Panel debate – Whose schools are they anyway?

Art lesson at Christian Schiller School, 1920s. Courtesy of IOE Archive Collection.

Art lesson at Christian Schiller School, 1930s.
Courtesy of IOE Archive Collection.

We are holding an interesting panel debate on 17th June 5.30-7.30pm at the IOE, Committee Room 1, that you might be interested in. Space is limited, so if you would like to attend, you should contact Lucian Stephenson at

The topic will be “Whose schools are they anyway?” and we are looking to debate state school governance. Hopefully it will be a lively evening. If it goes well, our next one will probably look at contemporary issues surrounding higher education.

Our panellists will be Fiona Millar, Local Schools Network, Anastasia de Waal, Deputy Director and Director of Family and Education, Civitas, Ros McMullen, Principal of the David Young Community Academy in Leeds, and Dame Alison Peacock, Head Teacher of the Wroxham School, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire.

The panel will be jointly chaired by myself and Dr Megan Crawford, Reader and Deputy Head of the Faculty of Education, Cambridge University. It is being sponsored by the Leadership for Learning Academic Group, Faculty of Education, Cambridge University, and more information about their work can be found here.

A guide to intelligence (and heritability) for beginners

ClassroomOver the next few weeks, I will be posting three articles up on this blog, as a short series. This series examines an important problem in education, and that is: how do we find out what individuals are capable of, and what they are learning? I will look at three aspects of this problem. First of all, I will discuss assessing intelligence, then I’ll move onto assessing learning, and finally I will look at assessing aptitude. It’s quite ambitious to try to do this in blog posts, because these subjects fill entire library sections normally, but you really should see the posts just as a short introduction to each topic, a kind of taster.

I’m going to start with a brief investigation into IQ tests. First of all I will describe the main types of intelligence test that have been in common use over the last century, in chronological order of development. I will also discuss the uses and limitations of IQ tests of western origin.

It’s widely recognised that measuring intelligence can be regarded as controversial, as it can be culturally specific. In other words, how well you do on the test can relate to how similar you are in background to the people setting the test. As most psychologists in the early part of the 20th century were white and middle class, their tests were often based on ideas and situations that they would have found familiar, in a US or Northern European context. This disadvantaged non-native speakers, those from a challenging educational background, or indeed those from outside the US or Europe. Although there have been attempts to remedy this, by making tests as culturally neutral as possible, it is still difficult in some cases to get to the absolute core of what constitutes intelligence. Today we are going to look at some of the debates surrounding that.

Starting with the Western psychological context, we tend to measure IQ as a way of measuring intellectual potential (IQ means “intelligence quotient”) and that is a figure which represents your success in doing particular timed tests in relation to your age. This concept of the test being fixed in time, both in terms of the clock, and in terms of biological age, remains central to assessing intelligence.

The first widely used intelligence test was known as the Simon-Binet test (1905), and it was used by the French government to help identify children who would need help at school. As explained above, it assessed what ‘average’ performance would be, and it calculated a child’s ‘mental age’ according to that.  By 1916 it had been extended to include adults.

The next significant development in terms of intelligence testing was the introduction of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (1939) and Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC). This included verbal and non verbal test items, such as the manipulation of blocks, pictures, etc. It was felt that non verbal test items would help the test be more culturally neutral.

Clearly there are particular difficulties in assessing the intelligence of very young children, and to this end the Bayley Scales of Infant Development were developed in 1969 for children under two. These are used in adapted form by Health Visitors today, at children’s two-year check, for example, and a typical task might be building a tower from three cubes.

There has also been widespread use of another test, the British Ability Scales (BAS) (1979). These were designed to measure development and moral reasoning, and to be less US-centric.

A factor in the development of IQ tests is indeed that the tests have become increasingly complex over time, and the kits for psychologists are very expensive indeed – we are talking upwards from £600 now. A test does not just consist of a cheaply printed question sheet and a marking sheet. There is big money in developing tests, which are commercially produced by monopoly providers. While they are normally used properly, an important consequence of this expense is that in some cash-strapped educational or health related contexts, bits and pieces of the test get lost or worn, parts are transferred from one test to another, photocopies are made, and this all means that the test isn’t as strictly regulated as it might be, with consequences for the results. This is despite the British Psychological Society compelling testers to attend accredited courses to learn about best practice in test delivery, to ensure standardisation. Therefore real life is a factor in how well the test is given, and how accurate the results might be.

