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Helping the Education Secretary reach her full potential

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 October 2017

John White. 
A central aim of Education Secretary Justine Greening is ‘enabling children to reach their full potential’  . The idea comes into many of her speeches. It appeared in the DfE’s response to the head of OFSTED Amanda Spielman’s complaint on October 11 that the focus on SATs and GCSEs is at the expense of ‘rich and full knowledge’. The response states that ‘Our reforms are ensuring children are taught the knowledge and skills they need to fulfil their potential’.
It’s the kind of phrase that tends to wash over you. It seems no more than a way of saying ‘we want them to do well’ – a politician’s empty comment. But there’s more to it. Ironically for the present government, it was part of the lexicon of the child-centred theorists dominant in teacher training until the 1960s. The London Day Training College, later the Institute of Education, under Percy Nunn and his associates was their main base.
The watchword was ‘development’ and the model was biological. Just as plants grow to (more…)

Back to teacher development’s big questions: what is education for?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital4 August 2017

John White. 
The idea of a National Education Service (NES) is gaining speed. It’s described as “a scheme to join up the disparate elements of education, providing free lifelong learning from nurseries through schools to universities and adult education”. This blog is about a small but important part of what it might be.
As well as mastering the details of their craft, teachers have always needed some understanding of what it is and what its aims are. Trainee bricklayers need plenty of experience of specifics, too, but the purposes of laying bricks are reasonably obvious to all. Teaching is different.
From 1839 to about 1989 teacher training in England provided this wider picture. The religious vision that dominated the first half of this period gave way to a scientific one (more…)

Why les deux sacred cows of the curriculum don't add up

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 March 2016

John White
I loved the algebra I did for my School Certificate in 1949 – and have never used it since. Ditto for a lot of the geometry. I agree with Simon Jenkins’s Guardian piece on March 10 that we make a fetish of mathematics in the secondary school. Like Kevin Williams,  I’d say the same about foreign languages (MFL) – for most people another non-usable subject. Post-basic maths and foreign languages make up nearly half of the five EBacc subjects which nearly all students will take GCSEs from 2020
But why use so much of their valuable school time on two subjects which only future specialists among them are likely to use? Some post-basic maths, agreed, is essential, not least basic statistics for civic education, plus the limited amount necessary to understand elementary science. This apart, we are in totem territory.
There is no good argument why more advanced mathematics or MFL should be compulsory for all up to 16. That said, there is a case for compulsory short taster courses in both (more…)

Are we all egalitarians now?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 December 2015

John White
David Cameron recently wrote that ‘the Conservatives have become the party of equality’.  Most of the article is about ending discrimination – of ‘gender, race, religion, sexuality or disability’ – partly by basing entry to universities and good jobs ‘solely on merit’. He also mentions his party’s ‘belief in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome’, drawing attention to the centrality of educational reform under his leadership.
Where the Prime Minister is spot on is in his opposition to equality of outcome. If his opponents in other parties stand by it, they are wrong. There is no intrinsic value in equality in this sense. Aiming at everyone’s having an equal amount of some good – income, educational attainment, well-being, or whatever – is compatible with each person’s living below the bread line or in almost total ignorance or misery. (more…)

What is education for? Gibb's list misses a key dimension

Blog Editor, IOE Digital28 July 2015

John White.
Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, addressed the Education Reform Summit earlier this month on the purposes of education.  He said there are three. “Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life”.
The first is self-explanatory. The second is about “introducing (the next generation) to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake”. The third has to do with “key character traits, including persistence, grit, optimism and curiosity”.
There’s not even a nod in these aims towards equipping young people as democratic citizens. Nothing on (more…)

If we care about democracy private schools should be an election issue

Blog Editor, IOE Digital14 April 2015

John White
The election campaign has all but ignored private education. This is odd, since it raises an issue central to the country’s future. I am not talking about equality of opportunity – about the complaint that, unlike the rest of us, Harrovians and others enjoy their tiny classes and nine-hole golf course en route to Trinity College Cambridge and life as a High Court judge. (more…)

Why we must take the National Curriculum out of ministers’ clutches

Blog Editor, IOE Digital23 March 2015

John White
Nicky Morgan has just rejected ASCL’s call for ‘a broad nationally defined core curriculum framework’ to be set by a curriculum commission at arm’s length from politicians.
This will review the framework every five years and include representatives from school leaders, teachers, parents, industry, and politicians. Schools are encouraged to build a culture of curriculum design and development including but going beyond this core. (more…)

