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A Failure of Journalism

If you are going to accuse a quarter of English schools of failure, you might think to do a check on whether the facts you are using are accurate. But such a basic requirement did not seem to occur to our education journalists last week. The BBC, for instance, led its report with the claim that “almost a quarter of England’s sixth forms and colleges have failed to produce any pupils with the top A-level grades sought by leading universities”.

This statement was based on the new measure of secondary school performance, that of the % of sixth form students achieving AAB in three ‘facilitating subjects’. It is not clear where the belief that top universities require three facilitating A levels came from. The advice from the Russell Group is that students should take not three but two ‘facilitating’ A levels and they specifically say that the third A level can be a ‘soft’ subject. Did those journalists make that simple call to the Russell Group to check their statements? It seems not. Here’s some indications that the assertion was nonsense:

** At the school I chair none of the students who have received offers from Oxbridge took three facilitating subjects
** Headteacher @kalinski1970 tweeted that, of the students from his school receiving offers from Russell Group universities, 86% did not have three facilitating A levels.
** Lisa Freedman noted in a letter to the Guardian that at Westminster, one of the most academic and selective private schools, only 38% achieved three facilitating A levels, although over half went to Oxbridge – and many more will have gone to Russell Group universities.

it may be that some schools do not help their students choose the right subjects for the top universities. But this data gives no evidence as to whether that is the case, or what proportion of schools it might be. Those education journalists who accused one quarter of English schools of failure should retract their statements and apologise to the schools that they have slandered.

I do not know if the % is given for three, rather than two, facilitating subjects. It may simply be a mistake. Or, more worryingly, it could be a further push by Mr Gove to drive creative subjects out of the curriculum. If schools react to the new measure by encouraging students to take three facilitating subjects, it will mean less taking subjects like Music, Drama and Art – even though these may be the strongest subjects for these students, and ones which they would get high grades in, which would help them get into good universities.

Why is Michael Gove Not Challenged?

If Osborne claims his economic policies are working, the media finds politicians or economists who hold different views. If the government makes claims about health we generally hear from doctors or health experts who disagree. If the Home Secretary criticises the police we can expect to hear their defence.

But when Michael Gove’s Department for Education issues a press release it is too often repeated verbatim without question or challenge. The assertions of success for academies and the attacks on state schools and our hard working teachers are regularly repeated without question. Should not education journalists do their job properly, and make clear that these are the views of the DfE and not fact, and carry out some basic fact checking and search for alternative opinions? This is surely the most fundamental requirement of a serious reporter.

There are honourable exceptions, most notably Christopher Cook in the Financial Times, and also the TES (Times Educational Supplement). But these seem to be in a small minority.

GCSE Results: The Myth of Academy Success

Another example from last week is the DfE claim that GCSE results of sponsored academies grew at five times the rate of non-academies. No paper questioned whether the comparison was appropriate or asked why the DfE was only talking of sponsored academies and not mentioning the results of converter academies (whose GCSE results had fallen).

Our coverage made clear that, when compared to similar schools, non-academies did as well as academies. it is true that the data was complex but journalists were given access to it 24 hours before the embargo time. Only Christopher Cook seems to have used this time to do his own analysis, with most simply repeating or rewording the DfE press release. We didn’t get the data at LSN until the embargo time of 9.30 last Thursday but i sent a press release that afternoon to most education journalists making clear the alternative view – but no publication included it as a balance to the DfE claims.

Today Full Fact published its analysis and confirmed our findings. It made that the “Department for Education’s claim that standards in academies are rising ‘more than five times as quickly than in all state-funded schools’ doesn’t show us the the full picture”. This was, of course, the fact repeated without question by most publications reporting the results.

Time to Complain

The Local Schools Network was formed largely in response to a press that unquestioningly repeated the attacks on state schools and the claims made by this government (as well as some of those made by the previous one). It is clear that little has improved and too many educational journalists suspend their judgement and critical faculties and take whatever Michael Gove and the DfE says as true.

We deserve better. The dedicated students, staff and school leaders deserve to be appreciated when they do a great job and not to see the attacks of an Education Secretary, with his own reactionary agenda, repeated as facts. We need journalists to actively search out what is really going on in our education system and to question massive structural changes that have so far delivered no perceivable benefit, but at huge cost.

I humbly offer my services to any education journalist wishing to check some facts. My email is henry and my mobile is 07870 682442. I do not expect you to publish my analysis as verbatim truth, any more than you should do that for DfE claims, but I promise to provide an alternative view and to point out possible flaws in the data.

Personally I will be submitting complaints to the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Times and Independent about this misreporting – the false claim that a quarter of English schools failed to produce any students with the right grades for our top universities and the misleading claim that academies grew five times as fast as non-academies.

