How the Education Establishment Supports Inequality

March 1, 2015

It’s often difficult to convince people how low the expectations are for working class kids can be in schools. I have a lot of anecdotes from a lot of schools. So many times I have been told that I cannot expect much from “kids like these”. I have been told that I haven’t understood that a school being slightly above average for the number of students on Free School Meals means I cannot expect students to spend a whole lesson learning. I have been told that kids from a particular area “don’t have parents like yours” and so will not care about how they do in school. More than anything, low standards of behaviour are excused on the basis that being disobedient and disruptive is normal for the working class. They simply don’t know any better. The ability of middle class teachers to paint anywhere with council housing as the ghetto, never ceases to amaze me. The worst possible home environment is assumed, again and again, even in schools where the parents evenings indicate that most parents are actually interested, aspirational and articulate.

Probably the most dangerous version of this caricature, is the idea that this difference between the classes requires a difference in the curriculum. It is accepted that academic subjects are fine for our children, and, incredibly, so is didactic teaching and the expectation that children can control themselves. But working class kids won’t be interested in any of that. If they are going to cooperate they must be given a curriculum that isn’t too full of content; that would just demotivate them. What working class kids is something to motivate them; something which does not assume they are capable of being interested in anything more than what they are already used to. The middle classes can have knowledge of all that is worthwhile; working class kids just need to be motivated by being told about matters that are relevant to their lives. Middle class kids can study poetry and nineteenth century novels; working class kids can study text messaging and reality TV.

The worst examples of this sort of snobbery were probably those during the early days of the free school movement. Activists who were desperate to prove free schools were selective struggled to find anything to indicate this in their admissions policies. So, instead, they looked at the curriculum. The claim was that an academic curriculum would deter working class parents from sending their kids to a school. So we saw arguments like these:

it is not uncommon for free schools to market themselves in various ways as appropriate mainly for abler and more middle class families … eg compulsory Latin, lack of vocational provision, focus exclusively on Russell Group as a destination, expensive uniform, religious tests and so on. [my emphasis]

Education for Everyone blog

Numerous studies have shown that languages are a class and gender thing. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to be encouraged to learn them by their parents, less likely to see the point of them and less likely to have parents at home who can help with their homework. It is a particular problem for boys, whose parents are more likely to encourage them in science than in languages.

…When [founder of the West London Free School, Toby] Young says that all children will have to learn Latin at Key Stage 3 (and either Latin or a modern language after that), he excludes the kids of parents for whom Latin is a frightening prospect. So much for comprehensive entry.

From The New Statesman

What we have is a bun fight for the middle-class aspirational children: we have lots of glossy prospectuses and PR in order to recruit the children that are most likely to do well.

“And I don’t buy this idea that admission is open to all. The minute you put Latin on the curriculum for the first few years or put pupils in stripey blazers, you will only recruit one kind of child, regardless of how many times you say your school is for everybody.”

Headteacher quoted in the Guardian

I had hoped that people were a bit more circumspect about their low expectations for working class kids these days. But just this week I was amazed to see the following gem on the ASCL website, reacting to the discrepancies in access to academic subjects across the country:

it seems to me that there’s a big assumption behind the gloomy tone of his comments and indeed of the BBC coverage; that the government’s prescription for improving social mobility was right after all. As far as I can see, the ‘MorGovian’ way to get more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds into Russell Group universities is to ensure that all such pupils study ‘academic’ subjects – an EBacc compatible Key Stage 4 curriculum, for example – and that they aren’t incentivised to study ‘vocational’ subjects, as was the case under Labour.

I would have thought a better way of improving social mobility would be to ensure pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get the best possible results from a curriculum that motivates and inspires them, whether that be ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’. The trick is to get the curriculum right for each individual. After all, success breeds success; youngsters are surely far more likely to want to keep on with this education thing if they’re doing well at it. Staying on in education (taking respected, high-value qualifications, I should add) is surely the best bet for ensuring long-term success in the labour market.

In fact, I can’t help wondering if the whole question of advantage and disadvantage is a big red herring here. Doesn’t aptitude matter more than social background? Shouldn’t we be more interested in guiding youngsters into the various curricular paths according to where their interests and prior attainment suggest they are most likely to succeed? Okay, a disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils may have fallen behind by Year 9, but surely such students need intervention and support rather than a curriculum pathway which risks even further demotivation.

This was written by a headteacher on the blog of an organisation representing headteachers across the country. If headteachers are willing to argue in public that students from deprived backgrounds need a curriculum based around motivation rather than academic achievement, what chance do they have? The education establishment still firmly believe that what is appropriate for their children is far too demotivating for other people’s children.



