Category Archives: Education

Excluded by Policy

This post is dedicated to the memory of Tessa Jowell, who died on Friday. She has been lauded as the Minister who drove forward the UK’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. But arguably, her greatest legacy was the introduction of the Sure Start programme. This was a valued and evidence-based programme to help disadvantaged children in their early years development. Sadly, this programme had been decimated by Osborne’s ill-conceived austerity policy.

Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell

I was speaking to a head teacher I know well recently. He told me that, sadly, he has had to make the first exclusions from his school this year, after previously succeeding for many years to avoid this. He made a direct link between curriculum changes and exclusions – a link I had not previously made myself.

I understand that exclusions are up considerably in other local schools, too.

School Budgets

As a Chair of Governors myself, I am only too aware of the effects of cuts to school budgets: difficult decisions have to be made. With the lion’s share of the budget going in salaries, this inevitably means fewer staff. With statutory requirements around class sizes, it is the support staff who tend to get reduced in number. This makes it more difficult to keep “hard to handle” pupils in mainstream school provision.

The vicious 40% cuts to Local Government budgets from central government have also severely reduced the capacity of second-line support to these vulnerable pupils. A double whammy.

Sure Start

The head reminded me – it’s a secondary school – that they are now seeing children who were unable to take up Sure Start schemes owing to the squeeze on LA budgets, when much of the Sure Start programme was cut back. Much of what Sure Start was about was to enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up in their development with their middle-class peers, so they didn’t have to play catch-up during their school years. Prevention is always better – and cheaper – than cure.

Youth Services

One obvious effect of swingeing LA budget cuts is the decimation of Youth Services. It does not take a genius to work out that, if there is less for kids to do out of school, the temptation to get into trouble is correspondingly greater. Obvious, really.

Curriculum Changes

The one bit I hadn’t twigged was the connection between Gove’s curriculum changes and the rise in exclusions. It all stems from the higher status afforded to academic subjects by the English. The pressure on all 16 year olds to take subjects from the EBacc list narrows the curriculum choices – in particular, away from vocational subjects. These academic subjects are often less suited to children with learning and behaviour issues and further reduces their self-esteem. This, in turn, encourages poor behaviour and the risk of exclusion.

So, in summary, higher exclusion rates follow directly from a toxic cocktail of Tory policy changes (i.e. curriculum changes and budget cuts).

Grammar Schools

Meanwhile, the Government announces it will waste £50m on “expanding” grammar schools – an evidence-free Theresa May vanity project which solves nothing, a subject I first raised back in 2015.

Ho hum.


Madness, Madness, I Call It Madness

I was in conversation with a fellow experienced Chair of Governors the other day. She spoke of “one of those heart-sinking moments” when she heard that Theresa May was planning to revive grammar schools, now confirmed. Between us, we have over 40 years’ experience volunteering as school governors. We agreed it almost feels like we’ve wasted our time all these years trying to help the schools we serve to raise standards and life chances for our pupils.

I call the proposal madness, sheer madness, for several reasons set out later in this post.

Enjoy Yourself

I have a broad picture of education policy and practice over my lifetime. I believe it is true that, back in the 1960s and 70s, education policy was, to some extent, driven by fashion. The latest ideas, the sexier-sounding the better, were implemented with little more basis than he (or she) who shouts loudest. Some of these ideas worked and have been retained in some form. Some didn’t and have fallen by the wayside. The most radical change in this period was the near-universal abolition of the 11-plus and the growth of comprehensive education. (More comprehensives opened under Margaret Thatcher’s period as Education Secretary than any other’s.)

Sure Start centre
Sure Start centre

The period from the late 70s through to 2000 saw a developing professionalism in the practice of pedagogy. University education departments and institutions such as the National College for Teaching and Leadership carried out research into what works. There was a steady upward trend in evidence-led changes to education policy. Key initiatives in the New Labour years included two important reforms above all:

  • Every Child Matters, an antidote to narrow exam results as the only indicator of success. It stressed that every child, whatever their background or circumstances, should have the support they need to stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.
  • Sure Start centres, in recognition of the research which showed the importance of early years learning. Neuroscientific research has found that a child’s brain is 25% developed at birth, 80% developed by the aged of three. A US study found that the vocabulary used by three year olds in professional households was wider than that of the parents from the most deprived households. Those early years are crucial. Disadvantaged kids are way behind those more fortunate, long before they even start school.

