Seven Things All Politicians Should Know About Education

May 5, 2013

I find much of the contribution from politicians to the education debate in this country utterly pointless. So many political types simply do not realise how the system works or what is going on. Here are the key points I want politicians to take on board.

1) Education is an ideological battleground. There are fundamental differences of value in education over the basic aims. There is simply no point in claiming to want to move beyond “tired, old debates” or to replace values with “evidence”. Debate will always come down to ends in a way it doesn’t in, say, medicine. In the words of Chesterton (1910):

Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease.

The debate cannot be avoided. You have to take a position on whether education is about the intellect or whether it is about feelings, opinions or happiness. You have to decide whether a developed intellect is one which can carry out specific intellectual tasks (like reading, writing, adding up or understanding a particular topic) or one characterised by general dispositions or qualities. This debate cannot be skipped on grounds of boredom or pragmatism, it underlies everything. An even worse delusion than thinking you can skip this debate, is to think you need to start a debate about the purpose of education. The debate has already been happening for decades. People already have their deep-seated, unchangeable positions. Just state yours clearly, don’t pretend there is something to be decided on the basis of discussion. Everyone concerned has already decided their position and you simply need to choose who you are planning to back.

2) There are no neutral experts. This is a corollary of the first point. Because there is an ideological battle going on, most expertise is expertise on arguing for a particular ideological position. This is made worse by the shaky boundaries of education as an academic discipline. Talk of taking the politics out of education is like talk of taking religion out of the church. It just replaces honest conviction with better concealed dogmas. Professors of education are about as neutral about policy as priests are neutral about religion (and probably more inclined to rely on faith). By all means refer to those whose arguments you find convincing but never pretend that handing power to “experts” is taking it out of politics or that declaring a position to coincide with the conclusions of an academic amounts to an argument. The same goes for subject associations, local authorities, Ofsted, teaching unions or headteachers. An education expert is not like a doctor, they are more like missionaries. Handing education over to the experts is not a policy; it is a way to conceal which ideology you are planning to promote. Almost every sensible policy is condemned by experts, often by experts who originally claimed they were going to help implement the policy.

3) There are no short-term institutional solutions to ideological problems. No particular structure will solve the issues. It doesn’t matter where you put them – Local Authorities, quangos, universities, academy chains – the same class of educational bureaucrats will be running the system. You might be able to fragment the system so that a minority of schools are under the control of the right people, but this is just cutting the cake in a different direction. There is no structural change that will solve anything. If you want to change the ethos in the system, you are actually going to have to change the composition of the educational workforce and this, at the very least, will take far more time than any one politician has. It’s worth thinking about as a long term aim, but it is unrealistic to imagine there will be change within the lifetime of a political career. Whether it’s market-based fixes or enforced egalitarianism, you will change nothing for the greater mass of the school population by changes in school structures.

4) The disaster of vocational education is not down to a lack of political will. Politicians seem to have a belief that simply by committing themselves to the importance of vocational education in principle then they will be able to create high quality vocational options. However, every politician responsible for a vocational white elephant seemed to share the exact same belief in the importance of vocational education. The problems are more deep-seated than a lack of political will. If a country fails to get large numbers of young people up to a decent level of academic achievement, vocational education will never be more than a dumping ground for the uneducated. All the countries with successful vocational education systems, also have successful academic education systems. That’s the basic issue, not snobbery or a lack of political will. If you can’t solve it then all your investment in vocational education will either create “high quality” vocational qualifications that few will want to do because those capable of doing them will opt for an academic education, or low quality qualifications that, even if employers help design them, no employer will actual value in their own workforce. A declaration of support for vocational education, no matter how sincere, is not, in itself, a policy.

5) Whatever you decide on the curriculum will be sabotaged or subverted by the educational establishment. The usual pattern of an educational reformer is to declare what should happen; appoint people to implement it and then find out that they want to do something completely different. With weak politicians this means the original policy is never implemented. With strong politicians this results in the experts’ condemnation. Few things point to capable political leadership more than the headline “Education minister attacked by former advisor”.