Top Blogs of the Week : Schools Week (February 2015)

February 27, 2015

Schools Week have published my review of the best blogs of the week.

Andrew Old selects: 27 February 2015

Consultants: the obscene quantities of cash, the confidence tricks and riding the merry-go-round of failure

By @Bottoms_bray

A teacher recounts the activities of consultants who are paid to give advice to desperate school leaders; how this advice has often been harmful and is usually expensive. “They are unaccountable…

Continued in

Andrew Old selects: 27 February 2015

A Guide To Scenes From The Battleground

February 16, 2015

I have updated this guide for the holidays.

This blog is about the state of secondary education. There is an introduction to it here:

And some reflections on it here:

Here is a summary of my main points:

Here are a few posts written purely for a laugh (although some of them perhaps make a point at the same time):

The following posts sum up what is typical in schools these days in various respects:



Teachers and Managers:

Special Needs:

School Life:


As well as the advice for teachers included in many of the other posts, I have written advice specifically for new teachers:

These deal more directly with my own personal experiences, or the experiences of others:

I have also written a number of posts exploring and explaining how this situation came to be, discussing the arguments in education and suggesting what can be done.


Apologia and arguments:

Progressive Education:



Education Policy and Current Affairs:


The College of Teaching:

Teaching and Teachers:

Educational Ethics and Philosophy:

Education Research and Academics

Here are some videos I found on the internet which I thought were interesting, or relevant, enough to present in a blog post. Some will probably no longer be available, I hope to correct this where possible when I get the chance.

I wrote about some of the myths that are spread to teachers, often in INSET or during PGCEs:

I have also outlined what I would expect from schools willing to do put things right:

Here are my book recommendations:

This may be of interest if you are considering writing a blog:

You may also have found me…

I have also written sections in the following two books:

Please let me know if any of the links don’t work.

Finally, I can be found on Facebook (please “friend” me) or Twitter (please “follow” me).

If you want to keep up with education blogging other than mine, or to see some of these same concerns discussed by others, then you should follow my sister blog, The Education Echo Chamber. The blog is here. The twitter feed is here.


Politician’s Logic and The College Of Teaching

February 11, 2015

I was recently reminded of the politician’s logic described in the above clip:

Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it.

It stemmed from a number of conversations about the College Of Teaching on Twitter, and the argument of this blogpost by Tom Sherrington.

Even if the status quo is terrible, people will defend it inadvertently by resisting change and preventing initial ideas from living a while before they’re fully developed…

It sets out a process by which the College could come into being from the initial founder stage through to the mature membership stage.  If this road map is followed, it would be possible to have an influential College of Teaching fully run by teachers delivering on a number of areas relating to teachers’ professional lives – within five years.   I personally don’t have a better idea than this and I don’t know of one; I don’t like the status quo so I’m very happy to support his proposal…

It is also my experience that it’s a mistake to try to seek total agreement or have rules that are too tight before you get started; the experience of running a new initiative in practice will always throw up new possibilities; if you get too bogged down at the start, you never get going.  It’s like kids arguing about the rules of a game for so long that they never actually play it…

…But if we’d be much much better off with a CoT then it’s worth fighting for. I don’t think that message comes through strongly enough – not yet.  At this stage, I’d say it’s more important to promote the Why of a College of Teaching, above the Who or the How…

If the ongoing debate leads to a better process and a better outcome, that’s great.  Let’s have the discussion in that spirit.  But if the debate simply adds weight to the inertia; not offering any alternative except the status quo, then that’s what we’ll get.  That’s what we’ll deserve – and the chance will have gone.

Ignoring the ad hominem implication that anyone who objects to a plan to spend more than £10 million of public money on a loose and unaccountable assembly of interest groups, is somehow simply resistant to change, this argument amounts to:

We need a change from the status quo. This is a change from the status quo. Therefore, we should support it.

I suspect that this logic might indeed win over some of the politicians and the public will end up bankrolling this project. But let me be utterly clear why this won’t win me over. The status quo of having no professional body for teachers has existed for a grand total of 3 years. Prior to that there was a professional body called the General Teaching Council of England (GTCE) which existed for 12 years and which few teachers had a kind word for. So, the creation of a new professional body is not a once in a lifetime proposition, not a radical departure, but a second attempt at something that was tried and failed in recent memory.

Once we actually recall this little bit of history, we remember that the status quo of not having a professional body for teachers was deliberately chosen over an option (the GTCE)  that was seen as worse than the status quo. If we accept this as the case, then the precise details of the proposal do matter. If any professional body will do, then why was the GTCE not good enough? When the discussion of a College of Teaching started, the desire not to repeat the mistakes of the GTCE was a key theme. Only as it became clear that teachers would have as little, or even less, say over the CoT as they did over the GTCE has the GTCE disappeared from the argument.

