“Every person should be treated as an individual with their own abilities, personality and interests.”


The title of today’s blog post is taken from a letter in Friday’s Guardian newspaper. It was one of several letters commenting on Rishi Sunak’s poorly thought out proposal that every young person should study maths until the age of 18. The suggestion for an extension of compulsory maths was made in a speech that Sunak gave earlier in the week. The plan (if one can even call it a plan) has been almost universally condemned in the media. Many, including Carol Vorderman, who is a champion of maths education and of the importance of numeracy, have expressed derision for Sunak’s idea.

It seems to me that two important points come out of the criticism of Sunak’s proposal.

The first is that there is a huge difference between practical numeracy, which is a necessary skill if one is to thrive in the 21st century, and “mathematics” as promoted by the GCSE maths syllabus that dominates the secondary school maths curriculum. Vorderman made this point strongly in her LBC interview. It is, of course, very important that young people should develop a good understanding of financial and statistical arithmetic. Otherwise they will be unable to make informed choices about such things as interest rates, financial decisions, and statistical risk, and they could be exploited by dishonest business people and politicians. But only a tiny minority of young people will ever need to solve a quadratic equation or to calculate the surface area of a trapezium after they walk out of their last maths exam. So it is a cruel waste of time to force young people to perform such irrelevant tasks. (They even have to memorise the formulae for both these tasks, following the “reforms” to the GCSE maths syllabus associated with Michael Gove and his sidekick Dominic Cummings!)

The second important point is that it is a big mistake to try to solve educational problems by adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. The overall approach to educational reform in recent years has been to try to push all young people down the same route – to claim that everyone aged x should be taught y. But by the time young people have reached the age of about twelve they are very different from each other in terms of experiences, capabilities and interests, and it is nonsense to try to make everyone of the same age follow the same educational route. If an individual has reached a satisfactory level of practical numeracy by the age of 16, it is surely crazy to force them to continue to study maths for another two years, particularly if their capabilities and passion lie in other directions (e.g. music, craft or design). Likewise, if an individual – like the Guardian letter writer quoted in the title of this post - has dyscalculia and simply cannot relate to mathematics, then it is both pointless and cruel to force that individual to continue studying maths in late adolescence. The writer of the letter was surely right to say that “every person should be treated as an individual with their own abilities, personality and interests.” This requires a much more flexible approach to what and how teenagers should learn. For the sake of a political gimmick Sunak seems to have taken a stand against an enlightened and flexible approach to education.

Image by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two glimmers of hope?


It is difficult to feel optimistic during this period of uniquely chaotic and dishonest politics here in our (allegedly) united kingdom. In particular, it is difficult to feel optimistic about education when so many thinkers, educators and even politicians have reached consensus on the urgent need to rethink how we educate young people – yet NOTHING CHANGES.

But I offer two items from recent news that might, just might, offer some grounds for hope that sense might prevail and some of the out-of-date assumptions that plague schooling might finally be ditched:

  1. Robert Halfon has been brought back into government as an education minister. One of the few things that has provided grounds for political optimism regarding education has been that in recent years a growing number of senior politicians, including Conservatives, have been openly critical of our current exam system and narrow, inflexible curriculum. Former Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker, recently wrote “I introduced GCSEs in the 1980s – but now it’s time to scrap them”; former Conservative minister Nick Boles referred to the present education system as "a ramshackle hodgepodge” (a statement that inspired the title of this blog); and Robert Halfon, who was until recently Chair of the Education Select Committee wrote last year in an article entitled “Assessment - time for a rethink?”:

    "Recent survey findings from the Edge Foundation found that 92% of parents and 95% of teachers want education to help their children develop a range of skills like critical thinking, creative problem solving and communication. Amongst young people aged 14 to 19, 84% feel that schooling needs to be more flexible… Employers have been calling loudly for this change too… This is not simply about throwing out GCSEs … it is about a broad and balanced portfolio offering rigorous knowledge, intellectual breadth and the skills that students need to access jobs and opportunities."

