Project Halpin – The Other Invisible Hand: Voice

cropped gargoyle-1.jpgI’m currently reading 12 books that I think I might disagree with, inspired by a lecture I went to by David Halpin.  I’m almost finished writing about the first book I read – Julian Le Grand’s ‘The Other Invisible Hand’, in which Le Grand argues that choice and competition in public services is the best way to drive their improvement. Le Grand discusses other ways of improving these services: trust, targets, and voice. In this post we’ll look at the last one.

One of the great things about reading a book such as this is that it makes you think hard about what a taken-for-granted word like ‘voice’ actually means in the contexts of improving public services.  For instance, we are told that voice can be collective or individualist.

Collective Voice

Collective voice mechanisms are things like voting for new council members or parent governors, but these can be blunt in that they don’t readily allow the users of these services to voice their ideas, aims, complaints and feedback. They do mean that there is a formal way in which the users of these services can have some say in their provision in their locality.  One of the (many) things that worries me about the plans for academization is the lack of local democratic oversight that the MATs will be under. Le Grand is right that these mechanisms are blunt, but I think he misses an important aspect of their function – accountability over the planning of medium and long-term provision of services.

The 1870 Education Act didn’t require that children go to school, but it did require that the local school boards (pre-cursors of today’s LEAs) ensure that there were enough school places for each pupil that wanted to attend.  The 2016 white paper leaves the responsibility for creating enough school places in the hands of the LEAs, without any effective means for achieving this (as Chris Husbands points out in his excellent blog-post).  Local democratic structures with powers as well as responsibilities can be a way that the community finds and uses a voice for the direction of resources to improve public services over the medium to long term.

Further confirmation that collective voice mechanisms that work through local democracy may be missed in the short term comes from the example of NHS trusts, which in theory the SofS can influence through commissioning.  As the latest newsletter suggests;

Commissioners can’t commission services they don’t have the money to pay for, or services that providers do not provide.

We’ve already seen that public servants have knightly and knavish tendencies. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that some trusts might not want to expand their services in a region or move into a new one- possibly for as many knightly reasons as knavish ones, and especially in a situation in which resources are tight.  As we’ll see when I eventually get to the end of these long posts (I don’t know if anyone is actually reading at this point), choice and competition, (and perhaps autonomy) works best when there is over-capacity in the system. Current evidence suggests that the opposite will be true in the coming years, and the Times recently ran a story reporting LEA’s fears that multi-academy trusts are reluctant to open new schools.

History should also give us pause for thought, before we leave the era when collective voice mechanisms helped steer and improve education services.  Jane Martin’s article To ‘Blaise the Trail for Women to Follow Along’: Sex, gender and the politics of education on the London School Board, 1870–-1904′ suggests that public transparent discussion of education and education policy in each locality can contribute to progressive improvements of the rights and outcomes for marginalised groups.  It also contains ample evidence that without this transparency and discussion, without these collective voice mechanisms, that education policy risks falling into the hands and under the prejudices of cloistered cliques, and that progress has to be openly fought for.

Individualist Voice

So, Le Grand’s view is that on the one hand collective voice is a blunt instrument.  However he also considers that, on the other hand, individualist voice methods are exclusive and often inaccessible to many different categories of people.  Taking the example of complaints and complaint procedures Le Grand argues that individualist voice tends to be dominated by the middle classes.  I’m not sure about this.   He does make cogent points about middle class people having more influential friends, and argues convincingly that they are sometimes more articulate, and confident.  Elsewhere in the book Le Grand is careful to support his assertions with evidence, but here the argument is not supported with anything other than common-sense reasoning.  I wonder if there has been research about those who use voice related systems, and how successful they are.  Some of the most vociferous parents I dealt with were not the middle class ones.  Indeed the parents of the middle class kids who did OK were those that I would only see at parents’ evening, and usually  without incident.  One could make an anecdotal argument in favour or more research here by reflecting on the difficult conversations that we have with parents who are alienated by school, who fear for their children’s self esteem or their futures and see school as an opposing force.  They were the ones who often objected to homework, grades, feedback, detentions, in my experience, and the ones who were more likely to voice these objections.  The knight and the knave fought within me at such times – I sometimes felt frustrated at the inconvenience of a parental complaint, but I tried to keep in mind that most of the parents who used their voice in this way were rightly worried about their children’s well-being or education.

The real problem with ‘voice’.