So we have considered a number of IQ test materials and practices. I’m going to move on now to examine how we judge the predictive ability of IQ tests. There are three key questions for psychologists in determining how useful a test is. First of all, is the test reliable – does it give consistent scores if repeated over time? Secondly, is the test valid – does it correlate with future academic achievement? And finally, are test scores stable – does the IQ of individuals change over time? In many cases, the answers are favourable, but as I argued above, there have been some problems with IQ tests in the past. One of these is cultural discrimination. As I explained, you are at a distinct advantage here if you happen to be a white American or European. Even within that context, the British Ability Scales tests were introduced to counter the US-Centrism of tests such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. There has been particular criticism of the use of tests with indigenous native populations, for example Australian aboriginals, as low scores were used as grounds for persistent discrimination, yet subsequently it was discovered that the tests being used did not measure intelligence sufficiently well for these groups.

Another factor in test bias was that they risked discriminating according to the educational background of test taker. In other words, if you had attended school and could read well, and had learnt how to tackle abstract problems in a systematic manner, then you were likely to be at a distinct advantage to those who had not benefited from such experiences. The environment when people are taking the tests can also play a role. Tests are designed to be done under laboratory conditions, and if there is noise or interruptions, this can reduce the overall score. Similarly the mood and motivation of test takers plays a role. I am sure that every health visitor in the land can recall a two-year-old who has refused to co-operate with testing at his or her two-year-check. (One of my own children did this, and consequently spent the entire appointment carrying out a comparison of all the different weighing scales in the room to see if they came up with the same reading. So much more interesting than building a little tunnel out of three blocks, and pushing a pencil under it!) Another phenomenon in all kinds of psychological testing is the desire to please an authority figure and give expected answers, by second guessing what they might want. This may result in the person being tested giving an erroneous answer unnecessarily. Finally, we must bear in mind the effect of coaching.

W H Smith is absolutely full of books containing IQ tests for middle class parents to buy for their children, which teach explicitly the techniques needed for success in analysing problems. Again, this is bound to affect results and the overall reliability and validity of tests. The availability of test coaching materials may be one factor in why we seem to see IQ results rise over time. This is not because of some evolutionary change making us all cleverer – it is much too quick for that. It is because we are all getting better at doing the tests. That is why test manufacturers have to keep regrading them, so the average mark is based on increased numbers of correct answers.

Many tests work on the assumption that if you are intelligent in one respect, this is likely to apply in different cognitive domains. For example, British psychologist Charles Spearman (1863-1945) described a concept he referred to as ‘general intelligence’ or the g factor. After using a technique known as factor analysis to examine a number of mental aptitude tests, Spearman concluded that scores on these tests were remarkably similar. People who performed well on one cognitive test tended to perform well on other tests, while those who scored badly on one test tended to score badly on others. He concluded that intelligence is general cognitive ability that could be measured and numerically expressed.

However individuals can display varying degrees of intelligence depending on what they are trying to do. For example, I may be able to write this blog post, for example, but try to get me to navigate around IKEA to find a remote flatpack successfully, and you will see someone who needs serious help.

In evolutionary studies, the debate is whether g evolved as a multipurpose tool or whether the mind has domains, like a ‘Swiss army knife’, with cognitive ‘tools’ evolving to answer specific challenges. This does not map exactly onto other theories of multiple intelligence, as we will see in a minute, but it does tend to overlap. This is all within the ongoing dog-fight in cognitive psychology: is the mind domain-general in function or not? Is my inability to cope with IKEA’s store layout a function of the quality of my whole brain, or just a particular part of it that isn’t quite up to the job?