Where to Complain

BBC: make a complaint about at
(Info below was also transmitted on BBC News at ten on 24th Jan) 

Article states:  “Almost a quarter of England’s sixth forms and colleges have failed to produce any pupils with the top A-level grades sought by leading universities.” In print they did qualify the 5x claim, but I don’t recall them doing so in the TV broadcast.

Channel 4: Complain to

“Some one in four schools and colleges are failing to produce any students with top grades in A-level subjects that will help them win a place at a leading university, new league tables suggest.” No comment on academies and CSEs

Guardian: I can’t find offending article but it is cached by Google at Complain by email to the Readers Editor at
“A new set of figures this year shows the numbers of students at each institution getting at least two As and one B in “facilitating” subjects, the type of A-levels identified by the Russell Group of leading universities as their preferred routes to entry. These are maths and further mathematics, English literature, the three sciences, geography, history and languages. Just over a quarter of schools and colleges, about 600, did not have a single pupil reaching this standard” & “This argument received some backing in the latest GCSE figures, which showed the proportion of students reaching the five good GCSEsstandard rose by 3.1 percentage points in sponsored academies, as against a national rise for state schools of 0.6 of a percentage point.”

Sunday Times: Complain to ??

“Thursday’s school league tables revealed that in a quarter of English sixth forms and colleges not a single student achieved the A-level grades needed to go to one of our leading universities.”

Telegraph: Complain at

“League tables showed that hundreds of secondary schools did not produce a single pupil with high enough grades in tough academic subjects to win a place at elite universities.”


Feel free to add any other publications in comments.

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Comments, replies and queries

  1. The headteacher of the Tiffin school has now posted a critique of the A level measure, pointing out that only 44% of their students get 3 facilitating A levels but 85% get into Russell Group universities:

    • Rebecca Hanson says:

      I’ve now read your post in detail Henry and I just wanted to congratulate you on it. Thank you for doing this work.

  2. Clapped out Barry says:

    Great post. there is away in which we can make a difference and that is by commenting on the online threads of these papers. My particular hobby horse is the Telegraph ( my nom de plume is marklu) where, I am pleased to say there are a number of people who are willing to take the “Education Editor” to task. Toby Young has returned there and his article simply parroted the government line last week. There is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing an anti state school article in the telegraph with the best rated comments being those that criticise the party line. I have found LSN to bean invaluable resource in arguing the case. Keep up the good work Henry. Thank you all.

    • Barry – I think we may have met in Telegraph comments. I, too, like to debunk the misrepresentation which purports to be a serious article on education. I often link to LSN.

      I lost count of the number of times I told the DT (and other media outlets) that they shouldn’t be using the 2000 PISA figures for comparison. But they just kept on doing it.

      Henry’s right – it’s about time the papers received complaints when they print stuff which just isn’t true or is “economical with the truth”.

  3. Great work Henry. Have you also sent this material to Stephen Twigg? – it’s about time that the Labour party (and other opposition parties) started to mount a proper opposition to Tory education policy and come out with some clear statements about what they would do if in power after the next election.

  4. Ivan Godfrey says:

    All part of the momentum, momentum, momentum campaign! A fascinating article, depressing in the main for its portrayal of a non-critical media but encouraging because of the beacons out there. We just have to create more flickering beacons – I’ve done what I can to circulate this article to anyone in a far higher place than me who might be able to take it further. Thanks, Henry

  5. Brilliant to see action rather than just talk – far too many sites simply do the latter, with precious little effect on situations.

    Can you please post the outcome of these complaints.

    And indeed any action to get Twigg into gear would be great. The only problem there, as far as I see, is that both parties seem to be in on the game of privatising education. What do you think?

  6. Here is some good news on taking action :

    where teachers are striking in response to excessive workloads.

  7. Adrian Elliott says:

    Congratulations, Henry on a great article which really might make a difference.

  8. Patrick Hadley says:

    Thank you Henry for all your work. The lack of an effective opposition – Stephen Twigg is totally useless – makes it all the more important for others to make the facts known.

  9. Great article, Henry. There have been too many examples of the media reproducing DfE press releases without doing what readers expect journalists to do: check the facts. And it’s about time they were reminded that their job is to serve the public not politicians.

    Unfortunately, the media is too willing to cut-and-paste press releases without checking the contents. Chris Atkins,the independent film-maker who duped the BBC into running a fictitious story about Downing Street’s new cat, told Leveson that 54% of news article in national papers come from public relations (PR).

    “What happens is people write a press release and they send it in to the newspaper and the newspaper cuts and pastes that and puts it as a news article and presents it to the public as news that’s been sourced and verified and everything else, when of course it’s nothing of the sort.”