For the force of Le Grand’s argument about voice the concern over who uses voice is however a side show.  For Le Grand the main problem with voice is that it lacks force as an driver for improvement.   Le Grand argues that voice works only when it reacts to users, and without other mechanisms the user’s voice can be ignored.  In Le Grand’s view the mechanism that works best with voice is choice.  Those providers who might lose their customers, their clients, their reasons for existence to other providers are the ones that react most quickly to voice.

I’ll be looking at choice and competition in Education in the next post, but before we move on it’s worth noting that this view of the users of public services as consumers is quite a limited one.  It seems to ignore their role as citizens, and the way that the institutions of collective voice have been developed, and how, in turn, they contributed to the development of rights and obligations that we have as citizens. As consumers our choice is restricted to accepting what is given, or attempting to access something else which looks more like the service that we want.  As citizens the conceptual borders of our roles, rights and duties are greatly expanded.

5 great podcasts for history teachers*

man using antique listening deviceMy job means that I’m quite often in my car, and therefore listening to my radio.  Unfortunately, this often seems to coincide with ‘moneybox live’ or Chris Evans.  In response to this terrible conjunction, I’ve fallen back in love with podcasts.  My subscription list is all the best bits of radio 4, with added shows that radio 4 should commission, and without ‘quote-unquote’ or ‘the unbelievable truth’.  Recently I’ve heard some fantastic episodes which I think could be used in the history classroom – either as inspiration for lessons, as CPD for those wanting to improve their knowledge of a topic, or as something that could (with cuts and tweaks) be used directly with pupils.  I thought I could share these with you.

In Our Time

Of course I’m going to start with In Our Time.  Consistently brilliant and always challenging (especially when it’s about quantum physics), In Our Time occasionally serves up an episode which you immediately want to turn into a scheme of work.  I could talk about the ‘Lancashire Cotton Famine‘, as an example which could help us teach the history of industry and the end of slavery together – with a really global reach.  I might urge you instead to listen to the staples of ‘The Armada‘ or ‘Suffragism‘ if you wanted to learn more than the basics about these important events.  When I start some new teaching or writing on a history topic, often the first search I make is of the IOT archives.

History Extra

Until recently I didn’t listen to History Extra,  I didn’t like the early podcasts.  It felt to me like a marketing exercise, and there seemed to be a lot of military history.  Recently however I listened by chance to an episode about the dissolution of the monasteries, and a piece on Surinam, which was a really interesting explanation of the links between state, trade and colonialism in Stuart, Civil War and Restoration Britain.  This episode, which was excellent, earned the show a place in my podcast schedule.  The next episode on Charles II was even better.  Listening to Claire Jackson’s fascinating and nuanced views of the character of Charles II  (or even better, buying her book) would be a great first step for teachers of the Restoration British Depth Study from AQA’s 2016 GCSE and I urge you to give this a go.

History Pod

This well researched podcast is great, and produced by Scott Allsop, a proper history teacher.  Scott’s ‘on this day’ type podcast often reaches parts of history that the others cannot.  A recent favourite was the episode about the flying cow. Listen to it – you won’t be disappointed.

The London Review of Books

Just great for broadening one’s mind generally but also, every so often, there are great episodes with a history focus – like the recent one given by Colm Tóibín on the cultural and political run up to the 1916 Dublin uprising.  If you really want to know why ‘All changed, changed utterly’ then this is a good place to start.

The British History Podcast

This is another recent addition to my podcast list.  Its written and presented by a British ex-pat who lives in the US. It’s unashamedly narrative driven, but takes this as an opportunity to cover the stories of British history in an engaging way, as well as often from unusual perspectives.  I’m only a few episodes in, but already I’m hooked.

*and a bonus episode- More or Less

Strictly speaking this great podcast isn’t really a history show.  A few episodes ago however there was a great piece about the ‘story of average‘. Average, as a human construct, has a history and therefore a story of development which is not only interesting, but which I think helps us to understand why average is the way it is (and how it is used) today.  I wonder how much more successful my own mathematics education could have been if it had taken a more historical approach.