Propaganda Ministers

The steady progress in implementing what works came to an abrupt halt in 2010 with the arrival of Michael Gove as Education Secretary. Policy making by evidence was replaced by ministerial whim. The logic behind the creation of academy schools was turned on its head. Free schools were introduced, spending public funds where groups lobbied for one, rather than where new places were needed. Local authorities were stripped of their powers to open new schools. This has led to the situation where local government has the legal duty to find a school place for everyone on their patch but without the powers to make it happen. The free schools programme was based on a Swedish initiative that was already being disowned by the politician who had introduced the scheme to Sweden. Funding for early years was slashed and 800 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010.

Compare this situation to Germany, where education is a non-political issue and structures and exam standards have barely changed in decades. In England, constant tinkering with curriculum and exam structures have left teacher confused and overworked. In the last school year alone, 14 changes to the Key Stage 2 curriculum were announced and, on the date pupils sat their SATs exams, the government hadn’t decided what the standards would be for the results.

No wonder teachers are leaving the profession in their droves or applying to emigrate to saner pastures abroad. When coupled to the shortfall in places filled on teacher training courses, I predict a major crisis of teacher shortages in 3-5 years’ time.

It’s Gonna Be Tougher

And now, to cap it all, we have Theresa May, without any electoral mandate, announcing the potential expansion of grammar schools. This is based on the entirely false argument that such schools aid social mobility. My earlier blog post, Stuck Inside of Mobile, explains why this is plain wrong. Briefly, it was the expansion in middle-class jobs in the economy of the 1950s and 60s, together with much more egalitarian tax and fiscal policies, which created opportunities for schoolchildren to find better jobs than their parents. It is merely coincidence that we had a more selective system at the time.

Even if the argument were true, times have changed significantly. Selective education at 11 was at a time when only 7% of students went to university (it’s now nearly 50%) and we had a major manufacturing base to absorb the 80-90% of 11-plus failures into work. But the social stigma and psychological damage of being branded a failure at eleven would be as true today as it was then.

Schools work best when there is a reasonable number of brighter children and pushy parents to support teachers in raising expectations and when the proportion of children from low-achieving, dysfunctional families is small. Too many of the latter can absorb a disproportionate amount of energy for school staff, That’s energy which could be applied for the benefit of all. With inspiring leadership and excellent teaching, good schools can close the prior attainment gap over the whole duration of a child’s schooling. Putting the majority of children into the slow lane at the arbitrary age of eleven makes no sense and offends every idea of helping the disadvantaged.

grammar school photo
Grammar School Days

Remaining grammar schools have 3% of the intake entitled to free school meals, compared to 15% for all schools. Better-off parents can pay for private tuition to help their children pass the 11-plus. Good evidence exists of the effect of selection on pupil achievement. In selective areas, pupils in selective schools perform, on average, very slightly better than they would have done in a non-selective system. But the vast majority of children at, in effect, secondary moderns, perform far worse than their comprehensive-taught counterparts elsewhere. In short, selection makes it tougher overall to succeed.

Who’s Goin’ to Suffer?

The analysis is very clear: the disadvantaged children suffer worst under a selective system.

I’m often intrigued to see what hatred, distortions, delusions and lies are spewed out in the Daily Mail, or at least by peeking at its front-page headlines. Today’s was an absolute classic of its kind. The sub-heading read “All schools could become grammar schools”. How, exactly? For every grammar schools created, you need at least three secondary moderns. Or wait… I look forward to the apoplectic Daily Mail headlines of the future when 80% of schoolchildren have failed the entrance test for all the schools in their area and are roaming the streets in feral gangs!

My earlier blog post, Confused and Bewildered, took a sceptical view of Theresa May’s inaugural speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street. You know, the one where she promised to work for the disadvantaged. I said then that new Tory Prime Ministers have form on doing the opposite of what they say in the first flush of their appointment. Well, May has just taken the first step in that dishonourable tradition.

In memory of Prince Buster (Cecil Campbell) 1938-2016


Free Market Thinking Is Not the Answer

It should be obvious by now that free markets are not the solution to every problem. Sadly, too many people in power still haven’t learnt this simple truth. Here are two examples, one recent, one ongoing.

Schools Need Planning

School signAbout two years ago, the Chief Executive of a Local Education Authority was expressing the frustrations of her job. The essential problem was that she was responsible in law to ensure that sufficient places were available for all children who needed them in her area, but did not have the powers to bring this about. This ludicrous state of affairs first came about in 2010 when Michael Gove became Education Secretary. Gove’s ideological obsession for free schools (inspired by a Swedish example already disowned in Sweden) had removed the power for local government to create or expand their own schools. The famous “free market” would somehow step in and do the job. It didn’t: free schools were built, at great expense, in the wrong places.

Hardly anyone agrees with govenment policy. Unions and professional associations are opposed. The Local Government Association is against forced academisation. In mid April, Conservative MPs in the Commons  opposed the policy too. A week earlier, councils warned that there will be a shortage of school places, with 40% of councils affected. Local authorities are not allowed to open new schools. The so-called “free market”, of free schools and academy chains, is somehow supposed to fill the gap. It hasn’t happened. It’s not going to happen. The proportion of parents getting their first choice school for their children is falling. Markets are no substitute for local knowledge and planning. The problems were largely avoidable, but for dogma and ideology.

Carbon Credits Don’t Work

School places are a problem for this country and the problem is contained. A much more serious, longer-term and globally important issue is that of man-made global warming. The evidence for this was first flagged up by scientists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first serious international conference on climate change was held in Toronto in 1988. 1992 saw the first UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, by then, the ideology of free market fundamentalism had really begun to take hold of the thinking of governments throughout the world.

If we had still being operating the kind of interventionist policies which were mainstream throughout the western world until the late 1970s, things may well have turned out differently. The 1960s and 1970s saw a series of strong government interventions in many countries. DDT was banned, various Clear Air and Clean Water Acts were passed, along with legislation protecting wildlife on land and in the oceans. Regulate, control and ban: these were the weapons governments were willing and able to use.

By the time a consensus on climate change had emerged, government attitudes had changed. Markets were the solution; governments must not interfere or enact “anti-business” policies. Instead of direct intervention, free market thinking created the concept of carbon caps, credits and emissions trading. This was a ridiculously roundabout way to achieve the intended aims of reducing carbon emissions. Variations in global economic growth added wild fluctuations to the price of carbon credits. The scope for fraudulent use of credits and of corruption quickly turned into reality.

planet earth
Planet Earth

Once again, the barrier to clearly thought-through policy development resulting from free market dogma prevented the implementation of effective solutions to an increasingly urgent problem: man-made global warming. Only this time, the problem is not confined to one small country. It affects everyone on the planet.

Markets Aren’t the Answer, Stupid

Markets are fine in their place. Choosing which can of baked beans to buy, for example. There are no significant externalities which escape the market mechanism. Such as the quality of education for a generation of schoolchildren. Or the future of life on earth. It’s high time governments woke up to this stark but simple fact.


I Am Not a Number!

Those of you who are old enough will remember the cult 1960s series The Prisoner. Number Six’s famous outburst, shown below, came to mind when I heard about the government’s latest announcement of their education “policy”.

i am not a numberLet me explain…

Parents: You’re Needed! Er, No You’re Not!

On Budget day, we heard from Nicky Morgan’s apparent new boss, George Osborne, that all schools will be forced to become academies. Next day, Education Secretary Morgan abolished the rule which requires schools to have parent governors on their governing bodies. What really matters now, said Morgan, are the skills which individual governors bring. She clearly means skills like finance, marketing, law and so on. Business skills. Hardly surprising: academies are much more like businesses than local authority run schools.

Just five short years ago, Morgan’s predecessor Michael Gove launched his pet project: the free schools programme. One of the selling points was all about parent power. Parents will be free to set up schools and be in the driving seat. Now, suddenly, for no apparent reason, parents are out of fashion. The very people who have a significant stake in a school – the pupils’ parents – no longer have views and inputs that matter. Why the U-turn?

