Tests, the curriculum and learning

Yesterday I got involved in an important conversation on a doorstep about education.

I was told by a teacher that she felt strongly the present stretching curriculum backed up by regular testing was getting in the way of encouraging a love of learning in primary school children. She felt there was now too much emphasis on knowing facts and science, to the exclusion of wider education.

It is a difficult issue. I think you can make a case that too much emphasis on requiring mental recall of a fixed body of knowledge with testing to try to ensure pupils have memorised it can put some pupils off. It may inculcate an attitude of learning for the test and not bothering about anything that is not needed to pass the test. On the other hand if you go too far the other way and do not insist on mastery of the basics of number and words children can arrive at Secondary school ill equipped to carry out the more complex tasks there.

I remember at my own primary there was a strong emphasis on learning tables, spelling well, writing neatly, and being able to respond quickly to mental arithmetic challenges. There was a lot of rote learning and endless classroom tests to see if you had put in the work to memorise what was needed. The more creative work took place through projects, where you were encouraged to use your own initiative and time at home to flesh out a folder on the appointed topic. This mixture worked for some of us well.Today we now have the welcome development of smaller classes which should mean we can do better.

I would be interested in your thoughts on what is the right balance and the best approach. I agreed with the teacher that it is best if the system used does develop in a child a wish to know more, and a spirit of enquiry which will lead them to learn more through their own initiatives. If education is just a process of learning by rote and repeating for a test it will miss some of the most important features of personal development, but in the schools I have visited there is usually a balance in these matters which the national curriculum does not prevent. What are your thoughts.

Promoted by Fraser Mc Farland on behalf of John Redwood, both at 30 Rose Street Wokingham RG40 1XU

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77 Comments

  1. prigger
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    I think therefore I am. There are not many ams out there.

    • Hope
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      It is nothing but a poor babysitting service. Why should schools teach children how to eat, be polite, speak English- schools should reinforce patents teaching of social skills not the other way around. No discipline, control etc. good post previously from a teacher who left. She was spot on. Council services still woeful in every regard yet still no change. Small Cabinet of clueless councillors and vastly overpaid council staff. Reform is way overdue.

  2. eeyore
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    As the ignorance, so the certainty . . . having no school-age children about me I know little about education these days, but from anecdotal reports it seems to produce inadequate results in everything but complacency.

    A comparison of today’s exam papers with those from 50 or 80 years ago would be illuminating, and I suspect rather disconcerting to modern educationists.

    Anyway, for the teachers among JR’s readers who snort contemptuously at my stupidity, here’s an easy test from my own prep-school days long ago: which two consecutive numbers have squares whose difference is 2421? Time allowed: 5 seconds.

    • eeyore
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      No takers? 1210 and 1211. Here’s the trick: subtract one from the given number then mentally divide the remainder by two. That gives the lower of the two consecutive numbers sought. Easy!

      It works for all odd numbers because all odd numbers are the difference between two consecutive squares. For a child-friendly visual proof see https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/263101/prove-every-odd-integer-is-the-difference-of-two-squares

      As a seven-year-old long ago I found this better than magic. I had power over the universe of numbers! Similar tricks, common in pre-calculator days, allow rapid mental multiplication and division, squaring, cubing, extraction of roots and factorising. They teach close reasoning and mental athleticism. I commend them to JR’s doorstep acquaintance as well as the setters of the national curriculum.

    • Narrow Shoulders
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      The integers either side of 2421/2 would be that answer.

      Not having been taught (by rote) the direct method to answer that style of question it took me most of 20 seconds to work out the square number difference sequence and apply the formula. Love of learning demonstrated as preferable to rote.

      • John Archer
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

        2421 = (n+1)² – n² = (n²+2n+1) – n² = 2n+1
        implies n = (2421-1)/2 = 1210.

        Not a lot of people know that.

        It explains why so few have coconuts. 🙂

    • John Archer
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      2 secs.

      I’d say about 1209.9997. That’s according to my dad’s Spear & Jackson Deluxe Slide Rule, wi’ hickory shaft and brass trim. They stopped making them in 1892 so you can’t get them today. Unfortunately there’s a slight loss of accuracy and precision due to a temperature gradient across the thing because of the way I hold it, resulting in the warmer side being ever so slightly longer. I’d wear gloves but I really can’t be bovvered.

      Did I get it right? Do I get a coconut?

      Hey, young children love this one. Is the difference between a difference in degree and a difference in kind a difference in degree or a difference in kind?

  3. alan jutson
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Mental arithmetic and the ability to understand and be confident and correct with numbers without a calculator, in my view is an absolute must, as is the ability to read well and actually understand what has been written.

    Life without these skills would leave you open to all sorts of problems throughout your life.

    I really do not see why the School day should not run from 8.30 to 5.30 with no homework.

    Not all children have the facilities at home for sensible self study, and self study periods could be incorporated within the extended school time, where reference can be sought from qualified sources if needed.

    Given the above then parent/parents are free to work near normal hours.

    Teachers can do preparation, if it is needed, during school hours.

    One of the most important things a pupil can have is an inspirational teacher, who makes learning interesting and relevent.

  4. Lifelogic
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    It cannot be much fun teaching if everything you have to teach is laid down by the governments agenda. Half the battle is surely to enthuse the student they are unlikely to learn much unless they have such enthusiasm. There is also certainly far too much indoctrination in climate alarmist, religions, and other PC drivel. If the teacher are teaching drivel in some fields then why trust them in others?

    I find that few people seem to come out who are able to actually question & think for themselves.

