We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For

November 28, 2009

I recently received the following email:

“Hi Andrew,

Sorry for the direct email. I just came across your blog https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ and I wondered if I could run something past you that might interest you. I’m working on a landmark independent documentary film that is coming out on education and I wondered might it be of interest for your blog.

You can watch/download the trailer here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUODHGy60no

The film, titled ‘We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For’, was inspired and guided by Lord Puttnam and Sir Michael Barber and explores the education system in the UK and asks whether the current system provides young people with the opportunity to develop their talents. High-profile figures sharing their personal experiences and views include Sir Richard Branson, Germaine Greer, Henry Winkler, Bill Bryson, Sir Ken Robinson and a wide range of education experts from around the world.

This thought-provoking film offers unique insight across generations and nations, and reveals a very inconvenient truth about education. The world is changing rapidly – but our education system is not keeping pace.

‘We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For’ follows the lives of five Swindon-based teenagers and the challenges they face during their education. It reveals the dislocation between our education system and the rapidly changing, globalised world which is increasingly dominated by digital technology, and focuses on the need for fundamental change in teaching and learning

Lord Puttnam said: “I’ve no doubt that ‘We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For’ has the potential to be a powerful catalyst for overdue educational reform. We need to provide all of our young people with an education that motivates them to learn, and enables them to discover what they are good at. ‘We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For’ is intended to act as nothing less than a wake-up call.”

By exploring some of the more innovative approaches to education around the world, the film offers a glimpse of the future. It shows how much more flexible, exciting and engaging learning could be for young people – and how our education system could support them in identifying and making the most of their individual talents.

Following the premiere of ‘We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For’ on Tuesday 17th November the film will be released online on request at http://www.wearethepeoplemovie.com and will also be syndicated free with the Guardian on Saturday 28th November

You can view the trailer here I wondered if you would like to talk about it on your blog?

Thanks James”

I’m happy to oblige, James. Here is my review:

Why Lord Puttnam Can Stick His Stupid Documentary Up His Arse

Despite the hype in some of the publicity, “We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For” is not in any way a film. The Guardian may have distributed it, but didn’t even see fit to mention it on the front cover. (Curiously today’s Guardian did give almost all the space above its masthead to publicising its free “Kings and Queens Wallchart”.) “We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For” is simply a party political broadcast for the ignorance party. It might be messianic about education, but education is about “skills and attitudes” not learning. As a result the traditional school, built as it was for getting the masses to learn knowledge, is utterly outdated. “Doing reading, writing and arithmetic” is mentioned only in a derogatory way. Even “sitting down” is repeatedly condemned.

A succession of voices, who are either representatives of the education establishment or minor celebrities, promote a familiar case. The argument is the usual one for dumbing down. The future is uncertain, therefore all knowledge is outdated and so children must be prepared for their lives by becoming “adaptable”, “flexible” and everything other than knowledgeable. Knowledge is conformity, ignorance is individual. A system that aspires to ensuring that all should have knowledge is repressive. A system that tests that knowledge is wasting time on rote memorisation and missing the big picture of a future in which nobody needs to know anything. The important thing is for students to “question the world around them”, which for some reason is incompatible with being taught how to answer those questions. Children must be interested, creative and have high self-esteem. The last hundred years of educational theory never happened. Education now is like it was in the Victorian era. We have to adopt the ideas that were popular in the US in the twenties and the UK in the sixties because these ideas are new; Summerhill School (founded 1921) is presented as an innovation. Education is about drawing out from children what is already in them rather than giving them new knowledge. Everything must be relevant. Vocational skills aren’t valued enough. If students haven’t learnt enough then it was a mistake to try and teach them. If students haven’t enjoyed learning then it’s pointless. All must have prizes. Henry Winkler and Germaine Greer say so.


