The Michaela Inspection Result Is Good News for Everyone

Ofsted have a lot of blood on their hands. In the very recent past, they were a progressive inquisition, striking fear into the hearts of teachers who actually wanted to teach. But they have been working to dispel this image, publishing a myth-busting document and engaging on social media to answer questions and promote their claim that no particular teaching style is preferred by inspectors.

Many of us remain skeptical, including the folks at Michaela. I attended the very first Michaela day of debates, in which Katie Ashford argued passionately for the abolition of Ofsted. At that time, of course, the school had never received an inspection.

So this question has been hanging over the school, as they have courageously pursued methods and policies that are entirely focused on helping everyone acquire knowledge and develop self discipline. Would an Ofsted inspector be able to stomach this wholehearted, unapologetically traditional approach? However much the likes of Sean Harford claimed that the inspection body had changed, the Michaela inspection was going to be a litmus test.

Now we can celebrate with them, because they have been awarded ‘Outstanding’ in every area. This in no way proves that they are outstanding. Any of us who have experienced the games and tricks employed by senior managers to obtain that coveted classification will be convinced that there are many mediocre to poor schools which have been labelled this way. The proof that Michaela actually is an outstanding school is there before the eyes of the many people who have visited, as I did two years ago, and spoken to the knowledgeable, polite, happy and confident pupils with which Michaela is filled.

Michaela actually is outstanding. Whatever Ofsted say, that is the truth. But the fact that they have been graded thus is good news for all of us, because it is a fantastic argument which ordinary teachers can use with their senior leadership every time they are asked to do something time consuming which doesn’t actually promote learning.

So next time you’re asked to mark with three different colours, you can point to the Michaela Ofsted report and politely indicate that they don’t mark books at all. Next time you’re told to introduce more group work to promote ‘active learning’, you can point to the Michaela Ofsted report and calmly point out that their pupils make fantastic progress with whole class direct instruction.

Never again should we accept the non-argument that has been used by so many senior leaders across the country to promote so many anti-educational, time-consuming, morale-destroying practices: ‘Ofsted are looking for this’.

No, they’re not. And they’ve proved it.

Further reading:

Can Ofsted Be Reformed?

My Experience of Ofsted Madness

An Orwellian Education


Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950)

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), education plays a crucial role. It is because most of the animals do not succeed in learning to read and write that the pigs dominate the formulation of the principles of Animalism, the allegorical equivalent of Marxism-Leninism. But it is not only literacy which matters. Memory is a vital component of the plot too, as most of the animals fail to memorise the Seven Commandments, the founding principles of the Rebellion which are painted in large letters on the barn wall. Thus when Squealer, who represents Stalin’s Minister of Propaganda Molotov, alters the Commandments, the animals do not have a clear and certain reference point in their long term memories which allows them to be sure that something is amiss. Squealer also changes history, reversing the role of Snowball (Trotsky) from that of revolutionary hero to that of traitor. Squealer’s lies are so detailed and persuasive that they come to replace reality in the animals’ memories.

As the animals are the allegorical representation of the people of the Soviet Union, it’s worth considering what Orwell is suggesting about education for the masses. There are different types of animals on the farm, and their educational capacity varies from full literacy, in the case of the pigs who represent the Bolshevik elite, down to a complete inability to learn how to read and write, together with a very hazy, indistinct memory that is easy manipulated.

What does this suggest about the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin? Animal Farm suggests that there are different types of people who are capable of different levels of education, and there are those whose capacities for learning are so limited that they will always be at the mercy of their intellectual superiors. This was a widely held belief when Orwell wrote the novel in the forties, and it led to the creation of the two tier education system after the Second World War, based on the assumption that only a small minority could benefit from an academic curriculum.

Thankfully, this belief does not correspond with reality. The capacity to remember is not limited to a privileged few. It is a universal human capacity. Although fluid intelligence – the processing power of the brain – varies quite widely, crystallised intelligence – the store of schemas in long term memory – can make up for this variation. Everyone can remember. Everyone can become smarter and think better about anything, so long as they build up a store of knowledge in their long term memory.