    It is however largely the case that intelligence (there are of course several types on intelligence) is largely genetic anyway. I was fairly hopeless at French, at spelling, not particularly interested in reading Pride and Prejudice or To Kill a Mocking Bird but never has the slightest difficulty at all with Science and Maths. The hardest bit of getting in the Cambridge (Maths & Physics) was passing my French O level. Look for example at the gender breakdown in A levels from the largely female choices of Languages and Performing Arts to the largely male ones of Physics, Further Maths and Computer science. 4 to 1 in some subjects.

    The best thing they could do with English spellings would be to make them more rational and far less arbitrary. As Richard Feynman put it:-

    “If the professors of English complain to me that the students who come to the universities, after all those years of study, still cannot spell friend, I say to them that something’s the matter with the way you spell friend.”
    ―Richard Feynman
    What exactly is the point of the “i”?

    • Lifelogic
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      If spelling were far more rational then the teachers could use the time released to teach more important and far more interesting things. This rather than boring the students to death with endless spelling tests.

      • eeyore
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 6:00 am | Permalink

        Rational spelling: Ah’m frum t’north. Ah tek a bath.”

        “End Ai’m the Queen. Ai take a barth.”

        Which is rational? Reading is done by pattern recognition, not by noting the individual letters of a word. That’s why Feynman is wrong. The pattern may be arbitrary but so long as it’s consistent all English users will recognise it. However, LL is in good company: the great socialist GB Shaw left his estate to a campaign for spelling reform.

        • Lifelogic
          Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:48 am | Permalink

          Perhaps the best reform would be to get rid of the socialist construct of there being a “right” and “wrong” spelling and allow evolution to improve spellings rather than fixing them in stone. It should be about efficient communication after all.

      • APL
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Lifelogic: “Look for example at the gender breakdown in A levels from the largely female choices of Languages and Performing Arts to the largely male ones of Physics, Further Maths and Computer science. 4 to 1 in some subjects.”

        And the furore to get more men into languages and acting is deafening. Not!

        Lifelogic: “If spelling were far more rational then the teachers could use the time released to teach more important and far more interesting things. ”

        Disagree. And, admittedly I’m barely literate. Language, any language has a set of rules. Learn the rules and use them frequently. Practice, practice, practice.

  5. Lifelogic
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    So labour will not raise tax for people on less than £80K. Rather unlike the Tories have! Osborne stole their child benefit and Hammond (with May’s approval) tried to mug the self employed with increases in NI.

    Of course Labour must have a magic money tree, so will not need to. Anyway most will be on strike or taking endless Bank Holidays.

    • Lifelogic
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Increasing tax rates on people earning over £80K would raise less tax for the government to waste not more anyway. Surely even people as misguided as Corbyn must realise this?

      The way to get more off the rich is to encourage them to make more private provision for education, health etc. and to grow the tax base with general reductions in tax rates, simpler taxes, less red tape and cheap energy. Not to drive them overseas or make them take other expensive actions with accountants to avoid being mugged.

  6. Eh?
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    A bank will now give its staff, top to bottom, rote learning and tests complying with laws and regulations pertaining to the customer. Learning by rote and regurgitating it is required all over the place.
    Bosses hold meetings and ask for “suggestions”and “opinions”. Most employees, the older ones, keep their mouths shut.
    ” a love of learning” and all the wonder of the world are best kept to ones private projects: gardening ( do not underestimate it ) creative writing, improving your golf or football.
    So, it is a good idea to help children develop a mind for “outside of work” . A complete ban on homework would set a good example. There must be no compulsory overtime, especially unpaid, in the world of adults let alone children. An education authority should consider making payment for voluntary homework. They can study the question in their own time and produce results the next day to be marked and assessed before being given additional homework if not up to standard..

    • Iain Gill
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      it must be said the whole homework thing does put some kids at disadvantage. for instance, some homes without central heating there is nowhere to study in the winter months you either crowd around the fire, go to bed, or freeze. some kids are getting a lot of help, and some can not for one reason or another.

  7. APL
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    JR: “I was told by a teacher that she felt strongly the present stretching curriculum backed up by regular testing was getting in the way of encouraging a love of learning in primary school children.”

    A love of learning is only bestowed on a few. An enthusiasm for learning may come to another select few once they realise they’ve missed a golden opportunity while at school. But there are more than enough opportunities, not least the Open University to make up the shortfall. The rest of the population, simply muddle through their life in ignorance.

    Your teacher should concentrate on providing education to the 20% who leave secondary education unable to read or write. That is a shameful statistic for a modern state, but not surprising since the State has taken the monopoly in education.

    Government takes over the education of doctors and nurses – shortage of medical staff follows.

    Government takes over the training of teachers – shortage of teaching staff and baseline illiteracy of 1/5 of the population ensues.

    JR: “She felt there was now too much emphasis on knowing facts and science, to the exclusion of wider education.”

    In those two sentences, you have the primary causes of the decline of education.

    Not enough men in education, and elevation of ‘feelz’ above facts and knowledge. I bet the word ‘holistic’ was in the conversation somewhere too.

    Men of course, have been driven out of education, as the recent instance of the teacher who had his career, marriage and life destroyed by a malicious allegation, demonstrates.

  8. Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Being of the same generation, ( our birthdays are only four months apart ), my experience at Ellington state primary school in Maidenhead exactly mirrored your own.

    My wife and I have two sons, born in 1984 and 1986. They had a completely different experience in Dorset. They are both intelligent but went on to secondary school without an adequate knowledge of the basics – spelling and grammar were not a priority and didn’t seem to matter to their teachers, and what in modern parlance are called “Number Bonds” were not taught in an effective way.

    They have had successful careers but as a result of the modernist methods used for their early years education, neither is as good as we think they should be at using either the English language or at mental arithmetic. I have the answer before they have even found the calculator App on their iPhone !