What makes it worse is the use of children. Child after child spouts clichés about education. How else can the filmmakers pretend their crap is for the sake of the children? Much concern is shown about the failures of the present system. Uneducated children have been failed by the system, nobody doubts this. But it takes the insanity of the zealot to blame educational failure on the academic focus of the education system, when anybody familiar with our schools can see that there is no academic focus for these children. This is a rant against authority in education, by the kind of people who do have authority in education. This is an argument for failed orthodoxy by presenting it as a radical departure. This is a polemic against academic standards by the kind of people who have already lowered the standards to nothing. This is an attack on the curriculum by the people who gave us the curriculum we have. This is an attempt to blame the failure of the educational system on the very values the system has already abandoned. This is a prolonged assault on a strawman education system that not only doesn’t exist, but would be far better than what we have now if it did exist. This is shameful lies combined with self-righteous sermons.

I am prepared to give some of the participants the benefit of the doubt, they might not have known how their contributions would be used, but too often the people who are already failing the next generation are given a platform to call for more of the same and explain how progressive, radical and compassionate it is to do so. It is such a colossal attempt to shift blame that you almost expect some of the interviewees to suggest that the Jews (or perhaps the freemasons or the Catholic Church) are behind our education system.

My hope is that for every Guardian reader who wastes their time on this call for ignorance justified as compassion, there are a dozen other readers who take the same amount of time to discuss with their children the content of the Kings and Queens Wallchart. The people I am waiting for are people who know enough history to have learnt from it.


  1. That’s interesting. I got the exact same e-mail, as many of us edubloggers no doubt did. I have yet to watch the film but have read positive reviews of it on other blogs. I will reserve my own judgement until I have seen it.

  2. I haven’t seen it yet either, but many of the things you’re saying here strike a real chord with me. I’ve been told repeatedly to “dumb down” some of the stuff I do in my subject (music) – yet I feel I’ve already pared it down to the bare bones. I can’t just sit a kid at a keyboard and say “there you go – get on with it”. Tasks need explanation, kids need to listen and sometimes – shock, horror! – they need to WORK THINGS OUT FOR THEMSELVES. All this crap about how kids today need to know HOW to learn, rather than to acquire knowledge is just that – total crap – especially when you’re dealing with a large number of socially disadvantaged kids who don’t see the value in education and who no doubt come from families who are just the same. Maybe the higher achievers can be taught in that way, but for the kid who is going to end up leaving with below average results, it’s a waste of time, and we should stick to teaching them to read, write and add up.

  3. In the trailer, Germaine Greer says we should not stuff children with rubbish.

    Who could argue with that? Or even say what it means?

    I want kids to have some basic skills with numbers so they have confidence to tackle problems involving numbers.

    Raising their self-esteem might involve me drilling them in repetitive tasks so they then know that they can do that stuff, and that they have a base set of skills they can build on.

    That builds self-esteem.

    I want children who can communicate in good English, and not make themselves look like idiots when they send an email.

    I want children who value getting things right, as when they start work, they will need to get things right, or they will lose their jobs or deliver bad product, which will cost money to put right.

    I want children who care about having achieved things, as that is what builds their self-esteem.

  4. “Knowledge is conformity, ignorance is individual.”

    Absolutely wonderful. If I can’t find an opportunity to use this, I’ll create it.

    “… there is no academic focus for these children. This is a rant against authority in education, by the kind of people who do have authority in education.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. One day I want to see a real ‘radical educator’ stand up and say “It’s the school’s role to take the developing child and introduce her/im to the wide and wonderful world of knowledge.”

  5. Kelvin Throop had something to say about Edge.
    There’s a follow-up post, too.
    I am not an accountant. Anyone care to comment?
    For what it’s worth, I too am sick and tired of people complaining about an overly academic curriculum when I can see little of academic merit it the entire edifice.

  6. I love your blog. I want to post every new entry on the staffroom wall.
    Thank you oldandrew for some reassuring sanity.

  7. “It’s the school’s role to take the developing child and introduce her/im to the wide and wonderful world of knowledge.”

    And if the child says “No thanks”, I’d like to have somewhere provided for him/her that offers training of a non-academic, nor pretending to be so, variety, that means they can be a productive rather than a parasitic member of society.

    Flippin’ ‘eck, I’m back to the tripartite system! You know, the one that the comprehensive system replaced because it turned out, hey!, that all children are not good at the same things, no matter how high-status some of those things turned out to be!