Now, of course, it could be the case that the people arguing for uncritical support for the CoT proposal, would also have opposed the abolition of the GTCE. Perhaps they genuinely do think that any professional body is better than none. But if so, then they are keeping quiet about it. If not, then there is no excuse for suggesting anybody else accept the CoT proposal on the grounds that any professional body is better than none. For myself, I know from experience that having a professional body for teachers that is not accountable to teachers is worse than the status quo of having no professional body. And for that reason the issue of who will make up and run the CoT is not a “detail”; not something that can be adjusted later, and not something that can be decided by non-teachers and left for teachers to swallow.


The Problem With Knowledge Part 2

February 9, 2015

In my last post I argued that there may be a split between traditionalists who see knowledge as the ultimate end of education, and those who see it as a means to develop the intellect. Here I discuss how differing positions on this issue may affect how we approach education.

Traditionalists do seem to agree on a lot. However, I think that there are a number of debates that change depending on whether knowledge, or cleverness, is the aim of education.

To begin with, the question of how we select which knowledge is worth learning changes. While progressives have always challenged the body of knowledge to be learnt (the tradition) on a wide variety of grounds such as political incorrectness, obsolescence, irrelevance and the nature of those making the selection, I’ve never really had much time for these arguments. There is knowledge that is considered the best in our culture. There is knowledge that, in our culture, is undeniably associated with being educated or clever. As long as one doesn’t hope to socially engineer a new culture using children as the means (which does seem to be the aim of some progressives) the tradition in our culture is not difficult to locate. While one might seek to change or add to culture, that does not have to be done through schooling, and so the debate about what should be considered best in our culture is a distinct one from the question of what is considered best in our culture. By keeping those debates separate we can accommodate both cultural difference (e.g. by accepting that, say, a British Muslim might include Arabic in their tradition or a British Jew might include Hebrew) and keep a distance from the more difficult debate about what has value rather than what is valued. While the realm of the intellect is recognised in all cultures, the best way to develop the intellect can still be dependent on culture and we have a frame of reference for what is to be taught that can be explored but doesn’t have to be justified from first principles.

If, however, knowledge is being learnt for its own sake, I think the question of “which knowledge?” becomes more complicated. Is the knowledge valued in one’s own culture better to learn for its own sake than knowledge valued in another culture? Will it become necessary to justify directly what is the best knowledge in the world rather than what is considered to be the best knowledge in one’s own culture? This is not necessarily something that an advocate of knowledge for its own sake would shy away from. I have heard many people explain why Shakespeare is correctly held in such high esteem, or why Latin and Greek literature is the greatest inheritance that can be received from past civilisations. However, it is a more difficult argument to have, particularly when any argument that could be used to justify the value of a particular type of knowledge which suggests that learning it is valued as a way to achieve another aim would inherently undermine the idea that knowledge is valued for its own sake. Is it even possible to argue about what is the best knowledge if knowledge is only valued for its own sake?

There is, however, a way in which seeing knowledge as the aim of education might simplify arguments. If one adopts the view that knowledge is an end in itself, it becomes impossible to argue that the ends of teaching can be achieved through ways that are not focussed on knowledge. In that sense this could almost be seen as the strongest form of traditionalism. Those of us who see knowledge as a means to an end allow progressives a means to challenge us over whether there are alternative, and better, means to the same ends. We might end up having to justify our viewpoint by considering empirical evidence rather than through the adoption (usually on ethical grounds) of particular goals. There are relevant empirical questions over whether (as many progressives claim) learning in particular ways improves thinking, or how thoroughly we must know something for it to be useful in our thinking which I do not think can be answered without considering empirical evidence.

Alternatively, if the communication of particular knowledge is the only aim of teaching, it might be possible to view teachers only as people who know what is worth knowing and are able to judge what is worth sharing. From such a point of view, in which teacher knowledge and judgement form the basis of all teaching, it might be possible to argue that these are the only important aspects of teaching. This might seem an odd step, but there are those who believe in the centrality of knowledge to education who reject almost any discussion of the most effective ways to teach, rather than of what to teach. In particular, they reject the use of research to establish how best to teach and how best to learn. For teaching to be informed by evidence of what works is, from this point of view, a distraction from teaching informed by judgements of what is worthwhile. This may seem to be a false dichotomy, but it is the best (and I think fairest) description I can give of the position of those who consider themselves to be advocates of knowledge and teacher authority who reject the use of evidence and research to inform teaching.  However, even though I think this is probably the best possible case against being informed by evidence that a traditionalist teacher can give, I still think it goes nowhere towards discounting the value of research into how memory works.

