Just to Sum Up…

March 20, 2010

A thread on a forum I occasionally visit recently asked exactly how people would like to reform the education system.

I think it is worth repeating my answer here, although inevitably it does cover points I have made before.

The basic problem with the educational system that I work in is a lack of purpose. Schools are no longer identified as being there to make children smarter. They are instead viewed as an attempt to do something halfway between socialisation and changing (or denying) human nature. Efforts are made to make young people fit society, either by looking at the culture they come from and keeping their aspirations low enough to fit in, or by speculating about what society should be like and attempting to protect them from the harsh realities of real life, particularly those related to their actions having consequences, in the hope that they will thereby naturally become the responsible enlightened citizens of a utopian society uncorrupted by the influence of adults.

Because learning knowledge is not valued, then children who refuse to learn, and even stop others from learning are tolerated. On top of this, because it is widely believed that human nature is basically good, bad behaviour is seen as morally neutral and a result of either social problems, medical problems or a failure of teachers to socialise the child. Along with attempts to promote the autonomy of students, this has all resulted in a behaviour crisis which means that schools are battlegrounds and teaching (in the sense of passing on knowledge) is a struggle. Students will not expect to learn or to have to obey and will often react with verbal abuse and intimidation to any adult who tries to get them to learn.

In an educational culture where there is little knowledge to be passed on and a view that student autonomy is more important than student knowledge, teaching has inevitably been replaced with the organisation of activities. The teacher is no longer an authority figure either socially or academically. Teachers are not recruited or rewarded for academic ability; they are not expected to have academic expertise and they are not meant to be directing students. The modern teacher is there to encourage learning not to lead it. It is good to appeal to their interests; support their relationships with their peers, and persuade them that maybe some learning is, if they want it, a good thing. It is bad to tell them what to do, to put pressure on them or to cause them to suffer the consequences of their actions. Inevitably this has resulted in teachers whose strategies are to appease the worst behaved or create the impression of enjoyable classroom activity.

The lack of a clear aim for schools has inevitably resulted in a multi-layered bureaucracy carrying out contradictory tasks all pushing and pulling the education system in different ways. There are pressures to improve exam results, and there are pressures to ignore them and to make every child happy instead. There are pressures to improve learning and there are pressures to replace learning with entertainment. There are pressures to measure academic progress and pressures to make assessment less objective. There are pressures to teach effectively, and pressures to incorporate gimmicks and fads into classroom practice.

All these pressures result in a continual cycle of ineffective initiatives and fads with different funding schemes. Often bad ideas are recylcled endlessly as the latest “scientific” advance in teaching. In a single school a teacher might be asked to incorporate AfL, BLP, P4C, APP, WALT, WILF, Brain Gym and SEAL into their lessons. The initiatives are enforced by compulsory observations of teachers; continual retraining of teachers and a constant demand for ever more paperwork and documentation. This process is run by legions of functionaries who have no particular talent other than the capacity to regurgitate the latest nonsense and the ability to interefere at every level. So destructive is this bureaucracy that politicians are keener to create new structures (academies, trust schools, foundation schools) partially outside of the bureaucracy than to try to reform it.

My suggestions to reform the mess:

  • Stop all initiatives that interfere directly in classroom practice or have non-academic aims.
  • End the policy of inclusion of badly behaved children.
  • Child support payments to be dependent on children attending school and cooperating with the school.
  • Remove all non-academic targets and replace with one single “adequacy” threshold for academic achievement.
  • Consolidate the funding streams and the layers of bureaucracy.
  • Reward teachers for academic expertise.
  • Make all paperwork optional unless it is required for something obviously unavoidable like student safety or exam entry.
  • OFSTED to inspect only to see if schools are safe and orderly.

The thread can be found here.



  1. Old Andrew for Education Secretary !

  2. Seconded!

    • thirded.

  3. Absolutely.
    ..and I have found where I all these things are possible.
    I am emigrating to Canada and will be teaching 18 year olds in their freshman year at University.
    Problem solved – for me.

