Sunday, 22 December 2013

What can we learn from the PISA tables?

by Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

Another round of PISA tables has the educational establishment on the defensive about the UK’s mediocre performance.  It’s certainly true the way the comparisons are made is open to dispute (  and it’s also right to argue that Michael Gove’s policies continue to undermine teacher trust and lower morale still further. It’s equally the case that few international organisations associated with education encourage the social segregation that exists in Britain’s schools. It’s also important  that educationalists continue to refer to Finland as a high performing country that has no league tables or primary school tests.

Going on the defensive, or arguing that PISA results should ‘guide, not drive’ education policy (   may be necessary,  but it’s not really adequate. With the top five PISA performers in maths and reading being in East Asia (South Korea  tops the overall OECD list, Finland trails in sixth) there are harrowing reports about the pressures imposed on young people in these systems. In South Korea in particular, the double shifts they  put in and the amount spent on private tuition 

( .   Rather than just focussing on the statistical outcomes, it’s important to question the basis of what counts as ‘education’ in the PISA leaders. Most UK children, regardless of their performance level, would not be prepared to tolerate this sort of environment and few parents would want them to anyway.

The economic achievements in South Asia cannot be disputed, but like with all countries the contribution made by education is just one aspect. With almost any economist able to provide a list of other variables that also explain growth rates, the ‘education fever’ of Chinese and South Korean parents is as much a consequence of the changes in these countries as it’s a cause, but despite booming growth rates and the increased opportunities for upwards social mobility into professional and managerial employment however, large numbers will likely be disappointed. Even more so as East Asian economies begin to slow down.

Yet in the UK, with its increasingly moribund economy, politicians but also many professional educators, continue to have ‘Too Great Expectations’ of what schools, colleges and universities are going to achieve when, the post-recession new jobs created are  just likely to be low skilled and the current generation of young people facing downward social mobility. As The Guardian’s Peter Wilby concludes (; we must not let PISA tables determine how we educate our children. But a failure to respond to PISA by also asking questions about what education should be for will leave Michael Gove on the offensive.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Zombie theories of genetic intelligence

by Terry Wrigley
Attempts are being made to resuscitate the idea that ability is predetermined by our genes. Recent research by Robert Plomin claims that 60 percent of achievement in GCSE Maths or Science is genetic. His work is acclaimed by Michael Gove’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings.
The idea that academic ability is fixed and innate has damaged generations of children. Intelligence Tests were used across Britain from the 1920s to 1970s to separate children from age 11. On this basis, most manual workers’ children were consigned to poorly funded schools, and left a few years later without qualifications.  These tests supposedly measured an innate intelligence unaffected by schooling, yet most children were made to practise day after day to raise their scores.
This divided education was underpinned by Cyril Burt’s identical twins studies, subsequently exposed as fraudulent.  Internationally, James Flynn has demonstrated that IQ tests carried out on entire populations show a dramatic improvement, due to better health and education, within a single generation (known as the Flynn Effect). This can hardly be the result of rapidly evolving genes.
Few accept the theory of innate intelligence nowadays but it has a zombie afterlife. For example, children are frequently divided into ‘ability groups’ from Year 1, diverting attention away from the different opportunities they have enjoyed including access to books.
Various attempts have been made to isolate and quantify this ‘innate ability’ by studying adopted twins. The supposition is that identical twins, with the same genes, will have widely different environments when adopted. This is a fallacy: adoptive parents are carefully selected and likely to be quite well off, well educated and very caring. 
Two sets of research are commonly cited nowadays, both seriously flawed. The US studies, led by Bouchard, are based on twins who were chosen precisely because of their similarity. In the Swedish study most of the twins had not lived separate lives; indeed in half the cases one stayed with mum while the other lived nearby with granny or an aunt. No wonder they turned out so similar.
Recent genetic studies have failed to identify the genes. A massive study was published in 2013, based on scans of 127,000 people, to find the genes associated with educational attainment: the genes they located accounted for a mere 0.02% of the difference.
The latest study, by Robert Plomin’s team in London, uses GCSE results. Its calculations are based on the ‘equal environments’ myth: i.e. that all siblings have identical experiences. This is demonstrably untrue since identical twins are often persuaded into dressing the same or doing things together. They are likely to be in the same class, have the same maths teachers, work together on homework and so on. 
Based on this spurious premise of ‘equal environments’, Plomin’s study calculates how much GCSE results derive from innate ability, and how little from environment and experience. It fails to look directly at parents’ qualification or income and how much that correlates with the GCSE grades.
The mathematical formulae are misleading. If everybody enjoys an excellent environment (parental care, nutrition, schools, health service etc.), it will appear that almost 100 percent of the difference between individuals is due to genetics. For example, if in some Scandinavian country excellent food and exercise raised the height of young men to between 6 and 7 feet, the differences between 6 and 7 footers would be ascribed entirely to their genes, even though the environment had clearly maximised growth.
Plomin’s work is acclaimed by Gove’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings, who accepts his claim of 60 percent ‘heritability’ for maths and science. Cummings even claims that scores in the phonics tests show 70 percent heritability, and uses this to justify cutting Sure Start programmes.
There is a contradiction here for the government: are genes or teachers to blame for low achievement? Both myths, in fact, serve to distract from political responsibility for child poverty and spending cuts, in an age where the rich get richer while preaching Austerity. 
Read more from Terry Wrigley at

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Replacing teachers with computers: the profit motive

by Richard Hatcher

Running schools is not the only way to make profits out of schools. The other way is to turn teaching into an online commodity. Not just changing the structure and governance of the school system so that in future state-funded schools can be run for profit, but changing its labour process.

