Let’s stand up for subjects

Michael Young and David Lambert

Each curriculum subject contains a different way of understanding the world. Access to this ‘powerful knowledge’ for every pupil should form the basis for any curriculum. This is the central argument of our new book, Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice, which we have written in collaboration with secondary headteacher Carolyn Roberts and former head Martin Roberts.

The book engages directly with and moves beyond the increasingly sterile debate between the former Secretary of State, Michael Gove, with his ticklists of facts, and those of his vociferous antagonists in the education community who argue that process is far more important than content.

Although expressed through subjects, the ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum bears little relationship to the Gradgrind ‘curriculum of the dead’ that critics of a subject-based curriculum tend to envisage.

Our book draws on recent developments in the sociology of education as well as the experience of current heads and classroom teachers to argue that, far from discriminating against disadvantaged pupils, as many educationists claim, a subject-based curriculum for all pupils up to the age of 16, beginning in the primary school (although the book does not address this explicitly) is the only basis for a more socially just education system. In a modern knowledge economy which will never again employ more than a tiny number of young school leavers, there is no moral or educational case for a differentiated curriculum pre-16.

At a time of acute political uncertainty and with a General Election less than a year way, our book lays down challenges to both major political parties and to the educational community as a whole. The Conservative Party endorses both a subject-based curriculum and “equal opportunities for young people, no matter what their background or family circumstances”. In 2014, few would disagree, at least, in principle. However as long as a significant proportion of schools lack qualified graduate teachers in all the core subjects and therefore the capacity to engage with ‘powerful knowledge’, such an endorsement remains little more than empty rhetoric.

For the Labour Party on the other hand, the challenge is to move from their hesitant defence of comprehensive schools and accept the logic of the principle of comprehensive education – that it implies a comprehensive (common) curriculum for all, at least up to the age of 16.

To the school teachers, the book poses the biggest challenges of all. It asks them to reclaim their professionalism and express it in schools and that are knowledge-led. A re-thought Royal College of Teaching, modeled on the medical colleges, might well be the appropriate way forward. Freed from the heavy hand of the former QCDA and, for many, the constraints of the outgoing National Curriculum, the senior staff of schools and subject departments, in association with subject associations, have the opportunity to assert a new professionalism as curriculum leaders.

Our book seeks to capture a modern version of the vision which, in various forms, has long been part of both Left and Centre educational traditions. It can be traced back to such politically diverse figures as Edward Boyle, Antonio Gramsci and Matthew Arnold. However, our vision will go the way of Michael Gove’s unless we win the hearts and minds of those who can make such a vision a reality.

This book therefore is primarily directed to those senior staff in schools, the subject leaders, and of course the student teachers, who will bear the main responsibility for what we hope will be ‘the future school’ and its knowledge-led curriculum. Without their support, such a vision will easily become little more than a footnote in English educational history.

Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice will be published by Bloomsbury on September 25

What’s so special about running a university?

Paul Temple

Is the management of universities much different to the management of other sorts of big, complex organisations? In my new book, The Hallmark University (IOE Press), I argue that it is (or should be) recognisably different – although the best-run commercial organisations have many things in common with the best-run universities. Accounts of what it’s like working at Google sound a lot like working in a university.

The Institute of Education’s lengthy process of moving towards a merger with University College London (UCL) provides a case in point. It is hard to believe that discussions and consultations would have gone on for so long (two years this September, and counting) in any other type of organisation, public or private. Compare this, for instance, with the tight and precise timescales for takeovers or mergers of listed companies laid down in the Takeover Panel Code (PDF).

You may or may not think that a merger between the Institute and UCL is a good idea, but you can hardly claim that it’s been rushed through at breakneck speed by senior management. Why is this important? In part, it’s because of where knowledge is to be found in the organisation. In universities, the knowledge needed to run the teaching and research enterprise is in the middle and lower layers – universities are what the literature calls bottom-heavy organisations. The key subject knowledges aren’t at the top: the people there are selected on different grounds.

There are many implications in this for the way that universities should be run, and involving ordinary workers in strategic decision-making is one of them. As the American management writer Gary Hamel observes, “in a high-trust, low-fear organisation, employees don’t need a lot of oversight – they need to be mentored and supported, rather than bossed around.” That’s what should happen in good university departments.

