Archive for April, 2012


The Future Part 2: Overseas Competition

April 29, 2012
Vodpod videos no longer available.
They took Our Jobs, posted with vodpod

This is the second of a series of posts  looking at attempts to use theories about the future to justify removing or downgrading the amount of knowledge taught. The first part can be found here.

A frequent theme of attempts to justify dumbing-down is the idea that competition from other countries requires a change to the curriculum.

According to Caroline Walters, the “director of People and Policy” at BT:

[China] is just one of the emerging countries -I would say emerged countries – who have a phenomenal capability, and that is who our education system is competing with. Now we already have  -there was a survey, I can’t remember whether it was the end of last week or even yesterday, but it was fairly, very recent in fact where employers are already saying that they prefer graduates from China and India, Latin American countries, not because of their educational prowess but because of the characteristics that they have; they hunger to get on; their creativity and innovation; their energy; characteristics we don’t always see in UK graduates for example. So the rising skills and aspirations of those major countries are driving this new global economy and that means in the UK we are going to have to continually drive up the value chain.

And so:

…if we don’t create populations who are self-learning, who want to learn, we are going to be in real problem because we are moving into very fast-paced change within business and within society generally.

According to Shift Happens UK:

Sometimes size does matter. If you’re one in a million in China, there are 1,300 people just like you. In India, there are 1,100 people just like you. The 5% of the population in China with the highest IQs is greater than the total population of the UK. In India, it’s the top 7%. Translation for teachers: they have more gifted and talented students than we have students. China will soon become the number one English-speaking country in the world.

A terrifying thought isn’t it? Britain may have to compete against China and India for investment and market-share. But this only leads a sensible person to ask “how is this new?” The global economy may well see industries grow, shrink or even die out, however, one of the most basic facts of British history is the extent to which the British economy has been open to trade with the world for centuries. There is nothing new about a globalised economy. During a bout of gloablisation mania in the 1990s Hirst et al (1996) observed:

If we interpret globalisation to mean an open international economy with large and growing flows of trade and capital investment between countries, then the answer to the question [Is globalisation new?] is clearly negative. The international economy has a complex history of relative openness and closure, since a truly integrated world trading system was created in the second half of the nineteenth century. Submarine telegraph from the 1860s onwards connected inter-continental markets. They made possible day-to-day trading and price –making across thousands of miles, a far greater innovation than the advent of electronic trading today. Chicago and London, Melbourne and Manchester were linked in close to real time. Bond markets also became closely inter-connected, and large-scale international lending, both portfolio and direct investment – grew rapidly during this period.

They went on to describe various times of high and low global trade throughout the last 200 years and to conclud that:

The more naïve advocates of rapid and recent ‘globalisation’ have short memories and tend to see the international economy in post 1973 terms. A longer perspective is sobering, not merely for what it reveals about the pre-1914 world economy, but because it shows how volatile, how subject to conjuncture change and how vulnerable to the effects of international conflict the international  economy is. No major regime has lasted more than 30-40 years and periods of considerable openness and growth have been replaced by closure and decline. It would be naïve, therefore, to project current trends towards openness and integration forward as if they are inevitable or irreversible.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to downplay the idea that for any individual industry, overseas competition might be a huge threat, just as overseas trade might be a huge opportunity. Nor do I want to suggest that there are no arguments that government policy should reflect those dangers (and those opportunities). What is simply not credible, however, is that the skills we need to compete involve less academic knowledge than we currently teach. Even assuming that global trade and investment were to increase indefinitely, an international economy alone is no justification for a low content curriculum. International trade seems to call out for knowledge of languages, history and geography as an appropriate background for dealing with people from other countries and cultures. The requirements of commerce call out for a higher level of numeracy and mathematical knowledge. Finally, unless it is assumed that manufacturing is a lost cause, scientific knowledge is also likely to be at a premium. This is not a skills-based curriculum, it is nineteenth century curriculum; unsurprisingly given that the nineteenth century was a time when Britain was heavily committed to an overseas empire and overseas trade.

