Deliver Us- the miracles that education reform needs.

'Turn to the person next to you and tell them what you hope to achieve!'
Education is a bit like Doctor Who right now. We've had Tom Baker, and the unmentionable McCoy, and now it's regenerating into a new character, and everyone's hugging each other with excitement about which handsome English character actor will be piloting the blue box. As a result, everyone is (once again) discussing which magic bullet education needs now. If you're stupid, or worse, if you're stupid and you believe grim fairy tales like Shift Happens, or most anything by Ken Robinson, you'd be forgiven (almost) for thinking that schools need to be torn apart and rebuilt for the 23rd century, or something, so that we don't get left behind by Tonga, or the Nordic miracle. 

Or perhaps you believe (because you'd believe anything) that children no longer need to be taught content in an age of Google, and that skills, yes skills I say, are the way to transform our lumpen generation into perfected ubermenschen. Maybe you also believe that fairies drop crumbs of sleepy dust into the corners of your eyes at night, and Simon Cowell allows fair and free electoral data to determine the outcomes of his slavish vaudeville. Perhaps, perhaps.

If, like me, you occasionally inhabit the virtual world of people who care about education, you would be struck immediately by how partisan and troubled it all is. There is, it seems, an enormous lack of consensus about not only how to cure the patient, but what, in fact is wrong with it. We all appear to be like medieval sawbones, standing over a pale victim- some recommend leeches, others decry that as barbarism, and recommend water treatments; another swears by arsenic...meanwhile the patient whispers, 'I'm not dead yet!' while John Cleese hits him with a frying pan and tells him to keep his mouth shut.
What are the main problems?

1. Everyone has an opinion about what to do with education, except teachers. 

Who decides policy? Ministers (and increasingly since the eighties, the PM's office. Estelle Morris was rumored to have been so disheartened by the disintegration of her office's power that she left her post). And education is so very, very attractive a department for any incoming regime. The Fascists were the first to realise this properly in the modern era- the Jesuit adage about being given a child and he will give you the man remains as true now as it did when it was first coined; although interestingly enough Napoleon also took a keen interest in education as a means of influencing the next generations. Why? Because it is far easier to influence the minds of children than adults; and because the most obvious way of instituting social change (for fair means or foul) lies in moulding the impressionable minds of those who will succeed you- it is hoped, at least.

Policy is now decided by ministers. The CfBC did an interesting survey on this last year, and found that the main reasons why ministers preferred one policy over another was for the following reasons: 
  • Ideology- does the policy fit their political world view? 
  • Personal experience- what kind of schooling did they receive?
  • Anecdotal- what kind of stories have they heard from friends and other people they trust?
  • Financial reasons- Can we afford it? 
  • Popularity- no democratic elected representative can ignore the phone-in vote
  • International Comparisons- also known as the 'do they do it in Finland?' factor. Dear God, give me strength. Are we Finland? No. I consider the case closed. Can we stop going on about f*cking Finland, please?

Research came an unfashionable, embarrassing sickly last. Actually I'm not devastated by this- for reasons I'll explain- but there is something more interesting here: decisions get made concerning teachers that have almost no input from teachers themselves. Certainly no direct input. I don't mean the Education Committees that meet every so often with the odd appearance from Sir Alan Steer or the Head of Ofsted, or something. It is, and remains, appalling that so much is decided for teachers, by people who have never taught. By people who have never set foot in a classroom, unless it was being painted for their sainted inspection. By people who have- and I tread softly here- have never experienced what it means to be in a mainstream comprehensive. Personally I have no axe to grind with the independents- if you want to drop a few suitcases of green on your kids’ education, be my guest. But how realistic is it for someone who has never been taught in the state system to have an informed opinion about how such institutions should run?

State education is an enormously different beast from the private sector, in terms of intake, in terms of demographics, of parental support, of pupil motivation, self-image...a whole host of factors that means that state schools are not the same species as private schools, in the same way that lap dancing clubs are not tea rooms, although they might follow a similar economic model (OH, the humanity. the crumbs...) Gaze lovingly across the CVs of the past twenty or so Education ministers and PMs: not an enormous amount of experience in the state sector, I think you'll find. 