    The Churnalism website allows people to paste a news article into Churnalism’s search engine. It will check whether the article came from a press release.

    The following article has a link to a short video about churnalism including the spoof story of the “chastity garter”.

  10. Valuable websites for fact checking are Full Fact (first link) and Channel 4’s fact check blog (second link).

    Full Fact sent out a postcard which read, “Support grows for the War on Error.”

    Hear, hear.

  11. Nick Davies described in detail how the decline in 2 key original reporter activities were lost after the likes of Murdoch sought ever higher profits at ever lowers costs in his book “Flat Earth News” (

    1. Reporters used to go out to the scene of new news
    2. Reporters used to check news items received 2nd hand

    In the absence of these, there is no time to vet for spin, so it is no surprise that PR is so prevalent. Desperately sad, but yet another example of profit making damaging the quality and social responsibility of an enterprise.

  12. Patrick Hadley says:

    Can anyone point me to the original source for all the reports about the “25% of schools without three AAB in facilitating subjects”? I cannot see it on the DfE site or in the DfE press releases.

    • Patrick – it’s in the Schools Performance Tables: Statement of Intent 2012. See “Changes specific to Key Stage 5″ on page 5.

      • Patrick Hadley says:

        Thank you Janet, I doubt if I would have found that without your help.

        This Govian policy is intended to persuade schools to get more able sixth-formers to take three “facilitating” A-levels. Since we now know that Russell Group universities have no problem with one out of the three A-levels being non-facilitating, not only is this statistic nonsense, but it is likely to have a damaging effect on students who are forced to drop subjects in which they are really interested, and also on schools which may find that they can no longer offer A-levels in creative subjects because students who aspire to Russell Group universities will be deterred from studying them; and it is all based on a misunderstanding.

  13. I share your frustration with education reports in the national media. You may be interested to know about plans to set up an Education Media Centre, modelled on the existing (very successful) Science Media Centre. The aim is to give journalists access to experts who can comment on, counteract – or occasionally validate! – the sort of claims you quote in your blog. There’s more about the EMC here:

  14. Excellent work Henry, and much appreciation for all the other commentators’ input. By all means we should be demanding in the strongest possible terms that journalists check before publication. Once a line has been cast, many will be caught, unawares of the danger of swallowing “news” at face value. It is always difficult to counter a story once it is caught up in the mass psyche.

    However, as a former member of the NAHT, and before that the NUT, I ask, WHERE IS THE ORGANISED PROFESSIONAL VOICE in this debate? All professional bodies need to wake up. There are hundreds, if not thousands of sites like LSN doing terrific work highlighting the plight of our politically threatened, endangered education service and the professional voice is barely heard in support of this campaign to take education out of the political arena. Nothing less than this will suffice for the future.

    • The Headteacher’s Roundtable was established at the end of last year. There was a day conference on Monday. Has anyone any feedback?

    • John,
      Agreed. I only became aware of the British Education Research Association this morning – I wonder if they are embedded in the research and publication parts of their mission, rather than the political informing role? ( Do you know much about them? Do you think that we could we stir them into action to defend what is largely the value of their work, which is patently being largely ignored to date by the DfE?

      • David Harbourne says:

        Neil – You’re right that BERA tends to be a network of people researching aspects of education, rather than of people whose mission is to translate research findings into messages for policy-makers. (Having said that, I’m a member of BERA, and translating is exactly what I do!) However, the embryonic Education Media Centre should do exactly what you are asking for – see the link in my earlier comment. Specific aims are to:
        – Save users time by providing them with a single contact point to a wide range of research expertise.
        – Support the credibility of users’ work by offering timely, impartial and authoritative access to people, publications and evidence.
        – Make research findings more accessible and media-friendly

  15. Henry,
    I recently joined the Labour party as a means of making change, on the advice of a blogger (I have no real party affiliation), so maybe I too can seek a route to trigger him into action.

  16. Neil and David,
    While I am not judging the quality and potential value enshrined in the the proposal by the Coalition for Evidence Based Education to establish its Education Media Centre, I have grave misgivings about its usefulness. I fear that without a culture change, the Centre will not achieve its intended outcomes.

    On its project section, under ‘Promoting Evidence-based Reform – The role of policy’, CEBE has this to say about evidence-based practice in education and children’s services:

    “…a lot is happening at present: think-tanks are proposing evidence-based systems, politicians are citing evidence to support their decisions, practitioners are calling for more support, and systems are being created, worldwide, to encourage research use and knowledge exchange. ”

    Understandably, my concern relates to the comment, “politicians are citing evidence to support their decisions,” This is certainly what they should be doing, especially if they truly want to ‘win hearts and minds’. However, there is already evidence out there to support reform. It is, in fact, accumulating daily. I have no doubt that what CEBE proposes will make a suitable contribution to the ongoing drive to raise the quality of educational opportunity for all. The problem we face at present, as I say, is not a lack of evidence, it is the undemocratic application of brute force to see things in a way that fits with ideology, in spite of the evidence. The whole thrust of Henry’s original story points precisely to this problem and the alacrity shown by the media in accepting without verifying ‘so-called’ facts.

    Thank God for reliable sources of information. In a fair system of government this should help to strengthen democratic processes. Our problem at present is the failure of key people in positions of authority to adhere to basic ethical standards and the ineptitude of the media in general in failing to hold transgressors to account. If none of this changes, education reform will not advance in ways it should.

    There is no escaping the inevitable. The political stranglehold over education policy, that threatens to ruin the opportunities for young people seeking only fair treatment at the hands of authority, has to be broken. The campaign for meaningful reform of education management needs the support of everyone with an investment in the future.

    • John,
      Many thanks for taking time to write at length. It is very much appreciated.

      I tended to draw similar conclusions about the CEBE, BERA and EMA (I hate acronyms, so hope these are understood) have a feel of a comfortable authority of knowledge, but no clear evidence of making things happen with regard the DfE (maybe DoE is a better acronym …).

      We return full circle, it seems, to a need for a unifying voice. A kind of Nelson Mandela figure to stir the teachers and academics into pushing for evidence based education. in theory, Tiwgg could play that role to a degree, but there is no indication that he wants to, and would we really want a political figure, with inherent political focus, leading change?

      • Rebecca Hanson says:

        Shall we put him in prison for 27 years?

      • Ivan Godfrey says:

        Although it’s main focus was different, the GTC would have represented a potential unifying voice of education. Small wonder, therefore, that one of Gove’s first actions was to scrap it. I think people underestimate the sinister logic behind this man’s actions.

        • Rebecca Hanson says:

          Not me Ivan, I’ve written extensively about the problems created with lack of expertise in technology in education due to the dismantling of becta and the freezing of investment and the fact that that Gove shut down this expertise at a time when his Leveson evidence makes it clear he was spending his time chatting to the Murdochs – who had recently acquired global interests in technology in education.

          • Ivan Godfrey says:

            I certainly wasn’t implying you or, indeed, the vast majority of readers of these articles and comments, Rebecca! Time and again though I have had comments from individuals at the educational work-face so pressurised by meeting daily challenges that they are not aware of the wider picture … which is where our individual tasks as word-spreaders are so vitally important.

          • :-) I didn’t think you were implying me Ivan.

            I don’t know how aware you are of the the fear of the consequences of speaking out under this government. As well as the kind of reaction real teachers like Jonny Griffiths get if they say anything (which can immediately destroy the person and their career no matter how sensible what they say is), people are so afraid of punishments for their school (through Ofsted) and generally drawing any negative attention towards their school. That’s why professional organisations are so important as they can have a voice.

            But because the Labour government set up government controlled organisations which sucked the life out of the teacher led ones, Gove could shut them down and effectively ensure those he let survive had no voice.

    • David Harbourne says:

      I agree about the culture that afflicts our political life. Politicians always quote evidence which supports their opinion and set aside contrary evidence.

      I do believe, however, that we can achieve improviements in standards of education journalism. I came round to the idea of the Education Media Centre after meeting the head of the Science Media Centre, which has been going for a number of years (web site The people behind the SMC were alarmed that journalists go straight for the sensational headline without bothering with the detail. They appreciated that they’ll never be able to stamp this out entirely, but they can help responsible health correspondents write better-informed, more balanced copy. I really think we’ve got to try the same approach with education journalists – and a wide coalition of people have to come together to make it work.

      One final point. You’d think every aspect of education has been researched and evaluated to death, wouldn’t you? Sadly, it hasn’t. I was struck by a recent review of evaluations of STEM initiatives. Hardly any of them assessed the lasting impact of the initiatives – they simply looked at how well each initiative had met its initial, short-term aims. The truth is that in a great many areas of education, we don’t have any robust evidence to show what works (and what doesn’t) – which makes the Education Endowment Foundation’s Toolkit a real boon, along with large-scale longitudinal studies such as the Youth Cohort Study.

      • David Harbourne says:

        Sorry – it should read “responsible health and science correspondents” in para 2.

      • Thanks David. I realise that you are spot on – that to expose the flaws in political decision making, you must starve politicians of supportive media oxygen. For each DofE propaganda sent on ‘the wire’ to the press, education academics must provide a counter argument – the truth that will undermine these PR statements. It must be as easy as possible for journalists to align with education wisdom instead of political PR.

