Gove: The Great Reformer

•July 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

ReformerThree months after Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Education I applied to become a teacher. Four years later, England’s education landscape has been transformed, unreservedly for the better.

There was a sense of hopelessness in the schools I visited during my training. So many people I encountered seemed resigned to the idea that in England rubbish schools, like rubbish weather, were a depressing but inevitable feature of national life. This resignation had only been strengthened by the failure of New Labour’s programme of reform.

Read the full article on the Standpoint website here.

Gove’s unfinished business

•July 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This spring, I published a history of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. As may be evident from the book’s title, it has little good to say about the movement’s continuing influence in British schools. However, many people have responded to the book by objecting that progressive education was a passing fad of the 1960s and 70s, long consigned to the dustbin of history alongside tie-died T-shirts, the Wombles and prog rock.

One former New Labour cabinet member to whom I sent the book wrote back claiming that Progressively Worse was ‘about 20 years out of date’, adding that an obsession with battles which have long been resolved was typical of ‘those on the very far right’. On the contrary, I would contend that progressive education is in some senses as strong as it ever has been within state schools.

Read the full article on the Demos Quarterly website here.

On the telly

•July 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I say almost nothing of any insight or interest in this clip, but in case you are interested, here is a short extract from a show I took part in on Monday. Aired on London Live, it was a discussion with David Weston (Teacher Development Trust) and Alex Kenny (NUT) concerning Michael Gove and his successor Nicky Morgan.


Scrap the ‘Quality of Teaching’ grade

•July 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday, my report on Ofsted inspections was published by the think tank Civitas. It is entitled Playing the Game: The enduring influence of the preferred Ofsted teaching style, and you can read it for free here.

The report recommends an end to the ‘Quality of Teaching’ grade in Section 5 Ofsted inspections. There are four main reasons for this recommendation.

  1. Ofsted inspectors have a longstanding preference for child-centred teaching methods, and prejudice against more teacher-led alternatives. According to my analysis, in 2013, 52% of secondary inspection reports showed a preference for pupils working independent of teacher instruction, 42% showed a preference for group work, and 18% criticised teachers for talking too much. This is a problem because there is no empirical evidence that the teaching methods that Ofsted inspectors favour are more effective than alternatives. In many cases (direct instruction, repeated practice, clarity of explanation) the opposite appears to be the case.
  2. Inspectors cannot reliably assess teacher quality according to lesson observations. This is a fact clearly established by the Measures of Effective of Teaching (MET) project in the US, a five year research project involving 3,000 volunteer teachers and costing $50 million. These findings have been assessed by the Sutton Trust, and the think tank Policy Exchange, and should have significant implications for the conduct of performance management and school inspections in the UK. Projecting the findings of the MET project onto Ofsted, Prof Rob Coe has suggested that, in the best case scenario, only 49 per cent of observation grade judgements would agree with future pupil achievement.
  3. The Quality of Teaching Grade is redundant. According to the Director of Research, Evaluation and Impact at Teach First, Sam Freedman, the ‘Quality of Teaching’ grade aligns with the ‘Achievement of Pupils’ grade in 97% of Ofsted inspections. There is little reason to expect the situation to be otherwise: if pupil achievement is good within a school, then it can be fairly assumed that teaching is also good. This much seems to be evident in latest Ofsted framework for inspections, which when writing about ‘Quality of Teaching’ grade states: ‘The most important role of teaching is to promote learning and to raise pupils’ achievement.’
  4. English teachers are some of the most over-observed in the world. The OECD’s 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) found that 99 per cent of English teachers receive annual feedback through classroom observations. This compared to an OECD average of 79 per cent and an average of 81 per cent from amongst the nine highest performing countries. In addition, English teachers were the least likely of all teachers in 34 OECD countries to say that observation feedback resulted in a moderate or large positive change in four areas: confidence as a teacher; knowledge and understanding of main subject field(s); motivation; and job satisfaction.

In short, Ofsted’s assessment of teacher quality is biased, ineffective, unnecessary and deeply resented. As Joe Kirby wrote yesterday, ‘When the Anti-Academies Alliance agree with Free School trust founders, the tremors reach Whitehall.’

My report, Playing the Game, focused on a widely held concern within the profession for Ofsted’s power to curtail the professionalism of teachers. It was covered in the TES, the BBC, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Telegraph. It has been written about by teacher-bloggers Stuart Lock, Joe Kirby, David Didau and Tom Bennett (who has issued a threat of physical violence to any inspector who reprimands him for talking too much – ‘I’ll snap their bloody fingers off’).

