convinced that it works for your students of calling you a liar.
  24. Lie.
  25. See below:



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