When I am not worrying about flatpack retrieval, another area of 40-something personal concern is how far I am turning into my own parents. Clues as to the likelihood of this can be found in intelligence research on the heritability of IQ or other test score. This is of course a minefield – medium to high heritabilities (what is called ‘h’ to academics in this field) are generally found from twin and adoption studies. G heritability appears to increase over the lifespan – 20% in infancy, 40% in childhood and 60% in adulthood (for more information on this, see Plomin et al, 2003, “Behavioural Genetics” in The Postgenomic Era, APA Washington DC). What is more interesting than heritability, is non-shared and shared environment influence on g – this is hard to interpret as it becomes increasingly clear that there is hardly any such thing as a ‘shared environment’, even for siblings. Of course measurement error is also going to fall into this pot. As a result of all these doubts and problems with the theory, the heritability of g is no longer the focus of research. Instead, scientists are more interested in how environmental factors interact with this, as it becomes clear that there is a lot of gene-environment interaction (as in psychology generally) with the response to environmental factors depending on genetic predisposition. Shared environment appears to have less influence after adolescence as h increases (so we really do turn into our mothers!)

There are a number of alternative views of intelligence in addition to Spearman, as I mentioned previously. Perhaps the most commonly recognised view is that of Howard Gardner (1983) who argued that there was such a thing as multiple intelligences. The theory was first laid out in Gardner’s 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and has been further refined in subsequent years. They are as follows:

    • Linguistic (reading, writing, speaking, listening)
    • Logical-mathematical (numerical skills)
    • Spatial (driving, playing chess)
    • Musical (singing, playing instrument)
    • Bodily kinaesthetic (dance, athletics)
    • Interpersonal (understanding others)
    • Intrapersonal (understanding self)

In a sense, this idea of multiple intelligences rather resembles Thurstone’s multifactor theory with seven primary mental abilities (in the manner of personality traits), which dates from 1938, so it wasn’t entirely new. However Gardner argued that intelligence defined in the manner I have described fails to take into account comprehensively all the different aspects of ability that are present in humans. For example, a child who is able to memorise multiplication tables easily (in the manner approved of by the Victorians) is not necessarily going to be more intelligent than one who struggles. The second child may be stronger in another kind of intelligence, and may indeed have potentially higher mathematical intelligence than the one who simply memorizes tables. This suggests that schools should take pains to identify different strengths and weaknesses amongst individual pupils, and tailor the curriculum on an individual basis accordingly, using a range of approaches to teaching.

Gardner’s criteria for determining a specific area of intelligence were firstly case studies of individuals exhibiting unusual talents in a given field, such as child prodigies or autistic savants); neurological evidence of specialised areas of the brain (often including studies of people who have suffered brain damage affecting a specific capacity); the evolutionary relevance of the various capacities; psychometric or studies; and the existence of a symbolic notation (e.g. written language, musical notation, choreography).  His theories have been heavily criticised on the grounds that there is little empirical evidence for their existence, and also because they pertain more closely to personality types than any latent ‘intelligence’. Psychologists have also argued that in all the other intelligence tests, the different areas of intelligence have more or less correlated, which suggests that it is unlikely someone could be outstanding in one are and not in any others. Despite such criticism, the theory has been widely adopted by teachers, in the same way that schools have been very quick to catch onto the idea of the existence of aural, visual and kinaesthetic learning styles, even though much of the time many of such concepts are without empirical foundation and not properly understood. They are, however, cheap, quick and easy to implement, and reinforce teachers’ self-identity as socially equitable educators.

Moving on, the latest development in terms of trying to understand and classify intelligence is most probably Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence (1985). This priorities the following aspects of the human condition:

  • Mental mechanisms that underline intelligent behaviour
  • Adaptation to external environment via use of these mechanisms
  • Role of life experience in linking internal and external worlds

It moves away from the idea of psychometric testing of individuals, and towards a more cognitive approach. It was based on his observations of graduate students. Again, this system of measuring intelligence has been criticised because many of the systems inherent in the criteria previously listed are merely new versions of cognitive skills tracked using existing tests, which are thought to correlate well to personal and professional success in middle age and beyond, suggesting validity.

I’ll finish this blog post with an interesting quotation about the role of IQ in creating scientific success. I hope this disabuses you of any notion that your aspirations should be limited by any idea that you need a special level of IQ to achieve anything.

