Archive for January, 2013


Why those of us on the left should support Michael Gove’s efforts to “clever-up” the curriculum

January 20, 2013

Apologies for the length of this post, particularly as it is just an opinion piece, but I thought it worth giving plenty of background before I launched into a rant about something I really care about.

I’m not a big fan of the label “The Left”. It is usually used either by Tories to attack all their opponents, no matter how varied, as one ideologically homogenous, middle-class mass, usually made up of well-off public sector professionals and Guardian journalists, or by those at the other extreme to assert that they are the true representatives of an entire half of the political spectrum. I have even less time for it in education debate where attempts to apply left/right labels to the spectrum of educational opinion are used to conceal a much richer variety of positions. For these reasons I rarely blog about my personal political opinions. But I think it is important to make it clear in what follows that I am (literally) a card carrying member of the Labour Party and that if I am attacking Labour’s education policy it is because I want it to be better, not because I want the Tories to win the next election. However, I do want to add my voice to a couple of other teacher bloggers (also definitely not Tories) here and here, who have been expressing their frustration at the increasing habit of opposing ideas or proposals because they are seen as the work of Gove regardless of the merits, popularity, or even egalitarian ethos, of those ideas.

Those on the British left have always been philosophically split on education. There has been a predominantly (but not exclusively) working class tradition that saw knowledge as something, like healthcare and job security, which the working class were entitled to and should fight for. My favourite example of this attitude is probably from “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”:

‘What do YOU mean by poverty, then?’ asked Easton.

‘What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilization; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.’

Everybody laughed. It was so ridiculous. The idea of the likes of THEM wanting or having such things! Any doubts that any of them had entertained as to Owen’s sanity disappeared. The man was as mad as a March hare.

‘If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessaries of existence, that man’s family is living in poverty.Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilization he might just as well be a savage: better, in fact, for a savage knows nothing of what he is deprived. What we call civilization–the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers–is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or full, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal–he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.’

But there has also been a contrasting progressive education tradition, which if not explicitly anti-knowledge, was more concerned with how children learned. This can be found in the work of that old Etonian, George Orwell, who describes sympathetically the doomed efforts of Dorothy to transform teaching at a small private school:

She had seen at a glance that what the children most needed, and dividing them up into three separate classes, and so arranging things that two lots could be working by themselves while she ‘went through’ something with the third.  It was difficult at first, especially with the younger girls, whose attention wandered as soon as they were left to themselves, so that you could never really take your eyes off them.  And yet how wonderfully, how unexpectedly, nearly all of them improved during those first few weeks!  For the most part they were not really stupid, only dazed by a dull, mechanical rigmarole.  For a week, perhaps, they continued unteachable; and then, quite suddenly, their warped little minds seemed to spring up and expand like daisies when you move the garden roller off them.

Quite quickly and easily Dorothy broke them in to the habit of thinking for themselves.  She got them to make up essays out of their own heads instead of copying out drivel about the birds chanting on the boughs and the flowerets bursting from their buds. She attacked their arithmetic at the foundations and started the little girls on multiplication and piloted the older ones through long division to fractions; she even got three of them to the point where there was talk of starting on decimals.  She taught them the first rudiments of French grammar in place of ‘Passez-moi le beurre, s’il vous plait’ and ‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu son chapeau’.  Finding that not a girl in the class knew what any of the countries of the world looked like (though several of them knew that Quito was the capital of Ecuador), she set them to making a large contour-map of Europe in plasticine, on a piece of three-ply wood, copying it in scale from the atlas.  The children adored making the map; they were always clamouring to be allowed to go on with it.  And she started the whole class, except the six youngest girls and Mavis Williams, the pothook specialist, on reading Macbeth.  Not a child among them had ever voluntarily read anything in her life before, except perhaps the Girl’s Own Paper; but they took readily to Shakespeare, as all children do when he is not made horrible with parsing and analysing.

Historically, this difference became most important with the move to comprehensive education and away from selection.  Although a consensus was achieved on the left (and far, far beyond) over the need to end the tripartite system (academic grammar schools for the most able fifth of the population; a sprinkling of technical schools, and “vocational” secondary moderns for the majority) there were severe philosophical differences which were often not clearly expressed. Some wanted to move to a system where working class kids were able to succeed academically in large numbers and move up the social ladder. Others wanted to move to a system where working class kids were encouraged to feel good about themselves regardless of their academic success or lack thereof. For the latter, the progressive tradition, focused on feelings, interests, self-expression, social integration and abstract and immeasurable intellectual qualities was a far better match for working class children than the rigours, discipline and demands of a traditional academic education.