So that's problem number one: state education (and let's face it, when we discuss education reform, that's really the sector we're talking about) is moulded and sculpted by hands unfamiliar with the clay it holds. Have you read Peter Hyman's excellent (if chilling) 'One out of Ten'? Hyman was an assistant to Blair (and Brown before him) in the glory days, who later went into teaching and is now, I understand setting up a Free School. Read the book; the accounts about how education policy was created on the hoof, on the way to meetings, in order for it to sound good, so it would impress an nearly makes you want to give up. It was almost entirely based on expediency and ideology. At no point did anyone say, 'You know what? Let's ask some teachers.' A decade (plus change) later, and teaching was buried under the weight of geological layers of good intentions and late-night ruminations. All created by people who never went to a state school, let alone taught in one. 

Does that sound crazy to you? It certainly sounds crazy to me. Of course, we might expect and frankly understand) any government that wanted to claim the right to direct the aims of education, or at least be present at the conception of the values and content that we as a society deliver to the next generation. They are (as our elected reps) paying for it, after all. I'm not suggesting a return to the Secret Garden (although it sounds like it would make a delightful Enid Blyton romp). But increasingly as the years rolled by, successive wallahs from the Ministry of Silly Teaching  have thought that they had some jolly good ideas about how classrooms should be run, even down to the minutia of how we teach. And why not? Teaching is a piece of piss. Anyone could do it. Roll up, roll up, come and throw a coconut at the teachers, they love it.

People seem to feel that, because they once sat in a classroom, that they have expertise on not only the nature of teaching, but the professional execution of said profession. Which is funny, because I've been teaching for almost a decade now, and I still feel that I have an enormous amount to learn- and I'm regarded as being a safe pair of hands, frankly. Still, I'm sure that as long as you have a rough idea which way to hold an IWB open, you can have a crack at it. Perhaps I'll pop into the nearest car workshop and tell the grease monkeys how to strip an engine, shall I? Or maybe I should drop into the next cabinet meeting on the spending review and tell them how to balance the books. Like I say, piece of piss.

'I have seen the promised land. No student voice.'
Net result? Well meaning but inane pieces of professional intrusion that simply take time away from teachers doing what we get paid the big bucks to do- teach.. Such as:
  • Three part lessons
  • Group work
  • Independent learning
  • Thinking skills
  • Compulsory starters and plenaries
  • Showing evidence of progress...within a lesson
  • Learning styles
  • Student voice

To name but a few. All of them charming. All of them  brainless, at least as the dogma they have become in education. If I hear another NQT fretting because he's spending more than three minutes talking at the kids, and he's worried that he's not allowing them to interact with the material more -if he is allowed to actually teach any- then I think I'll spanner myself. There exists within education, and enormous intellectual vacuum, which is easily filled by thousands of maggoty consultant Charlies, who are often closer to vile Shamanic conmen than actual real people.

 Which brings me to the next point:

2. I bet this'll work.  

Education, despite every attempt to do so, simply resists attempts to be reduced to the state of a natural science. Although scientists have for over a century and a half been trying to apply the empirical scientific technique to education, it won't be manhandled that way. Social science is not comparable to natural sciences. Natural sciences are easy to control for, to randomise, to double blind, the whole nine yards. Social sciences suffer from what Feynman referred to as having a high causal density. In other words, it's incredibly hard to see if your new technique is having a result or not.

Example: you want to see if using open questions aids student learning. So you set them a test before you start; then you use the questioning technique you want to study, and then you set them another test. Then you see if it worked. Simple?

'No, I won't let your people go through to the next round.'
Of course not. You can never know if they were learning in a better way- perhaps they were all on the verge of a breakthrough already- and you can never know if your new technique was the thing that caused a difference, even if any is recorded. After all, you set them different tests to analyse the potential differences. Perhaps they understood the wording of the question  better? And so on.

Social science has yet to provide any significant predictive powers to practitioners in the classroom. This maddens bad scientists, who want to claim it has the same status as biology or physics. It does not. It is, at best, a commentary on humanity, and context is all. Of course, good social scientists know this. It's only the people who commission research, the ones who have a vested interest in the answer, who corrupt the process.

As I say, into this intellectual vacuum has stepped an army of creepy gurus, school messiahs and experts, whose expertise usually runs to a degree in psychology rather than any experience of teaching. I like to point out at his stage that John Dewey, the Great Satan himself was an elementary school teacher for a few years before he jacked it in and decided to rewrite the book on how children should learn and be taught. The internet is full of them- ghouls who charge for their services, whose literature is dripping with promises about how kids really learn, how schools really work. They keep me awake at nights. Some of them have even taught (or more often, 'Have taught in some of the hardest schools in the world, and devised a simple three step plan for student success!' or some such Lovecraftian horror.)