    One never forgets the times tables learned by chanting them as a class. No other method is anything like as effective and at parents’ evenings we always maintained to their teachers that spelling does matter, as does grammar.

    So-called modern teaching methods are grossly inferior and the blame lies with the elitist left wing liberals who took over and came to dominate the entire educational establishment in the 1960s. It is hard not to conclude that they have now failed at least two full generations of children.

  9. Antisthenes
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    For a pupil to be able to meet approved levels in tests and exams and to leave education prepared for life and and the world of work a number of factors need to be working together. Memory retention, intellect, aptitude, curiosity, teachers, the education system, government, parental support and culture. If the quality of any of those is poor then pupils will not be able to attain their full potential. Tests and exams are the only way to measure the standards of those factors and identify short comings. So it is no surprise that teachers and most others will look to find ways and use any excuse however flimsy to remove methods of examination as the least thing anybody wants are their short comings exposed.

    Learning by rote to pass tests and exams is one of those flimsy excuses. It acknowledges that teachers and and some or all of the other factors are not good enough to ensure pupils gain a knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. So teaching and test setting is predicated on making test passing dependent on only one attribute. Memory retention.

  10. Caterpillar
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    1. Spaced repetition and repeat testing (to practise recall) have. Strong supporting evidence base. The effectiveness will depend exactly how schools are using the techniques.
    2. There is a difference between the convenience of automaticity in simple supporting knowledge and skills when learning or researching something more complex to avoid cognitive overload, and memorisation of arbitrary data. What should be repeat tested at each stage of mastery is important.
    3. Not withstanding point 2, knowing nominally disconnected facts is socially useful. For example, if you are at a networking event and the person you are speaking to says they are from Jiangsu province, or another person says that their first language is Setswana, knowing something rather than getting your phone out might aid the relationship.
    4. Much understanding and creativity comes from synthesis, even knowing seven times ten, and seven times two, before learning seven times 12 or seven times eight, shows the possibilities of interconnectedness.
    5. Testing helps overcome low level disruption, it is an opportunity for pupils to recognise that sets of rules/norms exist for behaviour in certain situations.
    6. Of course one can over do the practice when technology is available, this is a big question in mathematics. At secondary level once one has carried out a few integrations from first principals, and done a few examples of the techniques of integration it is not obvious that more practice is needed, even a cheap computational algebra app will do this now – when to swap from mastery of technique to mastery of understanding is, I think, tough.

    Overall memorisation and repeat testing of foundation and interconnected knowledge is important. Clearly being able to break down a large problem into smaller parts is important (so project management for ‘course work’ as well as extended questions in examinations). Further understanding the Ways of knowing is important, particularly scientific method and, frequencist and Bayesian statistics.

    Whilst on memory, let us take the opportunity to recall the push for diesel came from the European Commission presumably under the lobbying of German car manufacturers, perhaps we would have had more hybrids and EVs by now if it were not for the Commission. Perhaps I am misremembering… let me go and search this.

    • Simon Platt
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      I agree with most of that, apart from point 6. My son, currently practising his A-level maths technique over and over, agrees with me. Like all skills, it takes practice to master.

      • Caterpillar
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

        I agree that practice is needed to master the skill, but I think for some material it is possible to understand before mastering the skill. Your son might well be able to understand the fundamental theorem of calculus and indefinite, definite and improper integrals before being able to solve all analytically tractable cases put before him – but once the understanding and problem formulation is in place then the question arises when to use technological support (I don’t have an answer to this).

    • John Finn
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Regarding, point 6 : One of the minor, but potentially troublesome, problems is recognising when the “wrong button” has been pressed. Very few of us could easily work out the product of 9.143 x 8.271 in our heads – or would want to, but a lot of us old ‘uns would know that 9 x 8 = 72 and we’d immediately have a pretty good idea if the data in our calculator, computer program, spreadsheet formula or app had been entered correctly.

      I remember, some years ago, an undergraduate arguing with a colleague that 2/3 was 1.5 because that’s what her calculator had said. Admittedly , he was doing some service teaching for social scientists rather than mathematicians.

      when to swap from mastery of technique to mastery of understanding is

      Personally, I found that mastery of technique LED to mastery of understanding. I think a lot of people are like me.

      • Caterpillar
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

        I agree with the knowing if the tech’ supported answer is reasonable – I have no idea whether schools do this, but it would seem worthwhile to spend more time on approximation then practising what is not needed. For example a nasty definite integral can be easily done by exisiting software, so the needed skill would be for upper and lower bounds by some quick approximations – using knowledge plus basic technique to check the reasonableness.

  11. Anonymous
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Children spend 14 years in school.

    14 years !

    Twice as long as it takes to become a doctor.

    Why do so many come out illiterate and innumerate ? What do they do all day ? The worst thing in the school curriculum has to be foreign languages – why are schools so bad at teaching them whereas the Continentals are so good ?

    14 years at school. We should at least expect our children to be literate, numerate and able in at least one foreign language.

    • Anonymous
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Sorry to have raged on much about coffee shops in recent postings – but here expemplifies it.

      We are beneath producing coffee shop workers – despite fourteen years of education –
      and so our nation’s borders are dismantled on the flimsy excuse that we are all desperate for a latte.

      Mrs May is weasling in soft Brexit in the guise of hard Brexit by means of her appointments.

      • Lifelogic
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 2:38 am | Permalink

        I do not expect a clean Brexit under ex(?) remainer (and clearly a daft socialist) Theresa May. Let us hope the sensible wing of the Tories are able to force her to be sensible (or to replace her) after the election.