Fierce conflict took place on the left, most noticeably over William Tyndale school and Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin speech condemning progressive ideology. Greater unity was achieved after Labour lost office in 1979 as a divided Labour Party found many other issues to disagree over while the Tories managed to unite the left on education (particularly when Kenneth Baker was education secretary) by offering any number of contentious policies and a newly acquired, and quite unprecedented, hostility to the teaching profession. However, once Labour returned to electability in the mid 1990s conflict broke out again when Tony Blair and David Blunkett pushed forward an agenda, framed in impeccably modern terms, based on academic standards, setting and whole class teaching. Howls of outrage emanated from those in the progressive education tradition on the left. Ideological spasms from university lecturer Tedd Wragg and backbench MP (and later Lord) Roy Hattersley were particulary memorable. However, Labour’s “standards” agenda was soon abandoned after Blunkett left education in 2001 and under a succession of weak education secretaries the policy shifted back towards a progressive curriculum. Every Child Matters marginalised the academic aspects of education. Languages ceased to be required. Progressive teaching methods were promoted, and then mandated by OFSTED. Vocational qualifications expanded to replace GCSEs. Various exams were abolished, apparently with the intention of replacing them with a criteria-based system known as “Assessing Pupil Progress”. Most of this happened, however, without great fanfare and often with great confusion over the point or objective of the changes that were happening. Less progressive-oriented initiatives were also introduced at the same time, such as a push for phonics and the removal of coursework from many GCSEs, and a certain amount of structural reform alienated many of those who would otherwise have embraced the general drift towards progressive education.

By the time the Conservatives (and their Liberal Democrat allies) took power in 2010, they faced a Labour Party absolutely incoherent on education and rapidly made the area their own. Conservative ministers, now willing to praise Blunkett and Blair and distance themselves from support for selection, pushed ahead with an agenda that left Labour mystified about how to react. Further structural reform along lines not dissimilar to that of the preceding Labour government left Labour politicians utterly confused over where they now stood. More importantly, a push for higher standards left Labour conflicted between winning the support of the educational establishment and trying to retain some credibility with a public appalled at years of lowering standards. It is here, where Labour now faces a stark choice. Michael Gove has pushed forward an agenda based on ending “dumbing-down” and instead “clevering-up” the curriculum. The key elements so far have been:

  • Removal of many non-academic aims from the curriculum, most noticeably the various strands of Every Child Matters;
  • Introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a performance measure for schools which counts students gaining grade C in a handful of the most clearly academic GCSEs;
  • The encouragement of phonics (i.e. teaching children to decode words rather than guess) in primary schools along with moves to test spelling and grammar and introduce a knowledge-based curriculum;
  • Removal of “equivalences” which allowed coursework based vocational non-qualifications to count towards performance measures;
  • Plans to reform exams further, including the introduction of new, more rigorous EBCs to replace GCSEs in certain key subjects.

Much of this has been met with sheer delusion from much of the left. It must be a trick. It must be unfair that educationalists and schools didn’t get to veto it. It must be about privatisation. It must be about the reintroduction of selection. It must be about declaring war on teachers. It must be about everything other than what it blatantly is, an attempt to ensure that our schools are making a marked effort to make all children cleverer. The most recent delusion is that nobody supports this and, particularly, that nobody in education supports this direction of travel. This reached it’s most absurd with this  story. Kenneth Baker, the former Tory education secretary, is reported to have attacked the EBacc for being too ambitious for most children:

“The EBacc is very similar to the exam I sat in 1951 when I was 16, the School Certificate. It’s exactly the same, exactly!…I was the last year that took it, because it simply wasn’t broad enough for most children. Only seven per cent of young people went on to post-16 education, I was part of a privileged elite. And the EBacc is a throwback to that.”

Here we have an arch right-winger, a one-time bogeyman to the left. Here we have somebody who had promoted selection through the creation of Community Technology Colleges and been marked out during his time in office by his hostility to the teaching profession. Here we have him claiming that the mass of the working population simply aren’t suited to the sort of exam that he himself did. Here we have a perfect example of a right-winger with utter contempt for the academic aspirations on the part of anyone outside of his own social class. If there is anything the left could unite against it should be this. However, the only reaction I saw from the educational left on social media was a widespread declaration that it showed nobody supported Gove’s agenda.  Worse, Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary is quoted as saying:

“When even Conservatives say that Michael Gove’s exams are a throwback to the 1950s, you know he’s got the wrong approach. We need an education system that prepares young people for the future, not a narrow and out of date exam system that risks undermining our economic strength in innovation and creativity.”

Now let’s be quite clear about this. This is a right-wing Tory attacking another Tory for attempting to provide the opportunities he had to too many people . This is a Tory who believes that an academic education is not suitable for the masses in much the same way as their party once believed free health care or good housing was not suitable for all. This is an attack on Gove for not doing enough to support selection. And we have Labour’s education spokesman welcoming it.

Is this the agenda Labour is to go to the general election with? Will Stephen Twigg (PPE, Balliol College, Oxford), Ed Milliband (PPE, Corpus Christi College, Oxford) or Ed Balls (PPE, Keble College, Oxford) actually be putting it to the public that an academic education is bad for the economy and unsuitable for the working class? Will they actually be declaring that Michael Gove is simply too ambitious in his plans for the electorate’s children? Will the dividing lines be that some kids (presumably not their kids) are simply not academic and should know their place? Will Labour’s position be “non-academic” kids need to be spared from the rigours of tough exams while Michael Gove’s position is that “non-academic kids” should be given the opportunity to become academic? Will they expect working class voters to agree with this?

Now Labour have much to attack the Tories on over education. Some of their structural reforms have encouraged the worst of the progressives. Their attitude to teacher’s pay and conditions is harming teaching on a daily basis. The EBCs, while good in theory, may be absolutely impractical to implement. But what Labour cannot afford to do is to declare its affiliation to the parts of the middle class left who have always felt that working class aspiration (whether it was for people to own their own homes, run their own businesses, or for their children’s quality of education) was somehow suspect and to be obstructed. A Labour Party which goes into the next election declaring that the important thing about education is that it recognises that we shouldn’t worry about leaving working class kids ignorant because they are probably good with their hands and leaving the Tories to talk about social mobility is one which will lose. Not because everyone votes on education, but because there is no issue like it for revealing to the electorate the prejudices and priorities of a political party and how they match up with the aspirations and ambitions of voters.

Update (18:40 20/1/2013):

I hadn’t seen this blog by Kevin Bartle when I wrote mine.

Along with the two I mentioned, that makes 4 of us, distinctly non-Tory bloggers, saying things that, according to a lot of people on Twitter, are believed by nobody other than Tory journalists.

Also feel obliged to mention two blogs I had read that might have influenced the above:

E.D. Hirsch is no right-winger

You don’t have to be a Tory to be a traditionalist in education

Update: (3/2/2013): Just found another Labour supporting teacher-blogger who doesn’t buy into the “Teachers disagree with Gove about everything” narrative: Are teachers like priests? Is it time to start believing in ourselves?


A Primary School Mutiny

January 13, 2013

This guest post has been written by a reader of this blog. If you have anything you think other readers would be interested to hear about, just send me an email.

In March, during my first year of teaching, a group of teachers met in a room above a pub. What was discussed changed the education of hundreds of children for the better. This is the story of how a headteacher was removed who thought they were untouchable.

A bit about me: I came into teaching late and obtained my Primary PGCE aged 32. Prior to this I had worked in academia, gaining my masters and PhD during my time at university. I had tried hard to get a job during my final year, but found the doors closed to men my age. I got the impression that the (mainly) women in charge did not want a man working for them who had all these academic qualifications (despite the fact that in my day to day teaching they are practically worthless). So I started working as a supply teacher and got a number of assignments which helped my teaching skills progress. It was a great experience and being a supply teacher is probably the best thing you can do at the start of your career, you learn so much. After a while I got a regular posting 4 days a week at a tough school working with Year 6. Through this job I got to know someone who knew someone else and I went to a interview for a job where I was the only candidate and got the post. Yes it was through nepotism, but having applied for circa 65 jobs and getting only 5 interviews, who was I to care?