‘Even within science, IQ is only weakly related to achievement among people who are smart enough to become scientists. Research has shown, for example, that a scientist who has an IQ of 130 is just as likely to win a Nobel Prize as a scientist whose IQ is 180.’

Hudson, L (1966) Contrary Imaginations: A Psychological Study of the English Schoolboy (London, Methuen), p104, cited in Sulloway,F J (1996) Born to rebel: birth order, family dynamics and creative lives  New York: Pantheon, p357

The Leaton Gray Manifesto

During my talk on ‘Ten things we have forgotten about being a child’ during last week’s Sunday Times Festival of Education, I announced my education manifesto for when I rule the world. Here therefore are the top six things I would be changing in education, based on international research findings. These things are so boring, everyday and low cost that I imagine no politician would countenance them.

1. I would be forgetting about uniforms and just asking children to come to school prepared for both sedentary and physical tasks, in clean clothes that fit, that are suitable for the task in hand. We have no hard evidence that any other form of clothing benefits their education.

2. I would encourage schools to keep their children in the same classroom for blocks of time, with the same teacher, to avoid mass migrations around the school as well as rapid shifts in thinking from, say, Maths to English to Music and to Science. We have no evidence that moving around every lesson and doing short blocks of discrete learning is helpful. We do have evidence that longer blocks of learning promote better concentration and pupil led enquiry, and also lead to reduced noise and associated stress in school buildings.

3. I would encourage more interdisciplinary work as well as pupil-inspired (but teacher-enhanced) projects. We have no evidence that dividing subjects into easily tested silos helps pupil achieve advanced levels of understanding in any particular subject area. We do have evidence that interdisciplinary work leads to what is known as ‘deep learning’.

4. I would increase the amount of time pupils are physically active, both through formal PE lessons as well as outdoor experiences in general. We have no evidence that treating school pupils as though they were white collar office workers is good for their development. We do have evidence that physical activity is good for children’s mental and physical health.

5. I would reform the examination system so it resembled both the way children work in class, as well as the way people are tested and appraised in the workplace. We have no evidence that high stakes testing does anything to make education more thorough or consistent. We do have evidence that regular, constructive feedback about pupils’ work allows for more rapid and extensive improvement.

6. I would start the school day at 9 for primary schools and 10 for secondary schools. We have no evidence that current timetabling traditions are helpful to pupils. We do have evidence that adolescents struggle with current timetabling of school days.

I will leave you with a question.

How would you change education, based on the research evidence?

Let’s talk Russian education reform


School 366, St Petersburg

I had to do a very sound byte led interview for CNBC this week, for a film to be shown at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. It’s hard to be very expressive about your educational philosophy in a few disjointed words, so I thought it was time for a new blog post. Here are some of my thoughts on schooling and standards in response to some of their questions. As ever, comments and discussion always welcome, of course.

  • Where along the learning spectrum do you think that governments should target investment in education? In early years’ development, secondary, vocational, or higher education?

I am assuming we are talking about the greater good here. The evidence says that we need to top load education, by investing in early years very heavily. This is particularly important when you have polarised societies or problems with child poverty, as the work of Kathy Silva and others tells us. There is also a case for providing generous funding for vocational and academic higher education, and seeing these two forms of education as being of equal value. Obviously the stages in between are important as well, but concentrating on the initial and final stages of education is likely to make sure energies and investment are focused in the right place.

We do have to think about the individual as well. Here it’s important to provide properly for the top 10% and bottom 10% in order to ensure that children and young people are developing the talents they need, for personal and national benefit. In terms of the bottom 10%, you need to ensure that as many children as possible are able to earn a living (even though this might mean supported employment) and live a fulfilled and independent life. This is the case even if it looks expensive. In terms of the top 10% in vocational or academic terms, these children and young people need to be identified and provided with the means of developing suitable skills to be the national and global leaders of the future.

