dsc04336In the opening paragraph of his influential book written in 1911 entitled What Is and What Might Be, the Anglo-Irish educator, poet and writer Edmond Holmes wrote the following:

My aim, in writing this book, is to show that…the prevalent tendency to pay undue regard to outward and visible “results” and to neglect what is inward and vital, is the source of most of the defects that vitiate Education in this country, and therefore that the only remedy for those defects is the drastic one of changing our standard of reality and our conception of the meaning and value of life…(p v)

How did the belief that a formal examination is a worthy end for teacher and child to aim at, and an adequate test of success in teaching and in learning, come to establish itself in this country? And not in this country only, but in the whole Western world? In every Western country that is progressive and “up to date”, and in every Western country in exact proportion as it is progressive and “up to date”, the examination system controls education, and in doing so arrests the self-development of the child, and therefore strangles his inward growth……The Western belief in the efficacy of examinations is a symptom of a widespread and deep-seated tendency, – the tendency to judge according to the appearance of things, to attach supreme importance to visible “results”, to measure inward worth by outward standards, to estimate progress in terms of what the “world” reveres as “success”. It is the Western standard of values, the Western way of looking at things, which is in question, and which I must now attempt to determine (p8-9)


I spent yesterday in London at the Cambridge Primary Review Trust (CPRT) conference at NUT headquarters; the conference title, referencing Holmes, was Primary Education: What is and what might be, and Robin Alexander, in his role as lead writer and co-director of the CPRT opened his talk with a discussion  of the prescience of Holmes’ writing. More of that anon.

Holmes goes on, through an argument that rejects a mechanical model for education, to emphasise the self-realisation and self-actualisation of children in their learning. He looks for the fostering of the spiritual within children and attacks (only partly rightly) the Christian concept of original sin and rebellion in a child as being over-emphasised in the very schooling which should have been able to show mercy and grace. In the chapter entitled “Education through mechanical obedience” He writes:

THE God of popular theology has been engaged for more than thirty centuries in educating his child, Man. His system of education has been based on complete distrust of Man’s nature. In the schools which Man has been required to attend – the Legal School under the Old Dispensation, the Ecclesiastical School under the New – it has been taken for granted that he can neither discern what is true, nor desire what is good. The truth of things has therefore been formulated for him, and he has been required to learn it by rote and profess his belief in it, clause by clause. His duty has also been formulated for him, and he has been required to perform it, detail by detail, in obedience to the commandments of an all-embracing Code, or to the direction of an all-controlling Church.

It has further been taken for granted that Man’s instincts and impulses are wholly evil, and that “Right Faith” and “Right Conduct” are entirely repugnant to his nature. In order to overcome the resistance which his corrupt heart and perverse will might therefore be expected to offer to the authority and influence of his teachers, a scheme of rewards and punishments has had to be devised for his benefit. As there is no better nature for the scheme to appeal to, an appeal has had to be made to fears and hopes which are avowedly base. The refractory child has had to be threatened with corporal punishment in the form of an eternity of torment in Hell. And he has had to be bribed by the offer of prizes, the chief of which is an eternity of selfish enjoyment in Heaven, – enjoyment so selfish that it will consist with, and even (it is said) be heightened by, the knowledge that in the Final Examination the failures have been many and the prize-winners few.

And as, under this system of education, obedience is the first and last of virtues, so self-will – in the sense of daring to think and act for oneself – is the first and last of offences. It is for the sin of spiritual initiative – the sin of trying to work out one’s own salvation by the exercise of reason, conscience, imagination, aspiration, and other spiritual faculties – that the direst penalties are reserved (my emphasis). The path of salvation is the path of blind, passive, mechanical obedience. To deviate even a little from that path is to incur the penalty of eternal death.

If only for directing me to this text, I am grateful for Robin’s initiative in putting on the conference. Just reading it puts me in mind of Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor in chapter 5 of Book 5 of the Brothers Karamazov, and therefore part of that effective late 19th century striving to understand God apart from the way (and more compassionate than how) the church said he was.

My final quote from Holmes just makes me laugh. At Christ the Sower we follow our collective worship often with maths, and this paragraph hopefully is completely wide of the mark!

After Scripture comes as a rule Arithmetic. During the former lesson the teacher, acting under compulsion, does his best, as we have seen, to deaden the child’s spiritual faculties. During the latter, he not infrequently does his best to deaden the child’s mental faculties. In each case he is to be pitied rather than blamed. The conditions under which he works, and has long worked, are too strong for him. If we are to understand why secular instruction, as given in our elementary schools, is what it is, we must go back for half a century or so and trace the steps by which the “Education Department” forced elementary education in England into the grooves in which, in many schools, it is still moving, and from which even the most enlightened and enterprising teachers find it difficult to escape.

The conference overall was a good day with learning coming from odd corners, not from the mainstream. Robin’s opening address was a thoughtful review of the main aims of the Cambridge Primary Review and the political impact it has had subsequently. It was not new to anyone who has walked with the CPR or CPRT over the last 7 years, but it was a reminder that we fully understand primary education in England because of it. The degree to which government officials and ministers read the final report is the degree to which they have the understanding necessary to do their jobs with regard to the primary sector. If they want, they could look at the summary document, which will be enlightening to anyone in Sanctuary Buildings, and should be required reading for anyone with a curriculum to enforce suggest.

The highlights of applicable thinking came from two presentations late in the day, from Melissa Benn and Andrew Pollard. The applicable practice came through the presentation in break-out sessions of work presented on the Mantle of the Expert, on the applicability of neuro-biological approaches to cognition, research into mastery and work on enhancing the voice of the child in the classroom.

November is usually the time I go to the Whole Education conference (this year in January), and I found it hard not to compare the two. What the CPRT conference had over Whole Education (as I have learned to love it over the last four years) was a richer, more determined and politically-expressed integrity. It was more confident of its findings and more purposeful in its intent. It has better research evidence from which to work, and well established principles and curricular guidance that puts the principles to work. But it is a younger conference – the first – and as such had less variety, it seemed to me, and was not as broad in its reach. Whole Education has been conferencing a lot, and has pitched its tent on the “this is the way things are so we will make the best of it” plot. CPRT asks “why should things be this way, and why not seek to alter that?”

dsc04342Anyway, I have had time to write up the notes from Melissa Benn and Andrew Pollard. See what you think.

Melissa Benn: Melissa spoke “as an outsider, a campaigner, and I have seen again today what a complex, interesting and professional place schools are.” In plumping for a completely frank approach, she asked the question What has shaped policy-making for English schools?

  1. Far too much shaping by the individual obsessions and back stories of ministers. This “personal” touch was both new and problematic.
  2. The marginalisation and exclusion of progressive and professional (and especially “progressive professional” opinion. The LAs have been stripped to the bone and under continual pressure, along with teacher trade unions which have been pushed out of the policy process completely. In the period 1944-64 it was rumoured that education policy was essentially made in a gentleman’s club by the head of the Local Authorities Education Committee, the General Secretary of the NUT and the permanent secretary at the Department of Education. These days it is a different cabal, a different voice.
  3. The emergence of new actors – philanthropists (especially in the US charter school world), hedge fund managers, corporate executives, think tanks – are bringing new imperatives into the field.
  4. The emergence and use of social media to define policy: 140 characters is a long way from Plowden!
  5. Passing fads in political life, which has got faster: PISA influenced Gove, as did free schools and the idea of superheads. All of these are passing, but their disruption and centrality to policy was huge.
  6. The politicisation of the DfE which is unprecedented. Political points were made by “unnamed” DfE spokesmen, rather than by the ministerial team. The DfE press office is now very “on message” – partial and imbalanced.

What do we know from the period 2010-2015, a period which Melissa has studied in depth? There has been:

  1. Massive structural upheaval in the school system.
  2. A darkening and damaging narrative being perpetrated onto schools.
  3. A hankering after a golden age of national glory – and the feeling that it is failing. This is blamed on state education, and primary schools have been urged to be more like prep schools. Two narrative events characterise this period most brutally:
    1. Gove’s 2013 speech to the Social Market Foundation, which was deeply disingenuous, and which betrayed a willed ignorance of the history and purpose of comprehensive education from the era of Plowden to the Cambridge Primary Review. In invoking sources as varied as ED Hirsch, Jay Goody and Antonio Gramsci, he argued for the sort of education that only conservatives could bring, and therefore should bring. Melissa said that this was typical Gove. Beautifully written, cogently presented and utterly batty.
    2. The Centre Forum report on Aims for Primary and Secondary Education. This report, published in early 2016, was simply a call for ratcheting up of SATs results – it had no more vision than that. It thought that 85% of all schools should be at Level 4 (old money!) and played into the academy chain idea that 5-6 year olds should be prepared for university!!
  4. Absent in any discussion of education by the government in this period is the role of poverty in shaping education and impacting the role of childhood as an emotional or developmental stage to be cherished. Like so many of the government’s thinking at that time, every stage was seen as a readiness test for the next stage, with the ultimate aim of scoring more highly in PISA tests.
  5. The new curriculum of 2014 has exacerbated inequality by creating a much broader area of failure for children.

Since 2015, the May/Greening regime has produced nothing more exciting than the grammar school initiative. We need to protest long and loud about this. In those areas where grammar schools exist, the 11+ has proved a disaster for primary school education, skewing it badly, and has fostered the massive growth of tutoring. Greening, Melissa thought, should know better, being comprehensively educated.

So, how do we get to be part of the policy process? One hopeful sign is the shift in thinking amongst the “middle class parents” for whom so much of Gove’s policies were geared. The “let our kids be kids” campaign last summer, and the “more than a score” movement have shown that such parents want to see their children as holistically educated. Whilst not the centre of attention, working class parents are more likely to hold to a more holistic view of education. Overall, we see that accountability has got harsher, resources too low, academies are not the way to go if we want more educational success. So what can we do?

  1. Get the CPRT views across to the political parties, especially on the left. The National Education Service of Jeremy Corbyn is a good idea, but politicians not in power do not have much in the way of resources, and need us to help them, to encourage them and to provide ideas and evidence of what is working well for us.
  2. Make the broader argument in society. Rigorous progressivism is not a huge vote winner as a name, but it is the right approach. We need to convey the message that we have university level thinking and trusted teachers – this is a message that many parents can understand. They can also understand the efforts of schools to be at the heart of their communities and that we are ready to serve families as trusted professionals.

dsc04337Andrew Pollard: Andrew, from the UCL Institute of Education, and a researcher of high regard and experience said he wanted to talk to the heart of professionalism: what works and what matters. The need to balance the visionary and evidentially secure is never easy, but is vital for the future of education.

He made the distinction between evidence-based education – which is poorly defined and leaves only application as an option for the teacher; and evidence-informed education – this is more valid and secure, and realistic as a concept. It allows for the exercise of judgment, meaning that the teacher has opportunity to evaluate and to think of the purposes to which such evidence can be put.

However, evidence-informed professional judgment requires very high levels of expertise. The conventional wisdom among politicians is that teachers are important, but that is often as far as it goes. They don’t know what to say next, and they have little idea of the teaching and learning that takes place in the moment. It is the teaching and learning “interactive moment” that matters in schools, and because politicians do not have the skills or understanding to respect that, they create an understanding gap, which they fill with disrespect.

The DfE runs a range of consultations on public opinion and professional opinion, but these are often pseudo-consultations and they work whilst public opinion is uninformed and compliant. We have a situation in England where there are many social representations that are simply untrue or untested. One really common one is the popular idea of ability, that children are bright or thick – they are unaware of Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets and learning, of course – so this idea gets in the way of the debate. Another social representation is the idea of transmission: that teachers are just there to get information and pass it on.

As a result, we need a more public expression of our expertise as teachers: not a tacit assumption that we are doing good for children, but an explicit, well-articulated understanding. To help us, Andrew proposed a model of the architecture of teaching whereby the aims, context, processes and outcomes are explained and interpreted within the three teacherly areas of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

The aims are, for example, societal (encompassing the vision that our provision could aspire to), and contain the elements of learning. The context could be that of the community or of the institution doing the teaching. Processes might be those that meet social needs, emotional needs or cognitive needs, whist the outcomes could be those that are developmental or those certificated by some external exam, etc.

He felt that this could be a useful way forward, and proposed inhabitants for each box in this graph:

dsc04341In conclusion, we must be more confident about what we do, and find ways of representing that effectively to parents, MPs and to society.




About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

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