Hey you. Poor Person. We’re here to make you just like us.

I’m a little irked at the way that people who argue that an academic education is the means to ending poverty, throw out an accusation of ‘low expectations’ to those who think we should have a broader debate about the purpose of education and the role of vocational routes. What I notice more and more is that the accusations come from people who have led comfortable upper middle class lives and who make the assumption that the answer to society’s problems is to ‘make every one like us’. At its most well intentioned, this translates into “I wish everyone could have what I have” – and who can judge that too harshly? At its worst it translates into hubris and a paternalistic notion that “we know best.”

For a start, consider the hierarchy we have in terms of which subjects ‘count’ as being academic. Let’s face it, there is absolutely no logical reason why History is rated above Theatre in terms of academic demand. Theatre students will explore the role of theatre (and by association, the development of democracy, the role of women and the use of theatre as a political and social tool) in Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain and Italy, Elizabethan society, Jacobean society and across Europe and America in the 20th Century. If you want to explore the rise of Hitler, look to “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui”. And the plays of Sartre are a great way of accessing the concepts of existentialism. Yet History is exalted and Drama derided. Ask children on the whole which subject they prefer though, and you’ll have a stampede into the studio. Children are not resistant to academia, they are resistant to static pedagogies and forced facts. A great History teacher who brings the subject to life will trump a lazy Drama teacher who sits on the radiator and tells children to ‘make up a play about drugs’. But bring the two together and you have fireworks.

This is not an argument about academic and non academic. Or even about academic versus vocational. It’s a twofold argument about values and purpose. What is the purpose of an education? And what do we value?

Let’s go back to poverty for a moment. Those championing an ‘academic’ route will throw at you all the statistics that show that children from poor backgrounds are less likely to go to University. And statistics show that they are less likely to stay there too – so those schools braying that they got kids through the door need to really think about whether they did them a favour. When 50% leave without completing their degree but still carrying debt, there is a problem. The reasons for leaving are complex but you can’t even begin to understand them if you don’t understand the lives of the children you are planning for.

My parents both grew up in grinding poverty. But in my Dad’s house was a parent who valued education and was willing to support him to the age of 18. In the other were parents who had no concept of the value of education and who needed their child to start earning as soon as possible. We’re talking about a home with one lightbulb that was moved from room to room. With no toilet paper. Where a piano given to the family was chopped up for fuel. For my Dad’s family, poverty was circumstantial – a reasonably well off family brought down by alcoholism. For my Mum, both of her parents had known nothing but poverty in a generational line dating back to the potato famine. There is a significant difference between circumstantial and generational poverty in terms of being able to imagine yourself out of your situation. My dad got A Levels and trained on the job until he became a Chartered Accountant and set up his own business. My mum left school at 14 with no qualifications and worked in a mill. She  quit work as soon as my dad was earning enough to support us all. She’s as bright as a button, but had no chances. So I completely understand the desire to put this inequality right. But the fact remains that without parental support, it’s a huge uphill struggle. It is meaningless to group FSM children into one category. Study after study tells us that parenting makes the difference. The EPPE study, a groundbreaking longitudinal study, is clear. When it comes to parenting, it’s not what you earn, it’s what you do that matters. Let’s take that for a moment. Back to my parents.

They had three children. All went to university. I was born in a terraced house with an outside toilet. Eight years later, my brother was born into a house with two bathrooms and a bidet. That’s social mobility. But what made the difference to us was not my Dad’s income, but the value they placed on our education. When I became a mother, I watched my Mum with my kids. She’d take them round the supermarket and name everything. At the park, every tree, bird, animal was named and described. She talked to them as I know she must have talked to me. A constant stream of language. And my Dad, even when we had no money, would bring books home from charity shops. I’ve written of this before. Had we stayed poor, we would still have had the chance to succeed because they did the right things.

It is perfectly possible to be a school who makes the FSM data sing. Two things matter. The parents and compliance. So if you put in strategies to ensure that the poor children in your school have aspirational parents who value education, you are half way there. How do you do it? Make uniforms so expensive that it takes a sacrifice to send your child there? Perhaps. And to be sure, make the rules on uniform so punitive that only the children with parents willing to fix and replace can stay. Select children on the basis that their parents come in to talk to you before hand? Perhaps. Take from ethnic groups associated with placing high value on education? Perhaps. But that still leaves many children in a situation where they need something extra and we need to be really careful about labelling those kids.

Of my uncles and aunts, those who stayed on council estates (even those who bought their house and were left with it as a crippling burden as interest rates rose and the neighbourhood went down the toilet) had children who are still on council estates. Or who are dead. You are more likely to die young if you are poor. Of my uncle’s four children, two are dead and one is sectioned for mental health problems. The loss of his job, being trapped in his home, losing both sons, worry for his mentally ill daughter and the breakdown of his marriage led my kind and gentle uncle to despair. He committed suicide. The fourth child still lives on an estate, dependent on benefits and has seven children. There are many who would judge her. But being a mother gave her a sense of value. She had lost everything – having children around her made her feel like her life had meaning and stability. And there are stories like this all over the country. Tragedy is common where children have no safe place to play, are living in homes with black mould and damp, where boredom and hopelessness prevail.

It’s understandable that some of us think that the answer is to get them out of there. But we cannot underestimate the pull of belonging and of community. Many people don’t want to get out of their community. They want improvements to the community. And education will not appeal, if it is seen to take them away. We need to consider how we make education meaningful for those who want to remain in their communities warts and all. And to do that we need to consider what opportunities for work there are or could be in that local area. If we start from a point of improving what we have, we can find hope. Ironically, that’s the message being given by Dylan Wiliam to Head teachers – work with what you’ve got.

When I was at school, I’d stare out of the window of my O Level classes and into the sheds near the school. There, some of the boys in my year would be pulling engines apart and putting them back together again, all oily and happy in their overalls. Most of them went straight from school into jobs as car mechanics. They had the skills already. Although the 80s was a period of high unemployment, most of the kids in my year left at 16 and went straight into work. It wasn’t a question of poor kids doing vocational and more affluent kids doing O levels – it was much messier than that. For my own part, my dad pretty much made the decision for me. Many of my friends went on to schemes in secretarial, hairdressing, mechanics, plumbing positions – they all had some skill in those areas because they’d been able to work on them as part of their curriculum. I meet some of them these days and they are earning far more than I am. I’d sit in my French class, chanting verbs and wish I could get my hands on an engine. I’m not really complaining, but it would have been great to be able to do both. To get my hands and my brain dirty.

So back to brass tacks. What is the point of education?

To pass tests?

To get work?

To be creative?

To be happy?

To be wise?

To change the world?

Our answers to these questions will depend on our beliefs but there are some we can question straight away. While we throw all that time and energy into the question “what works”, we only look at tests. Even though Dylan Wiliam and others point to research that shows that our “evidence” of what works can only be applied to the test and that success in one test does not seem to guarantee the ability to transfer the knowledge to another context. Not even to another test. So our tests qualify kids to pass our tests. That might explain the frustrations of HE and employers.

If it’s to get work, then we need to think what it is that the world of work needs and offers. There is little incentive to study hard in order to secure a low paid job on a temporary contract. And there aren’t enough highly paid jobs. And the need in our society for carers and cleaners is great, but who would study hard for that? We cannot tempt children through tests with a lie that they will lead to work. An oversupply of graduates has created a situation where the jobs my peers were doing at 16 are now being filled by graduates with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt to their names. Where is the sense in that?

Another story – modern day. A primary school near a gas works. There is an emergency procedure for when a leak is suspected and on this day, the procedure kicks in. The children are moved a safe distance away and all the parents are called. The vast majority come and collect their children within an hour. Others call to say they’re on their way or that they’ve arranged for a family member to collect. But a small number of children are left. The Head instructs the staff to walk them home. My friend takes a small group of children. All the parents are home but most are not happy to see their children home early. Two children are left. One arrives at his house. The doors are boarded up. He tells the teacher that this is because the police kicked them in. There is a ladder leading to a first floor window. Quick as a flash he climbs up it and through the window. This is how he gets in and out of his house. The final child doesn’t want to go home. He drags his heels. When they get there, the door is open and loud noise from the TV is booming out into the street. The teacher puts her head around the door and calls out. No answer. She ventures in. There is no furniture in the room, except for a chair and a television. There is no carpet. There are beer cans all over the floor. In the chair a man is asleep. And in a cardboard box, on the floor next to him, a baby in a stinking, sodden nappy is crying. She understands why this child finds it hard to concentrate in school.

Her school has an unusually high number of FSM children, and the fact is that the majority are cared for, collected and safe. But for those climbing through windows, or growing up with nappy rash in a cardboard box, an academic education is not going to be enough. Tristram Hunt said yesterday that what makes a difference to children is attachment. Children without attachment, language, love, safety are not school ready. This is the first step towards being an educated person. For my cousin, for these children, History, Science, were irrelevant. That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach them. But without support – perhaps counselling – empathy, love and understanding, they will fall on stony ground. I look at her and think of what she could have been. She’s great with children – could she have had a career in child care? Who knows. But we need to think about how we teach parenting to all our children and to our parents. We need to think about what we can do to bring moral purpose and meaning into the system so that there is a chance to see that there is hope and possibility everywhere – even in your own communities.

There is a moment in the film Tyrannosaur – a film which paints a grim and realistic picture of life on an estate – where the community comes together at a funeral. There is care and support, understanding and belonging. This is what we need to tap into. This is what children need to find. This is the foundation stone that schools should seek to build. The rest can follow.

58 thoughts on “Hey you. Poor Person. We’re here to make you just like us.

  1. How very true this is. Working in a school in an area of high deprivation we see the same. We can provide food and uniforms but parental attitude is the key. We have grandparents bringing up the children from the children they struggled to bring up – its hard for some children to break out of this cycle.

  2. OMG! This is fantastic, thoughtful, hard-hitting and a poke in the eye, wake-up call or whatever. Thank you.

  3. Apartheid in education is driven by a very wide set of interests. Most of this is misdirected in terms of classic class or party political divisions. The reason the academic power base is so dominant to the exclusion of practical learning is because those in education with the most say are the ones who have benefitted most from their interest in academia. I’ll probably be labelled as anti-academic for even saying this :-). I’m not, but equally I’m aware that a lot of people (even very bright people) are not particularly motivated by academia. Personally, I’d rather do stuff I like doing than write academic papers about it but I’m quite happy for others that want to be academics to do that if they want to.

    Secondary schools are not watered down universities. Perhaps grammar schools are the nearest to that but university is not the destination for the great majority especially if you exclude non-academic university courses. The only real way to a more balanced approach is to adopt a single National Baccalaureate framework that gives credit for academic and practical learning as well as attitudinal development. It could actually result in cost savings if implemented intelligently.

  4. Such vital insights . Yes of course children need to be ready for school before they can benefit from what is on offer . The child who must climb a ladder to enter his home or experience neglect in a cardboard box should be made known to the GP and the Health Visitor if school teachers ever become aware of such things. Much support from health and social services can be mobilised in the UK if only we ( GPs) get to hear about such situations. They are never ever easy to resolve but teachers should not keep the knowledge of such circumstances faced by children to themselves. However, my main comment is about the great importance of the role of “the grand parent” or the “grand parent substitute”. Hugely expensive educational research some years ago in the USA – at the height of the space race – revealed – after a research effort that lasted for a decade involving vast numbers of schools – that for a child to do well at school and obtain a science degree it was not the teachers that made all the difference nor was it the parenting but it was the “quality of the grand parenting” in the early years before school age which you so well describe in your piece. Just being there as a grand parent for the child under 5 years of age is not enough. Encouraging language development, numeracy observational skills and social skills within a social environment of love and care must be part of the child care a grandparent provides. We all need to help grandparents to understand the vital importance of their place in a child’s life. The “Grand Parents Association” exists partly to help grand parents to be good and to get better at what they do. Are any schools already working with “The Grand Parents Association” on this aspect of making sure that children learn to “lovelearning” before school age so that they are really and truly ready to benefit from school?

    1. Really good point Malcolm and I think the integration of services is vital too. I thought we were moving in that direction with Every Child Matters, but then it all changed. No simple solutions, but multi faceted approaches needed.

      1. Unfortunately the level of neglect described in Debbie’s insightful post is not uncommon in many deprived areas of the country. Schools are dealing with similar issues on a daily basis at the same time as the increasingly high stakes accountability means we have to meet national benchmarks. Many schools are doing a remarkable job of parenting, counselling and calming children, from what can unfortunately be a a community with any twisted morals and priorities, who arrive at school in a state of stress. Then we educate them and try to provide more positive life chances.

        My experience is that schools work very well with health professionals – many a time we have worked together with our school nurse and community centre to deal such issues but social care is usually missing from the equation. A combination of huge, and unmanageable, workloads and sadly a different threshold often means ‘my manager says we won’t act’. Families First discharge cases within months or so as if our most dysfunctional families can be turned around in that time again with low thresholds – moving attendance from 83% to 87% might sound good but is totally unacceptable in educational terms.

        As with the NHS, schools are picking up the pieces of the huge cuts that councils and central services have born over the course of this parliament – who would have guessed that cutting budgets by £50m would mean that someone else will have to pick up the pieces. We constantly hear that school budgets have been protected but is that the case when we now have to feed and clothe children, employ a full time social worker and health care practitioner – we’re now looking to employ a mental healthcare worker as stressful lives often mean mental health issues but CAMHS referrals have a huge waiting list and are too stretched to pick up anything other than extremely serious cases.
        And thanks to Mr Gove, context is irrelevant – a child who sees his prostitute mother attacked by her dealer/ pimp on the playground must come into school without having had a warm, safe home to sleep in (never mind a nurturing parent) and perform at least as well as the average child. Must be because of the last Labour Government dumbing down the education system!

  5. Nice one. My father in law was a rail worker, but always went to WEA classes. All his kids went on to college of one sort or another. Interestingly, they all ended up in public sector too. One nurse, two teachers, two civil servants. My grandparents gave me an encyclopaedia when I was 8, and wrote in it ‘Knowledge is the greatest thing. Read and learn.’ For both Dale and me, it’s about the learning, the love of learning and the encouragement of this.

  6. This is what I was trying to say in my tweets. By forcing all children into studying academic subjects because it is their “right” we are supporting the existing hierarchy that rates academic above vocational subjects and trying to fit them in. This, and we can see it happening with the creation of things like unpaid internships, will be resisted by those with existing privilege. Surely what we need to do if we really want to increase equality is to challenge the hierarchy and value other forms of achievement than high academic success, (or maybe celebrity).

  7. Dear Debra, thank you so much for writing this. I had a similar experience the other day with some of the children I teach. I had the sudden realisation that, for them, reading and writing, an academic curriculum (and bearing in mind that they are in Y6, that is what they are getting) isn’t enough. These children inhabit a world I don’t understand, but what I do know is this: if we let them get their hands on the woodwork tools, or the paintbrushes, or any of the other practical subjects children often enjoy just because, then we are doing them a massive favour. We are showing them that school isn’t just about hard work and things they don’t understand, but that there is enjoyment too, and that it is worth staying there for that.
    It seems to me that the enjoyment brought about by school, and the introduction to practical, get your hands dirty sort of subjects will help these kids to life themselves out of the dire circumstances they find themselves in far more than anything else we can do for them.

  8. I totally agree that one of the reasons conversations on Twitter become so frustrating is that the various parties carry very different fundamental beliefs about what education is for in the first place. One of the more irritating (to me) slogans of recent times has been ‘focus on what works’, because it denies the conversation about what ‘working’ actually means in education – as you say.

    We ran a blogsync a year or so ago on the topic “What is the purpose of Education” and there were some interesting contributions.

    As always, thanks for adding your voice to the conversation.


    P.S. Would you like to run a #blogsync in conjunction with Northern Rocks?

  9. Hi Debra

    I know what inspired this, and I love your roar here. You actually inspired me to put a few words down on the subject myself.


    Who’d have thought that five years of Govian education would inspire an approach which could be characterised as crashingly lacking in empathy or imagination ? Well, apart from me. And half a million teachers….

  10. Really interesting. I worked in a small school in an ex-mining community a few years ago. Some of the parents had such low aspirations for their children and put very little value on their children’s education. I was a little judgemental of this narrow mindedness until I got to know some of them very well through home visits as their nursery teacher. We realised we were going to have to engage these parents so we set to work setting up toy libraries, story sack workshops and really trying to involve the parents in what we were doing with their children. We enjoyed positive results and one of my favourite memories is of a young dad telling me that he absolutely loved doing the story sacks with his daughter. He said “I do the voices and everything.” He said if he’d had similar things at school then he probably would like reading now but no one had ever encouraged him.
    These experiences taught me just how important parental support is when enabling these children to have choices as they get older. That is what I think education is all about. Choices; being able to make them, reflect on them and support others in making good ones.

  11. This is the most moving thing you’ve written that I’ve read. Thank you for opening my eyes a little wider.

  12. Top stuff as ever. Isn’t it interesting how many of us in “education ” have connections to the famine in our histories. I do as do several colleagues past and present!! Keep the good work up. Will retweet. Rory McCormack

    Sent from my Xperia M2 on O2

  13. The ‘no excuses’ mantra promoted by this Gov’t diverts attention from getting children out of poverty. The responsibility for this ‘social mobility’ is heaped on schools and the children themselves. They’re told to have high aspirations, to leave their problems at home and gain at least five ‘good’ GCSEs.

    But it isn’t as simple as that. I wrote about it here:


  14. A friend of mine, an ex-teacher now working in Child Protection for Barnardos, says it clearly: you can’t do the Bloom stuff until you’ve done the Maslow stuff.
    Incidentally, I remember Tim Brighouse saying years ago that the 3 ‘R’s were originally ‘reading, writing and wroughting’. Doing stuff with your hands and solving problems that way is using your brain and applying conceptual understanding. Nuff said.

  15. Debra,

    A conversation between you and I is as conversation between two successful middle-class people about what we think is best for those in society who are less fortunate than we. We can both appeal to our individual backgrounds and to difficulties we had in our own upbringing, but in doing so we just end up sounding like Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen (http://bit.ly/1kxZCSb), trying to outdo one another on the depths from which we have risen. The fact of the matter is that you know very little indeed about my background and I yours, and, though it might well affect the emotional tone of our arguments, it adds nothing to the quality of what we say. Let us, therefore, take our arguments on their own merits, and not suggest that our arguments have any more or less validity because of our social status, past or present.

    When stripped of this, your argument is less one about curriculum – or even education at all – but one about society, and I would here share your concerns, fears and desires. I too find it terrible that children grow up in the conditions that you have highlighted, and I too think we need to show some intellectual humility and common humanity in recognising that a child’s social experiences will far outweigh anything you or I might do in schools, try as hard as we nevertheless will. It seems that, in the end, we agree that the curriculum one receives ought not to depend on one’s social background; instead we both think that if something is good enough for one child, then it is good enough for another, regardless of the circumstances whence they come. Our disagreement is, as such, not one about who ought to receive the things we value, but rather what the things we value are. This is not about ‘poor people’ having things done to them, but rather a discussion about what all people should be entitled to receive.

    The problem here is that there are many things that you and I would value that, historically, have been the preserve of the affluent and fortunate. The idea that children should have the opportunity to read books for leisure – as both you and I did – is a recent innovation, an opening up of something that was once the preserve of the wealthy to all children from all backgrounds. Instrumental lessons – which both you and I had in our youth – were until quite recently (and still in some quarters) inaccessible to those from less affluent families. The chance to travel beyond one’s own city or parish, to see the wider world including the strange lands overseas, was once an opportunity open only to those whose independent wealth allowed them the luxury of a grand tour: today, schools do what they can – and charities even more – to help children from poorer families go on trips and visits. If one were to write an upbeat and optimistic history of English education in the late twentieth century, then it might well be one which tells the story of how possibilities available only to the elites had been brought within the reach of all.

    The academic disciplines, which were indeed the preserve of the wealthy elites for millennia, have however not been treated in the same way. Whereas few would question opening up other aspects of elite culture – reading for leisure, instrumental lessons, travel – to children of all backgrounds, many seem uneasy about the idea that these disciplines are something which is the entitlement of all. Time and again I have seen and heard of children from poorer families being told history (and indeed other traditional subjects such as separate sciences or a second foreign language) are ‘not for them’. The disciplines have evolved over time as the best means we have as humans for making sense of the world we all share. The fact that these disciplines were driven by and owned by the elites in the past is an accident of history: only those who had the luxury of leisure brought about by independent wealth could invest this time in the study of the world. Yet now we live in a society where such knowledge need not remain the possession of the rich and affluent: we now live in a society where, through universal and comprehensive education, we can bring this former preserve of the wealthy – a sophisticated collection of forms of knowledge that make sense of our world – and we can open this up to all.

    In the present, however, this has not happened. The shadow of the tripartite system runs deep in which it was assumed that the bottom 75% of the social spectrum had no need of academic disciplines. Comprehensive education should have resolved this, but it did not. In part, this was because the old assumptions of the tripartite system continued to flow as steady currents under the comprehensive veneer. Our system is riddled with the notion that knowledge of the world, captured best through the academic disciplines, is the preserve of the affluent. This is something I want to challenge, and this is why I shall fight – and always fight – against a child being told that ‘history is not for them’.


    1. Thank you Michael. Actually my childhood was not deprived at all so I can’t really pull the poor me card. It was my parents and extended family I was writing about.

      I don’t disagree either with your list of entitlements – though the sad reality is that charities taking poor people on trips are few and far between and many children don’t move beyond their neighbourhoods.

      I have never heard a child being told that History is not for them. As a national curriculum subject, they all study it, though actually I wish they had more. But I have heard many, many children being told that the arts lack value and the report by the Education Select Committee found that 23% of schools serving the most deprived communities had withdrawn arts subjects as a direct result of the EBACC. A broad curriculum must include the Arts and by that I mean theatre, visual arts and music – the means by which our species has found expression for millennia.

      As you said, however, this is not an article about curriculum, but about society and human development. Children who have attachment issues, live in fear, have little language or vocabulary, are underfed, cold and neglected cannot access any kind of curriculum until their basic human needs are met.

      Thank you for taking the time to reply.

    2. I’d not tell any child anything was not for them if they had a passionate intrinsic interest in it. I’d turn it the other way round and say far too many subject zealots think that because they like it, gained success from it or whatever, everyone else should too. There are simply too many subjects for all children to study everything. We should be much more ruthless in determining what really is essential and be less worried beyond that about what pupils opt to learn as long as it has some breadth and depth likely to stretch them.

  16. But essential for what? Essential for understanding the world in which we live? If so, then academic disciplines are essential – there are no better things we can study for making sense of reality.

      1. Forget vocational pre-16, it’s about practical contexts. The whole concept of vocational is so 20th C. Practical subjects do tell us about reality. You can not separate construction from the laws of physics. I have taught enough physics to know that what motivates most students is the context in which the learning takes place and constructing buildings is a very good vehicle for that. Structures and energy management, to name but two. But also design, digital systems and art. This diversity and the connections are together much more appropriate to younger children than over specialisation in academia too early. It gives purpose so it is fundamentally founded in reality. The WHOLE problem is this obsession with separating the inseparable. It’s not an either or it’s a both. The reality is we need more doers, we have plenty of pundits and commentators. The biggest problem is that teachers are a product of their own education and most would not be capable of exploiting a construction context to anywhere near it’s full potential. That is likely to discredit any change before it is given any sort of chance and that is why so little changes despite reform after reform. It’s rearranging deckchairs for the most part.

        1. So your colours are being revealed here a little. You have argued (a) that one of the reasons to go practical is that it *motivates* pupils and (b) that barriers between subjects are unhelpful and need to be dissolved.

          I think you are wrong on both counts – trivially wrong on the first, but fundamentally wrong on the second.

          You are trivially wrong on the first in assuming that academic subjects have to be made ‘practical’ to motivate pupils – this is simply not the case as good teachers up and down the land can show you.

          You are fundamentally wrong on the second, but the explanation is more complex. I follow Michael Young (see Bringing Knowledge Back In or more recently Knowledge and the Future Schools) in arguing that disciplinary boundaries are significant because it is within these boundaries that concept development can take place. I shan’t take take up any further space in the replies section with a prolonged explanation (which can in any case be gained from Young’s works) but – if we are serious about gaining ‘knowledge about the world’ – then it is a strong case for why disciplinary boundaries are better boundaries than others (e.g. the competences of Opening Minds).

        2. The point I made about Drama was not that it was practical, but that it had equal academic rigour and content. I would say that the opportunity to explore this content in a practical way does motivate pupils. And indeed, Science, a subject that you claim is academic, is deeply practical. The Physicists at Cern are not just pontificating about reality – they are smashing atoms together to see what happens. This is not trivial at all. Nor am I arguing that barriers between subjects are unhelpful and need to be dissolved. I said the perceived barriers between what is seen to constitute academic and non-academic are unhelpful. Is a study of the rise of Hitler in a theatre class unacademic? Or the study of the use of satire in ancient Greek comedy? These are the unhelpful barriers. Both Ian and Rupert have answered your other points better than I could.

        3. Also, I can guarantee that the physicists at CERN had a *great deal* of disciplinary training in mathematics, physics and other things *before* they started smashing atoms together.

    1. Essential to learning other things. Like reading, like basic maths like finding useful information. The problem with something nebulous like “understanding the world” is that no-one understands all of it and so most of what is learnt by any individual is arbitrary. I work a lot in Europe. I learnt French, I would have been better learning German or Spanish. Probably we teach French because there are a lot of French teachers who then produce more French teachers. It’s arbitrary, not essential. I could put up just as good an argument for teaching about taxation and personal finance as a modern language, history or art yet we don’t give it any priority because its not an academic subject. I’m talking here about KS4. There are other arguments for younger children.

      1. I would not see French as an academic discipline – it’s a language in which one might study an academic discipline. The justification for languages is different. But it’s hard to argue that physics, chemistry and biology are not the best tools around for ‘understanding the world’. If we want to know about our species, history, geography, philosophy, psychology and economics are hard to beat. Five years spent studying c.10-12 academic subjects is a pretty good grounding for understanding the world. Then they can do vocational things, in which they learn the knowledge (and skills are a form of knowledge) that they will use in (at least part of) their career.

        Many schools now do a two-year KS2, perhaps with a generic ‘competences’ course in Y7. Beyond skills like ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’, academic disciplines have been squeezed and squeezed off the curriculum.

        I suggested one approach here: it is doable if we do it properly. http://clioetcetera.com/2014/06/11/a-radically-traditional-secondary-curriculum-model/

        Then we can do vocational properly. Which is what my next blog post shall be on.

        1. The proposed curriculum looks pretty much like what I had in a 1960s grammar school. Can’t see much inspiration there. When you say “do vocational properly” are you talking about pre-16, post 16 or adult ed or all of it?

  17. Vocational subjects don’t tell us about reality – they tell us how to do things. Construction, for example, tells us how to build houses and other wonderful buildings, but it is the laws of physics which tell us why those buildings stay up (or not) and the laws of chemistry which tell us why materials have certain properties. I’m preparing a blog post on why I think vocational education is so important – indeed, it is too important to find itself in competition with academic subjects. Better, I would argue, to allow children time to develop their disciplinary knowledge before they go on to vocational subjects. Currently, the time students have for doing academic disciplines (and not just in a tokenistic way) is limited and becoming increasingly so (the EBACC hasn’t really helped by putting some subjects over others).

  18. I think the ‘academic disciplines’ could be taught far more powerfully to many more students through integrated teaching of, and engagement in, genuine issues in the world. Children from the backgrounds that Debra talks about particularly, many of whom cannot see the intrinsic value of academic education, are much more likely to be responsive to a curriculum that starts with, then expands and enlightens, the world around them, drawing on disciplinary knowledge and skills as relevant. Instead, they are presented, often with the best intentions and noblest efforts, as abstract and alien bodies of knowledge that offer a magical ladder to remove them from their worlds.

    Academic disciplines are often most powerful when used as perspectives alongside others in engaging with problems that matter. They are not discrete. In practice they are spades, not pillars; means, not ends – and that is how they should be represented and used in schools also.

    1. Hi Rupert – I think this is where Michael Young is very useful on distinguishing between everyday experience and powerful knowledge. If a curriculum is always tied to everyday experience it stops being generalisable in the sense that it is not shown how the knowledge gained in the discipline is relevant in other contexts. For knowledge to be powerful – that is, for it to transcend experience – it *has* to be capable of moving into the abstract. What this abstract means is of course dependent on each discipline, and abstract in chemistry looks different to abstract in history. But if we take history as an example, if pupils only ever think that ‘democracy’ is the kind of democracy they experience, then they are not actually gaining the full picture, for democracy of course has meant different things in different places at different times. If the basic of an education remains ‘the world around them’, then pupils are never empowered to move beyond their immediate experience, however well they might now know it. Young takes this further with the social justice dimension, arguing that this kind of generalisable (and yes, abstract) knowledge has tended in the past to be provided only to elites, which closes down powerful knowledge to children in other social classes.

      As for pupil motivation, I certainly have yet to find something in history – however abstract – that pupils can’t be motivated by and find interesting, provided the prior knowledge is in place and clear examples are used for illustration.

      At some point I must send you my paper on teachers and the academic disciplines – it just needs some minor corrections before it goes in JOPE.

      1. Thanks, Michael. I know Michael Young’s recent views (well, post ’70s) on knowledge and power well, and I disagree with them. I think knowledge of the history and breadth of thinking within academic perspectives can be integrated into broader, thematic teaching – but in a way that doesn’t reify them as necessary goods-in-themselves. The history and use of academic disciplines is not that neat or ordered – much has been achieved in the past by professed astrologers, alchemists and magicians, and modern endeavours like neuroscience do not fit into the classic curriculum categories. They are problem- based and draw from many disciplines as motivated by necessity, curiosity and invention. It is that spirit that we need most to inculcate, and which too often rigid and discrete study of disciplines so often crushes.

        1. Why would it be surprising if people who had spent all their lives immersed in academia did not quote a lot others similarly experienced as their evidence for the importance of their own chosen way of life, source of power and influence? Group think and confirmation bias in spades 😉

        2. Disciplines are not reified – they are, as MacIntyre would put it, ‘continuities of conflict’ that evolve over time through argument and discussion. Scrap them, and you scrap too the arguments and discussions. This is at the heart of the difference between Future 1 and Future 3 in Young’s model. But there is also a practical issue – every attempt we have had to ‘break down subjects’ into ‘themes’ or similar cross-curricular strands has been disastrous for the disciplines. I think of one primary school where they had a theme on ‘colour’ for a term and the history component was – you guessed it – the Black Death! Ripped asunder from their own history and development, the attempt to play down the importance of subject boundaries on the curriculum is particularly susceptible to McIntyre’s critique of modernity – the result is relativism.

  19. My only dealing with Michael Young was when we worked on the TechBac together about 20 years ago. It took about 2 months to get to a point I could have achieved in 1 day or less. Probably sums up why I’m sceptical of people with a vested interest in the status quo getting lost in academic philosophy and politics. In the end if I can get a few million children doing the things I think work, it’s going to be more effective than all the blogging and tweeting about it. That looks increasingly possible.

  20. People implementing change badly is usually the result of poor education. That applies to teachers, governments and business. It does not mean change is not needed. If all the academic investment in “education research” ends up in simply maintaining the status quo (as you seem to be advocating eg in your proposed curriculum model) , it would be more cost-effective to just get rid of it altogether.

    1. I know, we should just burn all the books, shouldn’t we.

      On a more serious note, I’m happy to keep a conversation going about the merits of academic disciplines (I’m not sure your use of practical is helpful as all academic disciplines are practical) but I’d rather not take part in a conversation that involves (a) you making generalised assumptions about my background and experience and (b) your implication that I am poorly educated in some way. Let’s discuss the issue on its own terms and steer clear of the ad hominem points.

      Also the continuation of this conversation depends on Debra’s willingness to allow us to keep squatting on her blog. Happy to take this elsewhere (though, based on your accolades, I’m keen to keep any disagreement non-physical).

  21. I’d also like you to stop making generalisations about my “colours”. Touche :-). I’ll steer clear of ad hominems as soon as you do, no problem there at all.

    The point about lack of education was not at all directed at you personally. It’s a general point about change management. It doesn’t happen because most people entrenched in specific aspects of learnt behaviour persist in it. It’s axiomatic to the purpose of education, ironically. Life outside academia has a lot of other dimensions. I’m not against academic learning as part of a balance education experience. I am against particular interest groups using their power and influence to distort reality often for irrational reasons.

    My real area of interest is in qualifications in technical subjects that count in school league tables. Read https://theingots.org/community/qual_design If you want a better flavour of what I believe and why. It might not be to your liking but it will mitigate misconceptions.

    1. Colours was perhaps too loaded a term, but if you look at what I said then those ‘colours’ were two of the central theses of your argument – the term ‘show one’s colours’ is rather like unfurling one’s banner in battle, making a statement about what you stand for. This is in contrast to criticising someone for holding certain colours based on (e.g.) their prior education or experiences. Although I recognise your point that the comment was not aimed as me personally, it is hard to see how I was not to be included in your general point about the people who are part of the problem.

      On power and influence, as I argued the group of people – of whom I am one – who have been arguing for keeping academic disciplines central and predominant on the secondary curriculum are in a minority and certainly not the most powerful. It is a fight we have gradually been losing over the last twenty years – the 1991 National Curriculum set out academic subjects up to 16 for all children, and this has been gradually eroded ever since. Gove’s tinkering completely failed to halt the decline, and we are now heading right back into the general trend again.

      I have already ready your website and I can’t really comment on the quality of your materials as I am not a specialist. What is there looks perfectly reasonable, but not if those things take the place of academic disciplines in school. To come back to the core of my argument, I think the kind of education you advance is a good one at the right time – we are not really disagreeing over the importance of vocational education, but rather over when the correct time to introduce it is. With a limited curriculum time available in schools, decisions have to be made an trying to do everything results in nothing being done well, which would probably be a good description of the status quo. Now I have in my mind two five-year periods: 11-16 and 16-21. For a range of reasons that I’m compiling into a blog post, I think the former period is best left to the academic disciplines (along with the arts and some general ‘life skills’), while vocational training – i.e. training for a particular field of employment – is best left for 16-21.

      Generalising somewhat, it is much easier to access vocational training while in employment than it is academic education – although not all employers do it well, the kinds of skills you advocate on your website can be (and ought to be) part of the provision employers make for their employees, not least because those skills most probably need to be situated in a particular employment domain. It is possible, but much much harder, for someone to take the time out of employment to work on the study of an academic discipline.

      1. I think there is a fundamental difference in interpretation of the word vocational. The DfE has defined non-GCSEs as tech awards. They are not allowed to be for a very specific occupation pre-16, but they might well provide insight into a particular sector. So a construction qualification pre-16 would not be allowed if it was specific to eg bricklaying, plumbing or even architecture unless it demonstrated some more general characteristics too. So the old concept of vocational education pre-16 is well and truly dead. Post 16 there are applied general qualifications at level 3 that are not occupationally specific but again linked to some sector based context. Tech levels are Level 3 and more directed at apprenticeships but still with routes to university. L3 Open Systems Computing is an example I designed for this. It would be equally easy to go into a company as a junior programmer with this qualification or to go to a university degree in computer science. Coherence and progression are important too and with the removal of KS3 levels, there is much more scope to look at 11-19 as a more consistent continuum. Its not about academic vs vocational, more about the appropriate balance in education that includes context as well as process and content.

        1. I recognise that the term ‘vocational’ is poorly defined and that this is unhelpful. I am defining a vocational subject as one where the primary purpose of the course is to prepare pupils for working in a particular employment sector.

        2. I’ve just had a look at the Open Systems Computing Level 3 – what’s the programming language(s) they learn in that? I assume you need a language to join a company as a junior programmer? Or is that a separate qualification? Or is the assumption that the company trains them in the relevant language? A bit out of my depth here as it’s not my field, though my wife’s been looking into it recently so I’m quite interested.

  22. Sector is not that well defined either. 6.1 IT practitioners, 6.2 IT Users, where would we put someone designing content for a web site? IT user? Defining themes for the web site? Could be either depending on your view of what digital literacy means. All pupils are IT Users so is teaching them about efficient use of IT important? The Computer Scientists might want to pretend that as an academic discipline it covers it all but it is easy to demonstrate that it doesn’t. e-safety was not even included in the first draft of the revised NC POS yet it is obviously important for kids to not only learn about e-safety but apply it in their day to day lives.

    What the words actually mean to people is important and the snag with both academic and vocational is they have a lot of baggage and mean different things to different people. Is Government and politics a vocational qualification for aspiring MPs? Is it an academic discipline? How is it different from sociology?

    1. I think teachers who ‘sell’ academic disciplines on ‘you should do history so you can be a historian or politician’ completely miss the point and it doesn’t help their cause. Disciplines provide us with (a) an object of study, (b) a means of uncovering the truth about that object of study, (c) a tradition of prior attempts to find out the truth about that object of study and (d) a community which is advancing knowledge of that object of study. Politics, as an academic discipline, tells us how governments work, sociology tells us how societies work, history tells us how humans were in the past, physics tells us the laws by which things exist, and so on. Turning them into ‘vocational’ subjects by advocating how they lead to particular jobs rather misses the point.

      I see point about breadth of the ICT sector. The breadth itself is possibly an argument for delaying beginning vocational training – becoming a website developer is a relatively narrow field (within a much wider field, which itself exists amongst a huge array of employment fields) and specialising too early there, particularly if it comes at the cost of a broad-based academic educate, might seem a problem. I’d be tempted to say ‘when they’re 15 or 16, let them start making some choices about employment sector, let them do some broad vocational courses at 16-18 in that sector, and then let them specialise at 18-21’. I don’t think this is particularly unreasonable, nor would it hold them back in their career development?

  23. In any TLM qualification the programming language is open to the teacher/candidates to choose. They can use any one they like or more than one. Generally programming languages are linked to libraries and development environments and moving between them is not that difficult, certainly less so than between say MFL type languages. As long as they meet the criteria with credible evidence, the way they do it is up to them. In the exams, programming code will be generic or explained sufficiently so that someone new to it can answer the question. This is a reasonable example of why “vocational” in technology fields especially is not limited to set procedures. There is no guarantee that anyone will stick with one computer programming language for any length of time.

    Developing web sites is universally useful, rather like communicating in writing. Here are a few I knocked together recently.


    Modern equivalent to communication in writing. Blogging is part the way to it and developing whole sites part way to programming more complex systems. There is no sharp dividing line, its a continuum.

    Thing is I could teach those skills at the same time as teaching KS3 physics so why not add the value? It’s nothing to do with getting a job as a web developer, its just useful for presenting your work and evidencing it. It’s useful in gaining an understanding of how digital technologies work. It’s similar to learning to write to convey your ideas on paper its just more demanding both intellectually and in practical implementation.

    The main reason that it won’t happen like that is because too few physics teachers are a) digitally literate enough b) under any real pressure to change what they have always done. That is then reflected across all the other academic disciplines so plus ça change 🙂

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