  4. […] rules that require students to behave in a civil and mature manner.” This is exactly the point repeatedly made by a secondary school teacher in Britain who blogs at Scenes from the […]

  5. It is so disheartening that teachers can easily and simply come up with solutions to reform education without white papers, meetings, huge pay packets and endless, endless meetings and brainstorms. And yet, the people in government who are actually charged with reforming education have no educational expertise – they ask us to be experts but are not experts themselves. They expect elitism in teaching – but settle for a depresssingly less than mediocre 30% A-C Eng and Maths GCSE target; they ask us to be parents and guidance counselors for kids that we can’t touch, hug, discipline or support. They expect us to do more work in the same amount of time, and still – after so many years have proved otherwise – they force more and more pretty sounding, badly acronymned initiatives on us, believing that this one, this one, will solve everything. And it never, ever does.

  6. A really interesting post. I agree that many secondary schools are unfit for purpose. It sometimes seems like a Phyrric victory in battling to retain students who seek to damage the very system which is attempting to educate them.

    The government is, however, in a cleft stick. It cannot afford to educate a large volume of excluded students and it cannot afford, financially or morally, to allow young people to be uneducated. I will watch with interest the Tories attempts to address issues of behaviour in schools. I imagine that any support for increased exclusion will wane when they realise how much it will cost.

    • I agree that the cost of separating those children who are merely badly-brought-up and/or of unpleasant disposition from those who have a genuine disorder to account for their poor behaviour is prohibitive, especially given the astronomical rise in the numbers of the former.

      But if you try to withhold Child Benefit for non-cooperation in school, you will have a flood of applications for assessment as parents try to prove that there’s summat wrong wi’t’lad rather than their being crap parents who stand to lose money by it.

  7. http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6038187

    not sure which post I should put this link on. I thought it amusing and rang true. feel free to move it if u like

  8. Sorry to post so late to this, but I’m new to the blog. Can you clarify what you mean by “Reward teachers for academic expertise”?

    How are you assessing academic expertise here: level and class of educational qualifications? Does amount and type of CPD come into this?

    I’ve met plenty of very clever, highly qualified teachers who aren’t really very good at teaching, and those who are the opposite. How do they fit in to this?

    Interesting and thought-provoking blog though…thanks.

    • Academic expertise was indeed a reference to qualifications.

      This is for a number of reasons:

      1) Fluency in one’s subject is the building block for excellent teaching. It is not sufficient (there are highly qualified but incompetent teachers, although they are considerably rarer than the anecdotes suggest) but it is necessary to really stretch students or to allow spontaneity in lessons.

      2) Teachers with a stronger academic background would be less likely to be fooled by pseudo-science and crankery from self-appointed “experts” and more able to find out solid information about the science, philosophy and history of education to guide their practice.

      3) Outside the poshest schools, there is often an anti-intellectual culture in schools. Teachers should be people who genuinely value learning rather than people who muddled through a degree and have since decided that their common sense makes up for their lack of “book-smarts”. I would happily kill the next teacher I hear trying to get “down with the kids” by saying “I was never good at maths when I was at school” or “it’s okay if you can’t spell”. School should be a place where children from even the most deprived backgrounds can meet adults with top class intellects.

      CPD, on the other hand is usually worthless.

  9. i have to concur with the point dan makes.
    new entrants are alreasy rewarded with 2 extra spine points if they have a good degree.
    so with that continous 2 year advantage over 8 years thats £16,000 for just having a good degree- not to be sniffed at.
    I would be wary of just hiring very academically able staff only because I, like dan, have very often found that highly academic teachers often lack the social skills and emotional intelligance to operate well in the classroom.
    In my experience this has been almost universally true for English, Maths, Science, History, Geography and the languages.
    In very well behaved, high acheiving schools such teachers can cope but for the other 95% of schools/children such teachers are often the ones neeeding the most support and have an awful time.
    I was once at school where the science dept went through 4 doctors in 2 terms. When i left the headteacher had a secret policy of not hiring ‘doctors’ at all- it just never worked out in any dept.
    ps if theres any phD teachers out there please dont be offended- Im generalising and I personally know an outstanding teacher with a phD. (same goes with those with 1st class honours)

    • “new entrants are alreasy rewarded with 2 extra spine points if they have a good degree.”