The educational establishment will subvert. They will promise you one kind of curriculum and then deliver another. They will reinterpret words to carry out a policy other than the one they were asked to. If this doesn’t work they will simply wait for a weaker person to be minister and then undo things without being asked. This is why Gove is making primary teachers use phonics 7 years after Ruth Kelly demanded the teaching of phonics, which was 9 years after the 1997 Labour manifesto supported phonics. This is why Ofsted, an organisation set up to enforce traditional teaching methods is now, even under Gove and Wilshaw, are promoting the educational orthodoxy of the late 1960s. Little really changes because the people don’t change.

A key element with regard to this is to avoid “policies” which are actually vague principles to be asserted. Blunkett’s biggest mistake was to use the word “inclusion” to describe policies based around the rights of the disabled, as it quickly became interpreted as being about tolerating bad behaviour. Another unfortunate phrase was Blair’s “personalised learning” which marked the end of effective education policy-making under New Labour. But other terms, even ones like “rigour” are as easily subverted. I recently heard a senior Ofsted inspector explain that talk of “fluency” in the new National Curriculum needed to be interpreted as “conceptual understanding” not any kind of recall of facts. Don’t say anything that can be easily re-interpreted to mean something trendy.

6) What actually happens in the classroom is decided by OFSTED. This is the single biggest problem at the moment. The current government, for the first time since Blunkett, has made all the right noises on the curriculum, pedagogy and discipline. Yet in schools, only the most daring move away from dumbing-down because Ofsted will come in and condemn teacher talk and any attempt by the teacher to “dominate” the classroom rather than encouraging “independence”. And that’s only the stuff they put in writing. The things you hear anecdotally are even more shocking. Schools being condemned because the children are too “compliant”; teachers being criticised because the students were sat in rows; terrible discipline being excused as normal; written work being condemned as boring. They are the enforcement arm of progressive education and as long as they are in place then all teachers will feel the pressure to get kids to be chatting in groups about how they are going to sort the contents of an envelope and avoid direct instruction in knowledge.

7) Discipline will only change if you make it easier to exclude. While the confidence with which people assert that principle that disruptive kids have a right to stay in the classroom does seem to ebb and flow with the political tide, the attitude in schools doesn’t. Exclusion is still seen as a failure of behaviour modification, not a victory for good order. As long as schools are held responsible for the insanity of their intake then there will always be those in management who refuse to acknowledge behaviour problems. Order in classrooms means removing those who try to create disorder; all other methods will only lower standards. There are issues about how schools can exclude, but there should be no doubt that the bottom line of behaviour management is the question of what can be done with kids who will fight against an orderly classroom, and an expectation to work hard, even when most of their peers are complying.


Chesterton, G.K., What’s Wrong With the World?, 1910

Update 9/5/2013: This post can now be found on the Labour Teachers website here.


  1. Pleasing to find all the things I agree with in one place.

    Now we can sit back and wait for the attackers – you’ve made it convenient for them!

    • The main problem appears to be that ‘measuring’ and ‘determining’ objective truth in education appears to be very, very difficult. It has been pretty difficult in Science, over the years, but objective evidence is far easier to generate in Science, and paradigm shifts associated with a mass of evidence do take place. Progress in Science is sometimes slow, but is also inevitable. Not so in education. Under these circumstances, then dogma prevails. An accommodation of disagreement can be achieved, but is difficult. Where, if anywhere, is the will to reach an accommodation that allows progress of sorts, in education, to take place? For sure, personal attacks and insults do not foster accommodation of disagreements. People disagree, but an accommodation of that disagreement is necessary for any sort of progress.

  2. “An even worse delusion than thinking you can skip this debate, is to think you need to start a debate about the purpose of education.” < THIS. Oh my goodness. THIS.