Project Halpin – The Other Invisible Hand: Targets

This is part of a year long series of blog posts on books that I’m reading that I think I probably disagree with, inspired by a lecture I went to by David Halpin (thus the name).  The current book is ‘The Other Invisible Hand’ by Julian Le Grand.  You can read the original post here.  Currently I’m looking at the means by which public services are improved, according to Le Grand.  In the last post we looked at ‘Trust’ – the idea that autonomous professionals should be trusted to run good and improving services.   This post looks at ‘Targets (often called ‘command and control’) and next time we’ll look at ‘Voice’:


Targets or ‘Command and Control’ measures as a means for ensuring effective, efficient, high quality and high equality public services are things that we are very familiar with in the world of education in England and (previously) Wales.  Any readers from the public healthcare system in England will also know what it is like to work under a targets-driven regime.   The atmosphere around targets changed during my own time as a teacher.  At the start of my time as a teacher I came in on results day and had a brief chat about how my class had got on with my lovely HOD, and by the end of my time as a HOD my performance reviews were about the targets and hit lists that the school had devised as a way of making sure that we were doing well with the whole range of students.

Le Grand points out that targets seem to work in the short term, and that in comparison with trust-only models they produce higher levels of performance.   The problems of devolved health and education in Wales seems to be an illustration of the risks of removing targets as one of the drivers of improvement in that in the fairly short term many of the outcomes of Welsh schools and hospitals seem to have become poorer than those in England.

However, Le Grand also points out that there are problems with only relying on target setting. Beyond meeting the target there’s no incentive to improve.  Results that crowd around floor targets, time and money thrown at C-D borderline students in the noughties attest to this. Targets also encourage gaming,  – for instance dragging students through coursework only certificates that were GCSE ‘equivalents’, or entering and re-entering students in modules of GCSE exams in the hope that they will eventually pass, in order to meet targets also illustrates the risks associated with target cultures.   Ever fair, Le Grand also reminds us that targets are often missed because of factors beyond the control of those responsible.  As teachers we all know that there are students that it is very hard to reach, and sometimes year groups that are much more of a challenge or perhaps a challenge that presents with un-known or unanticipated aspects.  There’s also the events which take out two or three high performing teachers from a department at the same time, or the new head who wants to shake things up, disrupt and perhaps distract from what’s really important – what happens in the classroom.

For Le Grand however these serious drawbacks of the ‘command and control’ target culture are not the worst aspect of this method of driving improvement in public service:

“There is nothing as effective at demotivating and demoralizing providers as ceaseless bombardment of instructions from above”.

This seems to be especially true if

“the service may hit the target but miss the point”

where meeting targets can be end up being done with resentfulness or cynicism, such as the ‘shite cover music’ that one of my masters subjects described to me (as set out in my last post) the point of getting pass grades may be lost if the only way to meet targets is to focus on some groups in ways that are to the detriment of everyone in the system.  So, targets are decided by others, and often by those removed from the front line or from the concerns of parents. They are also blunt instruments in that they can only ever be proxies for all the possible positive outcomes that we may want from schools, and can end up directing attention and resources from this wide array of ends.

Project Halpin – The Other Invisible Hand: Trusting Teachers?

7760932128_9c2ce1e22d_mThis year I’m trying to read a book a month that, on the face of it, I might expect not to agree with. March’s book was Julian Le Grand’s ‘The Other Invisible Hand’, a book about the advantages of using choice and competition as a driver for improved public services.

For a book on this topic, The Other Invisible Hand is a good read. Le Grand wants to give us an overview of the ideas that govern his thinking, and to make these accessible and certainly persuasive. Of these latter aims he succeeds in both, to an extent – but in my view there are real problems in his analysis to do with resources.  In the last post I described (I’m not doing much more than expressing what I think I’ve learned and reflections on the book in these posts) Le Grand’s aims of public services, and since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about his typology of means – the ways that public services attempt to meet those aims.

As in his discussion of aims, Le Grand wants us to understand that these means never stand on their own.  At any time in any public service a mix of them is used to improve service.  He also points out that there is often conflict between these means, as there was between the aims, but his main argument is that a mix of these means which includes a substantial element of choice and competition seems to offer the best way of driving services towards their aims.

His view is very persuasive, but what is interesting is the way that he frames the debate as one of a mixture of means, and the way that choice and competition does not necessarily infer privatisation, personal profit or private ownership.   For me the discussion around ‘quasi-markets’ was very interesting, and a bit of a revelation, as I will discuss in a later post.

Le Grand sets out a typology of different means for reaching the aims of public service (see the last post on this):

  • Trust
  • Command and Control
  • Voice; and
  • Choice and Competition.


This is the one that I have often heard expressed in staff-rooms, lecture halls and I’m sure that I’ve even said myself something along the lines of ‘we’re professionals, we should be trusted more’.  Trust models assume that public servants are ‘knights’ and that they will work hard to deliver public services that provide Le Grand’s aims – those of accountability,  effectiveness, quality and efficiency.   The high levels of autonomy that ‘trust’ relies on can also lead to higher productivity through high morale, without costly and sometimes dubious monitoring and accountability systems.

All well and good.  However what if, as Le Grand suggests, not all public servants are ‘knights’?  What if some are ‘knaves’, motivated not by the welfare of the citizens they work for, but for their own self-interest? That would lead to services being organised in such a way that they maximised benefits for the providers, rather than the users of a service.  What if they’re knights sometimes, and knaves at other times?

There’s also a really interesting discussion about who decides whether someone is a knight or a knave.  Le Grand writes that

‘knights may have their own agenda. They may be altruists […] but their interpretation of what would contribute to that welfare may differ from the government’s view or indeed that of the users themselves’ (p.20)

As a history teacher this resonated with my professional experience, and as a teacher-educator with a slightly wider perspective that I’ve picked up over the years.  Teachers often resist what is prescribed from the centre.  Taking the history curriculum as an example – over the years we saw various different iterations of the official history curriculum, but in schools the lag caused by using old resources, the enacted curriculum in many schools was much slower to change.  High level debate about teaching thematically or chronology in teaching journals, requirements in the national curricula and lower concerns in papers about the lack of knowledge of young people washed up against the cliff of ‘this is how we do things’.

Some of this resistance is actually a very good thing.  During research for my masters I interviewed teachers who taught one way for performance review and Ofsted inspection, and another for their normal teaching.  One described it as ‘like playing shit cover music’ which he knew would please the section of the audience he needed to be pleased, but which ignored the needs of the students in that lesson.  This enabled him to teach in the way that he wanted for the rest of the year.  Does this make him a knight, for bravely fending off the inspectors so that he can cater for his students’ needs the rest of the time?  Is he a knave for ignoring the diktats and requirements of his SLT and the Ofsted inspectors, or for ignoring the needs of his students in those performance review lessons so that his pay and career progressions were not interrupted?

Le Grand also points out that knightly attitudes can often descend into controlling paternalism, though their ‘perceptions of the needs of the wider community may be limited’, and they may be ‘giving users what the knights think they need, but not necessarily what users think they need’.   This is also a very interesting point for a teacher to consider.  My view of being in loco-parentis was that that my concern for their welfare had a long term, truly parental element which merged with my duty as an educator.  I was teaching them things that they might not want to know about, but which I thought they ought to know, for their welfare and for their future welfare.

Sometimes their parents didn’t agree – often I was told that the most important thing was that their children were happy. Actually I kind of agreed, but at the time I felt that my view of happiness was sometimes longer term.  Does this make my knightly concern into knavish paternalism?

Le Grand couches his point about the needs of the wider community in terms of monetary resources. He gives the example of doctors spending too much money on medicines because it is hard for them to do the rationing because of their lack of community-wide perspective.   As a teacher this too rang a bell.  Doctors can see too many patients in a day, volunteer to cover too many night (knight?) shifts, as well as perhaps spend too much money on tests, pills and treatments.    For most teachers the only commodity they have is time. Recent discussion on twitter about planning and marking has made me wonder whether knightly teachers staying up late to mark in green, red, blue pens and plan lessons might be overspending the community’s resource (their own time) in those areas to the detriment of other areas (being alive in the classroom).

We can therefore see some problems with relying on ‘knightly’ trust models.   As Le Grand puts it:

“What is needed is a system that combines elements of the trust model of service delivery with other models in such a way that the existence of both knavish and knightly motivations are acknowledged, and that knightly motivations are preserved but directed toward serving the wider interest”

This made a lot of sense to me.  I know that we’re not all knights, and I also know that some of our knightly instincts are misdirected and can lead to wasted energy and un-necessary work.  Le Grand makes a strong case – it’s not enough to trust the knights.  In the next post on this I’ll look at Targets or ‘command and control’ as another way of driving improvement.


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?

Undergrad Day

17303176035_035cd2da96_zToday is undergraduate day. I’m teaching a module on SEN in the secondary school to my undergrad PE and Secondary Ed students in May, and I want to be well prepared. I read an interesting study by Benjamin Bloom earlier in the year (1984) about ‘Mastery’ and his attempts to solve the ‘2 sigma problem’, i.e. the 2 standard deviations in increased attainment that he found between pupils taught in ‘conventional classrooms’ and those who were instead ‘tutored’ one to one or in very small groups.  I think that aspects of this study can help me with my students.