It’s the Ideology, Stupid!

Amid all the current rows about last week’s budget fiasco, IDS versus Cameron and so on, one thing remains constant. Underneath all the differences is a belief shared by all the protagonists in the Tory cabinet. It’s the continuing unshaking faith in free market fundamentalism. (See many of my earlier posts for more on this.) A key token of belief in this faith is that there’s only one motive that matters which drives human behaviour. That’s the pursuit of material self-interest.

Worker / Consumer Factories

Viewed in this light, we can glean the government’s view of the purpose of schools. That’s to turn out obedient, law-abiding consumers:  consumers with the work skills to support “UK plc” in its competition with its competitor countries. (Hence the obsession with international league tables.) And consumers whose aspirations are to purchase the goods and services that FMF capitalism produces, thereby increasing the profits of the large corporations who fund the Tory party. In this analysis, a human life can be reduced to a number: the “profit” he or she makes for UK plc. (In other words, the value of their labour minus the value of their goods and services consumed.)

What an empty, amoral, vacuous existence this entails for humanity! Where’s the quality of relationships, the sense of common purpose, the love, the joy of a beautiful sunset or the smell of roses? With schools’ purpose reduced to purely instrumental terms, where’s the value of learning for its own sake – the joy of discovering new things? Where are the rounded human beings of the future, the respect for human dignity? All irrelevant, it seems.

No wonder half the teachers want to leave the profession within five years and that there are key shortages of teachers right now. No wonder mental health problems in children are increasing and we have some of the unhappiest, most stressed, over-tested children in the world.

Morgan: Do Some Learning Yourself!

Nicky Morgan worked in corporate law on mergers and acquisitions before becoming an MP. She’s worked at the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills before her education brief. It’s time she tried to understand that brief, to reflect on what it means to be human and what education is for.



Tangled Up in the Web

This is a cautionary tale about the perils of internet browsing. You can’t believe all you read – perhaps not even this post!

Just a few years ago, Michael Gove was in full flow trying to single-handedly destroy education in Britain by his reforms. On more than one occasion, in discussion, I found myself in agreement with head teachers and other professionals on this subject. In particular, we agreed that Gove was intent on improving the skills of our school pupils: the skills needed for life in 1950s Britain. Changes to the curriculum and testing would measure pupils’ ability to remember and regurgitate facts.

I also found agreement about a key skill that I think is vital to equip our children for life in the 21st century. In this internet age, with instant access to unlimited amounts of information, being able to assess the validity and reliability of something read on the web is essential. Taking a sceptical approach, to think for oneself and to carry out proper research are essential tools to equip anyone for modern life.

I learnt this lesson for myself again recently – the hard way.

web of lies
Web of lies?

The Act That Wasn’t

I use the internet frequently to try to establish the “facts” before writing many of my blog posts. I was considering a piece on how, in Britain, there is a lack of informed debate on just how good, or bad, the former British Empire was – for us Brits and for those in our former colonies. I was already pretty convinced from prior knowledge about one stark fact. Historians now generally agree that somewhere between 20 and 40 million Indians died in the late 19th century as a direct result of British Imperial policies and legislation. A whole series of avoidable famines and deaths ensued.

I have a memory of something I’d read a few years earlier about a law passed by the Indian Imperial Government making it illegal for concerned individuals to raise charitable donations for famine relief – lest the corn traders’ profits were affected. And yes – after a bit of web browsing – I found it again. It’s called the 1877 Anti-Humanitarian Act. There’s just one problem: there was no such Act.

This article summarises what happened. A Californian academic, historian Mike Davis, wrote about it in a 2000 book called Late Victorian Holocausts. Guardian journalist George Monbiot picked up the story in a 2005 article, which is presumably where I first heard about it. Davis got it from a book called The Famine Campaign in Southern India by William Digby, Hon. Sec. Indian Relief Fund, published in 1878. What Davis had missed was that Digby makes it clear (on page 55) that this was a spoof, a satire made up by one of the campaigners frustrated by the British Government’s indifference to the unnecessary suffering and death of so many of its imperial subjects.