However here the really difficult bit is making sure that the top 10% and bottom 10% are sufficiently integrated with the rest, to avoid the social polarisation that is so dangerous to national and global longer term prosperity (and in case you miss the late developers). Geoff Whitty and I argued in a book chapter in 2007 that the way to do this was by providing a careful form of comprehensive (all ability) education that included extended schooling. Extended schooling is an all-embracing term that mean working with outside agencies, social and healthcare services, and other providers, so that the needs of all children are met, not just the easy-to-teach ones in the middle. There is also an argument that extra curricular activities are vitally important in developing children and young people properly, for example through music and drama clubs, science societies, sporting and debating clubs and school trips (centrally funded if possible). It’s not for nothing that top independent schools in the UK provide these opportunities for their pupils.

So my message for business leaders is:

1. Early years education is vitally important, even if you don’t see returns for two decades.

2. Vocational and higher education is very important as well, and you’ll see a more immediate return in terms of the workforce if you invest here.

3. In terms of schooling investment, the safest bet is to develop a programme of human-scale, medium sized all ability schools (200-400 at primary level, 500-1000 pupils at secondary level), combined with extended schooling programmes, so learning is also individualised. You might also want to aim to keep class sizes around the 25 pupil level. (Interestingly I understand Tyumen and Kazan have done exactly this with their school and class sizes).

  • Should governments legislate to encourage more learning in the home, as well as formally through the education system?

Dangerous territory. All a government should be legislating for is that all children receive a reasonable level of education, and that they are not abused. It also makes sense to keep an eye on the promotion of extremist views, as they can be unsettling for wider society in the medium to long term. Other than that, the government should keep its nose out of the home, otherwise the population becomes overly suspicious, and overly dependent on the state.

  • How important is personalisation/individualisation within learning systems?

If you are offering a one-size fits all model of education, you might as well give up. No two children are the same, just like no two families or businesses are the same. Learning always needs to be adapted to the needs of learners. Also see my comments about extended schooling above.

  • As Russia’s education system becomes less centralised and more autonomous there are suggestions it could herald an end to Russia’s free-schooling era. What are the dangers of this?

Autonomy is absolutely fine, laudable in fact, but you do need soft touch educational oversight from the centre to ensure parity of provision. Historically in the UK this has been done through HMIs (Her Majesty’s Inspectors) at a regional level, and more lately OFSTED (Office for Standards of Education, a Government department), although there have been some criticisms of OFSTED’s approach over the years. Nevertheless supervision is something that needs factoring into the system. Similarly the best way to wreck your economy is to start charging for compulsory education, either directly or indirectly, so don’t do it.

  • In Russia there is an issue with access to adequate education for rural communities. Are there models they can learn from to improve this? They currently have the UNT – a universal test for access to University, replacing earlier accrued school credits – is this a way of making a ‘level playing field’?

As Geoff Whitty and I said in our 2007 book chapter, most decision-makers send their children to urban and suburban schools, and these schools tend to received the lion’s share of funding and parental support. This is a very short sighted. It is rural schools everywhere which need enhanced funding, as it is more expensive to provide proper facilities in non urbanised areas. Teachers also need to be incentivised to work in such areas as well, through good relocation packages and so on. Governments and bureaucrats need to bite the bullet and authorise sufficient funding for the types of schools their own children will never attend. (This also includes urban and suburban schools in areas of deprivation, by the way).

  • What are the benefits and threats for Russia having adopted the Bologna Process model of higher education?

Russian universities may ultimately become more attractive to international students and academics, although it may be that a lingua franca of English needs to be adopted for some courses, particularly at postgraduate level. It might be wise to develop something along the lines of the Goethe Institute for the promotion of Russian language and culture as well, so Russian isn’t sidelined altogether as a medium of instruction and communication within Higher Education.

  • Is enough being done to engage young people with school and to motivate them to succeed? Should there be less formal testing, a la Finland, or is a hands-on learning approach the way to better engage learners?

If people don’t turn up to school, you need to ask yourself why. Having taught in some schools that resemble noisy, impersonal airports, and which have very dated resources, I can understand why some pupils feel they would rather stay home. Similarly, if a lot of the curriculum and instruction is plodding and turgid, and doesn’t relate to the world pupils see around them, then it’s pretty alienating. The same applies to frequent testing ultimately aimed at measuring schools more than pupils. You need bright, engaged teachers who are well motivated and keen to develop programmes of study that the pupils will respond to properly. And you need buildings that are sufficiently inviting for pupils to want to go in. Back this up with up to date computer and library facilities, and most of the people will be happy most of the time.