So far, I have heard of no convincing counter arguments for retaining the ‘Quality of Teaching’ grade. Ofsted should now either pledge to scrap the grade, or issue a convincing argument for its retention.

Ten lessons from TALIS

•June 27, 2014 • 3 Comments

On Wednesday, the OECD released their ‘Teaching and Learning International Survey’ (TALIS). The TALIS survey quizzes teachers about their actual classroom practice, and is a goldmine of illuminating international comparisons. TALIS 2013 surveys 34 countries and economies, including 24 from the OECD, though some big hitters, in particular the USA, are not included. In England, 2,500 teachers were surveyed from around 150 schools.

Where I refer to ‘high performing countries’ they are Japan, Korea, Singapore, Estonia, Finland, Flanders (Belgium), The Netherlands, Alberta (Canada), and Australia. ‘Low performing countries’ are Abu Dhabi (UAE), Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, Romania, Serbia. The report is available from PISA here, in a not very searchable format. The DfE and a group from the IoE have done an excellent England-specific digest of the report here.

1) More english pupils are diagnosed as having SEN than in any other country: We have confirmation: England has a colossal problem with bogus diagnoses of Special Educational Needs (SEN). Teaches were asked whether more than 10% of pupils in their school had SEN. The OECD average was 26%, and England was 67% – the highest figure for any nation surveyed (OECD, table 2.10). Either there is something in the water, or rather a lot of English pupils suffer from SMBD (spuriously medicalised behavioural disorder).SMDB

2) English schools have more teaching assistants than in any country aside from Canada: Sorry teaching assistants (TAs), but your time may be up. England has one teaching assistant for every 4.1 teachers, compared to a OECD average of one for every 9.8 (DfE, p. 44). Only Alberta, Canada has more teaching assistants than England (OECD, table 2.18). Between 2000 and 2012, the number of teaching assistants in English classrooms tripled, amounting to 232,000, costing £4 billion per year. Coupled with the news from the Education Endowment Foundation that TAs have little impact on pupil attainment, and TALIS report finding that they have little impact on classroom behaviour, it seems the days of this army of assistants may be numbered.

3) English schools have more senior leaders than in any country aside from Singapore and Bulgaria: The Senior Leadership Team gravy train has been rumbled. English schools have one school administrative or management personnel for every 3.3 teachers (DfE, p. 45). Only Bulgaria and Singapore have a lower ratio of senior leaders to teachers than England (OECD, table 2.18). If Finland can have one senior leader for every 12.4 teachers, and the OECD average is one senior leader for every 6.3 teachers, some serious questions have to be asked about those under-timetabled, underworked, rarely seen figures.

Too many senior leaders

Too many senior leaders

4) English teachers work long hours: English teachers work, on average, a 46 hour week. This is 8 hours more than the OECD average (38 hours), but revealingly the time English teachers teaching (20 hours)is the same as the OECD average. The extra work sapping up teacher hours seem to be marking, management and administrative tasks (OECD, table 6.12). Questions should be asked about how effectively such time is being spent.

5) English teachers are well paid: The average classroom teacher in England earns an annual £34,600. Relative to the national economy, in only five countries are teachers better paid. So, English teachers are well paid compared to teachers in other countries, but 74% of English teachers still believe they are underpaid compared to other professions (see here).

6) High performing countries do not fall for fads: To be outstanding, a lesson must include differentiation and group work… think again fools! The proportion of teachers who use differentiation ‘frequently’ or ‘in all or nearly all lessons’ is 63% in England, 53% in low performing countries and 32% in high performing countries. The proportion of teachers who use group work ‘frequently’ or ‘in all or nearly all lessons’ is 58% in England, 61% in low performing countries and 25% in high performing countries. Also, high performing countries use considerably less pupil self-assessment than England, and less project work and ICT (DfE, p. 148). If England wants to join the PISA titans, it looks like we may need to cut the crap, ditch the sugar paper, and get serious.

Group work: more common in low performing countries than high

Group work: more common in low performing countries than high

7) Pupil behaviour in England is not good, but it is not the worst: England comes about middle in most measures of pupil misbehaviour. However, this news is cold comfort, as the figures still make for grim reading: 21 per cent of teachers in England said they had to wait ‘quite a long time for students to quieten down’ at the start of classes and 28 per cent insisted they lost ‘quite a lot of time because of students interrupting the lesson’ (DfE, p. 163). Drilling down into the particulars, serious misbehaviour such as cheating, vandalism and theft is rare in English schools. However, 6% of English teachers say that ‘Intimidation or verbal abuse of teachers or staff’ occur at least weekly in their school – way above the average and lower only than Brazil and Estonia (OECD, table 2.20). There is still not enough basic respect for adults in our schools.