      Since when?

      “In very well behaved, high acheiving schools such teachers can cope but for the other 95% of schools/children such teachers are often the ones neeeding the most support and have an awful time.”

      I have no doubt highly qualified teachers are often the first to leave battleground schools. I just think that this is usually a problem with the schools not the teachers. My experience is that highly qualified teachers struggle because they don’t acquiesce in dumbing-down, edutainment or trying to be the kids’ friend. This is often portrayed as a lack of soical skills or practical common sense, but actually it comes down to prioritising teaching.

      We should be organising schools so that teachers don’t need to have “social skills” and “emotional intelligence” to teach a subject. We should be organising schools around the idea that teachers are people who know things that are worth learning and can explain them well. If someone is knowledgable but somehow still bad at explaining that knowledge then, fair enough, teaching isn’t for them. But if they seem more interested in teaching their subject than being a substitute parent then we need more of them in our schools. Our education system is in the state it is because relationships have been put above teaching and learning in schools.

    • The spine-point thing used to be the case, until heads got notified about five years ago that this was at their discretion, not mandatory. Three years ago I had to sit through a headteacher venting spleen at the first staff meeting of the year, over the cheek of an NQT wanting to join at MS2. Names weren’t named, but there was only one NQT joining the school that year.

  10. I’m not really convinced, I have to say.

    I can’t really argue with your point that “We should be organising schools around the idea that teachers are people who know things that are worth learning and can explain them well” but that can’t be the only idea we use. Shouldn’t we also recognise that relationships are important to learning too?

    I’m not talking about trying to bodypop as you parse a clause, or freestyling a rap as you work out a quadratic equation on the board, but showing some awareness that young people often need different ways into the knowledge that they will come to value and that a good teacher will offer different entrance points to that knowledge.

    In my experience – and I’m aware that anecdotal evidence is probably the sort of soft-centred quackery you don’t like – some teachers from a highly academic background (not even a majority – I’m not trying to overstate this) don’t really understand how some kids don’t “get” things in the way that they “got” them when they were at school and that it’s not about being stupid, but about needing alternative reference points to triangulate their way to the same destination.

    What worries me about a blanket “reward the most highly qualified” is that it doesn’t recognise classroom ability and we all want really good teachers who know their stuff and can convey it clearly to as many young people as possible.

    As for “CPD, on the other hand is usually worthless” that is just too glib. I’ve been on some brilliant subject-related CPD that has made my teaching much much better. I’ve even been involved in putting on CPD where we’ve got top notch linguists present their most recent research to teachers and students. Whatever that was, it was definitely not useless!

    • “Shouldn’t we also recognise that relationships are important to learning too?”

      I am all for the correct relationship between teacher and pupils. This relationship should be one based on teacher expertise and authority. It should not be based on “emotional intelligence” or “social skills”.

      “I’m not talking about trying to bodypop as you parse a clause, or freestyling a rap as you work out a quadratic equation on the board, but showing some awareness that young people often need different ways into the knowledge that they will come to value and that a good teacher will offer different entrance points to that knowledge.”

      If you mean the ability to assess what a student already knows then fair enough, although I think that academic ability helps a teacher to understand what is or isn’t important within a discipline and, therefore, identify where students will need to concentrate their efforts.

      If, however, you mean nonsense like “learning styles” or the myth that everyone learns differently then I strongly disagree and part of my reason for wanting teachers to be more academic is so as to avoid this sort of nonsense.

      “I’ve been on some brilliant subject-related CPD that has made my teaching much much better.”

      You may be alone in this.

      • CPD slam!

        CPD, when its good, is fun. As you say earlier “Fluency in one’s subject is the building block for excellent teaching”, so when the CPD is delivered by some of the absolute gods of your subject, you just come out of the experience feeling like you can take on the world. Or at least year 9.