I started teaching at this primary school one September. From the start it was clear the school was full of staff who had lost the will to teach. The main reason for this was the headteacher. It took me two months to work them out, and when I did it was a massive shock for me. Prior to being a teacher you assume that those in charge of schools are professional, upstanding members of society. You think that schools are tightly controlled by the government (through the local council) and that bad practice and incompetence could not happen. How wrong can you be? After two months I had worked out that the reason the headteacher bullied everyone and threw their weight around was because they didn’t have the first idea what they were doing. In my first two months I had been shouted at in front of my class, made to feel like an idiot for daring to ask them a question and told I was unsatisfactory. The probable source of the issue was my complaining to them that I wasn’t getting my NQT time; only getting an hour and a half each week instead of three and a half. This bullying culminated in the head shouting in my face in front of parents and staff during a whole school assembly. I felt totally demoralised.

A week after this event I was pulling off the motorway on my trip to work and noticed there had been a crash on the roundabout it fed on to. As I got closer I noticed that the car involved looked suspiciously like the one my head drove. My heart jumped and I literally said out loud: “please be the head!” I glanced at the number plate and saw that it was indeed their car. I punched the air and hoped they were seriously injured.

What had I become? Here was a man who had two children and a third child on the way, and I was hoping that someone else was seriously injured? I was disgusted with myself and decided that rather than get more and more bitter, I would do what I could to make sure this person was no longer allowed to continue their behaviour. If you are interested, the head had one day off with whiplash, came back to school and insisted they could have died.

Just for a bit of background; prior to that March meeting I had witnessed the head doing the following since starting my post:

  • Screaming in the face of an Afghan child who had started school at the start of term and who had spoken no English prior to doing so: “8 weeks, you’ve been here 8 weeks! You should have learned English by now.”
  • Walking into my classroom and shouting at a child and reducing him to tears for no reason than he looked at the window when they were walking by.
  • Telling the staff that if they wanted more money for books they should “go and stand on ******* **** road.” (a local red light area)
  • Implementing changes to planning without guidance and shouting at those who did not understand
  • Shouting at staff that they could not keep food in the staffroom because “it is not your home.”
  • Calling the Year 6 cohort “thick” in conversation with a supply teacher
  • Bawling at the teaching staff about (impending) OFSTED visit and saying they were unsatisfactory (when opposite was the case)
  • Regularly emailing staff in the early hours then reprimanding them if they hadn’t read their email by the time they had got to work
  • Having regular days off to work from home
  • Leaving school to go and do the following: have car serviced, have a haircut, go shopping
  • Copying an advert for recruiting new staff from a local school, despite having the morning off to come up with one. Added to the advert were the following attachments: one about dinner money, a out of date staff list and a letter littered with grammatical mistakes

Other staff did not know what to do and, in conversation over a few weeks, it was decided to contact our union and get a meeting called. This took a long time for people to pluck up the courage to attend due to fear of losing their job. The catalyst for most staff was the fact that many of us had gone to doctors and been prescribed anti-depressants to stop panic attacks and some had gone off sick due to stress. I include myself on that list. As we poured out the litany of misdemeanours of the head to our union rep his eyebrows continued to rise. By the end of the meeting they must have been on the ceiling. We collectively breathed a sign of relief when the union rep told us something would happen soon.

It didn’t.

We decided to formalise our complaint into a proper grievance and lodged it with the council just before the Easter break. Co-incidentally I had been made to reapply for my post during the last two weeks of term and I was told I would not be appointed. So I was potentially unemployed with three children and a wife to support come the following September. It was the culmination of a long bullying process. At the same time one member of staff left to get another job and another handed his notice in, leaving the profession for good.

After submitting our grievance we expected immediate action from the authorities.

It didn’t come.

At the start of the summer term the head returned as normal. I was amazed. I was also appalled and decided to make the problem known more widely.

Here requires a bit of commentary. If you are experiencing the same thing at your school then I would recommend the following. Get the governors involved, get the local councillors involved and get parents involved. After the failure of the council to act I decided to email the local MP and councillors (helpfully both Labour) – detailing the complaint. I got an email back saying he would write to the head of Education asking why nothing had been done. On the back of this the council started to take the complaint seriously but they did not want to come and get any evidence from us. We had to write and complain to the investigator that we WANTED to give evidence, so they could do their job. Finally we were allowed to give our verbal evidence to the investigator face to face during the last week of summer half-term. During that evidence we made further allegations against the head, including racism, bullying of staff and children, dismissing people illegally, not having proper policies in place for anything and serious safeguarding issues. We expected something to happen over half-term. Nothing did. The council were attempting a cover-up. Luckily the chair of governors had been removed and a more pro-active one elected in their place. She wanted answers. We couldn’t provide them due to the nature of the complaint, as she may be called to arbitrate on the case.