8) English teachers are over-managed: The cult of the observation has been verified: 99% of English teachers receive feedback at least annually on the basis of classroom observations, compared with 81% in high performing countries and an 88% OECD average. High performing countries are more likely than England to use alternatives such as ‘student surveys of own teaching’, ‘parent surveys or discussion’, and ‘assessment of subject knowledge’ for the purposes of teacher appraisal. Also, teachers in England are jaundiced about the effect of appraisal and feedback on their professional practice: no country scores lower than England in reporting positive changes from feedback regarding ‘confidence as a teacher’ or ‘knowledge/understanding of main subject fields’ (DfE, p. 95-99). Our approach observations and performance management must be reviewed.

9) English teachers are less experienced than in any other country aside from Singapore: The average English teacher has only been in the classroom 12.4 years, compared with an OECD average of 16.2 years. This is the second lowest of all nations surveyed: only Singapore’s teachers are less experienced (OECD, table 2.6). This is worrying, as we all know the merits of an experienced teacher. For example, TALIS shows that English teaches with more years under their belt report far fewer problems with behaviour (DfE, p. 160-161).

Andreas Schleicher's new research assistant

Andreas Schleicher’s new research assistant

10) The OECD is becoming very blobby: This one is worrying. In what appears to be an approving fashion, the OECD report writes under the heading ‘Beliefs about the nature of teacher an learning’ that teacher training may focus on ‘learner-centred classrooms’ and ‘inquiry forms of learning’, with ‘more constructivist, student-centred forms of learning.’ Therefore, the report asked teachers whether they agreed with statements such as ‘My role as a teacher is to facilitate students’ own inquiry’, and ‘students learn best by finding solutions to problems on their own’ (TALIS, p. 163-165). Yikes. Did the OECD miss a meeting? Have they not got the message from Hattie, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark, Willingham et al? Someone needs to tell the OECD: constructivism is bunk.

Tristram Shambles

•June 25, 2014 • 4 Comments

At the Wellington College Festival of Education last June, I heard Tristram Hunt speak for the first time. He was nervous, ill-informed and uncomfortable. Give him a year, I thought, bearing in mind that he had only been schools minister for two months.

Startlingly poor as Shadow Education Secretary

Hunt: Startlingly poor as Shadow Education Secretary

Hunt was due to return to the festival this month having been promoted to Shadow Education Secretary in the meantime. How did he fare one year on? I cannot say, as Hunt did not even turn up. This was not much of a surprise. Tristram Hunt is failing to marshal any serious opposition to the Gove revolution in schools, and nowhere is this failure laid bare more clearly than when addressing an audience.

In early June, Hunt and Gove spoke one after the other at an event organised by the think tank Policy Exchange. The contrast was absolute: as usual, Gove was thoughtful, well-informed and passionate about English schools. In comparison, Hunt delivered a wordy, scripted speech in which his hyperbolic attacks on Gove’s record, ‘gross negligence’, ‘low expectations’, ‘ideological privatisation’, contrasted with the petty content of his actual criticisms.

When it came to the questions, Hunt shook like a leaf as his poor understanding of the issues within state schools was unveiled. He answered each question with vague politico-speak, ‘I’m all up for improvement’; ‘let’s have that conversation’; ‘let’s take that forward’; ‘y’know…’. As I left the room, one attendee observed ‘I think I heard him say ‘erm’ more times than he said ‘education’.’ For a media-honed television historian and supposed bright young thing of the Labour party, such a poor performance was startling.

Partly explaining Hunt’s inability to combat Gove is his lack of alternative policies. He has repeatedly described free schools as a ‘dangerous ideological experiment’, but is unable to explain why, and strangely unwilling to promise to end to the dangerous experiment were Labour to win the next election. In a speech to the Fabian society this week, Hunt warned that the Conservative party—though unwilling to admit it—intend to privatise English state schools. Unable to attack actual government policies, he has resorted to making some up so that he can.

Trojan Horse: nothing to do with academies policy

Trojan Horse: nothing to do with the academies policy

Similarly, Hunt has tried to use the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham to attack the expansion of the academies programme. He claims that the Birmingham schools show Gove is guilty of ‘gross negligence’ for freeing schools from local authority control without ensuring sufficient new oversight. Hunt conveniently ignores the fact that all six schools involved in the Trojan Horse scandal were under the control of Birmingham city council until 2012.