    I have long said that the only people who still believe in the narrow exam-focused curriculum that we currently have in our schools are members of the Conservative Government. So I was delighted that following Robert Halfon’s appointment last week we have at least one government minister who is on record as having called for a broader, more up-to-date and more relevant approach to education.
  1. School uniform policies that ban Afro hair are ‘likely to be unlawful’  We would not dream of refusing medical treatment or access to public transport to a young person just because they are wearing jeans or have their hair in cornrows. So why on earth should we deprive them of education because they refuse to conform to arbitrary rules about what they wear and how they style their hair? I suggest that schools’ obsession with controlling clothing and hairstyles (aka ‘uniform policies”) has two historical origins. Firstly, the British tradition of schooling has its roots in Christian religious practices, and religious institutions have always used rules about hairstyles and clothing as a means of control. And secondly, there is a long tradition of pseudo-militaristic approaches to discipline within British schools, and the military also feel the need to control clothing and hair. The recent statement by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that “discriminating against pupils… because of their hair may have a negative effect on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing” is, of course, just a tiny chink in the armour of senseless uniform policies, but at least it is a start, a tiny step in the direction of a more civilised and respectful approach to how schools treat young people.

But am I perhaps being over-optimistic in suggesting that these two recent developments might augur well for the future of education in this country?

Images: The images of Robert Halfon and of the young women with cornrows are both believed to be in the public domain.

"We need to tear down the education system and rebuild it, so it suits everyone." (Melanie Sykes)

Before retiring from paid work I was involved in training and supporting educators in the use of technology to enhance learning. An important issue was to ensure that technology was designed and used in such a way that it did not disadvantage people with disabilities and special needs. One way to promote this was to point out that if one ensured that the technology was accessible to everyone then this potentially benefited everyone, not just those with particular needs. This is because making the tools and materials of learning more accessible increases the flexibility with which each individual can interact with these resources.

I was reminded of this when I read a report of a recent interview Melanie Sykes gave to the Guardian. Sykes said:

 "… I now know the education system wasn’t set up in a way that I was able to function there. It crowbars you into a certain way of thinking and being, and if you don’t fit the bill you get left behind. That’s why we need to tear down the education system and rebuild it, so it suits everyone… Learning shouldn’t be just sitting in a classroom and being forced to learn algebra or French when your brain doesn’t work like that. What a waste of your childhood. I can’t read a number that’s over five digits, and there’s no way that doing an hour of maths every day for five years would have changed that.”

Although this was said in the context of Sykes' diagnosis of autism, I suggest that the principle I outlined in my first paragraph also applies here. The lack of flexibility in the curriculum, the "crowbarring into a certain way of thinking and being", does not only disadvantage those with autism, but potentially disadvantages just about everyone. The (allegedly) neurotypical brain might, to quote Sykes again, "not be typical at all. So the system that supports those types of brains isn’t necessarily what should be the norm.”

But the reality is that the way our education system works does reinforce the illusion of the neurotypical brain. So it is little wonder that "if you don’t fit the bill you get left behind." To give but one example, consider the following, from the UK Government's statutory guidance for the National curriculum in England: mathematics programmes of study:

"The expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace."

This statement is just nonsense. It is evident to anyone with experience of how young people learn that the majority of pupils most certainly do NOT - in any meaningful way -"move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace." We all have very, very different ways of relating to the world, and our education system should surely be rebuilt to both acknowledge and celebrate this.

Image: : Demolition of Netherhall Lower School - 23 by John Sutton, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why a classroom is like a stagecoach

CoachesWhenever a radically different and powerful new technology emerges, we first use it to create things that look very similar to those made with the technology that it has replaced. Only later, when more confidence in the new technology has developed, do we give the new technology its own shape and form. And only then can we fully realise the potential of the new technology.

Here are three examples:

  1. The first railway carriages looked just like horse-drawn stagecoaches (but with different wheels). A few years later we saw the development of much longer bogie carriages that looked nothing like stagecoaches and enabled trains to travel at much higher speeds.
  2. The first concrete viaduct (at Glenfinnan on the West Highland Railway) had the same shape as a brick or stone viaduct. Only later did engineers develop new 'archless' shapes that made much bigger and lighter bridges possible.
  3. The first mobile phones looked like conventional phones without a cable. Today's mobile phones look nothing at all like traditional phones and have far more capabilities.

It is the same with education. Digital technology, in particular the Internet, represents a radical and powerful step forward in the tools available for learning. But we are still at the stage of using digital technology to do something that looks very similar to traditional classroom education. We have yet to develop or implement digitally enhanced education that has its own shape and form, and can therefore realise its huge potential.

This issue was touched on in a 'big idea' article Should we leave the classroom behind? by Laura Spinney in last Saturday's Guardian newspaper. The starting point for the article was an exploration of how education has changed during the pandemic. Spinney acknowledges that "education was adapting to the digital world long before Covid" but makes the point that "the pandemic has given learning a huge shove towards the virtual." She points out, though, that in spite of learning going online "it tended to stick to pre-existing timetables", a classic example of a new technology that has not yet developed its own shape and form, but is just trying to imitate the look of the old technology it is replacing. One of the most depressing educational stories I heard during the pandemic was of a school that insisted that its pupils wore their school uniform while they were at home taking part in Zoom-based lessons. Surely that's rather like insisting that the carriages for trains going through the Channel Tunnel have to look like stagecoaches!

In the Guardian article Spinney quotes Professor Yong Zhao of the University of Kansas: "This is a time for schools and systems to reimagine education without schooling or classrooms." Professor Zhao and Dr Jim Watterston have co-authored a paper that emphasises the importance of creativity, critical thinking and entrepreneurship rather than information retention. And they call for giving students more control of what and how they learn.

Of course it will take time for the new form and shape of education to develop, but I feel certain that future generations will look back on the disruption of the pandemic as being a turning point, a key event in bringing about systems of learning suitable for the digital world. And the yet to emerge world of fully functional digital education will not, of course, just involve individuals sitting in front of computers. On the contrary there will be an increased appreciation of the importance of the social aspect of human learning. And we will see a synthesis of technological innovation with social learning environments that are much more effective than conventional classrooms. We may be sure that, to quote from the final paragraph of Spinney's article "it seems unlikely that the classroom will ever look the same again".

Images: : (i) public domain (ii) by Draco2008 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (iii) by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

"Our examination technology is crude, partial, inadequate and discriminatory."

We are in the exam results season here in the UK, and yesterday's Guardian newspaper contained a number of letters reflecting on our current public exam system. I particularly liked this, from a letter by Professor Colin Richards:

"Despite a century or more of research and “measurement”, we still have no firm, reliable or systematic way of assessing young people’s understanding. Our examination technology is crude, partial, inadequate and discriminatory. The mental health of many former students bears witness to that."

And the final sentence of Professor Richards' letter is a clear statement of what need to happen now:

"This year’s teacher assessed grades should be the start of a much-needed process of development, not an unwelcome interruption of a faulty measurement system which has passed its sell-by date."


My Old Blog


Back in 2008 I started a blog called How do people really learn? but I stopped adding new posts in 2014, around the same time that I (gradually - and gracefully:-) retired from paid work as an educator. 

I recently added one final post to this blog.  In this 'Last Post' I provide a thematic index to all the posts in How do people really learn. These themes remain highly relevant today, as it seems to me that the world of education has not moved forward since 2008 - if anything it has moved backward.

Click here to link to the last post of How do people really learn.

Enjoying school?


Through being a member of the Refracted online group, I learnt last week about a University of Bristol study investigating the relationship between school enjoyment at age six and later educational achievement.

What I find interesting about this study is that the only metric used as an indicator of educational success/achievement is GCSE performance. And we nearly always find this exclusive focus on GCSE results in England and Wales when attempts are made to evaluate the educational success of teenagers or to compare the performance of different secondary schools. But surely we must challenge the validity and appropriateness of using GCSE exam results as an indicator of accomplishment (by the pupil and/or the school). And the key question to ask is this: is the learning undertaken to achieve a good GCSE result of value in itself, or are we merely asking young people to play a game in order to climb life's greasy pole - a modern version of trial by ordeal? I believe it is the latter, because we know that for the majority of young people in the majority of GCSE subjects, the exams require them to memorise and regurgitate information that they will never, ever use in their life again after they leave the exam room.

In the very first paragraph of the Bristol paper we are told that "school enjoyment may represent a promising intervention target for improving educational outcomes." I do not question the study's statistical methodology, but there is an unexamined value statement here in the use of the phrase "promising intervention". It implies, at least to me, uncritical acceptance that improving GCSE performance is a worthwhile aim of education; and this is perhaps reinforced later in the paper when we read:

"Given the importance of having 5 + A*-C GCSE grades to progress into further education and enter skilled jobs in the labour market, lack of school enjoyment may provide an early indicator of pupils in need of more or better educational support."

I can, of course, understand why young people, their parents and their teachers feel obliged to worry about GCSEs (until the wretched things are abolished). But somebody has to have the courage and imagination to say, quite explicitly, that much of what GCSE exams test - memorisation and regurgitation of information that will never be used again outside the exam room – is utterly irrelevant to whether of not the candidate can, for example, undertake "skilled jobs in [today's] labour market". I think Judith Carlisle, Headmistress of Oxford High School, came close to showing this courage and imagination when she said to her students:

"In five years’ time, no one will give a damn which GCSE [grade] you got in French.”

Let me offer this (rather obvious) hypothesis to explain the correlation found in the Bristol study between school enjoyment and GCSE performance. I suggest that some children know, at least tacitly, from the word go that what happens in school is not really for them. So they do not enjoy school at the age of six; and ten years later they perceive, quite correctly in my view, that it is not worthwhile devoting time and effort to memorising the formula for the surface area of a trapezium.

Image based on public domain photo by R. K. Singam

More GCSE nonsense

An opinion piece in yesterday's Guardian newspaper reminds us of the stress and heartache that young people, their parents and their teachers will face when this year's GCSE and A-level results are, once again, pulled out of a magical hat following an opaque process of so-called 'teacher assessment'.

So it is quite understandable that there may be huge sighs of relief from young people, parents and teachers if and when it becomes possible to revert to 'normal' GCSEs and A-levels, rather than the present pandemic arrangements, which are widely seen as unfair.

But it would be quite wrong to think that the normal exam processes for 16- and 18-year olds are in any way fair. Our system of GCSEs and A-levels is demonstrably unfair, unscientific, and unfit for purpose – and it causes a huge amount of stress and mental ill-health for young people.

To appreciate this just consider two imaginary 16-year-olds. Student X is awarded a grade 9 (the highest possible grade) in their GCSE maths exam and Student Y is awarded a grade 5 (equivalent to something between a C and a B on the old system). What might this difference in grades tell us:

Perhaps X has more mathematical capability than Y;

Or perhaps the two students are equally good at maths, but X had worked harder than Y in preparing for the exam;

Or perhaps X had a more efficient and experienced teacher than Y;

Or maybe X had parents who were willing and able to pay for private tutoring and Y did not;

Or maybe Y was suffering from a bad episode of hay fever on the day of the exam and X was not.

The difference in grades could be a result of any of the above factors or a combination of them. So in reality the results tell us precisely nothing about the mathematical capability of X and Y, particularly as the pass mark for the exam is so low that you can get more than half the question wrong and still pass! A key aspect of science is that we need to control variables if we are to draw any meaningful conclusions from our data, but I have just shown that a host of uncontrolled variables that can affect exam results; so they are scientifically unreliable and invalid.

And it's even worse than this, because we know that much of the material that a young person will have to learn in order to jump through the GCSE maths hoop will never, ever, ever be of use again to them after they leave the exam room – what a waste of human effort!

So rather than return to 'normal' GCSEs and A-levels, we need to use the pandemic as an opportunity to ditch these outmoded ways of assessing capability and to implement alternative methods of recording and reporting what young people have learnt and what they are capable of doing. The good news is that these alternative methods of assessing capability and achievement already exist – but they are little used within schools.

In a future blog post I will explain what these alternatives are.

Image based on Photo by Unknown Author licensed under CC BY-NC

Can learning be "delivered" and "received"?


During an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme yesterday Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter said:

"… around two million children received no learning during that first lockdown period."

(You can hear the interview by listening to https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000wlf2 from 2:10:00.)

I was stuck by the bizarre suggestion that learning is something an individual can "receive". Another misleading verb sometimes used in connection with learning is "deliver". Donald H Taylor pointed this out in a blog post several years ago  in which he wrote:

"‘How should we deliver learning?’ We shouldn’t. Or rather, we can’t."

The words "deliver" and "receive" can only make sense in relation to learning if one imagines the learner as the passive recipient of something. For the last 14 months I have ordered almost all my groceries online and they have duly arrived at our front door. My provisions have been "delivered", and I have "received" them without me having to make any effort at all (apart from opening the door). But learning is not like that. Real learning involves commitment and active participation on the part of the learner. To use the words "deliver" and "receive" in relation to this process is dangerously misleading because it suggests the learner is passive rather than actively engaged in the learning process. It is perhaps particularly unfortunate to adopt the "we deliver, you receive" idea of learning in the context of the perceived need for young people to "catch up" with the schooling they have missed during the COVID pandemic. It is surely dangerous to believe that young people just need longer school days and/or additional tutoring to compensate for school closures, and that everything in the world of education will then be fine again.

But everything in the world of education is far from fine. As Simon Jenkins wrote in an opinion piece in today's Guardian newspaper:

"… the sadness of the Collins plan [for educational recovery] is that he did not seize the opportunity to propose a revision, even a radical experiment in British education… Schooling today is an introverted pursuit. It answers to an exam board and a minister, but not to a community. That is the opportunity lockdown missed."

Jenkins also identifies the need for "education for life, for jobs, self-reliance, relationships, health, money and citizenship". That is the sort of real learning that cannot be passively "received" from the educational equivalent of a grocery delivery.



My attention was recently drawn to the existence of an "Independent Reconfiguration Panel" within the National Health Service (NHS). The Panel's job is to advise on changes in the pattern of NHS service delivery.

I was rather struck by the word "Reconfiguration", and I immediately began to wonder if it might be a useful word to add to the vocabulary of those of us who see the need for a radical rethink on how education works in Britain.

We cannot usefully use the word "reform" to refer to our ambitions because this word has been commandeered to describe the very trends that we oppose. For example, Pasi Sahlberg has coined the term Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM!) to refer to the process of standardisation, curriculum narrowing and fetishisation of testing that has done so much to damage to young people and their education. And the more general term "educational reform" has been used in America to describe similar reductionist failures in their education system, starting with George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind". So the word "reform" has all the wrong connotations for those with imaginative and far-reaching ambitions for improving education.

Another "re…" word used when referring to educational change is "reclaiming", with several conferences and campaigns in recent years adopting the slogan "Reclaiming Education". But this is also problematic, as it suggests that as long as "we" take back something that "they" have taken from us everything in the world of education will be fine. The Socialist Educational Association has recently made this idea even more explicit with its "Give Us Back Our Schools" campaign. And there seems to be little doubt as to who and what they mean by "us" when their campaign poster talks of a need for "all schools to return to the CONTROL [my emphasis] of democratically run local authorities. This implies that "us/we" must "control" education. Hmm!

But I think that the notion of "reconfiguration" could be useful for those of us with a vision of a radically different approach to education. Dictionary definitions of reconfiguration refer to altering the form of the elements of a system. And we must surely accept that most elements of our current education system do need to be shaken up and rearranged. Imagine the mythical visitor from outer space coming down to earth and taking a close look at British education. They would surely be perplexed by what they saw and would have some searching questions like:

  1. Why are school buildings locked shut for nearly half the days of the year? Why are they the least used of all public facilities? Surely you should use these expensive resources in more imaginative and efficient ways if you kept them open for longer. [See Note 1 below.]

  2. Why does the school day for teenagers start so early in the morning when there is scientific evidence that this is damaging both for their health and their  educational success. Don't you want to optimise their learning? [See Note 2 below.]

  3. Why is a young person's educational success judged by the efficiency with which they memorise, and regurgitate in exams, information which will mostly never again be of use to them after they leave the exam room?

I think that the idea of reconfiguration could be really useful in helping to communicate the magnitude of our ambition for educational change. But I also think that our ambitions need to be far broader than those of the NHS "Independent Reconfiguration Panel". It seems to concern itself with quite limited change, like whether a particular geographical area should have one or two maternity hospitals. But we educators need a far more ambitious and imaginative approach to reconfiguration. Only by implementing such a bold vision can we move to an education system that can do its job of preparing and enabling young people to truly thrive in the 21st century.

Note 1. I wrote about the issue of the scandalous under-use of school buildings back in 2014 in a blog  post entitled Why are schools locked shut most of the time?

Note 2. For evidence about the circadian rhythm of teenagers read this study: Is 8:30 a.m. Still Too Early to Start School? A 10:00 a.m. School Start Time Improves Health and Performance of Students Aged 13–16