        • Anonymous
          Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:31 am | Permalink

          Well the French don’t want Brexit so let’s call the whole thing off.

          (30% of the French electorate have gone far right – something we British never did. UKIP are not the BNP.)

      • Know-dice
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:05 am | Permalink

        I was going to comment on your “coffee moment”, in that we should give credit to company’s (not just coffee suppliers) for –

        1. Employing people (even if you think those might be the wrong people).
        2. Paying employers NI contribution
        3. Collecting and paying VAT to HMRC
        4. Paying business rates – for which they get almost nothing in return…

    • APL
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      Anon: “Why do so many come out illiterate and innumerate ? ”

      I expect the NUT would tell us it’s because their members aren’t paid enough.

  12. Leslie Singleton
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Dear John–One thing that has always stuck with me is the embarrassment at the Arthur Andersen European Staff Training School in Paris centuries ago when in my early twenties I saw for the first time how quickly and easily Continentals, in particular Germans, could use a calculator. I was amazed how they didn’t need to take their eyes off the work, but just used one, usually the right, hand and lots of agile fingers as necessary to input numbers. We English, using the single finger plonker approach, taking the eyes off the work for every number, felt like idiots upon being told that they were trained to use a calculator from an early age. At the time (and pretty much still now) I had not been taught or even had the first idea that the middle number on a calculator has a raised dot on it which when one knows what one is doing is used to position the hand so that inputting does not require one to look at the keys. I have just noticed that the (Numbers Lock?) on the right of my keyboard has such a dot but I have never used it.

    • Lifelogic
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 2:41 am | Permalink

      Very discriminatory against left handers, to have this on the wrong side of the keyboard.

  13. brian
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    There are no easy ways to master the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics. It is necessary to practice until success is achieved. Some will take longer than others.
    I remember my Maths teacher saying when we moaned about the amount of homework he was setting – the most unhappy part of his job was to reply to past students who had failed their GCEs and had written to him saying that to get a required job they needed him to say that they had reached the required standard. He could not do it.

  14. Jerry
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    “[teaching by rote?] This mixture worked for some of us well.”

    But perhaps not the majority, just how many passed the 11+…

    I’m no fan of the Comprehensive system because it can not possibly work properly within the budget constraints the country has had to live within since the mid 1970s, and now the demands of the national curriculum.

    With a split education system (Secondary Modern or Technical & Grammar Schools) of old there didn’t need to be any greater number of schools nor staff that need funding. We do not need to reinvent education, as the Conservative party have tried to do with their “Free Schools”, we just need to either properly fund the “idealists” Comprehensive system we have (almost a blank cheque!) or revert back to a notionally split system – what does need to change is how such a split system selects and when, and there needs to be better ways for children move between the two systems after initial selection.

    When the left-wing of the Labour party try to make out that those who failed the 11+ and thus went to Secondary Modern or Technical in the 1950s were “written off” does nothing but prove the weakness of their argument, many very bright people went to such school and our industry, our country, was stronger for them.

    • Jerry
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      “I agreed with the teacher that it is best if the system used does develop in a child a wish to know more, and a spirit of enquiry which will lead them to learn more through their own initiatives.”

      The problem is that spirit of enquiry you refer to can come at differing ages, never mind reasons, some children for example will have a natural ability at maths from a young age whilst other children might not develop a ‘need’ (in their minds), never mind thirst, for the subject until they identify a distinct use for the subject. Yes many children might reach such a milestone in their education by way of those projects and their own initiatives but many will not, indeed can not because of the home environment & resources – for example a child who has very little academic ability might find their niche in secondary schools and their engineering or wood working shops (or what now passes for them in this age of risk adverse CDT…), now even though perhaps a struggle the student has found the need and now want to be competent in maths and will put the effort into the subject.

      The National curriculum and SATS are actually hindering learning, not helping, because timetabled national tests do not allow the flexibility needed by both teachers and children.

    • libertarian
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      Jerry

      Fairly much agree with both your posts

  15. Sir Joe Soap
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Thought provoking.
    I’d say that at a young age, developing the ability to remember “a fixed body of knowledge” is important, but it is also important to create an environment where creativity plays an important role in education. The balance away from the former and toward the latter should probably start at the secondary stage.
    Project work, using one’s own initiative is, as you say, one of the best routes to fostering creativity. Give children the tools to be creative, and the guidance, and see what happens.

  16. Bert Young
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    It’s quite a while since I was directly involved with the education of the young ; I also try to keep out of the consequences of my 9 year old girl at a nearby independent school where the classes are relatively small . Nevertheless ,I always was a keen believer in the three Rs and not allowing too much side tracking in other subjects ; today I would add IT as a basic requirement .After the age of 10 years there are many different life challenges about and creativity and other subjects add greatly to the understanding of the world and how it works . At this age the curriculum needs to expand to cover the Sciences , Humanities , Geography , History and , perhaps , another language .

    I was also a strong advocate of testing native IQ , Reading and Maths levels . Many talented children can be bored to death if they are not challenged according to their ability ; equally those children whose scores showed them to be below par , need to be approached accordingly and motivated in different ways , hence streaming is , and was , important . Each school also has to measure up to the particular demand of its locality – there is no point relating too much about Arctic conditions if the school is in the Tropics !. Today , with the many differences imposed on our country through immigration , language and the ability to communicate and write effectively is a very important ingredient .

    Every school must provide adequate opportunities for individual expression and development of character . A child must feel comfortable in the way they express themselves and are able to relate to others – of all ages . Confidence of expression is an important ingredient in life and a reflection of character . Schools face wide ranging challenges every day and everything depends on the talent , training and motivation of the teaching staff . If the Head is not up to the job all is lost .

    • Mockbeggar
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      I co-wrote a book not too many years ago which advocates that children should leave school at 14, but only after they have passed a certificate of competence to deal with the adult world and NOT of academic excellence. Thereafter they should be reasonably free to choose what they wished to learn about and go to teachers who specialise in those subjects. This we called ‘Personal Education’ as distinct from ‘School Education’. At the primary level schools should, as you say, Bert, concentrate on the 3 Rs and the other attributes necessary to enter the adult world.
      When I give lectures on the book I begin by asking the audience what non-technical qualities they would look for when employing a young person for the first time. The answers are quite consistently the same:

      Be able to read and write
      Be able to do simple arithmetic
      Be able to speak clearly and be understood and to interact with other people in a friendly and responsible manner
      Be able to take a message and ask suitable question of clarification for anything they don’t understand in the process
      Turn up to work on time every time
      Be responsible and honest.

      They never say they should have have 5 GCSEs at grade C or above.

      The present Primary and Secondary School system has developed from the Victorian ‘Public Schools’ and the Grammar Schools (that aped the Public Schools) where academic excellence was (is) considered to be the ‘greatest good’. The system was devised by the people who were good at academic work. It works for about 30% of pupils. The next 20% achieve the desired 5 GCSEs at C or above. Around 30% of pupils manage to get between 1 and 4 grade Cs or above. Another 20% or so managed at least 1 grade A *- G. The last 1.1% failed to get any kind of grade.

      Thus, to quote a secondary school teacher’s letter to the TES:
      “Education in this country will never function effectively until pupils, at least at secondary level, can choose their areas of study and do not spend every day wastefully being forced to learn much of what they do no want to know.”

      I apologise, Mr Redwood, for the length of this contribution and for the fact that it is a day late. I try not to turn on this wretched machine at weekends.

  17. Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    What seems to be missing from today’s education is what would have once been called ‘General Knowledge’. Students at University seem to know very little outside their chosen field and many are incapable of a real conversation.
    Recently my son-in-law interviewed a graduate in Media Studies for a post. The individual didn’t know that the time in Australia was different from here saying that he “hadn’t studied geography” and that he thought “they played cricket at funny times”!

    • Lifelogic
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      Indeed. Try asking people for example to explain why we get two high tides a day, why neap and spring tides, why the moon has more influence than the sun on tide (despite having less gravitational pull). How many can even explain these basics or even the seasons properly? Or why tides are so much larger in some places than others. Most have not get a clue, even those with lots of A*s .

      But they do nearly all come out believing in the climate alarmism religion. So few people actually think or question things.

  18. Plato fish
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    We must also consider whether one way or the other of working for a working teacher brings more working satisfaction for them as workers. If they are happier workers they may increase their productivity toward to their “products”: children.
    Kids are well aware when a teacher is in a bad mood. Sometimes kids learn better from somone who they like…whatever their teaching method and in fact what exactly they are teaching.
    It has been noticed by bosses in industry that it is sometimes best to allow a worker to “do it their own way” than to interfere. MY way always feels better than YOUR way. Perhaps teachers need some space. They have Department Heads, Committees, strangers coming in to assess them and 30 small people telling tales to adults about every piece of work they do , every word they say.
    But the 30. Including the teacher there are 31 human beings in that working class. We are only paying one of them. Error!!!!!!

  19. Richard1
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I suppose the problem is that if you don’t have choice and competition you need regulation and measurement to hold up standards as best you can (same reason the NHS is dominated by targets and bureaucratic admin).

    Best would be free competition between schools, lots of choice for parents, freedom of schools to hire whom they though would make the best teachers, get rid of the bad ones, pay the good ones – or the ones with staff shortages like maths and physics – much more etc. Then leave schools to get on with it, with the good driving out the bad. But that is a very long way from the highly state controlled, regulated and union influenced state education system we have. So lots of testing is – unfortunately – the inferior alternative, in order to make sure children and parents get the education their taxes are paying for. One thing that could now go is GCSE which has been so dumbed down from the old O-levels as to be worthless, and is a major interruption and distortion in a child’s education. If we can move towards a single final exam – A-level, and hopefully a parallel track for more technically focused education (eg Ken Baker’s excellent University Technical Colleges) – I think childrens’ education would be enhanced.

  20. Bryan Harris
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    There are some things that need to be learned by rote – Times table for example.

    But when students can get top marks for just being able to say when an important event happened or when someone was born, then this becomes nonsense.

    Students need to show that they have looked at the lessons learned from events or note how things changed as a result – When they can show they have learned something that can be applied in life, then they deserve good marks.

  21. Newmania
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I am afraid John that I am probably the only parent who reads your blog and if there are any female Redwood fans I haven`t noticed them. I have three children at school and the educational issue that concerns me is the prospect of your Party tearing up our local schools dividing communities and families by consigning 80% of our kids to a Secondary Modern where they can learn to be deferential proles . It needs hardly be said that the wealthy will have no such risk with many decent private schools around.
    I do not believe you think a nurturing educational environment is important one way or another or that such a dippy, conversation will achieve anything. If you had any serious interest in the subject everyone knows the problems which are around the lack of seperate faclities for the 5% that make learning of any sort impossible

    • Anonymous
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      I’m a parent.

      One son at med school, the other studying for an MSc in chemistry (keen to be a doctor too.) Thus far my family is working class.

      Yet you talk to us all like we’re failures and idiots and assume we’re not parents. Etc ed

    • John Finn
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      … the educational issue that concerns me is the prospect of your Party tearing up our local schools dividing communities and families by consigning 80% of our kids to a Secondary Modern where they can learn to be deferential proles .