        Plus, I am definitely noticing a move away from ‘instant’ coffee at CPD to ‘real’ coffee, which can only be a good thing.

  11. I think the 2 spine advantage for anyone with a 2.1 or better has been around for nearly 20 years. Its something like that. Unless I’m going senile.(not impossible)

    Heaven forbid, anyone should think I’m in favour of dumbing down or appeasing or being ‘their friend’. I have spent a career fighting such nonsense.

    My point was that very academic teachers, those that really love their subject, often have trouble communicating their subject. And I mean real trouble. I know some people that can walk into a tough class and can command enormous respect and can really stretch and challenge their students with the highest standards of discpline. All such people are perceptive and have great people skills. A couple of sharp comments, a little joke, move a couple of kids to a different bench, picking on the right kid, pitching at the right level. All the slights of hand that make a great teacher.

    Often a teacher with weak knowledge can improve their this with study. Its not so easy to teach communication skills to the poor communicator. Well at least in my experience- which is considerable (but not unassailable).

    As regards school structure I would probably go further than most- I’m all for a national code of discipline that would REQUIRE exclusion for certain offences and the abolition of appeals panels. The only appeal being a letter to the headteacher alone. So Im hardly a liberal on such matters.

    • I think the point advantage got phased out in the last restructuring of the pay scale.

      With regard to the subject knowledge issue: I quite agree that there has to be an ability to communicate the knowledge, and I have met people with the knowledge but no ability to communicate it (although more often in academia than in school teaching).

      However, I think it is a myth that the ability to communicate academic knowledge is independent, or negatively correlated, with the extent of that knowledge. On average the better you understand a subject the better you can communicate it. You only have to look at how some brilliant subject teachers stumble their way through PSHE lessons or cover lessons to see the advantages of subject knowledge.

      The point is that, outside the elite schools, subject knowledge is currently hardly valued at all. If anything it is derided. The anecdotes of PhDs who can’t teach are commonplace, but the teachers with PhDs in battleground schools are actually very rare and usually special cases (people who used to work in grammar schools but got moved on for turning up drunk; people who cannot speak English clearly; supply teachers who are often teaching out of their speciality).

      I do think subject knowledge should be rewarded. Obviously, this is a matter of degree. It is not the most important factor – successful teaching experience is – and it is not enough on its own. However, subject knowledge is more important than generic (but not subject-related) communication skills and should be considered 100 times more important than some of the “soft skills” which usually amount to trying to manipulate rather than teach the kids.

      I should probably write this up as a proper blog post. I think part of the issue here is the concept of the failed or failing teacher. In our current system then we tend to view the worst teachers as those who are most stressed, depressed or most upset by the poor behaviour and low expectations. I actually don’t think these are the worst teachers. I think these are often people with the greatest potential – people who would thrive in a decent school or a decent education system. If our notion of teaching was simply based on the ability to teach, rather than to survive in chaos and put on a show for observers, then I think subject knowledge would be valued more highly, as it already is in the most successful schools and the most succesful education systems. I don’t want to be seen as making the claim that in our current mess then subject knowledge is a huge advantage. However, in a functioning system it would be more important. Upping the academic ability of teachers should make a difference to educational culture.

      As a further point, I agree that subject knowledge is something that can be developed while teaching. I think the current system does not adequately provide incentive for this. My argument here is not that we should drive out the teachers with lesser qualifications, but that we should create a culture where what a teacher knows is valuable and teachers want to find out more about their subject and about education and there is a pay-off for doing so. There are large departments in schools where not one teacher has a good degree in the relevant subject. There are A-level classes where most kids get E or below because the teacher simply doesn’t have the ability to teach it but is the most “senior” person in the department. There are teachers who have been rejected for jobs because they are too qualified for tough schools. This cannot be right.

  12. […] = 'wpp-256'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true,"ui_language":"en"};I came across this article I’d printed out last year, and I want to write about how it compares with Japanese education: […]

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