Social science is useful in teaching when it seeks to discover what is going on in classroom; when it seeks to discover what we should do, it treads on Holy ground. Remove your shoes, scientist. 

This intellectual vacuum is also occupied by another plague: the social reformer. They see schooling as the answer to every ill of society, and believe that if they can educate children into appropriate moral and social habits, then as adults they will inhabit a collective space of utopian realised bliss. Teen pregnancies too high? Teach contraception in PAL. Nobody voting anymore? Teach them Citizenship (which is a child without a father if ever I saw one). In fact, Citizenship is the perfect example of this syndrome; nobody was crying out for Citizenship; no teacher, no student ever thought, you know what we're missing? A new subject that teaches us all about the Houses of Parliament and local government. Well, Citizenship has been running for a decade or two. Have we seen an improvement in civic responsibility? Or even something as measurable as voting proportions? I'll give you a clue; the answer isn’t yes.

If society has ills, then school cannot be the cure for those ills. We are there to teach children their great cultural and intellectual inheritance. As adults and role models we of course participate in their socialisation as moral beings, but this isn't something you can directly impart, unless you fancy living in Sparta or Nazi Germany. Well, DO YOU?

So here's my manifesto for schools:

  1. Improve teacher training for behavior management
  2. Remove any constraints on schools excluding unruly students (while retaining an expectation that a school should be able to justify its decision and show due process)
  3. Open (or reopen) special units for excluded children where they can receive the care and education they need without perpetually ruining the education of millions of other children. These units can be on-site or off- and reintegration can be an option if improvement is shown, but shouldn't be expected as an inevitability.
  4. Drop the proposed Teacher Code of Conduct, so long as it includes requirements upon a teacher's personal life. Such requirements, if they are not covered by law, are no one's business but the teachers. We don't need further instructions about what to do.
  5. Retain the teaching colleges. They might be flawed, but at least they try to uphold an intellectual rigour in the profession. Learning on the job might work for a very, very select few, but it's lambs to the slaughter for many. And it guarantees that the teacher will routinely only be trained to the level of the best teacher training them in school. This denies the teacher the intellectual inheritance of his professional forbearers. 
  6. Impose an inspection requirement of minimum levels of behavior on schools; schools failing to meet required standards to undergo 'support' to restore order and authority in classrooms, so that children can learn in a safe and structured environment. Of course, by support, I mean the kind of professional ass-kicking that the doublethink word usually implies.
  7. Stop pretending that various silly articles of non-science have any empirical validity at all- learning styles, my giddy aunt. Stop telling us how to teach, for God's sake.
  8. Allow teachers to teach any way they jolly please, so long as results are reasonably good. 
  9. Stop using levels. Christ almighty. And might have to tie me down in a minute.
  10. Drop FFT data from individual pupil's performance targets. It's not what it's for, yet schools till use it as gospel, and not the awkward hoodoo- voodoo it actually is. I imagine people who work at the FFT dress up as astrologers and cut open chicken entrails to read the signs, the signs. Because that's what they bloody well seem to do. 'This child will grow up to be a beauty...and a great leader...and have a 65% chance of  level six in his year 9 tests, arr...'
  11. Put a bullet through the head of SEAL. And Citizenship. And Thinking Skills, for that matter. 
  12. Make senior managers from schools all the way up to ministry level who object to any of this teach for a dozen lessons a week in a challenging school- and not  their own- to remind them what it's actually like dealing with difficult classes without adequate support.

The thing that really angers me is that there are so many people who want to stick their oar into education, all of them kind hearted, I'm sure, and all of them coming from a beautiful place in their own minds. But they remind me of Jamie Oliver in his ill-fated Dream School. He thought that all they needed was love and inspiration- which no one objects to in a fuzzy, general way, but good sentiments aren’t enough to teach children. They need structure and love simultaneously. they need to be taught to restrain themselves as well as express their beautiful inner butterflies. The people who often run education, who shout loudest about education, who have influence and clout in education- are often the ones who know least about it.

And the scary thing is that they see themselves as liberators. They think they're Moses, come to free the slaves. They don't realise that they're actually Pharaoh, keeping them in bondage. They don't know anything about teaching.

Well, I am a teacher. I teach.

And I say, let my people Go.


  1. Fabulous stuff Tom, don't stop blogging. You enable me to retain my sanity when knee deep in pointless tasks linked to 'new initiatives'.