The argument that the global economy requires less traditional skills seems to depend on the idea that we cannot hope to compete in industries requiring traditional academic knowledge. When the UK version of “Shift Happens“ declares that China has “more gifted and talented students than we have students” the implication is that we cannot compete on the basis of traditional academic skills against a country with so many bright people. There are two obvious reasons to doubt this. Firstly, the same argument would apply to any alternative set of skills. We are also outnumbered by the most creative 5% of the population of China; the most resilient 5%; the 5% with the best social skills, and the 5% who are most inclined to independent learning. There is simply not an obvious set of skills that are relevant to competing against overseas competition. The developing world is often thought of as being unbeatable in manufacturing, but we have also seen in recent years the growth of both a customer services (call-centre) industry and a software development industry in India. There seems to be no clearly defined limit to what skills can, or cannot, be moved overseas.

Secondly, it is a long established result of economic theory that in order to benefit in trade one does not need to be more productive than one’s trading partners in any industry at all. There are benefits to specialisation and trade even with nations who have all the advantages, all you need to benefit through specialisation and trade is to be more productive in one of your industries than in another. There is no economic case to be made for dumbing-down; no trade benefits to ignorance, no sign that only are least intellectual producers can compete internationally. There is simply an argument based on fear, used in the absences of a rational case for reducing knowledge.


Hirst, Paul and Thompson, Grahame, “Globalisation, Ten Frequently Asked Questions and Some Surprising Answers”,  Soundings, Issue 4 Autumn 1996


More Pedagogical Resources

April 25, 2012

A couple of people have reacted to my last blogpost with further suggestions. On Twitter, @davidwebster sent me a link to the following graphic used by some part of the Scottish government:

An antipodean reader of the blog familiar with this project on pedagogy for aboriginals found the following helpful diagram of the “Boomerang Matrix of Cultural Interface Knowledge”:


Some Pedagogical Resources

April 21, 2012

Just in case you missed discussion of this on Twitter, here’s a useful and enlightening diagram of the “Project Learning Bicycle” from this wikipedia page based on this book  (used without permission of the authors):

Just in case you are under the impression that such diagrammatical excellence is rare, then let me introduce you to another teaching tool. From this document, I present to you (again without the permission of the authors) the Assessment Archipelego:


A Reply To Fiona Millar’s Latest Exercise in Denialism

April 10, 2012

I should probably leave this alone. I have marking to do and other blogposts to write. But this article in the Guardian deserves a response and I have been banned from their comments for reasons unknown, so I’ll say it here.

I have a certain sympathy for Fiona Millar’s principles. A good quality of education should be provided for all, without any assumptions about what “kids like these” are capable of. I support the comprehensive principle when it means aspiring to a high quality education for everybody regardless of background. Unfortunately, this “levelling-up” vision is often replaced with a “levelling-down” vision in which the political principle at stake is that the children of the better off should be deprived of a high quality education in the hope that this will somehow benefit everybody else. Most advocates of such a position soon abandon it when their own children are the ones to be levelled down. Fiona Millar cannot be criticised on this score. As I understand it, she has sent her children to the local comprehensive. This is also, as I understand it, something she has in common with some of the other founders of the Local Schools Network.

The big issue I have with the Local Schools Network is the way that having, at the very least, foregone some significant educational opportunities for their own children, they try to pretend that they haven’t. This was highlighted to me by a recent Telegraph article about state schooling. There is a noticeable contrast between two educational progressives who sent their children to apparently very poor state comprehensives.

On the one hand, we have Matthew Taylor, of the RSA admitting that there has been a cost to pursuing his principles:

“There’s no question in my mind that my children have done perfectly OK, but they would have done better at [nearby public school] Dulwich College. The facilities aren’t as good and they haven’t had the same level of academic reinforcement from their peers. Working hard and achieving gets you stick from other kids.”

