This poll explains why there is conflict between primary and secondary teachers on Twitter

April 10, 2017

My most recent post was about the trolling of educational traditionalists on social media and I will probably return to this topic, if only to discuss the various excuses given for it.

However, a few responses raised the possibility that traditionalists are trolling by commenting on the primary sector. This is not a new line of attack. I have long since learnt that primary teachers on Twitter (or very often those who claim to be on their side but aren’t actually working in the classroom) are one of the more sensitive groups on Twitter, perhaps only rivaled by enthusiasts for education technology at the art of taking offence. Massive conflicts have arisen over play-based learning, phonics, picture books, outcomes in year 6, KS2 test reliability and lying to kids, that all start from the position that for secondary teachers to question practices or beliefs in primary is a personal insult to those in the primary sector, even if there appears to be some diversity of opinion within the sector and plenty of primary teachers telling secondary teachers what to do. So much so that I had in the past mocked this tendency with this tweet:

It had got so out of hand lately, that I thought I’d try to look into whether attitudes really are different. So I set up this Twitter poll:

This seems like a lot of votes for a Twitter poll, but obviously we can assume that it is representative only of teachers on education Twitter who saw it and were motivated enough to vote, rather than primary or secondary teachers in general (although that would make an interesting bit of research). I think it is probably a fair indicator of the attitudes of the teachers I encounter on Twitter, if not any larger group. And it does seem to show a really remarkable difference, with a sizeable majority of the secondary teachers thinking standards need to improve in secondary, and an even bigger majority of primary teachers thinking standards don’t need to improve in primary schools.

Explaining this result is trickier. Perhaps standards are already much higher in primary. Off the top of my head, I seem to recall OFSTED have tended to grade primary schools higher than secondary, although the issues over the accuracy of their inspections and the nature of inspectors’ preferences have been well documented. I also seem to remember there is some international evidence that students in England keep up with students in other countries at primary level and fall behind at secondary, however, I suspect this may reflect an earlier school starting age here which might well result in a head start, the effects of which gradually diminish over time. If anyone can provide a summary of the evidence on either point, I’d be very grateful. An alternative explanation might be that primary teachers are more likely to see the system as being them whereas secondary teachers are more likely to see the system as something that gets in the way. Alternatively, perhaps secondary teachers are more loyal to their subject than their sector (although in my experience secondary teachers on social media are as likely to be as critical of practices in their subject area as they are of any other aspect of the secondary sector).

But perhaps the more important point is not why this is the case, but what it means for debate. If most secondary school teachers I am reaching are thinking that things need to improve in their sector, then it could well mean that they will be more receptive to criticism of the system, more willing to believe things could be better, more inclined to accept change and more willing to acknowledge the need for accountability (whether that’s through results or inspection). Meanwhile the primary teachers I reach might be less receptive to criticism of the system, less willing to believe proposals for improvement will work, more hostile to change and less willing to concede the need for accountability. In the case of ill-thought-out, faddish changes, this might give primary teachers the advantage. In the case of sensible suggestions to raise standards, or debate about what could be done better,  it might be a disadvantage for them. In the case of getting anyone to acknowledge things that have gone badly wrong in primary, this might be a real problem. No wonder, it is often a struggle to get primary teachers to acknowledge, say, secondary teachers’ concerns about the weaknesses of year 7 students or misconceptions that have been taught by non-subject specialists at primary that then have to be rectified at secondary. Ironically the response from primary teachers is often to challenge what happens at Key Stage 3, perhaps unaware that secondary teachers themselves are not the biggest fans of what happens at Key Stage 3.

And, of course, this also leaves speculation as to whether these attitudes are representative of more than just those I reach on Twitter. If attitudes differ beyond this corner of Twitter, then there might be a message for politicians, civil servants, policy experts and trade unions. Perhaps reforming primary will always be a battle, whereas reforms of secondary will find tend to some support in the profession. Perhaps the sectors do need to be treated very differently. Perhaps primary teachers are more likely to accept new ideas if they are presented as something completely new, that nobody could have expected to have already been doing, and secondary teachers are more likely to accept ideas that include a critique of what is already happening.

I’d like to hear your analysis of what I found, although if it consists of claims that I am attacking primary teachers then I will take it as evidence that my analysis was about right.



  1. When Ed is fully Trad 3-18, 100% will have 12 A* GCSEs, 5 A Alevels, all go to Oxford or Cambridge, get head-hunted by Deloitte. Sorted. Let’s go for it.

  2. Most primary school teachers receive three years’ exposure to a seductive vision of a transformative ideology, and if you’ve just emerged from 6th form with 3 Es, it’s unlikely that you will have the ability to ‘think critically’ about it. Still less are you likely to question it when you get your first post, where you are unlikely to encounter many apostates.

    This said, six to ten years ago I delivered training programmes for our Wave 3 literacy intervention to a lot of primary schools, and nearly all of them were quite ready to accept that synthetic phonics was the way forward. The fact that the head or Senco at their school was interested in our programme was in itself evidence of their willingness to question their beliefs. The support we got from ed psychs and SEN advisers in selected LAs also made a difference. Still, I was always a little cautious about direct assaults on progressive ideology, but on one occasion when I addressed a cluster of Gloustershire teachers I laid into VAK. It went down surprisingly well; after the talk, one teacher commented that “We know what we’re doing now isn’t working”.

