Category Archives: Theory

Does your family make you smarter? Review by Roger Titcombe.

T8 Review by Roger Titcombe

Does your family make you smarter? by James Flynn Cambridge University Press – 2016

James Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in the academic study of intelligence. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. It is the name given to the large year on year increases in IQ that took place in all developed countries during the twentieth century.

I am a retired headteacher, educational researcher and author. My work is based on the concept of general intelligence. The general intelligence factor ‘g’, accepted as a sound general construct by Flynn, is a concept about which much heat has been generated. If the validity of this construct is rejected, as it still is by some left inclined educationalists, then Flynn’s latest book together with his life’s work will be judged unworthy of serious consideration. To be clear therefore, I am reviewing this book in acceptance of the concept of general intelligence, with the crucial proviso that it is plastic and that it can be enhanced in childhood and subsequently throughout life as a result of both passive and (especially) active interaction with cognitive challenges.

Notwithstanding the main title, this is what Flynn’s book is mainly about. The subtitle, ‘Nature, Nurture and Human autonomy’ is a better description of the main thrust of the book. In it he describes how his view of the stability of genetically inherited intelligence has substantially changed. Wading into the nature vs nurture debate Flynn now rejects the pessimistic, anti-educational notion that IQ is largely stable over a lifetime. He argues that intelligence can be changed positively and negatively through ‘human autonomy’, by which he largely takes to mean the life decisions open to individuals in adulthood.

Flynn is now arguing that intelligence is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by most academics that study intelligence. Although he appears not to have given much thought to the impact of school pedagogy, he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  He writes as follows.

my analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

 How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives! University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

 “I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current [cognitive] environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

 

Flynn is not an educationalist, but his conclusions have profound implications for teachers, schools, national education systems and especially the failures of the ‘reformed’ English system with its emphasis on marketisation, league tables and parental choice.

Flynn’s book has a very useful summary of current theories of intelligence. In it he admits to being very influenced by Oesterdiekhoff, who he describes as, ‘the most original thinker among the continental Piagetians’.

Oesterdiekhoff links Piagetian stages to anthropology, He notes that the ‘formal operational’ stage develops only in modern societies, usually sometime between the ages of 15 and 20 and is associated with high IQ test scores. Flynn explains the Flynn effect (large gains in population IQ) mainly in terms of individuals having to come to terms with the cognitive demands of modern societies, which have steadily increased throughout industrialisation and ‘taken off’ in the last two decades of the digital revolution.

The consequence is that school students still at the ‘concrete operational’ (or pre-operational) level at 16 will increasingly struggle with the cognitive demands of modern life and the demands of employers. A ‘cognitive underclass’ is therefore in the making.

My argument is that marketised schools driven by SATs and GCSE grade ‘C’ performance thresholds are forced to prioritise achieving ‘floor targets’ at any costs. This condemns a large proportion of the school population to 11 years of shallow, degraded behaviourist teaching that, by age 16, will not develop cognitive ability sufficiently for full functioning in the modern world resulting in a vicious circle of failure and alienation.

A study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out on British children in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old had dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the ability range the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points. This apparent recent reversal of the Flynn effect is confirmed by a parallel study carried out in 2005/6 by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg (but not published until 2009), and gives weight to the contention that educational standards in England are falling as a consequence of the degrading of the education system. The decline in KS2 noted by Shayer, Coe and Ginsberg (2007) showed an even bigger effect than that recorded by Flynn: the 11 year-olds were testing at the level of 9 year-olds in 1976.

If environmental factors such as high cognitive challenge can result in growth of cognitive ability over time, as Flynn now asserts, then it follows that poor teaching of the wrong sort can produce a decline. Shayer and Ginsburg found just such a decline suggesting that the English education system could be ‘making our kids dimmer’ at the same time as stuffing them with ever more qualifications.

Referring to the title of the book, Flynn has analysed decades of IQ data to conclude that while the quality of the family environment can raise IQ scores in early years this effect wears off with schooling to virtually disappear by the age of 17. This suggests that contrary to common assumptions, as children progress through the education system the growth of cognition as a consequence of schooling is determined far more by the cognitive demands of the school experience than by any assumed deficiencies in the home background.

This too is a profoundly optimistic conclusion in terms of the potential of the education system for halting the national cognitive decline that is resulting from the corrupting effects of the marketisation of our schools.

However, the right kind of pedagogy is needed.

Although not written for educationalists this important book adds to the growing evidence that ‘intelligence matters’ and that the marketisation paradigm of the English education system is increasingly failing our children.

T8 Review by Roger Titcombe

Does your family make you smarter? by James Flynn Cambridge University Press – 2016

James Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in the academic study of intelligence. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. It is the name given to the large year on year increases in IQ that took place in all developed countries during the twentieth century.

I am a retired headteacher, educational researcher and author. My work is based on the concept of general intelligence. The general intelligence factor ‘g’, accepted as a sound general construct by Flynn, is a concept about which much heat has been generated. If the validity of this construct is rejected, as it still is by some left inclined educationalists, then Flynn’s latest book together with his life’s work will be judged unworthy of serious consideration. To be clear therefore, I am reviewing this book in acceptance of the concept of general intelligence, with the crucial proviso that it is plastic and that it can be enhanced in childhood and subsequently throughout life as a result of both passive and (especially) active interaction with cognitive challenges.

Notwithstanding the main title, this is what Flynn’s book is mainly about. The subtitle, ‘Nature, Nurture and Human autonomy’ is a better description of the main thrust of the book. In it he describes how his view of the stability of genetically inherited intelligence has substantially changed. Wading into the nature vs nurture debate Flynn now rejects the pessimistic, anti-educational notion that IQ is largely stable over a lifetime. He argues that intelligence can be changed positively and negatively through ‘human autonomy’, by which he largely takes to mean the life decisions open to individuals in adulthood.

Flynn is now arguing that intelligence is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by most academics that study intelligence. Although he appears not to have given much thought to the impact of school pedagogy, he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  He writes as follows.

my analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

 How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives! University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

 “I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current [cognitive] environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

 

Flynn is not an educationalist, but his conclusions have profound implications for teachers, schools, national education systems and especially the failures of the ‘reformed’ English system with its emphasis on marketisation, league tables and parental choice.

Flynn’s book has a very useful summary of current theories of intelligence. In it he admits to being very influenced by Oesterdiekhoff, who he describes as, ‘the most original thinker among the continental Piagetians’.

Oesterdiekhoff links Piagetian stages to anthropology, He notes that the ‘formal operational’ stage develops only in modern societies, usually sometime between the ages of 15 and 20 and is associated with high IQ test scores. Flynn explains the Flynn effect (large gains in population IQ) mainly in terms of individuals having to come to terms with the cognitive demands of modern societies, which have steadily increased throughout industrialisation and ‘taken off’ in the last two decades of the digital revolution.

