Category Archives: Think

Critical and purposeful reflection on your teaching

A trip to the Black Country Living Museum

A month ago, we packed the family into our ageing Megan, and travelled to the Black Country to see relatives and visit one of my favourite Museums, the Black Country Museum.  Sharing a hotel room with your tweenage family was, it turns out, a bit like sleeping in a busy badger set. Sighing, coughing, burping and breaking wind keeps us all awake as, outside, urban foxes voice the sleepless frustration that bubbles away inside.  In the morning we emerged blinking to breakfast next door at the brewer’s fayre – the idiopathic y adding little authenticity to the atmosphere of disinfectant and yesterday’s grease.

Then on to the Black Country Living Museum. I have been to the museum several times during my time teaching in Reading. That we were prepared to travel from Reading to Stourbridge with a coach full of kids to visit the museum year after year illustrates how highly we thought of the museum as a learning experience.  Put briefly, I loved that trip when I was teaching, and loved the way that the children learned from it.

One of the great things about the museum is the way it puts human scale against the Industrial. Maddy hates ‘ humanoids’ as she puts it – hating being at the bottom of the unhappy valley where ‘almost humans’ explain things that have emotional significance. All of us NT’s enjoyed the way that these helped us see the individual stories that in turn enabled us to see the bigger picture, and Maddy was able to listen to and later to recall with interest their stories of underground food and drink – ‘tack’ underground as well as the dangers of each of the different methods of digging out the coal.

Most memorable from their point of view was the young man sitting in the mine bottom, waiting for the pit pony and driver at a ventilation door, so unimportant that he was not allowed a candle. We imagined the stories that the child would tell itself in the dark – waiting for the sound of the hooves or the glimmer of a candle to disrupt the 12 hour shift, sitting on the floor of the tunnel in silence.

The museum covers industrial technical history – in the shape of the mine already discussed, but also using a working Newcomen EngineUntitled

This engine was used to pump water from mines – it is amazing in action – dramatic smoke and a swinging pump arm full of crashing power in a tall room full of heat. Underneath the machine is the weirdly hypnotic ash-pit. My young nephew spent a good 5 minutes watching the embers flitting down to the cooling ash pile.

UntitledAbove ground, the first houses you see are earlier than many of the other domestic settings, Pitt’s cottage, a one story self-built home, which contrasts with the back-to-backs further in to the museum, one of which is set slightly later in 1891 (and highly suggestive of overcrowding and poverty) and the other, set much more comfortably in 1924.

Where I think the museum is missing a trick is in not making more of the change over time (or perhaps even change over geography) aspects of the different houses and displays that they have gathered from around the black country. There is an element of this – many of the shops on the top row are more obviously from the 1930s – though the school is earlier – perhaps late 1800s.

UntitledOften however we’re just ‘in the past’. There’s a wealth of information on the website, but not much available as you wander around. It would take a strong guide to explain the transitions and contrasts between buildings and chronological periods, but I think this would be a worthwhile aim of the museum.

UntitledThere are very strong guides at the museum – the children particularly enjoyed the lady in the Chemist shop. Despite looking the model of idealised Victorian female propriety she was more than willing to delight in explaining the use of suppositories. She also showed the children how ‘the Victorians’ made pills, which they were enthralled by.


It’s this handiness, the skill and often very hard labour involved in production that stays with me after a trip to the BCM. This is especially true of that the different kinds of metal work that the Black Country specialised in. Watching a man working in the Nail Shop not only shows the great skills involved in working metal and also in working metal so quickly that they could make a living out of it (there’s a great video on the page to show you how it was done), but the physical nature of the labour – the hardness of the work. The hammers, mangles, wash tubs, fire grates, carpet beaters, brushes, mops, files and other tools are on display in areas around the museum – in shops, in the hands of dummies, laid out on the floors of houses as if momentarily dropped or left. When you step back and consider how much of the work achieved by people using those tools is now achieved through the use of energy (in the form of fossil fuels, mostly) you realise how much the consumption of such energy has changed our lives.

UntitledI’m reading (slowly, it’s very long!) Frank Trentmann’s ‘Empire of Things’, which alongside this trip has made me realise how much today’s consumption of ‘goods’ is based on the provision of things like water, energy and sanitation that allows us to operate them, but which also gives us the time to operate and enjoy them. This is the other thing that I think the BCLM is perhaps missing – it’s implicit in the gas lamps, the coal scuttles and the water pipes, and in the bridges, canals and trolley buses, but I think that it too could be brought out more.

I’ll end this rambling set of reflections with what was a real treat. I’m a wannabe baker (isn’t everyone these days) and as a family we really liked looking into the Victorian bakery. The heat (it was a cold day) was very welcome, the smells and the bread, basic human nourishment, alongside the excellent volunteer guide, made us think very carefully about how people lived, how they fed themselves, and enjoyed life despite the difficulties. Last week we watched the excellent ‘Victorian Bakers‘ on the BBC iplayer and recognised the bakery on the second episode of the show. We were really gripped by the way the programme explored the nature of bread production over time – how it changed, what stayed the same, how the meaning of bread itself changed over time.

Victorian England, and the Victorian Black Country in particular wasn’t one ‘thing’ or even a set of different class-based ‘things’ – it was a time of unprecedented change in almost every aspect of the way people lived, ate, socialised, organised, travelled, and how they voted and persuaded each other – which is what the Victorian Bakers and the Victorian Slum BBC programmes were so good at helping us to see. If I had one wish for the BCM it would be that they found ways to explain this in more depth – perhaps even to help us walk though, in and out of these changes and make explicit comparisons and contrasts.

A personal archaeology of skills.

500px-bifaz_con_percutor_blandoI first became aware of the possibility of being a writer* during my professional legal training. Before then I experienced only moderate success, and limited satisfaction, when I wrote. I struggled to communicate my ideas and lacked confidence that I could structure an argument or marshal evidence.

However my awareness of a crucial change came not as a result of learning to argue. There was no dramatic damascene moment in which my mock-trial performance convinced me, or a thrilled audience, that I was to be the next Michael Mansfield. Truth is, my advocacy skills are distinctly lacklustre. I go red. Over adrenalized, I splutter, and angrily forget crucial words and arguments.

No, my awareness of a transformation into someone who thought they might, possibly, be able to write came as I was taught to draft contracts.

Contracts are attempts to explain and describe a reality – an agreement between parties. They also attempt to cater for known and unknown situations that will occur in the future. Drafting them requires general skills – methodical working, careful checking of details, clarity of aims as well as specific ones – careful definition of terms, building the mechanics of information flow through the instrument, defining and then engaging legal subroutines in particular circumstances. You also need to know a lot – contract law, rules about consumer protection, about product safety, regulation, taxation, attestation, consideration, the list goes on.

Writing these contracts taught me the value of a plan, which then changed, of key terms, which were then adapted, of structures, which had to be re-structured, and of checking, drafting, re-drafting, looking things up, testing and re-visiting. They taught me to look at things from the point of view of my client, from the view of their business partners, and from that of other legal professionals who might read it in the future in an attempt to understand the parties’ agreement and intentions. The contract had to protect the interests of the first, allow the second to recover the legitimate advantage that the parties had agree would be their ‘consideration’ under that agreement and give the third enough information to enforce that agreement in case of dispute.

How was I taught this? I was taught what the bits of a contract did, just as everyone else in my class was, and the kinds of things you have to take into account when taking instructions. I was taught the laws and conventions that govern the formation of legal agreements, and how these related to contract drafting. We were all taught this.

I know this sounds daft, ridiculous but, unlike for most people in that class, for me drafting contracts was fun and even exhilarating. [Alan Partridge]I took to drafting a contract like one of David Attenborough’s peregrine falcons takes to the New York skyline. Yes, I got into scrapes, false starts, mistimed dives, but I was held aloft by thermals, could see the skyscrapers, the trees, the landscape and the details [/Alan Partridge]. Not everyone could do this – but I could. I could do it well, with an enjoyable, wing-beating, effort.

But did this awareness, this enjoyment emerge from earlier experiences, was it because of what I already knew, or what I could already do? Why was I able to dive into this? Why did I take to it?

I think it was because I spent my early teenage years programming computers. I had a ZX81 which I taught to swear on screen (once spent a lovely afternoon teaching my uncle’s Dragon to actually say ‘bugger’ in response to certain key presses). Eventually I turned my ’81 into an alarm system for my bedroom. Then I was given a Spectrum into which I would pour hours of typing – entering and then debugging programmes taken from computer enthusiast magazines. I learned how to structure, to test, to go-back-and-fix.

Why, in turn, was I able to invest such time, why was I able to understand how the different parts of a programme fitted together?

When I was much younger I often played with a ‘Bigtrack’ robot – using simple keypad commands to negotiate the smooth floors of our new-build 70s semi, in order to deliver ‘just in time’ Lego bricks to the road layout where I was learning to build parts out of other parts. Bricks into doors, floors, windows, into houses, houses into towns. At the same time I loved taking things apart – my grandad would bring round old radios for me to take to bits – ask questions about, crunch underfoot. I played at putting things together and at taking them apart.

From first principles of deconstruction and construction, to learning about physical movement then how information can move and flow through text, how routes through a programme are constructed by routines, subroutines, blocks of stored data mediated by defined and fluid variables into defined terms, clauses, sub-clauses and sections, I travelled towards being able to write well (or better at least!). I transferred this growing understanding, these skills to new and different domains, one after the other. Later I used the same skills to help me conceive, draft, re-draft and improve pieces of non-fiction writing, first on various OU courses, then in writing summaries and worksheets for pupils. After this I moved on to writing for websites, a podcast and then several books. At each stage I picked up new skills and knowledge, and new dispositions, but these all built on the same skills – the same bits of my brain lighting up and modifying with each task – as had lit up all those years before when I typed:

10 Print ‘Hello Ed’
20 Goto 10.


*this doesn’t mean being a professional writer, or earning money from writing, but _being_ someone who interacts with the world partly through writing, who enjoys it almost as much as he hates it, but who has to do it .

Tweet tweet! That’s the sound of the police…

6364040129_125d4754ef_mI’ve been thinking about (and will probably have been writing this post) for quite a long time – collecting examples of a kind of twitter behaviour that has been interesting me for some time.

A key feature of many edu-twitter users’ online life is the seeking out of practice that they disagree with or find abhorrent, in order that they can publicise their worries and coral condemnation from their followers.  I’m writing this piece not as a form of condemnation, but as an opportunity for me to  explore why this phenomenon makes me so uncomfortable. It’s inspiration is this tweet by @mrhistoire, a brilliant and thoughtful teacher who I have followed for ages – and with whom I agreed when he tweeted:

This isn’t history – nominally it is about the past, but that doesn’t mean ‘history’.  I could imagine ways of improving this, but not without relating to wider histories of gaming or leisure. Even with much effort not to such an extent that I can imaging spending any of the precious and restricted curriculum time reserved for history in primary or secondary schools.

So, I agree – end of post?

Well, no.  I wanted to know where Toby had found this poor bullet point – so I asked him. It turns out that this was from a page that was tweeted around by @C_Hendrick – another tweeting teacher whose work I’ve long read and admired.

Carl’s tweet included more items from the list of activities that this teacher was recommending:

Carl’s comment made me uncomfortable, especially when considered in the light of a tweet that he sent earlier in the week:

I’m not getting here at Carl personally.  These are just two examples of the kinds of tweet that I’m concerned with – there are many others.  In fact they have a long (hey, everything is relative) history.  We could argue that there is a tradition which has seen followers of various tweeters present them with ‘gifts’ of tweets or webpages that they hope might be tweeted around as examples of practice, beliefs or resources that can be pronounced as ‘beyond the pale’.


There will be other examples.

Why do these things worry me so much?  Why do I find them unpleasant – so much so that I have un-followed many (not all) of those who do this?

A big part of this might be because I (like many other people) don’t enjoy having my ideas challenged.  I’m quite interested in the sociology of education, and therefore how theories such as Bourdieu’s might be used to understand aspects of it.  @JamesTheo’s post might therefore be one that I find distasteful because it challenges my own preconceptions and beliefs.  Even though I’m also someone who tries to seek out ideas that challenge my views – and enjoy reading and being convinced by others perhaps sometimes these tweets force me to face up to things that are at the core of my world view – this might explain some of the feelings they inspire.  However many of these tweets I agree with (Toby French on the value of creating a ‘history of pokemon’ for instance).  Nonetheless, it is highly likely that some of this discomfort comes from feelings of disorientation and challenge.

What partly worries me is the way that these tweets make twitter the sort of place where one comes for a duel, a spat, rather than a place to find out, explore or improve.  I’ll admit that I’m someone who doesn’t like conflict or aggression – emotionally as well as intellectually.  I just feel uncomfortable when I see others being attacked, even @philipdavies (though he seems to like it).  I can’t help wondering how they feel, what effect this is having on them.

Intellectually I fear that such tweets are counter productive – that they create feelings of aggression and being under-attack which make it hard for anyone to understand either (1) how others are to be persuaded to change or (2) why their ideas or practice might need to be re-examined.  Misapprehensions and conceptions which are attacked to aggressively tend to be un-examined and instead tenaciously defended or driven underground in silent protection.

I detect a righteousness in some of these types of tweet, and as I reflect on that I think I detect in myself another form of envy. I wish I knew what I thought about things with such confidence, such decision and righteousness – really, I do.  No doubt a some aspects of my personal history leave me wishing I was one of those people who could come up with a supported opinion about something without worrying that I might be wrong.  Perhaps I’m also envious of the groups of followers that tweets like this inspire. Do I wish my social media footprint were bigger? This might be true – though I’d probably force myself to write more controversial blog-posts if were an important ambition for me.  I always hate pressing the ‘publish’ button, and much of this is driven by anxiety about whether I’m making a fool of myself.  I certainly envy those who can do this with fluency, free of such worries.

However, what worries me much much more is the way that some of these tweets – even by the most thoughtful and inspiring teacher – have the effect of closing down the categories of what it is acceptable to post about.  We might cite Carl’s insistence that some practice be ‘eradicated’ when it is clear from a moments reflection that aspects of the work in the post above could well be viable and valuable in many classrooms.

Carl’s earlier tweet, that a Philosopher’s thought experiment about preventing parents reading to their children, was ‘beyond parody’ is a great example of this last concern.  The report was an excerpt from a longer interview about about ‘familial relationship goods’ – the things that parents can do to confer advantage on their children.   Andrew Swift considered that the benefit of reading to children at bedtime conferred a bigger advantage than sending them to ‘elite private schools’.  Their conclusions were that parental reading should _not_ be banned (the opposite of the headline) because that would interfere with the proper establishment of ‘loving, authoritative affectionate’ family relationships.  (Interestingly they decided that we _could_ prevent people sending children to private school without making a ‘hit’ on family relationships, and at the same time prevent un-fairnesses for other people’s children).