        Is the Science Media Centre trying to deal with the Journalist tendency to gravitate towards the most exciting education news?

        I contacted BERA and received a reply from Jonathan Sharples who stated :

        “… it is not our role to act politically. Whether evidence contradicts or supports government policy, we will try and represent that evidence appropriately.”

        So it is a passive role, and therefore one that is easy for politicians to ignore or cherry pick.

        The worrying thing about Michael Gove is his very strong connection with The Times, for whom he was a journalist. He has apparently met up with Murdoch more frequently than any Education Secretary.

        • David Harbourne says:

          Neil – Yes, the Science Media Centre is encouraging responsible science journalism – with quite a degree of success, I’m pleased to say. Science journalists are better informed than they used to be, and many science and health stories are better balanced and more accurate than they were before the SMC was set up. (Though some newspapers persist in publishing rubbish, I admit!)

          Jonathan Sharples is helping to set up the Education Media Centre – I guess the reference to BERA is a slip of the tongue! What he means (I think) is that the Centre will provide journalists with solid facts: they won’t cherry-pick evidence that supports one side of the story. Nor will they lobby the government (or opposition): their focus is on raising the standard of education journalism.

          And I absolutely agree with you: the hand of Gove the journalist can be detected in too many stories …

          • David, yes, I get acronyms wrong (Jonathan’s reply did not indicate origin to confirm how I had contacted him).

            So a big fight is on not just that Gove is wreaking so much damage but he appears to be in control over much of the media.

            Brilliant news that SMC are indeed active.

            Janet – a colleague of mine here in Cardiff (I may live here but I am originally from London, and still see Education in the UK sense) writes a web site slating the Daily Mail : He has grown a large audience as he is very articulate and scything of people like Dacre. The Mail tried to sue my friend at one point, unsuccessfully. The Daily Mail foundation seems to be built on disingenuous or blatantly false headlines that engage strong emotions. When the Press Complaints Committee is complained to, almost nothing happens as they are owned by the media. Self regulation will never work when there is a quick buck to be made. The implementation of the Leveson inquiry findings appears to be dragging on, and time is one of the greatest allies of politicians as the people lose interest and intensity of alarm.

        • Neil – when Gove appeared before Leveson he didn’t exactly begin, “Tories, Londoners and Brits, lend me your ears” but he gave an oration nevertheless. He praised Murdoch, “one of the most impressive and significant figures of the last 50 years” (“I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.”) He flattered the Mail’s Paul Dacre, “I respect him as one of the most impressive editors of our age.” And it was the Mail that received Gove’s leak about his proposed reforms of GCSEs.

          He also gave a “robust” defence of free speech at Leveson although he didn’t say that his version of “free speech” is the freedom to mislead and misrepresent. This made him a media darling.

          He’s worked for the Today programme at the BBC and used this fact to deflect questions when he was interviewed on Today. At one point the interviewer even said Gove was a good researcher (cue giggles). Far too cosy.

          And his wife still writes for the Times. She tweets (“All views expressed are naturally those of my husband” may be a joke but it’s probably accurate). She reveals apparently toe-curling info about Gove. A cynic might conclude that these revelations are calculated to make her husband seem lovable.

          But not everyone is fooled.

      • Rebecca, the degree of fear you paint is worrying. It had not occurred to me that we could really be in a Big Brother situation. The voice and opinion of teachers should be one of the key components in education decision making, and not one that is heavily oppressed. And why would Government want to suppress them, if not to either contain something as a way of managing it, or as a means of forcing change that would otherwise be shouted out? Probably both.

        I get very upset that each new avenue explored in my personal education on education reveals more anti-social and pro-power activity. But it does serve to catalyse me to keep pushing and learning more.

  17. In a recent RSA journal a significant article by Sir Michael Wilshaw was published in the context of respected articles. It was seriously flawed but no context, criticism or alternative perspective was presented.

    I complained loudly about this on the fellows forum on linkedin (and through personal correspondence beyond that) and I’m glad to say I got substantial support for the point I was making and no criticism. I’m also glad to say that the quality of what I’ve seen recently has been much better. However I still haven’t seen an alternative perspective or a criticism….

    It might also be relevant to link to ‘Michael, a cautionary tale for writers in the 21st Century’ which can be downloaded if you click down two pages on this blog:

  18. The latest Channel 4 Fact Check (30 Jan) blows holes in the Chancellor’s claim that the Coalition was spending more on capital projects (which presumably includes new schools) than Alistair Darling’s plans.

    We need more responsible journalism to check political spin wherever it’s coming from.

  19. And on the subject of selectivity, the Historical Association says Michael Gove has been “selective in referencing subject feedback” from the consultation on A level reform:

    More subject associations need to make it clear if Gove is not representing their views in his letter to Ofqual:

    In the letter Gove was also selective about university lecturers’ concerns about graduates’ preparedness. For example, he implied that complaints from maths lecturers about subject weakness and “bite size” courses were typical of all university lecturers. They’re not (although if you read the Mail you’d think that undergrads could barely read or write). And he said there was “support for much greater higher education involvement in A levels.” That’s not what the Russel Group said last year – their response was rather lukewarm.

  20. Neil – reply to your post above (2.58 no reply button). My first LSN post concerned inaccurate and distorted reporting in the Mail. It was the Mail’s article about the 2009 PISA results that brought me out of retirement to start campaigning. So I suppose I should thank the Mail for kickstarting my activism.

    Full Fact’s submission to Leveson included this:

    “The evidence shows a large volume of inaccurate reports from the Daily Mail. It is
    hard to conclude that all were the result of the pressures on journalists to turn around stories in a short space of time. The sheer volume of these complaints itself makes the case that the current attitudes of some newspapers, and the regulatory system behind them, are not sufficiently strong to encourage papers such as the Daily Mail to address why these errors keep occurring.”

  21. Janet – thanks. The reply mechanism on this blog I find a little confusing (If you are interested, you might find my Education reform web site different from blogging sites – it is my own design as a hybrid dated and evolving article mix with a somewhat different navigation system. Click on the ‘Your choices for reform’ green coloured item to try a novel opinion interrogation idea of mine). The Daily Mail is indeed a catalytic machine, but at least with a good result.

  22. Neil,
    I followed this link to the Stanford research and believe it highlights a number of points that, despite the cultural differences between the American system and ours, indicates some worrying trends we need to be alerted to.

    1 It is harder to improve schools with challenging issues than most accept.
    That doesn’t mean we should not be committed to this. All children deserve the best education we are able to offer. It does, however, indicate that short-term solutions are mainly ‘pie-in-the-sky’. You have to have a powerful interest in getting results quickly not to appreciate that some of these problems, affecting Charter schools in the US, are very likely to be coming our way. Change takes time and consistent commitment to the task. This is not the what political leaders want to hear, much less believe. They are therefore likely to continue ignoring the message.

    2 Where local schooling is engineered in response to political ideology, as it is in both countries, there are inevitably casualties.
    The problem of what happens to existing schools when new ones open in their catchment appears not to be on the political list of ‘must consider’. As time passes, the consequences of the funding following pupils into new academies, etc. will become far more transparent. Other schools will likely find they are declining because they can no longer afford to provide the necessary levels of support to prevent their test scores form dropping away.

    3 The devil is in the data.
    As is happening here, supporters of the Charter movement, like their opponents, are relying on the same data set and coming to quite different conclusions. This is not to argue that we shouldn’t take account of data. The issue is rather, what should we be focusing on in order to build a meaningful picture (to parents, pupils, teachers and the community) of what is happening in our schools? After all, they are pretty complex organisations. Who should decide the criteria used to compare the performance of such dynamic organisations? Does attainment in the ‘basics’, currently the primary means of comparing schools, add real value to the debate about the effectiveness of education?

    On a purely personal note, my seven year old grandson attends elementary school in California and is already responding unfavourably to the excessive testing he is subjected to. In schools there, the arts are ignored, PE is a non-subject and most teachers cannot hide the pressure they feel to get the scores required from their wards. Most parents we know are aware of these same issues. Many, far more than in the UK opt to take on the education of their own children at home. They have found it a real challenge, motivating lively, bright and curious children to attend school under the prevailing regime. Is this where we want to go too? Or, are we already there?

    • John,
      Thanks very much for taking time again to write at such length. I follow Diane Ravitch’s blog, and hear increasingly bad stories about the Charter school movement (I also read her book ‘The death and life of the great American school system’), and cannot do anything but conclude that we follow them, as we do in other ways, very much to our detriment.

      A good school does indeed take years of hard and coordinated work to grow. Its foundation is a long term mindset – the antithesis of the short-term, high-impact political mindset.

      When schools started to be accountable for pupil results, especially via the nasty league tables, the focus was always going to become very narrow, with the optimum development of pupils left by the wayside – to become pawns in the power game along with their teachers.

      In terms of the meaningfulness of holding teachers accountable to pupil results, I sketched up a diagram to illustrate the degree with which results are far too limited a measure : Daniel Koretz, Professor of Education at Harvard University (where candidate students are always assessed on much more than grades) in his book ‘Measuring Up’ gave me fuel for a general article on testing :

      As with many political devices, repetition is used to drill into the minds of the masses that grades are the only thing that matters. That ‘soft’ subjects are things to be ignored, even if they might be the precise interest of many pupils. The political quick-fix mindset looks for easy, controllable change – letting teachers teach without a highly prescribed curriculum, for example, is too much of an ‘inaction’ to be entertained.

      There are so many things wrong, but the time to act is now, before we get into the mess the US is in. Here in Wales, the government is much more allied with education academics. That could act as a safeguard against excessive English destruction by means of comparison.

    • John I think the key insight which explains several points you make is that politicians (and many people) assume that the solutions found for one school can be rolled out to others.

      This isn’t the case as the point is not the solutions which were reached but the processes by which they were reached and the ways in which those processes led to the the people involved becoming more professional, highly skilled and empowered to own and make work the systems they had created.

      City challenge understood this. Some LAs get it, some academy groups get it, some federations get it. Politicians relentlessly fail to get it and they do so much damage by forcing the role of of schemes in ways which destroy professionalism and wipe away good practice.

      • Rebecca,
        Politicians tend to cherry-pick ideas from here there and everywhere, frequently failing to recognise both the context in which an idea worked, failing to recognise that it is often the combination of factors that works, and finally, frequently treating correlation as causal.

        By way of example, aspirin is an extract from willow bark. In isolation, aspirin does have value, but without the supporting chemicals in the bark, it can cause internal bleeding in some cases.

        • Hmm – yes – that’s what they used to do. They would find one or two academics who agreed with their views and cherry pick from them. First of all the rest of the educational establishment would turn on the people selected while the politicians attacked the rest of the establishment and then politicians would turn on their original allies too when their plans didn’t work out. Nice stuff. It created this relentless belittling of people with experience which Gove and co. seem to have actually thought meant something other than that politicians had been covering their own messes by discrediting everyone else.

          It’s a new thing for politicians to completely ignore the views of absolutely anyone with any credibility no matter who they are or what they say. Nobody’s actually deliberately tried to run a cultural revolution before.

          • Rebecca,
            The NAHT calls it a dicatorship, and it does seem to have the hallmarks of that :

          • For someone of your youth, Rebecca it may be a new thing … but for those of us scarred by the experience of previous Tory administrations it really is a sense of deja vu. Some will recall John Carlisle in Major’s government who boasted with pride that he did not talk to the unions.
            The trouble is so many people live with short term memories and, after a number of years with a government of a particular persuasion, think that change can’t be a bad thing because ‘ after all there’s not much difference between the parties ‘.
            To be fair to Gove he did signal his plans in advance and before the last election I tried in vain to persuade NGA to open up a full political debate with all main parties on their proposals. Nothing happened.

          • I’m not so young as I look Ivan and I’m old enough to have typed the proofs for books and papers like these:

            So I have an unusual insight into both the rational for some conservative policy over the last 35 years and a deep appreciation of it’s damaging effects and the varieties in quality and motives of the people who supported it.

            I would like to suggest it is new in the following ways – please contradict me if you disagree.

            Firstly – was Carlisle idolising (and devoting his time to) somebody who was aiming to make a huge profit out of UK education and shutting down the professional consultation bodies which might stand in that person’s way?

            Secondly – Did Carlisle effectively give himself the full right to interfere in detail in the practice of all schools? Did he give himself the right to transfer school buildings into the ownership of his friends if he chose to do so? Was he able to send in Ofsted to put schools into special measures immediately if they refused to do what he wanted even if their reasons for doing so were transparent, reasonable and democratically consulted?

            Thirdly did Carlisle live in an age of instant online communication where he could easily engage in conversation with his critics?

            Fourthly did he keep his job?

          • The answer to all 4 is, of course, ‘No’!
            20 years on and the stakes get so much higher … perhaps we should campaign to change the title of George Orwell’s book to, let’s say, 2017 – 2 years in to a red-meat Tory administration?

          • George Orwell comes up surprisingly often in online discussions about education these days Ivan…..

            When Gove wrote his seminal article about how he was going to run a cultural revolution in education the deepest irony was that he’d failed to spot how long it had already been going on.

    • John – you might be interested in this thread from June last year about California’s failing education system. It appears it’s underfunded because the electorate voted for lower taxes in 1976. The result, a quarter of a century later, is meltdown.

  23. For an example of journalism which uncritically reproduces DfE spin see first link below. The author wrote:

    “But the really good news is that sponsored academies are improving at an above average rate – the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs rose by 3.1 per cent in sponsored academies, compared to 0.6 per cent nationally…That’s a vindication of Gove’s policy of encouraging academy chains to take over struggling schools.”