But I do think the simplified argument for traditionalism has an appeal. I think most traditionalists (and also many progressives) are very suspicious of “instrumentalist” views of education. The idea that education is a means to an end (or ends) that is (or are) not inherently an aspect of education can lead to many dubious suggestions about what and how to teach. By arguing that we should approach education as a goal in its own right, not a means to some other social, political, economic, moral or religious goal we avoid many bad ideas. I think, however, this may have led to an excessive anti-instrumentalism that also seeks to reject any intellectual goals for education. There may be a point of view that people like me are giving too much ground over to the progressives. My talk of intellectual development may have created a space where people start talking of creativity, deep understanding, critical thinking, higher order thinking, independent thinking, i.e. all the vague terms that progressives use to distinguish their view of the intellect from one that revolves around knowledge. From this point of view, I am simply not traditionalist enough; I lack true faith in the importance of knowledge. My defence, however, would be to ask where would the most extreme anti-instrumentalism actually lead? Could we actually argue that knowledge serves no purpose? I think that in eliminating all space for instrumentalism in the argument for knowledge we would end up having to argue that we gain nothing from knowledge. We’d have to argue that it does not give us the capacity for anything greater than we could achieve without it. We’d insist that it gave us no insight, wisdom or happiness. We’d claim that we gained no moral, spiritual, intellectual, social or practical advantage from it. In doing so, we’d have eliminated many arguments against knowledge, but only by accepting that there is no particular reason knowledge had value to us in the first place.


The Problem With Knowledge Part 1

February 8, 2015

Because progressive education is actually a fairly loose set of ideas, and ones which are constantly represented as something new rather than the continuation of old arguments, traditionalism seems very monolithic and coherent by comparison. While there may be those who think traditionalism in education is about corporal punishment or selection, it is fair to assume that somebody is a traditionalist, if they see the following beliefs as central to the educational enterprise:

  1. There is a body of knowledge (a tradition) that is to be passed on;
  2. The teacher has the legitimate authority, and a personal responsibility, to do this;
  3. It is generally best to do so by direct means (such as explicit instruction or repeated practice).

Progressives will often seek to fudge some of this, usually redefining some of the words (“authority” or “knowledge” are particularly prone to this); adding qualifiers that actually undermine the points or claiming that they can’t be progressive if they acknowledge some subset of the points. However, it’s usually fairly clear what is a traditionalist point of view. Attempts to subdivide this into distinct ideologies have been fairly unsuccessful and largely ad hominem. The age, contemporary prominence, willingness to refer to science and empirical evidence, gender, routes into training, subject, years of time spent teaching, and political affiliations have all been used to attempt to identify supposedly important differences between traditionalists with the hope of identifying one group as a passing “neo-traditionalist” fad rather than the re-emergence of old arguments that had been temporarily suppressed in recent years.

But while I reject the idea that traditionalism of today is of some different stripe to the traditionalism of the past, and will not look for generational differences, I do wonder if there are fundamental disagreements that might be important among those who, nevertheless, still subscribe to the axioms of traditionalism I identified above. In particular, I have started to wonder about the aims of traditional education.

Progressive education has always adopted new aims, and recycled its old ones. So much so that lists of the aims for schools written by progressives can seem almost endless (e.g. our old National Curriculum or Every Child Matters) and yet say very little about anything that is clearly the responsibility of teachers rather than parents. Progressives frequently disagree on what education is meant to achieve, or alternatively they accept that it has many purposes and refuse to acknowledge the necessity of choosing between them. By contrast, because traditionalists support knowledge-based education, there is quite a clear belief that education is about the academic and the intellectual, and I had assumed that this limited the scope for disagreement. While some caricatured traditionalism as being about passing tests (an utter straw man) and others have suggested it is about the needs of the economy (a position I suspect might actually be held by a handful of traditionalists, but still far more common among progressives) most traditionalists seemed fairly consistent. While some traditionalists considered knowledge to be “power” or “capital” I could still accept those as referring to the powerful, or well-endowed, intellect that resulted from knowledge. So much so that I, perhaps, had failed to realise that not all traditionalists agreed with my position, which I shall now elaborate.