These are important questions to consider – and it is the job of philosophers to do this. Not all the examples above are those in which such important questions are at stake, but all are examples of the ways in which debate is shut down on twitter.  I bet I’ve done it myself on occasion – but I hope I think more carefully before doing so again.

[NB – there is a twitter vigilante! ]

Patriotism and Brexit – a few thoughts.

Patriotism is often the last refuge of the disenfranchised, or a lever of power which is used to wield influence over them.

People need institutions and ideas that they can invest belief in, and that they can trust to help them in the important and sometimes hard times in their lives. In the near past these roles have been fulfilled by many different groups, associations and ideas: family, church, the political party or the co-operative organisation, the local union, the workplace, night schools, football clubs, libraries, schools, leisure clubs or the doctor’s surgery have all played these roles. These are things that we can believe and trust in because we can touch them, we know the people who, alongside us, make them work. We make decisions with them, and through them. Through them we also help each other – not only in the obvious ways of distributing money and services, but through a million small ways in which we show care for each other.

Slowly we have removed the potency from many of the institutions that serve most people. Either we have turned our back on them, or refused to pay the taxes that fund them, or we have taken their responsibilities and powers into the disinterested central state. At the same time, and often as part of the same process, we have re-exposed many groups of people to the raw winds of economic change and risk in ways which mean they need these institutions more and more.

Amongst the wealthy we have, by and large, kept our institutions. Our good schools, private gyms, well stocked and supported libraries, our banks still serve us, we can get a game of tennis or a round of golf or a swim in the pool if we want. We raise money for the PTA, we buy insurance and own shares which limit our liabilities but bring us profits. We feel comfortable, we are not at risk, by and large.

However, we’re not just alright, we are rightly rewarded. We look at our wealth and the fact of its existence confirms that we are superior – because in this world value and wealth attain to the hardest working, and the most naturally gifted. The lack of comfort in those beneath us becomes a fact, a fundamental clause in the laws of the universe.  Those exposed without protection to these laws cannot afford, or cannot use, institutions that they can put their faith into and take comfort and support from.  They are even denied the right to place confidence in themselves because of the way that they are treated in the media.

When this happens it seems to me that people often invest in and turn to more dangerous abstract conceptions. They have to use accessible ideas that are free and open to all. Given such meagre resources these ideas have to generate a great deal of diffuse comfort. These ideas need to act as a mirror in which we can see our finest qualities, a lens through which we can only see the faults in others, and a way in which we can advertise and detect kinship with others in a world where there is a great deal of threat and uncertainty.

Patriotism and nationalism are two such ideas, and in the last week we have seen how they can be used not only to generate warmth but also to control and beguile.  We will wait and see what it means to ‘get our country back’, to take control back over our lives, but already it seems that this might not be pretty.  When it becomes clear that immigration will not fall as a result of the referendum result, we’ll see if these ideas can continue to be controlled by those who thought they could use them, and people, as a way of seeking further influence and positions of power.

However, the fundamental lesson of the referendum is that large numbers of people decided to vote when they have never voted before and may well never vote again and that they were often inspired by nationalism and patriotism.  If the media are to be believed many they did so thinking that the only way they had to protect their kids from competition from and to shore up their identity against that of ‘others’, was to tear down the UK’s membership of the EU.

Those of us in the 48% have ignored this large and important group of people for too long, and, in thinking that their condition was such that they deserved uncertainty, deserved poor housing and access to public services and institutions, that they cannot have a first chance, never mind a second or third one, or a regular wage or a steady job, we’ve abandoned them to Paul Nuttall and Boris Johnson.

Give me the closed factories, the zero hour contract, the shut library, the underfunded FE College and the jerry built school with 2000 plus kids in it, and I’ll give you Brexit.

What is a textbook IV What are Textbooks for – in classrooms?

High pile of hardcover books

In my last post on this topic I explored the ‘conditioning’ and ‘coherence’ effects that Tim Oates claims at state level in his policy paper ‘Why Textbooks Count’. In that post I set out my concerns about the way the paper deals with the idea of ‘coherence’, and how this causes Tim Oates to overstate the effect of state or central control over textbooks’ content. This is a theme that I will return to in this blog-post. I’ll also be developing my critique of Oates’ treatment of the idea of ‘coherence’.

I want to focus on the effects that Tim Oates claims for textbooks at the classroom level in key jurisdictions.  Along the way I’ll suggest more ways in which the papers suffers from evidential problems, and point out the rhetorical devices which, in my opinion, are the sine qua non of a policy paper, rather than a piece of ‘New research’ as is claimed by the page title on which it is posted.

According to Oates, at a classroom level well-designed textbooks ‘free up teachers to concentrate on refining pedagogy and developing engaging effective learning’ (p.4). In ‘key nations’ they have also ‘been developed to support highly effective pedagogic practices’, where they also ‘encourage clarity regarding key concepts and core knowledge, [and] provide clear learning progressions’. This support enables teachers to provide ‘enhanced responsiveness to individual learner need’. None of this is controversial. I recognise these advantages from my own practice – and it would not surprise me if ‘high performing teachers [were] most supportive of the use of well-designed textbooks’ as Oates claims Reynold’s and Farrell’s 1996 study suggests (though I must admit I can’t find this claim in that study). I am also reminded of my own search as teacher and HOD for textbooks that were coherent with the curriculum aims that I had for my students.

An ambiguous comparison

One of the key rhetorical devices that Oates uses is a sense of crisis, of a problem with a daunting scale in the quality and use of textbooks in England.  In order to support the idea that the use of textbooks is ‘dauntingly’ low and problematic a confusing picture is then painted in which responses to the TIMSS 2011 questionnaire items about the use of textbooks from English teachers are compared with those of Finland and Singapore. Oates sets out the very low numbers of English teachers reporting that they use textbooks as ‘a basis for instruction’, and contrasts these with the much higher proportion of teachers from Finland and Singapore who report that they use textbooks as ‘a basis of instruction’.

However, the questionnaire itself asked whether teachers use textbooks as ‘basis of instruction’, or as ‘supplement’, not as ‘the basis for instruction’ nor yet as ‘a basis of instruction’ as Oates sets out in his table headings. I’m aware that this might seem like taking close reading to a pedantic level, but as I hope we’ll see – it’s important.

It is suggested that this comparison will ‘confound many common assumptions about these three countries’, though only two such assumptions are hinted at, which arise out of ‘high level messages regarding high school autonomy and learner-centred pupil support’ in Finland. I’m forced to presume that Oates thinks that from these high level messages many people assume that the Finns don’t use textbooks. This is not something that I’m aware of. If people did think that then they’re obviously wrong. Finnish teachers obviously value textbooks, as ‘basis of instruction’ and as ‘supplement’ (or whatever they were asked in Finnish).

In which case what else are we supposed to do with this comparison? Well we’re told that the problem (the one with the daunting scale) is ‘low use and low quality’ of textbooks in England (p.4), and here we’re asked to compare the use of textbooks in England with that of Finland and Singapore. Both are bywords for high performance in international comparative tests, whereas English performance in such international comparisons is commonly assumed to be dire. Is Oates comparing dire England’s ‘low’ use of textbooks with the high use of textbooks in high performing Finland and Singapore?

