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Why would I send my child to secondary school?

You don’t have to believe in the lazy education is broken meme to think that there’s something wrong with the way we educate young people. As someone who worked for seven years as a teacher and senior leader in schools I’m not just some guy who has a view on education: I’ve seen what it looks and feels like behind the scenes in both ‘outstanding” and ‘failing’ schools.

I want to make it clear that nothing I’m about to say has anything to do with the role, status or professionalism of teachers. As I’ve said many a time, most teachers I’ve ever come across do a fantastic job and are dedicated and hard-working. My target here is, specifically, the English education ‘system’ (if we can even call it that).

It’s also important to bear in mind that I’m not talking about my own choices as a parent here, but rather me qua parent. The question I’m asking isn’t “should I homeschool my child?” but rather, “how should we as a society educate young people?” It’s a symptom of our age that the former is always assumed whenever I bring it up. Individualism and the logic of the market seems to pervade everything these days.

I’m also going to be setting aside the purpose of education for the moment. Going into any depth here would make this into either an inordinately long post, or a series of posts. That’s not my aim and, in any case, I spent a couple of years exploring that question with Purpos/ed.


Secondary school is a huge waste of time. I mean that literally.

Let’s do the maths.

Many secondary schools I’ve taught in divide the day into six 50-minute lessons. Children go to school five days per week so that’s 5 x 6 x 50 = 1500 minutes (or 25 hours) in lessons. However, in terms of learning time, once we’ve factored in changeovers, settling, the costs of task-switching and routine tasks/admin, that’s probably down to 5 x 6 x 30 = 900 minutes (or 15 hours).

The way that people get better at things is through formative feedback. In other words, someone gives you timely advice on a thing you’ve just done and shows you how to improve it. That could be how to write persuasively or how to swing a tennis racquet. In a class of 30+ children formative feedback happens less often that we’d all like.

So, going back to the calculations, the learning that takes place in 15 hours per week with a 1:30 ratio could probably take place a lot more quickly and accurately with a 1:1 or 1:5 ratio. I’m well aware that the research on class sizes shows that numbers have to be cut dramatically to make a difference but with these kinds of ratios Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development starts kicking in on a regular basis. My son’s footballing skills came on a lot more during 16 hours in a small group during half-term than they would have done in 16 one-hour lessons within a large group over four months.

We can, and I believe should, organise learning differently. We could have smaller learning groups for 20 weeks per year and the other 20 weeks could be the equivalent of apprenticeships – putting those knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours into action. Or each week could be divided into two. Or they could do one week on, one week off. There’s many permutations.

I know I’m likely to get some pushback in the form of how important a role schools play in terms of socialisation. I get that. But I think it’s important to realise that, as parents, we seem to have outsourced learning and socialisation and conflated it with reliable babysitting to allow us to go to work. We’re missing the point by tinkering around the edges.

Having worked in schools with extremely poor pupil behaviour, I realise that this, too, is likely to be another objection. But then, behaviour is the responsibility of those who construct the environment as well as the actions of the individual. If we organised learning differently, in re-imagined spaces, then we’d probably get different kinds of behaviours.

In short, instead of asking what we need to do with schools to perpetuate what we’ve already got, perhaps we should be thinking about the society we want to create for our children when they grow up. All I’m asking for is a rethink. There’s no point in adding epicycles. Iteration is all well and good but, to begin with, you have to be heading in the right direction.


If you haven’t already read Will Richardson’s book Why School? I’d recommend it as a short read that fleshes out some of the points I’ve made above. Also, Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate on Changing Education Paradigms is a must-see on just how crazy the system has become. Once that’s whetted your appetite, then dive into Prof. Keri Facer’s marvellous Learning Futures. :-)

Image CC BY-NC-SA donnamarijne

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  • paulmartin42

    Let me just pick a bit at what you say … (BTW my kids experience of the Scottish secondary system was far from perfect – it seemed then all about teaching to the test. That said now we have CfE (so far only upto Yr 4 @ Secondary – and for many there are issues). But back to your thesis …

    1) Period length. When I was at school we were told that 40-50mins is an ideal concentration period for teenagers – double periods maybe for practicals.

    2)Task Switching. I am not so sure that this is wasted time: a lot peer to peer socialising occurs then which would have to be inside the periods of learning otherwise.

    3) Class ratios. This is economics. Your son learned in the half term well because (presumably) this was a paid for class. Many locals here resort to after school tutors to help their offspring learn.

    4) 20 week apprenticeships for young-uns. I think is impractical as (a) latest figures from recentmost Parliamentary Education questions show apprenticeships numbers coming down. (b) The (unpaid) internship debate has led to a growing bias against exploitative unpaid Work experience and (c) I suspect young uns are simply not mature enough to contribute in a work environment when the aim of the enterprise is to make money. (d) When I was in FE I observed the high turnover in the Work Placement co-ordinator position and personally was astonished that my local garage man was not at all keen on having late teen students to help. He had a few bad experiences.

    5) I could go on …

    That said I like to quote Charles Handy when he says “School should be more like work and vice versa”. So I commend you for having a go and making a few suggestions which goes beyond the highly entertaining, Sir Ken Robinson’s analysis of the situation. I agree, a Secondary problem there is/(was in Scotland to return to the start of my post) and maybe Curriculum for Excellence/Bill Gates Try#2/Finnish system will be a good approach. But here in Scotland there is much discussion on workloads. The key problem is finance: I see Local Authorities in England are getting massively reduced funding and the Scottish block grant is coming down too. The result has been slimmed down staffs with many doing more work in less time and less likely to be amenable to revolutionary ideas. The Scottish CfE development has been a while in the making building on such as AfL and I am sure other worthy efforts. There may have been benefits accrued from the smaller Scottish system (and I understand that the improvements in London maybe size related too); also the US system of School districts (though not nationally consistent) have meant progress in some areas but conflict in others where the Unions are strong…

    Clearly your view of edu, as you said, comes from a position of some expertise. The trouble is that many armchair edu-generals speak/criticize with little experience to draw on. Happy holidays.

    • http://dougbelshaw.com/ Doug Belshaw

      Thanks for the comment, Paul. Much appreciated. :-)

      You say that “the key problem is finance” but I beg to differ. I think it’s got to do with superstructures. I think it’s got to do with imagination. I think it’s got to do with cultural inertia. And, dare I say it, I think there may be a bit of political meddling in there as well.

      • paulmartin42

        If by superstructures etc you are proposing re-organisation such as the move from Local Authority to “independent” control as in English Free Schools. This can be expensive, look at the problems at the NHS