More worrying still are Hunt’s actual policy proposals, which reflect a continued attachment to New Labour command-and-control politics. He wants all teachers to have teaching qualifications, but cannot explain why. Teaching qualifications are not necessary in the independent sector, and only became compulsory in state schools in 1973. University education faculties are home to the damaging ‘child-centred’ dogmas that have harmed the quality of teaching in so many schools, and their ascendency coincides exactly with the most calamitous period in the history of England’s state schools, as I have tracked in my recent book Progressively Worse. Strangely for a historian, Hunt does not acknowledge this. As for his proposal that teachers should be re-licenced throughout their career, Hunt has managed to light upon a system that could be even more destructive of teacher autonomy than Ofsted.

Return of the SEAL? I hope not

Return of the SEAL? I hope not

In February, Hunt promoted teaching of ‘character’ in schools, through giving lessons in managing emotions, empathy, kindness, dealing with stress and the like. This sounds alarmingly like New Labour’s 2005 ‘Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning’ (SEAL) National Stategy, an expensive and embarrassing failure. Similarly, Hunt has backed the Labour Skills Task Force’s proposal of a National Baccalaureate at sixth form, which would combine A-levels with ‘personal skills development programme’ and an ‘extended project’. Again, this sounds like a rehash of the 2004 Tomlinson Report, a proposal with such a clear consequence of dumbing down the examination system that even New Labour shelved it.

As for the long awaited and grandly named ‘Blunkett Review’, the main policy proposal was the appointment of eighty local Directors of School Standards, who sound rather like Gove’s Regional Schools Commissioners, except there will be more of them. So many of them, in fact, that they would effectively signal the return of Local Authority power by another name.

Hunt: Seems far more concerned by the history of the British Empire than the future of English schools

Hunt: Seems far more concerned about the history of the British Empire than the future of English schools

Tristram Hunt’s inability to propose credible policy alternatives is, in part, more evidence of Michael Gove’s success as Education Secretary. However, there is more to it than that. Since his appointment to the shadow cabinet, Hunt has failed to educate himself about English state schools (see his long list of gaffs chronicled by Toby Young), but has somehow found the time to publish a history of the British Empire to widespread critical acclaim. Ask Hunt about the role of Hong Kong in colonial trade routes, and he’ll bang on for hours. Ask him about the possible consequences of removing the National Curriculum levels from state schools, and he’ll gape like a mute. Hunt is performing so poorly as a politician because he has not yet given up being a historian. And people say Gove has his head stuck in the past…

As a history teacher set to start teaching at a free school in September, I quake at the prospect of Tristram Hunt as Education Secretary. Due to his unwillingness to think hard about English schools, he is only too happy to defer to the education establishment. Members of the so-called Blob have been disempowered but not eliminated, and are patiently waiting in the wings for a Labour victory in 2015. From the policies that he has proposed so far, Hunt as Education Secretary would mean more national directives, more local governance, more paperwork, and more quangocrats telling teachers how to do their job.

This would be a sad end to the new era of a ‘schools led system’ which Michael Gove’s reforms are doing so so much to achieve.

A response to critics #5: it is right wing

•June 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

One month ago, I published a historical critique of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. It has two essential arguments. Firstly, from the 1960s onwards progressive education became a powerful orthodoxy within the state education system. Secondly, it has failed to improve the quality of education in our schools.

This is the fifth and final post in a series of blogs responding to the criticism Progressively Worse has received so far. To read the first, second, third and fourth blogs, click here, here, here and here.

Of all the slings and arrows thrown at the book, the accusation that it is ‘right wing’ or ‘ideological’ is the most angering, but perhaps the most predictable. Reviews of Progressively Worse on blogs and amazon have accused the book of being a ‘politically motivated polemic’; ‘part of an ideological campaign’; a veil for the ‘privatisation’ of schools; a precursor to my ‘inevitable move into Tory politics’; and, bizarrely, part of a neo-liberal conspiracy involving Pearson.



In addition, when I sent the book to a former Labour cabinet minister who I naively believed may find it of some interest, he responded that an attack on progressive education was ‘about 20 years out of date’. Such a judgement is obviously wrong, but when he added that the book was typical of ‘those on the very far right’ – that was positively inflammatory.

I am not of the very far right. I am not even a Tory. I would consider myself a centrist swing voter. Though I have much admiration for the current Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, I did not vote for his party in 2010.