Eton's headmaster is right: we must break out of exams straitjacket

Blog Editor, IOE Digital6 August 2014

John White
In an article for Radio Times this week, Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, has called the examination system ‘archaic’. He sees it as “little changed from Victorian times”, a hindrance to collaborative working and to education for citizenship.
He is right on every count. As is now all too clear, the exam system does little to test deep understanding, blights the secondary school curriculum, causes students great anxiety, perverts the job of teaching, favours those families who can best manipulate school admission arrangements.
In Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes – to be published by IOE Press next month, I ask why it is that despite these patent defects, we still cling to an institution which may have been all the rage in the 1860s but has been under fire in every generation since then.
It is ironic, if no less welcome, that the person at the apex of private education should lead the latest sortie. For it was the privately educated new middle classes of Victorian England who championed examinations over the patronage system of the landed establishment as a surer route for their children to a university place and a comfortable life. Soon joined by the top public schools, Eton included, middle class schools from Repton and Clifton down to local grammar schools made the examination system their own preserve. When elementary school students in the 1890s began to see its advantages for themselves, the shutters came quickly down. After 1904, the elementary schools that catered for over 80% of the age group were deliberately made an exam-free zone. This approach outlasted the end of fee-paying secondary education after 1944, when the new tripartite system excluded secondary moderns from the examination stakes until 1965.
For nearly a century, then, secondary school exams were the prerogative of those who could afford school fees. In the age of official full democracy in which we now live, we take it as read they are for everybody. Some 75% of students now get good GCSEs. The age of equality has arrived.
Or has it? The coming of league tables in 1992 has enabled families to identify local schools – private as well as state – with the best exam pedigrees. The private ones do well here, as even those among the sleepiest thirty years ago have worked hard since then to attract custom by glittering exam results. Better-off people can also maximize their chances of acceptance at a ‘good’ state school by moving into its catchment area, or, if a church school, discovering new talents for choral singing or campanology.
Tony Little is right about this Victorian relic. It has survived so long because it has been able to reshape itself – at least for public gaze – as a taken-for-granted institution of a democratic society, while at the same time trying to satisfy the very natural desire of those who have done well in life not to see their children doing worse.
It is time to jettison it before it takes us into what countries in east and south Asia often call their ‘examination hell’. A Chinese colleague and I have recently set up a small group of ‘International Critics of Examinations’, drawn from eighteen countries and from every continent. We hear reports of thirteen-hour days worked by students, the toll on family life, suicide rates among examinees, endless rote-learning, the frenzy and corruption of the annual Chinese school-leaving examination. We also hear of the ways in which the rich can work the system by moving into good school districts and employing private tutors.
Exams came to Japan and India from the USA and the UK, in the heyday of the West’s own love-affair with the institution in the late nineteenth century. Leading lights in these and similar countries are now looking for more humane alternatives.
Tony Little is right again. As he says, “here is the irony: we seem intent on creating the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of.”

How I failed to meet the criteria for Blob membership

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 April 2014

John White
We have known for some time that Michael Gove has taken up arms against ‘The Blob’. This is his name for an amorphous group of people opposed to his policies from the educational world, including teacher unions, local authority officials, and academics from university education departments. But only now, thanks to his ally Toby Young’s new Civitas pamphlet, do we have a definitive idea of ‘The Blob’ and what it stands for.
He tells us that “They all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subjectknowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to interest children in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote-learning’ and ‘regurgitatingfacts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating theteacher as an authority figure” (p2).
He later adds to these criteria of inclusion ‘the belief that children are essentially good’; a view of learning based on ‘as few facts as possible’; and an ‘epistemological relativism’ according to which ‘no one point of view is more valid than another’ (pp. 4-5).
I am one of the two Institute people identified in Young’s pamphlet and in the Telegraph as belonging to ‘The Blob’. Before I read the details of its membership requirements, I was delighted with my new badge of honour. But now, having absorbed them, I see regretfully that I am not in ‘The Blob’ after all.
I do not denigrate subject knowledge. I want students to learn plenty of good science, history and geography. True, I don’t think that constructing the curriculum should begin with taken-for-granted blocks of subjects rather than overall aims, but that’s another story – and one that my colleague Michael Reiss and I have recently told.
I am not opposed to ‘direct instruction’ where appropriate. I accept that some rote learning may be helpful on occasion. I am not in favour of indiscipline, or opposed to all routine. I do not think that children are naturally good, but would argue that they learn to be kind, fair, thoughtful and so on through habituation into these virtues. I have always been opposed to the idea that knowledge is relative. It is true that London is the capital of the UK and daffodils come out in spring. If someone thinks something else, it is false that their point of view is as valid as anyone else’s.
I can give Toby plenty of evidence, if he wants it, to back up the claims I’ve just made about my beliefs: I know he’s a stickler for knowledge. Mind you, he can have his lapses. He says, for instance, that I think that knowing the names of the Kings and Queens of England is a middle class perspective. I don’t know where he got that from.
As I said, I have to conclude from all this that, although in all sorts of ways I’m opposed to Gove’s policies, I’m not a member of ‘The Blob’. More alarmingly, I don’t think I know anyone who is. Perhaps if you are reading this and feel you meet the criteria laid down, you will say so. In this way we could begin to draw up some kind of membership list.
Meanwhile, I’m beginning to wonder whether anyone belongs to ‘The Blob’. Has Toby’s imagination made the whole thing up?

