Is Durham the right place to be opening a low cost private school?

So Professor James Tooley has announced that he intends, with others, to open the first of a chain of low cost private schools in England, starting with the ‘Independent Grammar School, Durham’ in September.   Is this a good idea and will it help to improve the overall standard of education in England and Wales?   I fear not.

Professor Tooley has done inspirational work in the past, highlighting the contribution of low cost private schools to primary education in developing countries.   His book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ is an examination of schools of this type in India and the contribution they have made and continue to make to the education of young people in that country.   Once the model was recognised there, it became easier to find elsewhere in the developing world and low cost private schools, without a shadow of a doubt, make and have made an immense contribution to the availability of a decent education in developing countries.   But does the rub lie therein?   Would it be possible to replicate this model in England, a ‘developed’ country; would it even be appropriate?

Low cost private schools exist in areas where the provision of education by the state is inadequate or even non-existent.   They exist by using mainly unqualified teachers on minimal pay with minimal equipment and facilities.   This is not necessarily such a bad thing – there are many people teaching around the world who do an amazing job without having been formally trained.   These people are often, though not always, college graduates who cannot find a job or feel that they want to give back to the community in which they were raised.   Even where the teachers are qualified, they are usually young women waiting for a coveted position in a government school to become vacant.   They are paid subsistence, or even less than subsistence in some cases, wages.   Thus the school owners are able to keep their fees affordable and the teachers gain experience and provide a much needed service, one which would not be fulfilled were it not for their presence.

Professor Tooley has, with others, created a model of low cost private schools in Ghana that is undoubtedly making a great difference to the lives of young people and their families.   They effectively deliver a basic education where no such opportunity previously existed.   They often provide an alternative to a malfunctioning state system that is too bureaucratic, rigid and tied to the centre, unable and/or unwilling to respond to local needs staffed by time-servers who, having finally acquired a coveted government job, fail to see why they should do anything other than enjoy the fruits of their good fortune.   Government schools where absenteeism is rife, where teachers are to be found more frequently outside the classroom than in it, where students are used to perform menial tasks such as cleaning teachers cars or sweeping playgrounds rather than being taught in a classroom.   Centralised national curricula are taught, when teaching does take place, in large classes with an emphasis on rote learning; bored children endlessly reciting ‘facts’ approved by the government to the exclusion of independent thought or critical thinking.   Low cost private schools in these conditions provide a welcome relief to local parents.   Their teachers turn up and are in front of classes, the learning is a little more relevant to the lives that these children will lead so of course parents will vote with their feet where they can.   Every parent wants the best for their child and, given the alternative, parents will sacrifice whatever they have to in order to give their children the very best that they can afford.

This is the reality of the world in which the low cost private school exists and even thrives. It is not the reality of education in England in the 21st Century, however dystopian a vision one might have.   The Department for Education sets high standards for all students in this country, standards monitored and enforced by a professional organisation, OFSTED, with outcomes measured and evaluated by internationally renowned examination boards.   This is a system which is fair, rigorous and accountable, not open to corruption and distortion by the country’s elites as can be the case in many other, less developed, education systems.   Yes, there are issues with the system as it stands but they are not so fundamental as to require throwing the baby out with the bathwater.   Many of the problems that exist with out education system are not the result of corrupt or lazy and/or incompetent teachers but are the direct result of the persistent politicisation of education by assorted governments of all hues over the years.   The result of constantly shifting goalposts and a harking back through rose-tinted spectacles at some mystical and mythical golden age of education which never actually existed.   The result of well-meant and well-designed initiatives emasculated on the altar of political dogma.

This country does not need the distraction of yet another educational model.   There is no requirement, especially in Durham with its many high-performing state schools, for a third school choice.   Will this school attract not just attention but also cash away from the hard pressed public sector to subsidise the egos of the middle classes of Durham?   That really would be a crime.   Please, Professor Tooley, I beg you, give up on this unnecessary initiative and instead put your considerable experience and talent to work to improve what we have, to work with the state system to develop an education system worthy of our young people, to help give them the tools and skills to become truly global 21st Century citizens ready, willing and able to take their place in society and to contribute to the life and well-being of not just the people of this country but the people of the entire world in which we live, a world which needs all the help it can get.


#EDU8213 Positives, negatives and what was interesting about the use of Twitter and blogs

I have to admit to having started out as very sceptical, particularly around the use of Twitter as a tool for note taking during lectures.   I thought after the first session that my doubts had been confirmed – trying to keep up with other peoples’ comments, make my own and edit them down to 160 characters made the whole experience somewhat dissatisfying.   I thought that the whole thing was ridiculous and detracted from the quality of the conversation, making a mockery of the idea of a quality intellectual debate about something as crucial as children’s education.   How wrong was I proven to be!

In the first session, I found it difficult to keep up with the conversation, difficult to keep my responses down to 160 characters and spent so much time editing and refining responses that I seemed to be somewhat left behind as others posted comments that I dearly would have loved to have responded to but, by the time I was ready to respond, their tweets had disappeared from the timeline and it was time to move on.   By the end of the session I felt disappointed and more than a little annoyed by the whole experience feeling that I had been let down by those responsible.

It was during the second session that the power of using a social media tool to enhance a debate really became apparent as contributors from outside the room, even outside the country, came to be involved.   To be able to have a real time conversation with someone not even in the same country, let alone in the same room, was a tremendous experience and really showed the ability of social media to add value to a course such as this one.   I had learned a little from the experience of the first session, most usefully how to keep track of the comments I was interested in while I composed a response, but also not to worry about missing out on threads in the conversation that might prove interesting while I was concentrating on something else.   This helped considerably to add to my experience in the second session.

I also enjoyed writing the blogs in the evening after each session, while events were still relatively fresh in my mind.   Using “Storify” helped me to locate all the tweets and to see what, if anything, I had missed.   It was also a chance to revisit the session and, although I still don’t like the 160 character limit of Twitter, the combination of the tweets and blogs did add up to a comprehensive set of notes and acted to make the make the many smarter than the few, just as suggested by James Surowiecki in “The Wisdom of Crowds”.

How can this be refined for next year?   A better way of communicating during the sessions than Twitter or, at the very least, at least one or two training sessions for the “Twilliterate”, like me, before trying to use it in earnest.   Overall, though, this was a very enriching and rewarding experience, one that lived up and exceeded its billing and was very definitely intellectually invigorating.


#EDU8213 What is the Future of Learning?

The title of this module was “The Future of Learning” and, over the course of the past 6 weeks the general consensus was very much ‘who knows?’.   That said, there is quite a considerable amount that people contributed during the course of many discussion, both in person and on Twitter and in blogs that could point the way to some general conclusions.   Time is the only thing that will tell if we came anywhere near to the truth or if learning will go off in a completely different and unexpected direction.   What was agreed, and is almost certain to prove to be correct, is that it is very unlikely to look like it does today!   Technology has, and continues to, advance so rapidly that is is inconceivable that it will not have a significant impact on the delivery of education in the future.   It cannot, and neither should it be, however, the future of learning of and in itself.

An idea for the use of technology in the future which came up in one of the earliest discussions was put forward by a colleague, Alan Sunny, in the group in which I was participating and that is the concept of ‘invisible, continuous, assessment’ – the idea that technology would be able to observe learners in the learning environment and make decisions as to whether they had achieved a specific learning objective and record the evidence to show it.   If this could be achieved it would have so many positives – for one thing it would provide an alternative for the current destructive reliance on high-stakes assessment while provide a completely objective method of gauging progress of students and recording the evidence of their achievements for future reference.   Personally I cannot think of a better use in education for technology than this.

The final ‘assignment’ for want of a better word for this particular course was to try to imagine what a school in a town in Mexico would look like in the year 2050.   It was heartening to feel that the entire group still considered that some kind of physical space, a ‘school’, would be needed, even if it included things that would not currently be considered essential for education, such as a farm.   A physical space is essential in order for the socialization of students to take place, a vital if somewhat underestimated consequence of schooling.

The whole group came up with some interesting ideas but what struck me was that no one tried to define what the curriculum would look like, other than it would be a continuum with students progressing based on competency rather than age, after an initial age-based introduction.   Content was very much off the agenda, rightly so in my opinion.   It is impossible to predict what might be on the curriculum in 2050 because we cannot foresee what will be important to society at that time.   A valid question raised was whether what we describe as ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ will still have a place in a future curriculum?   The current pace of advances in technology means that the ability to read, write and perform simple arithmetical tasks may well be one area which could be easily passed to machines in the near future: voice recognition and transcription software already exists.

Were this to happen, it would not be an advance in my opinion.   Apart from the fact that some kind of mental activity is required in the early years of development in order to aid neurological development it raises the question of how much of our humanity are we going to be prepared to pass across to machines?   What are these machines there for – to make our lives easier or to take our lives over?   But that’s a question for another time.

The content of the curriculum will be an essential aspect of the future of learning and raises a number of issues beyond simply schooling but relates to the centrality of why we educate; what is the purpose of education?   The current primacy of economics in every aspect of our lives is worrying, to me at least.   Bodies such as the World Economic Forum, an unelected and unrepresentative trade organisation for the world’s leading multinational corporations is already seeking to dominate national and local school policies by inextricably linking business to education.   Their policies and recommendations seek to enrich these very global corporations by using education systems around the world to produce workers with the “right” skills – those valued and demanded by those very corporations.   This emphasis on “human capital” seeks to determine and control the social capital of the family.   Unchecked, we are heading for a world of rich and poor, haves and have nots, where compassion, altruism and empathy are tools for efficiency rather than drivers for social and economic justice.   Education is a driver for social justice, not a tool for international capitalism and globalisation to increase the (already insane) differential between the top 1% and the bottom 50%.

The biggest danger for the future of education as we know it is not the indiscriminate use of technology but the creeping influence of bodies such as the OECD, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum as they seek to dominate the political and economic agendas of individual countries and the world as a whole, seeking to become the de facto World Government, imposing its doctrines on governments and their people whether they like it or not.

“This could become a world of human worker robots and economic masters who live on a slowly deteriorating planet where the economisation of the environment or, as it is called, sustainable development, results in human inaction to protect the environment and other species.” (Spring, 2015 p.149).   The future of education must lie in resisting the seemingly inexorable progress of the global elite, putting the progress of the human race back in the hands of the ordinary people and restoring balance and harmony to our world.


Spring, J. (2015)  Economization of Education: Human Capital, Global    Corporations, Skills-Based Schooling. New York: Routledge

Elixir of Learning or Snake Oil?

It seems somewhat serendipitous that a bout of squabbling and name-calling broke out in the blogosphere as a series of articles were published on SOLEs and Schools in the Cloud just as EDU8213 on The Future of Learning was drawing to its somewhat unsatisfactory climax (more of that at a later date).   Sugata Mitra in the blue corner being squared up to by the tag team of Tom Bennett and David Didau in the red.   I know Professor Mitra as a student on his Master’s Level module at Newcastle University but Messrs Bennett and Didau are both new to me.   It is obvious that the latter two have little time for the ideas of the former, which is disappointing as there is some merit to parts of Dr Mitra’s argument, even though I may not agree with his conclusions about the future of learning.

Dr Mitra argues that much of what is learned in school is what he has called “just in case” education and that he has not been able to find any estimate of how much is actually used in a lifetime.   My response to that would be – so what?   So what if much of what is taught in school is unused, that in no way means that it was a waste of time being exposed to it in the first place?   So what if we have calculators to help us to multiply three and two digit numbers, that doesn’t mean that there is no satisfaction in knowing how to do it ourselves does it?   And what of the neurological effects of learning.   I’m no expert but I think I understand enough to feel comfortable in saying that the brain needs to be exercised in order for certain pathways within our brains to become “hardwired”, for the neural networks that allow us to do other things to be fixed.   Is that not, in itself, an argument for learning something, even if that something falls into his “just in case” category?

Much of the work on SOLES has been carried out with primary aged children, who have an innate curiosity about the way the world works and the interest to find out more.  It has been carried out as a discreet activity with a purpose, not as a way of delivering an entire curriculum.   Here I have to agree with Dr Mitra’s antagonists that the quality of the research, such as it is, leaves far too much to be desired; a situation I find remarkable given Dr Mitra’s background and training as a physicist.   In the original “Hole in the Wall” experiments, it is said that the children taught themselves English as a result.   Where is the evidence?   Yes, they may have been able to use a computer whose operating system was in English but does that mean that the children have learned English in a way that might allow them to communicate in that language?   Could they not have simply learned, by something as simple as trial and improvement, the particular shape that a word takes that then indicates a particular course of action?   The assertion that they have taught themselves English is not tenable without further corroborating evidence, which has not been supplied.

Where I do agree with Dr Mitra is in his critique of the current system of examinations; high-stakes assessments which dominate so much of UK education practice, to the detriment of the students and education itself.   As he says: “The need for standardisation dumbs the whole system down.”.   Technology could and should be used as a force for good in developing a more appropriate and less threatening way of measuring how well an individual has engaged with the knowledge to which she has been exposed.

Messrs Bennett and Dildau have both presented lengthy discussions on their reasons for opposing Dr Mitra but, for me, the killer comes from Donald Clark in his blog of 29th October 2015 entitled “Mitra’s SOLE – 10 reasons why it is ‘not even wrong‘”.   I have to agree with Clarke’s observation that “It is not clear if this is anything other than traditional project or inquiry based teaching.” – it certainly feels very much like it, albeit with the information much more readily accessible thanks to the internet, wifi and download speeds which were unheard of only a couple of years ago.

I have no doubt whatsoever that there is a place for SOLEs as part of an inclusive and participatory curriculum and as valid and valuable pedagogical tool but they are certainly not “The Future of Learning”.   Which begs two questions: (1) If SOLES are not the future of learning then what are they? and (2) If SOLES are not the future of learning then what is?

In the Year 2050 – with apologies to Zager and Evans

Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window. - Peter Drucker

The challenge this week was to try to predict what education would look like in 2050 by looking at the difference between 1980 and 2015.   Thus a none too comprehensive list of differences between 1980 and now was compiled – internet, mobile phones (communications), PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, smartboards, the National Curriculum, SATs, the rise of high-stakes assessment, league tables were brought up.   It was very obvious that Prof Mitra’s preference was to look at the “advances” in technology rather than the changes in curriculum, assessment and pedagogy.   In some ways, this should hardly be surprising; he is, after all, Professor of Educational Technology but it raised a question in my mind which has been impossible for me to ignore – are we trying to put the cart before the horse here?

Technology should be a support – it should help the delivery of education and the curriculum.  By focusing on how technology might change in the future we are in danger of prioritizing technology over purpose.   A much more important question to be asked is “How is what is declared to be the purpose and content of education going to change in the future?”.   Once that has been decided then we can look to see what technology might be able to do to assist the achievement of the agreed aim or aims.   We need to agree on what we are going to include in education (both the formal and informal curriculum) and then we can work out the best way to deliver it.   Certainly technology will have a role to play, probably a major one, but it will not be the whole story.

Humans learn in many different ways, some of which will be supported by the use of technology and some of which will not.   The recent announcement by the University of Cambridge of the establishment of a permanent LEGO Professorship of Play in Education, Development and Learning shows that there is still much to be discovered in how children acquire knowledge and a variety of stimuli are of the utmost importance now and well into the future.   The “what” and the “why” of education seem to me to be far more important, even fundamental, to the future than the “where” and the “how”.

Education may very well look very different in the future compared to what it looks like now.   There may or may not be buildings that we recognise as schools; the curriculum in 2050 will almost certainly include things of which we cannot even dream in 2015 and the technology available to assist us in educating people (not just children) is yet to be invented but one thing is, I believe, almost certain – the role of technology will be the same as it is today; supportive but not the primary driver.  The internet should not (and, I trust, will not) be the fountain of all knowledge, the modern day equivalent of the Oracle at Delphi.    It has already shown its vulnerability to manipulation and this will only increase in the future as it becomes more central to our lives.   Relying on such a flawed tool as the sole (pun intended) source of knowledge is foolhardy, dangerous and invites dictatorship and demagoguery.   The internet, and technology in general, has a vital role to play in supporting humankind in the future but it should not be endowed with powers that it cannot have.   Education is a human right and, as such, should not be given to machines, however artificially intelligent they might be, to deliver.


The Future of learning – some further, very personal, musings…..

The provocation at the heart of this session was “How will children acquire their knowledge and skills” and we were invited first to reflect on our own schooling and to identify our favourite teacher.   For me that was both very easy and very difficult – George Hamilton, the Head at my Primary school and the man who first helped me experience the wonder of finding out about things.   That was easy but more difficult was leaving out all those other amazing people who helped me along my road and the more I thought about them the more I remembered them, see them in my minds eye as they were all those years ago.   George Barlow, Peter Ince, Roger Dalladay (who called me “Grumio” since, according to our first latin book “Grumio est coquus”), Ian Harvey, Chris “Bernie” Holt, Alan Rowe my first form tutor, ACVF – Major Andrew Charles Vincent Foster – who had a mean trick of sneaking up behind you and grasping your earlobe firmly between the nails of his thumb and forefinger (and also had to explain the meaning of the word “lethargic” to me after describing me as such on a school report) but then completely surprised me by standing by me at a most difficult time of my (then) short life, Sean Wylie who was described in his obituary in the Guardian as being second only to Alan Turing in his contribution to the success of Hut 8 at Bletchley Park; the list goes on.

Why can I remember those people so very clearly after 40 years (and more)?   They were so very much more than teachers.   They were advisors, companions, mentors, intellectual safety-net holders, challengers, guides, role models but never, ever friends.   They instilled in me the love of finding out stuff that I retain to this day; they were the reason I became a teacher because I know how very lucky I was to have known them and how much they meant to me.   They changed my life and I have a debt to them which I hope I have repaid in some small measure by trying to give the same gift to others.

Why is this important?   To me, it’s important because it shows the power that education and, especially, a teacher has to change the world.   But they have to be given the time, the space and, most importantly, the trust of Society to do it.   I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that all this took place before the advent of the National Curriculum, SATs, OFSTED and school league tables.   Education is about so much more than learning stuff but it seems that the powers that be have forgotten that.   I was so very lucky to be in a time and at a place that realised that and allowed the teachers to do exactly what they were supposed to do: teach.

So – how will children acquire their knowledge and skills in the future?   If they’re really lucky, with the help of people as dedicated and talented as those named above.

Response to The Conversation blog

The OECD report referred to in the very first line reports results that are hardly rocket science to anyone who has been involved in teaching secondary school students at any time in the last twenty years.   Any teacher will tell you that it is not the presence of the machines that makes a difference to the teaching and learning that goes on in a classroom but the use to which they are put.   In fact, incorrectly used, technology can have a negative impact so the introduction of any new technology has to be accompanied by sufficient training and resources to allow said technology to full effect; sadly this is rarely the case, in the UK at least.   Smartboards, pcs, laptops, tablets, money has been thrown at introducing all of these into the classroom but rarely has the expenditure on hardware been matched by resources being provided for the training that will allow these to be used most effectively.   Teachers are usually left to try and work them out for themselves having been given some rudimentary and all too brief introduction by a sales manager on their introduction into the classroom.   Of course SMT, having spent a large slice of their annual capital budget on these innovations, want and expect to see results instantly.   And then there’s Andreas Schleicher – how much does he get paid I wonder for stating the blindingly obvious?   But, as the BBC News article makes clear, his role in this is to sell more PISA tests, especially given the competition in this particular marketplace from TIMMS…….   Thus we come to the crux of the problem – too much emphasis on high-stakes testing as the measure of educational outcomes, as if students are just commodities on a factory production line.

As long as teachers, schools (and, thanks to the likes of PISA and TIMMS, nations) are going to be measured by their results on such high stakes summative assessments then the results of these assessments are going to be the subject of manipulation and gaming.   To give an example: a Head of Dept in an English Secondary School is informed by SMT at the start of the year that he, and his dept., will be deemed to be successful or otherwise on the basis of their GSCE results – the target for the year is 75% of students gaining grade C or above.   More than 75% – plaudits all round and maybe even a payrise, less than 75% and the blame game starts and the HoD’s job is on the line.   It doesn’t take a genius to work out the result – C/D borderline students are targetted to ensure that as many Ds as possible are turned into Cs.   A student who is expected to gain a grade A is effectively ignored.   They are safely over the threshold anyway and therefore are not going to impact on the all-important C or above percentage – no matter that with a little extra help they might have gained an A* or had a more fulfilling experience immersed in their subject.   The student expected to gain an E or below – well, they are never going to improve by 2 grades so again there’s no reason to invest valuable time or resources as they are not going to make an impact on that all important 75% either so they are left to drift.   Bored and alone they are quite likely to vote with their feet before the end of the school year – much to the relief of the subject teacher as their boredom had turned into disruptive behaviour and meant that valuable time that needed to be spent with the target group had to be “wasted” in dealing with that behaviour.

Internet-enabled exams are not the “simple solution” suggested, but that’s not to say that they may not have a place in a future assessment scheme.   The first thing that always springs to my mind when technology is trumpeted as the new panacea is – what happens when it breaks.   And break it always does, usually at the most inconvenient time.  Internet connections fail, electricity supplies are interrupted, software is corrupted or just plain doesn’t do what it is supposed to.   Then what happens?

Technology does have a role to play in a new assessment regime but a supporting role, not a central one.   The only way to remove the tyranny of high-stakes summative assessment is to replace it with assessment which has taken place over a longer time period, been more formative in its approach – in other words, continuous assessment.   The kind of questions envisioned by the authors can then form part of the assessment process alongside more traditional methods of assessing learning.   Then assessment can be where it belongs, at the heart of teaching and learning, wherever it takes place (which may or may not be in a traditional classroom, or even school).

We’ve been here before, or close by anyway, in the late 1980s with the introduction of GCSE examinations and the National Curriculum.   The original concept of the NC was based on students providing evidence, throughout their school careers, that they had mastered certain skills and knowledge defined by the government as being appropriate for a particular level.   The problem with this, as I remember only too well at the start of my teaching career, was record keeping and recording the evidence – this is one area where the technology available today could certainly make everyone’s life easier.   GCSEs – most, if not all, of them had coursework elements where students were given open-ended tasks and encouraged to think for themselves.   Over the years these were gradually killed off because of gaming of the system by unscrupulous (or over-pressurised) teachers and students but also by a succession of government ministers of education who just didn’t understand education and wanted a return to the O Levels and A Levels that they had to take because that’s what they understood and that’s what they deemed valuable.

There have been some attempts by some Examination Boards to try to introduce examinations that emphasise research, critical thinking and problem solving skills, that aim to develop those very “21st century skills…….associated with the effective use of multiple forms of technology.” asked for in the article.   Cambridge International Examinations have, for example, an A Level in Global Perspectives and Research and an AS Level General Paper both of which assess the 21st century skills referred to in the article.   The problem?   The Universities which choose to specifically exclude as eligible for consideration for entry requirements such exams (including, I am ashamed to say, Newcastle University)meaning that students are reluctant to invest the time and effort required to take them.

Schools’ curricula are driven by external examinations, examination boards are driven by the universities and, increasingly, by the demands of commerce and industry so until the Universities and employers themselves start to value “21st century skills” by encouraging applicants for both degree courses and jobs to take these new subjects and examinations, then I’m afraid that we will just have to make do with what we have, even though most right minded people realise that the current system is obsolescent and becoming ever more unfair and unfit for purpose.