My post for @LabourTeachers : The Five Worst Education Clichés

May 27, 2016

I wrote a post for Labour Teachers the week before last. As it was about education, I thought I’d share it here. Graphics courtesy of @JamesTheo.

George Orwell, in Politics And The English Language, described how a stock phrase, or cliché, could stifle thought. Sentiments that seem disreputable, if clearly expressed, will instead be expressed obscurely and in familiar, over-used phrases.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

If I had to identify the phrases used in education that do most to obscure the clear expression of ideas, I would pick the following:


1) “regurgitating facts”. This cliché has become such a crutch for those who oppose testing that I’ve seen it used twice in the same Guardian letters page. But as unpleasant as it sounds, it means little more than “recalling knowledge”. You could argue that the word “facts” indicates a particularly disjointed or atomised form of knowledge, but in practice it would be hard to distinguish between information recalled as facts and that recalled in any other form. Regurgitation might seem to suggest that the recalled knowledge is in some way undigested, but how do we “digest” knowledge other than by recalling it?


2) “a political football”. Education, properly understood, involves consideration of what is worth learning. This is a  philosophical argument, and one where its conclusions will determine the spending of billions of pounds of public money. This is necessarily and obviously political. To put the power to make such ideological judgements outside of democratic control, seems immediately tyrannical. And that’s where this cliché comes in. Public discourse involving those who have been elected to office and are subject to public scrutiny, is dismissed as a game by those who would see less democracy in education and more bureaucracy and control by unaccountable vested interests.


3)  “exam factories”. Another cliché used to argue against academic education and testing. Rather than arguing over what forms of assessment work, or are necessary, we have this dismissal of exams and the implication is that to actually find out objectively, and on a large scale, what is being learnt in schools requires an artificial and mechanical process. While exam systems can be bureaucratic and unhelpful, only in education would objectivity and efficiency be feared. Though the greatest irony here is that, in many respects, the alternatives to exams might seem more like factory work. Anyone involved in the “manufacture” of coursework might see the irony here. Those recommending subjective teacher assessment as an alternative to exams are surely only imitating the “performance management” culture of many private companies, including those that run factories.


4) “educating the whole child”. An odd phrase, given that I have never met a teacher that sought only to educate parts of a child. In practice, of course, it is not the child that is to be treated as a whole, but their life. If you want to extend the scope of education beyond the academic, into therapy, social work, entertainment, preaching and parenting, then this cliché can be used to suggest all aspects of a child’s life fall in the domain of teachers. If you have any faith in parents or a wider community; any belief learning is so important that there should be a profession dedicated to helping children with this above all else, or if you are simply concerned about the intrusion of the state into family life and leisure, then you can, as a teacher, happily develop the whole child’s intellect without feeling you are only doing part of your job.


5) “one size fits all”. We tend to assume that, at least as a default, human beings should have equal rights and equal entitlements. Therefore, if children are to be treated differently, we would hope to justify it by demonstrating that the outcomes might still be equal or, if that’s not the case, by demonstrating that inequality is justified in pursuit of another aim. The “one size fits all” cliché, beloved both of right wing advocates of selection and left wing opponents of an academic tradition, seeks to reverse this principle. Suddenly those who support equal rights and equal entitlements for all children are expected to explain why they are ignoring differences between children, rather than those who support inequality demonstrating that the differences they perceive justify different and/or unequal treatment.

My challenge to anyone who feels inclined to use any of these phrases in education discussion is to try to express the same idea in your own words. If you find that this makes your argument fall apart, or your opinion seem less plausible, then take this as an indicator that it is time to reconsider.


  1. The thing that annoys me is the politicising of it. I have concerns about unqualified teachers, over use of statistics especially in small groups to “show” progress, mass exam coaching and so on.

    The thing that hacks me off is that too many “Labour teachers” seem to pretend this is purely a function of Conservative governments, apparently. I would suggest that Blair/Brown were if anything more obsessed with those statistics – Cameron is a bit useless but one thing they do seem to have done is addressed (a bit) the mass dumbing down (another cliche) of examinations in the quest for “better results”. My children are 18 and 21 now and I remember exactly what was so bad about Year 6 when my daughter was at school (I removed my son to private education a year early because of it). The school which I am a governor is still bothered by the bingo numbers, but the spending-all-year-6-practicing-SATs-exams seems to be less prevalent.