  • Do you think more needs to be done to promote vocational models of learning, both in terms of supporting individual student’s needs, and plugging the skills gap?

If baffles me why we are so nervous of vocational education in the UK. It tends to be a path for the less intelligent, and it receives a lower level of investment (unless you are from a wealthy family, in which case you can trot off to the Norland Training College to become a posh nanny or the Parnham Furniture College to study to be a cabinetmaker,or whatever). Really we need to introduce technical universities and fund these at generous levels. Sweden and Germany get this right.

  • What do you think are the opportunities and threats posed to traditional education business models by online learning options? Should the two models sit harmoniously together, as with Coursera?

I don’t like the term ‘educational business model’ as it smacks of milking vocation for personal gain, which has a law of diminishing returns. Obviously schools and universities need to be business-like and provide courses that people need at a price they can afford to pay (or that the state or sponsors can afford to pay). However we need to recognise that education is about more than flogging education as a product, and always should be.

In terms of massive online courses (MOOCS) they will probably remain around in some form for the foreseeable future, but they are really more about information transmission than actual education, which is a much more personal and holistic enterprise. There is certainly room for curated information transmission within global education systems (indeed I wish there was more of it), but we need to provide the human touch at appropriate points as well.

  • Globally Russia ranks very low for teacher’s pay, yet Finland proves that high status is more attractive. How should Russia reform its teaching systems to better serve students, but also to make the profession attractive?

Peg teacher salaries to careers like accountancy, and offer tuition subsidies/refunds, golden handshakes, and inviting relocation packages for the most suitable candidates. Regular sabbaticals and grants for higher degree study retain people in the profession during the medium and long term as well.

In the US there is also Teach for America and in the UK Teach First, which are aimed at getting good graduates involved in the education sector. Many leave after two years, but we hope that they will take their insights with them and be sympathetic to the cause from vantage points in other careers and positions of leadership. It’s not a perfect system, but it is interesting, as Geoff Whitty and I argued in our 2010 article on teacher careers and identities. Watch this space.

  • How can businesses work better with the education system to reduce youth unemployment and plug the skills gap? Are there any success stories?

There are two things businesses need to consider here. The first is funding things such as Foundation (lower level or introductory) degrees. There are some businesses and industries that are better at doing this than others. For example aircraft maintenance  is something employees might study on day release, working part time and attending courses the rest of the time. The second is building really solid relationships with local schools, colleges and universities. All too often the outreach person from a business will have dealings with the outreach person from an educational institution, but it never really develops into a symbiotic relationship. I call this ‘outreach to outreach disease’. There needs to be a lot more follow-through, with schools developing courses local and national employers really want, and employers working with schools so that kids get jobs, for example by offering targeted work experience.

  • Should there be more innovation centres, like the Microsoft ran ‘Start in Garage’ or specialist schools to cater to the needs of business?

I imagine a MOOC with supplementary mentoring would be a cheaper way of providing this, and to better effect, but I am not sure. I wonder what other people think?

  • What are the jobs of the future and how can we fill them through education (McKinsey report)?

If I were to get a crystal ball out, I would probably predict these areas would be the top four jobs of the future for my own kids:

1. Green energy.

2. Food security and quality.

3. Social media related work.

4. Education and training in a global context.

However what these jobs will actually involve in 10-20-30-40-50 years’ time, I have absolutely no idea. All we can do is teach pupils and students to be adaptable and resilient. That having been said, the roots of these jobs are here now, so we shouldn’t assume the future is completely unknowable. In 1977 I was typing little magazines on my Petite Junior Typewriter for my friends, and here I am in 2013 typing a blog on my knee doing an adult version of the same thing. No great mystery there.

  • Does all education have a duty to instil softer skills, and entrepreneurial skills in learners in order to spur on future growth and success for society?

We get the schools, and the entrepreneurship education, that we deserve. If entrepreneurship skills are spread widely throughout society, with wide benefits to all, then schools will reflect that. If a few businesses dominate many areas in a quasi-monopolistic fashion, then don’t be surprised if people reject the model.

