Sunday, June 14, 2009

Layer 171 Education: A Whole Lot To Answer For.

Thinking about last week's publication of the Nuffield Review (Layer 169), and about the state of our schools, I came across a piece I wrote just over a year ago, and I'm putting it in here as an addendum to the thoughts on Nuffield.


"He had it in charge from high authority to bring about the great public office Millennium, when Commissioners should reign upon earth".
Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Chapter 2.

In the final analysis, education is incredibly important and has a lot to answer for. Because it’s not only the fact of having a decent education system that makes our country or our planet, or anyone else’s country, what it is, or can be, or whatever it aspires to be - it’s also the type of education we provide that matters, and how it impacts on children and therefore on future generations of adults, and therefore on our society. It’s not only a matter of investing adequately in education, it’s a matter of investing effectively and ensuring that there is a proper consensus about what you’re expecting to gain from the investment.

It’s not just about the quantity and quality of education. Because how do we define quality? Is your definition the same as mine? Quality is about what’s taught in schools, and how it’s taught. We can have lots of good schools teaching mainly the wrong things to a very high standard. We could have those same schools trying to teach the right things but doing it very badly indeed. In the past 50 years we’ve had both of these in Britain. In my view many schools continue to teach the wrong things, and few of the right things, and also do it very badly. A great many of these schools pride themselves on very good inspection reports and an elevated position in so-called league tables.

It seems obvious that what we need are lots of very good schools teaching the right things in the right way to a very high standard. The problem is we can’t seem to agree on what the right things are, or how to teach them. Or rather, putting it the other way round and seeing it from the pupils’ perspective, agree on how children should get access to the best and most relevant curriculum, and how they should learn.

Now surely we’re intelligent people and we can agree on these things, at least 90% of the time? Sadly, it seems not, and things are getting worse - may have to get worse - before they get better.


In the time of Dickens the world of state education seemed very simple. “Teach these boys and girls facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Nothing else will ever be of service to them”.[1] So said the headmaster, Thomas Gradgrind. On this there seemed to be consensus. The teacher, the government inspector, and the nation seemed to agree.

In due course this utilitarian view of education was challenged, not least by Charles Dickens, and exposed as vile and against the interests of all of those who aspire to the development of higher aspects of children and adults - the intellect, the spirit and the soul.

But in the late 20th Century and early 21st century England and Wales, almost uniquely in Europe, and unlike the rest of the much smarter nations who were making tracks elsewhere, our nation returned in its wisdom to the utilitarian view. “Give these children A stars, 5 GCSEs, Level 4 by the age of 11 - or they won’t be ready to enter the job market.” Over several frustrating years I have heard literally dozens of teachers and headteachers, and scores of ignorant politicians and bureaucrats, express this view, and show themselves unable to imagine what else might comprise a decent education, what other aims we might have, and what other skills and attitudes might be required in the 21st Century, in order for people to be able to cope with life’s challenges and live lives to the full. I heard those poor, timid, brainwashed voices parroting useless ideas about equipping children (even Primary children) for the jobs market.

To anyone who cares about children and how they experience their schools and their lives, this is an appalling state of affairs. Unicef has condemned our country for producing a generation of unhappy, deprived and exploited children, and books like Toxic Childhood[2] provide details of what’s going wrong in the way we nurture and educate our children. And still the utilitarians cling to their mantras that ‘standards’ (meaning test and exam scores) have to be ‘driven up’ (meaning more and more children have to be cajoled, threatened, or somehow motivated to subscribe to the notion that cramming and memorising for tests, usually to the exclusion of more worthwhile activities, is necessary and desirable and crucial for their success in life). It goes without saying that teachers, heads of schools and school governors must also be cajoled, threatened and motivated to accept this pathetic, harsh and impoverished view of what education is for and how it should be carried out.

These people cling to their certainties that a harsh regime of testing, inspecting and naming and shaming in league tables is making us a better country and better at giving our children what they need. The politicians are even shameless enough to claim that they say the toxic things they say in the name of deprived children living in our most challenging inner-city areas. Well how else are these poor little buggers going to get jobs? Surely they need a fistful of exam passes, even if they’ve been given nothing else? What else could they possibly need? What else could education be for? What else would enable them to ‘escape’ from the council estates and their childhood communities and their families and move into starter homes in the suburbs?

A Learning Revolution

A very important event took place in the middle of the 1960s that caused a great many teachers and parents to begin to question the utilitarian view of children and learning. A committee of enquiry under the chairmanship of Lady Plowden was set up to report to government on what was happening in the world of Primary education, and make recommendations to government on what the system needed to do to improve our Primary schools. Their recommendations had, in some places, far-reaching and radical effects on how the business of education was carried on in Primary schools, since individual children were put at the heart of our approach to learning, and learning was made to serve their individual needs, rather than the needs of a national or international system that demanded that workers had specific skills and knowledge in order for our nation (which was deemed to be homogenous) to be ‘competitive’ and prosperous.

Whilst it might sound like a proper and decent way of conducting education, putting children’s broad developmental needs at the heart of what we do in schools has come to be discarded in a politically-motivated rush to ‘drive up standards’ by forcing teachers and children to do more and more of the things that can be easily measured and less and less of the things that enable them to be confident, motivated and creative life-long learners with high levels of intelligence - intellectual, spiritual, social, emotional and physical/instinctual.

We now have a desperate need for a new learning revolution. In my view, and that of many of our serious thinkers about education, we need to follow the lead of high-achieving countries such as Finland and Canada, where they have never seen any need for a draconian system of inspections, annual summative tests and league tables. We need to follow the lead of China, which had retrained its teachers in line with the methodology which is very well summed up in a book called The New Learning Revolution[3]. For the sake of all our children we need to make education fit their real needs and prepare them properly, effectively, for all their futures[4].

[1] Charles Dickens. Hard Times. 1854 Page 1, Chapter 1.

[2] Toxic Childhood - How the Modern World is Damaging our Children and What We Can Do About It.

Sue Palmer 2006

[3] The New Learning Revolution. Gordon Dryden and Dr Jeannette Vos. 2005.

[4] See also All Our Futures. DfES 1999. National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education Web address:

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