Why doesn’t Oates join these dots more directly? Possibly because there is no correlation between the proportion of teachers reporting that they use textbooks as ‘basis for instruction’ or as ‘supplement’ and a country’s TIMSS 2011 scores at any of the benchmarks that TIMSS used. In fact we might be able to confound a few assumptions by pointing out that in maths, far from being dire in comparison to Finland’s performance, they come out at similar levels, despite the ‘problem’ of low use of textbooks. Performance in Singapore was stratospherically better than in both England and Finland, yet in Singapore teachers report that they use textbooks as ‘basis for instruction’ less than they do in Finland.

A flawed comparison

What we can say from the TIMSS 2011 questionnaire is that in England 74% of 4th grade teachers of maths report that they use textbooks (either as ‘basis’ or as ‘supplement’) in their lessons, whilst 88% report that they use workbooks or worksheets, either as ‘basis for instruction’ or as ‘supplement’.

The omission of an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ in the question about ‘basis’ or ‘supplement’ is important and makes it harder for us to understand the responses of the TIMSS teachers. When I taught classes I used a textbook in the vast majority of my lessons. I would often use it as ‘a basis of instruction’ but not ‘the basis of instruction’. Sometimes I would also use a second textbook as a supplement if I felt that material was better covered therein. If I was asked whether textbooks were ‘the’ basis of instruction in my lessons I would say “no”. My own knowledge was “the basis of instruction”, though often a textbook would be used as ‘a basis of instruction’, with my knowledge informing how this instruction was done.

So, all in all we can say English teachers are less likely to report that textbooks are ‘basis of instruction’ in their lessons than in all other countries, although 78% report that they use textbooks in lessons. This is less than other countries, but there may be special reasons for this, as when English teachers teach maths and science they often use bought in worksheets.

So, what was the point of this comparison, if we can’t join the dots and say that using textbooks as ‘basis for instruction’ is more likely to lead to better outcomes? To understand the use that Oates puts the comparison to we’ll have to pick over this sentence:

With levels of use lower than other jurisdictions, and very low levels assigned to ‘as a basis for instruction’ [sic] what is interesting in England is the existence of an underlying ‘anti-textbook ethos’, and its location in teacher training and educational research communities,

It’s not clear whether Oates is suggesting that the TIMSS survey is evidence of an anti-textbook ethos. The two things are put side by side and, again, it seems it is up to us to join the dots.

However the ‘existence’ of this ethos is assumed. As we have already seen, we don’t know if in the TIMMS survey there were low levels assigned to ‘as a basis for instruction’ because that’s not what was asked. As we will see, it’s location in teacher education is only perilously supported by anecdote.

Oates cites Marland as evidence. Marland’s analysis is described as ‘comprehensive and penetrating’ (p.8). Oates seems to be suggesting that a survey in which 78% of science teachers responded that they used textbooks in lessons supports Marland’s findings of an anti-textbook ethos. If we read the extract from Marland this ‘comprehensive’ analysis suggests that that there is little evidence in the literature for the proposed anti-textbook ethos other than anecdote. My own anecdotal experience as a teacher trainer at university and as a mentor in school would suggest that trainee teachers might be discouraged from using textbooks as ‘the basis for instruction’, and positively pushed into using it as ‘a basis for instruction’.

Context and Historical Analysis

The paper is very critical of those wishing to explain Finland’s success in simple terms of contemporary school and professional autonomy without exploring the historical context of the country’s success, or of its current relative autonomy. This would imply that any analysis of the seemingly low use of England textbooks in maths and sciences which did not consider the historical context of this pattern of use would also be flawed. This paper makes no attempt to consider such a history, despite finding space for a (also flawed) consideration of Finland’s recent educational history. The TIMSS survey in 2011 came after the end of the New Labour years of national strategies, specified schemes of work and centralised resources distributed in packs of booklets or downloaded from the DCSF website. In these circumstances it is not surprising that teachers in science and maths report that they are less likely to use textbooks as ‘basis for their instruction’.

Furthermore we need to consider Oates’ own definition of ‘textbook’ in his paper, which he gives us as:

rigorously-designed paper-based materials which can include textbooks for teachers’ use, textbooks for pupils and pupil workbooks.

This is a wide definition, and elements of it could easily fall within the ‘worksheets or workbooks’ as well as within the ‘textbooks’ that English teachers were asked about in the TIMSS questionnaire. So, workbooks mean textbooks to Oates, but the TIMSS treats them separately. We know that in many English primary and secondary schools science materials are often purchased in the form of photocopy master worksheets. These too could be defined as ‘rigorously designed paper-based materials’. So, another reason that so many teachers report low use of textbooks could be because their school doesn’t buy in its ‘rigorous paper based materials’ in the form of books, but in the form of worksheets.

Fundamental flaws in Oates’ claims

However, there are real problems with Oates’ claims about (1) the quality of English textbooks, and about (2) the potential for centralised control over the content of textbooks to combat these perceived shortcomings. It may be that England’s textbooks are of an inferior quality, though there is not enough evidence in this paper to support such a claim and such evidence that there is suffers from important methodological problems.

In our discussion at Oates presents us with a ‘method statement’. Interestingly this statement is not in the paper itself – the ‘New research’ that was published on the site.

In the paper itself we are told that 200 textbooks were collected and used ‘as part of the transnational curriculum content mappings’, which then allowed for ‘further analysis of the qualities of the textbooks themselves’. We are also told that the textbooks were ‘documented for the different kinds of information elements which [they] contained and the manner in which [they] presented these elements’. The assessment of these textbooks was based on ‘the coherence of the text based on either correspondence to a stated model (eg spiral curriculum) or to an obvious form adopted in the text.’.


The treatment of the issue of sampling is a key problem in this paper. In the ‘method statement’ on the website above we are told that:

“Just over 200 books were examined, obtained from Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Alberta and Massachusetts. […] Books in Science, Maths, History, Geography, and English/Native Language and Literature were collected and scrutinised, covering both Primary and Secondary. Books on early reading were included and were of course focussed on early Primary.[…]”

In the paper we are asked to compare 3 textbooks – one from each jurisdiction. The problem with this is obvious. Each textbook is made to stand for the textbooks of its jurisdiction. If we were drawing conclusions only about those particular textbooks then these conclusions might have weight, but instead the each one is held out as representing all the books in each jurisdiction. The choice of a KS4 book in England is an interesting one and brings us back to the definition of ‘textbook’. KS4 textbooks vary widely in audience and in purpose which leads them to vary widely in content and tone. Is this a class text? Is it a revision textbook? Is it one that has been approved by the examination board (and which therefore has to contain information and examples which relate directly to the examination)?


The method for the study is also not outlined in detail, and the method itself seems to have been forgotten when data was collected and analysed. There are two steps in the method: – ‘documentation’ of the different kinds of information elements, followed by ‘assessment’ of the coherence with a ‘stated model’ or ‘obvious form adopted in the text’.

Turning first to the idea of ‘documentation’. This is an interesting choice of word. I would take this to imply the production of a non-judgemental record of the elements of the books, so that this would allow further analysis and supported judgement. What we are not told is the framework by which the documentation will take place. Beyond the aim of documenting ‘key elements’ We don’t know if the civil servants who did this analysis were looking for visual elements, explanatory elements, information elements.