The consequence is that school students still at the ‘concrete operational’ (or pre-operational) level at 16 will increasingly struggle with the cognitive demands of modern life and the demands of employers. A ‘cognitive underclass’ is therefore in the making.

My argument is that marketised schools driven by SATs and GCSE grade ‘C’ performance thresholds are forced to prioritise achieving ‘floor targets’ at any costs. This condemns a large proportion of the school population to 11 years of shallow, degraded behaviourist teaching that, by age 16, will not develop cognitive ability sufficiently for full functioning in the modern world resulting in a vicious circle of failure and alienation.

A study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out on British children in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old had dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the ability range the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points. This apparent recent reversal of the Flynn effect is confirmed by a parallel study carried out in 2005/6 by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg (but not published until 2009), and gives weight to the contention that educational standards in England are falling as a consequence of the degrading of the education system. The decline in KS2 noted by Shayer, Coe and Ginsberg (2007) showed an even bigger effect than that recorded by Flynn: the 11 year-olds were testing at the level of 9 year-olds in 1976.

If environmental factors such as high cognitive challenge can result in growth of cognitive ability over time, as Flynn now asserts, then it follows that poor teaching of the wrong sort can produce a decline. Shayer and Ginsburg found just such a decline suggesting that the English education system could be ‘making our kids dimmer’ at the same time as stuffing them with ever more qualifications.

Referring to the title of the book, Flynn has analysed decades of IQ data to conclude that while the quality of the family environment can raise IQ scores in early years this effect wears off with schooling to virtually disappear by the age of 17. This suggests that contrary to common assumptions, as children progress through the education system the growth of cognition as a consequence of schooling is determined far more by the cognitive demands of the school experience than by any assumed deficiencies in the home background.

This too is a profoundly optimistic conclusion in terms of the potential of the education system for halting the national cognitive decline that is resulting from the corrupting effects of the marketisation of our schools.

However, the right kind of pedagogy is needed.

Although not written for educationalists this important book adds to the growing evidence that ‘intelligence matters’ and that the marketisation paradigm of the English education system is increasingly failing our children.

T6 An important thinker for our times

T6 A lost voice largely forgotten by educationalists

Cliff Jones brings John Dewey to prominence and contrasts him with the effects of the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement as Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg calls it – which operates across the world to reduce teachers to operatives in what the NUT pamphlet in Summer 2015 called Exam Factories. However he is not forgotten by the right. The think tanks and operatives of the Right have always seen Dewey and democratic education as a target for opposition. Richard Pring recalls Keith Joseph commenting critically about Dewey when he was Secretary of State, and he was not the only example. It appears the the progressive movement does not study its own theorists or the behaviour of the opposition. There is a lack of history and analysis here which needs attention. Trevor Fisher.

Perspectives from Time and Place

Writers to think about

Readers of Chomsky will know that he does not confine himself in any subject silo. When writing about, for example, political culture he is very likely to say something about education. The other day I finished reading his BECAUSE WE SAY SO (2015). In it he reminds us of Dewey, the forgotten philosopher of education, unknown by our policy makers.

John Dewey was born just a few years after the charge of the Light Brigade. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn he was seventeen and he died the same year as George VI. To read him today is, however, to hear the voice of The Prague Spring and 1968 when, briefly, it felt to some of us that the remaining feudal hierarchies of education would melt away. His belief that education is key to community and democracy is a notion that we need to be reminded of.

At a conference in Bulgaria in the summer of 2013 educators from across the EU and Turkey were asked to identify the main changes to their work over the last ten years. It seemed that decision making about curriculum and assessment had become more centralised, resources reduced and targets made tougher. The main job of teachers today is preparing their students for measurement: not quite the same as education. Mention of being told by politicians to catch up with Finland brought nods throughout the room. But with a few others Finland does Dewey. Other countries have consigned him to the dustbin of history.

In Australia in 1983 Stephen Kemmis, working with colleagues, produced Orientations to Curriculum and Transition: Towards the Socially Critical School. The authors argue that schools can do better than simply prepare young people for a world of work or for life as individuals: that they need to realise that schools are not simply preparers for society but are actually participants in society and that this has implications for how they approach what they do. The book helps to show us that there are other perspectives: that there is a valid and valuable educational language somewhat different from the language of a quality assured pursuit of targets.

Supposing, however, a state wishes to reinforce a national historical narrative by controlling school textbooks so that they propagandise official versions of history and suppress legitimate other narratives. This is what Nurit Peled-Elhanen meticulously examines in her analysis of Israeli school textbooks.

Published in 2012 Palestine in Israeli School Textbooks, ideology and propaganda in education confronts an issue that is not confined to Israel. It is the issue of establishing an official national narrative that suppresses the narratives of others. To be dehumanised and devalued as one of the ‘others’ your maps, your place names, your customs and your celebrated events are not allowed into the classroom. Perhaps we might also remember George Orwell’s 1984 in which the Ministry of Truth can change the result of 2+2 to any figure that suits government at any given time.

The Latin etymological ancestors of ‘education’ indicate that it is about fulfilment. Fairness has an effect upon fulfilment. If society is unfair then so will be education and the fulfilment of some, no matter how defined, will come at the expense of others.

Whatever the depth of fulfilment achieved or the conditions of fairness in which that fulfilment is attempted education remains a social activity. As we learn our history and geography and science and whatever we also learn to interact socially. How inclusive do we want that interaction to be? Education, Education, Education really is Society, Society, Society.

To obtain a copy of the Kemmis book search for ED 295339 Kemmispdf

To read a review of the Peled-Elhanen book go to

http://www.criticalprofessionallearning.co.uk/assets/webNurit.pdf

To read masses of material produced by John Dewey simply blow the cobwebs off lots of shelves in university libraries. His work should still be there. Look behind Instruction to Deliver by Michael Barber. It is probably blocking access to Dewey.

Cliff Jones, February 2016

 

T5 The Grammar School revival in Perspective

T5 The Grammar School revival in Perspective

2016 will see the 70th anniversary of the origin of the current crisis in secondary education, the 1946 Labour Education Act, which set up the tripartite system and the eleven plus examination which is still the option for UKIP and the Tory right. The following article explains how the post war Labour government enacted the recommendations of the 1943 Norwood Report to create three types of secondary school, which failed to enact a single type of secondary education – the word comprehensive was not used till later – despite Labour rank and file support. This led to the current battles over a system which divides children at 11 and in some parts of the country remains educational apartheid. It is not the case that the 1944 Act passed by Churchill’s coalition set up the system – it was Labour’s Act of 1946 which did this. The article by Michael Pyke at T2 provides a complementary analysis. In 1965 the Crosland circular whose 50th anniversary passed un-noticed in 2015 set up the current system of local option which allows Nicky Morgan to expand grammar schools, though this mirrors shifts in the Tory right which favours the old system- Cameroons favour academies, and these are not grammar schools. Trevor Fisher

THE GRAMMAR SCHOOL DEBATE- The roots of the current impasse

Margaret Morris

Public funding of secondary education began over a century ago with the Act passed by Balfour’s Conservative government of 1902 and it is nearly a century since R.H.Tawney voiced the aspiration that all children should be entitled to “secondary” education. Tawney was not advocating the expansion of the existing system which provided a “ladder of opportunity” for some children to go to grammar schools: on the contrary, he wanted all children to have a full secondary education. Twenty years later the 1944 Education Act was enacted to provide “Secondary Education for All”. Both at the time and today there is a lack of agreement about what this should mean in practice.