  3. Bravo for the point that it’s all ideology. I think that’s true about many more things that people realise – strong, basically functional British institutions conceal the fact that if you ask people, there is no agreement on what those institutions are supposed to be doing (prison for punishment/rehabilitation; tax to support the poor/not; NHS to intervene in lifestyles/not; etc., etc.).

    But I do think that technical solutions to technical problems can be found and can make institutions better and stronger. So, I wanted to ask you what you’d do with the excluded kids. Politically, we can’t just abandon them (and morally, I think – but I’m sure there’s disagreement on that!). Part of the reason why inclusion became the thing, as I understand it, is because the treatment the excluded got under the old system seemed to be unacceptable.

    I could be brought to agree with “we must be allowed to exclude” if it came with a plan for how to handle the excluded. Without such a plan, it just sounds like a step backwards. I’m sorry, you might have blogged on this before, so do you have any links or ideas you could point us to?

    • I think this relies on a misunderstanding of what schools are for. If kids are in school but not learning we *have* already abandoned them. It is no argument for inclusion to say “school is a better babysitter than the alternative” as we have already given up on education if we make schools into babysitters.

      • Yeah… this is another one of those areas where people don’t agree on basic stuff. From where I’m standing, it just seems obvious that babysitting is one of the things schools do. Not the only thing, of course, but to say “we have given up on education” if we allow that schools do some babysitting seems absurdly absolute.

        But that difference is one that we can ignore, I think, because it’s not relevant to the policy problem. The policy problem is: a small minority of kids play up (indeed, some kids are violent thugs); it would be better for the other children if they were physically removed from their schools. But we can’t allow them to just truant, so some provision has to be made to (a) keep them under control and (b) try to train/educate them in some way.

        And the policy question of what to do with these children is one which people can work at together despite real and massive ideological differences.

  4. I agree that education is ideological but I think you are setting up a false dichotomy:

    “whether education is about the intellect or whether it is about feelings, opinions or happiness”

    For me, and many of the teachers I work with it is about BOTH. An education which focused purely on the first would only be half an education. One that focused on the second would not be an education at all.

    It is a delicate balance to achieve both. What happens when a student ‘hates’ maths, do we let them avoid it because it would undermine their happiness or do we make them do it because they need to learn it (I believe 2nd answer is right, obviously).

    The arguments often arise because people who are slightly more focused on one aspect believe that the others do not value it AT ALL. Hence we get “Gove is taking all the fun out of education” and “Progressive teachers just want to sit on the carpet and play”.

    Whilst I agree with most of the rest of what you write here, I think that emphasising a chasm between two ‘sides’ is making the problem seem worse than it actually is.

    Perhaps that is your view but is seems very pessimistic to me.

    • I think this is a real issue and unavoidable. As long as “kids will find that boring” or “you can’t expect kids like these to want to do that” or “well that won’t engage the sort of learners we have” is considered an argument against a particular teaching method or particular content then it is inevitable that schools will continue to fail to teach certain things well.

  5. I’d just like to raise a point about the issue of ‘evidence’. Certainly there’s nowhere in teaching where we have evidence that’s as strong as that in, say, medicine for instance. But the field of cognitive psychology perhaps comes closest to being able to provide that kind of evidence. And I feel concerned that this sort of evidence simply doesn’t seem to play a role in educational psychology. I don’t teach children, I teach ESOL to adults. But i’m increasingly becoming concerned about practices that don’t seem to have any basis in evidence, and in fact actually contradict what I know about (for example) short-term working memory, long-term memory, organization of information, cognitive architecture, etc. I feel I’m expected to use practices which are at best useless and may be actually harmful. And I’m really bothered by that. And I don’t think the evidence of cognitive psychology should be ignored.