Teacher strikes – why we’ve been here before, and will be here again.

This is a post originally published in 2011 that still has relevance in terms of the outcomes of this week’s teaching union conferences, so I thought I would repost.

Primarily, Thursday’s teacher strike is supposed to be over issues surrounding pensions. However if we look at current Conservative education policy, we get the sense that this run-in between teachers and the Conservative Government is in some ways just the latest manifestation of a much older, more entrenched battle. Indeed, one particularly contradictory aspect of Conservative education policy over the past thirty years seems to be its ongoing ambivalence towards the teaching profession in general.

On one level, this is probably not surprising, and represents a certain degree of continuity with the past. The relationship between teachers and previous Conservative Governments was generally fraught, with criticism over teaching standards, and the introduction of increasing degrees of Governmental control over teachers’ activities. In response, teachers frequently resorted to industrial action. The nadir in the relationship between Government and the teaching profession was arguably when Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, declared that 15,000 teachers were incompetent. Since then there have been attempts to rehabilitate the profession’s image, not least as a reaction to periodic recruitment problems. Examples of measures taken include the introduction of the Teaching Awards (popularly known as the Education Oscars), which were established in 1999, and the foundation of the General Teaching Council, a self-regulatory body which accepted its first members in 2000, but which was to last just over a decade before being forced to close as an economy measure. Bearing this in mind, it seems timely to establish what the current position of the Conservative party actually is towards teachers.

Early in the manifesto document the Tories brought out before the 2010 election, there was a clear statement of intent to do with allowing teachers more autonomy in terms of discipline, exclusions and so on (p. 20). At first glance, therefore, this seems to be a step change away from earlier attempts to control minutely all aspects of teachers’ activities. However this impression is undermined by references to other aspects of teacher professionalism in a less positive light, which give us the first clue as to how teachers may really be perceived. One example of this is that the education establishment is accused of stigmatising synthetic phonics for the teaching of reading (p.15). Similarly the idea of unannounced inspections (p. 34) seems very heavy handed and rooted in a suspicion that professional practice is not always going to be satisfactory unless it is scrutinised and audited in a particular way. This can be problematic in a school situation. Clearly an infinite number of human variables exist in any learning environment. Pupils can vary greatly from day to day in terms of behaviour, attendance and on, and this can be related to matters outside a school’s control, for example classrooms can appear unsettled as a consequence of something as prosaic as poor weather. Teachers as professionals learn to accommodate such comparatively transient issues within the larger scheme of things, based on their experiential knowledge of individuals, local conditions and circumstances. However this degree of adaptation is not always easily understood by the outsider on a fleeting visit. Therefore the idea of spot-checking schools in this way sits uncomfortably with any notion of teachers being autonomous professionals. This might seem like a relatively minor issue, but is highly indicative of a particular position being taken by the Conservatives in relation to the distribution and flow of power within education.

So where does that leave us in terms on Thursday’s strike? As Schattschneider said in relation to democracy in America, “Organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out”. In current Conservative education policy, this “organising out” currently seems to apply to the democratic concerns of many of the people engaged in education on a day-to-day basis, while they themselves are presented repeatedly as social problems. They therefore become subordinate to an insidious system in which their best interests are not always realised, along with many of their pupils. So we had better get used to strikes, as very many more are likely to be on the horizon, as people try to find some sort of democratic voice in a time of great change.

Image: jscreationzs /

Vote for the Enemy of Promise you think applies most today

In this fun poll, you will find six quotations from Cyril Connolly’s 1938 book, Enemies of Promise, in which he seeks to address the genesis and extent of his own perceived underachievement in life, amongst other things. Some of the writing in his book stands the test of time, other quotations read oddly today. Bearing this in mind, please vote for the Enemy of Promise quotation that you think applies most to education policy today.

Let’s replace our Fortnum’s v Walmart system with a John Lewis model of schooling

I’m on the IOE Blog today arguing that it’s time we worked towards a more equitable model of schooling in London, rather than the fragmented, class driven system in place at the moment. Click on the link below for more.


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