More staff went on long-term sick. The head continued in post, oblivious to what was going on around them, but losing their grip on reality further. This dragged on until the last Monday of that term when they were finally suspended. An audit that week revealed serious financial mismanagement and a lack of basic provision for the children. The suspension only came after a further intervention from our MP and local councillors, as well as the chair of governors badgering the council for action.

I started in a new post in the September of the new academic year, but the saga dragged on further and was only ended before that Christmas when a newsletter went to parents saying the head had “retired.” Still we have had no formal response to our grievance, and no admission of culpability from anyone at the council, who had supposedly audited the school over the past few years. The head has been allowed to retire with a (probable) pay off and a (probable) large pension that all of us tax payers are paying. As far as I can make out, I have been the only one to have lost my job over their incompetence. The council subsequently approached the union and asked for the grievance to be dropped, on the basis that the head has retired. We rejected this as absolutely unacceptable. Why should the head get away with a large pay-off and a huge pension when they ran an otherwise successful school into the ground through incompetence? Clearly the council still did not understand our resolve in getting justice for the staff involved.

The moral of the story, I think, is this: If you are in a job where someone is abusing the power given to them it is your responsibility to act. Often, incompetence in post merely hides a mass of problems beneath the surface. Headteachers in the primary setting often think they are judge, jury and executioner. In a lot of cases they are right, as the system of governors running schools is wide open to abuse and nepotism. However, it is important to remember that everyone has a boss and, if you see incompetence affecting the education of children, it is your job to report it. If the governors do nothing go to the council. If the council do nothing go to the MPs. If the MPs do nothing go to the Secretary of State. If he does nothing give the story to the newspapers. If this doesn’t do anything leak to the parents. Eventually something will happen. We have come a long way in 10 months, but there is still work to be done. If you are in the same boat as we were, have the guts to make a stand. Good luck.


Yes, Those Were Definitely Examples of Dumbing Down

January 5, 2013

I had a feeling my last post, the one consisting of five examples of low expectations, would be controversial. The culture of lowered expectations is so pervasive that plenty of people feel they are aware of it, and against it, without actually being sensitive to particular examples. We could probably all,  myself included, do with contemplating whether what we do involves any dumbing down. It helps to ask yourself the question “what would a pushy middle class parent make of this?” before engaging in some activities. That way, there is a fighting chance that we can deliver to kids who don’t have pushy middle class parents the quality of education given to those who do. I think all my examples fail this test rather clearly and I am confident that most educated people who do not teach would agree that those were examples of dumbing down. It’s only those within the system who have been acclimatised to dumbing-down who might feel otherwise.

I will respond here to some the points made in the comments (and what I remember of the comments made on Twitter). I will start by observing that I made a particular point of telling people to read the original sources, rather than just my selections. None of my quotations were selected for any reason other than to illustrate a key point, and there was no attempt to take anything out of context. In some cases I butchered the quotation in order to include more of the context. If you want to accuse me of taking anything out of context you’d better put together a proper argument rather than just declare it to be “out of context” like a Christian fundamentalist confronted with a Bible verse which doesn’t seem to fit.

With regard to the second example, the teacher who would tell his twelve year old self not to worry about going to university at 17 (the usual age in Scotland). It is possible that it is entirely down to his own circumstances. However, it was in the context of meeting his new class and imagining his twelve year old self to be one of them. Certainly, when it was retweeted there was no attempt by any retweeters to qualify the advice as only applicable to the teacher himself. There is no clear statement that normally aspiring to university is to be required.