    • I wasn’t suggesting there is no evidence, just that there is no consensus on what counts as evidence which would enable anyone to side-step a broader ideological debate by appealing to it. There is evidence against specific claims made in education debate, although it’s rare for anyone to modify their position in light of it.

  6. Reblogged this on The Modern Miss and commented:
    Another thought provoking post from Old Andrew. Of course, the politicians who dictate educational policy have generally not been exposed to it whilst at school themselves, having been privately educated, and they rarely subject their own children to it. So playing around with education policies is perfectly viable – because if it all goes wrong, it’s someone else’s education you jeopardise, not your own.

  7. I was lucky enough to be invited to a policy discussion last year in which a couple of dozen of us had a chance to quiz Gove directly, and from memory all of the points you raise came up in that discussion.

    I think Gove is very strong on 1 and 2: he understands that there’s an ideological battle and he explicitly stated that he doesn’t think there’s any prospect of taking on “the blob” in a debate and winning, because they simply do not accept the same terms of debate. It’s a dead end. Interestingly, his answer lies in 3, what he called “facts on the ground”. When people say “children like this cannot succeed in a traditional academic curriculum” you can’t debate them on that point because minds are fixed, but if you have real schools with real children “like these” who are succeeding, then you can bypass the establishment and directly persuade parents, who will want more schools exactly like that. His view is that academies and free schools will throw up enough schools like that that they can’t all be dismissed as outliers or exceptions, and pressure will grow to copy their approach elsewhere. He assumes (I think rightly, but we’ll see!) that these methods will be traditional, involving good behaviour and teachers who teach.

    In other words, I don’t think he expects all academies and free schools to suddenly out-perform LEA schools. Rather, that the freedom will produce more variation, different methods or ideas will be tried and some will be seen to work better than others. Those more successful ideas will then be taken up by other schools, and eventually even those ideologically opposed to the successful methods will be dragged along. In that sense, you can clearly see the link to his work with Ben Goldacre about experimental trials in schools.

    However, I think 5 and 6 are where he’s weaker. It’s unclear how experimental schools using traditional teaching and high standards of behaviour can ever prove to be a success if they are sabotaged by OFSTED, and although Gove does recognise that danger and presumably installed Sir Michael to tackle it, it’s apparent that he’s having little success on the ground. Likewise, in getting governing bodies who are capable of standing up to a head who’s taking the wrong route. And of course we’re now only 2 years away from the next general election, Labour are favourite to win so Gove and Wilshaw will be out. I imagine that anything that isn’t done inside the next year will not be done, and considering how little they’ve achieved so far with OFSTED it seems likely that there’ll be no lasting effect. I think that’s why it’s important to target people like Tristram Hunt who has form for seeing sense.

    One other feather in Gove’s cap, as far as I’m concerned, is that not only does he tackle progressive educationalists he also tackles Conservatives who want a return to grammar schools. I think that’s often missed in a debate that’s dominated by arguments for and against progressive ideas: there’s been virtually no debate about grammar schools and despite some scaremongering, no attempt to reintroduce them. A populist Conservative education secretary interested in appealing to his own party’s somewhat disaffected right would be straight into grammar schools, but Gove has staunchly resisted. His view, I think, is that it would be a pointless structural change that would please a lot of already high-achieving middle class folks, but wouldn’t tackle the real problem of chronic underachievement and low expectations across the board.

    Apologies for the overly long comment! I’m afraid I didn’t have time to write a short one.

    • An excellent comment – I’m glad it wasn’t any shorter. I wish your brand of thoughtfulness and fairness was evident below the line in other education blogs.

  8. The ideology point is well made, but I think this is true of many things. I advocate privatisation of schools plus education vouchers. Then we can find out whose ideology is right.

  9. […] evidence to shore up our own side. If that happens then as @oldandrewuk has said many times, all we have is a never -ending educational battleground from which any government, institution, policy is only going to work for the purpose of supporting […]

  10. I am too old now to have your babies but I still love you.

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