This means that there are no sheep among the human race. There are no people condemned just to bleat whatever slogan the elite imposes upon them. All can remember, and this is the antidote to propaganda. But this antidote depends upon an education system that recognises this reality and endows ordinary people with the treasures of knowledge from past ages, so that they won’t be stranded in the present and easy prey to those who tell lies about history.

William C Bagley, who did valiant battle with his colleagues in the progressive-dominated Columbia Teachers College, put it well in 1922. He was concerned that the misuse of intelligence tests was leading to the categorisation of humanity into those who could and could not benefit from an academic curriculum:

To endow the masses with genius is biologically impossible; but to endow the masses with the fruits of genius is both educationally possible and socially most profitable. The mental tests will help most if they aid the teacher in discharging this transcendent duty. They will render a gratuitous and disastrous disservice if they encourage in the teacher the conviction that the illumination of common minds is either an impossible or a relatively unimportant task. (See Diane Ravitch, Left Back, p153)

The rhetoric of the twenties, with categories such as ‘feeble minded’, would not go down well these days. But in a softer form, these ideas persist. Too often, children are labelled as incapable when really they are just ignorant. The role of the school is to give them the knowledge that will make them capable, not to pander to their interests, and leave them just where they are: easy prey for manipulation.

Our Dishonest Inspection Regime

Book burningThere was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand. For example, Squealer told them that the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called ‘files’, ‘reports’, ‘minutes’, and ‘memoranda’. These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered, they were burnt in the furnace. (George Orwell, Animal Farm).

Generating bits of paper is not equivalent to doing anything. It is a proxy for action. Katharine Birbalsingh rightly points out in this article that the inspector’s mantra should be reversed. Instead of saying ‘if it hasn’t been written down, it isn’t being done’, we should say ‘if people are busy writing it down, then it isn’t being done’.

When I did my teacher training, I was at first alarmed by the prospect of having to provide evidence that I had met the required standards, which seemed enormously detailed and complex. But then I realised that it was not actual evidence that I had to provide, but bits of paper which supposedly recorded my having met the standards. I therefore industriously went about producing these bits of paper. This was a completely parallel activity to the business of actually learning how to teach. There was virtually no connection between them. On the one hand, I had to feed the paper monster and keep my university mentor happy. On the other hand, I actually had work to do and things to learn.

I would have had a lot more time to learn and to work if I had not had to waste time generating bits of paper. And I could easily have generated excellent bits of paper without really learning or doing much that was useful. These are parallel universes.

We pride ourselves in Britain on having honest public servants. Inspectors do not arrive in schools, receive brown envelopes of cash, and write glowing reports. But actually taking bribes is not the only form of dishonesty. Inspectors may not be receiving banknotes, but they are happily receiving other pieces of paper which enable them in good conscience to write glowing reports. The worst thing about this form of dishonesty is that everyone involved in it is convinced of their moral rectitude. Meanwhile, while they pat themselves on the back and accept their generous salaries, the actual goal of education is being undermined by their supposedly honest and disinterested work. And the busier and more assiduous they are, the more they waste the time of classroom teachers, and the more the children, for whom the whole system supposedly exists, are neglected.

Ironically, the pupils would be better served by more straightforward corruption. At least it would be quick to hand over a brown envelope. And it would actually be cheaper. The cost of wasting so much of the time of expensive professionals is astronomical, far higher than even the greediest taker of bribes would accept.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (C S Lewis).

The Problems with Primary School Testing

Boy Reading

‘Boy Reading – Ned Anshutz’ by Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912)

From having been a strong advocate of the general reading tests which have been a part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal policy, Hirsch has now become an opponent. In his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, he explains why he has changed his view. Although the general reading tests are valid tests of reading ability, they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’. However accurately they may test reading, they have harmful educational consequences.

General reading tests are educationally harmful, argues Hirsch, because they promote the idea that there is such a thing as a general reading skill, when in fact, reading ability is based primarily on knowledge of the domain about which one is reading. Because general reading tests support the fallacious but widespread belief in general skills, their use as a national measure of achievement on which schools and teachers are judged leads to ever more lessons in these general skills. Pupils do ever more practice of comprehension strategies, and ever less time is spent learning specific subject knowledge.

It’s easy to sympathise with teachers and schools that adopt the strategy of training in comprehension skills, rather than take the risk of giving a good general education. Good general knowledge is the best way to improve reading comprehension, but the fact is that teachers and pupils are presented with high stakes tests for which there can be no specific preparation, and this fills them with anxiety. Naturally enough, they want to do something specific that will help their pupils perform better in the tests. And the only specific thing they can do is practise comprehension strategies. All other preparation is indirect, and we cannot blame teachers and schools who are placed under such pressure from being doubtful about indirect, incremental, long-term methods when they are facing an imminent high stakes test.

So the main practical, observable effect across the American education system of holding schools to account through general reading tests has been a further impoverishment of the curriculum, as pupils waste ever more time working on mythical general skills. Hirsch recognises that, politically, there is no possibility in the USA of their being national tests which focus on specific knowledge, so he suggests that school districts remedy the deleterious effects of national testing by introducing their own local system of tests which are focused on subject specific domains rather than general reading ability.

The British government should take heed of the damaging effects of making a general reading test the measure of school attainment. These damaging effects are a matter of historical record in the USA. If the Department for Education wishes to promote a richer programme of subject specific education in primary schools, they need to change the way primary schools are held accountable. They need to scrap general reading tests at key stage two and replace them with specific tests of pupils’ knowledge about literature, history, geography, science, art and music. And while they’re reforming key stage two tests, they should scrap the English Language GCSE, which is also an unfair and educationally unhelpful assessment.

Of course, there will continue to be courageous and intelligent school leaders and teachers who build a rich curriculum of subject specific knowledge, and eschew the false promise of training in mythical general skills. But at the moment, our assessment system, especially at primary level, is hindering rather than helping this movement for educational reform.

Further reading:

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair

How Much More Evidence Do You Need?

Flag of France.svgUntil the last few decades, France had one of the most equitable education systems in the world. It also had one of the most coherent. It was world-famous for its determination to give the same education to all citizens, following the same curriculum in every school across the land. But from the sixties onwards, progressive ideas became more influential in the teacher training colleges. Although the curriculum remained the same at first, the methods used began to lead to greater gaps in achievement between different social classes. A more constructivist approach, with an emphasis on discovery learning and a move away from explicit instruction, meant that increasingly, those with the least cultural capital were not receiving the teacher input which would enable them to make good progress.

Ironically, the results of this first move towards progressive ideas was one of the pieces of evidence used by proponents of the 1989 loi Jospin, which abolished national curricular coherence and mandated constructivism in primary schools across France. All primary schools were ordered to adopt child-centred methods, and to create their own local curriculum, adapted to the needs of their pupils. Those arguing for this revolution pointed to the increasing gaps in achievement that had appeared in previous decades, and claimed that these were the result of an ‘elitist’ curriculum that did not appeal to the interests of poorer and immigrant pupils.

Another irony of the campaign for compulsory constructivism was that one of its leading proponents, Pierre Bourdieu, himself came from a humble background, but because of the high quality state education that was available to all when he grew up in the fifties, had succeeded in becoming a leading academic. Now he was campaigning to sweep away the very system which had permitted him to rise. He was pulling up the ladder which he had climbed.

Those who have studied the damage wrought by progressive ideology in the USA and Britain will not be surprised at what followed this particular French revolution. All pupil groups saw a decline in academic achievement, but the decline was steepest for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The middles classes were protected from the disaster to some extent, because of the cultural capital they acquire outside school.