Secondary education after the 1944 Act

In 1944 the issue was distorted by the prevalence of the belief that children were born with a fixed level of intelligence, which could be measured. As a result education according to “Age, Abilities and Aptitudes”, such innocent and commonsense-sounding words, led to the foundation of a tripartite system of Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern Schools, which became every bit as unequal and class-biased as in the bad old pre-war days. The 1946 Labour Act actually legislated to produce the tripartite system, which had been proposed by the 1943 Norwood report, The Norwood Report called for parity of esteem, but this was countered by the blunt facts that Secondary Modern children left school at 15- the Raising of the School Leaving age to a common 16 did not happen till 1970 as part of comprehensivisation – and there were no exams for Secondary Moderns. The Attlee government set up the O Level and A Level system in 1951 but this only catered for the selective minority.

The first step in challenging this system was the debunking of those psychologists, led by Cyril Burt and his academic acolytes, who claimed that there was evidence from IQ testing of the intellectual mediocrity of most working class children – they were just not up to advanced education. The theoretical campaign, in which the Communist Party Education Committee took the lead in bringing together psychologists, academics and teachers, took several years of meetings, conferences, union discussions, letters to the press and advocacy in the wider Labour Movement. It culminated in the publication of Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School (1953), which was collectively discussed at every stage as Brian Simon was writing it. Labour Local Authorities and teachers at large began to be convinced of both the falsity and wickedness of testing as an instrument of selection.

Parents too began to distrust the system. There was mounting evidence that IQ tests favoured children from middle class backgrounds, but even middle class parents began to worry about the randomness of tests taken at a set point in time, whereas children develop at different paces. Above all, they became concerned at the impact it had on the 70% – 75% of children who did not pass and went to Secondary Modern Schools with less opportunities to take the courses and exams needed for middle class employment opportunities.

Parents found it difficult when one child passed and another failed, and often felt it was unfair and not a true reflection of the differences between them. Many children who failed suffered psychological damage, lost confidence and saw themselves as likely to be failures for life. It would be true to say that well before Crosland’s 1965 Circular, the 11+ selection process had become distrusted and had few defenders.

This did not mean, however, that there was agreement about what should replace the tripartite system. Both working class and middle class parents were concerned that none of their children should be deprived of a chance to follow the curriculum and take the exams which led to professional or administrative employment. In 1945 there had been outrage at the Labour Party Conference over the statement in The Nation’s Schools (drawn up by Public School educated civil servants) that the education of the overwhelming majority of children should be determined by the fact that “their future employment will not demand any measure of technical skill or knowledge”. Despite the outcry, the expansion of secondary schools continued on tripartite lines, though very few technical schools were opened. Many Labour Local Authorities in the next twenty years reacted by demanding the opening of a larger proportion of grammar schools and by 1965, when the debate had moved on to the desirability or not of the reorganisation of education into a Comprehensive System, many of them had been won over to supporting Comprehensive Schools by the assumption that this meant all schools would become like grammar schools. Prime Minister Harold Wilson called them ‘grammar schools for all’ and it was his minister of Education Tony Crosland after 1964 who had the task of organising a shift.

Comprehensive schools but no comprehensive system

Tony Crosland’s Circular l0/65 “requested” Local Education Authorities to prepare plans for reorganising their schools within a comprehensive system but did not make it compulsory. The practical politics was that the Government’s majority was so meagre – a mere 4 MPs in the House of Commons – that it could not count on legislation being successful. Comprehensive re-organisation would be controversial with opposition even from Labour members, concerned at the loss of their local grammar schools, and there was always the hurdle of the Lords. Secondly, not all teachers were convinced of the virtues of root and branch reform, and legislation could have been counter-productive because its implementation could have been hindered by the powerful weapon of resentment. It was not until l966 that an NUT Conference unequivocally adopted Comprehensive reorganisation and that decision was helped by the Government’s decision to persuade rather than order.

Both Crosland and his successor Michael Stewart wanted to force all LEAs to prepare for comprehensive reorganisation as soon as politically practical and a Bill to that effect was ready to be introduced in 1970, but then Labour lost the Election and Margaret Thatcher became Minister of Education. By that time about 25% of children were already in comprehensive schools and only about 20 Local Authorities were holding back from preparing reorganisation schemes. Mrs. Thatcher immediately removed any requirement to prepare such plans but this made little difference in practice – indeed the pace of conversion speeded up and she authorised the closure of more Grammar Schools than any other Minister before or after her. This was as true for Tory Local Education Authorities (LEAs) as Labour. By 1976, 75% of secondary pupils were in comprehensive schools; a new Education Act was passed allegedly to end selection but there were so many loopholes it made little difference. The growth of comprehensive schools continued, with only a small number of LEAs holding on to selective grammar schools alongside secondary modern schools, though banding was a concealed form of selection in some areas.

There was no blue-print for either the curriculum or organisational structure in the new Comprehensive Schools. Those who had campaigned for such schools defined them as comprehensive in intake and comprehensive in curriculum, but it was up to Head Teachers with guidance from LEA Councillors and officers to decide how they should be run and what they should teach. All those incorporating previous grammar schools offered GCEs, so no parent could complain that their child was losing out by the change and the opportunity to take these exams was available to more children than before. This almost certainly explains why there was electoral support in both Labour and Tory Councils for going on with the changeover. It was a fairer, more equal system and rescued children from having their futures limited by performance in the 11+. The 1960’s and 1970’s, the period of transition to Comprehensive education, was a period when Universities and Polytechnics were expanding alongside a growth in the number of professional, administrative and middle management jobs. This facilitated upwards social mobility even more widely than in the days of the 11+, which helped develop confidence that Comprehensive education worked.

But Comprehensive schools were not the same as grammar schools, they could offer a wider choice of courses. In some of the senior elementary schools before the war, and more widely in Secondary Modern Schools after it, teachers had developed new types of innovative technical and practical courses alongside traditional academic ones. A major advance taking place at the time of the 1965 Circular was the development of the Certicate of Secondary Education (CSE) under the auspices of local Boards composed of elected teachers and Local Authority representatives, CSE’s were available in both academic and vocational subjects, and incorporated controlled assessment, in addition to examinations. They enabled recognition of a wider range of studies than the University-controlled “O” and “A” GCEs. Another development in the same period was the setting up of the Schools Council in 1964 to take over responsibility for curriculum and examinations previously undertaken by the Secondary Schools Examination Council and the Curriculum Study Group.