This study seems to be one of the original studies that informed the current vogue for ‘mastery’ approaches in teaching and assessment. The recommendations are for iterative cycles of formative testing which allow a student to reach the desired ‘mastery’ level of attainment. I’ll not go into that now (perhaps I’ll plant a seed in the ‘post-garden’ and come back to it later). Suffice to say that I think that Bloom underestimates the time cost, and fails to make out what he really means by mastery (80% in a test score is the usual level – which we can see means pretty much nothing).

What grabbed me more is an idea that that Bloom develops from Leyton (1983) of techniques that “enhance the students’ initial cognitive entry pre-requisites” (who said that educational research can’t be easily understood?!). Broadly, this means ‘making sure they know and can do the things they’ll need to be able to do before they start to learn the new things that you have to teach them’.

Today I’ll be reading through my course materials, looking at the development activities I want them to do during the 10 weeks of the module, and working out a list of these ‘prerequisites’.  I’ll then scrap the first week’s sessions and turn them into a ‘prerequisites’ week.  I might have to think of a snappier title… any suggestions?

Where will this lead?  I’m hoping to make an ‘knowledge organiser’ which the students themselves have to complete, and which I’ll then check over formatively.  I’m sceptical that an organiser on its own will do anything (I need to make sure they read it and commit the ideas to memory for a start), but I’m hoping that if they have a first go at coming up with the ideas, which I then correct, this will give me an idea of where they’re coming from, and them a couple of chances to understand the material they need to know.   I’m hoping that my prerequisites audit will also help inform decisions about the way I structure the workshops and seminars that follow, as well as the content of the weekly lecture, as well as giving me some clear hooks and points to attach to ongoing quizzing.   I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bloom, B.S., 1984. The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational researcher, 13(6), pp.4-16.

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.



What is a textbook?  II The textbook definition

8788334358_10a8460c36_mThe OED has some very interesting and definitions for the word ‘text-book’. An entry from 1730’s Dictionarium Britannicum has defines it (“in Universities”) as

“a Classik Author written very wide by the Students, to give Room for an Interpretation dictated by the Master, &c. to be inserted in the Interlines”

So, we go from copying to inter-textual dictating in one book, which must have made reading between the lines easier and more restrictive at the same time.

Our post-modern age means we have to consider putting more than one interpretation in a history textbook, or at least to recognise (perhaps make a nod to) the fact that other interpretations are available.   Finding ‘Room for an Interpretation’ in the sense of this ‘Text-Book’ is at least an explicit insertion of the Master’s view.  I’m enough of a realist to hold on to the possibility that what happened in the past and how people have interpreted it are separate things, even if it might be approaching an impossibility for us to finally decide between the two in many cases. Some books written for children about history make an art of obscuring the line between interpretation and the past itself.

Other definitions are perhaps more obvious.  The second in the OED is

“A book used as a standard work for the study of a particular subject; now usually one written specially for this purpose; a manual of instruction in any science or branch of study, esp. a work recognized as an authority”

Do we have ‘the standard work’ in history teaching?  I guess the closest we have come to date is the various editions of Ben Walsh’s Modern World History, and perhaps Ian Dawson’s books on medicine through time, and I hear that his The Tudor Century is highly regarded.

Apparently one of the main reasons why Ian’s Tudor book changes hands regularly in second-hand editions on Amazon is the exercises and tasks, which teachers really appreciate as helping students understand the topic.  One of the things that I look at when working out whether to buy a textbook is whether the tasks and exercises are any good – and it is also something that I pondered over whilst writing my own books. I have used Ben’s book for most of my career as a teacher, and found that the breadth of information and the tasks were invaluable.  I added my own expertise as a teacher of my pupils, and my knowledge of the exam they were going to sit when using it in my lesson.

As an aside, the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science tells us that these exercises are a new thing – before the early 19th Century textbooks contained information only.  They were standard sources of information on topics which presented this information without any need or any way for the person reading to assimilate, check or test their understanding.

Interestingly these two themes – the instrumentalist purposes behind textbooks which refer to and help students pass examinations, and the ‘expansive’ focus of those textbooks which teach beyond or around the specification also emerge as the foci of Tim Oate’s policy paper ‘Why Texbooks Count’, which I hope to write a post on later when I’ve finished taking it to bits to see how it works.  For now it is interesting to note that neither of these two books could be accused of an instrumentalist approach, but as a teacher I have, when needed, brought that approach to books that I have used.  This seems to run contra to Tim Oate’s position that much of the textbook publication in England has been far too narrowly instrumentalist.