The transformation of schooling in England into a profitable market through online teaching and learning is also the ambition of other global players, including Pearson, the largest education company in the world, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Murdoch has embarked on what he calls a "revolutionary and profitable" move by his media companies into online education. In 2010, News Corporation paid $360 million for a 90 percent stake in Wireless Generation, a company based in Brooklyn that specialises in education software, data systems and assessment tools. Also in 2010 he hired Joel Klein, New York City schools chancellor, as an executive vice president at News Corporation to oversee the company’s new online educational ventures. Klein’s policy for New York schools focused on academy-style charter schools and developing a uniform citywide curriculum, both ideal preparation  for entry into Gove’s school system.  Gove of course would be a key figure in any attempt to penetrate the British schools market. The Leveson inquiry revealed that Gove meets Murdoch frequently (Gove used to be a leader writer on the Times) and is an enthusiastic backer of the ideas of Joel Klein.

In January 2011 Joel Klein visited the UK as the guest of the DfE. In June 2011 Murdoch and Klein both spoke at ‘The Times CEO summit’. Klein called for all pupils to be provided with tablet computers, adding that he would be "thrilled" if 10 per cent of News Corp's revenues came from education in the next five years. The Times (June 22 2011) reported the meeting under the headline ‘Education must join the digital age, says Murdoch’. It reported that ‘Rupert Murdoch signalled a digital revolution in education yesterday, saying that News Corporation would help to lead the change in how children are taught by becoming one of the world’s largest providers of educational material in the next five years.’

On 26 June 2011 Gove was at yet another dinner with Murdoch. Three days later he gave the most explicit endorsement to date of News Corp's education project in an address to the Royal Society entitled Technology in the Classroom. He said: "We need to change curricula, tests and teaching to keep up with technology … Whitehall must enable these innovations but not seek to micromanage them. The new environment of teaching schools will be a fertile ecosystem for experimenting and spreading successful ideas rapidly through the system." (29 June 2011)

At the beginning of 2013 Rachel Wolf, who had been appointed by Gove as director of the New Schools Network, whose function was to help set up free schools, took up a new job in New York with News Corp's newly launched education division Amplify, whose chief executive is Joel Klein. 

The direction of travel is clear. But transforming the pedagogy of the English school system, its labour process, into - at least in part - online education that can make profits - and not just profits but a higher rate of profit than big international companies can make by investing elsewhere - is a massive and uncertain task. The foundations, the preconditions, have to be put into place. And under Gove they already are.

The biggest cost is salaries of teachers. For schools to be able to afford to buy online teaching they would need to significantly reduce the number of qualified teachers. But online-based education doesn’t need qualified teachers. Gove has opened the door by allowing free schools to employ unqualified staff. The Observer reported on 10 March 2013 that one in ten free school teachers are unqualified.

Secondly, online education is a transmission model of teaching with a standardised curriculum (even if progress through it is individualised). This model is well suited to Gove’s so-called knowledge-based curriculum, drawing on the model of US educationist E D Hirsch. Thirdly, the power of the teachers’ unions to resist these changes has to be broken, so academies aren’t bound by national pay and conditions, and government is in the process of scrapping these for all schools. And finally teacher training has to produce new teachers with the right culture, and the best place for that is schools already operating with that culture, into which trainee teachers can be assimilated, not university departments where dominant ideologies can be questioned.
Of course, transforming the labour process of teaching into an online commodity for profit is a massive challenge. There is a huge weight of inertia in the system, and there is the risk of both professional and public opposition and resistance. But it is also the case that online teaching can be a powerful resource for teachers and pupils, and it can be developed without the need for profit-hungry private companies.

(Extract from a chapter in Revolution, and Why, and Where Heading? – Review of Gove’s School Revolution Scrutinised,    a pamphlet  from the Socialist Education Association June 2013).

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Myths of Assessment

by John Yandell, Institute of Education

I want to explore five aspects or strands of the way in which we tend to think about assessment. 

In calling these strands myths, I am suggesting two things. First, that they are both powerful and deeply embedded in our assumptions about assessment: they have become, in other words, common sense.  Second, that they are, in important ways, untrue and unhelpful, obstacles that make it harder for us to arrive at more accurate and adequate understandings of assessment. 

I should make it clear, too, that what I mean by assessment here is not formative assessment or assessment for learning,  but the regimes of high-stakes, summative assessment that figure so prominently in the landscape of schooling in this country.

The effect of high-stakes assessment in distorting and impeding education has a history, more or less as long as the history of state education itself. In 1911, Edmond Holmes, an HMI who had resigned in disgust from the inspectorate, wrote a wonderful little book entitled What is and what might be?  The first half of the book speaks directly to us across the intervening century. Holmes describes a system in which teachers spoon-feed their pupils, a system in which there is precious little room for genuine learning to take place:

Why is the teacher so ready to do everything (or nearly everything) for the children whom he professes to educate?  One obvious answer to this question is that for a third of a century (1862-1895) … "My Lords" required their inspectors to examine every child in every elementary school in England on a syllabus which was binding on all schools alike. In doing this, they put a bit into the mouth of the teacher and drove him, at their pleasure, in this direction and that. And what they did to him they compelled him to do to the child (Holmes 1911: 7).