Regrettably, I think, some English universities are responding to the more market-based higher education landscape that has emerged over the last few years by creating (probably inadvertently) low-trust, high-fear organisations, with a lot of bossing-around (and firing) of both academic and professional staff. Research, soon to be published, which I’ve carried out with Professor Claire Callender and Dr Natasha Kersh from the Institute, and Lyn Grove from the LSE, shows how some universities are (over-)reacting to the idea of “the student as customer”, stimulated by the new student fee regime, by imposing top-down, strongly centralised, target-oriented cultures because of a sense that they need to be seen to respond to student demands in order to maintain their positions in the marketplace. This won’t end well.

Instead, universities (especially big ones) need to be kept feeling small, with flat hierarchies and what our colleague Professor Michael Shattock calls “a tight turning circle” – that is, the ability to respond quickly to new opportunities or threats. Structures matter here: they need to be decentralised enough to respond to personal circumstances (whether of staff or students) and not to be shackled by bureaucratic rules created merely to ensure uniformity. Different academic departments should be able to meet students’ needs in different ways. People instead need to be trusted to make sensible decisions, which they’re more likely to do if they feel ownership of whatever the problem is, rather than seeing it as just another problem to be decided by central rules.


Election silly season: is research an ornament, a luxury good or ammunition in a war?

Chris Brown

As with many things in our Western consumer culture, research use may be conceived as an act of consumption. Correspondingly, research is often treated by its users as they would a consumer object, much like a coffee maker or television. In the case of educational policy making the research ‘consumer object’ seems to represent one of two perspectives; it is either viewed as a luxury item – with high use value and prestige, or its use is limited and it is primarily employed, much as we employ sparkly trinkets, to distract attention.

The first of these types, research as a luxury good, represents what is traditionally aspired to when we think of ‘evidence-informed’ policy making. This is because its consumption implies one or more of the following: 1) that evidence can and should address a policy issue; 2) the more evidence that can address a policy issue, the better it must be; 3) similarly, the more evidence there is to address an issue then the closer it will be to providing the best available evidence; and/or 4) that those who are high status providers of evidence are in this position because they provide the best (i.e. most convincing and well argued) evidence.

But research might also be thought of as an ornament. For example, within policy-making, notions as to the prestige of being evidence-informed, the value which such prestige adds to the policy debate or, importantly, the fact that someone regarded as a preeminent researcher or expert is supporting a particular position can often and in many ways be more important (i.e. can be more likely to drive consumption) than the use value of the research. So policy-makers may simply reach for any acceptable evidence so that it may be claimed that a policy is evidence-informed.

In such instances policy does not develop in relation to the strength/quality of the argument, but in relation to the perpetuation of a given ideology: i.e. in order to ensure that the political party in power, is re-elected. As such, the role of evidence reverts to that of providing support or to banging a drum in aid of a given course of action. In these types of instances, the main benefit of consuming research, despite any claims of its users, is its ability to support a given perspective or point of view, not to maximise the optimality of policy. In other words evidence is not consumed to help identify some ‘truth’ about the social world, it is there to provide ammunition in an ongoing political war of words between government and others.

So why do I bring this up? As anybody with an interest in the Scottish referendum will attest, as we run up to a crunch point – a time when we need to make a key decision – evidence backing one view or another comes more and more to the fore. For example, currently in Scotland evidence is used by both sides to argue both that ‘there is lots of oil’ and ‘there is not much oil’; that there will be ‘great’ economic turmoil or only a little. There is also a general election looming so we can expect to see much of the same in other policy areas and in particular in education.

So what is to be done? As we move to the election, educational researchers (and indeed social scientists more broadly) need to act as the catalysts for creating and mobilising alternatives discourses. Or in the parlance of consumerism, get our marketing act together more effectively: working to show up the weaknesses of ornamental uses of evidence and to promote full blown luxury research consumption. Now is our time to start selling what we believe in!

Dr Chris Brown’s book, Making Evidence Matter, published by IOE Press, is out now.

What does literacy mean in the 21st Century?

Brian Creese

Today is International Literacy Day. On this day we celebrate the role that literacy plays in our lives. We also reflect on what literacy means to us all, individually, locally, nationally and globally.