When we look at the Case study texts ‘extracted from the textbook analysis’ we can assess how closely the method stuck to the principle of documentation, and an idea of the un-written analysis framework starts to emerge. Documentation in fact seems to involve a fair amount of evaluation, which would not be problematic in itself, if we were told the framework around which the evaluation of the different types of ‘element’ were taking place.

So, the ‘Elements’ in the maths textbook from Hong Kong starts with what seems like documentation. We are given a list of elements as follows:

  • Statement of Pre-requisites
  • Review activity to determine whether pupil is ready for the chapter
  • Different forms of the equations of circles
  • Features of circles from the equations
  • Equations of circles from the different given conditions
  • Intersection of a straight line and a circle Inclusion of a series of problems
  • Check through assessment: 6 problems, 1 practice exam Q, 1 lively maths problem

What we have is a list of things that are in the textbook. We could quibble about the ‘lively maths problem’ and ask about what makes it ‘lively’. A similar list is given for the textbook from Singapore. By the time we get to the ‘documentation’ of the English textbooks we are told that the IGCSE textbook has:

  • Clear statements of mathematical ideas
  • Clear statements of operations
  • Some sample activities

The GCSE English textbook ‘documentation’ is cursory at the least, and seems to have been done with a pre-conceived judgement in mind:

  • Extremely diverse content within diverse structure – complex
  • Divided into Higher Tier and Lower Tier elements to match examination 299 pages long
  • Sample full GCSE exam paper very early in the text: p11

Are the ‘sample’ activities set out in the IGCSE textbook divorced from the type of questions that will be asked in the final exam? I don’t know, and we are not told. What makes the IGCE textbook statements of ideas and operations ‘clear’? I don’t know, and we are not told. How do they compare with similar statements in the GCSE textbooks. We don’t know, because we are not told. What does it mean that the English GCSE textbook is ‘diverse’ in content and structure? How is ‘complexity’ judged? We go from a list of elements with some implicit approval of the Asian books, to clear but un-supported critique of English GCSE textbooks which abandons any attempt to ‘document’.

This tendency to eschew documentation and skip straight to judgement is best illustrated by the recording of the ‘Key Features’. These consist of value judgements, rather than documentation or even of an analysis of ‘coherence’. So, the Hong Kong book contains ‘important’ evaluation, ‘good’ elaboration, and the Singaporean book ‘extremely clear’ statements and ‘good’ elaboration, whereas the English textbook is ‘rather incoherent’.

Furthermore the second stage, or the analysis of coherence with a ‘stated model’ or ‘obvious form adopted in the text’ is not further explained, though we are assured of the Singaporean and Hong Kong texts that coherence was ‘impressive’. In the paragraph which seems to draw conclusions instead we are told that texts from Hong Kong and Singapore had ‘extremely clear presentation, explanation and reinforcement of key concepts and ideas’. We are not told which stated model they cohere with, nor any obvious forms adopted in the text around which they cohere with. We are not told what the difference or similarities are between a ‘model’ or ‘obvious form’, whether this is a model of presentation, learning, cognition or whether we are looking at obvious forms of ‘style’ or otherwise. This lack of definition makes it impossible for anyone attempting to look at the same sample of 200 books (should this list be made available) in order to repeat the analysis.


All of this brings us back to the central issue of coherence. Even in those jurisdictions which Oates chooses to focus on, where there is (or was) state control over the content of textbooks, there is evidence that the force of ‘coherence’ is (or was) provided by a wider agency than a central curriculum authority and that a good deal of it came ‘upwards’ from the classroom and from teachers, as well as from society as a whole. In Hong Kong we are told that textbooks tend over time to become similar as they follow the market leader, and thus are affected by teachers’ views as well as by the self- censorship that publishers undertake to please the actual censor. Not only that, but attempted innovations fail because they are rejected by the teachers – interestingly it is the teachers who are providing coherence, as well as the government approval system. In Singapore we also read about the ‘panel of professionals’ drawn from ‘curriculum specialists, teachers and academics from universities’ who approve textbooks. In my last post on this topic I discussed the societal shifts and coalescence which resulted in the education reforms of Finland in the 1960s and which provided wider coherence to the implementation of these reforms.

As we also saw in the last post in this series, Schmidt’s paper on coherence suggests that teachers will place authority and trust in curricula materials which cohere with the curriculum as it is enacted. If we accept Oates’ argument about narrowness and the instrumentalist approach of English textbook publishers (though I don’t think that we have to on the basis of the poor evidence that Oates supplies), and his evidence that teachers’ views and practices have caused the failure of state sponsored changes to textbooks in other places then we must look at the curricula system as a whole in order to find out why textbooks are like this in the English system, not apply state level approval of texts as the primary guarantee of ‘coherence’.

This all boils down to my basic problem with this paper – that it does not reflect the critical-realist methodology that Oates has claimed for it. Of course textbooks count – but the important questions are the extent and the mechanisms by which they count in particular circumstances. My worry about the analysis in this influential policy paper is that these circumstances are only referred to in just enough detail to provide legitimacy for the threat of state intervention.

Project Halpin: The Other Invisible Hand (1) – Ends

4184064187_c2aeae2dda_mJulian Le Grand’s book has been sitting in my ‘to-read’ pile since my OH finished her MA in Healthcare Management. Le Grand is the Richard Titmuss Prof. of Social Policy at LSE, a position he has held since at least 2007, when this book was published.  In the years before this he was a senior policy advisor to Tony Blair at no. 10.

Le Grand’s vision that choice and competition were to be the most important drivers of increased quality, efficiency, accountability and equity in public services is one that I have some ideological trouble with – but I’m the first to admit that this has largely been of the un-examined type. Competition sounds inefficient to me, in public services, and runs counter to my co-operative ethic, and that of many people that I know who work in public service.

In addition, what has always worried me about choice and competition is the need for failure – in order for some schools to do well, others have to lose out.  In health and education (the two sectors that Le Grand focuses on in this book) this has seemed iniquitous to me.  We only get one life, and to have a healthcare or education system which requires some to experience failing care and education seems wrong.

Nonetheless, this vision was one which seemed (for a time at least) to drive Blairite policies in health (if not in education), and reading this book has helped me to form a more balanced view of what was being attempted then in the NHS reforms, and informed my growing unease about what is happening now in education.  It has also challenged my views on competition as well as clarified what it actually means to open social provision up to a ‘market’.  I have learned that markets are not all the same.

The first task that Le Grand sets for himself is to categorise the ‘ends’ of social provision and then the different ‘means’ that are available to realise these ends.  The discussion on ‘Ends’ describes ‘quality’, ‘efficiency’, ‘responsiveness and accountability’ and ‘equity’ in detailed and realistic ways.  Le Grand doesn’t shy away from the difficulty in deciding what kinds of ‘quality’ should be prioritised – how this could mean quality inputs (such as the level of qualifications of those delivering service, or the buildings in which they work), processes (how the users are treated, dealt with or the kinds of experiences they have as clients, customers, users etc.), or outcomes and outputs.

Differentiating between outputs (the activities that the service undertakes) and outcomes (the results of these activities) is a crucial point – as policy makers (according to Le Grand) tend to want to measure the inputs and outputs of a service – rather than the processes and outcomes – in terms of the experience or the service, and the life quality, life chances or changes to these brought about as a result. The processes and outcomes are the things that are probably more important to the users of these services, though  Le Grand is also open about the difficulties of measuring these.

For Le Grand people suffer when services are not efficient – he sees the cost of services not just in terms of their price, but in terms of their opportunity cost.  This is the value that is being forgone by spending money on a service.  If the comparison between the value of the service and the cost of the service is not balanced, we are losing the opportunity to spend that money on things which create more value.

the real price of a service is not the money that was spent on providing it: it is the other services that could have been provided had the money not been spent in that way. (Le Grand p.9)

This is a difficult concept, which I’m not sure I totally understand, but I think that Le Grand’s treatment of it misses one important aspect, which reflects the pre-austerity days in which he was writing. Services need enough money to work efficiently. We have seen crises in the NHS and in teacher recruitment which have meant overspends and increased costs in spending on agency and temporary contractors, nurses and supply teachers. Supplying a service at a given cost might not be possible.  There is also an interaction between quality and efficiency which

Responsiveness and Accountability as ‘ends’ of public services are also really interestingly dealt with, using Albert Weale’s ‘principle of equal autonomy’. This states that as part of the respect owed to individuals as ‘deliberative and purposive agents capable of forming their own projects’ (cited on page 10), government should create and maintain conditions conducive to this autonomy.

I’m really interested in this idea of humans being ‘deliberative and purposive agents capable of forming their own projects’.  As soon as we have more than one ‘deliberative and purposive agent’ living in close proximity to others – as we surely do in our modern and interconnected society – this will entail trade-offs, negotiations and compromises, and the making and maintenance of structures which enable these things to happen.   When is this duty discharged in terms of education?  Is it through the option to educate children at home, or at private school?  What’s the effect of these options being open only to a minority?  Does having the option to choose the school that our children attend discharge this duty, and is this the case even in those areas where there is no real choice over schooling? Is the duty discharged entirely by these options and choices at the start of schooling? To what extent should we address pupils’ status as ‘deliberative and purposive’ agents’, and when?

You’ll gather that I’ve enjoyed reading Le Grand, and as we’ll see in the next post on this topic about ‘means’, the book certainly raises very interesting questions.  What I’m less sure of is how realistic Le Grand’s ideas are in the current policy and fiscal climate.  As I think we’ll also see – choice and competition has become a kind of slogan which is hiding incoherency in education policy.

Project Halpin – Reading books I think I might not agree with.

7215063582_ff54ecf9e0_mAt the end of February I went to hear David Halpin’s public lecture at Leeds Trinity University, where I work and where Prof. Halpin is a Visiting Professor of Education. This inaugural lecture was entitled ‘Tears of Longing: The Role of Nostalgia and Tradition in Education’. I went along expecting a thoroughly enjoyable evening of having my prejudices confirmed by an engaging and well informed speaker. I hoped also to pick up a few reading tips along the way and to leave the conference room at LTU with my world view strengthened.

I’d even had a little bet on with myself. I thought that this talk would be about the inadequacy of policy makers’ nostalgic view of education – the silliness of looking back to a golden age that never was when trying to come up with solutions and policies for today. I was expecting him to cite the crocodile tears of politicians whose ‘golden age’ rhetoric was a cover for uncharted change, giving the un-tested a patina of age and experience.

Prof. Halpin did take aim in particular at the poverty of thought which leads politicians back towards grammar schools, as a tool of social mobility, when all the evidence points to their role in depressing social mobility for most of the population. He claimed that policy makers ‘half shut their eyes’ when thinking nostalgically about their own experiences, so that they could ignore legitimate questions, and that they used tradition as a way of avoiding these questions.

However, Halpin also said that we all use nostalgia, and that its use could be negative or positive. As a tool, nostalgic thinking could help us to open our eyes to a current situation, and to resist the way things are or are changing in the present, as well as challenging others’ vision of the future.   The crucial thing is being honest with ourselves about the character of the nostalgia in which we’re engaged.

As an example he talked about his own experiences as a boy who got enough marks to pass the eleven plus exam where he lived.  He recalled how he had been put on stage at the school assembly, and presented as a role model to the others in his primary school, and the realisation that he would be separated from his friends.  He talked about how he has met them since, and how different their lives have been. But he also talked about how that change in his life led to a successful and fulfilling career.

This was all very interesting, but I think I missed the point until I asked a question at the end. I asked him about the more recent tendency for reformers to denigrate the comprehensive system, despite the fact that it helped many of them to reach Oxbridge universities.  David’s reply made me think.  He asked why they thought that, and said that it was up to the proponents of comprehensive education to ask why even those who had benefited from it were questioning its effects.  Very clearly he said that there were ‘legitimate questions’ to ask about comprehensive  education.

A few days later my youngest, who has been obsessively reading the Percy Jackson series of books by Rick Riordan, said to me that she’d like to learn ancient Greek. She’ll go to our local comprehensive school, which is a great school that is looking after our eldest really well.   They don’t teach Greek, ancient or otherwise.  This request really got me thinking, as I realised that there wasn’t going to be much chance of her learning classics unless I used my privileged resources to get that for her – which I will probably do.  Not everyone can do that, and perhaps this leads us to ‘legitimate questions’ about comprehensive education.

Recent discussions with other academics, debates that I’ve had online with other supporters of the Labour movement, and the recent whitepaper have made me realise that we all, on all sides of political and ideological thought have the tendency to leave our nostalgia, and our basic assumptions un-examined.  I started to think about how I have read lots of books, but not many I didn’t agree with. If there are legitimate questions to ask about the positions that we hold (and there are, for all of us), and our ideas are better, stronger and more effective if we take care to interrogate and scrutinise them properly, we need to challenge them.

To that end I’ve given myself a bit of a project.  I’m going to read a book a month that, on the face of it, I might not agree with.

March – The Other Invisible Hand, by Julian Le Grand

April – The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

May – Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou

June – Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools by Robert Peal


I’m halfway through the Le Grand, and in the context of the current white paper it’s fascinating.  However, I need more suggestions – can anyone help?

What is a textbook?  III What are textbooks for?

8788334370_3ba12a82ae_mOne can’t read about textbooks for long without coming across Tim Oates’ policy paper (1) ‘Why textbooks count’ (Oates 2014). Mr Oates was one of the expert panel on the review of the National Curriculum – I think he was the only person who was left advising the government from the Panel after 2012 when Michael Gove removed the others.  He draws heavily on the work of the Panel and its Review in drawing some of his conclusions.   He identifies the purposes of textbooks in lots of different ways, but in my reading of his paper these seem to fall into three categories.

  • Purposes at System / State Level
  • Purposes at Classroom Level
  • Purposes at Student Level

I’ll be dealing with each of these in turn, and each in a separate blog post. First though I want to say something about the paper’s methodology. Oates seems to take almost a critical-realist position in that he acknowledges that textbooks are just one subsection of one of 14 aspects or ‘system elements’ that contribute to the workings of education systems – we could say that success or failure are emergent phenomena which depend on the structures which form between these elements which are lower in the system of causation.  These elements he has adapted from the 13 ‘control factors’ mentioned in his 2010 paper ‘Could do better’ (Oates 2010), and which grow out of Schmidt and Prawat’s 2006 paper.

Oates 2014 paper is focused on textbooks – so these are the main topic of discussion, as you would expect other elements are only mentioned.   However his acknowledgement of the complexity of such systems is only a nod.  In effect this the kind of nod you make across the street at someone, whilst hoping that they won’t engage you in conversation that disrupts your own valuable thinking.   This comes out strongly whilst looking at the potential for ‘control’ (Oates 2010) or ‘coherence’ (Oates 2014) that textbooks seem to offer at a system level and which I think Oates overplays as a result.