    The other side of the coin is the popularity of Kagan with secondary schools. Sadly, the quickest route out of the classroom for incompetent secondary teachers is the accumlation of postgraduate degrees in education–preferably up to PhD. I expect that SLTs are on the whole much less traditionally-minded than less exalted teachers.

    While I’m sure your straw poll is a reasonably accurate reflection of attitudes in both sectors, what I find interesting is the substantial minorities who were out of step with the majority of their colleagues.

  3. Good morning. Firstly, you raise many good questions though mostly on the basis of speculation rather than fact. Twitter polls are about as reliable as chocolate gloves.

    From a primary perspective there has been much change recently and expectations are now at an all time high. I have been in education for over 20 years and the quality of teaching has changed at an ever increasing rate. I have no problem in saying this is the most best generation of teachers I have ever worked with. i also believe without a shred of guilt that academically I now send the most able academic students in to Y7.

    I have been a secondary governor for a number of years now and I also work with secondaries as a leader of education. I do get what you say when you mention that departments might be loyal to the subject but may not be so loyal to the collective. I often see secondaries as satellites of very different practice, opinions and results. Much more so than primaries. This may also have much to do with expectations, exams, status etc… In primary there are divides between EYFS, KS1 and KS2 – do a poll which asks where are standards better here.

    Whatever the answers as to why there is a primary/ secondary divide nothing will be gained by sniping, back stabbing and general nastiness. I am a strong believer that primary schools should follow their Y6 through (in my last school I attended GCSE day to see how our students did). I believe you should have their results up on your wall and celebrate and review how they did. I also believe that SATs should be at the beginning of Y7, as this would give a greater indication of ability. I feel that much rancour towards primaries is because they have had to play the SATs game with more and more urgency… this may have created the biggest divide between us.

  4. I don’t know if this has any bearing on the results, but when I, as a primary practitioner read the question (are standards in primary good enough?) I wasn’t sure if this mean ‘are the standards children are expected to reach by the end of primary good enough?’ to which the answer would be a resounding yes – given the massive hike in the new curriculum, embodied in the ks2 sats tests. Or did it mean ‘are the standards primary pupils actually reach good enough?’ to which the answer is surely no – given that only 53% of children managed to obtain the expected standard last year. Although possibly there is a variety of opinion within primary as to whether the expected standard is actually now too high to be achievable. Personally, given time – which of course we haven’t been – I think we will get most students to the expected standard in maths. I’m not so sure about reading as the test last year so so difficult and if that really does represent the new benchmark I am not sure how achievable it really is for a substantial minority of pupils. As for writing, there is definitely scope for improvement in ensuring almost all children are secure with the basics of punctuation, spelling and grammatical coherence for a minority of pupils. Having said that, primary children are now more literate and numerate than they have ever been.

    In the end I decided it meant the latter, so voted no. But I was wary that this could be interpreted as saying ‘please make the tests even harder’ which is not at all what I’m saying. Maybe primary colleagues had similar concerns?

    I don’t sign up to the notion that primary schools are a hot bed of touchy progressives with their heads in the sand about what research says about teaching effectiveness. (Although of course we are a diverse bunch covering the full spectrum of opinion). But as I have written before, http://primarytimery.com/2016/12/18/journey-to-michaela-prime-a-new-hope, I reckon progressivism is more of a secondary problem that a primary problem, partly because secondary colleagues had to endure the 2008 National curriculum revision whereas the 2009 primary version was shelved when the Coalition government got it. I’m not saying we are all signed up traditionalists but I would contend that secondary is more progressive than primary is.

    However, most of us have limited experience of the national picture. I know quite a lot about what primary schools are like in Tower Hamlets and Hackney, but not a clue what goes on in say Cornwall or Northumberland. When quirky teacher writes about her school I am incredulous; it sounds like a different planet from what I’m used to. Is primary teaching generally more like the progressivism she describes or more like the practice I see and hear discussed by my colleagues in London? Of course, I think the latter, but not having toured the nation, what do I really know?

  5. I am not a teacher I am however a parent. I have been listening to many teachers for many years, and through their multiple of emails and discussions with them, here’s what they have told me.

    High school teachers are specialists and primary teachers mostly are not. There is a huge disparity between the two groups, much of it focused on gaps of student development and a huge gap exists about how to fix this. The progressive, child centred approach is very well accepted at the primary level, yet is mostly ignored at the high school levels because at that point huge gaps of student learning is very evident. Much finger pointing is then placed on parents, for not being more involved in their children’s education, and then the inevitable excuses start to follow: lack of ed funding, not enough time, class sizes etc. etc…all completely missing the point.

    In my own humble opinion, and observations now over the past 11 years that my children have been in the public system, is this:

    1. the problem doesn’t stem with the teacher, it stems from the system. When School Heads, union heads and educationists are all pushing this constructivist crap on teachers, those at the primary level are more easily swayed perhaps because kids are more new to the system, also their specialty isn’t as specific as it is at the high school level. At the high school level, teachers already see the damage these attitudes/policies have done on kids and stay away from them.

    2. conversations that I have personally had with my children’s teachers have always been more productive at the higher level. At the primary level, teachers stuck to their teaching plan and when I asked about how to help my kids they didn’t really know. Again, this isn’t me blaming them, but i do believe the system is not HELPING them either. I would never tell a teacher how to do their job, but I do believe we all need to know if something isn’t working based on hard thought feedback and be open to other solutions if there’s a problem.

    3. I have received a huge amount of support and heard from many more high school teachers in our advocacy than I have from primary teachers. I’ll leave that comment right there; thanks for writing about this.

  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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