  8. And if the child says “No thanks”, I’d like to have somewhere provided for him/her that offers training of a non-academic, nor pretending to be so, variety, that means they can be a productive rather than a parasitic member of society.

    The trouble with this is that once children are given the right to say “no thanks” to learning they don’t stop saying “no thanks” when given a supposedly more appropriate option.

    I might add that the tripartite system did not involve the students saying “no thanks” to the schools, but the schools saying “no thanks” to the students.

  9. Well-spotted! Yes you are right. No thanks should not be an option to education, but there seems a vigorous reluctance to choose an appropriate route for children unable or unwilling to make it for themselves.

  10. Watched the youtube trailer. When did the Fonz become a authority on education?

    Like a previous poster here I want to pin your blog up in work.

    I work in HE and recognise what you describe so eloquently – Knowledge is conformity, ignorance is individual. My students don’t want to read books. They graze the internet for information. A ‘radical’ colleague has explained to me that this is okay because books are authoritarian and that it is more ‘democratic’ to accept the unscholarly sources on the internet and the unfounded opinions of the students. I seem to remember that once there was an integral relationship between democracy and education, now being stupid is more egalitarian.

    The dismissal of ‘book-learning’ comes at the same time as the library budget has been slashed and the VC has been awarded a 8% pay rise.

  11. I find this discussion really fascinating (and by the way I got that email too!). I recently wrote about what education should be FOR on my blog – as there seems to be such a move away from knowledge towards skills and competencies. Please know that many parents are concerned about a move away from learning too.

  12. While the scientific method of evidence gathering is, by no means a perfect way to make decisions. The world of science, technology and medicine makes great strides yet education flounders. Perhaps because it allows ill qualified people and sloppy research to promote clumsy inference as fact. The hegemony of anti-scientism and mumbo jumbo in educational thought has created a monster. Enough of this fashionable positing by lay people. We need decisions based on structured falsifiable research and the professional experience of experienced practitioners, not the musings of the Fonz.

  13. Spy,

    I keep planning to write something about education research. I think there is a genuine problem with the extent to which teaching is an art not a science. A large part of what we do cannot be judged or demonstrated objectively.

    The problem is that we seem to have gone to the other extreme and ignored the science we do have, blurred the distinction between opinion and research and accepted all opinions, even incoherent and illogical ones, as worthy of consideration.

  14. […] He writes well, with zest and humour. Here’s a good example: someone sent him an email asking him to review the trailer of a documentary about education called We are the People We’ve been Waiting For. […]

  15. I just watched this film and was pleasantly surprised.. I don’t really see how your arguments are founded and it appears that you may well have missed the point a little…

    It has a lot of information that is crucial if we are to evolve and learn to co-operate in future as a race. I advise anybody to watch this film for themselves and make up their own mind – do not let this blog post put you off..

    Love and light

  16. I got invited to the Guardian showing of “We are the people…” because, I presume, they thought I represented Promethean Designs, the manufacturers of interactive whiteboards. In fact, I run the Promethean Trust, and publish (with my wife) the Sound Foundations synthetic phonics programme.

    The educational software industry is heavily involved in promoting ’21st century learning’, which is of at the heart of this film. My hearing aid battery packed in, so I didn’t catch much of the dialogue (or of the debate that followed), but it was such a load of pretentious tosh that I abandoned any thoughts I might have had of engaging the panelists in reasoned debate. The audience consisted almost entirely of the kind of people that Chris Woodhead describes as “the lump”– experts with little, if any, experience at the front of a class. The kind of teacher who decided early on that it was better to regurgitate the received wisdom than to put it into practice.

  17. Very interesting. This blog post (and the ensuing comments section) is indicative of the divide between the film’s message (our education system is horribly outdated and must be reviewed) and the “establishment view” from teachers experienced in the hypodermic needle approach to education.

    The world is changing whether you like it or not, and putting your head in the sand won’t stop it from happening.

    • I think you need to read this again. You appear to have completely missed the content of the argument this post made.

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