There is a marked increase in interest among policy makers about literacy, much of it driven by the OECD’s PIAAC study. Its league tables, ranking countries by the literacy and numeracy proficiency of their working age populations, have attracted welcome policy attention. However, a focus on comparative proficiency levels has limited value. All of the countries involved have uncomfortably large populations of adults with literacy and numeracy skills at or below Level 1. From PIAAC we also know that the make-up of the ‘low-skilled’ population is different in each country – and that provides a more fruitful focus for our attention.

This year UNESCO has a focus on what literacy means in the 21st century. At NRDC we have been engaged with others in the UK and internationally to try and understand both the supply of literacy and numeracy skills among the population, but also the demands placed on their literacy and numeracy skills: in the workplace, at home and in the many other settings in which people engage with an increasingly textual world.

The driving force for policymakers in England is the belief that good literacy is required to improve productivity among the workforce. The IOE’s National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) has been working with Ipsos Mori on a study for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills of the impact of English and maths on English employers.

The use of literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace is complex; different jobs, and the various elements within them, involve a range of literacy and numeracy practices, with workers often learning the specific skills they need for their job from peers and co-workers. Employees consistently report that they have adequate skills to do their jobs. What we see in the workplace is that we often work with others in ways that maximize our strengths and allow us to learn from them. We also see how workplaces can be adapted to remove the demand for literacy and numeracy or to scaffold its use.

Despite the policy focus on the workplace, we have continued to work with emergent adult readers on reading for pleasure. Those less confident with their reading may get great joy from reading novels, biographies or other texts in supportive, collaborative environments. They use adult experience and expertise to develop reading confidence, skills and practices gradually and communally – and in doing so are more able to tackle some of life’s other challenges, such as job interviews or finding better heating deals.

If we think about literacy in 2014 we need to consider mobile communications. People who never read a book and may see themselves as non-readers, may happily tap away at a smart-phone or tablet. We have looked at how learners ‘doing’ literacy work on a computer may see it as IT (‘I’m good at that’ ) as opposed to literacy ‘I’m not good at that’. Is reading a page of a book the same as a newspaper as a screen on a PC or screen on a smart phone? And if not, is digital literacy a new form of literacy, or literacy in a new form?

And finally, it’s worth remembering that the NRDC has long been at the avant-garde of Europe’s thinking about adult literacy, and today more than ever, with its leadership role in the new EC-funded European literacy policy network ELINET, is cementing its place as a hub for the sharing of ideas and information with colleagues across Europe. We are not alone in struggling with these problems and the only intelligent way forward is to work with like-minded organisations across the continent and, increasingly, the world.

The underlying idea of International Literacy Day is that the acquisition of literacy is a human right. We would certainly agree with that, and suggest that an important stage on the road to such a noble goal is to increase our understanding of what literacy actually means and involves in the 21st century.


How headteachers are maximising the impact of teaching assistants and getting results

Rob Webster

Recent Government data reveal the rise and rise of teaching assistants. Headcount figures show there are more TAs working in English state-funded primary schools than teachers: 257,300 vs. 242,300. In secondary schools, there are 70,700 TAs to 257,300 teachers.

While these numbers reflect the part-time nature of the role, they strengthen the case for professionalising these valued members of the school workforce.

This year, our SENJIT@IOE team worked with 26 schools in the inaugural Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme, supporting them through a process of rethinking and reforming their use of TAs. MITA is based on the principles and processes set out in our book of the same name, which in turn is based on findings from an extensive research programme.

Through MITA, we present a case for more effective uses of TAs, which schools apply and develop in their own setting. The programme gives school leaders and SENCos dedicated opportunities to think, reflect, discuss and plan, with sessions at the IOE and consultancy visits from an expert MITA Facilitator from the SENJIT team.

Our evaluation of the two-term project, based on feedback from participating schools, found that despite starting from different points, all schools made progress towards understanding and addressing the complex issues of rethinking the TA role and raising their profile in school.

Participants told us one of MITA’s strengths is the way it is structured around a robust evidence-informed framework for decision-making and action, based on empirical research. The framework helped participants appreciate the need for the deep structural changes that the research has revealed is essential if TAs are to have a lasting and meaningful impact on pupil outcomes.

MITA helped school leaders think more broadly about the issues relating to TA deployment, preparedness and their interactions with pupils (the MITA trinity!). Whilst schools identify training for TAs as an area of attention, on its own, it is no sliver bullet. For example, schools recognised that the need for change in relation to improving provision for pupils with SEN extended beyond TAs to improving teachers’ practice.

Indeed, the new Special Educational Needs Code of Practice proved a powerful additional catalyst for change. This is no coincidence; one of MITA’s key aims is, as the Code supports, to encourage schools to develop a role for TAs that begins to break away from what is often called the ‘Velcro’ model of support for pupils with high-level SEN, and which our research has revealed to have unintended consequences.

Instead, MITA schools have been exploring the enormous potential of using TAs to help all pupils develop the essential skills underpinning learning, such as the ability to self-scaffold and ask themselves the questions that help them to get better at getting better at learning.

The broader point here is that understanding why pupils targeted for TA support are negatively affected by the very intervention designed to help them, and how to reverse this situation, is essential if school leaders are to ensure TAs’ contribution to school life seriously counts.

This conclusion is hardly unique. A raft of research attests to why headteachers must drive – not dodge – school workforce issues. So a particularly encouraging outcome of the MITA programme from our point of view (as researchers and course providers) is the way in which headteachers have engaged and committed to doing something positive and potentially transformative for their TA workforce.

The effort is paying off too, as schools began to see the benefits of addressing the key challenge of defining the role, purpose and contribution of TAs within their school.

Given the Government says it has “no plans or any powers” to address issues of TA employment, it is encouraging to see schools seizing the initiative and using the freedoms they have been given to set the agenda. It is still early days, but empowering headteachers in this way might potentially have an even greater payoff.

No jurisdiction in the world has gone as far as the UK in its use of classroom support staff. If we are to realise the Government’s aim of keeping pace with international education systems, TAs’ contribution will be essential. The prize awaiting the UK, then, is to become a world leader in this area.

MITA courses begin at the IOE on 17th November 2014 and 23rd January 2015. To register, email r.webster@ioe.ac.uk.

Visit www.maximisingTAs.co.uk or the SENJIT website. Follow us on Twitter @maximisingTAs.


Setting by ability: what is the evidence?

Chris Husbands

There is a political consensus about setting by ability: that politicians believe they know what is best for schools. Michael Gove, as opposition spokesman on education, said that “Each pupil should be given the opportunity to learn in accordance with their particular aptitude and ability…we believe that setting by ability is the only solution to achieving this ambition”. David Cameron, as leader of the opposition, said that “I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works. Tony Blair promised it in 1997. But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.” The Labour White Paper in 2005 was strongly in favour of it and Jacqui Smith, as Schools Minister, said that “Labour has encouraged setting, and there is now more setting than in 1997″.

The issue arose again this week when The Guardian reported that the new Education Secretary was about to mandate setting by ability in secondary schools – a story she quickly denied. It now appears that Nicky Morgan has seen off what would have been a heavy handed centralisation of educational decision-making.

The research evidence is nuanced. As long ago as 1998, my predecessor as Director of the IOE, Peter Mortimore, reported his research conclusion that “setting in mathematics, accompanied by curriculum differentiation, may be a means of raising the attainment of the more able pupils. The effect is not great, however, and there are some costs in terms of the progress of pupils whose attainment is low at the end of primary school. The impact on pupils’ self-concept may be important in the longer term, influencing later attainment in the subject and decisions about choice of subjects after the age of 16. These factors must also be taken into account when formulating policy on ability grouping in schools”. It’s a measured, balanced conclusion – there are benefits, but most especially for higher attaining students.

This conclusion is largely endorsed by the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit, which notes that “ability grouping appears to benefit higher-attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower-attaining learners. On average, ability grouping does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups. Summer-born pupils and students from ethnic minority backgrounds are also likely to be adversely affected by ability grouping.” Like most complex professional issues, there are balances to be struck between the needs of different pupils, between short-term and long-term goals and between different curriculum areas.

The overall picture on practice in schools is complex. Almost all secondary schools use setting in parts of the curriculum: almost all mathematics is taught to groups arranged on the basis of some measure of attainment; analysis of cohort evidence suggests that the practice in widespread in primary schools but the organisational and curricular issues are complex, and that the long-term academic attainment of summer born children may be hampered by their tendency to be allocated to lower sets.