I hope that those who have read Progressively Worse appreciate it is very far from being a piece of party political one upmanship. The foreword is written by Andrew Old, a Labour Party member and fellow critic of progressive education who finds no contradiction between those two positions. Quite the opposite, as he writes in the foreword:

Many of us who identify our politics most closely with the aspirational, working-class tradition within the Labour Party are happy to campaign as firmly against the excesses of progressive education as we do against the excesses of free-market capitalism. This is for fundamentally the same reason; it increases the deprivation of the less fortunate for the sake of an ideological experiment conducted at their expense by those with little to lose personally.

Callaghan: A Labour Prime Minister who recognised the failure of progressive education.

Callaghan: A Labour Prime Minister who recognised the failure of progressive education.

Whilst researching the Progressively Worse, I gained a great admiration for two Labour party politicians from the 1970s: the Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and his Policy Director Bernard Donoughue. Both were Old Labour figures from modest working class backgrounds, who lamented the spread of progressive education during the 1970s. They saw that it was stripping many of the virtues of the education they received during the 1920s and 1930s from British schools.

Donoughue later lamented that education was being warped by ‘middle-class Labour people from Islington… Their thinking was based on Guardian style ideologies and prejudices.’ It was in part Callaghan’s frustration with the spread of ‘informal teaching methods’ that spurred him to make his famous Ruskin Speech in 1976.

As for those who claim that Progressively Worse is a alarmist narrative used to justify the privatisation of British schools, please read Chapter 3. This was one of the most fascinating parts of the book to research, as between 1981 and 1986, the most zealous neo-liberal thinker of the Thatcher years – Sir Keith Joseph – reigned as education secretary. Joseph’s attempt to introduce a vouchers system to British education was an ideological drive based upon the mistaken idea that market forces could cure Britain’s educational ills. His time in office was an embarrassing failure, and having become aware of Keith Joseph’s struggles, I would oppose anyone who believes that Britain’s schools can be improved simply through market based reforms such as a vouchers system.

Fascist!: Not a mature response (RIP Rik Mayall)

Fascist!: Not a mature response (RIP Rik Mayall)

During my research, I realised there is nothing new about deriding opponents to progressive education as right wing. The editors of the Black Papers, C. B. Cox and Tony Dyson, were two liberal English Literature Professors and former Labour Party members. After they published their pamphlet, they were labelled ‘fascists’ and ‘a decrepit bunch of educational Powellites’. Researching the ‘Reading Wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s, it was extraordinary how politicised the language became. One teacher wrote of the charismatic whole-word advocate Frank Smith, ‘He has made (phonics) a political and ideological thing and created a perception of phonics as a right-wing affair.’ Progressive educators tarred their opponents with the toxic brush of right-wingery, effectively closing down any sensible debate: a tactic some still use today.

Partly, the debate over teaching methods and school organisation is cursed by a politicised nomenclature. It is too easy to assume that those who oppose progressive education must be opposed to social progress, when the exact opposite is normally the case.

For this reason, I find the debate over teaching methods analogous to that within twentieth century architecture. Like progressive education, architectural modernism, seen in the tower blocks of the fifties and sixties, was a movement led by middle-class radicals who imposed their idealistic designs upon an unwilling working class. Modernist architects, such as Peter and Alison Smithson and Denys Lasdun, built monstrous tower blocks for London councils whilst housing themselves in West London Victorian townhouses, just like those middle class supporters of progressive education who eventually sent their children to independent schools.

Modernist architecture: much like progressive education

Modernist architecture: much like progressive education

Those who oppose modernist architecture do not oppose modernity, just as those who oppose progressive education do not oppose progress. I will concede, the debate over teaching methods is centred on concepts which, in other realms, are politically charged. Progressive educators do support a greater degree of choice, independence, freedom and collaboration amongst children. All terms to make a liberal swoon. Traditionalists do favour authority, discipline, knowledge and competition – all terms that can, in other contexts, appear right wing.

However, the crucial point to realise is that education should be absolutely removed from the political realm for the simple reason that children are of a pre-political age. This is the vital point made so well by Hannah Arendt in her 1954 essay attacking progressive education, ‘The Crisis of Education’. Arendt was a liberal philosopher, but she realised that the liberalism she championed in public and political life should not be extended to the realm of the child, as greater freedom, choice and independence are not beneficial to those not yet mature enough to enjoy them. As she wrote:

The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition. We must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general validity in the world of grown-ups.

Truer words on schools have rarely been written. We grown-ups do children a deep disservice by naively assuming independent learning, lenient discipline systems and non-hierarchical classroom relationships must, ipso facto, be a good thing. The education of a child should be a preparation for liberalism, but not liberalism itself.