Purposes at System / State Level

For Oates there seem to be three main purposes that textbooks perform at a state level:

  1. Supporting national education policy, as part of government’s steering system
  2. Implementing the detail of national curricula.
  3. Improving or maintaining high quality outcomes across the jurisdiction.

Oates central point, and perhaps his central warning to publishers and authors of textbooks, is that attaining these three aims requires there to be a high degree of coherence between textbooks and the values and intentions of the system and or curriculum.  In Oates’ view obtaining this coherence in systems where ‘market failure’ has led to the publishing and adoption of ‘instrumental’ textbooks focussed on the requirements of examinations, might require State control over the contents of textbooks.  This was the situation in England in 2014 as Oates saw it – control might be the only way to fix this failed market.

In case we worry too much about the prospect of state oversight in to the content of textbooks, Oates tells us an interesting and comforting story of the development of a coherent curriculum in Finland, and the role that state control had there.  I’ll come back to his story in further posts.  His reading of Finnish history is that there were 4 phases in which the Finns evolved their educational ideas, and their systems; passing through desires to establish high quality education of teachers, growing concerns about ‘spread of attainment’ (15), to the foundation of a comprehensive system under a ‘systemwide reform policy’ which was ‘established’.  We should note well the use of the passive voice here. We’re in a strange land where policies ‘are established’ and curricula and systems have ‘values and intentions’ without any detailed mention of the people who established the policies, or who had these intentions or proper discussion about the processes by which their values were shaped and shared with any by others.

According to Oates, the enactment of this policy required ‘heavily deployed inspection’, ‘high levels of legal prescription’ and central control of the content of textbook.  However, these lasted only as long as was necessary to ensure that teachers and teaching was ‘consistent with full comprehensivisation of the system.  Following the ‘thorough ‘re-conditioning’ of the system around the principles of fully comprehensive education’ there was a ‘strategic move to higher levels of school autonomy’ (15).

Textbooks form a vital part of Oates’ story, as a ‘vehicle of transmission, and of consolidation of new values and practices of the reformed system’, and once their coherence was achieved the Finnish Ministry, it’s mission finished, could step back from controlling textbook contents.   For Oates this is an example of how state control over textbooks can, when these are improved in ways that meet Schmidt and Prawat and Prawat’s criterion of coherence, lead to rapid improvements in a jurisdiction.

Coherence – top down, or bi-directional?

This vision of coherence is ‘top down’ model in which the values and intentions of the curriculum or system are ‘mediated’, or ‘transferred’ downwards using the system elements necessary for coherence (which as we’ve seen Oates referred to as ‘control’ elements in their earlier guise (2010)). It seems daft to have to point this out, but systems and curricula don’t have values or intentions.  They embody the values and intentions of the people that controlled their writing.  Their success or failure is partially explained by the way that these cohere with the other people who are working in the system.  Coherence is bi-directional, and requires elements of consent as well as control.

Schmidt and Prawat’s 2006 article, and further study of Finnish history also seems to suggest that the issue of coherence is more complicated, and perhaps more bi-directional than Oates presents it.  My reading of Aho et al (2006) suggests that comprehensivisation as a ‘systemwide reform policy’ far from being ‘established’,  enjoyed considerable support from political parties of left and right, and reflected a shift in societies attitudes and expectations that they had for the way that state education provided for the needs of their children, and the needs of their society.   In this way ‘was established’ becomes

“Legislators and educators rallied to craft a blueprint for reform. After much committee work, experiments, pilot programs, input from the elementary school teachers’ union and above all, vast political support and consensus, the Finnish Parliament decided in 1963 to reform compulsory education using the comprehensive school model.” (2006 p.34)

It seems that the political context in which coherence is required is as important as the mechanisms of ‘coherence’.  On the first page of the article Schmidt and Prawat claim that:

“a firm sense of what must happen comes from the top, along with the political capability to bring it about”.


Schmidt and Prawat develop this idea of ‘political capability’ by reference to the idea of authority, which they suggests is maintained in two ways –

“First, it must be one to which teachers are willing to listen, that can speak with authority on the issue of what to teach and how to assign priority to that content relative to other important topics in the Curriculum.”

The second way in which authority is maintained is by ensuring the ‘credibility’ of curricular instruments, such as the ‘grade specific goals’, which we might call a national curriculum, and the specification of examination content, or ‘examples of specific kinds of items on the year-end examination’.  Thy say that such instruments will have ‘credibility’ when they ‘satisfy the criterion of being capable of ‘inspiring belief’ (656). The crucial question therefore is whether there is enough authority in the body which seeks to control or cohere the system, and it seems that this authority rests on credibility.

We can see from the Finnish example that such credibility and the authority that it generated did not arise in a vacuum – that the policy was not ‘established’, but that it was desired, demanded and eagerly approached by the majority of the Finnish people.  The ‘comprehensivisation’ that textbooks were checked for was a particular vision for a particular time in a particular place, and the consensus and coherence was bi-directional.

The OECD book ‘Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education’ (2011) gives us more detail about how this ‘credibility’ arose in Finland’s successful reforms in the late 60s and early 70s.

“ A major vehicle for addressing the anxieties of veteran teachers and resolving some of the difficulties inherent in merging the formerly parallel sets of schools into a unified system was the development of a new national core curriculum for the comprehensive school. The process for developing the curriculum engaged hundreds of teachers and took place over a five-year period (1965-1970).” (p.120)

Authority in England?

This seems to contrast with what happened during the review of the National Curriculum and the consequent re-drafting.  Indeed the concerns of the members of the Panel who left it seem to focus on exactly the kinds of things that the OECD book also highlights as markers of success in Finland.  The departing members were concerned with the lack of consultation with educators and educationalists, and the pace of the process that took place.  In addition they seemed to worry about the tight focus of the continuing review on comparison of subject content in different jurisdictions (2), rather than taking a broader view of the way that pupils move through the different parts of these systems (BERA 2012).

As noted, there is some evidence of this bi-directionality in coherence in some of the evidence that Oates cites, but his acknowledgement of this is cursory and undermines his argument for the driving force that state control over textbook contents can be, as we’ll see in the next post which focuses on the role that he sees for textbooks in the classroom.   What I think I’m edging towards in my reading of these articles is that what is missing from Oates’s paper, and his argument about control over textbook content, is the ‘vast political support and consensus’ in respect of which political nations can demand coherence, and which justified the centralisation that Finland required in the 1960s and 70s.

  1. Interestingly the Cambridge Assessment page ( on which you can find the paper, refers to it as ‘New research’. I’m not sure that it qualifies as research – it’s definitively a policy paper. The rhetorical weight of the words ‘New research’ as opposed to those attached to ‘policy paper’ is obviously greater and adds to the impression that this is serious, empirically supported stuff – rather than the serious ‘well-informed reckon’ which it actually appears on reading it.
  2. Also interestingly Tim Oates implies that these objections were informed or motivated by postmodern beliefs which have infiltrated (a word he borrows from Marsden (2001)) educationalists. There’s not a hint of postmodernism, not even much worrying about imbalances of power or the imposition of meaning in the letters that Andrew Pollard and Mary James wrote to Gove to raise their concerns.  I think I’ll come back to this in another post.

Aho, E., Pitkanen, K. and Sahlberg, P., 2006. Policy Development and Reform Principles of Basic and Secondary Education in Finland Since 1968. Education Working Paper Series. Number 2. Human Development Network Education.

BERA 2012 – Letters between Michael Gove and the members of the Review Panel, retreived from

Oates, T., 2014. Why textbooks count. Cambridge Assessment.

Oates, T., 2011. Could do better: Using international comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England. Curriculum journal, 22(2), pp.121-150.

OECD, 2011. Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results, in: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, pp. 117–135.



Distance – Paris, Syria and ‘us’.

I’m writing a section of a GCSE text book at the moment, for Edexcel’s recently approved spec (for teaching next year!).  The section is about London in the Second World War, and it’s part of their warfare through time unit.  This summer also I wrote a book about the Restoration for AQA’s new spec GCSE.  Both periods involve a fair amount of  bad fortune, evil intent and death, as do many periods of history.  After a summer of counting victims of the Plague in 1665 I thought I was immune to the tragedy that history presents, especially as I’m often the person who scoffs at the celebs mourning the passing of long-dead, far-distant relatives on ‘Who do you think you are’.

However, recently I’ve had to question the extent to which I can remain detached from the people I’m studying, and also to question why events such as the recent attacks in Paris seem more real, more shocking than those arguably much worse atrocities being carried out much more frequently across the middle east.

So, here’s what happened.  Whilst researching for the book, I surprised myself by sniffing back tears when I read these notices in the Register of Civilian Deaths on

notice1 notice2

I had been following a gang of unofficial volunteer firefighters called ‘the Dead End Kids’ who operated out of a warehouse in Wapping at Watson’s Warf.   But, it wasn’t words that brought me to the kids, it was a picture of the face of a young lad called Shamus O’Brien. This photo (below) was taken by the amazing Bert Hardy,  for publication in the London Picture Post (though I’m not sure that it ever was printed).  Shamus immediately grabbed my attention; his frayed coat, chipped teeth and man’s-hat-on-a-small-head made me think of a young person signing up for something that he didn’t really understand. Looking at the date made me think again – by April 1941 the Blitz had been going on for more than 7 months – so Shamus and the other ‘kids’ had seen real action – perhaps that might explain the wear and tear to his coat, and his dentistry.

The Dead End Kids took their name from a group of Holywood child actors who starred in films about rough kids with hearts of gold. They were led by Patsy Duggan the eldest lad in the gang. It didn’t take me long to learn more about the Duggans, as they were a big family in Wapping (in every sense), and because they’d been the subject of a long piece for the New Yorker Magazine by Mollie Painter Downes. She tells stories of the Kids rushing into buildings, rescuing people, dragging incendiary bombs into rivers and earning heroic status. This piece is a fascinating presentation of life in London during the blitz tailored for an American Audience, and it was this article that had sent me to the record of civilian deaths on Painter Downes wrote of the deaths of two of the kids, on the night of the 29th December, a raid that focused on the City of London and the East end. The fires that night were so bad that the event became known as ‘The Second Great Fire of London’. I wanted to corroborate the New Yorker piece, and to find out whether the Kids really did lose two members that night.

Painter Downes writes of ‘two of the [Dead End] Kids, Ronnie Ayres and Bert Eden [being] killed during the raids while tackling blazes with the gang’. Checking the records told me that she was right, other than the spelling of names. But the record told me more. Ronnie was killed on Thomas More Street (marked in yellow), where Bert lived with his parents, and Bert died across the other side of St Katharine’s Dock on St Katharine’s Way.  Both these streets were a short walk from the relative safety of the shelter. map

I suppose my mind went back to the other pictures I’d looked through on the Getty image bank that had the Kids showing off for Bert Hardy’s camera.  Running up ladders, pulling carts filled with buckets and tin helmets, all this looked like great fun – but I realised that not all the kids were in that picture, because Ronnie and Bert had already died by the time they were taken. That’s when their deaths became real to me, and when the kids’ story became more than just a story.

This research was all happening in November 2015, when the Paris attacks took place. Like most people I was horrified by these events, and like most people I knew on an intellectual level that there was something terribly and awfully normal about them, taking into account what is happening across north Africa and in the Middle East, where terrorists kill civilians, and military forces kill terrorists, and civilians. Some of my friends questioned online our feelings, and posted details of equally dreadful attacks in other places, which hadn’t affected me at all. They pointed out that the Syrian refugees who exercise the attention of so many journalists were fleeing the kinds of terror that happened just once in Paris, but happened every day where they had been living. I saw that they were right, of course, but wondered why I felt so differently about the Paris attacks.

The answer is obviously distance – spatial, cultural; and insulation – we are insulated from the world as many people experience it by the distances between us, and by the way that modern media presents stories quickly – a video, a stat, a vox-pop and then onto the next item.

History isn’t the only, or even the most effective way of helping us widen our knowledge of the lives of other people.  However, the experience that I had this autumn, and the experiences that I have had in the classroom suggest that helping students to pause over the study of someone different from the past, well this pause might help them get the right kind, and perhaps the right amount of distance.

The “Writing Lives” project*

*(or why following twitter historians can be as rewarding as following history teachers)

I 11372417_1456795201306836_1653475993_nwas thinking about teaching A level coursework the other day, specifically OCR’s interpretations and investigations coursework. For years the examiner’s reports have emphasised that students should not be taught to label historians as ‘orthodox’ or ‘revisionist’, and that instead they should be focussing on the different approaches and evidence that historians use when addressing the validity of their judgements.

The tendency of some history teaching resources (and perhaps also of some history teachers) to present the interaction of historians as one of conflict is troubling.  Often historiography is shown as an unfolding development of orthodox historians being challenged by revisionists who then find themselves challenged in turn by post-revisionists.  At worst history is presented as a series of battles between antagonistic titans – the example of Hugh Trevor-Roper -v- AJP Taylor springs to mind.

Is this how historians really work?  Is the current generation always to be found stripping the gilding from and digging out the foundations of the previous generation’s work?  Do historians really have professional enemies with whom they engage in Pokémon type battles, aggressively lobbing interpretations tipped with evidential explosives?

Reading about the Writing Lives project being run by Helen Rogers makes me think that this isn’t how historians really work – and that there are lessons we can learn from the project about how we set exams as well as how we teach our students about the discipline.   Students on Helen’s Writing Lives final year module at Liverpool John Moores University have each taken responsibility for blogging about one of the people whose memoirs have been given to the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.  This is a great idea on its own, made more meaningful by the end goal of publishing an ebook which draws on the research the students make as a group, but innovative as it is, this is not why I’m drawn to blog about it.

What I found so interesting (so much that I nearly missed my bus home tonight as I read the ‘about’ page) was the way that Helen explained the context to the project.  The about page explains the historiography of working class memoirs, describing several books that you want to go and read straight away.  It then goes on to explain the way that the field has changed and grown, some of the directions that Helen and others want to take it, and the great opportunity offered by the sample represented in the Burnett archive, which is very different from those used by a previous generation of writers.  This isn’t a dismissal of the previous work, in fact the insights and patterns of that work are presented as jumping off points for future work, not something to be ‘revised’ or explained away.

I’d really like to think about ways that we might get school students, and especially those working at A level on independent study to consider the ways that different historians’  viewpoints can be used to spark enquiries, and to help them see that this needn’t always involve deciding which ‘interpretation’ is better than the others.