So this was a period of innovation and development during which the professional expertise of teachers was able to make a substantial contribution through elected representatives on these bodies. Progress, however, was held back by shortages of resources, particularly specialist teachers and by inadequate facilities. The school leaving age was not raised to 16 until 1970. Before then parents could withdraw their children from school before their courses were finished. The teachers who had campaigned for Comprehensive schools argued that all children had an entitlement to a full and balanced curriculum until at least 16 and they wanted a core curriculum to be developed in general outline in order to ensure this. Although examination qualifications played a large part in determining what was taught many teachers saw their task as preparing children for adult life in all its aspects, not just future employment. They opposed dividing children into academic or vocational streams and early specialisation. There were developments in mixed ability teaching in order to keep all routes open for all children as long as possible, and an increase in remedial help. This meant opportunities for staff development courses were needed to help teachers develop the skills required.

Many of these things happened in a large number of areas but the system continued to be decentralised and dependent on local leadership. There were many examples of good practice and many middle class parents were happy to send their children to their neighbourhood school. Those who could afford it, however, continued to send their children to “Public Schools” and other private schools, which were not only better resourced, with smaller classes and better facilities, but also gave their children the opportunity to join the upper class network which dominates all the elite positions in British society. So the development of the Comprehensive system did not eliminate class privilege in education for the upper echelons. A proposal to abolish Public Schools had been passed at the 1958 Labour Conference but never followed up.

The Pendulum swings back c1976

There seemed to be general acceptance that progress was being achieved and evidence was published showing standards were rising, but this didn’t prevent a backlash against the system from right-wing Academics in the “Black Papers” and DES officials in the “Yellow Book”. They complained that the grammar school curriculum was being diluted and students were less well prepared for University study. It was also said that employers were complaining that not enough vocational training was taking place to prepare pupils for the workforce. At the same time problems in a number of individual schools were played up in the press and generalised as overall weaknesses in new methods of education. Despite the lack of substantive evidence these attacks stimulated a mood of unease among politicians and led to Callagan’s Ruskin speech of 1976* which was intended to start a “Great Debate”. A great many meetings and consultations took place but very little came out of them. For the next few years economic problems eclipsed worries about education as a focus of political attention, and the comprehensive system went on quietly developing. However the pendulum had started to swing away from progressive education. In 1979 Thatcher appointed Rhodes Boyson, one of the Black Paper writers, to her education team. The first Conservative victory however did not lead to major changes.

After the second election win by the Conservatives in 1983 the situation changed: the Government and DES began to centralise control over education. The School Council was disbanded; the role of Local Authorities was reduced by LMS; GCEs and CSEs were merged as GCSEs; and the National Curriculum was introduced. The change which probably had most long-term effect on the Comprehensive system was the introduction of the right of parental choice in 1988. Depending on the neighbourhoods their pupils came from schools had different challenges but, until then, all schools tried to be as effective as possible in providing a good and balanced learning experience for the pupils allocated to them. The effect of the Government’s introduction of the right of parental choice was to make schools compete for pupils by getting good results in examinations so parents would opt to send their children there. As schools are funded by the number of children enrolled, market mechanisms would apply – “good” schools would expand and “poor” schools would shrivel and eventually close (the harm this would do to the children within them was ignored).

The publication of League Tables from 1992 after John Major’s Tory victory was intended to facilitate parental choice. The effect on schools was to force them to concentrate on academic exam results over other aspects of education and tempted them to slant their admissions towards children likely to do well. The effect on parents was to make many of them feel it was their duty to to get their children into one of the “best” comprehensive schools to which it was possible for them to travel each day. As middle class parents had greater mobility they had more choice and some even moved house to achieve access to a particular school for their children. “Choice” began to be as socially divisive as formal selection.

Disparity in the standing and funding between comprehensive schools was speeded up by the setting up of sponsored academies and later by specialist schools and other types of state-funded schools but was not accompanied initially by an upsurge of support for the grammar school lobby. On the contrary, in local areas where grammar schools and secondary modern schools had survived, campaigns for their replacement by a comprehensive scheme continued to develop. Elsewhere, many parents remembered how random and unfair the 11+ had been and that 3 out of 4 children had been dubbed failures. During the period before the 1997 Election, Labour Party Conferences demanded that a future Labour Government complete the Comprehensive system by getting rid of surviving grammar schools. When pressed on whether he supported this demand, David Blunkett replied, “Watch my lips, there will be no more selection,“ but once New Labour was elected this was watered down to no new selective schools. Getting rid of existing grammar schools would be left to votes in local areas. When this was put to the test in Ripon in 2000, the composition of the electorate led to the defeat of the local campaign 772 parents of children at prep schools, some living outside the area, were allowed to vote but not the parents of 5 of the 16 local primary schools. Roy Hattersley, the former Labour Deputy Leader, said at the time “the ballot was rigged to produce that result, and the government’s only intervention in the campaign had – by intention or ignorance – been of immense help to the eleven plus lobby”.

Labour Party policy remains the same today: leave alone existing grammar schools but oppose increasing their number – keep the status quo. The Coalition Government did not challenge this but now that there is a majority Conservative Government the pro Grammar School Lobby is on the attack. It perhaps benefits from anxiety over the current reduction of opportunities for upwards social mobility. The Lobby claims that opinion polls show majority support for the expansion of grammar schools, but the evidence is far from conclusive as argued recently by John Bolt in his blog Education for Everyone. The November 2014 You Gov poll showed 38% support for building new Grammar schools with selection by ability (i.e. an 11+ exam). Janet Downs, however, in her comment on the poll in the Local Schools Network draws attention to the differing levels of support by age group: among 18-24 year-olds it was only 29% but rose to 51% in the 60+ group. So the support for building more grammar schools is less strong among those who left school recently or are likely to be current parents than among those whose schooldays are just a memory. A You Gov poll in Febuary 2013 had showed 77% of parents of children in state secondary schools agreed “they generally provide a good quality education”.

The current situation.

One argument sometimes heard is that the stratification of schools as a result of parental choice favours children from middle class backgrounds, and so selection by examination would be fairer. This fails to take into account how 11+ exams are random, stressful and class biased. Giving more children the opportunity to sit them does not mean a higher proportion of children whose parents cannot pay for private tuition would pass. It’s a chimera, recognised as such by parents and teachers in the surviving grammar school local authorities, but forgotten elsewhere, The Comprehensive Future Conference on 21st November provided moving accounts of how socially divisive grammar schools are in Lincolnshire, Bucks, Kent and even Birmingham and how their existence holds back the level of provision for other children. These reports are an antidote to any illusion by those in other areas that it doesn’t matter that a few grammar schools remain or that their increase wouldn’t do immense damage to British education and British children.

The challenge for those of us who believe the evidence shows that comprehensive systems of education produce the best overall results and contributes to the well-being of children, is how best to marshal our arguments against the media-backed, vocal, Grammar School lobby. The achievements of Comprehensive schools – despite their Ofsted straight jacket – need to be extolled more often. The Labour Party needs to be won over not just to oppose expansion, but to propose the merging of all existing grammar schools into a non-selective, comprehensive system.

Margaret Morris January 2016

* SOSS and Ruskin College plan a conference to evaluate the Callaghan speech on October 15th 2016

An important source of information is http://comprehensivefuture.org.uk/publications/).

The Norwood Report with a very useful commentary can be found at http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/norwood.

T4 The Pisa Studies in perspective

T4 Unresolved issues of the PISA OECD tables.

The OECD PISA tables of international performance now dominate world education and are accepted as infallible by media and politicians inside the Westminster Bubble and elsewhere – all politicians across the globe now seem to regard the data as having biblical status. The next tranche of the three year studies is due in late 2016. While there is some use for PISA, other surveys particularly the TIMMS and PIRLS studies may be more valuable. Whatever the role of international surveys, they should be taken with great scepticism and Caveat Emptor should apply. It does not do so thus there are considerable risks in using this data, and any data driven approach which risks becoming a major damage to children and education by turning schools more effectively into exam factories. This article, written at the time of the last PISA published tables, sounds a note of caution will need to be developed as 2016 unfolds. TF.

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Educational Policy; what can PISA tell us?

Harvey Goldstein

For over a decade OECD has been promoting its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as a robust means of comparing the performance of educational systems in a range of countries. The latest results of tests on 15 year olds will be published early in December and the British government, along with many others in Europe and elsewhere, will be bracing themselves for news about their relative position in the international league tables. What has often been termed ‘PISA Shock’, or more accurately ‘PISA Panic’, has accompanied past releases and politicians of all persuasions, in many countries, have used the ‘evidence’ about movements up and down the tables to justify changes to their own educational curriculums or assessment systems. So Finland, which consistently comes towards the top, has been held up as a model to follow: if you come from the right you are likely to emphasise the ‘formality’ of the curriculum to justify ‘traditional’ curriculum approaches, and if you hail from the left you can find yourself pointing to the comprehensive nature of the Finnish system to justify reinstating comprehensivisation in England. The reality, of course, is that we simply do not know what characteristics of the Finnish system may be responsible for its performance, nor indeed, whether we should take much notice of these comparisons, given the weaknesses that I shall point out.

I don’t want to go into detail about the technical controversies that surround the PISA data. Just to say that there is an increasing literature pointing out that it is a vastly oversimplified view of what counts as performance in the areas of reading, maths and science. There is research that shows that countries cannot be ranked unequivocally along a single scale and that they differ along many dimensions. Thus, in a comparison of France and England myself and colleagues were able to show that different factors were at work in each system. This is further complicated by the way the systems are differently structured, with up to a third of pupils in French schools repeating a year at some stage, compared to very few in England.

There is good evidence that the process of translating the PISA tests from one language to another is problematic so that there is no assurance that the ‘same things’ are being assessed in different educational systems. Detailed analysis of the International Adult Literacy Survey has shown how much translation can depend upon context and in many cases that it is virtually impossible to achieve comparability of difficulty for translated items. PISA does in fact attempt to eliminate items that appear to be very discrepant in terms of how pupils respond to them in different countries. The problem with this, however, is that this will tend to leave you with a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ set of items that fails to reflect the unique characters associated with different educational systems.

Most importantly, PISA is a one off ‘cross-sectional’ snapshot where each 15 year old pupil in the sample is tested at one point of time. No attempt is made (except in a few isolated countries) to relate pupil test scores to earlier test scores so that progress through the educational system can be studied. This is a severe handicap when it comes to making any ‘causal’ inferences about reasons for country differences, and in particular comparing educational systems in terms of how much they progress over time given their attainments when they start school. Often known as ‘value added’ analysis, this provides a much more secure basis for making any kind of causal attribution. OECD has in the past refused to implement any kind of ‘longitudinal’ linking of data across time for pupils, although this may be changing.

PISA still talks about using the data to inform policymakers about which educational policies may be best. Yet, OECD itself points out that PISA is designed to measure not merely the results of different curricular but is a more general statement about the performance of fifteen year olds, and that such performance will be influenced by many factors outside the educational system as such, including economic and cultural ones.

It is also worth pointing out that researchers who are interested in evaluating PISA claims by reanalysing the data, are severely handicapped by the fact that, apart from a small handful, it is impossible to obtain details of the tasks that are given to the pupils. These are kept ‘secure’ because, OECD argues, they may be reused for purposes of attempting to make comparisons across time. This is, in fact, a rather feeble excuse and not a procedure that is adopted in other large scale repeated surveys of performance. It offends against openness and freedom of information, and obstructs users of the data from properly understanding the nature of the results and what they actually refer to. Again, OECD has been resistant to moving on this issue.

So, given all these caveats, is there anything that PISA can tell us that will justify the expense of the studies and the effort that goes into their use? The answer is perhaps a qualified yes. The efforts that have gone into studying translational issues have given insights into the difficulties of this and provided pointers to the reservations which need to be borne in mind when interpreting the results. This is not something highlighted by OECD since it would somewhat detract from the need to provide simple country rankings, but nevertheless could be valuable. The extensiveness of the data collected, including background socio-economic characteristic of the pupils and information about curriculum and schools, is impressive, and with the addition of longitudinal follow-up data could be quite valuable. What is needed, however, is a change of focus by both OECD and the governments that sign up to PISA. As a suitably enhanced research exercise devoted to understanding how different educational systems function, what are the unique characteristics of each one and how far it may be legitimate to assign any differences to particular system features, PISA has some justification. If its major function is to produce country league tables, however, it is uninformative, misleading, very expensive and difficult to justify.

The best thing to do when the results are published would be for policymakers to shrug their shoulders, ignore the simplistic comparisons that the media will undoubtedly make, and try to work towards making PISA, and other similar studies, such as TIMSS, more useful and better value for money.

Further Reading

Affman, I. (2013). “Problems and issues in translating international educational achievement tests”. In Educational Measurement, issues and practice, vol 32, Pp2-14.

Goldstein H. (2004). International comparisons of student attainment: some issues arising from the PISA study. In Assessment in Education, Vol.11, No.3, November 2004 pp 319-330

Harvey Goldstein University of Bristol November 2013

T4 Unresolved issues of the PISA OECD tables.

The OECD PISA tables of international performance now dominate world education and are accepted as infallible by media and politicians inside the Westminster Bubble and elsewhere – all politicians across the globe now seem to regard the data as having biblical status. The next tranche of the three year studies is due in late 2016. While there is some use for PISA, other surveys particularly the TIMMS and PIRLS studies may be more valuable. Whatever the role of international surveys, they should be taken with great scepticism and Caveat Emptor should apply. It does not do so thus there are considerable risks in using this data, and any data driven approach which risks becoming a major damage to children and education by turning schools more effectively into exam factories. This article, written at the time of the last PISA published tables, sounds a note of caution will need to be developed as 2016 unfolds. TF.

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

Educational Policy; what can PISA tell us?

Harvey Goldstein

For over a decade OECD has been promoting its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as a robust means of comparing the performance of educational systems in a range of countries. The latest results of tests on 15 year olds will be published early in December and the British government, along with many others in Europe and elsewhere, will be bracing themselves for news about their relative position in the international league tables. What has often been termed ‘PISA Shock’, or more accurately ‘PISA Panic’, has accompanied past releases and politicians of all persuasions, in many countries, have used the ‘evidence’ about movements up and down the tables to justify changes to their own educational curriculums or assessment systems. So Finland, which consistently comes towards the top, has been held up as a model to follow: if you come from the right you are likely to emphasise the ‘formality’ of the curriculum to justify ‘traditional’ curriculum approaches, and if you hail from the left you can find yourself pointing to the comprehensive nature of the Finnish system to justify reinstating comprehensivisation in England. The reality, of course, is that we simply do not know what characteristics of the Finnish system may be responsible for its performance, nor indeed, whether we should take much notice of these comparisons, given the weaknesses that I shall point out.

I don’t want to go into detail about the technical controversies that surround the PISA data. Just to say that there is an increasing literature pointing out that it is a vastly oversimplified view of what counts as performance in the areas of reading, maths and science. There is research that shows that countries cannot be ranked unequivocally along a single scale and that they differ along many dimensions. Thus, in a comparison of France and England myself and colleagues were able to show that different factors were at work in each system. This is further complicated by the way the systems are differently structured, with up to a third of pupils in French schools repeating a year at some stage, compared to very few in England.

There is good evidence that the process of translating the PISA tests from one language to another is problematic so that there is no assurance that the ‘same things’ are being assessed in different educational systems. Detailed analysis of the International Adult Literacy Survey has shown how much translation can depend upon context and in many cases that it is virtually impossible to achieve comparability of difficulty for translated items. PISA does in fact attempt to eliminate items that appear to be very discrepant in terms of how pupils respond to them in different countries. The problem with this, however, is that this will tend to leave you with a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ set of items that fails to reflect the unique characters associated with different educational systems.

Most importantly, PISA is a one off ‘cross-sectional’ snapshot where each 15 year old pupil in the sample is tested at one point of time. No attempt is made (except in a few isolated countries) to relate pupil test scores to earlier test scores so that progress through the educational system can be studied. This is a severe handicap when it comes to making any ‘causal’ inferences about reasons for country differences, and in particular comparing educational systems in terms of how much they progress over time given their attainments when they start school. Often known as ‘value added’ analysis, this provides a much more secure basis for making any kind of causal attribution. OECD has in the past refused to implement any kind of ‘longitudinal’ linking of data across time for pupils, although this may be changing.

PISA still talks about using the data to inform policymakers about which educational policies may be best. Yet, OECD itself points out that PISA is designed to measure not merely the results of different curricular but is a more general statement about the performance of fifteen year olds, and that such performance will be influenced by many factors outside the educational system as such, including economic and cultural ones.

It is also worth pointing out that researchers who are interested in evaluating PISA claims by reanalysing the data, are severely handicapped by the fact that, apart from a small handful, it is impossible to obtain details of the tasks that are given to the pupils. These are kept ‘secure’ because, OECD argues, they may be reused for purposes of attempting to make comparisons across time. This is, in fact, a rather feeble excuse and not a procedure that is adopted in other large scale repeated surveys of performance. It offends against openness and freedom of information, and obstructs users of the data from properly understanding the nature of the results and what they actually refer to. Again, OECD has been resistant to moving on this issue.

So, given all these caveats, is there anything that PISA can tell us that will justify the expense of the studies and the effort that goes into their use? The answer is perhaps a qualified yes. The efforts that have gone into studying translational issues have given insights into the difficulties of this and provided pointers to the reservations which need to be borne in mind when interpreting the results. This is not something highlighted by OECD since it would somewhat detract from the need to provide simple country rankings, but nevertheless could be valuable. The extensiveness of the data collected, including background socio-economic characteristic of the pupils and information about curriculum and schools, is impressive, and with the addition of longitudinal follow-up data could be quite valuable. What is needed, however, is a change of focus by both OECD and the governments that sign up to PISA. As a suitably enhanced research exercise devoted to understanding how different educational systems function, what are the unique characteristics of each one and how far it may be legitimate to assign any differences to particular system features, PISA has some justification. If its major function is to produce country league tables, however, it is uninformative, misleading, very expensive and difficult to justify.

The best thing to do when the results are published would be for policymakers to shrug their shoulders, ignore the simplistic comparisons that the media will undoubtedly make, and try to work towards making PISA, and other similar studies, such as TIMSS, more useful and better value for money.

Further Reading

Affman, I. (2013). “Problems and issues in translating international educational achievement tests”. In Educational Measurement, issues and practice, vol 32, Pp2-14.

Goldstein H. (2004). International comparisons of student attainment: some issues arising from the PISA study. In Assessment in Education, Vol.11, No.3, November 2004 pp 319-330

Harvey Goldstein University of Bristol November 2013

T3 A future going backwards

T3 A Future Going Backwards

The power of the past over the present has rarely been demonstrated better than by educational politics today. The attempt to return to grammar schools is only one part of a great nostalgia boom partly due to the sepia tinted view of the BBC4 programme criticised by Michael Pyke – though the Downton Abbey phomenon and the public school domination of social life – is more important than the middle class grammar schools as the public school background of the Conservative cabinet and its New Labour counterpart till recently has shown. Here Sally Tomlinson looks at the underlying reasons for a drive to the past which as Michelle Lowe has commented, is like bindweed choking English education. TF.

Sally Tomlinson

So here we are in the 21st century busy re- creating an education system that has more in common with a 19th version of public education than a system for the future. Nineteenth century schooling, influenced by religious and charitable interests, emerging business interests in mass education post-industrialisation, and growing working class political demands, resulted in a social –class based system organised around hierarchies of schools and strong central control. So what’s new?

A major ‘new’ may be that, despite the denigration of ‘low achievers’ and ‘failing schools’ mass education has so far been a qualified success. But a labouring class is now educated to much higher levels than can be accommodated in a digital economy. Rather than plan economies around this success governments are now in panic mode as to how to distribute education so that people once more ‘know their place’ ( Ranson 1984). Long-standing beliefs help here. The old Platonic distinctions that people are born as gold, silver, iron and brass, remains excellent political propaganda for keeping people in their allotted place. Behind the mantra that every child must be educated to fulfil his or her ‘potential’, lie long-standing deterministic assumptions that children are able, less able, average, unable or disabled. Nineteenth century eugenic beliefs in the biological and cultural inferiority of lower social classes and racial groups reinforced views that while genius and talent were ‘in-born’ so low ability ,mental defects, delinquency crime, prostitution, unemployment and other social evils were inherited (Galton 1869). One remedy was to control the family size of the lower classes.. (Oops, is current child welfare policy in England aimed at restricting the family size of poorer groups?)

Beliefs in fixed ability and innate intelligence influenced the men (and they mainly were public school educated men) who post second world war designed a tripartite system of education, which quickly became a dual system of state-maintained grammar and secondary modern schools. although the rich and influential always did and still do use private schools. But at least in 1945 there was some democratic input via elected local education authorities, and the types of mind not thought suitable for academic or technical education could find jobs. A recession in the 1970s and the disappearance of jobs, led to anxiety, not over the disappearing jobs, but over education as a preparation for work and an obsession with raising ‘standards’ of education. Policies of comprehensive schooling that allowed more young people to actually be taught for and take public examinations led to expectations that a national system of good local schools, funded by tax-payers and with local democratic input, could be a possibility.

But enter the Thatcher era, and re -commitment to a nineteenth century neo-liberal scenario in which free consumers embrace the laws of the market for personal and familial profit. Education was to become a competitive business, and by the 1990s local authorities were sidelined and ‘choice and diversity’ was the mantra. An expanded middle class competed for the best state-maintained schools if they could not afford the private schooling which increasingly led to the business, social and political networks that led mostly to secure and well-paid employment. Despite a rhetoric of ‘opportunity for the many’ and a vaunted concern for ‘ the disadvantaged’ governments of all shades persisted in the recreation of a class-based hierarchical school system. Overt and covert selective policies, still based on the notions of ‘fixed abilities’ legitimised ways of separating out aspirant and middle classes from the poorer groups, and who could blame them, now that competitive individualism and a desperate ‘my child needs to be better than yours’ now guides educational consciousness.

Avoidance of vocational education and practical training , and avoidance of the poor are emblematic of a system in which various groups, depending on their level of economic and cultural capital (think of the money being made in the tutoring industry) now struggle to maintain privilege for their children in preparation for a competitive global economy.. The coalition government of 2010-2015 extended the process of demolishing a democratic education system, with local education authority influence disappearing as supposedly self-sustaining competitive schools and chains of schools, sign individual agreements and receive funding directly from central government and their Boards and Trusts make money and the current Conservative government promises more of the same. The Department of Education carries out policies at ministerial whim, with no consultation. Power is centralised in the person of the Secretary of State and the running of a nation’s school system has been increasingly handed over to business, religious and, in the case of Free (actually free-market) schools, to the vested interests of some parental groups. The legitimation for all this now includes a resurgence of the old nature-nurture eugenic debates, where some children are regarded as less well endowed and need different kinds of schooling (Asbury and Plomin 2014), crocodile tears are wept for those children who nee better teachers and ‘school leaders’ and as in the late ninetieth century , punitive regimes for excluding those who are difficult to teach are extended. The irony is that the government is struggling to equate international comparisons of achievement with economic performance, despite persisting with a fragmented system increasingly shown to be dysfunctional in a global economy.

References

Asbury,K and Plomin,R (2014) G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement Chichester Wiley Blackwell

Galton,G. (1869) Hereditary Genius London. Macmillan

Ranson,S. (1984) “Towards a Tertiary Tripartisim: new codes of social control and the 17+”

In (Ed) Broadfoot, P. Selection, Certification and Control London. Methuen

T2 – The 1944 Education Act and the “Tripartite” System – Michael Pyke

The BBC’s coverage of education has long been problematic for an organisation which is offically politically neutral. The Programmes on the Grammar Schools broadcast of January 5th and 12th 2012 was one feature of the re-emergence of the old selective system in state education which has been a feature of the rise of UKIP and the strengthening of the hold of the hard right in the Tory Party. Despite a strong campaign against the many historical errors, the BBC complaints procedure failed to address the issues raised by critics and the programmes were broadcast twice on BBC4.

 An issue of wide importance is the emergence of the tripartite system of Grammar, Technical and Modern schools. Widely believed to be in the 1944 Act of Rab Butler (Tory), in this piece Michael Pyke points out it was in fact the 1946 Act which created this, and that was a Labour creation. Trevor Fisher

The BBC4 film broadcast in January 2012 The Grammar School: A Secret History stated that the 1944 Education Act “set out to create educational opportunities for all. There was to be a three tiered education system…all geared to the different abilities of pupils.” This is a view so commonly held that it comes as a surprise to many people to learn that it is wrong. What the Act actually says is that:

“…education shall be organised in three progressive stages to be known as primary education, secondary education, and further education; and it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental, and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education throughout those stages shall be available to meet the needs of the population of their area.”

There is no mention here or elsewhere in the Act of any particular system of secondary education, tripartite or otherwise. All that the law will require is that free secondary education will be provided to all pupils. The cause of so many people’s confusion is probably that, whereas the Act itself resulted from planning begun in 1941 by the wartime coalition government and was piloted through Parliament by R.A.Butler, its actual implementation fell to the new Labour government elected in 1945 and specifically to the first post-war Minister of Education Ellen Wilkinson.

Wilkinson, whose life and career deserve a great deal more attention than they have received to date, was a pioneering woman of the first order. A passionate idealist, she envisioned a new level of education, in which children would be motivated by inspiring teachers who would generate enthusiasm and self-confidence in their pupils. She would have liked immediately to raise the leaving age to 16 and provide free school meals to all but was prevented by the cost of such measures (she did, however, succeed in introducing free milk into schools, a measure which lasted until Mrs Thatcher abolished it).

However, Wilkinson also had a strong loyalty to the selective system of schooling which had enabled her, a working class girl, to go to Manchester University in 1910 and she was inclined therefore to try to preserve this system. Her thinking was shared by Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Attlee’s love of his public school – Haileybury – is sometimes cited as a source of educational conservatism on his part but there were also powerful financial considerations at work. The advantage to a cash-strapped government of keeping the selective system was very clear in that the buildings and teaching force were largely already in place. Another source of pressure to retain selection in secondary schooling was the Ministry of Education itself, whose officials worked tirelessly to promote the idea.

Accordingly, on December 12th, 1945, Wilkinson issued Circular 73, in which local authorities were instructed to “think in terms of three types” of state secondary school – “grammar”, “technical” and “modern”. An accompanying booklet, The Nation’s Schools, explained that the new “modern” schools would be for working-class children “whose future employment will not demand any measure of technical skill or knowledge”.

Many Labour Party members, who had expected Britain to follow the lead of many European countries and introduce comprehensive schools, were outraged and Wilkinson was forced to withdraw the circular. Nevertheless, under intense pressure from Ministry officials, the government persisted with the policy and re-stated it in another document, The New Secondary Education, issued in 1947. It is one of the ironies of our history that the government which did so much to diminish the effects of the social class structure, chose to reinforce that same structure when it came to education.

Financial pressures aside, it remains a matter of historical debate as to why an otherwise radical and pioneering government acted so timidly in the field of education. The public schools and direct grant schools were left unscathed and the state system embraced an already outdated model, from which we are still suffering the consequences. The one really forward looking idea of the Attlee government, the technical schools, was never seriously implemented and, to this day, we remain wedded to the idea of the rightness of hierarchy within our educational system. None of this can be laid at the door of Butler’s 1944 Act, which created an opportunity for modernisation that was simply ignored.

Footnote: In February, 1947, Ellen Wilkinson died at the age of 55, having taken an overdose of barbiturates. At the time it was given out that the overdose had been “accidental”. Commentators now believe that she committed suicide. In his superb online Education in England: a brief history, Derek Gillard suggests that her motive was disillusionment and disappointment at her failure to get many of her ideals implemented. Others believe that the trigger was the refusal of Herbert Morrison, with whom she had had a lengthy affair, to leave his estranged wife and marry her.

T1 – Education and the Politicians

Over the last half century, education in post-industrial societies has been subjected to political intervention. The tradition of relying on professional expertise in decision making has been eroded in favour of political interference. The old systems which saw professionals as the key operators has been undermined in many ways, differing from country to country but most powerfully limited in those countries which have been affected by what Pasi Sahlberg has called The GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. His own country, Finland, has been one of the few not powerfully affected. However in England, more than in the other four nations of the UK, the GERM has had powerful effects.

England has, of course, a strong element of fee paying private schools, and these are largely immune from the GERM, to their benefit. It is in the state sector that politicians interfere, and this site will examine ways in which this has operated in schools controlled by the Department currently known as the Department for Education. However politicians have had effects across the system, and schools exams are a key area of contestation in which the private schools have themselves been affected. However it is the state sector which has seen a revolution, one which has turned the old tradition of non interference on its head, in all the countries of the UK including Scotland, but a revolution overwhelmingly most powerful in England.

It is almost impossible now to remember the old tradition of non interference which operated up to Prime Minister Callaghan’s Ruskin Speech of 1976. The 1944 Education Act gave the Secretary of State only two major powers – capital spending to provide enough schools, and the supply of qualified teachers to staff those schools. Democratically elected Local Authorities administered the schools, while the head teachers may have operated with little accountability leading to complaints in the sixties of a “Secret Garden”, there were checks and balances in the system notably strong trade unions and national bargaining structures. Within this system reform operated with consent leading to the replacement of the eleven plus, in most areas, with comprehensives secondary schools. Primary schools have always been comprehensive in the state sector.

Since the Black Papers of the pre-Thatcher era, this paradigm has disappeared. The Secretary of State has massive legal powers, over 2000, though paradoxically the supply of enough schools and qualified teachers have been abandoned. Today politicians in Westminster interfere constantly, even when they claim to value non interference. Local councils have been stigmatised as failed control freaks, decision making is decentralised to unaccountable bodies, but a system of hyper accountablity by league tables seeks to control the system from the centre. Teachers are increasingly treated as of little account and their workload has reached unsustainable levels. At the heart of the system a paradox of deregulation to the school and college level while increased accountablity and interference means that the academy sector and the maintained school sector dance to different and contradictory tunes.

There is a furore of debate, within the limits set by the pattern of deregulation and hyper accountability, but not on the overall paradigm and whether short term politicians should make long term decisions. The justification of permanent revolution is improved standards, notably to meet alleged international league table failings, but there is little serious and systematic evaluation of the trajectory of travel.

While the OECD and its international league tables are highly problematic, it reported in January 2015 that only 10% of political initiatives across the globe are properly tested and sounded alarm bells. Politicians do not want to be shown up as having failing, and are adept at shifting the blame onto the professionals. There is a paradigm of blame shifting in many countries, only partly due to the OECD league tables. The virtual “War on Teachers” is political intervention at its worst.

The driver is the search for measurable improvements showing better test results, and sometimes this happens. The London Challenge is a positive example – but many interventions are expensive failures. From the Thatcher TVEI (Technical and Vocational Education Initiative – attempted to improve technical education and failed) to Labour’s failed Diplomas of the Brown era, initiatives are imposed and then quietly forgotten. The most consistent theme has been that of the Black Papers. From the early 1970s the ideas of the reactionary traditionalism of the Conservative right has skewed thinking in Westminster. The Black Papers themselves are largely forgotten, but their core message – that educational professionals fail and politicians must intervene to impose ideology on educationalists – has dominated since James Callaghan’s Ruskin speech of 1976.

While politicians would never tell doctors what drugs to prescribe, politicians do tell teachers how to teach and impose non-expert and undemocratic managers onto schools and colleges. In part this too is a facet of a wider paradigm, neo-liberalism and the attempt to politicise all public services so they can be taken out of democratic control, but in education the idea that politicians know best and expert opinion can be ignored or stigmatised is now all pervasive. There are increasingly sharp contradictions. The National Curriculum is regarded as vital – but is ignored for the allegedly innovative academy sector. Exam reform depends on the whim of the minister. Gove brought in the Russell Group Universties through the A Level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB) – and within months of replacing Gove, Nicky Morgan abolished it. Logic and consistency in this situation are as rare as hens teeth.

There are signs that this philosophy is now having malign consequences. The democratic deficit as the real scrutiny of initiatives diminishes and media accept dubious and largely untested programmes as virtual magic bullets overcoming the experts who are dismissed as marginal is now clearly operative in England, where All Power to the School has meant All Power to the Minister – or the inspector – or other unaccountable power centres.The dominant paradigm and its variants must now be scrutinised and the politicians and their allies in OECD held to account. SOSS aims to advancing this process – because what is happening is not sustainable.

When James Callaghan made his Ruskin speech in 1976, he was in part bowing to the influence of the Black Papers. However the old Tory Right could never have imagined hyper accountability, league tables, and the role now played by politicians and academy chains in setting the agenda for schooling. This is now a culture in which educationalists are diminished. The role of evidence is marginal and subordinate to political agendas. This paradigm must now be challenged and SOSS will support all efforts to do this.

 Trevor Fisher

 To take part in the debate, please contact the Symposium on Sustainable Schools at Viewpoint, PO Box 3599 ST16 9RD, or on the web at www.soss.org.uk