Thoughts on Nick Gibb’s Purpose of Education Speech

One of my biggest frustrations is that no-one in charge of education can satisfactorily articulate what they the think the core purpose of schooling is. Micheal Gove, for example, desired a highly qualified workforce delivering a liberal education whilst simultaneously legislating for an unqualified one that minds children for free. More recently Nicky Morgan said that schools exist to boost the economy whilst simultaneously enabling dysfunctional children to 'get on in life' – the services best qualified to do this have been cut to, apparently, boost the economy.

This duality of purpose causes a lot of problems for teachers as it encourages those with particular vested interests to enter schools and encourage the prioritisation of their particular aspiration at the expense of others. For example a key worker may seek to prioritise a children's socialisation at the expense of academic outcomes while an Ofsted inspector may do the opposite – try pleasing both! With this in mind I feel a sense of profound disappointment at the latest offering about the purpose of education from Schools minister Nick Gibb. Here is a choice excerpt from Nick's recent speech at the education reform summit (1):

“Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life. Delivering on our commitment to social justice requires us to place these 3 objectives at the heart of our education system.”

“We all have a responsibility to educate the next generation of informed citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake. But education is also about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career, and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed.”

If education and the teaching profession in particular are being pulled by vested interests, damagingly, in conflicting directions then we desperately need one core reason for being. Gibb has come up with something so convoluted it ceases to mean anything distinct at all; his three objectives are so broad that there is no social malady for which a child's schooling can't be blamed and no reason why any vested interest cannot legitimately seek to interfere with a schools work.


(1) Gibb, N. (2015) The purpose of education. Available from Last accessed: 22 July 2015.


Verbal Irony: Nicky Morgan writes about government reform

Nicky Morgan is in an unenviable position – she is picking up the government brief for Education with less than a year to go before a general election and replaces a politically toxic minister who managed to upset pretty much everyone in some way; the phrase 'poisoned chalice' springs to mind. Therefore what Morgan says in the early stages of her tenure is particularly important because she is a relatively unknown entity that needs to articulate what she is about and, given the looming election, is apparently in office to calm things down so that the spectre of Gove doesn't damage the government at the ballot box. Her recent opinion piece about government reform in The Telegraph was a disappointment for three reasons.

1. The purpose of education

One of the problems with British education is that no-one in the educational establishment can agree on what it is actually supposed to do. Michael Gove, for example, paradoxically desired a highly qualified workforce delivering a liberal education whilst legislating for an unqualified one childminding kids for free. Morgan is no different:

'My number one priority as Secretary of State for Education is ensuring that we give every young person the best preparation for life in modern Britain…

…give them the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century workplace.

…it benefits the whole country, making us more prosperous and competitive in the global economy.

…and, above all, help them get on in life.'

Although this rhetoric represents a significant, and worrying, shift towards the disastrous policies of Ed Balls the duality of purpose remains; Morgan expects schools to boost the economy and simultaneously solve the kids problems before they turn into dysfunctional adults. As a teacher I've never really felt qualified to do either and the people who are have been cut back in the wave of austerity that one assumes is also making us more prosperous and competitive in the global economy. To his credit Gove had considerable time for teachers teaching a subject they like and know a lot about and it is shame that Morgan has moved away from this; I do wonder if we'll ever have an education secretary who values a liberal education for it's own sake.

2. Education and politics

'The truth is, before this Government came to office Ministers trumpeted ever higher grades and pass rates, while standards were allowed to fall. England’s performance in international studies stagnated while other countries surged ahead, and employers and universities cried out that young people weren’t leaving school with the knowledge or skills they needed. This wasn’t the fault of hard working teachers, but of a system which prized all the wrong outcomes.
That approach is in the past. Under the leadership of my predecessor, Michael Gove, we’ve turned the exam system on its head, so that it works for children, not politicians.'

Morgan articulates the problematic examination system that the Coalition government inherited from New Labour very well and she does well to highlight government reform in this area which was a step in the right direction. It is, however, a bit rich of Morgan to claim that the necessary consequences of these reforms don't work for politicians. Falling pass rates do work for politicians particularly those that have pushed through less palatable reforms by saying that the education system, and particularly those working in it, are not good enough.

3. Respect for the teaching profession

Gove upset a lot of people, including many natural allies, by negatively stereotyping teachers to justify unpalatable reforms of teachers pay and conditions. The juxtaposition of language and tone between 'enemies of promise' Gove and Morgan is rather obvious:

'I know that these changes haven’t always been easy and it’s a testament to the sheer dedication of teaching professionals across the country that schools have adapted to them so quickly.

No one should be under any illusion about the great respect that I have for the profession and the work they do to fulfil our shared vision of creating an education system which enables all young people, regardless of their background, to realise every ounce of their potential.'

One might be thankful for Morgan's kind words if the actions that accompanied Gove's were revoked – this hasn't happened. Performance related pay won't improve educational outcomes and it is immensely unpopular on the frontline; it is reform stemming from the disrespectful belief that people are self interested and lazy without some extrinsic form of motivation to chivvy them along.

It is disappointing when ministers say reforms aren't about politicians right after making political hay from said reforms and it is disappointing when ministers claim to respect a profession but stay silent about reform that grew from a disrespectful premise. It wouldn't be the best start to Morgan's tenure at the DfE if people are sceptical about what she says – of course the upside of that is that one can, more or less, ignore Morgan's Ballsian musings about the purpose of education and trying to train kids for 21st century jobs or whatever that is supposed to mean.


Mixed Bag: The Paradoxical Tenure of Education Secretary Gove

Following his departure from the Department of Education a lot of bloggers were compelled to voice their opinions about his four year reign as Secretary of State for Education. In the name of originality I've decided to do exactly the same thing!

If nothing else no one can ever accuse Gove of not standing up for his beliefs regardless of their popularity with the electorate and within the teaching profession. Gove was contemptuous of the fashionable pedagogy that spawned things like learning styles and learning pyramids. He seemingly ignored the bureaucratic monoliths created by his ministerial predecessors: Every Child Matters and Assessing Pupil Progress. His focus on subject knowledge and academic rigour meant that, for the first time in years, 'traditional' teachers had a champion at the summit of the educational establishment – although the battle against child centred progressivism was only beginning Gove endorsed intelligent critiques of Ofsted and the rise of teacher led blogging and networking through conferences such as researchED. In terms of policy Gove's biggest impact was to change school accountability measures to tackle the scandalous rise of the equivalent qualification – this will probably do more to improve the educational lot of disadvantaged children, which was important to Gove, than anything else.

Despite the aforementioned changes Gove's departure from the Department for Education was generally well recieved by the downtrodden rank and file of the teaching profession. Gove seemingly had a monetarist view of management believing that most people are essentially lazy and self-interested and need to be pushed along by extrinsic forms of motivation; his very worst policies – psuedo competition between schools, using broad averages as benchmarks and performance related pay for teachers are the product of this thinking. The irony here is that Gove's ideas about people meant that he found idealogical kinship with the school managers responsible for the problems he identified in the first place.

All of this meant Gove was a paradoxical minister. For every collaborative effort (aka researchED) Gove admired there was an edu-brand like Harris to be praised. Every time Gove reminded us about standards he'd name check an educational 'hero' who'd benefited from lowering them. For every 'traditional' teacher blogger Gove praised in public power would be handed to a non-teaching monetarist behind closed doors. Gove introduced a pay system that relies on individual self interest then bemoaned the selfish nature of teachers taking industrial action. Gove admired Army style discipline yet turned a blind eye to the behaviour crisis. Gove never really articulated what he thought schools were for; sometimes it was all about experts providing a liberal education while at other times it was about free child care provided by, well, anyone the school managers feel like.

I mentioned earlier that Gove stood up for his beliefs – this would have been a good thing if those beliefs, when taken together, actually made sense.

Other articles about Gove that I really liked:

Goodbye Mr Gove

Michael Gove and the bitter pills of education reform

Micheal Gove: loved by the media loathed by the public

Other articles about Gove that I really didn't like:

How will I remember Mr Gove



On the Gove Rogue Meme

According to the Sunday Times (behind paywall) education secretary Michael Gove is behind a move to exorcise foreign literature from English Literature GCSE specifications in favour of his preferred tomes by pre 20th century British writers:
'”Of Mice and Men, which Michael Gove really dislikes, will not be included. It was studied by 90% of teenagers taking English literature GCSE in the past,” said OCR, one of Britain's biggest exam boards. “Michael Gove said that was a really disappointing statistic.”
OCR added: “In the new syllabus 70-80% of the books are from the English canon.”'

As with all things Gove it didn't take long for the more vocifourous members of the 'blob' to froth prematurely this time accusing him of imperialism or philistinism in the name of academic ambition, all for daring to suggest kids read something that isn't Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. However the open hostility towards Gove's favourite authors (all teenagers find Dickens boring apparently) suggests that this argument is more about the blob's collective prejudices and antipathy towards British culture than challenging kids intellectually.

As ever the riposte to this Twitter mob was led by some of the more sensible education bloggers and writers. Michael Merrick was in particularly good form:

'The real root of the issue – that kids should be given the opportunity in school to read a broader range of texts, and most don’t get the opportunity to do so – has been crushed by the weight of a thousand slurs about the moral and intellectual deficiencies of He Who Rocked The Boat. If this really were about the kids, and not Gove, they might find some sympathy with his remarks. After all, if most children leave our schools never having read a classic novel from the 19th century, why is that to be celebrated? If few children have had the opportunity to engage with the literary fruits of the culture in which they are being formed, then why not question how that should be? I once wrote that it is a tragedy that too often we deny our children access to high culture because of the hang-ups of their teachers. One or two folk pulled me up on that. I feel increased resolve to insist on it today.'

Yet amongst the insults, froth and rebuttals two problems associated with what has been suggested in the Times article have been missed. Firstly there are pragmatic issues – a lot of English Literature students study Of Mice and Men and the resources associated with it will, presumably, have to be mothballed and replaced costing time and money. Secondly if Gove really has influenced an exam board (and he denies it) then it would represent yet more centralisation of power on the part of the Secretary of State. I can think of few things more likely to discourage teachers from exposing children to a broader canon of classic literature than a specification imposed by central government and reinforced via high stakes examinations. Interestingly Gove's own rebuttal references an academy that is yet to put a student through a GCSE English Literature exam.

I think that many of the educators leaping to the defence of Gove over the rogue meme were as uncritical about it as the detractors were petulant. Specifications and compliance targets are a massive cause of dumbing down although the finger of blame is often pointed, by those writing the specifications, at 'incompetent' and 'lazy' teachers. The solution is always more specifications and compliance targets. If we are aiming to broaden children's horizons by exposing them to a larger spectrum of classic literature then we'd do well to look at method and not just sentiment – what was described in the Sunday Times was a represented a terrible method and it is to Gove's credit that he has distanced himself from it:

'Gove was widely criticised for stripping English literature out of the core GCSE exam but according to his argument, when Shakespeare was on the national curriculum, children actually had less opportunity to experience whole plays. He blames poorly designed league tables, pressure on teachers and the unscrupulous behaviour of some exam boards. Then, children only read extracts, whereas now, thanks to initiatives by such organisations as the RSC and the Shakespeare Schools Fund — both of which he supports — the opposite is true.'


The Long Walk 1st Anniversary Scrapbook

My name is Leonard James, I am a secondary Science teacher at a comprehensive school in England. I have been teaching for eight years and have been promoted to middle leadership during this time. The Long Walk is an outlet for my personal concerns and frustrations about British education. Here I outline said concerns and provide links to the archive of blogposts.

The educational establishment

The educational establishment sits at the summit of the British education systems managemental hierarchy. It is a toxic mix of empire building CEOs, consultants, gurus, bureaucrats and politicians. They are divorced from, and therefore ignorant about, the everyday business of schools. They manage from afar via endless specifications, targets and compliance checking. The following series of blogs highlight some of the unintended consequences of this management style:

Educational Platitudes #1: 'Kayliegh wants to do well'

What do Ofsted have to say about Science curriculums?

Ofsted Data Dashboards: Spot the Difference

Methods for Attaining League Table Altitude

%5 A*-C inc EM

Mandatory Optimism

ERSC Miss the Elephant in the Room

Minions of Ofsted Part 1: High Stakes Lesson Observations

Minions of Ofsted Part 2: Learning Walks

Minions of Ofsted Part 3: The Consultants

The New Ofsted Data Dashboards Reward Science Departments who Game the Examination System

School choice, competition and the Free Market

The problems described above are exacerbated by personalities within the educational establishment who can't get along. Some members of the educational establishment are monetarists (mainly CEOs and some politicians) pushing for an education system based on free market principles. The following posts describe how teachers and their work are or might be affected by this sort of thinking:

On the Staffroom Debate

Educational Platitudes #2: 'I'm passionate about…'

Injecting Competition: A response to Gabriel Sahlgren and Julian Le Grand

Teaching is a McJob Part 1: Low Pay

Teaching is a McJob Part 2: Low Prestige

Teaching is a McJob Part 3: No Training

Progressive education

Many of those within the educational establishment (who are described by Michael Gove as 'the blob') reject liberal education in favour of child centered 'progressive' pedagogy. This pedagogy undermines the authority of adults, has contributed to a national behaviour crisis and is detrimental to learning:

A Response to Mitra Part 1: Education and Employability

A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy

A Response to Mitra Part 3: The Past


On the Staffroom Debate

A few days ago the Times published an article (behind paywall) about teachers objecting to the increasing rarity of the school staffroom. This isn't news. CEO type managers have long set their sights on the staffroom whose very existence runs contrary to their 'utopian' vision of teachers taking tea with students or enjoying a working lunch in communal spaces within their departments.

For most of these managers the road to utopia has revolved around making the staffroom so inconvenient a proposition that teachers may as well never go there; for some this process is virtually accidental:

Foulds, head of Cheltenham Bournside School, is not a fan of the staffroom. In the past year he has moved the one at his Gloucestershire school and reduced it significantly in size.

The PE departmental staffroom is what might be politely described as “lived in”. Two parallel rows of desks are cluttered with laptops, folders and loose sheets of paper. Above them, the walls are lined with timetables and notices. By the door, pictures of babies are pinned to a noticeboard. Four teachers are sitting in the small space; fleeces hang on the backs of their chairs. One works on his laptop, while holding an open book on his knees.

“We don’t have a lot of time between lessons,” says PE teacher Victoria Clasper. “We’re either setting up equipment or we’re in the changing rooms. Lunchtimes, you’re either on duty or running a club. Then we’re in here when you’ve got non-contact time – when you’re planning and organising.”

The PE staff are, essentially, proving Foulds’ point for him. His school has almost 1,800 pupils, 125 teachers and 75 members of non-teaching staff. “In terms of space, the main staffroom would not support that,” he says. But it does not need to: most people simply do not use it. There is an all-staff briefing once a week, but that is the only time all colleagues will be in there at the same time. Many barely visit at other times.

“You have to ask yourself: what purpose does it serve?” says Foulds. “What’s it for? Are there other priorities for the space? There’s always a question over the efficiency of having a staffroom at all. But that has to be consistent with the ability for staff to have work areas.”

For others the decision to axe the staffroom was deliberate:

…scrap teacher staffrooms. Michael Wilshaw has done precisely that and, along with other measures, has produced one of the most successful state schools in the country – Mossbourne Community Academy. He has no central staffroom and teachers have to take tea and coffee in 'learning areas' around the school, “I wanted staff and students in close proximity at all times so that, at vulnerable periods such as breaks when you get bullying and vandalism, pupils don't all head in one direction and staff in another”.

In case anyone felt like complaining the Secretary of State for education Michael Gove, desperate for acceptance from his petulant cabal of free marketeering idols, quickly sought to remove any legal obligation for schools to provide a staffroom in the first place.

So the problem here isn't so much the vision of utopia itself but the way in which we have got there. The modern normality of the working lunch is rather sad as is the idea of the corporate school manager kettling teachers out of the staffroom for a pasta pot and riot control; Wilshaw may have scrapped staffrooms but, to his credit, had a bigger grasp on behaviour in the first place. The exhaustion and stress caused by these ill thought out acts are a mere microcosm of the wider culture of burn out and short termism within the teaching profession. There is little to be gained from pointing this out to the educational establishment and ambitious managers that seek to join it for experienced teachers with the time and space to talk are the enemy of that other grand vision we hear less about – a cheap, recyclable workforce that doesn't complain.


Ofsted Data Dashboards: Spot the Difference


In an earlier post I criticised the then recently introduced Ofsted Data Dashboard for punishing Science departments who hold high ambitions for thier students:


'The issues raised here have been put to Ofsted and this blog is aware of their response. Ofsted chose not to clarify how the Science percentages published on the dashboard were calculated so it is still not entirely clear whether they are reporting on outcomes for every unique GCSE entry or every student entered for GCSE Science. Ofsted confirmed that only e-bacc qualifications were included in their calculations for Science and explained that it would be ‘misleading’ to publish Science outcomes based on entire school cohorts instead of exam entries because ‘pupils don’t have to take Science’. It clearly hasn’t occurred to Ofsted that it is also misleading to publish inflated Science GCSE outcomes by effectively discounting large numbers of lower ability students who are taking GCSE equivalent Science from the data.

In closing the Ofsted dashboard is a missed opportunity. If Sir Micheal Wilshaw wants to help parents make informed choices and governors improve the Science provision in their schools it would help if the dashboard looked at the types of courses on offer to students and the amount of curriculum time and resources a school allocates to Science teaching. Instead Ofsted have produced yet another simplistic, target based accountability tool that will do nothing except encourage faculty heads to do the wrong thing: Biology, Chemistry and Physics will only be offered to the most able children while everyone else will have to be content with an equivalent qualification like BTEC.'

Therefore it is heartening that Ofsted have made some changes to the way Science results are presented on the dashboard:



Although I think that Ofsted need to provide more information if they want parents to make an informed choice about Science provision (for example curriculum time which varies massively) this is a step in the right direction as it is now harder to present sky high examination results to savvy parents without anyone discovering the extent to which those results were achieved by entering lower ability students for BTEC; in other words 100% pass rates in Biology, Chemistry and Physics are actually not particularly impressive when 60% of the cohort are not entered for EBacc Science in the first place: