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Updated, slightly.


Education has been in the news for quite some time and it seems that everyone is an ‘expert’. People seem all too ready to condemn our education system and to know precisely what to do to ‘fix’ it. This is all very well and anyone is entitled to have their opinions and prejudices, but I would argue that this is not the way to review and potentially change a whole country’s education system.

What is needed is a sensible discussion of the merits and faults of the system within England, drawing on international research and then engaging in a meaningful dialogue with those who actually know what does and doesn’t work – the teachers and Headteachers of our schools, as well as business leaders and academics.

Mr Gove has been grabbing the headlines for what seems like an eternity. He is highly critical of anyone who disagrees with him or…

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Education in England – Is it so broken?

Education has been in the news for quite some time and it seems that everyone is an ‘expert’. People seem all too ready to condemn our education system and to know precisely what to do to ‘fix’ it. This is all very well and anyone is entitled to have their opinions and prejudices, but I would argue that this is not the way to review and potentially change a whole country’s education system.

What is needed is a sensible discussion of the merits and faults of the system within England, drawing on international research and then engaging in a meaningful dialogue with those who actually know what does and doesn’t work – the teachers and Headteachers of our schools, as well as business leaders and academics.

Mr Gove has been grabbing the headlines for what seems like an eternity. He is highly critical of anyone who disagrees with him or who questions his assertions. Some would argue that this is right and proper since he is an elected MP who is Secretary of State – it’s his job. Again, that is all well and good but I wonder just how many people would think that to push through enormous changes to our educational system without listening to what teachers, Headteachers, or employers have to say, or to label anyone who might question his plans as ‘enemies of promise’ is, actually, the wise way forward. Even worse, it seems that the DFE Twitter Feed has been used inappropriately to push articles supportive of the government and to denigrate opponents. I would suggest that it is very dangerous indeed to decide policy in this way. The recent climb down on the replacement of GCSEs, due to intense pressure from the whole profession, the cross party Select Committee, the Chief Executive of Ofqual  and so many eminent people from the Arts, shows that you can only push so hard, without evidence, so far.

We have been told that England is falling down the international league tables and that is why things have to change –dramatically. But if you read what the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) has to say about the international comparisons then you will see a different story. This article states: “Pisa appears to be saying all is not well. Timss (the Trends in International Maths and Science Study) seems to be showing us improving. The Pearson Global Index (of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment) has us among the best in the world. They cannot all be right,” it says.” This is not, however, the horror story which the government likes to portray and it is simply wrong to mislead the public into thinking that everything is broken by ‘cherry-picking’ pieces of research from around the world.

Two examples may challenge what readers think. The first is the ‘given’ that setting children by ability is always the best way to ensure that all make excellent progress. Finland, the country which has come top, or almost top, of most international comparisons has no setting in its schools. In fact it is illegal to do so! (You can read more about the Finnish system here ). Also, all schools are comprehensive since private schools were abolished in 1970, and it is illegal to charge for fee-paying tuition that leads to a qualification – makes you think?

The other is that Singapore is always near the top of the international league tables – so why have they recognized that rote learning is not doing them any good (apart from coming near the top in international tests) and that they need young people who are able to think for themselves, work in teams and be creative if they are going to be able to survive in the international world? Guess where they are visiting to find out – England! Makes you think doesn’t it?

My point is that the obvious is not always as obvious as it might at first seem and that education (and teaching) is far too complex for anyone to use prejudice, based on limited experience, to dictate policy changes.

What I hope this article does is encourage people to think about what the government is saying and to question things which are given as ‘fact’ and which may appear to be self-evident. We have a huge resource in our schools, universities and businesses. These people really do know what works and what doesn’t work and I would suggest that it is a foolish person who does not listen to them. They are not the ‘enemies of promise’; but quite the reverse. In my experience I have found the vast majority of teachers to be totally dedicated to doing what is right for our young people in our schools.

So –I suggest that when the Secretary of State next condemns our schools, rubbishes GCSEs, or publicly criticizes our young people and their teachers, can I ask that you stop and ask whether what is being said is true? Please ask – “Where is the evidence?” and “What do those who work in our schools and with our young people think?”  You may be surprised by the answers.

Please do not get me wrong – things do need to change. We live in a global world and there are great challenges ahead; but let us have policy which is decided by evidence and by listening to those who have dedicated their lives to working with young people and who know how business works.  In this way we will know what to change and what not to change within a manageable time period and continue to improve our education system to enable our young people and our country to have a successful future.

Despite much of the Government’s rhetoric, those who work in our schools want our schools to be amongst the best in the world. Our young people deserve it and our country needs it.

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Responsive Teaching – a Model for Meaningful Learning – further development

Responsive Teaching (2)

This brief paper follows the previous one – “Responsive Teaching – a Model for Meaningful Learning” and attempts to add a little more detail, linking with Gardner’s work on the Disciplined Mind

The four interrelating characteristics, described in the first paper are:

  1. The Teachers’ Planning
  2. The Pupils’ Conceptual Understanding
  3. The Interpersonal Relations
  4. The Group Social Behaviour of the Children

And these were represented as a diagram to show the overlapping nature of them and to emphasise that the expert teacher is able to move between the characteristics as the lesson proceeds.


What is shown below is a representation of teaching ‘Responsively’ and it could be argued that this is common sense. The extension activities are those which have been planned for those students which ‘get it’ as the lesson is proceeding and the ‘Over-learning’ activities are those which have been planned for students who are likely to struggle with ideas.

The key is that these extension and over-learning activities have been planned and anticipated in advance. Also, it is through highly effective questioning that the teacher is able to ascertain the level of the students’ understanding as the lesson progresses, and will be able to make a judgment whether the misunderstanding is something which is held by many in the class (in which case the teacher might stop the class and briefly go over the issues with everyone as a whole-class activity), or whether the misunderstanding is pertinent to just a handful of students (in which case the over-learning activities would be appropriate). The same is true for those students who simply ‘get it’ and if the whole class ‘get it’ then the teacher will move the class on rapidly rather than go over material which they clearly already know.

There is another aspect to the ‘Responsive Teaching’ model and that is concerned with the general flow through the activities. To be truly ‘responsive’ the initial activities within the lesson are designed to find out what students already know about the topic under consideration – to elicit their understanding. Within Science there is often a mismatch between the scientific view and the everyday view of an idea and teasing out the students’ understanding is what this is about. The same is true in other subject areas and the key aspect is the teacher finding out what the students already know and understand.

Then follows a number of activities which enables the teacher to challenge misconceptions or incorrect ideas where the aim is that the student understands why they may hold understanding which is not, actually correct. This ‘dissonance’ is important since it is understood that people will hold on to their firmly held views with great tenacity. For their view to change, it has to be very clear to the individual that the ‘correct’ idea is actually a better idea. This is where the activities and questioning are so important since it is through carefully designed activities and expert questioning and active listening that the teacher is able to lead students to accept the ‘better’ idea. What must be remembered is that if the ‘better’ idea is simply rote learnt or if the student doesn’t really accept it, then the previously held ‘truth’ will re-establish itself – and this will be seen in tests, examinations and through questioning later on.

The last stage is where these ‘new’ or ‘better’ ideas are used in other situations so that the student can see that they are actually ‘better’ ideas than the ones they previously held; and that they are able to apply them to new and novel situations.

All of the above is very similar to what is explained in Howard Gardner’s Paper “Disciplining the Mind” where he talks about how teachers can help students to develop disciplinary competencies in several ways:

  • Identify essential topics in the discipline. This is about what is really important and fundamental in the subject area – and then focussing on this in the teaching.
  • Spend considerable time on these few topics, studying them deeply. By encouraging students to examine multiple perspectives on a topic and study them in depth, teachers help students become young experts in different topic areas. This is also where effective questioning and the challenging of the students’ understanding is so important.
  • Approach the topic in a number of ways. This enables students to try out their ideas and to really think through what is correct and at the same time to really understand the topic under consideration.
  • Develop performances of understanding. Performances of understanding invite students to think with knowledge in multiple novel situations; they show whether students can actually make use of classroom material once they step outside the door.


I hope that these brief papers stimulate discussion about what is meant by ‘learning meaningfully’ and presents a model which all our teachers can use so that there is a common language which transcends subject areas. If this is achieved then we shall be able to engage in a deeper debate about how to help students to learn ‘meaningfully’, and enable students to do so in a spirit of fun and adventure – rather than simply focussing on how to get students to jump through hoops for standardised tests. If we get this right, students will do well at GCSE and at A-Level as a matter of course and we, as educators, might also enjoy teaching and this journey together.

Terry Fish

29 May 2012

Previous paper: Responsive Teaching – a Model for Meaningful Learning: http://wp.me/p1L0JW-1e

 Disciplining the Mind – Veronica Boix Mansilla and Howard Gardner: http://t.co/GDat7Z9o


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Responsive Teaching – a Model for Meaningful Learning


My previous blog commented on the dire state of the English education system where high stakes testing and the GERM infection have firmly taken hold. Learning ‘meaningfully‘ seems to be something which teachers are unable to focus on since the stakes involved in the testing regime are so high – teachers and schools are being driven to ensure students make ‘good’ progress or fail inspection with all that follows. The problem is that in the English system, good progress is equated with GCSE grades and not meaningful learning. At Twynham School, in Christchurch, Dorset, we are not only attempting to fight the GERM infection, but we are embarking on a path where teachers are being encouraged to teach for students to learning meaningfully – and to ignore the National Curriculum and the high stakes testing regime. This is not folly, however, because my experience is that when students learn meaningfully then they will do well in any test which we throw at them since they will be able to apply their learning in a meaningful way. The challenge for us is that this takes time and is not a ‘quick fix’ which is what the Government and Ofsted demand if ‘standards’ are below their expectation.

We are in a privileged position at Twynham since students do well and we are (currently) an Outstanding school and we do have the luxury of being able to trial a range of pedagogies with our students.

This first paper is an outline of what I mean by meaningful learning and the manner in which we teach to enable this to happen. I have called it Responsive Teaching and this was the focus for my PhD which I referenced below for those who would like to read behind this brief paper.

Responsive Teaching

We have learned much about what makes for effective teaching and learning in recent years but there still seems to be a mystery about what actually makes things work.

Much of the research about effective learning concentrates on learning itself and yet seems to ignore the ‘affective’ dimension of teaching groups of young people in real classrooms. We cannot treat students as ‘brains on legs’. They are people; with all their hopes, dreams and fears. Students will also interact with each other – they are not a group of disconnected individuals, and this clearly needs to be taken into account when planning lessons and when teaching.
My own research, and subsequent experience, suggests that successful lessons are associated with a number of inter-related characteristics, which can be subsumed under four headings:

1. The Teachers’ Planning
2. The Pupils’ Conceptual Understanding
3. The Interpersonal Relations
4. The Group Social Behaviour of the Children

What seems to be particularly significant for successful learning however, is the manner in which teachers can orchestrate these four characteristics. Excellent teacher are able to constantly elicit feedback from the students through questioning and observation and then expertly moving from one circle to another, responding to the students to maximize learning and positive interpersonal relationships. What we must not forget is that the ‘affective’ dimension of learning simply cannot be ignored, since it seems to be the key to unlocking student potential and the enabling of successful, “meaningful”, learning.

The first two characteristics listed above are well known to us. Most of the research on effective teaching and learning concentrates on these. At Twynham, we are also very aware of the impact of positive Interpersonal Relations and how this can affect the learning environment and student attainment.

The characteristic which is often ignored, or assumed, is the Group Social behaviour of the students. As I said earlier, this can be difficult to consider but the young people before us are not simply individuals and the manner in which the teacher plans, and responds to the students as the lesson progresses is particularly significant.

Successful lessons are associated with the teacher being able to respond to the group social behaviour (people in groups do not necessarily behave in the same manner as individuals – as I am sure we have all found – hence the term used) and the students’ conceptual understanding, through appropriate action. This interaction could be either interpersonal, or conceptual, or more usually, an amalgam of the two and it was found, in my research, that the planning could facilitate (or otherwise!) this process.

Comments on Teachers’ Planning

The model within the research and which has been found to be associated with particularly successful teachers, is based upon the view that learning involves conceptual change and is active. Dialogue between teacher and students, and between students, is essential in the elicitation and recognition of children’s ideas and the “negotiation” of greater student understanding –through effective questioning. The manner in which the lessons were planned was instrumental in the enabling of meaningful learning. These included:

• resources being available when needed (for extension and ‘over learning’ activities, as well as core activities;
• appropriate cognitive demands being made upon all students;
• a range of activities being available;
• the management of the group dynamics within the classroom; and,
• the creation of time to enable dialogue and discussion to take place.

An important aspect to remember is that excellent teachers not only plan for student learning (thinking through what able students should do if they ‘get it’ as much as where students will get ‘stuck’ and how that will be addressed in the lesson), but also to plan for opportunities to encourage positive interpersonal relations.

Comments on Responding to the students’ Conceptual Understanding
In a sense, this is something with which we are very familiar – it is differentiation. What is significant, though, is that successful lessons were associated with the teacher not only planning for effective differentiation, but also being able to respond to the students’ conceptual understanding as the lesson proceeded. This means being able to question effectively and to actively listen to the students’ answers so that the teacher is able to ‘diagnose’ what the student needs to do next – and anticipating this is a significant aspect of the professionalism of the teacher.

At Twynham School. the Extended Leadership Team and the teachers in involved in the Year 7 Able Student groups have had the opportunity to read and discuss Howard Gardner’s paper – “The Disciplined Mind”. What this does is try to encapsulate what I mean by planning for the development of the students’ conceptual understanding – or put another way, to ensure “meaningful learning” rather than superficial or rote learning (although rote learning does have its place at times). I have referenced that paper with below for those who have might like to read it. When reading this through, the summary on page 7 – “How to Nurture the Disciplined Mind” – is particularly helpful when considering what this means for day to day classroom practice and lesson planning. This does have serious implications for how Schemes of Work are planned as well as how lessons are conducted and reflects the important of the “Teachers’ Planning” mentioned above. Please feel free to talk to your Head of Faculty/Department or to search out the teachers involved with the Year 7 Able Student groups for a deeper discussion than can be included in this brief paper.

Comments on the Interpersonal Relations
Whilst undertaking the research, the teachers had not overtly considered the interpersonal relations, but had concentrated on the students’ conceptual development. The findings of the research, however, found that the interpersonal relations have a central role to play in enabling effective learning

Of central significance is that it was clear that the teachers valued the contribution and participation of all students. The teachers had high expectations of the students and encouraged all students, whatever their ability, to discuss their understanding of their work, both with the teacher, and with each other. This was facilitated through the structuring and writing of the curriculum materials, in addition to the manner in which the teachers interacted with the students. Successful teachers had an empathy and sensitivity, which built an atmosphere where children were not afraid to be wrong, both in front of the teacher and in front of their peers.

Teacher stress was found to adversely affect the interpersonal relations and this could affect experienced and inexperienced teachers alike. Teamwork, appropriate support-staff help, and careful planning were found to reduce this stress.

Comments on the Group Social Behaviour
Successful lessons were associated with, amongst other things, clear boundaries between activities, smooth transitions and the setting of clear, explicit expectations. Whole class work clearly had an important role to play in establishing and maintaining these factors. Classes are not full of ‘brains on legs’, but people – as was highlighted in the introduction. The teacher needs to be seen to be in charge of the classroom and the learning process. Successful teachers built relationships according to a personal style, which was based upon a collective view. At Twynham this collective view could be described as “The Twynham Way”. These teachers were sensitive to the Group Social Behaviour (people in groups are not the same as individuals), mood, pace and conceptual development of the class, and monitored the class throughout, acting where appropriate. This applied to the way in which the teachers called the class together on occasions, when it was thought that the small group work was becoming less effective and/or general misconceptions were becoming evident. Non-verbal, in addition to verbal cues, were used to praise and encourage, in addition to reprimand students.

There are many ways in which good discipline can be maintained and encouraged whilst maintaining positive interpersonal relations. The work of Lee Canter and ‘Assertive Discipline’ is particularly helpful here and we could, as a school, look at this approach in more detail; if thought appropriate.

What was interesting from the research was that the manner in which the work was planned facilitated the management of the class. The nature of the activities, and how they were written, were also considered important factors in facilitating positive interpersonal relationships in the classroom and in the enabling of students to focus their minds on the conceptual issue being taught. They also appeared to be significant in the building and maintaining of the students’ self-confidence.

I hope that this is helpful and stimulates some discussion. The model proposed here is simple and has been borne from detailed research as well as practical experience. It is something which clearly works and we could use this in our own reflection on our practice and in our dialogue about effective teaching and learning within the school.

There is no ‘magic formula’ to effective teaching, but this research does seem to ‘ring true’ and after many further years of experience, I do feel that there is some mileage in considering this “Responsive Teaching” model as a common language with which we may discuss teaching and learning and hence help further the expertise, effectiveness and professionalism of all our teachers. I hope that the discussion here could well help and support us in our dialogue and reflection.

Please do feel free to contact me or to leave comments here. Our students deserve so much more than most schools are offering at the moment but I feel that the whole GERM approach is not the right way. Let’s see if we can make a difference for our students such they are able to learn in a meaningful way and enjoy the experience at the same time. Their futures depend on it and the sanity of our teachers migh well do so as well.

Terry Fish

29th May 2012

Some References:

http://www.singapore.edu.hk/upload/fromeditor/pw/Disciplining%20the%20Mind.pdf Disciplining the Mind: Veronica Boix Mansilla and Howard Gardner:

http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/192423/1.hasCoversheetVersion/94100084.pdf My PhD thesis. For a background to Responsive Teaching, see Chapter 2 (Page10). (Excuse the typeface etc – it was pre-high level word processors and laser printers!)
Chapter 3 is concerned with Motivation, Self Confidence and Achievement.

http://www.slideshare.net/fraaanceee/david-ausubel-8608872  Background to David Ausubel’s work.

http://www.lifecircles-inc.com/Learningtheories/constructivism/ausubel.html Very brief overview of Ausubel’s work.

http://www.teachermatters.com/classroom-discipline/models-of-discipline/the-kounin-model.html  The work of Kounin on classroom management and discipline.

http://brainworldmagazine.com/dr-reuven-feuerstein-on-why-intelligence-is-modifiable/ The work of Reuven Feuerstein is particularly interesting).

http://folk.uio.no/sveinsj/Constructivism_and_learning_Sjoberg.pdf Constructivism and children’s ideas.

http://www.friesian.com/popper.htm Interesting background to the work of Karl Popper (for those who may be interested.

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“Against the Tide”- A commentary on achieving the best for England’s young people despite Government Policy

“Against the tide” – A commentary on achieving the best for England’s young people despite Government Policy – Bringing sanity to England’s schools

My previous blog explained why I feel that the high stakes testing culture in England, together with accountability systems through league tables and inspections could well lead to England’s education system imploding.

Finland is widely regarded as the world’s leading educational system due to their exceptionally strong performance in the PISA assessments and this is where the paradox lies.  Finnish students spend less time in school and rarely do homework; there is no high stakes testing, no league tables and no inspection system.  The evidence is mounting which shows that education systems which rely on strong accountability systems through high stakes testing, inspections and students’ performance data through league tables are actually in decline.  England, along with the USA, is finding that their aggressive, testosterone rich approach is not reaping the rewards which politicians expect.  The result is that politicians then impose even stronger accountability systems and expect improvement; only making things worse.

The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) relies on a certain set of assumptions to improve education systems and often insists in employing management concepts and principles borrowed from the business world, implanting them into school systems.  The GERM assumes that external performance standards describing what school teachers should teach and what students should do and learn lead to better learning for all.  This focuses on the basics, defines explicit learning targets, emphasises core skills, involves systematic training of teachers and, of course, inspections.  GERM relies on the assumption that competition between schools, teachers and students is the most productive way to raise the quality of education.   The problem, as Fullan (2011) explains, is that the wrong drivers are being used. My previous blog explained why this approach will simply not work and I will not repeat that argument here.

At the same time, whilst the pursuit of transparency and accountability provides parents and politicians with even more information, it also builds suspicion, low morale and professional cynicism.

Finland has not approached school improvement in this way, but has emphasised a professional and democratic path to improvement that grows from the bottom, steers from the top and provides support and pressure from the sides. I would suggest that this is the way to see improvement within our schools system and that the de-professionalization of teaching must stop.

I would agree that we need skilled and creative young people with appropriate competencies to deal with rapidly changing economic and technological environments; who wouldn’t?  Interestingly, Sahlberg (2011) comments that when Finland was reviewing its approach to schools, some leading Finnish companies reminded education policy makers of the importance of keeping teaching and learning creative and open to new ideas rather than fixing them on pre-determined strategies and accountability through natural testing.

There are two other aspects of the Finnish system which are worthy of consideration and which emphasise an holistic approach to education and children’s well-being. One of those is that all students receive complimentary school lunches, comprehensive welfare services and early support for those in need.  My experiences of Welfare Services in the English system are that whilst individuals are well meaning, the lack of any notion of “joined-up” thinking between health, social care and schools means that Headteachers’ efforts are often driven into attempting to access relevant support from reluctant parents rather than focussing on students’ learning.  When this is added to the focus which Heads must place on outputs, league tables and inspection then it becomes obvious that learning can all too often be driven even further down their agenda.

Another aspect of the Finnish system is that 2/3 of 10-14 year olds and more than half of 15-19 year olds belong to at least one youth organisation.  These organisations support the social, moral and cultural development of the young people which can only support their learning in school.  These opportunities clearly enable students to learn vital social skills as well as being fun and engaging. I wonder if this aspect of the Finnish experience could be a significant challenge to education in the English system where this provision is mainly the preserve of voluntary groups and where students who access this provision often come from homes where parents are supportive and encouraging of such activities in terms of both money and time.

I suggest that there are a number of aspects which English schools should focus on to improve their practice but fully understand that these go against the political climate and, uninformed view of England’s Chief Inspector.

These aspects are:

  1. Engaging teachers in action research which focuses on their students’ learning and understanding of key ideas and concepts.  I would suggest that most urgently, these need to be (a) literacy and (b) Able students and (c) Maths and Science
  2. Attempting to join up services including Social Care and Education Welfare with the needs of schools, children and families. This is a considerable challenge with the apparent demise of “Children’s Services” which was supposed to address this vital issue.  Academies might be in a better place to achieve this due to their autonomy although relying on individual schools is hardly the best way to achieve joined-up approaches across the system.
  3. Exploring extra-curricular provision in as many dimensions as possible to cater for as many young people as possible, not only to improve their engagement, but also to support their growth as responsible young citizens with the social and personal characteristics which they need as young adults.

What the above have in common is that they are all activities which involve people working together in collaboration, rather than in competition. It is interesting that Seddon (2008) makes a very strong case that competition and ‘market forces’ simple do not work in the public sector and that the way forward has to be collaboration. He quotes the second of Adam Curtis’s TV series ‘The Trap’:

“In economics, the whole idea that the free market is an efficient system is coming under serious attack. Over the past five years, many of the Nobel prizes for economics have been awarded for research that shows that markets do not create stability or order. That what Adam Smith called ‘the invisible hand, is invisible because it isn’t actually there. And politicians do have a powerful role to play in controlling the markets. And a new discipline, called behavioural economics, has been studying whether people really do behave as the simplified model says they do. Their studies show that only two groups in society actually behave in a rational self-interested way in all experimental situations. One is economists themselves, the other is psychopaths.”

What this says to me is that we simply must work together if we are going to be able to rise to the challenges of the 21st Century and meet the needs of the young people in our care. More on this in due course, but for the time being, I will expand on item (1) above in my next blog since this is probably the most difficult (perhaps) aspect to address since the de-professionalization of teachers over the past decades has meant that the skills to be able to undertake serious, rigorous curriculum and learning review may not be within the teachers themselves.

Interestingly, attending a Reform* ‘round-table’ discussion today, it became crystal clear that this de-professionalization of teaching is a major problem and if we are going to see an education system which is fit for the 21st Century in our schools then we need to take the agenda away from politicians and re-capture it from where it should never have been lost. This is probably the subject of another, separate blog, though.

Rather than follow a more academic approach to the final parts of this blog I have explained how we, at Twynham School, are in the process of attempting to solve these problems, whilst still remaining within the suffocating accountability culture in England. I have not given up on attempting to address this aspect of our education system, but for now, I’d like to turn to a practical way forward within our own community of schools.

We have already formed a ‘soft’ federation with a local secondary school and are working closely with them to provide high quality vocational provision for students at KS4 and KS5. This is just a start and whilst this focusses on just one small aspect of the curriculum, it is proving invaluable in breaking down barriers and enabling real dialogue between our two schools. The next stage will be to see if we can attend to the three priorities mentioned about across our partnership of schools, which would include the secondary mentioned above together with our main feeder Primary Schools.

I hope to update this blog with our progress, frustrations and challenges as we move forward and comments from others who have already beaten this path would also be gratefully received.

Dr Terry Fish


Twynham School, Christchurch, Dorset, England


Fish, T (2012) https://terryfish101.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/testing-league-tables-and-failure/

Fullan, M (2011) Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform, Seminar Series 204, Centre for Strategic Education, Victoria, Australia.

Seddon, J (2008) Systems Thinking in the Public Sector – the failure of the reform regime… and a manifesto for a better way, Triarchy Press, Axminster, England.

*Reform is an independent, charitable, non-party think tank whose mission is to set out a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity. www.reform.co.uk



Testing, League Tables and Failure

Testing, League Tables and Failure

Why England’s education system is in danger of imploding

Much has changed across England’s educational landscape in recent years and whilst there has been much which has been positive, I feel that there the system is in danger of imploding.

So – where has it all gone so wrong and what can we do about it?

1. Finland

Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies of the PISA (OECD PISA 2009) tests on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with super achievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top and Shanghai is just one city in a vast country – hardly representative.  Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States and England has been middling, at best.  But what is it about the Finnish system which has led to such outstanding outcomes for students and what are the messages for us in England?

Partenan (2011) comments:

“Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counselling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.”

This is where a huge problem lies. The driver for improvement has not been ‘excellence’, but ‘equity’ and in the UK the disparity between rich and poor is growing rather then narrowing. The Government sees schools as the vehicle to close this gap, but the inherent, structural mechanisms being used to drive educational reform are very likely to have the opposite effect to that which is desired. The Government really must learn from countries such as Finland, no matter how impalpable the message and not simply ‘cherry-pick’ bits of systems from around the world which happen to fit with their political views.

2.            What PISA really says about the England’s standards of education.

There are a number of concerns about the way in which the UK government is using the PISA results, since Ministers constantly berate teachers using PISA as the evidence of our failure. OFQUAL (2011) published a Progress Report (International Comparisons in Senior Secondary Assessment) in February 2011 making a number of points. They listed several major criticisms:

  1. Differences between countries’ performance are not that large…usually statistically insignificant.
  2. Whether or not a country has moved up or down the league tables is notthat meaningful; partly because the absolute differences in scores between countries are not that great.
  3. The constituent group of comparators changes from study to study and from year to year.

They point to three major but dangerous assumptions that:

  1. Items tested for are somehow an objective measure of what is best.
  2. Learners undertaking the study are a balanced representation of all learners at that stage of education.
  3. Learners sampled in each country are equally motivated to perform well in the tests.

Kreiner (2011), Danish statistician, says “PISA is not reliable at all. He points out that in the reading tests 28 questions were supposed to be equally difficult in every country but it seems that PISA has failed here as differential item functioning  (DIF)- items with different degrees of difficulty in different countries – are common.” In fact he couldn’t find any that worked without bias. Items are simply more difficult in some countries. He used his analysis to show that the UK moves up to 8 or down to 36, depending how you look at it.

What is clear is that to use the PISA results to castigate the UK’s education system is at best unwise and possibly extremely damaging. Interestingly, Germany’s performance is similar to that of the UK and yet Germany’s government is not using PISA to berate their teachers and school leaders.

3.            Generation-Y

Much has been written about Generation-Y (those born around 1982 – 2000) and the characteristics which tend to describe them. The work of Mark McCrindle, amongst others, has been very influential here and enlightened companies are responding to the needs of this demanding generation.  A useful paper is McCrindle (2003) which his has serious implications for how we recruit and retain teachers. What is striking is that this research strongly suggests that Generation-Y is influenced by different aspects to their predecessors.  For them, their close peers are vitally important and rather than making independent decisions based on core values, they live in a culture encouraging them to embrace community values, and to reach consensus.

McCrindle argues that Gen Y is seeking after more than just friendships. They want community; to be understood, accepted, respected, and included. “This generation are looking for more than just continuing the consumerism experiment. Indeed when deciding to accept a job, salary ranks sixth in order of importance after training, management style, work flexibility, staff activities, and non-financial rewards. The young people of this generation do not live to work- but rather they work to live. A job merely provides the income to do what they want to do. They are on a search for fun, for quality friendships, for a fulfilling purpose, and for spiritual meaning.”

I would suggest that the current UK’s Government attitude towards teachers is not fostering this type of engagement with this generation and is in fact, in direct contrast to what this generation are looking for in their careers.

Brian Lightman (General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders) comments on the new Chief Inspector of Schools announcement that all school inspections will be with zero notice from September 2012: ” Above all however this proposal is deeply insulting and makes a complete mockery of the government’s increasingly hollow claims that it wishes to create a high status profession. How can a profession which cannot even be trusted to be given the courtesy of 24 hours’ notice for inspection be described as high status?”

The evidence is mounting. The numbers of people applying to train as teachers in the UK has slumped, compared with the same period last year. Statistics from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry show that overall applications have fallen by 29%. The number of people applying to start English secondary teacher training courses in Chemistry has fallen by 41.3%, German by 42%, Spanish 47%, English 39.1% and Mathematics 26.9%.

What is clear is that this is, surely, not the way to engage with Generation-Y and by publicly continuing with the government’s very negative attitude towards teachers those younger graduates who might be attracted to teaching as a career are much more likely to choose alternatives.

4.            Culture

The Government has deliberately set an adversarial culture where there are some winners and many losers. I would argue that a key role for government is to set the right culture so that people will make necessary changes themselves rather than naming and shaming through league tables and inspection and trying to dictate everything from the centre.

Fullan (2011) suggests that choosing the right drivers to ensure that change happens is crucial and that in the rush to move forward leaders, especially from countries that have not been progressing, tend to choose the wrong drivers. He states that the culprits are:

  • Accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs capacity building.
  • Individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual vs group solutions.
  • Technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry vs instruction.
  • Fragmented strategies vs integrated or systemic strategies.


It is clear that the above four components have a place in the reform mix, but as Michael Fullan says, they can never be successful drivers. Fullan suggests that Countries which do lead with them (such as the US, Australia and the UK) will fail to achieve whole system reform.

The point is that the right drivers mentioned above; capacity building, group solutions, instruction and systemic strategies are effective because they work directly on changing the culture of school systems. This mind-set generates individual and collective motivation and corresponding skills to transform the system. This is vitally important since, as Fullan states, the wrong four drivers demotivate the masses whose energy is crucial for success; the right four drivers do the opposite.

Fullan’s paper expands the arguments significantly but I hope that very brief synopsis gives an idea as to why the UK (and the US and Australia) are following the wrong path.

Before leaving Fullan, however, he makes one other vitally important point and this comes from the OECD: “In moving beyond consultation to involvement the reform process becomes orientated towards transforming schools into learning organisations with teaching professionals in the lead” (OECD 2011, 52). He comments that a serious mistake is to involve some teachers in key deliberations and then assume that you have involved the profession.

5.            Equity

The main problem with the England’s approach at present is that it very clearly results in a few winners and many losers. What is worse is that the losers, in terms of schools and communities, are castigated publicly through league tables and through inspection. Since only a few can ever be at the top of any specific ‘pile’ the circumstances are set for widespread disillusionment, anxiety and eventually disengagement. I would argue that we need a process of improvement which values teachers as professionals and which engages them in the improvement process; as professionals. Finland recognised this when it re-engineered its education system some years ago and an excellent book which explains this in detail is that by Sahlberg (2012).

The point which I feel is important here is that whilst the UK Government constantly emphasises  equity, the policies which are being imposed on the UK system are almost certainly having the opposite effect.

As this paper is being written, the Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee in England, Graham Stuart,  is demanding that ministers change the way they measure schools since he says that the current league tables are denying pupils a ‘rounded education’. Stuart warned that the indicator of five A*-Cs including English and Maths had damaged the education of both the most able pupils and those who were falling behind due to a focus on borderline C/D grade pupils. He says that the measure is out of line with ministers’ aim to improve the performance of the most disadvantaged pupils. Stuart said: “The government has said one of its top priorities overall is narrowing the gap between outcomes for rich and poor. And yet the accountability system they have put in place virtually ensures that attention will be focussed not on the lowest performing, which sadly we know are typically the poorest, but will instead divert attention away from them”. He continued: “This is a terrible irony which must be addressed”. This is in direct conflict to the position of fellow ministers, but I would argue that he is right.

Much more could be written about the impact of league tables and ‘floor targets’ but suffice to say, Mr Stuart continues: “The sad fact is there is currently very little alignment between accountability and the education policy outcomes we are trying to achieve”. He continues “The centrality of (the main GCSE) measure to secondary schools has led to an over emphasis on qualifications and preparation for them at the expense of a more rounded education.”

Professor Mick Waters, a former government adviser on the national curriculum, has called for a thorough review of the examination system, “We should investigate seriously what the exam system is for, does every child need this volume of exams and what is the best way to manage it and how can we retain its integrity given its burgeoning size. It doesn’t get investigated properly because grown-ups went through the system and look back with a wry smile and think that’s what childhood is all about. One of my main worries would be that many youngsters aren’t experiencing the richness, depth and joy of learning because of schools feeling they need to achieve some imposed and questionable targets.  The stakes from the examination system are so high nowadays that everybody pushes things to the limit of tolerance and that knocks the whole system out of shape.”

The model from Finland, for example, must have merit if their students consistently perform so well in the PISA tests. The challenge for the UK Government is that Finland’s first priority has been equity, not excellence and in making equity the priority, has achieved excellence.

 A Way Forward?

Alberta, Canada is widely recognized as having one of the best schooling systems in the world. A recent atricle in Alberta Views highlighted the differences between its system and America’s, noting that the United States is an ‘anti-model’ for how to do school reform. Booi & Couture (2011) comment: “By contrast we can also learn what not to do from reform in the US, whose education system is in decline. Its elements, implemented over the past two decades, are largely ideological: “market-based” reforms (the application of “business insights” to the running of schools); an emphasis on standardization and narrowing of curriculum; extensive use of external standardized assessment; fostering choice and competition among schools, often with school vouchers; making judgements based on test data and closing “failing schools”; encouraging the growth of charter schools (which don’t have teacher unions); “merit pay” and other incentives; faith that “technologically mediated instruction” will reduce costs; an overwhelming “top-down” approach which tells everyone what to do and holds them accountable for doing it.”

In England the path being followed at present is almost identical, which is both depressing and, in my view, harmful. In a recent book, Tucker M (2011) noted that school systems around the world (such as Japan, Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai) that consistently outperform the U.S. on international assessments do things very differently. Tucker states that the characteristics of these successful systems are:

  1. Funding schools equitably, with additional resources for those serving needy students
  2. Paying teachers competitively and comparably
  3. Investing in high-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and leaders, completely at government expense
  4. Providing time in the school schedule for collaborative planning and on-going professional learning to      continually improve instruction
  5. Organizing a curriculum around problem-solving and critical thinking skill
  6. Testing students rarely but  carefully — with measures that require analysis, communication, and defence of ideas


There is, I would argue, a ‘perfect storm’ brewing. The birth rate is rising (very dramatically in some areas of England); a very significant number of dedicated and experienced Headteachers are due to retire within the next 5 – 10 years; many Headteacher posts have to be re-advertised due to lack of interest; the number of young people applying for teacher training is falling, and the response of the government to all of this is ‘sharper’ accountability through no-notice inspections, a ‘raising of the bar’ on standards and even greater accountability through even more extensive league tables.

We are, I would suggest, in danger of imploding!

I suggest that we need a radically different approach and I challenge our politicians to put aside their political ideologies, to accept what research tells us and to put the needs of our young people first – they deserve it.

Dr Terry Fish


Twynham School, Christchurch, England.


Booi, L & Couture, J C (2011) Testing Testing: What Alberta can learn from Finland about standardization and the role of the teacher,  Alberta Views Magazine, Calgary, Canada.

Fullan, M (2011) Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform, Seminar Series 204, Centre for Strategic Education, Victoria, Australia.

Kreiner, S ( 2011) Is the foundation under PISA solid? A critical look at the scaling model

underlying international comparisons of student attainment. Dept. of Biostatistics, University of Copenhagen.

McCrindle, M (2003) Understanding Generation-Y, The Australian Leadership Foundation, NSW, Australia.

OECD PISA (2009) Programme for International Student Assessment, Paris.

OECD (2011) Building a high-quality teaching profession: Lessons from around the world, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris.

OFQUAL (2011) International Comparisons in Senior Secondary Assessment , Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulations, Coventry.

Partenan,A (2011) What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success, The Atlantic.com.

Sahlberg, P (2012) Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York.

Tucker MS (2011) Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading System, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge MA.