Three Opinions Best Ignored

April 7, 2010

No doubt there will be some debate over education during the election campaign. It should involve scrutiny of the future plans and past records of all the parties. If we are lucky, issues such as the behaviour crisis, the dumbing down of teaching and exams, and the level of paperwork and bureaucracy will be raised.

However, there are three opinions that will make me put my palm to my forehead. They are more likely to be expressed by journalists, “experts” and insufferable middle class people presented as examples of public opinion, than by politicians but they come up again and again. They are:

Opinion 1: The problem with education in England is the power and influence of the teaching unions.

An opinion often expressed by people under the impression that the teaching unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, or by people who get their opinions from Americans on the internet. The claim is that education policy is at best severely constrained, and at worst dictated, by ideologically driven unions.

The problem with this theory is that our teaching unions are crap. Properly crap. There are too many of them and they spend their time fighting each other not influencing policy. The next education secretary could announce that every day he is personally going to beat a teacher to death with a rolled up DCSF circular live on Teachers TV and the only response would be the NUT demanding consideration of the workload implications of death and the NASUWT insisting that, although they welcome the move, it should be reviewed after six months.

Our unions are incapable of working together effectively; incapable of distinguishing between the interests of different types of teacher; incapable of identifying the most important issue (clue: it’s behaviour); incapable of enforcing even those working conditions which the government has agreed to; incapable of identifying issues where action is worthwhile; incapable of organising effective industrial action, and incapable of presenting themselves as responsible stakeholders rather than barking loons to the public.

Sometimes it is claimed that unions block bad teachers from being sacked. Nobody ever gives an example of a union going on strike to protect a bad teacher. Invariably, the only thing unions do to protect bad teachers is supporting their members’ legal rights and protections, i.e. rules that the government have already agreed to. Unless you accept that people should be sacked in defiance of the rules this is hardly a major intervention or an illegitimate influence.

Another claim is that the ridiculous politics of some of the unions affects government policy. Apart from the sheer naivety about how politicians make policy, it also seems to be based on ignorance of the teaching unions. They are not affiliated to the Labour Party. They are not noticeably sympathetic to Labour (beyond the fact that the last Tory government managed to do a spectacularly good job of alienating teachers). Although there is a sizeable leftwing caucus in the NUT it is noted by its hostility to the government and its support for fringe leftwing parties. The policies of the unions are often as silly as the policies of government but they certainly aren’t the same policies. The unions are obsessed with getting rid of exams. The government is obsessed with setting targets based on exam results. The unions are (I’m glad to say) against increases in workload, the government is in favour. The unions are preoccupied with making all schools the same. All the political parties are preoccupied with inventing more and more different types of schools.

Opinion 2: Vocational qualifications should be given parity of esteem.

This is an opinion with a less obvious political bias and is expressed by people (who should know better) from all points on the political spectrum. Simply put, the idea is that so many school leavers are unemployable, not because of their lack of academic skills or poor attitude, but that they haven’t spent enough time doing courses to prepare them for the world of work. When it is observed that to a large extent people don’t want to do vocational courses, and employers don’t actually want to employ people who have done the courses, then it is claimed that this is due to snobbery, and that the problem is simply a lack of esteem being given to the courses rather than any inherent problem with the vocational courses.

Of course, there is no problem with esteem for vocational courses simply as a result of them being vocational. If your vocational training happened to be the professional training of a doctor or lawyer (I’d better not mention teachers here) then people have plenty of esteem for your skills and training. This is because, although vocational, these are as challenging as (or more challenging than) most purely academic options. People have no problem with showing respect for vocational options where they are as demanding as the academic options. Similarly, nobody thinks a degree in engineering (despite its strong vocational elements) is somehow inferior to a degree in feminist theory, or for that matter that a GCSE in drama is better than a City and Guilds in structural engineering.

The problem is that esteem is related to difficulty and rigour. Where “vocational” simply specifies “useful for employment” then it carries no stigma. However, the lack of esteem for vocational qualifications has a different origin. It comes from the idea that instead of some people being smarter than others, there are “academic” people and “vocational people”. Now while it is true that some people’s intelligence might be shown more easily in a practical activity than a written one, or vice versa, there simply isn’t a general divide. Somebody who is academically weak is not especially likely to be good at practical activities. Somebody who is good at practical activities and making things with their hands is not especially likely to be poor at academic work. Perhaps there are two types of intelligence here (likely), perhaps they are independent of each other (unlikely, but certainly there are plenty of people who show one without the other) but what is most certainly not the case is that they are negatively correlated. Failure at academic qualifications does not suggest that success at vocational ones is likely. Vocational qualifications aimed at those incapable of academic qualifications cannot simply be an “alternative pathway” deserving of equal status, they will always be a mark of academic weakness. You cannot avoid this. The only way for vocational qualifications to have status is to be in addition, not instead of, academic ones. Vocational qualifications cannot be for those who lack academic smarts, simply because the key academic skills of reading, writing, calculating and thinking are also highly desirable vocational skills.

Simply put, vocational qualifications cannot be dumbed-down qualifications aimed at other people’s children, and still be of equal status with academic qualifications. They can be equally demanding and equally high status. They can be different in the extent of their demands and be of different status. Vocational qualifications can’t be inferior but equal.

Opinion 3: There is too much rote memorisation in schools.

It is a standard line for those who simply don’t have a clue about what is happening in schools, but do have a general inclination to dumb down, to complain that schools are biased towards memorising content rather than concentrating on understanding, and thinking skills (or worse, social skills and self-esteem). Of course, this is based on an old classic. Anyone who actually looks at the issue properly, whether from the point of view of philosophy or psychology, soon realises that you cannot separate knowledge from understanding in this way and simply teach one without the other. You understand more, and think more effectively about a topic the more you remember about it; you remember more about a topic the more you think about it. There aren’t really generic thinking skills that apply regardless of topic, and no amount of new technology can avoid the need for knowledge. You cannot become good at adding and subtracting fractions without knowing your times tables; you cannot analyse historical events without knowing the facts about what happened when.

Now this argument about knowledge and understanding is all background (I’m sure I’ve covered it before and I’m sure I will cover it again.) My specific concern is with the ludicrous claim that, even after decades of dumbing down, child-centred learning and all the rest, schools still focus on learning by rote. Partly, this is simply the favourite myth of the educational radical who, in order to hide the failure of progressive education, claims it has never been tried. To these people schools are still basically Victorian, and the appalling results of our schools system simply reflect this, rather than a reality of, except for one or two brief interruptions, decades of progressive teaching methods.

“Ah”, they cry: “How can the system be based on anything other than rote memorisation when you look at all the exams kids have to do now and all the time they spend cramming for them?”

“Bollocks!” I cry back.

Something that never seems to enter this debate is the fact that the tide has turned against actual exams in the last decade or so. Far from students being examined more than ever, Key Stage 3 exams have been abolished, and the number of GCSEs has been drastically reduced by the introduction of worthless, coursework based vocational qualifications which are never examined. The demands of the examination system have never been lower.

More importantly, those exams that exist are not focussed on memorisation, far from it. SATs are designed to be tests of thinking skills and understanding, not rote memorisation. GCSEs are now going the same way with the introduction of “functional skills”. The reason kids spend so much time preparing for exams is not in order to get them to memorise more knowledge, but because the exams don’t test knowledge well and so end up testing exam technique instead. If you could do well on the exams simply by learning a body of knowledge, schools would spend more time teaching knowledge and less time preparing for examinations. The culture of exam training is opposed to a culture of rote memorisation, not part of it.


  1. A very interesting post, once again. I am curious. I agree with a great deal of what you say. Particularly that the failure to manage distracting, disruptive and destructive behaviour is the most significant issue in modern secondary education.

    I am curious, however, do you believe that the curriculum should be identical or very similar for all children in mainstream provision?

    • I believe that there is a body of knowledge to be passed on to all. I am reluctant to say the curriculum should be identical, because it is inevitable that some can learn more than others, and specialisation will have to occur eventuality.

      But I am fundamentally opposed to the idea that our intellectual inheritance is only for a certain type of student and the rest can do something with their hands.

      • “But I am fundamentally opposed to the idea that our intellectual inheritance is only for a certain type of student and the rest can do something with their hands.”

        This is a lovely quote and shows and impassioned belief in the value of academic knowledge. I like what you say and I agree that all children should be given the opportunity to access a traditional academic curriculum. It would also be hypocritical for me to say that all learning is equal having spent seven years in university education.

        However, I do not beleive that trying to coerce teenagers into learning a particular curriculum will ever be successful. Knowledge, wisdom and understanding are indeed gifts but it is impossible to force someone to accept a gift.