Other evidence suggests schools’ practice in setting is cut across by other issues: the tendency to allocate less experienced teachers to lower sets, despite the American evidence suggesting that the reverse is what is needed; the tendency of teaching in lower sets to lack sufficient challenge; and the observed tendency for pupils from deprived socio-economic backgrounds to be over-represented in lower sets; the often weak and inconsistent nature of the attainment evidence used to allocate pupils to sets; the frequency (or otherwise) at which pupils are moved between sets.   It would be extremely difficult – and very costly of resource – for all but very, very large schools to set in all subjects: block timetabling means compromises have to be made. For both good educational and hard resource reasons, most schools adopt different grouping strategies for different parts of the curriculum at different age stages.

All the politicians quoted at the beginning of this blog post have committed themselves to school autonomy. After extensive critique, Ofsted has abandoned any sense that inspectors should look for particular teaching approaches: schools should be judged on how well they perform, not how they organise themselves. There is good, if complex, research evidence on grouping approaches, and excellent, developing practice on flexible grouping strategies. If schools are to be operationally autonomous, then that’s what they need to be. The spat within government over setting suggests that there will always be politicians who find school autonomy challenging. Morgan’s commitment to work with the profession is, however, encouraging.

Policy-makers cannot deal with the challenges facing schools unless they put equality at the heart of all they do

Gillian Klein

Chris Husbands observed in an IOE London blogpost that Michael Gove’s rhetoric was of “a failing school system with some bright lights”, while Ofsted’s evidence is “of a largely effective school system in which the great majority of schools are at least good”. Such tensions are frequently the meat of the Blog and other education commentary.

Policy-makers face a number of tough long-term challenges. Key among them are the role of schools in building community and social cohesion in an increasingly unequal society, and how to secure high levels of both excellence and equity.

Meanwhile, the new school year brings immediate challenges. These include the accountability of free schools and academies, relationships between academies and local authorities and the role of middle-tier agencies, the Department for Education’s tenuous hold on teacher supply, the morale and professional self-respect of teachers, and the reliability and independence of Ofsted.

If the new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, and other policy-makers, are to meet these challenges, they must take their legal and moral responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 seriously. These responsibilities are, emphatically, not an add-on ­– policy-makers cannot deal effectively with the challenges facing schools unless they begin with the Equality Act, and keep it at the very heart of all they do.

This argument is the basis for the special issue of the journal Race Equality Teaching published this month by IOE Press. The journal has focused for 30 years on racial inequality in educational provision but this issue, compiled by a specially convened editorial team led by Robin Richardson and Berenice Miles, also considers disability, gender, religion and belief, sexual identity and transgender issues. The articles are arranged under headings which correspond to the three needs named in Section 149 of the Equality Act: to eliminate discrimination, to advance equality of opportunity, to foster good relations. Put simply, these needs are about treating everyone the same, treating everyone differently if their differences are relevant, and helping people get on with each other.

The journal leads with an article by Sameena Choudry decrying the DFE’s failure to collect and publish relevant information as required by the Equality Act’s specific duties. She calls for the DFE to make available the data about differential outcomes relating to children’s achievement at school and thus their life-chances. Such data needs to be precise; vague categories such as ‘ethnic minority’, or ‘Asian’, or ‘Black African’, or ‘special educational needs’ are unhelpful and therefore unacceptable. Also unacceptable is the failure to reflect the significant differences between different English regions, the intersectionality of inequalities, and the impact of family income.

Choudry’s challenge to the DFE sets the context for the remaining articles, which offer informed critique of the current provision for children in education who have protected characteristics – and some inspirational examples of good practice. They include definitions of disability and special needs, a case-study of one school’s response to a student’s gender reassignment, the aspirations and needs of Pakistani Muslim children, the impact of gender stereotyping, and the long arm of Section 28 homophobia.

The introduction takes the form of an open letter to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It makes the point at the core of this blog post: start with the Equality Act, and put it at the heart of all you do.


Gillian Klein, publisher of Trentham Books at the IOE Press, is the founding editor of Race Equality Teaching, formerly Multicultural Teaching.

The journal can be read by IOE staff on the Institute’s intranet, but paper copies of this special issue, and the next, can be purchased at cost – £5.00 each – if ordered before the journal goes to print. The cutoff date for this first issue is September 7, and details are available here.