Where does this leave us? I’m convinced the famines were real, the deaths were real, the UK government’s indifference was real, but the Act isn’t. So, all you seekers after truth, beware! Tread carefully around the web and hang on to that key critical life skill I was banging on about to the teachers!


Us and Them

When did you last hear the Defence Secretary criticize members of the armed forces as “lazy, useless and cowardly”? Or the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs refer to farmers as “idle, corrupt and inefficient”? Well, of course, to the best of my memory, neither of these things has ever happened. It seems to be an accepted convention that the relevant government ministers for the military and for farming are broadly supportive of the people working in these jobs. They even tend to actively promote and support their interests.

Yet the same clearly does not apply with all types of employees and their relevant ministers. I’m thinking in particular here of social workers and teachers.

Social Workers

It’s been well known for some time that people working in social services get a bad press. A notorious example was the tragic case of “Baby P”. This led to the hounding by the press of the head of Hackney Social Services. The tabloids effectively bullied Ed Balls, minister at the time, into leaning on the local authority to sack her. She, rightly, went on to win her employment tribunal case for unfair dismissal. It’s obvious that social services departments have been understaffed for years: I remember attending a talk given by the chief executive of a former local authority lamenting his 48% vacancy rate in permanent posts.

Overworked social workers daily have to make heart-rending decisions such as whether to keep a dysfunctional family together. Often they are “damned if they do” and “damned if they don’t”. It makes you wonder why anyone would choose social work as a career. Unremitting criticism, including from the responsible government minister, is bound to be counter-productive in the longer term.


A similar trend is apparent in our schools. A government report issued in August forecast a shortage of teachers as a result of too few people taking up training. A record number of teachers are leaving the profession. It’s not hard to see why.

Over the past couple of decades, the teaching profession increasingly used evidence-based research to improve teaching practice. They gradually learnt what worked and, as a result, standards improved. The great British public – or at least the media – would have none of this. When exam results fell year on year, as they did occasionally, the press screamed at teachers’ failures to do their jobs. More often, results rose year on year. And the result? The press complained that exam standards were falling – the tests were getting easier. Another example of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t”.

At least during the New Labour years, Education Secretaries gave praise where it was due, whilst continually demanding ways to improve teaching and learning. And yes, teachers complained at the excessive pace of top-down reforms and the amount of testing.

gove cartoon
Michael Gove

Things changed dramatically after the 2010 election. Murdoch journalist and new-kid-on-the education-block, Michael Gove, declared war on teachers. “The blob” was his favoured term of abuse. Reforming zeal took on a whole new dervish-like form. Policy changes became based not on the evidence of what works, but on ministerial whim. Websites, blogs and social media were dedicated to the teaching profession swapping tales of Gove’s latest stupid pronouncement. Most of the profession was laughing at him behind his back as means of coping. The Department for Education and Ofsted vied with each other to heap the most criticism on the reviled teachers. Staff working as school inspectors for outsourced private companies would often swoop like an invading army on schools who failed to adopt the new ideas. The aim was to force reform against the wishes of parents, governors and teachers.

In my role as a school governor, I attended a meeting last month with a number of head teachers which was basically to make contingency planning for a feared possible Whitehall swoop. Our aim was damage limitation. At the end of a nearly two-hour discussion, we turned and looked at each other. We sadly lamented that none of the time we had spent in that meeting was in any way focussed on the children’s needs or on improving their education. Such a waste of time and energy! This pattern gets repeated all over the country. And mightily disheartening it is too!

Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, has toned down the rhetoric, but much of the madness and dogma continues.

So what is it about the military (including arms manufacturers) and the farmers which leads Government ministers to act as their cheerleaders – but for teachers and social workers it’s a constant barrage of criticism?

Write your answers on one side of the paper only, please.


Splitting the Atom

Have you ever split an atom? No, me neither – there are few who have. But many people know that Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) is credited with doing this first. How do we “know” this? This could be for any number of reasons:

  1. We were there when he did it in Manchester, in 1919, according to most websites I’ve looked at (e.g. the official Nobel Prize site), or possibly 1917, according to Wikipedia.
  2. A teacher told us at school or university
  3. A self-appointed “authority” figure, e.g. politician, judge, priest, rabbi, imam told us
  4. We read it in a book, magazine or newspaper article
  5. A parent or friend told us
  6. A “bloke down the pub” told us
  7. We saw it on the BBC / Fox News / CNN / Al Jazeera, etc.
  8. We saw it on the internet (Google lists around 223,000 matches to choose from if you type “Rutherford split atom”)
  9. We dreamt it (but it was such a vivid dream!)
  10. And so on…

It’s a safe bet there’s no one left alive in category 1. So we all “know” that Rutherford was first to split the atom from someone else, either by word of mouth or via some technology, print or electronic. The problem is, what conscious or subconscious process did we go through to decide whether we believe what we heard, read or saw? For example, there are still some conspiracy theorists who don’t believe we landed a man on the moon in 1969: it was all faked in a television studio.

As we grow older, there’s an increasing danger that we learn things from an ever narrower range of sources, whether it be the friends we choose, our choice of daily newspaper, TV or radio news channels or trusted websites. The odds are that we choose those sources run by people who share similar views to our own. Despite our protestations, we all like a bit of “I told you so”, even when we’re only thinking it for ourselves. New “facts” which fit our preconceptions are instantly added to the pile of the things we “know”, those that don’t fit are either rejected or consigned to the “I remain to be convinced” pile.

Who Do You Believe?

Life’s too short to learn everything by personal experience – and some just too plain dangerous: you would not jump in front of a train just to be sure it’s not good for your health! So, obviously, most of what we “know” we learn from others. But who do we trust to tell us the truth and how do we make that judgement? A 2005 MORI poll gives some, slightly dated, insights. In these days of instant access to information via the internet and other electronic media, we are in danger of overload and it’s a challenge to find the time to process it into something meaningful.

There have been times in recent years when education reforms appeared to be taking us back to a 1950s world where rote learning of selected “facts” and the ability to regurgitate them was to be the basis of assessing students’ performance. Beyond key skills such as literacy and numeracy, this makes no sense in the 21st century. We must equip the adults of the future with two skills fit for the information age:

  1. Prioritising and selecting from an excess of data and processing this into digestible and meaningful knowledge
  2. Assessing the reliability and accuracy of information, based upon an informed awareness of the motives and agenda of the person or organisation giving it.

This must surely be the prime moral responsibility of education to our children and future generations.


Useless and Pointless Knowledge

Bob Dylan released Tombstone Blues, from which the above title comes, in the same year I started my maths degree course. The Mathematics Department divided into two distinct cultural camps: pure and applied. The pure mathematicians were snobs. They looked down on their lesser “applied” colleagues, who got their hands dirty by supplying useful tools for scientists, architects, meteorologists and all sorts of other people in the “real” world. To the purists, the quest was for “beauty” and the term was often used synonymously with “uselessness”: the more useless, the more beautiful.

One small part of my course concerned number theory and a subset of this dealt with prime numbers and modular arithmetic. (Links are provided for anyone who is curious or sad enough to want to know more; otherwise, read on…) Frankly, I found this part of the course a bit boring and – dare I say? – pointless. However, its enthusiasts pointed out how elegant, how beautiful and, above all, how useless it all was.

Fast forward thirty years. My son was now a student, reading computer science. He told me about an assignment he had to do, concerning encryption on the internet. The purpose of the assignment was to find the most efficient way to write computer code which would encrypt and decrypt data to keep it secure over the web. These were the days before superfast broadband, and speed of transmission was all-important. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that underlying the encryption systems was the same useless maths I had learnt thirty years earlier!

My point is this. In the days since I was a student, the debate around education and its purpose has shifted more and more to a purely economic one. The talk is all about training the minds of the next generation to maximize their own job prospects and for the greater good of “UK plc”. Whatever happened to the idea of knowledge, insight and even appreciation of beauty as moral goods in their own right?

So, the next time you stand in awe at a beautiful sight, when someone tells you some strange, new fact that doesn’t fit – that makes you think: “hang on a minute” – or, more basically, the next time you’re doing some online shopping, just spare a thought and raise a cheer to all that “useless and pointless knowledge”!