Of course, we (particularly teachers) do have a habit in this country of complaining that too many people go to university. I’m the first to complain about universities providing dumbed-down degrees and anything I say about the importance of going to university to do a degree should always be with the qualification “if the university and the degree are any good and if the students are adequately prepared”. However, I do not accept that a high proportion of people going to university is, in itself, a bad thing. I do not accept that the way to deal with universities offering worthless courses is to strangle the demand for higher education, rather than to deal with those universities. I do not accept the argument that the majority of other people’s children (and this is always an argument about other people’s children) are inherently “non-academic”. Partly, this is because some countries have much higher rates of university participation than we do, but mainly it comes down to class. Social class remains the key factor in going to university. We are are a society where the middle classes assume they are going to university and those from deprived backgrounds don’t. The belief that university is unsuitable for “kids like us” (or worse, “kids like you”) is pervasive in so many schools in deprived areas. Teachers cannot afford to be emphasising to kids that university is one goal among others, because the effect won’t be to deter the posh-but-thick; it will be to deter the working class. It is better to make everyone try to get into a good university, and have a lot fail, than to write off so many of the able-but-poor like we do now. University should be a goal for all because a good education should be a goal for all and even in failing to achieve that goal, one may be given the means to achieve many other goals instead.

The third example is controversial mainly because it referred to the GCSE English farrago. I would recommend anyone who has managed to convince themselves that this is not to do with dumbing down, but it is down to some kind of specific unfairness, to read the many blogs I wrote on the subject at the time. The agenda of the regraders is to give 75% of the cohort a grade C or above and among those who took the formal exam first and then had months of easily manipulated controlled assessment to bring them up to the required grade that pass rate rises to 85% (i.e. so high as to be likely to include many children who could be described as functionally illiterate). To raise the pass rate by so much (I believe it had never been higher than the mid 60s previously, even after twenty years of grade inflation) would appear to be drastic dumbing-down, but the defence has always been that we should do it because those numbers don’t matter as long as we are abiding by “the criteria”. To be told the criteria is “write using paragraphs; write using mostly accurate sentences and spelling; and be boring” makes a mockery of this. Grade C in English was meant to be equivalent to O-level. It was meant to be the level required for becoming a teacher. It was meant to be, at worst, average and originally for those far above average. It was not meant to be something the average middle class 11 year old could do. If you want those criteria and those percentages then this is dumbing down even if there was some unfairness about the exam and even if you feel that you should have been warned in advance that standards were going to be maintained.

There was one longer comment suggesting there may have been a genuine injustice if you compare the results of those who took the written exam in January, and the controlled assessment(s) later, with those who took/submitted all modules at the end. I have acknowledged this before, and all I can do is point out that the regrading lobbying have completely failed to focus on this. In fact, most of the fuss has been about those kids which this argument says were advantaged. They are, after all, the ones where teachers could do most to manipulate the grades. I do take the point but it is does not reflect the argument of the regrading lobby who, instead of saying these kids were unfairly advantaged as things stand, actually want the controlled assessments for these kids raised so that 85% of them get C and above. The regrading lobby want to maintain that unfair advantage, but against a background of a lot more Cs overall, rather than to redress the balance for those who took the written exam later.

The fifth example, the one where year 11s were encouraged to turn the rise of Nazism into a Mr Men book, was the one where I was expecting least comeback. Even if people didn’t accept that 16 year olds should be engaged in more sophisticated ways of presenting their thoughts, I assumed the sheer tastelessness would deter anyone from defending it. I was wrong. So, ignoring how tasteless it is, let me address why this is also dumbed-down. I think much of what people have missed is answered by this excellent blogpost from Daisy at the Curriculum Centre. The argument  is that, when designing activities, students will learn what they think about. So if students do a lesson where the Mr Men are explained to them, and they are meant to use the Mr Men in their analysis, then, for at least some of that time, they will end up learning about the Mr Men when they could be learning about history. It stands out as dumbing-down, in a way that, say, writing a play about Hitler’s rise to power (an equally ineffective way of learning history) doesn’t, because we do not want to spend time and money teaching KS4 students about the Mr Men. (Although according to OFSTED that’s fine for Key Stage 3). If you missed that this is what was going to happen in the Mr Men lesson then, please, read that blogpost I mentioned earlier and the sources it links to, and replan your schemes of work, bearing in mind the golden rule that what they think about is what they will learn.

The final point raised in some of the comments was that it is, in some way, bad to have searched for and publicised examples of dumbing-down. Partly, I wish I had searched. These were all things that I happened to find without really looking, usually because other people were enthusiastically promoting them, and I made a note at the time. I suppose it might be tough on those criticised, but all of these sources have been deliberately placed in the public sphere, often by individuals either presenting themselves, or presented by others, as experts in their field. I said at the time my main motive was to provide evidence of the sort of thing that is actually often denied. I know that if I said in a blogpost “there are headteachers who would happily give grade Cs to kids who can write just a few readable passages” or “there are consultants who attack the very idea of an academic education” I would be met by denials and claims of setting up a straw man to attack. I still remember the Twitter response to the story that David Laws had said some  teachers lack ambition for their students. At that time, I saw blanket denial of the very things some of my examples illustrated. It’s good to get this evidence to hand if anyone wants to claim that all teachers want their students to aim for the best.