On the other hand we have the denialist account from Francis Gilbert of the Local Schools Network claiming that when he tried private schooling:

“There was an over-academic emphasis, with four-to-five year-olds sitting in silence and being made to read, when there is a lot of evidence that play is more appropriate at that age … I had a visceral feeling those lessons were not appropriate… [When his son was moved to the local state school] He benefited from learning by doing things, which is promoted in the state system, as opposed to the drilling and rote learning he was used to”

Or, in other words, if private schools cause you to learn more, than learning must be a bad thing.

The Local Schools Network is a group of privileged middle class people trying to persuade other privileged middle class people that state comprehensives are a good place to send your kids. Any argument; any claim; any ideology; any lie, is considered acceptable as a tactic  to persuade. It is simply a philosophical dispute within the middle classes about principles. Like much of the London-based, middle class left, they simply do not comprehend that there is a world beyond their social class. In their world a bad local school means extra money on private tuition or the embarrassment of abandoning your ideology; in the world beyond it can mean a guarantee of continuing poverty. In their world a good local comprehensive is a chance to save money and retain the right to be self-righteous at dinner parties; in the world beyond it means a route out of poverty. In their world it is a matter of high principle to put on a brave face and deny the manifest failures of our broken education system; in the world beyond it means writing off working class kids as basically not suited to the kind of education middle class people want for their own kids.

It is this acceptance of a second-rate education system for working class kids, and the denigration of anybody who suggests that they deserve better, that makes the Local Schools Network and its philosophy of high-minded denialism so dangerous. Fiona Millar’s Guardian article collects several of those denialist arguments and excuses for denigrating achievement together.

The first argument is simply the ad hominem that would be aimed at any dinner party guest careless enough to mention that they were considering avoiding their local comprehensive. The idea that the comprehensive system has failed is “usually promoted by people who have never been in a comprehensive school, don’t use them for their own children, or who read the Daily Mail”. This actually tells us more about Fiona Millar’s social circle than the argument in question. Comprehensive schools are full of teachers who send their kids to the local private or selective schools because they know the system doesn’t work. Working class areas are full of people who regret how the local comprehensives failed them and their family. These are simply not the people she mixes with. She only ever meets people who, having realised the system is failing, are able to steer clear of it. The millions stuck with it either personally or professionally are too far removed from her. It is more likely that somebody has read about schools in crisis in the Daily Mail, than seen it with their own eyes. Just in case there is any doubt that, to her, the issue is not what schools are like in reality, but what principles you adhere to, she responds to the point about what comprehensives are like in real-life, with an explanation of what the word “comprehensive” means in theory. More extreme denialism then appears in the form of a claim that standards have risen, as if O-level results or university entrance in the 60s is remotely comparable to GCSE results and university entrance now.

The second argument is a claim that since the eighties local authorities don’t run schools. Schools did become considerably more autonomous at that time. However, the power of local authorities to wreck schools cannot be underestimated. I have worked in an authority where schools were told to exclude no student at all, no matter how badly behaved they were. I have worked in a school which went into chronic decline because the local authority would no longer support the federation that had been overseeing its improvement. I have sat through so many INSET sessions where local authorities sent idiots to lie to us about what methods of teaching work best or how best to deal with disruptive children. I am more concerned with standards than structures and, of course, things have changed recently, but nobody can really doubt that local authorities can have a decisive influence over schools. Weak headteachers invariably listen to local authorities first.

The third argument is the usual Local Schools Network preoccupation with statistical measures of which types of school do best. They have some carefully selected statistics suggesting academies are, on average, no better than non-academies. The DfE has some equally carefully collected statistics suggesting academies are, on average, slightly better than non-academies. The idea shared by both is that once you have your statistics about what happens on average you are fully qualified to make decisions in specific cases. Back in the real world, the success of schools will depend on the competence of the people running them, be they SMT, academy chain or local authority and anybody making a decision about the running of the school because of what happens “on average” will discover too late that it turns out that the people they have given control to may actually be far below average. If she’d oppose a school joining the ARK Schools chain, then she’s seriously misguided. If she opposes a school working with the RSA, then I will cheer her on.