    Possibly because politicians have finally sussed that virtually nobody is stupid enough to believe education has improved to the degree the numbers claim …

    As for things like unqualified teachers, I remember that nitwit Twigg raving about them and the evils of the Tory party (coalition then I think ?), this goes back to the 2003 Education act when HLTAs and CSs were brought in. The teaching equivalent of PCSOs (cheap police), Nursing Assistants (cheap nurses) and Nurse Practitioners (cheap doctors) they were exactly the same, viz. a great idea in theory, in practice used to save money (in this case, to pay for the unfunded 10% PPA time) and lets not worry too much about whether it actually works as long as it looks good. I often wondered if PCSOs were given their odd name because it is bracketed by “Police … Officers” so some nitwit could say “there are more Police … Officers than ever before” …

    This behaviour (and things like burning effigies of Gove which makes teachers look like mentally defective three year olds) make any serious effort to address issues moot, because Politicians can argue that it’s all political moves to support Labour.

    And they’re right.

    • Ah, but Blair was a Tory. Don’t you read your messages from the Corbynites?

  2. If unqualified teachers are a threat to the profession, then we can only wonder why so many independent schools employ them. I’d far rather have my children taught by someone who knows their subject than by someone who has spent three or four years having all of Andrew’s cliches drilled into their heads in pursuit of a BEd and QTS. The largest study of its kind, conducted by the USDoE and published in 2009, found that there was no significant difference in children’s academic progress regardless of whether (or how) their teachers were qualified.

    Sadly, even a degree in an academic subject is no longer evidence of adequate subject knowledge. The relentless expansion of HE has inevitably led to a serious drop in both the average ability of graduates and the content of the courses they study. Recently, a science teacher complained to me that many recent Physics graduates with PGCEs don’t know enough to teach their subject to GCSE, let alone A-level. It’s very hard to see how the situation can be turned around.

    • I Indy schools unqualified teachers are qualified in their subject, have teaching experience. Parents wouldn’t accept it. In state schools they are just the mums army given a class.

      • In primary schools, this is often true. But the same objections listed above apply–the person who teaches your child maths is highly unlikely to have an A-level in maths, let alone a degree. Indeed, many of them will have no more that a C in GCSE maths. When Sir Robin Williams conducted his reveiw of primary maths a few years back, he concluded that raising the bar to a B in GCSE maths would lead to a teacher shortage.

        On the other hand, a degree in education will equip you with a whole range of cliches–there’s a lot more brain-dead ideas in ITT than those contained in the cliches Andrew lists above.

        I’ve delivered a lot of inset in primary schools–overwhelmingly the good ones, as they were buying into our Wave 3 intervention because it had performed well in idependent trials, and not because we were the CPD flavour of the month for passing the next Ofsted inspection. Our materials were usually delivered by TAs, so obviously they were always present. They were seldom so crass as to differentiate themselves as to who had QTS and who didn’t, and I could never tell the difference.

        We will always have a lot of crappy schools for so long as we don’t have enough good teachers. Artificially restricting the supply by demanding QTS is hardly the way to go about solving the problem.

        • Errr. not in my experience anyway, independent senior schools (and prep schools to some extent), the (example) Maths teacher has a qualification in Maths. At higher levels, the parents won’t put up with it because they are paying for it. They don’t mind odd lessons here and there, but the state system where HLTA and CS are really teaching groups on the cheap (the real problem).

          In state schools, parents put up with what they are given.

          There are two basic different types of “unqualified teachers”.

          1) Those who have Physics, Maths or whatever qualification but haven’t done QTS. Some of these have been teaching for years and years.

          2) Those who are often “mums off the street” who will have qualifications from nothing to maybe a few GCSEs who have done a short course (if you are lucky) and are CSs and HLTAs.

          State schools have type (2) and Independents type (1).

          I know nothing about the BEd but having been involved in QTS I have concluded it is pretty useless in detemining teacher competency or not, tick box nonsense. I did a PGCE nigh on 30 years ago and that wasn’t much use either.

  3. […] they are recalling knowledge. Move on. As blogger Andrew Old stated in his brilliant blog for Labour Teachers recently, this is a cliché that “has become such a crutch for those who […]

  4. […] I’ve fallen into a cliché – rebutted in this post here […]

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