The French school crisis is particularly instructive for us, because it was an unintended natural experiment on a huge scale. Curriculum and pedagogy were radically altered, but other factors remained the same. French primary schools continued to be well funded. The academic standards remained high for the recruitment of French primary teachers. And yet we see this disastrous decline in achievement and equity. French officials measured this across the school population, so we know it was the norm, not an isolated case.

The centrally directed French school system provides a clarity which we can never hope to find when we look at the history of schools in Britain or the USA, where there are so many additional variables which could confound our assessment of the evidence. We have here a clear, explicit programme to enforce progressive ideas in primary schools across the nation, and a clear measurement of the disastrous results.

What need is there for more evidence? No artificially constructed trial could hope to match the French national experiment, which has been conducted on the whole school population for more than a quarter of a century. The results are in, and they are conclusive: explicit, teacher-led instruction and curricular coherence mean excellence and equity, while child-centred methods and personalised curricula lead to decline and inequity.

Ignore it if you want, but the evidence is there for all to see.

For more detail on this, read Chapter Seven of E D Hirsch’s latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, ‘The Educational Fall of France’.

For an insider’s view of the French school crisis, read this blog post.

And thank you to Françoise Appy for translating this post into French.

Is Poor Behaviour Widespread?

Hoop jumpingFollowing my post yesterday about troublemakers in education, and how important they are, I debated with two people on Twitter who objected to the claim that there is a widespread behaviour problem in England’s schools. They objected on the grounds that I could not provide them with convincing evidence that this problem exists. They were particularly unimpressed with any evidence based on the experiences of classroom teachers. You may not be surprised to learn that neither of these individuals are classroom teachers themselves.

Consider the evidence from Ofsted. The overall picture appears positive: according to Ofsted, behaviour is good or outstanding in 92% of schools. But when we consider this evidence more closely, the picture is not so rosy.

Firstly, visitors to a school, especially when they are preannounced, will not see the reality. Pupils usually behave better for visitors, especially when they are important. However badly behaved they are, they usually have a certain loyalty to their school. I have seen this over and over again during my years as a teacher. Most pupils who would normally be disruptive and rude become polite when visitors from outside the school enter the classroom.

Secondly, there are all the tricks that schools play to avoid Ofsted’s seeing bad behaviour, such as sending home the worst pupils or organising special trips for them. By definition, of course, these tricks will not find their way into official evidence.

After considering these factors, it’s amazing that the figure for good or outstanding behaviour is not 100%. It’s amazing that there are 8% of schools where behaviour is so appalling that they couldn’t put on a good show for Ofsted.

And in any case, what about the 8%? Even if Ofsted’s overall assessment were accurate, that 8% amounts to tens of thousands of children. Are we satisfied with a system where so many must suffer disruption and fear every day of their school lives? Can we afford to be complacent? Would we be happy if 8% of hospitals failed to provide adequate care to children? These tens of thousands of youngsters are required by law to go every day to a place that is often unsafe and frightening.

Now let’s consider the evidence of the first hand witnesses: the classroom teachers. They see the reality of school life, day in, day out. They are not sheltered from it in the way that senior leaders, consultants and inspectors inevitably are. Because Ofsted will never get the real picture, because official research will never reveal it, it is classroom teachers who must tell us what is really going on in England’s classrooms.

So here’s my witness statement. None of the schools I have worked in previously have had good behaviour across the board. In all of them, there were classes where disruption was frequent. In all of them, there was a significant minority of pupils who were rude, disrespectful and uncooperative. In all of them, these pupils were usually allowed to remain in classes and damage the learning of others, unless they did something really outrageous. In all of them, there were many areas of the school that were not properly policed, and because the dangerous pupils were allowed to roam free and did not fear serious consequences, such places were not safe.

