Towards an Educational (R)evolution – my talk for the RSA

The following text is the talk I gave at the RSA yesterday. It’s what I wrote and intended to say, although of course on the day I improvised and lost bits. Anyway…

“I felt honoured to be asked to speak here today – honoured and more than a little terrified. And surprised. Surprised that people would come, would want to hear what I might have to say. That’s not a plea for sympathy or reassurance – you may yet regret your decision to be here, but to borrow from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “I’m not in Burnley any more.”

When I was little, I remember spending hours cutting pictures out of my Mum’s catalogues of things that I imagined might feature in my future. Handsome men staring wistfully into the distance. Pretty children. Soft furnishings. I took what I knew – home and family – and I imagined a future that had the same things in in, but with better cushions. This is how imagining a future works for most people – it is a slight improvement on the experience they already have. Imagining this present – speaking here – was nigh on impossible for me. London might as well have been Narnia.

In order to want something, you have to be able to imagine it. And sometimes, when you can’t see the full range of possibility, you need someone to imagine it for you. Someone with vision. Someone who believes in you. That someone becomes an imagineer of your future – an architect of dreams until you reach the point at which your experience expands enough to be able to imagine it for yourself. It seems to me that this is the role of a teacher and one of the purposes of our education system – to give children the tools by which they might imagine themselves into a future that once seemed impossible or inconceivable.

Imagining a future involves moving forwards. It sounds obvious but it is not. Our political system does not move in forward motion; it moves in a five year looping motion governed by general elections and a fear of what the electorate might tolerate in terms of risk. I’ve been astonished in recent months at the number of times I have heard the words “that is politically undo-able” from the mouths of ministers (both in and out of the shadows) and advisors. Not economically unviable, not wrong, not immoral. Just “politically undo-able”. This fearful looping motion is what drives our social and educational policy and in that frame of mind, the imagination is a luxury that could cost votes. Parliament is never going to be a place of creative risk. The culture of compliance is so strong there that MPs don’t even need to bother to listen to the substance of debate in order to know which way to vote. They do as they are told. In this culture, the status quo prevails.

An imaginative education system should aim to achieve that which has never been achieved before. It should be about designing possibility and turning that possibility into actuality. Instead we have a backward looking system that instills a fear of the future into our children. This is partly because if you want parents to vote for you, you have to convince them that there is a problem you can fix (but not a problem so substantial that they think you should have fixed it the last time you were in power). As a result, we tinker at the edges, instilling enough fear to ensure engagement without ever having to take radical action.

The result is that instead of being pedlars of hope we educationalists have become harbingers of doom, consolidating the belief in our children that they are only as good as their last set of results or as the status of the future job that they hold. I tell you that not one single teacher went into the profession with this intention in mind, but in our pursuit of results, we have become the unwitting carriers of a virus that removes hope while at the same time purporting to champion a meritocracy. We will have no real meritocracy in this country until we start to value the whole range of merits and capabilities that our children have. Those capabilities include the Arts.

Our politicians have reduced the status of the Arts even as the creative industries have kept our economy afloat. According to a report by the Education Select Committee, 14% fewer children are taking Arts GCSEs as a direct consequence of the Ebacc and 21% of schools serving our most disadvantaged communities have dropped Arts subjects from their curriculum. It is small wonder then that the top jobs in our Arts sector are held by those who were privately educated. And this is as true of popular culture as it is of the high arts. A recent survey found that 60% of that acts in the charts were privately educated. We argue for equality while simultaneously cutting off access to success.

We need to start again. We need to look at what we accept to be norms and to question them. We need to step through the wardrobe.

Charles Leadbeater at the Festival of Education in 2013 called for a revolution and in explaining why, he offered the analogy of the DC3 – the aircraft of choice in the mid and early 20th centuries. While popular, the DC3 flew at an altitude that took it through cloud cover and poor weather. This caused constant damage to aircraft, leading to costly repairs and frequent cancellations of flights. Although the technology existed to create an aircraft that would fly at a higher altitude, most airlines preferred to spend time and money tinkering with and improving the DC3. Eventually, one airline invested in the new Boeing aircraft however, and the rest is history. Leadbeater described our politicians as passionate engineers of the DC3 – battling to keep their preferred model in the air. But of course, this eventually leads us into a situation where the desire to protect the system overrides the interests of the consumer.

I believe that it is desire to protect our current system, with its relentless focus on examinations; with its deadening desire for certainly, leading to the illusion that data is truth; with its narrow conception of human achievement and capability….the desire to protect THIS system has become so endemic across our political parties that we have forgotten about the passengers. We have lost our way in the clouds and the turbulence is bringing us down.

A desire for certainty coupled with a reliance on testing has led to the repeated question of “What works?” from our policy makers. In recent times it has become clear that this question really means ” what is the most effective way to get children through tests.” This is a narrow question. Few seem to ask whether or not the knowledge gained for the test is retained after it. Or whether mental health, character and aptitude might also be part of the educational picture. There are some notable exceptions – Fiona Millar, speaking at Oxford last night, pointed to the EPPE study, a longitudinal study following 3,000 children through their childhood and asking questions beyond academic achievement. Their findings were important – namely that parents matter and good teachers matter. It was not, the report found, who parents were that mattered, but what they did with their children. This chimes with many other studies that point to the importance of speech, experience and love from parents in formative years. Good parenting is a skill that has far reaching implications for our society morally and economically. Why on earth don’t we teach it?

Away from EPPE however, most of our current research funding is being allocated to silver bullet searching. The “what will get kids through tests” mentality. This, as Dylan Wiliam points out is largely down to the fact that it is hard to measure the effectiveness of any intervention unless there is a test. And unfortunately the test does not transfer to other, more proximal contexts such as workplace or other problem. It does not even lead to a reliable indication that a child doing well in one kind of test, might also do well in a other kind of test. As PISA shows us.

Last week, a report written by the highly regarded team at Durham University and led by Professor Robert Coe, was published which aimed to summarise what we know to be ‘true’ about effective teaching. The report listed characteristics which when taken together suggest effectiveness. But the writers of the report had to concede that this was a more complicated picture that the list might suggest – that great teaching seemed to amount to more than the sum of the parts of the constituent characteristics of the list. In a sense they described teaching as having emergent properties, of being a complex adaptive system in which the outcomes are not entirely predictable and are sensitive to change. In short, teaching is as much an Art as a Science. And while that aspect of the report was encouraging, it was still depressing that the question was so narrow. For a great teacher contributes far more to the life of a child than exam results.

We now have an examination system that is buckling under the weight of expectation placed on it. This year saw an unprecedented number of requests for remarks with some candidates moving up by as much as two grades, and let’s not forget that remarks are an expensive business. Only those who can afford to pay for them get the second chance. Research by Wilmot et all as long ago as 1996 showed the unreliability of exam marking even from the same examiner and as someone who has been an examiner I can tell you that I could never be certain that the paper I marked at 1am was marked to the same level as the one I marked at 10am. The window of time for marking and the sheer volume of scripts make consistency nigh on impossible and a tiny proportion of scripts are sampled. A movement to a linear model will put only more pressure on the system. So the rhetoric that examinations offer us the most reliable and objective means by which to assess our children is a fiction and our dependency on it a form of blindness. We need to radically rethink how best to assess our children. We need to start trusting the people who know their capabilities best – their teachers – to do this. And in order to make this reliable we need to uncouple results from pay. There should be no incentive to play the system.

We also need to broaden our accountability structures to take into account far more than exam results. A school that supports a child through bereavement, stops them from committing suicide or spots a case of abuse should not be punished if that child falls shorts of predicted grades. And nor should that child have only one shot at success. We need a system of compassion and common sense.

We need to rethink our beliefs about the purpose of education too. And this may involve facing up to some uncomfortable truths. Let’s imagine for a moment that I am wrong – it’s hard, but do try. Let’s imagine that the education reforms we’ve been subjected to over the past 17years do start to pay off. Every child leaves clutching 5A-Cs at GCSE. Russell Group Universities expand to the size of small cities in order to accommodates the thronging masses, from all cross sections of society, bearing A level results. Let’s imagine that unlike KIPP kids, they all graduate too. What then? The fact is that there aren’t enough jobs. And that the ones we need doing the most don’t pay well. What happens when the unemployed turn up at the job centre, clutching their first class honours degrees from Oxford only to be told that there might be a zero hours contract in a call centre available. What then? It won’t happen of course, because every time we inch closer to Utopia, they change the grade boundaries, make the examinations harder and so we beat on against the tide.

We also need to consider that an academically educated population does not necessarily make for a more compassionate society. I had the very good fortune last night of sitting next to Professor Richard Pring at a dinner at Oxford university – get me – that’s a LONG way from Burnley! Anyway, he was kind enough to send me this letter which summarises far better than I could why it is that academia alone does not make the world a better place.

“Dear Teacher

I am the survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should ever see.

Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and children shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students to become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmans.

Reading, writing, arithmetic are important, but only if they serve to make children more human.”

What if we re-conceptualised our notion of educational success? What if the goal was not a great job, but a fulfilling life? What if you could work behind a checkout and still love poetry? What if we were measured on our contribution to society regardless or not of whether we were in paid work? What if children were told that while they might not earn, they could still learn and be richer for it? That their contribution to society might be greater than their tax bill? How might that change our education system? Until we start to have these conversations, we will continue to sell myths, shift goalposts, and then blame teachers for the shortfall. These are big questions and worthy of consideration.

And in the meantime we need to start thinking of ourselves in the classroom as pedagogical activists, changing the world one lesson at a time. There are those of us who are political activists, shouting, blogging, writing books, speaking here. But for the classroom teacher, there are rows of children piles of marking, pages of bureaucracy. And that’s about as much as the full time classroom teacher can cope with day to day. But they can plan differently; they can look beyond the horizon of an exam. They can be the butterfly wings of change. What if….

1. We refused to compete with each other and started to collaborate? If we stopped publishing our results in the media, stopped hanging banners outside our schools declaring that we are Outstanding, stopped tweeting the results of our latest observations? What if instead we reached out and worked together?

2. What if we stopped telling children that they need stuff for the exam and instead just taught the stuff in as exciting a way as possible? What if we went beyond the syllabus? Let’s take this apple as an example. What if the syllabus tells us that children should know that it is a fruit, but that we cut it open and find the golden ratio? We analyse its chemistry and explore the relationship between nature and the needs of the human body? What if we told all the stories from our cultural and religious histories from Adam and Eve to Snow White? What if we asked the children why they think it might be that the logo on the front of their phones and tablets is not just of an apple, but an apple with a bite taken out of it….

3. What if we tell children that exams might be a border crossing but that the journey to the border is an adventure in itself?

4. What if we replaced objectives with really interesting questions so that instead of “Today we are learning about the structure of an atom” we asked “Is it true that nothing has an outline?”

5. What if, instead of strike action, we teachers just refused to do anything that wasn’t in the interests of a child? That would cut most of our workloads in half.

6. What if we stopped worrying what Ofsted might think? Ofsted does not think – it is an organisation. And even if it were sentient, given the number of new frameworks it has written, we would have to conclude that it was a goldfish.

7. What if schools were given the freedom to take a Year of Reflection, free of Ofsted and league tables in order to put the Soul back into School as the RSA have advocated in a wonderful report on Social Moral and Cultural Education. This was pronounced “politically undo-able” by the way…

8. What if we talked to parents, invited them in to watch our lessons, told them of our observations of their child’s friendships and happiness as well as their grades? What if we offered bridges instead of data reports?

9. What if we taught with deep moral purpose at heart – choosing topics and texts that ask bigger questions about how we might lead better lives, inflicting least harm on others and on our planet?

10. What if, in addition to exploring some of the best that has been thought and said as Arnold suggested, we also pointed out to children that there is so much yet to know, to be thought, to be said, done and discovered. By them. What if we empowered them with a hopeful vision of future where the best is yet to come?

What if?

There are many ways to live our lives. We can choose to question or comply, to hope or mope, to reform or moan. I honestly believe that there is an appetite for optimism, for radical change, for the politically undo able to be done. And if politicians are fearful, then it is up to us – teachers, parents and children to become the architects of dreams. To make those dreams politically doable. We can do this by making it clear that we will vote for the brave. For those committed to forward motion. For those prepared to hand power over to a professional body with a long term view. For those who are prepared to act in the interests of our children. For those who value the multi-faceted talents of all children. And if those votes elected the brave, then all those ‘what ifs’ might well become ‘the way it is.’

25 thoughts on “Towards an Educational (R)evolution – my talk for the RSA

  1. As a teacher in andependent school who has worked in the state sector, not only can I agree with the sentiments expressed but I am able to say that most of these now apply to me.

    The evidence seems to indicate to me that if we keep going as we are, we will become more of what we are.

    Profound words sending a profound message. Wish I had been there to hear the talk.


  2. What if… politicians started to really understood the purpose of education instead of pushing forward the latest barely-understood wheeze?

    What if… they realised that not everything of worth can be measured? And what can be measured is often shallow and narrow?

    What if…certain politicians didn’t view education as a way for their business friends to make oodles of money by being able to run schools for profit (or at the very least divert taxpayers’ money from education via academy trusts to companies connected to trustees)?

    What if… parents realised their children are being short-changed if there’s too much emphasis on results and too little of process?

    What if… a critical mass of parents boycotted Sats? Wanted their children to have a broad, balanced education until 16 (no dropping subjects at 14, or worse, 13)?

    What if… we did like Finland and build a broad consensus about what education is really for? A consensus that would survive constant changes of governments more focused on votes and the slippery PISA slope than on building such a consensus?

    What if…

    Great post, Debra. Wish I could have heard it.

  3. Debra, this is spellbinding, beautiful rhetoric. And I mean that in the best possible sense. In the battle for hearts and minds, you just won one more of each. Keep going.

    Talk to the NUT – the ‘kids’ interest proviso’ might just catch on…

  4. Loved 1-10 but fear your voice will be drowned by the rhetoric of a vociferous minority of aggressive traditionalists [don’t like terms which group teachers but you know what I mean!] Shame that you have decided to leave school classrooms-I had a couple of years out working for the Nat Strategy and whilst I could help to spread good ideas-making a difference in a way that you believe in is much easier back in school with the added credibility of being there. Opposition to change is fierce but if you can find the right school, your ideas might find a good home! You would be welcome at ours!

    1. Thank you – I fear you are right and I’ve not discounted a return. And if we join our voices together, perhaps we can start to drown out the noisy (but I believe still they are in the minority) traditionalists.

  5. Thanks for this Debra. I can’t wait to write like this once I’ve got the academese-speak of a phd over (in about a year)… Could you give me the refs for the Ed Select Committee report you mention and the survey about the charts populated mainly by the privately educated? … Golden nugget that one. Incidentally, one of my case studies concerns the work of Chris Waugh who I believe you know. Thanks in advance.

    1. This is the select committee report Michelle –

      You might also find this interesting

      And the 60% survey – – though it’s been much contested, not least of all because the charts change all the time, so over the past few years it has waxed and waned, but with a general trend towards more people from private/selective schools (perhaps partly because of costs of music tuition?).

  6. It’s sad to say that the issues with education in the your country, that you describe so poignantly, are word for word the same issues we currently struggle with over here across the BIG pond.

    Just heard Alfie Kohn speak at a conference here on ALL of this and his advice to break this destructive system we call education is to organize – both teachers and parents. To boycott the tests! If you don’t know Alfie Kohn’s work google him – and be inspired.

    I would add one more “what if” – what if we asked the children how they learn best, and then we really listened and acted on their answers.

  7. Really excellent, and beautifully expressed. Currently writing something about the future of education, and this is an inspiration for me, which, of course, I will fully acknowledge. I find it difficult to understand how anyone can begin to muster major objections to your ideas and insights.
    Now I might bore you, because I’m an aircraft nut, but there is a point in this.
    The DC3 ‘Dakota’ of 1935 served on into and well beyond WW2, both civilian and military versions, in huge numbers (16,000 were built). Once pushed out of the major long distance routes, It found its niche as a reliable and effective short-haul workhorse that in the end was difficult to replace, cost for cost, especially when it became cheap secondhand. Some are still flying, mainly in the developing world.
    The innovative Boeing Stratoliner of 1940 was the first passenger aircraft pressurised for flying high. 10 (as in ten) were built for TWA. But it showed the way, established proof of concept as they say. More highly developed pressurised aircraft quickly followed and they became standard equipment for major air routes founding a direct family tree leading to today’s Boeing Dreamliner.
    None of this invalidates the analogy. In fact with a little thought it can render it more elegant and subtle. Something to consider anyway, and it would make it your own.

  8. Thank you for writing this. I’m currently writing a thesis for a Doctorate in Education. My mother watched your speech and bought me your book for Christmas. I haven’t read anything else that has resonated so much with my experiences in teaching. I’m investigating ‘what forms a modern day teacher’s identity?’ and so much seems to have been taken away by this culture of quantifying data and accountability. I’ve recommended your book to my other EdDoc friends!

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