      Can you tell me why you think a “Secondary Modern” should be any different to a Comprehensive. Why would the existence of more grammar schools cause this change.

      I attended a primary school in what could be described, at best, as an “aspirational” working class area. The catchment area included a large council estate. There were 41 in our class with just one teacher and NO teaching assistants. Teaching focused primarily on the 3 Rs. Dyslexia was a strange, rare condition at that time. The only person known to have it was an actress by the name of Susan Hampshire.

      To cut a long story short, 19 0f us passed the 11 plus and went to grammar school. However, that wasn’t necessarily the end of the story for the “failures”. Several boys from the “partner” secondary moderns transferred to our school over the next 3 years – and another tranche followed later to study for A levels in the 6th form.

      Newmania, I can introduce you to at least 4 headteachers or retired headteachers who failed to gain a grammar place at the age of 11. Most of my closest fiends went to Secondary Modern schools. I can assure you they weren’t failures.

      On John Redwood’s point, no-one can really “learn and discover” until they can read and understand properly. I am qualified and confident enough to take on a piece of statistics based research. However that confidence is based on the fact that I am able to read all previous research literature on the subjuect.

      Sportsmen and women improve by performing the same activities over and over again. It’s only when all the basic skills are in place that anyone can advance to the more interesting stuff. Sorry – but learning has to involve a lot of hard graft and repetition particularly for less able students.

    • a-tracy
      Posted May 9, 2017 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      You make too many assumptions, I’m a parent of three and female.

  22. Simon Platt
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I’m quite a lot younger than you, John, but my experience of primary school was similar. I don’t think any children were disadvantaged by the regular tests we had.

    Of course, there must be a balance between tests and other activities, as you say. And, of course, I wasn’t present at the conversation you describe. But I take criticism by teachers of testing regimes with a pinch of salt, especially in primary schools. “Too much emphasis on knowing facts and science” certainly rings alarm bells.

    My own philosophy is that passing exams is just a side effect of knowing things. Teachers should teach as well as they can and both teachers and children should take exams in their stride – take them seriously, but not too much so.

    I think, in summary, I agree with you: the national curriculum need not prevent balance in these matters.

  23. Roy Grainger
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I think it is important that parents should have a range of school choices available with different emphases with some using a “traditional” approach and some a more “liberal” approach – in my case due to a choice of state schools, free schools and academies I have that choice. What is right for one child is not for another – a “one size fits all” policy is the worst.

    Another thing to do is find what approach is used in Western countries with successful school systems – Germany for example.

    What I would guard against is having teachers decide education policy.

    • Iain Gill
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      there is no choice for the % of families forced to move house for work. they always end up with no choice and the worst school in town. even if they know long in advance they will be moving and give notice to the schools and admissions depts. a rather large and important demographic completely disenfranchised by the supposed choice in the current system.

      the supposed choice is nonsense in other ways too. with people openly gaming the system with fake religious affiliations, children supposedly living with distant relatives to claim an address is prized catchment areas, and all the rest of it. We have rationing and corruption with friends of the system magically getting the best places. Its not good, and the sooner some politicians saw it for what it is the better.

  24. NickC
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Children’s mental (as well as physical) growth varies in time, and between children. Nevertheless there are certain phases, like the love of chanting, which can be taken advantage of to learn difficult things. So the times tables can be chanted (and thus learned) at 3, 4, 5 years old for example, before the children can understand what the tables mean.

    Children also learn in different ways, such as by (controlled) experience (doing) and by pure instruction. Culturally in Britain, we sneer at the first and laud the second. This is counterproductive; both should be equally valued.

    As a parent I had no problems with my children being tested. I was more concerned with the lack of discipline within the classroom, and the insistence by many teachers of “child-centred” meandering. One father proudly told me his son had learnt to build a tree house at his trendy school; I replied that my children built their own tree house after school.

  25. John Probert
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    The system is run for the league tables not for the childrens education

    Initially there has to be lots of wrote learning to create the data base in the brain
    Later on we need to move to more creative learning and it is in this area we are
    failing. It is the journey of education that creates the new pathways in the brain.
    Create the Process of Thought
    1 Example
    Using the Sat nav or I phone to arrive at destination creates no new pathways
    Using the old map forces the brain into 3 dimensional modelling and creates new
    pathways in the brain.
    New technology does not create the process of thought
    Do we want young adults that can just operate systems ?
    Or do we want young people that can Create & actually THINK ?

  26. forthurst
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Having looked online, it is very apparent that education has been hijacked by the manufacturers of examination tests; consequently the exams consist of a myriad of superficial questions to which the answers are based on simple computations or selections, designed to be marked by computer. Bright children will be bored out of their minds and dim children will struggle to keep up and they will all, in any case, emerge without those fundamental capacities which are based on the practice of free expression. The whole thing should be junked; that includes the subject known as ‘Education’ and its sponsoring department.

    • Deborah
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      Forthurst has raised a fundamentally important point. What pupils are taught in schools is now dependent upon, and driven by, the materials available from the large publishers.
      When teachers are required to carry out so much box-ticking and prep, it is not surprising they reach for off-the-shelf resources, designed to make that aspect easier. However, the publishers see fashionable themes and ease of use as their chief selling point, taking priority over educational content and quality.
      Modern teaching resources are updated and re-released every year or so to keep them “relevant” and attractive (and maximise profits). In this rapid turnaround, academic rigour and accuracy have been lost. The materials produced might contain the core curriculum basics, but they tend to be badly thought out, formulaic, limited in scope and frequently full of errors. Teachers use these resources routinely.

  27. Ian Wragg
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    By inculating a love of learning as the teacher requires means that there are no yardsticks to measure progress. That way the teachers can hide their incompetence.
    Many are not qualified in the subject they teach and we are now breeding a nation of unemployable.
    When interviewing even graduates I am amazed how many lack basic knowledge.

  28. Treacle
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I am an academic at a Russell Group university. Young people today are as intelligent as they always were, but they know very little, because there is a feeling in schools that it is wrong to tell children things and require them to remember them. Hence the popularity of “open book exams”. Children should be taught facts, and they should be encouraged to develop their memories. The memory is a part of the brain and needs to be used. We do children a disservice by constantly telling them that exams and test are wrong. Tests, especially those which encourage the memory, should be given to students from an early age.

  29. John McDonald
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    My youngest granddaughter goes to a school in Wokingham and I am fully aware of the impact on teaching of the need to keep up with the OFSTEAD demands, reports and standards this has. It is clear that the introduction of modern day management trends into education has not helped improve standards compared to when I started school at the age of five some 66 years ago. I am only too aware of the impact today of the need for both parents to work and not everyone has the benefit of grandparents to hand. There is the issue of overcrowding in class rooms, and like the NHS, class rooms in corridors. The pressure to send children to school when they are sick to keep up the attendance figures.
    We have all the above to address before we get around to the subject of education methods. There was not a lot wrong with the old style of teaching, with perhaps the removal of corporal punishment, and a bit more focus on the methods for finding out things for oneself by doing. One needs to learn tables off by heart to survive without a calculator, and one needs to learn some basic facts in order to be able to progress and understand more. Learning where to look if one needs to know something is very important more so than retaining facts and details.
    Unfortunately it is now possible to generate so much information on paper that the key facts are not retained unlike looking through books and picking out points to write down.
    In short for the country to get anywhere in the world it’s future citizens need Maths, English and Science to a good level and not be focused on politically correct subjects.
    I do not consider art, woodwork, metalwork, history and geography as politically correct subjects just secondary to the three R’s as these will enable the above subjects to be investigated and understood.

  30. PaulDirac
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    School is not the preferred activity for most children, the distant (in time) motivation is usually too remote to support the everyday effort required.
    This means that a degree of compulsion is necessary, especially towards the “mid-years” of preparations for the GCSE’s etc.
    It’s also pretty obvious that a substantial number of teachers would rather not have the tests which may show them up as inadequate.
    There are quite a few countries (Finland, Canada, I’m avoiding the “tiger” cultures) which have experimented with the optimal mix of study – exams – creativity, why not learn from them?

  31. rose
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Because of the ascendancy of this lady’s thinking, we are importing millions of better educated people to do jobs our people don’t want to do or can’t do. That is a simplification, of course, but why are employers no longer complaining about our education standards, as they used to? Not because they have risen sufficiently, but because they can now get their employees from elsewhere. This is a shameful state of affairs and should never have been allowed to go on so long. Mrs T , Ken Clarke, and Kenneth Baker tried to haul us up; then so did Michael Gove, but we always seem to slip back. Of course children don’t always want to work hard, little boys especially, but that is no reason to deprive them of an education that is up to the standard of the best in the world.

  32. acorn
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Can I suggest JR, that Mrs May shuts down the Dept for Education and hands the job back to the County (Shire and Metro) and Unitary Councils. The DoE is spending circa £71 billion a year, including £11 billion on pensions. I am sure the techies can come up with a simple, first order equation to distribute the non-pension bit.

    The problem with having here today, gone tomorrow “ministers”, is that they all have to have some sort of “initiative”, to impress the boss. This inevitably means that a succession of amateur ministers, will continually keep buggering up the education system, which will be still trying to recover from the last amateur minister that buggered up the system.

    • Iain Gill
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      no I have first hand experience of open corruption in one county council admissions dept, of which there is no effective complaints system or checks and balances. handing more power to these people is absolutely the worst of all worlds. hand the power over to the PARENTS

  33. a-tracy
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I agree with creating a love of learning first. However, I think it is essential that children can confidently write, know spelling rules, know their times tables off by heart before they go to High School. I wonder what age the teacher was who spoke to you 50

    I don’t think the teachers should teach to the tests, I think any tests should be guarded and teachers not know in advance the test questions or be able to guess what questions are going to come up, as a parent I would want to know if my child had gaps of knowledge in their learning, too often you only find this out when it’s too late.

    My eldest two had older teachers who taught them times tables by rote and I took for granted the youngest would be taught the same way, when I discovered he was struggling with more complex maths i discovered his knowledge of times tables wasn’t sufficient, we taught him by rote at home and he leapt ahead. So if changes are to be made ensure parents are informed so they can pick up any slack at home.

  34. margaret
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    As a youngster the emphasis as you say was times tables , before English . I remember night after night at bath time mum going through them backwards and forwards. I was the first in the class to learn them all , so believe it or not ,my reward was to get a badge and go out to playtime on my own . I was ostracised for being too clever. I didn’t shine after that . I played solos in music , that was acceptable and they let me go that way accordingly.
    I got to higher school , came top in the theory of music gaining 98% in an exam , so believe it or not they took music out of the curriculum. Some are expected to do well , others are not allowed to do well.
    There is a balance and employers must realise that exams and letters after names does not mean that knowledge has been gained , absorbed and useable. My profession has needed a lot of maths calculations which I have worked on from time to time ( as I cannot stand to be unsafe), but believe it or not those with maths ‘A’ level cannot do these basic calculations. !

  35. Iain Gill
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    My thought is that the government and state should get out of it. Education would be far better with the buying power handed over to parents. The state should make sure everyone has enough money to educate their kids, but that is where the state should start and end its involvement. Far too much top down command and control, and far too little responsiveness to parents. The state has been meddling for years and we still have rubbish schools that nobody would send their kids to if they controlled them purse strings. Abolish admissions departments. Change the qualified teacher status nonsense. And yes free up schools to innovate. Abolish selection based on mediaeval hocus pocus and catchment areas. Not so hard to do.

  36. lojolondon
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    When i was at primary school, every Friday we had a test on the contents of the preceeding week, then a test at the end of each month, and a full set of 6 subject tests at the end of each term. At the end of the year, your final marks were based on the average of all 4 terms, so there were very few surprises. You had to achieve a pass mark or you stayed back and repeated the year.
    Along the way we all learned to deal with the pressure of studying for exams, prioritising areas of study, studying technique and most importantly, examination technique.
    I cannot understand how current teachers can possibly say that children have too many tests, as they seem to do a very small fraction of the tests we did.
    My son is preparing for the 11+ which he will take next year. In his first 6 practice exams, he scored 4, 7, 10, 10, 12 and 10 – all out of 12. I really do not think he became 4 times smarter during the last week, I do believe that he learned really fast how to approach a test, understand what was asked, frame his responses, and allocate the right amount of time to each question – ie. exam technique.
    I think this anti-exam campaign is counter-productive and harming our children. I do blame the lazy teacher’s unions for giving out false propaganda that ‘exams are bad’ and the BBC for repeating it endlessly.

  37. Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    I have been a teacher all my life. I started off at Birmingham University with a progressive lecturer – Mrs Jull a declared Communist – who taught that school should be noisy, fun and enjoyable.
    From that day on, the experts took over. Schools grew far too large to control. School inspectors changed from rather eccentric friends into the monsters who do Ofsted. The GC(S)E was dumbed down and my granddaughter is doing 11 GCSEs and her friend 16. Teachers once used to wear gowns and be respected. Today they are not and they don’t. Any form of collegiate professionalism is out of the window ages ago.
    The government has taken over and the government wants provable results. That is why the state of education is like it is.
    No more informal cricket matches with the Headmaster batting. No more staff rooms for the whole staff. No more control over the pupils. Lots of danger. Lots. And then some. One wrong (racist??) word, one piece of juicy (lying) gossip is all you need now.
    And teacher teaching stuff she doesn’t understand out of a Specification written by people who do not know what a classroom looks like.
    Fix that!

    • Iain Gill
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      not to mention the complete and utter lack of male role models for children in some schools. open sexism in the recruitment, selection, and promotion of women that would be front page news if it was the other way around.

      • acorn
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:57 am | Permalink

        If a male wants to teach in a primary school particularly, he is automatically considered to be a paedophile. Fare too risky with today’s tabloid media.

        Anyway, conservative governments don’t want an educated proletariat with a vote. A selected few are required to run the government machine and operate mushroom management – keep them in the dark and feed them s*** – over the lower quintiles of the ballot box fodder.

        God forbid teaching them numbers and geometry, they might start putting two and two together and coming up with different answers to the government.

  38. Bon
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    The central thrust in Macron’s victory speeech is he is going to massively increase audacity.
    The crowd cheered. Something seems to have been lost in translation.

  39. Prigger
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Number One Truism for a multi-party democracy yet stated as an unusual massive problem:
    “The Country is divided.”

    Last uttered by Skypaper guest journalists in reponses to the French elections.The next major uttering will be when Mrs May flattens the Opposition in the General Election.

  40. Adam
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I just had a look at the Key stage 2 papers

    The maths exam looked ok, very limited but ok.

    The science exam i didnt like. A question along the lines of “Explain why ducks have webbed feet” from a science point of view is an awkward question and doesnt test knowledge of any scientific concepts. I assume they are testing memory or intuition. One might ask them to explain why ducks exist at all.
    Many other questions looked very similar to the maths exam with lots of simple number comprehension.

    I bet its annyoing having to teach to that.

  41. SecretPeople
    Posted May 8, 2017 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    John, you said:

    “at my own primary there was a strong emphasis on learning tables, spelling well, writing neatly, and being able to respond quickly to mental arithmetic challenges”

    and having a child just embarking upon KS2 I can say all these [including rote learning] are still very relevant, as is the opportunity to develop creative approaches to problem solving, as you describe.

    However, at my child’s primary school, homework is given 5 nights a week, and this after a 10 hour day (including commute). My own generation finished school at 3pm and had no homework until secondary school. So children miss out on play – which is is extremely important, as is the chance to interact naturally with other children – since much is learned informally and through imaginative play and it is the opportunity for this which is lacking.

    The pressure the school feels it is under to rate well in the league tables places immense pressure upon children and families. I would respect the school more if they cared for children’s well-being and said ‘sod the homework’ and didn’t tell them off in assembly for silly things such as ‘clapping too loudly’; schools need to bear in mind the lessons children are learning from such admonishments. Sometimes it feels schools exist to ‘snuff out the joy’ that children naturally experience and exhibit.

  42. John Archer
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    I think the education system would be a lot more fun if it promoted jokes, especially at someone else’s expense.

    J E Littlewood was a dab hand at it:

    There was a Rent Act after 1914, and the definition of when a house was subject to it was as follows (my notation in brackets). The standard rent (R) was defined to be the rent in 1914 (R₀), unless this was less than the rateable value (V), in which case it was to be the rateable value.

    “The house is subject to the act if either the standard rent or the rateable value is less than £105.”

    There were many lawsuits, argued ad hoc in each case. The subject is governed by a fundamental theorem, unknown to the Law:

    Theorem: The house is subject to the act if and only if V < 105.

    This follows from
    Lemma: Min{Max(R₀, V), V} = V.

    🙂

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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