  2. I must say I just adore your posts, each and every time!

  3. So, erm, having read most of your posts, let me get this straight:

    1. You don't like social science (well you don't believe in it's results)


    2. Maybe you should become Minister for Education?

  4. All the jargon and BS is one of the reasons I want to quit teaching. Writing SoW's which are little more than box ticking exercises in how much jargon you can fill in instead of, i don't know, teaching?

  5. Thanks Fran, and all.

    @ Anonymous 3

    Thanks for reading. You have pared me to the quintessence. Although I would say that I do believe in the results, it's just that I often don't agree with their interpretation, nor the way they are presented as ready-made meals to the credulous. Perhaps I need to change the record though...

    I'm sure I would make a perfectly awful minister for education.

  6. I agree TB, everyone knows statistics are mostly just there to serve whoever commissioned their existence.

    As for changing the record - don't!
    This stuff IS your record.
    It's the grooves of your record.
    I dig your record.

    I'm merely an observer.

  7. @ Anonymous 3

    Groovy. And lyrical ;)

  8. I love what you say about everyone sticking their oar in education and that actually being massive problem that stops anything getting changed for the better. There's so much change, yet the same problems persist, and that's probably the main reason why.

  9. The Revolution will not be televised!
    You are right but you are preaching to the choir.
    Those of us who are teachers know what needs to be done, we know how to do it, but we are crying in the wilderness. Perhaps we just need to cry a little louder.

  10. Stopped here to tell you - you're a brilliant writer! Came across your writing through the TES emails - I don't usually read them but I read the first few lines and thought - Wow, what a voice! :0)

  11. This is my first encounter with your writing Tom, and it is a very refreshing to hear your very well presented ideas. I am in my first year of teaching music in a very challenging school, and although I love the work, it's the politics NOT the pupils that cause the most challenges. Love your point about levels. Thanks for saying what I've been thinking all year.
    I would like to ask about your passing attack on Ken Robinsons work. I have found his views quite liberating and as a musician, I feel he makes a very valid point. Could you clarify your views on this? I'm sure this is a full blog in it's own right but I'm fascinated by the whole debate.
    Thanks, Chris

  12. @edudicator

    Agreed. Too many oars.

  13. @ Mrs Brown

    I don't believe in revolutions, but if I did, it would be LIVE. I'm happy to preach to any choirs, and I figure that the more I do, and others do, then the louder we get. Who knows? Maybe in ten years' time there will be righteous teachers going through the upper echelons of education...Cheers. T

  14. @ Journal for my daughters (great name for a blog, incidentally); thanks so much for your kind words. I had a look at your blog too- I enjoyed reading about your wrestles with life and writers' block :)

  15. @ C Hutchison

    Thanks for your comments, C, very appreciated. My thoughts on Sir Ken are broad and deep, and best expressed for another blog (good idea, cheers- I was toying with the idea, and your intervention has tipped my scale). Briefly, my main issue was with his rather blunt assertion that formal education stifles creativity amongst children. While I love how he speaks, and his humour, wit, intelligence, etc, I find this a straw man argument- our curriculum contains compulsory components of music, drama, expressive arts, art, design....and in other subjects like RS and English there are huge swathes of essay writing, comparing ideas, and discussion. To say that formal education stifles creativity is like saying water isn't wet enough.

    That said, I do like an amount of the man's ideas. I'll expand upon this in the future.

    Thanks again


  16. Thank you :0) Most interesting commentary on education that I've bothered to read in a long time ;0)

  17. I think I may be in love with you!

  18. WOuld love a blog on Ken Robinson, have very mixed feelings about him myself. Also, a lot of your posts remind me of the ideas of Bourdieu (I'm no expert in him, but like what I know) I'm guessing your familiar with him and would love to hear your views.

  19. @ Anonymous 1

    Control yourself, Major!

    @ Anonymous 2

    Thanks; you are not alone. I'll answer your points in the appropriate way in a later post.

  20. Hey,
    i liked your post, was useful. I came across this post through a Google search and your post inspired me. thanks for that post...

  21. Down and out in Education11 June 2011 at 13:42

    I was driven out of teaching 9illness) as i was 'made' to believe that I was endangering children's eductaion; i did not believe in nor use the approved methods. Reading your blogs, especially this one, is making me realise that perhaps it was as much them as me.

  22. I meant "I'm guessing YOU'RE familiar" of course. You wouldn't think I'd been teaching apostrophes all week . . .


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