Knowledge, skills and ‘dead white males’

Comment by Terry Wrigley, Northumbria University

In a recent debate Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the NEU, has made a bold challenge to the assumptions behind the current National Curriculum. She argued against its backwardness, narrow nationalism, and neglect of skills. It is not surprising that she has come under attack on social media from people who either don’t understand or deliberately misrepresent her arguments.


Mary Bousted tackled the backwardness of the curriculum head on: England is “hurtling forward to a rosy past”. ‘Skills’ has become a dirty word for some leading Conservatives, yet high-performing countries such as Singapore are “introducing a more skills-based approach” with greater emphasis on problem-solving and communication skills and “less memorisation of facts”. It is clear from the TES report that Bousted wasn’t attacking knowledge but rather calling for knowledge and skills to work together:

“You can’t teach skills in a vacuum. You need content and knowledge, but neither can you ignore skills and hope in the process of acquiring knowledge they will somehow magically be taught.”

It is important to think about this word ‘skills’, and avoid a simplistic application. Elitists associate skills with manual work, which they assume is unthinking and doesn’t involve knowledge. They should pay more attention to the mechanic fixing their car. Maybe they just don’t associate ‘skills’ with brain surgeons, architects or journalists. ‘Skills’ can also refer to our approaches to learning: determination, initiative, willingness to share ideas.

A curriculum based on knowledge without skills withers into a pointless accumulation of information without critical thinking or creative application. It is foolish to assume that insisting on ‘problem solving skills’ means neglecting knowledge.

‘Powerful knowledge’

This expression was introduced by Michael Young out of concern that vocational courses in schools were depriving working-class students of their entitlement to knowledge. He rightly insists on the importance of scientific or historical knowledge for all young people, as a basis for understanding the world.

Unfortunately (see my article) he has tried to separate the content of school subjects from everyday knowledge and experience.

“The curriculum should exclude the everyday knowledge of students.”

“If education is to be emancipatory… it has to be based on a break with experience.”

On the contrary, knowledge can only become ‘powerful’ and liberating if young people are able to apply formal knowledge to real situations and concerns. A good example of this is the Chicago teacher Eric (Rico) Gutstein who built his maths lessons around housing problems and inequalities in the city. Socially engaged English teachers in the 1970s, guided by Harold Rosen and others, took the urban experiences and linguistic diversity of their students seriously. Rosen and his colleagues knew how to move learners from autobiographical writing towards critical discussion of social problems. It is not ’emancipatory’ simply to load students with knowledge in the hope that they might apply it critically when they are older.

The other ideal for Gove and his followers is Hirsch’s ‘core knowledge’ curriculum. Hirsch wanted all young Americans to acquire a broad ‘cultural literacy’, but the long list of noteworthy people he produced was overwhelmingly white.

The other problem is that Hirsch mixes up ‘knowledge’ with endless lists of inert facts. Rather than all students receiving a rich curriculum, the sheer weight of content results in passive and superficial memorisation. Working-class students are thrown scraps from off the rich man’s table. While more privileged students are learning to play the trombone, poorer students in underfunded state schools end up labelling images of trombones on a worksheet.

“Dead white males”

Judging by the excitement on Twitter, Mary Bousted’s ‘dead white male’ phrase was a red rag to a bull.

This expression has become a cliché but is still a useful reminder to think seriously about which writers are chosen for study in English Literature courses. There is nothing sacrosanct about them, and the course may be narrow because it neglects female, Asian or contemporary writers.

It obviously doesn’t mean replacing William Shakespeare with Arundhati Roy simply to be representative. Both can stimulate student’s thinking in radical ways. Shakespeare may serve as an icon of British heritage for traditionalists, but almost all the royals in his plays are seriously dysfunctional.

We shouldn’t forget the struggles to broaden the curriculum – to recognise the Muslim contribution to mathematics and science, to teach African perspectives on British imperialism, to give Urdu equal recognition with French. This isn’t only so that Black and Asian students can identify – a narrowly English view of the world is impoverished and misleading.

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“Pull yourself together, child!”

England is in the middle of a mental health crisis for young people, and a major cause is the way in which they are being put under pressure to achieve. It happens at university: 146 students killed themselves in 2016 and at Bristol three students have died suddenly in the past month alone. Some institutions have noticed a three-fold increase in the number of people trying to access support services.

Problems often start during the teenage years, but there is a disturbing pattern of much younger children showing signs of stress and self-harming. A recent survey pointed to children as young as four suffering from panic attacks, eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

There are various reasons for this, including the massive anxieties generated in families by poverty. But last year the Education Select Committee, which includes MPs of all parties, pointed to the mental health damage caused by high-stakes SATs testing.

Last week the Select Committees for Health and Education met together. They condemned the government’s strategy as too weak and too slow. It pushes the problem back to schools, expecting a teacher to receive extra training as a ‘mental health lead’.

After listening to young people, the MPs demanded that the government should gather independent evidence on the impact of tests on children’s wellbeing.

As usual, government ministers such as Nick Gibb were in denial.

A new research paper by Ceri Brown and Sam Carr at Bath University ‘Education policy and mental weakness’ explains what is fundamentally wrong with the government’s response. Teachers are being expected to repair the damage but the way schools are now run is itself a cause.

Children are struggling against high levels of stress and in constant fear of failure. They are expected to carry responsibility for their future test results and drive themselves too hard.

The government’s response has been to demand more ‘resilience’ from children. In the words of former education minister Nicky Morgan, what is needed is ‘character education’ which means the ability to survive in the school of hard knocks.

“With character comes the confidence and determination not to be beaten. It’s that attitude that says ‘dust yourself off and try again’.”

The words that keep coming up in her speeches are drive, grit and coping skills.


Parents are also being blamed, and especially working-class families, but with no mention of lack of work or financial stress.

This is hard enough for children who are generally doing well at school but what about the large numbers the system is failing. Last year 2 out of 5 children were failed in at least one of Reading, Writing and Mathematics at the end of primary school. Nearly half of children born in August failed one of the tests, and nearly 3 out of 5 children on free school meals.

Being told you need more ‘grit’ is a kick in the teeth to these children. They are being blamed for what they are suffering at school. Not only is high-stakes testing and the high failure rate damaging their self esteem, saying they lack ‘resilience’ implies that they are failed human beings.

Rather than the government taking responsibility for the damage they have caused, they are individualising and medicalising the problem by treating this as a mental health ‘weakness’. It’s time parents and teachers put a stop to all this.

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Primary school tests: what can parents do?


We recently published information about Key Stage 2 SATs in a blog post called Protecting children from primary school tests. It was based on the official instructions sent to headteachers by the Standards and Testing Agency, known as the Assessment and Reporting Arrangements (ARA).

It is often assumed that headteachers have to make every child do the tests. That is clearly not the case. The document explicitly states that some children should not take them, including ‘pupils who are experiencing, or have recently experienced, severe emotional problems‘ (page 18). Although the document gives heads the final decision, it instructs them to ‘discuss the pupil’s circumstances and needs with their parents and teachers‘.

Children often hold back their emotions in school. They are more likely to confide in parents, and parents are more likely to notice signs of anxiety. One of our researchers heard yesterday from a Liverpool parent who wrote:

“The SATs have caused him a lot of distress and he started suffering anxiety attacks in Autumn last year.”

A recent letter to the Manchester Evening News from a parent boycotting the SATs said

“I pulled my son out. It meant he wasn’t crippled with stress, anxiety and gastric migraines throughout the whole of Y6”.

Earlier in the year, a mum wrote to the Manchester Evening News that her 10-year-old daughter was distressed because the SATs were making her friend suicidal.

It appears that some heads are taking a tough line when approached by parents. This is a very foolish stance. Headteachers have a duty of care, and should realise that parents don’t interfere lightly. There could be very serious consequences if the child suffered harm.

Parents withdrawing children from Key Stage 2 tests

I am not a test score

In the last resort, parents can keep children off school for the days of the tests. KS2 SATs take place on 14th to 17th May this year. English tests are on Monday and Tuesday. Maths papers 1 and 2 are on Wednesday and Maths paper 3 on Thursday. If a child returns to school on the Thursday however, there is little sense them taking paper 3 as the marks don’t count.