I guess that still leaves the complaint that what I wrote was negative and sniping and, therefore, claiming my own superiority. My only defence against this accusation is that, whatever you want to read into it about me personally, I was right and that should count for something.

As well as writing this blogpost I will also go back and address some of the individual comments when I get a chance.


Attitudes Which Cause Dumbing Down

January 3, 2013

Every so often, people simply try to deny that there is a problem within our education system of low expectations. The following are examples, often from highly respected figures or able individuals, of expectations which are in my view blatantly below where we should expect them to be. Remember that all of these examples are from people who apparently had no shame about making these attitudes public and I recommend that you follow the links to look at the context.

1) Maths teacher tells a student working at A grade (before the introduction of A* grades) in maths and further maths) not to be as keen to get into Cambridge.

From the TES :

“Apart from you, Michael, who cares what you get in your A level?” I ask, firmly.
His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.
“I mean, I care, of course,” I add, swiftly. “But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?”

2) Teacher thinks it really important to tell students, at the age of 12, not to be concerned about whether they make it to university.

From this teacher blog (okay, I admit this is a teacher in Scotland not England but plenty of teachers in England retweeted this as if it was good advice):

In August, thirty twelve year old kids will arrive in my class, embarking on their Secondary school education. Fresh from Primary school, they will no doubt be filled with a mix of nerves and expectation. So, if one of them was the twelve year-old me, what advice would I give myself? Here goes… In a couple of years, your teachers and parents will start to obsess about University. Don’t sweat it so much. It ain’t the be all and end all. You’ll go, eventuallY, if you really want to. Your friends will get caught up in that and end up in, for the most part, mundane jobs. Don’t think you are inferior if you don’t go to Uni at 17. You probably will hate it then anyway.

3) Headteacher describes the level he thinks is good enough for a grade C in English.

From a headteacher’s blog:

But I know what a C in English looks like; I know what you have to do to achieve it; …After all, to get a C you essentially only need to do be able to do three things: write using paragraphs; write using mostly accurate sentences and spelling; and be boring. If you stop being boring you move to a B or higher.

(This was part of the ongoing campaign to lower the boundaries in English GCSE which in itself is an outrageous attempt to dumb down, but I think this example particularly demonstrates the low expectations behind that campaign.)

4) Blogger (whose past and present positions include consultant, head of department and OFSTED inspector) attacks academic education.

From this blog:

[I] would therefore like to suggest that at present we simply cannot afford for so many students to pursue the luxury of an academic education that in many cases leads to nothing more than high rates of graduate unemployment. …. Your Country Needs You – not to become an academic!

5) Education website suggests Year 11s (i.e. students aged 15 or 16) revise Hitler’s rise to power using Mr Men cartoons.

From this history teaching website:

Prior to this activity, Year 11 students should have finished studying the Rise of Hitler. They should then spend classroom time discussing in pairs and groups how they could transform the narrative into a ‘Mr. Men’ story that younger students would be able to understand.

The following steps are a useful framework:

Brainstorm the key people involved (Hitler, Hindenburg, Goering, Van der Lubbe, Rohm…). Discuss their personalities / actions in relation to the topic. Bring up a picture of the Mr. Men characters on the board. Discuss which characters are the best match.

UPDATE 24/3/2013:

Had to add this one. Staggering.

A-level English taught by getting students to draw pictures on paper plates.

From this blog.

1- Students are asked to find descriptions of their character in their books and depict their character on the paper plate- aim for them to draw a face but sometimes a full body is more appropriate.

2- They then take 4 white stickers and on each of them, write one of their character’s key traits.

3- They then stick their white stickers on their clothes and go around the room, mingling with all the other characters and introducing themselves in character.

4- They then take a large piece of paper, stick on their paper plate and stickers and find as many quotes that relate to their character as they can, adding notes about why the quote is important.

5- The posters are displayed somewhere, in this case, the corridor. Students peruse the information and add key character notes to their record sheets.

Creative, active and fun! My kind of activity!

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