The other first hand witnesses are the pupils themselves, of course. My wife was talking to a friend recently, both of whose children have avoided going to the toilet at school because they are afraid of the people who hang around them. Neither of these children go to schools where Ofsted considers behaviour to be poor. But whatever Ofsted says, these are not civilised places.

Meanwhile, in the same city, while most children are finding ways of surviving varying degrees of disorder and danger, there are sixty applicants for every place in the schools of a multi-academy trust which, like Michaela, tackles behaviour through school wide discipline and thorough training to build a culture of kindness and respect. Sixty applicants to every place. There’s some evidence for you. Large numbers of parents are sick of the bog-standard, complacent norm, where disruption and disorder are common in the classroom, and danger lurks in the corners of playgrounds, avoided by teachers who know they will not be backed up by senior staff.

This is the most criminal thing of all. There are schools which demonstrate clearly that it doesn’t have to be like this. They show that it is possible for all schools, whatever their intake, to be ordered, civilised places. But for most parents and children in that city where my wife’s friend lives, they can only dream of a place in such a school. Meanwhile, the daily battle goes on.

Denial of Reality

This is a translation of a blog post by French primary teacher Françoise Appy. The original can be found here.

Just as we choose a tool suitable for a task, our teaching methods should be focused on delivering our intended results. It should be as simple as that. Nothing else should pollute the discussion. But it does. The pedagogical advice given to trainee teachers, and the successive reforms which have claimed to revolutionise education, are equivalent to asking someone to use a fork to saw a plank. How did this happen?

As early as 1975, traditional instruction was replaced by an education that was supposed to ‘promote a child’s development, enable him to acquire a culture, prepare him for professional life and to exercise his responsibilities as an adult and a citizen’. In 1989, schools, now seen as the places where this new education would take place, became a national priority, at least according to what people said. Emphasis was placed on equality, and schools were required to contribute to developing the personality, raising levels of training, facilitating social and professional integration, and promoting the exercise of citizenship. In 1990, the state education system founded in the late nineteenth century by Jules Ferry was dismissed as too selective but at the same time too narrow and no longer in line with society. In 1998, we heard how the schools of the French Republic promote equal opportunities and give an important place to citizenship and secularism; once again, the ideal of national schools that promote knowledge in a complex world. In 2002, we were still hearing about the republican school and equal opportunities, and primary schooling was seen as the foundation. In 2003, the Minister of Education announced that he wanted to ‘meet the challenge of knowledge and intelligence’. In 2005, the primary missions were ‘the transmission of knowledge and, equally importantly, the promotion of the values of the Republic’. In 2007, it was still about transmitting values, training intelligence, nourishing minds, preparing children for adulthood and professional life: the school as the pillar of equal opportunities. In 2008, it was a matter of giving each child the keys to knowledge and social integration; primary schools were required to transmit basic knowledge and skills to each pupil.

A common factor in all these successive education ministries is their claim to reject the republican schools founded by Jules Ferry in the late nineteenth century; thus they replace traditional instruction with the new education, and make the school a vector of values and a place where a child finds self-fulfilment. The school insists on its mission of training citizens ready to integrate into society, endowed with a critical spirit, and imbued with republican values. This mission to create citizens justifies the reduction of time spent on traditional instruction in academic subjects; they must share curriculum time with many other educational goals which are supposed to be equally important. It is also abundantly clear that the idea of pedagogical freedom is gradually fading. In 1990, it was clearly stated that the pedagogical models of yesteryear should no longer be used, not because they did not work, but because they were too didactic and narrow. This made way for a system which would be child-centred: based on the ‘physiological, psychological and social reality’ of the child.

More than four decades have passed, during which we have repeatedly fiddled around with the primary school’s mission to give all pupils intellectual formation and republican values. And what is the result? We have achieved an equality of ignorance: most students entering secondary school have lamentable levels of knowledge; they lack even the basics; they are culturally impoverished. As for republican values, here too we see an inverse correlation between the intention and the effect, as behaviour in the classroom has seriously deteriorated.