Imagine there's no GCSEs… It's easy if you try

Blog Editor, IOE Digital25 October 2013

John White
This month’s OECD report has linked the poor literacy and numeracy skills of our 16-24 olds, compared with those in other countries, with a lower level of social mobility. One factor in holding back social mobility has been the way in which the more affluent have used school examinations to entrench their dominance in higher education and in professional jobs.
A way of countering this dominance would be to remove its instruments: school exams themselves. These may have made sense when they first became popular around the 1850s, but do they in 2013?
They made sense then for the rising middle classes who wanted their sons to have interesting careers. Before that, patronage had been the norm. Exams were held to provide a fairer and more objective alternative.
Are they worth retaining now? Social unfairnesses apart, we know what an obstacle they are to a worthwhile education for students in their last years at school. We know about the anxiety they cause, the overwork, the narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test, the training in question-spotting, examiner-bluffing and other morally dubious habits.
What do schools get out of examinations? Universities and employers are the beneficiaries. Schools are their handmaidens, relieving them of work and expense. Apart from kudos for some in the league tables, schools get mainly grief.
Imagine a world without GCSEs and A levels. How much broader and richer education could become! The school could come back to its proper task of creating in every school leaver a passion for learning – rather than hacked-off attitudes among its exam failures and instrumental attitudes to learning among its successes.
Would anything be lost in an exam-free régime? What about selecting candidates for higher or further education and employment?  We need to probe imaginative alternatives. Colleges and employers should take the lead on devising their own filtering devices, as long as these do not disadvantage less privileged applicants. But schools can also play a part.
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the growth of records of achievement, or student profiles. These enabled schools to provide ongoing accounts of progress in different areas. They were not tied to the framework of discrete subjects within which examinations tend to be conducted. They recorded progress on non-academic fronts, including practical and out-of-class activities, within the school and outside.
In those days profiling existed alongside conventional examinations. It could now replace them. It could give every school leaver a record of his or her all-round attainments, presentable both to other educational establishments and to employers. Our new digital age has opened wider horizons, with children and parents as well as teachers contributing to web-based records, not only with text but also with still and moving images. This already happens in enlightened schools.
I know all this is anathema to those who will tell us what a subjective, corruption-prone system profiling is. Examinations are so much fairer, so much more accurate in their assessments. This is why colleges and employers trust them – and why they have for over a century provided a ladder for young people from all social classes to reach the top.
We should not accept this. Examining something is submitting it to thorough investigation. Do the minutes an examiner allots, say, to a paper on Europe since 1815 really add up to an examination? Digital cumulative records can give a much fuller picture; and of the student not only as a lone learner, but also as a co-worker – and not only in this area or that, but also as a whole person. And who is to say that there are no ways of coping with teacher bias – or, indeed, other problems around profiling?
The ladder argument raises another point. The more affluent have long accepted examinations as their route to university and professional jobs. They have been happy, at the same time, with some poorer but bright youngsters joining them. The ladder is said to provide equality of opportunity.
But the story says nothing about equipping everyone for a decent life. The ladder for the lucky ones, too, has always been propped up against a smart building with escalators inside to take the affluent up to the upper storeys. Michael Gove’s policy on examinations has upgraded the escalators and made the ladder more rickety.
Examinations are an excellent device for keeping a hierarchical social order more or less intact. If we are more interested in introducing every young person to the delights and rewards of learning, we have to look elsewhere.