A central aim of Education Secretary Justine Greening is ‘enabling children to reach their full potential’ . The idea comes into many of her speeches. It appeared in the DfE’s response to the head of OFSTED Amanda Spielman’s complaint on October 11 that the focus on SATs and GCSEs is at the expense of ‘rich and full knowledge’. The response states that ‘Our reforms are ensuring children are taught the knowledge and skills they need to fulfil their potential’.
It’s the kind of phrase that tends to wash over you. It seems no more than a way of saying ‘we want them to do well’ – a politician’s empty comment. But there’s more to it. Ironically for the present government, it was part of the lexicon of the child-centred theorists dominant in teacher training until the 1960s. The London Day Training College, later the Institute of Education, under Percy Nunn and his associates was their main base.
The watchword was ‘development’ and the model was biological. Just as plants grow to their full height and no further, children’s intellectual progress has its limits. These vary from individual to individual. It’s no coincidence that a close colleague of Nunn was Cyril Burt, who taught at the LDTC and then at UCL. The idea of limits of intelligence that was at the heart of IQ testing went hand-in-glove with child development as then conceived.
In those days the notion of reaching one’s full potential implied genetically determined, unchangeable ceilings of ability. Its weakness is that, severely brain-damaged learners apart, the claim that there are ceilings is unverifiable and unfalsifiable. How can one know that a child cannot get beyond a certain point, given that in principle teachers can try endless new ways of getting them past it? How can one know that even an Einstein has his pons asinorum somewhere as yet out of sight?
The philosopher Karl Popper called unverifiable and unfalsifiable claims like this ‘metaphysical’. They don’t belong to science but are often at the heart of ideological systems of belief, as in the case of ‘God exists’, or ‘death for one’s cause earns a place in heaven (or the communist pantheon).’
Justine Greening’s statement to the Sutton Trust in July that ‘social mobility is how we can unlock and enable potential’ may be no more than warm words. But there might be more substance to it. It fits neatly into a possible political agenda that goes something like this:
‘We are all in favour of social mobility. It goes with our belief in equality – equality of opportunity, that is. Everybody should be enabled to get as far as they can in life. A common national curriculum concentrating on examinable subjects is a good way to create a level playing field. Our aim of 90% of learners taking GCSE is to ensure that virtually every child can climb the ladder. Not all will be successful. Some will get poor results at GCSE and climb no further. But we will have given them the best chance they could have of reaching their full potential.’
Intellectual ceilings may well be the last thing the government has in mind. At all events, it could learn a lot from the Learning without Limits project at Cambridge University . Dame Alison Peacock, Chief Executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, is a well-known member of the research team. See the stunning website of the Learning without Limits primary school, the Wroxham, in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, which she headed until recently.