The fourth argument is, I think, an attempt to quell the hype around Michael Wilshaw, the man in charge of OFSTED. She points out that Mossbourne Academy, the school he is famous for running, in on the site of the infamous Hackney Downs school which was shut down in 1995, but is not the same school. This is true, and some newspaper reports have incorrectly tried to suggest he “turned around” a failing school, so this is a fair point. However, we should not forget that defenders of Hackney Downs claimed that its location was a key part of its problems. Nor should we forget that even the Guardian admits that in Wilshaw’s first headship (at St Bonaventure’s Roman Catholic school in Newham) he “transformed … a struggling school into an outstanding one”. Regardless of whether it was a turnaround or a new school, Mossbourne is an example to others. If it is only allowed to be an example of what new schools can do rather than what academy conversion can do, then I’ll expect her to keep that in mind next time she discusses free schools.

I would rather have written all this in the comments on the Guardian article, but as my posts to the Guardian website are “premoderated” it is unlikely that anybody would have got to read it anytime soon. Please feel free to post a link to this there. And while you’re there, please also feel free to mention what your experience of comprehensive schools has been like. I wouldn’t want Fiona Millar to think you were reading this blog because it chimed with something you’d read in the Daily Mail.


The Future Part 1: Another Argument for Dumbing-Down

April 5, 2012

Although I have spent most of last year’s blogpost discussing the aims of education, and have tried to address every possible aim that can be given as an alternative to making children smarter by passing on knowledge, I have missed one of the key arguments against knowledge. This is the argument that technological and social change will mean that knowledge will not be valuable in the future. This claim can be used alongside any other argument for dumbing-down, but it is a distinct argument in that it is independent of whichever alternative aim of education is being put forward.

The argument is commonplace in education. Examples I will be looking at include the following speech by Caroline Walters, the “director of People and Policy” at BT:

She argues:

There is no doubt that global dynamics have shifted the ground beneath our feet, we have a global economic landscape that nobody could have imagined, probably even in their worst nightmares, but technology is having a profound impact on how and where we operate. What we are beginning to see is the thing that has been talked about for a long time become a reality: the global workforce.

This leads on to an explanation of how there will be no “knowledge economy” as knowledge will not be valuable in the future.

Another example appeared recently in a blogpost by Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of learning technology in the Faculty of Health, Education and Society, at Plymouth University. A long argument against the teaching of knowledge is concluded with:

It’s about time we all woke up and realised that the world around us is changing, and schools need to change too. After all, the school still remains the first and most important place to train and prepare young people for work. If we don’t get it right in school, we are storing up huge problems for the future. Education is not life and death. It’s much more important than that.

However, the most infamous example, one that has been thrown at teachers time and time again and  provides the “factual” basis for so many others, is one that does not explicitly condemn knowledge or draw conclusions about teaching methods. Instead it bludgeons everyone around the head with outlandish claims about the impending obsolence of everything. Inevitably, I am talking about the “Shift Happens” video. The UK version of which is below:

The view that the future will have no place for existing forms of knowledge is an implicit assumption behind many of the attacks on the English Baccalaureate for favouring GCSE s in the “dead languages” of Latin and Greek over qualifications in ICT or engineering. It is behind most attempts to label educational ideas as “21st century” which are particularly common in the form of an absurd claim that there are distinctive 21st century skills and dispositions (criticised very effectively here).  It fits comfortably into the mindset of those who believe that technology will transform education (discussed here)  and those who have a “Whig view of history” which sees humankind as making continuing moral, technological and intellectual progress from a primitive past to a glorious present and into a utopian future. I argued here  that this type of thinking as an attempt to create a secular salvation narrative that is harmful when applied to education. However, in my next few blogposts I wish to contest the content of the argument rather than its philosophical background. I intend to answer the claim that the world is changing in such a way that our knowledge is no longer suited for it. This argument that such change has occurred, or is occurring is usually based on three grounds:

No doubt all these changes are happening. What is in severe doubt is whether they are unprecedented changes that serve to outdate all or most existing knowledge. I will address each of these points in my next few blogposts.

%d bloggers like this: