Tag: schools (page 1 of 5)

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

You are not Mr Gove’s audience

I’m a big fan of paying attention to what people and organisations actually do rather than what they say they’re doing.

Let’s take Michael Gove as a for instance. Last year I asked whether there was evidence he is systematically dismantling English state education. If we take the 30,000ft view, what’s changed since then? Certainly nothing in terms of the trajectory in which he’s trying (and largely succeeding) to take state education in England.

If you’re a teacher, you’re not really Mr Gove’s audience. If you’re a parent you might be – but only if you read his semi-official outlets such as the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail. So who is Gove’s real audience? Well the Conservative Party for one (he wants to be the next leader) as well as big business. Both applaud his moves to introduce the logic of the market into state education.

The ideals of the right in politics include lower government spending and private enterprise competing in a marketplace with as little regulation as possible. This is the future for our schools in England under Michael Gove; Academy chains, already growing larger, will be allowed to make a profit as the ‘saviours’ to progressively-defunded state schools. Chomsky was right.

There’s nothing new about Gove’s approach, apart from a maybe a new kind of clinical cynicism. Schools will be forced into becoming Academies by hook or by crook. He’s already changed the Ofsted inspection regime, caused chaos via the EBacc, and suggested lower pay for teachers (under the smokescreen of ‘performance-related pay’). We can look at all of these things as separate examples of a floundering Education Secretary who doesn’t know what he’s doing, or we see them as the constituent parts of a approach by a manipulative politician who plays Realpolitik. 

Image CC BY-NC Thomas Hawk

Time, innovation and funding.

I’ve worked in both schools and universities. In the former the ‘barrier’ to innovation is usually said to be time. In the latter it’s usually seen as the trials and tribulations of getting funding.

Whilst I agree that teachers work crazy hours and that both schools and universities are generally underfunded, I can’t help but think that the real reason institutional innovation is stifled is because of permission-seeking.

We all know that the worst kind of censorship is self-censorship – the fear that your actions might bring displeasure or punishment. People, I’m sad to say, don’t tend to give themselves the permission to innovate.

It might be slightly controversial to say so, but it’s easy to ask for time and money in an attempt to ensure a project is a success. And it’s also easy to say that something’s ‘not possible given current resources’. But time and money do not in and of themselves lead to successful projects.

What I think people are hankering after when they ask for money or time for innovation projects is approval. Might I suggest that truly innovative projects are unlikely to get such approval?

Some projects need huge levels of buy-in and support and funding and scoping. Most don’t.

Just get on and do it.

Image CC BY-NC Wiertz Sébastien

My high school report.

Update: Some people have asked about my use of ‘high’ school in an English context. We had (and to a great extent still have) a three-tier system in Northumberland.

My parents, who live five miles away in the house where I grew up, are having a long-overdue clearout of their attic. A few days ago they brought round my National Record of Achievement. It’s a faux-leather folder with embossed letters that we used in high school to collate, well, anything other than demerits.

I opened mine and flicked through the meaningless bronze and silver awards, the certificates for things that didn’t need certificating, and the various proofs of things done I’d long since forgotten about.

Then, near the back, I came across my Year 11 report from the February of my last compulsory year in school.

Let’s have a look at some highlights, shall we?

English – “Although he tends to waste time in class, Douglas has produced all the coursework required so far…” – I wasted time because I finished all the work set and the lessons were formulaic in the extreme. I was forced to think ‘inside the box’ and I was bored to distraction.

Biology – “Douglas is able to grasp topics very quickly and shows a very good understanding. I have always been worried by his arrogant attitude…” – Why? Because I dared to go beyond the textbook we used every lesson? Because I asked hard questions that the teacher couldn’t be bothered to answer?

Physics – “Douglas shows interest in some topics but he prefers to get involved in ‘idle’ chatter too often. He has ability in this subject but he must be prepared to work harder.” – Physics was one of my favourite subjects. I just didn’t like working in an atmosphere where silence was expected (if rarely achieved) *all* of the time.

French – “In discussion with Douglas [notice never ‘Doug’] he agrees that so far this year he has been content to produce work that is just satisfactory and shows the minimum of effort.” – That might be because the closest we got to real-life French were laughably outdated videos. The (compulsory) language class felt like an irrelevance.

Life Studies – “Douglas has understood the issues raised and contributed sensibly to some of the discussions but he has not yet fully learned that there are no simple answers to complex issues.” Ouch! I saw this teacher a few weeks ago for the first time since school. I went out of my way to thank her for lending me a copy of Sophie’s World, which eventually led to me studying Philosophy at university.

Senior Tutor – “Well done, Douglas. This is an excellent report, I am sure you have a bright and interesting future ahead of you.” – Well, it *wasn’t* an excellent report, and I ultimately underachieved, but the ‘interesting future’ bit was spot-on. 🙂

The rest of the teacher comments were mainly bland and generic, focusing on me needing a revision plan and to work harder. I don’t really blame my teachers – it must have been a fairly tough place to work.

When I talked through my report with my wife it was interesting how we came at this from different angles. Given that I’ve gone on to achieve a doctorate and done reasonably well career-wise I saw the above as evidence of the disconnect between school and ‘real life’. She on the other hand, wondered what I could have been.

Of course, we’ll never know the counter-factual. We’ll never know what would have happened if I’d gone somewhere different than a school where only 25% achieved 5+ A*-C grades (the national average at the time was 45%). And, anyway, what would have constituted a ‘better outcome’? More money? More status?

I’d wager that the biggest differentiator and predictor of ‘success’ in life (whatever that is) is parental expectation. OK, so my father was Deputy Head of the high school and my mother worked in the school office, but it wasn’t their presence that kept me on the straight-and-narrow.

What kept me honest was the expectation that I would attend university. And to attend university you have to jump through the flaming hoops of examination systems. So I jumped through the hoops. I may have almost burned my bollocks a few times, but I got through in the end.

Others didn’t. Primarily, I’d argue, because they weren’t expected to.

I’m still thinking through all this and what it means for my own children, so in lieu of a neat conclusion I’ll leave you with the wise words of John O’Farrell:

Children from advantaged backgrounds are going to do much better wherever they go to school – that is module 1 of a GCSE in The Bleedin’ Obvious. If you read to your children from an early age, if the poor things are dragged round museums every other weekend, if you have the time and energy for them and are not leaving them at home alone every evening because you have a second job cleaning floors at Heathrow, then your children will do better academically. If your local comp got 50% five A-Cs including English and maths, that doesn’t mean that your child has only a 50% chance of achieving that over-simplistic benchmark. What parents generally perceive as a “better school” usually means a school with an intake that is easier to teach.

[UPDATED] Google+ Hangout about #openbadges TODAY 11:00 (BST)

Update: scroll down to video at bottom of post!

Open Badges - Google+ hangout

I’ve organised an impromptu, informal Google+ hangout for today about Open Badges (Friday 27th July 2012) at 11:00 BST. It’s in response to a few people on Twitter who wanted to ask me questions.

Most of those asking the questions were teachers.

If you’re interested, and you can make it, then head to the following URL just before 11:00 and we’ll talk through Open Badges until people run out of questions.


I’m using the ‘Hangouts on Air’ option so it should automatically be recorded and then available on YouTube afterwards!

There was an issue (explained in the video) so it’s up on Vimeo.

View Google+ hangout below!

What we talk about when we talk about Open Badges from Doug Belshaw on Vimeo.

Some clarification of my position on private schools.

After mentioning in today’s newsletter that I was getting more militant in my opposition to private schools, I received some pushback and a request for me to explain my position.

the same horizon

I don’t like people paying for their children’s education.

I don’t like people having to pay for their own education.

I don’t like school league tables leading to ‘parental choice’.

I don’t like education being used as a ‘political football’.

I don’t like people moving houses to get their children into ‘good’ schools.

I don’t like selective schools, such as grammar schools, that ‘cream off’ the ‘best’ students.

I don’t like faith schools, especially when it leads to parental hypocrisy.

I do like people sending their children to the local comprehensive.

I do believe in a broad education.

I do like schools at the centre of communities.

I do like people getting involved in the education of not just their own children, but that of other people’s.

I do like the state paying for education to whatever level you want to aim for.

I do like people refusing to compromise on their educational values when it comes to their own children.

I do like people walking the walk.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Norma Desmond

This is why teachers leave teaching.


On Thursday, Mark Clarkson wrote a blog post that started off like this:

I seriously considered leaving education today. And if I had a viable exit strategy I might have taken it further.

Note the end of that sentence: a young, talented teacher with so much to offer the world feels like he has no ‘viable exit strategy’. There are thousands of teachers up and down the country feeling the same thing.

I should know. A few years ago I was one of them.

You should go and read Mark’s post. If you’re currently a classroom teacher you’ll be nodding your head at the bullet point after bullet point of bureaucratic, administrative nonsense he (and most other teachers) put up with. And if you’re not a teacher, you’ll be shocked.

On top of the ridiculous workload teachers like Mark experience each year, he notes that the benefits aren’t exactly stellar:

At the same time I am told that I will have to work for another 36 years. That I will receive less pension than I was promised… That tests are too easy. That my subject is not good enough. That I need to solve gaps in parenting. That I should receive performance related pay. That teachers are paid too much. That public sector workers in the north are paid too much. That teachers ‘cheat’ when the watchmen come. And today I’m told that ‘teachers don’t know what stress is‘.

I’ve been out of the classroom for just over two years now. And already my wife, a Primary school teacher, has to remind me what it’s like. I consider setting off together for work five minutes late a minor inconvenience. But for her, and many teachers, it can make or break their day. I’m fairly sure teachers know what stress is.

Although I would say this, I think we need a review of what we’re doing when it comes to schools. We can’t keep cannibalising the goodwill of people in an underpaid, overworked, increasingly-attacked profession. I think we need a public debate about the purpose(s) of education.

I’ll give the last word to Mark. He echoes something I used to say repeatedly – until I decided enough was enough:

I’m not leaving teaching today, because there are still too many moments that I enjoy.

TEACHING is a great activity. Teaching, at the minute, doesn’t always feel like a great job.

 Image CC BY-NC paulbence

On the important difference between ‘elite’ and ‘elitist’.

Toffs and Toughs

I had an interesting exchange via Twitter recently with Ian Yorston (Director of Digital Strategy at Radley College) about the difference between ‘élite’ and ‘élitist’. He argued that you don’t get élite performers without being élitist. He (and others, to be fair) used the example of élite performers in sport: they need to be treated well and compete against the best to be ‘élite’. He called this approach ‘élitism’. I argued, contrary to this, that the terms élite and élitist refer to very different concepts. You can read our conversation on Storify here. The 140-character limit soon became frustrating, so I decided to write about what I consider to be the difference here and how it applies to education.

Let’s just see what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has to say about the two terms under discussion:

élite: The choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of persons).

élitist: (derivation of ‘elitism’)

élitism: Advocacy of or reliance on the leadership and dominance of an élite (in a society, or in any body or class of persons).

You can strive to be élite (as an individual, organisation or country) without being élitist. Whilst I began by going to the OED I prefer the definitions given by Google’s ‘define’ function here:


  1. A person who believes that a system or society should be ruled or dominated by an elite
  2. A person who believes that they belong to an elite

Wikipedia defines élitism in the following way:

Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.

I’ve got no problem with supporting and developing talent. My beef is with the important difference between élite (which is a status) and élitism (which is an attitude). It’s simply unacceptable, for example, that private school pupils dominate entry into the best universities because of the cultural capital of their parents and teachers. It’s a scandal of epic proportions that privately-educated politicians harp on about the importance of narrowly-focused league tables for state schools whilst private schools are left (by and large) to carry on activities that perpetuate hegemonic power. It’s not just about the goalposts, it’s about how level the playing field is to begin with.

As far as I’m concerned, we’ve moved on in the last 2,500 years from Plato’s idea of ‘philosopher kings’. There is no particular race or class of people who are better or worse to govern and lead society than others: there are just people who are better or worse educated and or well-connected at any given time (the latter is never measured in any league tables I’ve ever seen). During my recent trips to the United Arab Emirates I’ve witnessed an extremely economically and socially stratified society held together by a benign dictatorship and oil dollars. How far is the UK away from massive social stratification?  

It’s easy to justify those things in which you’re deeply involved; it’s a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.  I just wonder how many of those who work within institutions that perpetuate a stratified and unfair society have actually reflected upon the change they want to see in the world? Perhaps, as a start, they should read some John Rawls, and reflect on how much they recognise of themselves in the theory of Cognitive Dissonance and get involved with Purpos/ed.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Update: This post was mentioned in the Times Higher Education supplement

What would a post-test era look like for our schools?


“[I]s anyone surprised that a huge swath of our population can’t speak intelligently about the larger issues that face us? No doubt, the financial mess we’re in and climate change and the Middle East and the rest are complex, fast changing issues that can be difficult for anyone to keep up with. (I’m no exception.) But again, have our schools really been cultivating the learning dispositions needed to grapple with those topics as they evolve? We give a lot of lip service to problem solving and critical thinking and the like, but I’m not convinced that those and other really important skills and literacies are showing up meaningfully in more than 10% of classrooms in this country because in large measure, they’re not on the test. It’s about content and knowledge, not learning.” (Will Richardson)


My son, Ben, is four years old. He’s just finished his first year in school nursery and will move up to Reception class in September. For international readers, it’s important to bear in mind that in England children do not have to go to school until they are five years old – we could have chosen to enrol him in January 2012. He’s very much enjoyed wearing his school uniform, meeting new people and learning new things. Ben loves going to school.


There’s two classes next year into which Ben and his friends are to be divided. Both are Reception/Year 1 mixed. To cut a long story short, the rumour went around the parents at the school gate that one was a ‘more able’ class and one a ‘lower ability’ class (which, from a teacher’s perspective is ridiculous: you’d just split them into Reception and Year 1). In addition, my neice who has just finished Reception (in a different school) has just been scored at 104 out of 117. For what, you may ask? Exactly. But we’re all proud of her anyway.

The Perils of Testing

The amount of testing that children in my family will undertake during their educational career is even more than my wife and I had to undertake when we were at school. And that was more than enough. Testing is a form of competition which seems to be the dominant discourse in society. This saddens me. In the quotation from Will Richardson above he’s concerned that teachers focus unduly on the test. As a former teacher who attempted to rebel against such a system I can confirm that, at the end of the day, it’s a choice between selling-out (and teaching to the test) or quitting. My wife, a Primary school teacher, and I have both been asked several times in our careers to change teacher assessments because they didn’t demonstrate linear progress when plotted on a graph. That’s just not acceptable; if children’s progress is to be charted it should be done properly.

A data-driven culture in schools would be fine if the numbers in a spreadsheet mattered less than the individual child, but I’m not sure that they do. As I explained in Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy? these numbers stay with, and label children, throughout their educational career. It’s performativity at its worst: to be successful children have to learn how to ‘do school’ rather than learn those things which will help them function in society.

The Solution?

When my son Ben stops enjoying doing something he moves onto something else. And that’s fine by me – although I’m fairly hot on discipline, I work with his interests and attention span. Whilst I’m confident that this has been the case this year whilst he’s been in school nursery, I’m not so sure it will continue throughout his educational career. Unless our family manage to instil in him a growth mindset he’s likely to equate test results with some kind of ‘inate ability’. That’s dangerous territory.

What happens when children start demonstrating what Carol Dweck calls ‘fixed’ mindsets? If they’re successful they choose the easy option to prove their ‘intelligence’. If they’re not so successful they’re liable to disengage with schooling. For some, this involves staring out the window, for others poor behaviour, and for yet others voting with their feet. According to The Guardian truancy is on the rise – and it’s increasing even in Primary schools.

I think we need to step back and take stock. As with Purpos/ed (asking what is the purpose of education?) we need to ask what is the purpose of assessment? Once we understand that perhaps we’ll be able to decide whether we care about PISA, whether high-stakes testing does more harm to our society than good, and whether what we’re currently doing is conducive to developing growth mindsets in young people.

Perhaps a good place to start would be investing in meaningful continuing professional development for teachers and trusting their judgements? Now there’s an idea.

A Post-test school

What would an education system look like that had moved beyond testing? Perhaps we should look at Finland. According to this article, the Fins manage to do very well without high-stakes testing:

There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism, they can trust their teachers. Their motto is “Trust Through Professionalism.” The difference between the highest performing school in Finland and the lowest performing school in Finland is less than four percent, and that’s without any testing at all.

I believe a post-test school would be collaborative instead of competitive. It would be project-driven. The staff would be happy and the children relaxed. Truancy would be minimal.

But how, I hear you ask, would universities and employers decide who to employ? How would we identify talent?

Again, I think we need to step back and look at the wider picture and challenge the paucity of our collective imagination. It baffles me why we abstract away from personality and interests to represent ourselves on paper in black and white, sending an application to persons unknown at an educational institution or organization we barely know. Far better would be to change the whole system, to predicate it upon relationships and much richer, informative and – yes – passionate representations of ourselves. Why not have such institutions and businesses approaching young people and job hunters rather than the other way around?


I don’t know of anyone who knows about education in the UK who thinks that the status quo is desirable or tenable. Everyone is dissatisfied and the elephant in the room is our assessment regime. Let’s do something about it. Let’s kick up a fuss. Let’s tell the world that whilst we’ve got qualifications of which we may be proud, they’re not necessarily relevant or desirable for our children. And while we’re at it, let’s get back to human relationships rather than children-as-spreadsheets.

Who’s with me?

Image CC BY-NC-SA COCOEN daily photos

Schools as resources for fairness. [Future of Education]

This post is another in a (probably fairly lengthy) series as a result of me reading Keri Facer’s excellent Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change. It follows my previous post: On the paucity of our collective imagination.

Fairness Zone

We need to start thinking now about how schools can act as resources for fairness if children bring highly diverse digital, social and pharmacological resources into the classroom. We need to start thinking now about how schools can equip students for democracy when technologies of surveillance are expanding and new networked public spaces are emerging. And we need to start thinking now about how schools can act as resources for building sustainable economic futures when networked globalization promises increased polarization, radical inequality and environmental degradation. (Keri Facer, Learning Futures)

One of the main objections I have to Free Schools is that they allow parents to extract themselves from the conversation about schooling. And they allow this (usually for the benefit of the upper middle-class) at the expense of taxpayers. I’m opposed to (most kinds of) independent schooling as well, but at least in this instance parents have to put their money where their mouth is.

For better or worse, whole lives are defined by experiences between the ages of 4 and 16. The experience of schooling defines most people’s educational experiences – and therefore what goes on within schools cannot be underestimated.

Before reading Keri Facer’s book, I was verging towards the Deschooling movement. I now see how getting rid of schools would be a tragic conclusion to the rampant individualism that defines our age. And it would lead to a more unjust society, not a more egalitarian one:

I want to argue that the potential for socio-technical changes to massively amplify social and economic inequalities in the coming decades is significant. This means that, more than ever, we will need schools that are physical, locally accountable organizations, committed to building viable and sustainable futures for everyone in their communities. (Keri Facer, Learning Futures)

The UK has a wider gap between rich and poor than it did 40 years ago. There are huge gender pay gaps and people living in poverty. In 2011. That’s unacceptable. And it’s no good throwing our hands up in the air at our current education system’s seeming inability to close that gap. Instead, we need to strengthen and re-commit ourselves to schools as places where people abandon their ghettos – be those class-based, religious, or otherwise.

As I mentioned in a reply to a comment on my previous post, we can’t be defined solely in opposition to hegemonic power. We need to pre-empt important questions. One of these, for example, is the inevitability within the next 20 years of so-called ‘smart drugs’ which will allow the enhancement (either temporary or longer-term) of human cognitive abilities. Given high-stakes testing regimes it’s inevitable that those who have the means to provide these to their children will do so in order to gain economic advantages.

We cannot wait for problems to arise and then define ourselves by opposition to them. We need to have pre-emptive conversations. We need to come together.

We need schools.

Image CC BY PatrickSeabird