Holmes identifies the effects of a centralised curriculum, enforced through testing and through inspection.  Within such a system, there is no space for creativity, no space for dialogue, no space to explore and exploit the interests and experiences that the learners bring with them.  Schooling is a transmission process, driven by fear. 

What is also significant about Holmes’s account, though, is that he is writing sixteen years after the ending of the system of payment by results.  What Holmes understood, because he had seen the evidence in the elementary schools he had visited across the country, was that the pernicious effects of such systems of control lived on after the systems themselves had been abandoned.

Within this system, Holmes identified the crucial effect of assessment:

How did the belief that a formal examination is a worthy end for teacher and child to aim at, and an adequate test of success in teaching and in learning, come to establish itself in this country? And not in this country only, but in the whole Western world? In every Western country that is progressive and "up to date," ... the examination system controls education, and in doing so arrests the self-development of the child, and therefore strangles his inward growth.

What is the explanation of this significant fact?  .... The Western belief in the efficacy of examinations is a symptom of a widespread and deep-seated tendency – the tendency to judge according to the appearance of things, to attach supreme importance to visible "results," to measure inward worth by outward standards, to estimate progress in terms of what the "world" reveres as "success" (Holmes 1911: 8-9).

Holmes was describing an education system in which the tail of assessment wagged the dog of learning. How familiar.

Myth 1: learning is linear
Since the imposition, twenty years ago, of the National Curriculum and its attendant levels and level descriptors, it has become increasingly hard to challenge the assumption that learning happens in predictable, identifiable and incremental stages.  Increasingly, too, the levels of the National Curriculum are broken down into sub-levels, in an attempt to describe ever more precisely the progress that learners have made – and also to set ever more precise targets for their future progress. The attainment of literacy or numeracy becomes inextricably associated with achieving a level four before the end of primary education, while press and politicians are quick to make headlines with the assumption that those who have not been awarded a level four are therefore illiterate, innumerate.

The problem with all of this is that it is not true.  At best, the National Curriculum level descriptors are an attempt to describe what progression in a subject might look like. But learning itself is a much messier, more complicated business than the linear scale of levels or GCSE grades would suggest. 

What happens day by day in the classroom depends on factors other than the learners’ existing or target levels: it depends on their interests and experiences beyond school, and whether they can make connections between these interests and experiences and the school curriculum.  It depends on the learners’ motivation.

Even within subjects, such as maths, where learning seems more easily accommodated to the paradigm of linear progression, learners’ understanding of, say, number can be at a markedly different stage of development from their understanding of shape, space and measure. 

Within subjects such as English, where development more obviously involves social and emotional aspects alongside intellectual processes, and where learners’ development as speakers and listeners does not bear any simple or constant relationship to their development as readers and writers, the attempt to place their progress at a single point on a single linear scale is neither meaningful nor educationally justifiable. 

What this amounts to is a bad case of reification, more infectious and far more damaging than swine flu: levels that were, at most, ways of gesturing broadly at progression have been transformed under the pressure of particular forms of accountability into things, as if levels had the same solidity and materiality as, say a child’s shoe size. 

So one encounters with wearying regularity children who announce that they “are” a level six, or a level three (the former with pride verging on smugness, the latter with an air of resignation, a meek acceptance that literacy, or even learning, is not really their thing). 

Even more worryingly, the reification process has affected the way that teachers talk about their pupils – so “she’s a level five” or “he’s a level four” are now not so much shorthand expressions, standing for more complicated pictures of a learner’s development, as bald statements of fact.

Myth 2: learning is context-independent
The idea that learning happens in a vacuum, as it were, and hence that learning can be measured in isolation from the context in which it happened, is closely linked to the myth of linearity.  It is another aspect of the same reductive approach to learning, an approach that seeks to isolate sub-skills and then assess whether the sub-skill has been acquired without any reference to the contexts in which such skills might be used and developed. 

Once again, it is an attempt to sidestep the messy contingencies of real learning, substituting in its place the thin abstractions of the easily transmitted and easily measured.

Always and everywhere, classrooms are populated by real people with particular histories, experiences, cultures.  Learning involves these people interacting with each other and with particular materials – with particular problems, particular texts, particular resources.

Myth 3: learning is individual
Deeply implicated in the history of schooling in this country is the assumption that learning is the property of an individual, that learning happens inside a single learner’s head.  It is a myth that is nurtured by, and helps to sustain, the sense of self that is central to bourgeois culture and values.  Plagiarism, the Manichean other of intellectual property, is the cardinal sin within the religion of schooling precisely because it entails a transgression of this article of faith, learning as the property of the individual. 

With glorious circularity, we know that learning is individual because the assessment regimes constantly demonstrate that this is the case.  Assessment, predicated on the commonsense assumption that learning happens in an individual’s head, proceeds to provide opportunities for the individual to demonstrate this learning, in circumstances – such as the exam hall – where normal human interactions are absolutely forbidden, and then offers conclusive proof of the validity of the procedure by arriving at differential assessments for different individuals: to one a level five, to another a grade A, and so on.

It is in such routines of assessment that the role of education as a sorting mechanism becomes most obvious.  Assessment separates sheep from goats, high-fliers from also-rans, leaders of men from hewers of wood.  It underpins the notion of meritocracy and it sustains the illusion that social justice can be achieved through social mobility.

The myth of the isolated individual, the learner as examination candidate, filters out all that we know about the reality of distributed learning, all we know about learners as irreducibly social beings, situated in history and in culture. 

Myth 4: the assessment of learning is objective and reliable
The dominant discourses of schooling are based on the myth of reliable assessment.  In the creation of this myth, one of the things that happens is that assessment processes assume a kind of autonomy, independent of human agency. 

But assessment is always a social practice.  It always involves the exercise of judgement.  It is always conducted for specific purposes by particular people.  Only in the most trivial cases is assessment merely a matter of measuring.  And reliability comes at a cost: the more reliable a test, the less information it can provide about the breadth of a child’s learning and development.  There is, in other words, an inverse relationship between reliability and validity (Alexander 2010: 320-1).

Myth 5: high stakes assessment is vital for accountability
The argument here is not over whether schools should be accountable – of course they should – but over the role of testing in achieving accountability. The whole machinery of National Curriculum levels and sub-levels does not make it easier for parents and carers to find out about their children’s progress; it is a barrier in the way of communication between teachers and parents, a professionalist jargon impenetrable to most people. 

The myth that national assessment frameworks introduced accountability ignores other forms of accountability such as parents’ evenings and school reports.  To make this statement is not to claim that such systems of accountability are perfect – they aren’t – but the imposition of high-stakes testing has done nothing to address their shortcomings.  As the Cambridge Primary Review reminds us, parents and carers want to know, among other things, whether their children are happy (Alexander 2010: 316). And there is not, as yet, a National Curriculum level for happiness.

There is also a massive problem in conflating the assessment of individual learners with judgements about the effectiveness of teachers, schools or local authorities.  Most obviously, using aggregated test data as an accountability measure tends to leave much that is relevant out of the account: it ignores the particular contexts of schools and their communities, and it ignores all the other aspects of a school’s work that lie beyond the preparation of pupils for high-stakes tests. 

Worse than this, such accountability measures always and inevitably distort schools’ and teachers’ priorities, encouraging an exclusive focus on the curricular areas that are to be tested, on those aspects of a subject that are to be tested (reading and writing rather than speaking and listening, say), on the students who lie at the threshold of success (the 3a/4c pupils, the C/D borderlines, and so on).

To conclude, I want to return to Edmond Holmes’s picture of schooling a hundred years ago.  Two aspects of this picture seem salient to me – and horribly contemporary.  First, that education has become a commodity: children and their learning are reduced to test scores, mere units of analysis.  The process is epitomised by the new verb meaning, to level: this is the process that teachers are engaged in, a process that flattens and renders invisible all that is distinctive, all that is interesting, about real learners. 

Second, that what the system values – and demands – of all its participants, teachers and pupils alike, is compliance – neither originality nor creativity, neither judgement nor responsiveness to individual circumstance, neither questioning nor imagination, but mere mechanical compliance.

Except, of course, this is not a conclusion, simply a diagnosis.  For us, as for Edmond Holmes, the task is not just to see what is, but to begin to envisage, and to work towards, what might be.

Alexander, R., ed. (2010) Children, their World, their Education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review, London & New York: Routledge.

Brooks, R., & Tough, S. (2006) Assessment and Testing: Making space for teaching and learning, London: IPPR.

Holmes, E. (1911) What is and what might be, London: Constable.

A longer version of this paper will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal, Changing English.

What does learning look like?

by John Yandell, Institute of Education

In the dominant educational discourse, there is a simple answer to this question. 

This is the Ofsted model, a view of learning promulgated by everyone from former Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead to current Ofsted head Michael Wilshaw and that has been normalised in school practices by two decades of the inspection regime.

The Ofsted model looks something like this: Learning is the product of teaching, the output produced by definite, pre-specified and discernible inputs. It happens in individuals. It is linear.  It is easily measured, not only through standardised tests but also through more immediate metrics (question and answer sessions, traffic lights, exit passes and a cornucopia of other lesson plenaries).

I want to question each of these assumptions.  Before I do so, however, it is worth exploring why this model is so seductive – and who has been seduced by it.

For governments of a technical-rationalist bent it provides the perfect managerial tool, since it enables the complexity of schooling to be reduced to data – solid, comfortable, numerical data – data that enable robust comparisons to be made between individual learners and groups of learners, between teachers and schools. 

For if this is what learning looks like, it is entirely reasonable to represent learning as a national curriculum level: learning to read then becomes the same thing as attaining a level 4. The level 4 becomes a thing in itself, and literacy levels can be ascertained by nothing more complex than totting up the number of learners who are proud possessors of a level 4. 

There is a further stage to this process of reification (turning abstractions like levels into concrete things), and it is a particularly grisly stage: the child becomes the level. Thus it is that teachers refer to learners along the lines of “She’s a level 5” or “He’s a level 3” – and children talk about themselves in the same terms: “I am a 4c.” 

The next stage in this process is that six-year-olds are to be deemed to have learnt how reading works if they make the right noises when confronted with forty decontextualised words (or non-words).  (If they make the wrong noises more than six times, they will already be judged to be on the slippery slope to terminal illiteracy.)

This process of reification matters hugely.  It transforms learning and learners into data and schools into data-rich environments. Equally important, though, is the assumption that learning is straightforwardly the product of teaching.  This means that teachers, individually and collectively, can be held directly accountable for learning (the learning that is represented in those neat data-sets).

The implications of this are made explicit in the recent Ofsted Evaluation Schedule: “The most important role of teaching is to promote learning so as to raise pupils’ achievement” (Ofsted 2012: 11). It is worth pausing to note that learning here appears, very clearly, not as an end in itself but as a means to an end: learning is for raising achievement.  One might also want to ask what raising achievement is for.  Is it for the benefit of the learner, the teacher, the school, the nation? 

Elsewhere in the same Ofsted document, the official meaning of “achievement” is spelled out:

When judging achievement, inspectors should take account of:
•        pupils’ attainment in relation to national standards and compared to all schools, based on data over the last three years ...
•        pupils’ progress in the last three years as shown by value-added indices for the school overall and for different groups of pupils, together with expected rates of progress
•        the learning and progress of pupils currently in the school based on inspection evidence (Ofsted 2012: 6).

Each of these three sources of “evidence” raises its own problems. The first, which, in effect, frames and informs every Ofsted inspection, could be summed up by the title of one of Michael Wilshaw’s recent speeches: “High expectations, no excuses” (Wilshaw 2012)  In the Ofsted model, raw results are the measure of every school and every pupil – and to suggest otherwise is to hide behind mere “excuses”.  This fits in well with Wilshaw’s mythological approach to the history of schooling:

Certainly, Ofsted was key in transforming my life as a teacher and headteacher. Our education system is much better because of greater accountability in the system. Those who think we haven’t made progress need to remember what it was like before Ofsted. I certainly do. In the seventies and eighties, when I worked in places like Peckham, Bermondsey, Hackney and West Ham, whole generations of children and young people were failed.
The school where I was head before moving to Ofsted, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, stands on the site of Hackney Downs School, which in its day represented the worst excesses of that period. But there would have been many others just as bad that never hit the headlines and got away with blue murder (Wilshaw 2012).

In describing this account as a myth, I am not suggesting that everything in the garden was lovely before Ofsted came along.  Young people were failed by the education system before Ofsted – but they are still being failed by the education system today.  And there are other stories to tell of Hackney Downs, stories of exemplary work by dedicated teachers, stories of local curricula developed collaboratively, stories of a shared commitment to social justice.

There is, too, in Wilshaw’s version of history a crucial sleight of hand: the fact that Mossbourne stands on the site where Hackney Downs once stood might lead one to assume that the intake of the two schools was also the same – and that really would be a mistake.  If your school wants to play the Ofsted game in relation to achievement, the first thing to sort out is the admissions policy.

The second source of Ofsted’s evidence on achievement might look much more nuanced, more attuned to issues of diversity.  After all, the mention of “value-added” suggests an awareness that learners are different, come from different kinds of home, have different needs, and so on. 

But one shouldn’t get too carried away by this vestige of New Labour. There is still the assumption that learning is a matter of linear progress, still an obsession with the reductive abstractions of units of data.  Accountability becomes nothing more than data tracking and monitoring, equality is reduced to questions of access and social mobility. 

What matters here are the questions that cannot be asked: questions about curriculum content and design, questions about students’ different histories, cultures, funds of knowledge, values, affiliations and aspirations.  These things matter because they shape profoundly students’ sense of themselves as learners and their day-to-day experiences in the classroom.

The third source of evidence about achievement embodies the assumption that judgements about the learning and achievement of pupils can or should be based on twenty minutes or so of lesson observation.  

Before I launch into what is wrong with this assumption, I should make a couple of things clear.  I believe that teachers and schools should be accountable.  I also believe that that accountability should involve the observation of lessons by a range of different people, including people who are not teachers. 

What gets missed out of the Ofsted model, however, is any sense of complexity – the complexity of classrooms, the complexity of the interactions that take place within them, the complexity of any halfway adequate understanding of learning as a process.

The Wilshaw version is breathtakingly simple.  Schools are “good” or “outstanding” – or they are not (and if they are not, they “require improvement”). If a school is “outstanding”, the teaching is similarly “outstanding”; if a school is less than “good”, the pupils suffer from an unremitting diet of less-than-good teaching.

These reified judgements about a school are themselves an abstraction from a series of separate abstractions, reified judgements of individual teachers and individual lessons.  Just as learners become the level that is attached to them, so teachers become “outstanding” or “satisfactory” – sorry, “requiring improvement”.

Of course, if someone tells you that you are outstanding, it tends to make you feel better about yourself – and even to accept the validity of the label. That’s why the process can be seductive for teachers, too.  If, on the other hand, someone tells you that you’re merely satisfactory, that can be pretty devastating – and it is hard not to internalise this judgement.

This grading system has two pernicious effects.  The first is that it tends to undermine collegiality, to produce in reality the atomised, divided, individualist system that it purports to describe.  It has the same corrosive effect on teacher identity as the testing regime has on learner identity. 

The second is that it adversely influences teaching itself.  It encourages teachers to teach to the Ofsted model, to reconfigure their practice to conform to their sense of what is prescribed.  Learning becomes bite-sized, specified by objectives or “outcomes”, measurable within the space of a single lesson, or even a single activity within a lesson.

In the first phase of Ofsted, this was less significant.  Teachers might vary their practice when the inspectors came to call, giving them the lessons that they understood they wanted to see, but would generally revert to more diverse pedagogies in the spaces in between inspections.

Now, however, the problem is less Ofsted itself than Ofsted-in-the-head: enforced through the monitoring and observation of school management teams and consultants, the routines have become internalised.  The danger then becomes that we all take the Ofsted model as valid, as if it told the truth about learning or teaching, as if the labels were the reality. 

I want to finish by returning to my initial representation of the Ofsted model, to propose alternatives to each of its foundational assumptions.
1.       Learning is the product of teaching, the output produced by definite, pre-specified and discernible inputs.
No, it’s not. Teachers have a responsibility to plan for learning and to intervene in the learning process, to introduce learners to new concepts, new experiences, new ways of seeing themselves, each other and the world.  But learning is unpredictable, messy and polymorphous; it is contested, mysterious and often elusive.
2.       It happens in individuals.
No, it doesn’t.  Learning is irreducibly social and hugely contingent.  It involves – and arises out of – the interaction of human beings with each other, with particular resources in particular places.
3.       It is linear.
No, it’s not.  The idea that someone has to master the basics before they can progress to more advanced stuff is deeply problematic.  And it is simply false to assume that something is learnt once and for all: learning is recursive, layered, and multidimensional. Getting a picture of what learners know or can do is worthwhile, but always fraught with difficulty.  (A child holding up a green card at the end of a lesson isn’t hard evidence of anything other than a desire to please the teacher.)
4.       It is easily measured, not only through standardised tests but also through more immediate metrics
No, no, no. The only things to do with learning that are easily measured are things so trivial as not to be worth bothering with in the first place.  Real, worthwhile learning is always complex, and it tends to happen – and be observable – over much longer periods of time than a single lesson. Teachers have an understanding of learning that is inseparable from their long-tem, always-changing, picture of learners and their development: that is what makes teaching both difficult and massively rewarding.


Ofsted (2012) The evaluation schedule for the inspection of maintained schools and academies January 2012, No. 090098.  Available online at <>

Wilshaw, M. (2012) “High expectations, no excuses” (speech to the London Leadership Strategy’s Good to Great conference, 9 February 2012). Available online at <>

Creating Readers

By Michael Rosen

I’ve sometimes said that reading books in schools is a subversive activity. This seems counter-intuitive. Schools are surely places which foster the idea that the written text is one of the best means of carrying ideas and knowledge. 

On close examination,  it’s possible to see that a) one kind of written text dominates the scene and b) one kind of reading dominates. That’s to say, the texts are predominantly instructive, didactic full of closed-ended – or at best – Socratic questions which tie the learner to answering exactly as the apparent author of the texts (text-book author, teacher, examiner ?) demands.

 So, right from the earliest years, children are confronted with texts that are, say, supposedly teaching the child how to read (synthetic phonics and reading schemes), moving on remarkably soon to ‘comprehension’ texts and worksheets, in which children are asked factual questions about supposed facts in the text they have just read, moving on to many variations of this, right the way to GCSE.

Of course, the purpose and function of reading in society is much more than this. In one sense, we can say that the world’s wisdom has up until fairly recently been captured in books. Of course, there are other sources for ideas – the electronic media in all their complexity, and that traditional means – talk and, more importantly, we shouldn’t think of one part of the inter-mediate world as excluding another.

Books aren’t in contradiction with the internet, say.  However, if we exclude the reading of whole books from the reading diet of someone – or whole groups of people – a serious deprivation is taking place.

At one level, this deprivation is about specificity and the other about heterodoxy.  That’s to say, on account of the economics of book-publishing over many centuries, it is nearly always true to say that whatever a person’s specific needs and curiosities, it’s possible to find a book that fits it. What’s more, on account of that publishing history, the world of books contains thousands of texts which defy the dominant ideas of the day. 

At another level, it’s possible to say that there is something significant about browsing. What is browsing? It’s the scanning of texts in order to find out what you want. Browsing involves comparing, contrasting, selecting – and most importantly – the setting up of informal and formal ‘sets’.

Children given regular opportunities to browse and sort piles of books, magazine, comics and the like will do these things. And what are they? The very processes that thousands of tedious worksheets try to ‘teach’: compare, contrast, select and group.

It could be argued that most of education is based around these practices. I’ve seen six year olds sorting their comics or books over and over again, doing just this. It’s a crucial textual practice which schools try to teach but which takes place in certain kinds of homes (ie the ones with many books) every day.

We also know that when I say ‘certain homes’, the implication is that I mean ‘middle class’ or ‘educated’ or ‘professional’. True, mostly, but not entirely so. There are some specific instances where homes where the parent or parents have reason to provide many books, magazines and comics for their children or for themselves or both – politics being one of them.

My father came from a working-class ‘vertical’ family home with mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles (and no father) present. Two or three of them were highly politicised, filling the house with pamphlets, newspapers, books (and talk about those books) and took full advantage of the local library in a systematic, regular way. 

A vast longitudinal study from the University of Nevada, involving tens of thousands of children across 27 countries has discovered the same thing. That’s to say, independent of class/income and education, the presence of many books (eg 500) in a home has an add-on effect of 3 years more take-up of schooling by the child(ren) from such a home.   

This sort of thing has been known informally and formally by teachers for decades.  In the days when every big school in a working-class area would have at least one child whose parent or parents were active in, say, trade unions, the Labour Party or other left parties, teachers knew that that child was being exposed to something significant in the way of literacy, language and thought.  Politicians have known it and have been told it many times over – some of them by me! But, significantly, they do nothing about it.

Why is that? Because they work to a different model of literacy, knowledge and education. For them, it must be instructional, instrumental (that’s to say there must be evidence that what’s being taught must ‘do’ something), and functional (that’s to say the thing that it’s ‘doing’ must be seen to have a ‘use’ ). 

Reading for pleasure in this scheme of things is an extra, a suitable leisure activity, or even something too complicated for the lower orders – even though the evidence I’m citing shows precisely the opposite. If you like it’s more instructional, more instrumental, more functional – and a lot more besides – than the stuff that is dished up in the name of literacy, knowledge and education: the worksheets, reading schemes, exercises, text books and the like that dominate education.

When I say – ‘and a lot more besides’ – what do I mean? This is where we confront the issue of ‘literature’ which I’ll broadly define as ‘figurative writing’ – that’s to say kinds of writing in which the main beings/creatures/humans in the piece along with many of the objects and aspects of ‘nature’ are there in unreal, metaphorical, allegorical, representational ways. They are ‘acting out’ scenes and ideas.

These processes, which we find in poems, stories, plays, films and the like, combine ideas with feelings – their own and the readers’/viewers’/listeners’. And these ideas and feelings appear to be attached to the beings in the literature as they ‘act out’ the events in their existence.

The business of combining ideas and feelings is crucial. This is how we are affected by what happens.  We say we are ‘touched’ even as we evaluate the rightness/wrongness, fairness/unfairness etc of how the beings are behaving. 

What’s really interesting from an educational point of view is that at any given moment (I’ll come back to that moment), that evaluating act can suddenly dominate and the audience (let’s say a class of young people) will want to discuss values and ethics of what’s going on.  This is crucial.
One of the fundamental tenets underlying education is that it will enable children to generalise about themselves, events and the world in order to spot patterns or even to give names to phenomena so that they can be seen as not random one-off events.  So we might imagine that education will enable young people to think and talk about, let’s say, injustice, envy, power, anger and the like. 

Open-ended engagement with literature is one of the ways in which we can all get handles on these difficult and important ideas.  In fact, it’s the easiest, most accessible way in which we can do it. Anyone who has sat with young children reading and talking will find that inevitably, one arrives at these moments where the ideas about the feelings (but also with the feelings) become important.

So, drawing all these thoughts together, I come to the conclusion that schools should be places that should strain every part of themselves to foster reading for pleasure: in class, in break-times, after school and in the children’s/students’ homes.

This involves some very practical work: asking the parents to set up some kind of reading committee which has the job of getting books into the hands of children of all backgrounds; creating a relationship with local libraries that goes beyond the tokenistic nod eg arranging to issue tickets to reception and year 1 children; creating regular ‘book events’ with authors,talks, films, music; making the connection between all school activities and books that relate to them eg in relation to trips, sports, projects, changes in the school; involving all school-workers and staff in this book project – eg caretakers, dinner and cleaning staff particularly as many of them will be parents or ex-parents of pupils; re-thinking ‘literacy’ as ‘many literacies’ ie involving all languages, different means of ‘delivery’ eg newspapers, phone apps, computer screens, graphic design and therefore on the back of that, engaging practitioners, especially parents, in all those fields to come into schools in order to share with the children/students what they’re doing.; thinking of everything that children write as potential scripts for publishing or performing with outlets such as school websites, informal magazines, classroom ‘sketches’, plays, cabarets, parent-child book-making etc etc central to literacy for all.

Put all that together and we have a theory and practice of universal literacy in schools. This is an urgent part of our demands for emancipation and liberation for all.

The Battle for the Curriculum

by John Yandell

I want to start with the words of someone not obviously connected with the recent (and ongoing) furore over GCSE grades.  G.S. Gordon was the second Professor of English at Oxford.  This is him writing to his wife in 1910 – it’s the last paragraph of a longer letter:
I hope the new maid is as illiterate and competent as ever. It would be a sad day if she took to reading at her age! That’s how Socialists are made.
(Gordon 1943: 44)
There is a direct link between Professor Gordon’s views and those of Michael Gove. Both are fully paid-up subscribers to the rationing school of education.  This is predicated on the idea that, as another right-wing ideologue had it, ‘More will mean worse’ (that was Kingsley Amis, bemoaning the expansion of higher education in 1960). From this perspective, opening up education to the masses means a dilution of standards, so the masses must be kept out.  Gove and Ofqual have now decided that fewer will mean better. 

The right are fond of using the lexis of economics to advance their policies in education. A-levels are the ‘gold standard.’ (No, they aren’t. The gold standard was abandoned in the 1920s, a moment that upset Churchill and a bunch of other British imperialists.) What we must now guard against is ‘grade inflation’.  There is precious little evidence that this is a real phenomenon; what is undeniably true is that more students have been getting higher grades.  There are two pretty obvious reasons for this:

(i)                 more students are working harder, getting better grades because they realise that in the current economic climate this might possibly lead to (better) jobs.
(ii)               schools, under immense pressure from league tables and Ofsted, have become more and more adept at meeting the production targets (intervention groups and so on).

Suddenly, this success is a bad thing.  It doesn’t sit well with the new austerity programme.  So Gove and his mates at Ofqual abandon two decades of criterion referencing and go back to the bad old days of norm referencing.  You don’t get a grade C because your work meets the specified criteria for a grade C; you get a C if you are in the top x per cent of a cohort. 

And somehow this new system is meant to be more rigorous. This word rigour has become a stick to beat the GCSEs with. 

Now, there might have been problems with GCSEs, but we shouldn’t forget that they were the first set of public exams in this country that were pretty much a universal qualification. Having one exam for everyone (instead of the separate O-levels and CSEs that they replaced) was a progressive move, even if it was always fraught with contradictions. And there has been a fairly consistent strand in the development of the GSCEs that has been about making knowledge more accessible. This isn’t the same thing at all as debasing standards.  But it looks that way if what you’re about is maintaining exclusivity.

What Gove means by rigour is something else entirely:
It was an automatic assumption of my predecessors in Cabinet office that the education they had enjoyed, the culture they had benefitted from, the literature they had read, the history they had grown up learning, were all worth knowing. They thought that the case was almost so self-evident it scarcely needed to be made. To know who Pericles was, why he was important, why acquaintance with his actions, thoughts and words mattered, didn’t need to be explained or justified. It was the mark of an educated person. And to aspire to be educated, and be thought of as educated, was the noblest of ambitions.
(Gove  2011)
Gove doesn’t just want to ration access to education; he wants to keep it just as it used to be, in the good old days (that never were).  The schooling that was good enough for Gladstone is good enough for Gove and good enough for the youth of today. 

There is a mad circularity about all of this, a circularity that is a denial of history, of progress, of development.  No single sphere of human knowledge or activity is the same now as it was when Gladstone went to school.  Knowing about Pericles is good and fine – but shouldn’t the youth of today also know something about particle physics?  Even literature has moved on a bit – different texts have been produced, some of them involving all sorts of fancy new technologies, like moving pictures and so forth.

What this means is that the concept of rigour really isn’t terribly straightforward. Knowledge is differently constructed now, in the world, and it is entirely appropriate that schooling should reflect these differences. 

This may seem a long way away from our current concerns about GCSE grades, but what Gove is now proposing, on the back of the grading scandal, is the abolition of GCSEs and the imposition of something much more like O-levels (even if the Liberals won’t let him call them that). 

This is Gove taking us back to a very Gladstonian future. The argument is about assessment, for sure, but it is also about the content of education.  Look at the new Teachers’ Standards: central control of pedagogy (synthetic phonics as mandatory), curriculum (all teachers responsible for promoting ‘the correct use of Standard English’) and a particularly reactionary set of values (British values, the rule of law, and so forth).

Of course, Gove’s position is more contradictory than this. He wants to ration education through capping the number of students who can achieve particular grades.  But simultaneously he raises the ‘floor standard’ – demanding that in all secondary schools at least 40 per cent of students attain 5 GCSEs at A*- C. These two policy elements are completely incompatible. And they lead the way to more forced academy conversions.

This word rigour has become a stick to beat teachers with.

Externally set and marked exams are a very blunt instrument.  But, of course, if the function of the assessment is to act as a sorting mechanism, then exams do the job perfectly well.  If the aim is to arrive at a certain quota of sheep, or A-level students, then why waste time on anything more nuanced? 

What happened in the summer was that students who had been predicted a grade C – students whose teachers were pretty confident that they should get a grade C – ended up with grade Ds. It is a stark case of grade deflation.  But I want to focus attention on this business of prediction.

In most spheres of life, when we talk about predictions, we measure these against actual events. So the weather forecast is a prediction about what the weather will be like, at a particular time and in a particular place. The forecast uses evidence, of various kinds and varying degrees of sophistication.  The question of the accuracy of a weather forecast is easily determined: we can test it out by what actually happens. Did it rain today? 

Likewise predictions about horse-racing are testable against the race itself. If I give you a tip for the 4.30 at Newbury, you are entitled to judge the usefulness and the accuracy of the tip, and probably of me as a tipster, by what actually happens in the 4.30 at Newbury.   

Now, the commonsense approach to predicted GCSE grades would be the same as outlined above.  An English teacher predicts a grade C for her student; he gets a grade D; the prediction was wrong, demonstrably, because the prediction did not match what actually happened in the exam.

But this is nonsense.  A GCSE exam is not like the 4.30 at Newbury. The claims that a GCSE result purports to make about a student are not limited to what happened in an exam hall on a particular afternoon in June: they are claims about what that student knows and can do, in relation to a range of texts and practices that have been gathered together under the heading of ‘English’. 

In fact – in the real world where people talk, read and write a variety of different texts for different audiences and purposes – that GCSE student’s English teacher is in the best position to say what that student knows and can do.  In this situation, then, the prediction shouldn’t really be construed as a prediction at all: it is a statement based on detailed, in-depth professional knowledge, from someone who has been able to build up a picture of that student’s learning and development over time.   The teacher has a mass of evidence on which to base this professional judgement –  evidence much more robust because it is more plentiful and also because it is much more diverse than the evidence that can be provided by a single exam.

Now all of the above is true, I think, even in a situation where what the student does in the exam is subjected to fair, transparent, criterion-referenced assessment procedures.  What about in a situation where the grade boundaries are manipulated to satisfy a higher power’s arbitrary judgements about how many students should be awarded a particular grade? 

And, let’s be clear, that is precisely what happened this summer.  That’s what Ofqual’s report tells us.  They decided that the proportion of students who were awarded grade C or above should be adjusted downwards because, among other reasons, there were more private school students entered for alternative qualifications (the iGCSE, say), and so they made the assumption that the calibre of the cohort entered for the GCSE would be poorer than in the previous year. And guess what? As the TES revealed (28 September), the students who have been hit hardest by the shift in the grade boundaries have been working class and minority ethnic students. What exactly does rigour mean in these circumstances?

This word rigour has become a weapon in Gove’s class war. 

What we need to do is to develop a clear, coherent alternative – an alternative model of curriculum and assessment, in the interests of the mass of students, not a privileged minority. And we need to be prepared to argue for this alternative.

·         John Yandell works at London’s  Institute for Education

Gordon, G.S. (1943) The Letters of G. S. Gordon, 1902-1942. London: Oxford University Press.
Gove, M (2011) Speech to Cambridge University, 24 November 2011. Available at