My position, (which I have laid out at length before) is that just as it is better to be healthier, or physically fitter, it is better to be cleverer. My position is that there is an intellectual domain, familiar to all of humanity, and it is a good thing to have a more developed intellect. My belief is that this development, this process of making kids cleverer, is as clearly the purpose of education, as it is the purpose of a hospital to make people well, or a gym to help people get fit. Trying to nail down a specific purpose for being cleverer is as pointless to me as trying to find one for being healthy or physically fit. Education might help you get a job, but just as a hospital has not failed if a patient they treated is well but doesn’t return to work, a school has not failed if their students do not take particular career opportunities. Similarly, our personal lives and future happiness might be affected by our teachers and our doctors, but they have no responsibility for any aspect of them that is not derived from our intellects or our health, respectively. I valued cleverness for its own sake, and if I accepted it as having any instrumental value it was in the broadest possible terms. It might give one more humanity, autonomy or opportunity but these were remarkably generic values rather than particularly specific ends for education.

By contrast, I valued knowledge, not for its own sake, but because I was convinced by specific arguments that knowing things makes us cleverer. Precisely what we need to know might vary between cultures, but knowing more of those thoughts, ideas and discoveries that are considered best in one’s culture made one cleverer by the standards of one’s culture. And it is here that I think there might be other traditionalists who disagree. I think there might be traditionalists who, while being equally sceptical about education as a means to the non-academic ends so beloved of progressives, might actually think that I have gone too far by seeing knowledge as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I think there are some traditionalists who value knowledge because it is worth knowing for its own sake, rather than because knowing it leads to a developed intellect. I consider thinking, rather than knowing alone, to be the highest end of education, I’m just convinced that knowing leads to thinking.

In my next post, I will explain why I have come to believe this difference actually matters.


Nick Hassey’s Views on The College Of Teaching

February 5, 2015

Every so often there’s a comment posted on my blog that’s so brilliant, and so long, that it deserves to be a blogpost in its own right. This one from my last post is by Nick Hassey, who I assume is the researcher with that name who works for Teach First, rather than some completely different person with the same name. Apologies if I have got that wrong. Also, apologies if you have read this already. And thanks, Nick.

A college of teaching should be where school teachers set out what support and training they need, what that support should look like to be of most use to them, and for the college to then identify who can provide this support and training. It must be a voice from the front line because this is what is currently so lacking and so urgently needed. It’s absolutely true that universities and others have valuable insight into education and teaching, but the value of other royal colleges is that its where front line staff within a clearly defined field (say GPs) can say what they need undiluted and unfiltered through other organisations and then try and do something to address this need. Excluding people who aren’t teachers from the college isn’t to diminish their work or expertise in the slightest – it’s just to say they are not school teachers and their support and training needs will therefore be different to a professional teaching in a school.

Indeed this is how each of the medical colleges basically started. As medicine developed and became increasingly specialised new colleges were established out of existing ones to provide support and training to particular professionals who had distinct needs. They excluded other professionals not because they thought they were better but because they recognized that they needed specific types of support that the other professionals wouldn’t benefit from. School teachers require different training and support to those in universities and from consultants and from researchers. It’s not to say one is better than the others, just that this college of teaching isn’t the right body for them to receive training and support from. If university staff in education departments don’t feel properly supported in their training needs they should set up their own college.

Others with an interest in education would therefore still be involved, a college isn’t the Freemasons, it’s not all secret knocks and totally closed doors to anyone who isn’t in. Teachers would still debate these ideas with others – the college could even invite people like me to events or to debate with others, or to advise, and non members would probably deliver much of the training selected by the college. But they wouldn’t be in the college as members, because that must be reserved as a place for teachers, and teachers only, to say what their experience is telling them they need. The whole point is to establish teaching as a profession, where professionals set out what they need, not what someone else says they need, so when the decisions come it must come from a body that only consists of people from the profession.

In this sense not only does it have to consist only of teachers but it isn’t clear what anyone who wasn’t a school teacher would even want to be involved – if you’re not school teacher what would you benefit from getting training and support in how to be a teacher? Dealing with people who leave the classroom for a while are easy to deal with as they can just re-join when they return to the classroom.

It’s feasible you could set up a rather complicated constitution that allowed non school teachers to join but not vote but that’s complicated and it’s still not clear what benefit they’d get from being in the college so why would you bother asking them in in the first place? If it’s to keep their voice involved I’ve already explained how they can kept “involved” without the danger of providing membership. The only reason I can think of for why someone who wasn’t a teacher would want to be involved at that point would either because you want to be part of a cool club, in which case – become a teacher – or because you’d be worried somehow teachers on their own might pick the “wrong” type of support or training. However the whole point of a college of teaching is that it’s a body where teachers set out as a profession what they think they need – if you don’t think they’ll make the right choice as professionals then the whole idea of a college is redundant.


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