The instructions to heads make it clear that they can only get children to take the tests late under strict conditions:

1) The absence must be for a legitimate reason such as illness. If it is ‘unauthorised’, the tests cannot be taken late. That applies when parents keep their children at home to avoid the tests.

2) Even for an authorised absence such as illness, the parent has to guarantee that the child

  • was kept apart from other pupils taking, or who have taken, the test
  • hasn’t had access to the test content through using the internet, a mobile or any other means during the test period. (page 24)

Obviously parents who are opposed to the tests will write to the head to say they can’t give these guarantees.

Some parents are worried about fines. The law actually arose to deal with Anti-Social Behaviour but was extended to penalise term-time holidays. It allows local authorities to impose a penalty of £60 for ‘irregular attendance’. This usually requires a minimum of five full days off school.

Parents withdrawing children from Key Stage 1 and phonics tests

The phonics test can take place at any time from 11-15 June, or the following week if the child is away. This makes it very difficult to avoid this absurd test by keeping a child off school.

The Key Stage 1 tests are even more difficult for parents to boycott, as they take place any time in May.

Unlike Key Stage 2, the instructions to heads don’t mention emotional problems. Theysimply tell heads and teachers they might have to modify the tests to accommodate pupils with special educational needs, limited fluency in English or who have ‘behavioural, emotional or social difficulties’.

It is clear from the document that the Key Stage 1 tests aren’t meant to be stressful. There is a recommended time for each test (20, 30, 35 or 40 minutes), but this is flexible: the teacher can give children longer, allow them a rest break half way through, or even stop the test early if a child is struggling. The school doesn’t send in the marks, but simply uses them as part of the teacher’s ongoing assessment of each child.

Despite this, because of Ofsted’s pressures on schools, some heads are piling pressure on teachers and children. Young children are being sent home with extra homework and practice tests, and anxiety is being generated.

Because the test can happen at any time this month, parents may have to puzzle out other ways to protest and protect their children.



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The looming Baseline test disaster



The Government are intent on introducing baseline tests of 4-year-old children. This could have dire consequences by putting a cap on many children’s learning.
 The tests will give teachers the impression that each child’s future potential can be calculated.

This is not even possible 3 years later. A new analysis of KS1 tests by Education Datalab shows the dangers of a belief in fixed ability.

The data shows that a third of the children scoring only Level 1 in Reading and Writing at age 7 went on to get a C or higher in English. In fact, 16% of seven-year-olds who were below Level 1 achieved B or C grades for GCSE English, and 1% achieved an A or A*.

The dangers of early prediction are even higher for children with English as an Additional Language. Nearly half of children in this category scoring Level 1 in reading and writing went on to get a C or higher in English.

The new Baseline tests will create the impression of scientific accuracy. This will increase the tendency of schools to segregate children into different “ability groups”. They will affect the way teachers – and parents – think about children.

The children with the lowest scores could receive a more restricted curriculum, with less interest and challenge. Low scores at Baseline will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some groups are more at risk than others:

  • children speaking little English at home
  • children growing up in poverty
  • summer-born children who are barely 4 when tested
  • children with various forms of special needs
  • children affected by family breakdown
  • children who have suffered ill health
  • children who are slow to settle at school.

However, the Baseline tests are a danger for every child. They will encourage a curriculum with limited play or learning from direct experience, which will be inappropriate for young children.


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Grammar schools do not overcome disadvantage

New research has further undermined the Government’s case for expanding grammar schools. Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui (Durham University) have taken a closer look at the Department for Education’s data, revealing some neglected factors.

It was already beyond doubt that children from poorer families stand less chance of getting into grammar school. In fact,  grammar schools take in very few children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods even if they are very successful in primary school (research by Cribb, Sibieta and Vignoles 2013).

This new research confirms that only 2.4% of grammar school pupils are currently eligible for free school meals, compared with 14% of all pupils across England. But it also looks at how long they have been on free meals.

This is important because, on average, attainment is lower for every extra year someone is on free meals. These researchers show that

“grammar schools not only take very few FSM pupils, they also only take the less chronically poor even among those few.”

4% of pupils nationally are on free meals throughout their school lives, but only 0.4% of grammar school pupils. Only 86 chronically disadvantaged pupils attend grammar schools across the whole of England.

The researchers conclude that, once you take all factors into account, pupils affected by poverty do no better at grammar school than elsewhere. FSM-eligible pupils at grammar schools appear to do quite well because, on the whole, their families are on a low income for only a short period of time. For example, one of their parents might be without a job for three or four months. Most FSM-eligible pupils attending grammar schools are atypical.

The researchers also argue that there are hidden factors for which we have little data. Pupils gaining a grammar school place may make more progress because they “may already be more motivated to succeed or have parents who are more engaged in their education“.

Such factors are almost impossible to measure. One clue from the data is that grammar school pupils had already made unusually fast progress between KS1 and KS2. This suggests that their rapid progress from age 11 to 16 isn’t due to attending a grammar school but because of other factors (determination, curiosity, confidence, parental support etc).

There are obvious educational benefits from having graduate parents in professional occupations, and who can pay for private tuition if your results aren’t great. The vast majority of pupils at grammar school enjoy such advantages. None of this is captured by statistics which merely contrast pupils eligible and not eligible for free school meals. Advocates of grammar school selection are simply not comparing like with like.

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Protecting children from primary school tests

The damage caused by primary school testing to children’s education and wellbeing is now very clear. Among other effects, it has helped to create a crisis in children’s mental health.

As we know, large numbers of children are now suffering serious levels of anxiety because of test pressures, or for other reasons such as family poverty or family breakdown. The Child Law advice page reminds heads that:

Every school teacher owes a pupil a duty of care.

The school has to do what is reasonably practical to ensure they care for their pupils, as any reasonable parent would do.

It lists among possible danger signs:

  • anxiety
  • low mood
  • panic attacks
  • phobias
  • eating disorders
  • some self-harming behaviour.

A recent survey shows an increase in mental health issues around the time of the SATs and children’s increasing fear of failure.

In April last year the House of Commons Select Committee on Primary Assessment  reached very critical conclusions about SATs and other primary school tests. They declared that

“The high stakes system can negatively impact teaching and learning, leading to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing.”

The Government has ignored these conclusions. It set up a phoney survey with questions limited to peripheral issues. The new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, has now blocked any reduction in testing. His statement that there would be no more changes means no hope of any reduction, and in fact he is continuing to implement three extra tests: multiplication tables, Baseline for four year olds, and what has been called ‘Baby PISA’ for children in nurseries.

This puts the ball back in the court of schools and parents to protect children’s interests and wellbeing. But what can they do?

Reclaiming Schools researchers have been asked by parents to look at official documents to find an answer. These are the implications for heads and for parents.  Continue reading

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Progress 8 and the North East

Schools in North East England are under attack again. According to Progress 8 scores, its schools are the least effective in the country, with the highest percentage coming ‘below the floor’.

But Progress 8 is a flawed and misleading measure. It assumes that social factors make no difference. Once again, the Government are in denial about poverty and the economy. It’s so much easier to attack teachers again.

According to official data, 21% of schools are ‘below the floor’, compared with 12% nationally. Consequently, 31 secondary schools will be targeted for urgent Ofsted inspections. They are likely to receive negative judgements, however good the teaching is: that is how the system works. They will be forced to become academies … those that aren’t already!

Researchers have pointed out the  flaws in Progress 8 very clearly, but the Government has ignored the warnings. Actually it isn’t difficult to show why the North East is scoring particularly low, and the reasons are beyond schools’ control.

i) The new scoring system has resulted in a third more schools being classed as ‘below the floor’. This is true across England, but affects some schools more than others.

ii) Poverty has a big impact on pupils’ progress: on average, students on free school meals score -0.5 on Progress 8. (-0.5 is also the threshold for ‘below the floor’.) Schools with large numbers of FSM students are far more likely to score below. In the North East, 17% of students are FSM (13% nationally). In some places it’s worse:

  • 24% Middlesbrough
  • 23% Newcastle
  • 20% Sunderland
  • 19% South Tyneside
  • 19% Hartlepool.

Not surprisingly, all these areas have large numbers of schools ‘below the floor’. Continue reading

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