        Moreover, manual and practical skills may require less effort and intellectual skill but they are required nonetheless. It is for these reasons I will not be trying to repair my own car, despite my extensive education.

        • “However, I do not beleive that trying to coerce teenagers into learning a particular curriculum will ever be successful.”

          I disagree. I think it is unavoidable. If they only learn what they want to learn they will learn very little.

          “Moreover, manual and practical skills may require less effort and intellectual skill but they are required nonetheless.”

          Not instead of academic knowledge and skills. Also if the skills are learnt on the basis that they require less effort or intellect they will not be learnt well.

          • I should add to my initial comment that coercion and punishment/sanction, to a certain extent, are essential parts of the education system. I also agree that, if children only learn what they want to learn they will learn very little and that a school should sanction transgressions related to learning (e.g. talking in class, bullying, vandalism, disruption).

            However, I do not believe that you can force someone to value something.

            Having spent some time in the developing world I saw children who were motivated to learn because they believed that learning was good and that education was a privilege. They were not particularly frightened of punishment. Moreover, each child knew that whatever punishment the school could dish out would be insignificant compared to the disappointment of their parents.

            I am not convinced that a system which only motivates by repeatedly punishing failure to engage with or succeed in academic learning will lead to positive outcomes among the most disaffected and marginalised children.

            Another question, are you going to continue using your time to debate invisible, inconsequential people online or are you going to write a book or start a campaign? I hope so.

            • I accept that you can’t force people to value education. You can, however, ensure that a classroom is a place where you are expected to act as if you do value education and where effort is expected and that, if not ideal, is still successful.

  2. A good post; and if I might add a bit.
    Op 1. There are more bad teachers than the Unions, or their colleagues, are prepared to admit. It can be argued that most non-curricular Government education policy (all parties) has been aimed at getting rid of the bad ones. I would estimate this to be around 5-10% of the profession from personal experience, and most other studies I’ve read seem to agree on this. If we could get rid of the bad ones, the Government might then trust us to do the job our way, because we then all can do the job. This problem is the same for most professions. Doctors are better than most at weeding out failures. Lawyers are awful at it because (as politicians)they get to make the laws. Pilots are best because the bad ones either die, or get thrown out by the good pilots because they don’t want to die with them. The GTC in practice is a joke, especially in this respect.
    Op 2 You can’t force people to respect something they don’t want to, anymore than you can force democracy onto the Afghans. If respected people have the qual’s, then people will respect the qual’s. If the muppet who’s just bodged your car repair has a GNVQ certificate on the wall behind him, then people won’t respect GNVQs.
    Op 3 Rote learning IS increasing due to the nature of Government testing / exams, because it’s the best way to pass them. Indeed, it’s becoming the only way to pass GCSE Science because the questions/specs are rubbish (Search: “Wellington Grey” for the details). KS3 was not abolished. It was abandoned because the Govt couldn’t find another supplier in time. There’s a world of difference. Their overcontrolling attitude hasn’t changed. Rote learning of exam techniques rather than content is still rote learning.
    OK, that was a bit more than a bit.

    • I think the bad teachers thing is a red herring, not because there aren’t many bad teachers, but because except for a few drunks and crazies (admittedly I hear there are more of these in some regions, e.g. London, than others) most of the bad teachers have been trained to be bad and rewarded for being bad. Any powers for getting rid of bad teachers are as likely to be used by the bad to get rid of the good than the other way round.

      With regard to rote learning, I take the point that some exam practice might be by rote, but you cannot use the extent to which exam practice exists to judge the amount of rote learning. Memorising times tables, sounds of letters, lists of dates, verb conjugations etc. are not given great emphasis in our system, but are obviously where rote is most important. Meanwhile plenty of exam practise is simply old exam paper after old exam paper. Given how I have to fight to get more rote learning into my lessons I find it hard to believe it is increasing.

      • I agree with both your reason why there are bad teachers, and with the risk of misuse of powers. This still doesn’t change my opinion that there are a significant number of bad teachers and that a lot of government interference would go away if we, as a profession, fixed it. When was the last time you heard the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) mentioned in the news? Never, I should think; and I’ll bet the Minister for Transport only know where CAA HQ is because they invite him round for tea once a year. Ultimately, I agree with your main piece point is that bad education managers (most educators, like most doctors, are bad managers because they’ve had no training) can’t use the exiesting procedures correctly to get rid of bad teachers.
        I disagree with your points about exam practice. Careful analysis of exam papers has shown me that GCSE science is now best taught by significant amounts of rote learning. I tried this with 2 groups in the GCSE ISAs (practicals)in 2008. One group got an A/A* rate of 58% viz 39% for the same group in other sciences. The other group averaged more than a grade higher than the higher ability group. All other factors the same.