Let us examine more closely the methods proposed by successive ministries to achieve the noble ambition of producing effective citizens. They are ‘child-centred’ and we can all observe the consequences. Constructivism, even when it is not named, has entered our national education system. Constructivism knows no limits. Once it has arrived, the pedagogical requirements imposed by the Ministry of Education will take this direction year after year. All the while, effectiveness is never mentioned in these official ordinances. The word is banned. The mission of schools was proclaimed to be the humanistic principles of equality and personal development, so it was imagined that the means to these goals must reflect this ideal of personal fulfilment, an assumption that was never questioned; an assumption that was very pleasant to believe. Since children are culturally, socially and economically diverse, schools have had to minimise these differences by dumbing down, by removing grading, by minimising the importance of specific knowledge for success. No student should think they are better than others due to their academic success. All must believe that they succeed. In the same way, in order to develop democratic values, we will have to make each classroom into a mini-democracy, where pupils have a say in rules and sanctions. In order to promote personal fulfilment, we will remove all struggle, all bad grades, all demanding exercises and all repeated practice from the classroom, and introduce play based learning. There are countless examples. All of these practices rest upon a confusion between the ends and the means, and a denial of reality: evidence which clearly indicates what is effective and what is ineffective pedagogy is completely ignored. Schools are no longer authoritative, so they are invaded by the outside world, in the form of new technology and parental interference; there is no competition; grading is disappearing; students work on projects according to their own interests; school trips proliferate; and despite this orgy of constructivism, results are still not improving. Faced with a fiasco that can no longer be hidden, the only solution proposed is yet more constructivism, and the absence of results is attributed to refractory teachers who use archaic practices. This is a denial of reality. It is a hellish vicious cycle from which escape will be extremely difficult, even if we have a strong will to break free.

For more than forty years – for several generations – it has always been the same solutions to the same problems. This is indeed a denial of reality. It could have been avoided if educational decision makers would sincerely consider effectiveness. They would have needed to realise that there are better methods for achieving their objectives, even if these methods do not suit their ideology. Let us look at some examples. They wish to achieve critical thinking. Many studies have shown that this relies upon a store of factual knowledge in long term memory. No one can have a critical mind without a certain amount of knowledge; we need to form people’s minds. Thus it is counterproductive to reduce the transmission of knowledge if we wish to develop critical thinking. The same applies to creativity. We are told that schools wish to develop pupils’ creativity, while at the same time reducing the acquisition of knowledge to the most basic level. This ignores the fact that creativity depends upon experience and knowledge; creativity does not function in a vacuum. In all my years of professional practice, I have seen pupils emptied of creativity, especially artistic creativity. Since we have been claiming to train creative children through our local programmes, we have found that they do not know what to do with a blank canvas, and when they do attempt something, it is staggeringly impoverished.

All this is entering public discussion. Evidence in education has made great progress, and our knowledge of cognitive architecture gives us clear indications of what we should do to promote successful learning. For behaviour management, the same applies. Here too, there is a denial of reality; the evidence of surveys and meta-analyses, which give very precise indications of how to be more effective, are ignored, as though they did not exist. Denial of reality. The French ‘educational sciences’ still refuse to acknowledge this type of education and research, but do not hesitate to promote their pedagogical injunctions, even if these are based on nothing but a few ideological, a priori assumptions, which have been unchanged for decades. Theirs is a science only in name, a façade which allows them to influence those who still trust them with educational ideas that are ineffective, or even harmful.

I will conclude with the words of Daisy Christodoulou, who in her recent book Seven Myths About Education, summarised the issue very well: ‘The fundamental ideas of our education system are flawed. When one looks at the scientific evidence about how the brain learns and at the design of our education system, one is forced to conclude that the system actively retards education.’

To learn more about the evidence which suggests effective methods see here and here.

To consult the official texts see here.