A couple of more points to close:

In law a ‘textbook’ is a book of legal discussion and theory which can be cited in court.  By convention only works written by authors who had since died could be used in court, though nowadays even living writers are referred to. There is a special category of legal textbook called a ‘Book of Authority’ – a (classik?) book which has the same authority as case law from the period in which it was written.

Finally, textbook can (and more often did) have a derogatory use – textbook meant ‘general’ or perhaps a superficial examination of something, but now it has come to mean something more like an ‘exemplary’ version of that thing.  A textbook manoeuvre, case or approach is exactly the perfect one to use.

This seems to suggest that there is power in the textbook, and perhaps also that the ‘Master’ of this power is the person doing the writing, the dictating. I’m not sure about this though. As an author of textbooks I certainly felt that there were many other people and places where and from whom power was emanating, as was discussed briefly in the last post.



“text-book, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 9 March 2016.

Olesko, K.(2003). textbook. In The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 Mar. 2016, from

What is a textbook?

8781754999_4ec835c0cb_zIn 2010 I started writing a textbook on Italian Unification. Over the next three years, with the help of my co-writer Pam Canning and our editor Ian Dawson we made something of which I am really quite proud. The book tries to go beyond the specifications that it supported at the time (and the ones that are current). Not only does it consider things that not mentioned in those specification, it also takes the idea of history as an ongoing discipline seriously. In particular it tries to deal with ideas such as Romanticism, the Enlightenment and concepts such as nationalism in ways that I think will help students reach a deeper understanding of the period.

I can’t pretend that I set out with those aims – they came partly to me as I read for the book – because my knowledge of the period developed greatly as I did this. The main sources of those aims was Ian – who gently pointed things out and encouraged me to think historiographically and the very kind Christopher Duggan whose own book The Force of Destiny was inspiring, and who acted as academic adviser to our work. My ambition increased as the book was written; though I didn’t expect it to change the world, I hoped instead that it would be a good textbook.

With the new GCSE specifications have come new opportunities for writing textbooks at KS4. I recently signed off the proofs of a book for the AQA spec on Restoration England. This one I approached with more awareness, informed by a great talk I went to at SHP by Abigail Tazzyman and Bridget Lockyer, from the Centre for Women’s Studies, at the University of York. They have a website which contains some guidance on better integrating the history of women in lessons. I also met Kate Moorse at that conference who wrote a great book called ‘The changing role of Women’ in 1996 and which I remember using on my PGCE whilst training at Lord William’s School in Thame. Both experiences informed my approach I tried to use when writing the Restoration book, and I hope that this comes across when people read it.

I also wrote two sections for books on the Edexcel spec, both of which were about ‘the historic environment’. The ink is still wet on the last one, about crime and policing in Whitechapel in the late 19th century. Both were fascinating, both required me to learn a lot and even to do some research of my own, and both saw me agonise over inclusion of elements, texts, sources, questions.

That wasn’t the limit of the thinking and questioning. As an author of textbooks I found myself constrained as well as informed by the specification (more constrained and frustrated by some specs, but I won’t tell you which) and by my experiences as a teacher. The number of pages were limited, the number of hours that I knew my peers in classrooms would have is also limited – very much in some schools. I knew too that some classes would be taught by non-specialists, and that probably many of the teachers who used one of these books would not have studied these periods or topics at high levels, as indeed I had not before starting to plan and research the books.

So I couldn’t do everything that I wanted. I had hoped to convey more of a sense of women as politicians and powerbrokers in Charles IInd’s court, but space prevented this. The voices of people arrested, tried and imprisoned in the late 19th century are very hard to hear, only their answers to questions in Old Bailey reports, or a journalist’s summary record of their police-court testimonies survive. Writing the blitz involved selection from an embarrassment of sources, thanks to modern archiving, digitisation and the work of Mass Observation.
I final got around to reflecting on this writing, all this activity this afternoon. Apart from the thinking outlined above, I realise that I have never, once, thought about what it means to write a ‘textbook’, or what a ‘textbook’ is or for, nor even I have I systematically considered how textbooks might be used. This seems to be an obvious direction in which to investigate. Watch for further text!