        • “I disagree with your points about exam practice. Careful analysis of exam papers has shown me that GCSE science is now best taught by significant amounts of rote learning.”

          That’s not disagreeing with my point at all. I believe rote learning of certain material is an important part of exam success and can’t be separated from the process of developing understanding.

          But that doesn’t mean that the importance given to exam targets is any kind of proxy for the amount of rote learning.

  3. Interesting that you mention exam technique as a significant directive in education as my experience is that what I was once told was exam technique isn’t being taught at all.

    We seem to do a lot of exam practice, but I’ve yet to see actual technique being taught. My own attempts to teach it are resisted by the kids as I think I’m seen as a bit of an old git going on about stuff they don’t think is relevant as they think they know how to take exams.

    And then, when I mark the mock papers I see so many marks thrown away by “learners” by poor technique. Things like not checking mental maths in a calculator paper; not bothering to read the whole paper and so not noticing that half the answer to a question was actually given away by the examiner in the way another question was put.

    Kids tell me they “don’t have time” to follow the techniques I suggest. They always seem to have half an hour to doodle on the paper at the end of the exam though.

  4. thats because children, and you will have to forgive my lapsing into technical phraseology, are… twats

    and its not such a bad thing. I was one when I was younger, so were you so was anyone reading this page. And thats ok becuase its a right of passage.

    as you absorb wisdom and experience and perspective you become hopefully, less of one.

    thats why kids should not run schools and why you, Paul are right to try and give them that skill. Pity they are too silly to appreciate your efforts.

    Of course, in andrew’s ideal school it wouldnt be a problem because they would do what you ask simply because you ask it.

    thats why disicpline is important for its own sake. a class ready to as its asked will make 20 times the progress as the class that has to be cajoled or tricked or ‘enthused’ into learning.

    and if this became mantra 70% of the issues we moan about would dissappear.

  5. The difference between offering opportunities for practice and teaching technique is very important. As with exams, so with thinking or learning – nowhere near enough teachers actually teach it. In my experience, this is because they haven’t been taught how to themselves. Makes you wonder what they get up to on PGCEs. Of course, max 20 per class and basic discipline are essential. If you don’t teach in the independent/grammar sector yet – time to move!

  6. I wouldn’t mind if vocational qualifications were given parity. What we have at the moment is that they are worth more! A pass at BTEC requires pitifully little and if you twiddle your thumbs defining stuff for long enough you can have 4 of them. Even the FE colleges know they are worthless and want a merit if you want to progress onto a level 3 course.

    What is more you have ‘vocational’ versions of the same practical subjects like sport instead of GCSE PE. You spend more time in school on the practical side of PE with a GCSE than with a BTEC sport – yet the BTEC will be sold as vocational ergo practical – but it involves more writing (albeit mind numbingly easy writing) but more of it.

  7. Tater Jnr has a BTEC in Music. The school she went to now no longer even offers the GCSE. The BTEC is “worth” 2 GCSEs. That value is to the school, in terms of league table points. It is actually worth *less* to the student than the GCSE would be, as to be accepted onto the AS Music course at college they checked that she had studied Music Theory up to ABRSM grade 5, something they didn’t bother checking with those who had the GCSE. Interesting too that the BTEC worth 2 GCSEs is studied (if that’s the right word) in the same amount of time as a single GCSE.
    Add to this the “Adult Literacy and Numeracy” that some students take online which supposedly count as English or Maths at grade C or above even though they are taken by students who couldn’t get the English or Maths grade, Functional Skills courses equivalent to three quarters of a GCSE in things like Working With Others, and you begin to wonder if any comparison between schools means anything. Now if there was a single examining body, and the league tables were based only on compulsory elements which all students took…

  8. Excellent post. Particularly liked the part about the minimum of “academic” achievement being essential in “vocational” training. Tradesmen who are quick thinking, articulate and numerate, as well as being good at their trade, are respected and well paid. I also agree with you about the unions (in the UK and in France). Without a united front to identify the real problems and plug for the real solutions rather politically correct palliatives, no government is likely to implement the right reforms.

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