    The writer goes on to praise grammar schools for their success and thinks they should expand. But their results should be higher than other schools – they cream off the high ability pupils. Unsurprisingly, the IFS found that the quality of a school’s intake governs its results. You’d think this was so obvious that it wouldn’t need saying. Apparently it does.

  24. Clapped out Barry says:

    What ever happned to Ricky Tarr?

    • Good question,

      I’ve believed for a long time that properly moderated forums had the potential to be places where ignorance and dogma would be exposed and would disappear back into the could of hubris from whence they came.

      I saw that reaching its conclusion first in the linkedin forums which had the advantage of not only being well moderated but also of excluding anonymity…;. so they more rapidly sorted out the wheat from the chaff but they had fewer participants as quite a few people who might want to participate want or need anonymity.

      This forum is different. It does allow anonymity. And it has now reached the point where it can meet people with strong but ungrounded views on their terms and explain to them the flaws in their thinking as many times as are needed until they can’t credibly hold on to them. That’s a huge achievement.

      Ignorance has often reigned in society because those who are in the positions of power either can’t or won’t behave intelligently. It’s often been the case that the people who are in those positions of power are the only ones who have the width and depth of knowledge needed to generate reform. So they can’t be challenged. Forums offer a new zone where anybody can come to develop and share their expertise and they can carry on doing that until somebody eventually develops the ability to challenge the ‘expert body’ efficiently and effectively. Of course there are also power issues to overcome but this is much more easily done when the intellectual battle is completely won.
      (more on this theme here:

      I see more very high caliber individuals feeling able to join in the debate here now because this medium for communication is becoming more mature. It feels a lot more like the kinds of consultations I used to attend before this government came along which were always great to be at because they were stuffed with highly able people who it was a delight to listen to (and to talk to) and they therefore generated real and relevant insight.

      So many thanks to all who’ve put so much effort into bringing this forum to life.

      If anybody wants to help me translate this into policy with the Lib Dems please feel free to get in touch. I’m also keen to encourage people to work on policy with which every party they feel is right for them – including the Tories. Heaven knows they need the help and Andrew Percy needs support!

      • Rebecca – the internet has transformed the way in which discussion takes place. No longer is it a case of reading something in the paper and then sending a letter to an editor which may not even be published. Now everyone with access to a computer can contribute.

        But that, of course, brings dangers as well as opportunities. The dangers include intimidation, impersonation, the dissemination of false information and what I call “swarming” whereby people holding the same view deliberately act together to swamp a website with positive or negative comments. These “people” can sometimes be the same person writing under several different names.

        But there are also huge opportunities. The internet has made it possible for me to investigate alleged “evidence” in a way that was not possible before internet searches. And the internet has allowed me to post articles refuting “evidence” when it turns out to be misleading, untrue or even non-existent. At the same time I can link other people to the evidence I’ve discovered so that they can read and judge it for themselves.

        • I’m tremendously grateful for the work you’ve done in this regard Janet, it’s been essential.

          It’s also been quite remarkable how few of us who care about open discussion and refuse to be afraid of the intimidation it’s needed to hold back the vast tide of ignorance and abuse.

    • he’s been in Kenya pimping off his mates running a colonial prep school ( in my opinion)

  25. Relatively new to education discussions, I have to thank you all for indeed communicating intelligently and purposefully. It is refreshing to be liberated from ego-driven narrative.

    The consensus that Gove has gone too far and must be pegged back seems undeniable now. But as you say, getting all parties to align with long term education planning, decoupled from party fighting must be the way to go, with, as I keep saying, a single, coherent driving force that is politically neutral.

  26. Rebecca, on your comment about a lack of fear of intimidation, I feel that this is key to drive things forward. I am 55, self employed, and have given myself time out to work almost full time studying education and trying to address the virus (GERM as Sahlberg calls it) infect education for the foreseeable future. I worked hard setting up as a platform, and will try to push as hard as I can as I have no job as such to risk (I write books and web sites). I suspect that my sister typfies the plight of many secondary school teachers – plagued with rules and an excessive workload, and subject to a firm of torture in the form of lesson inspections. Lots of problems, but can do nothing for fear of losing her job.

    So if I can help on this anti-DfE theme, feel free to involve me.

  27. Rebecca,
    Thanks for the reply – and Guardian article link. This is the moment that I hoped would happen sooner rather than later – Gove has gone too far.

    But the atmosphere of fear that you and other teachers must operate in is so toxic, and therefore so incredibly damaging to the nature of teaching, a heartfelt, passionate vocation that is too frequently undervalued. Someone even today said to me that teaching must be easy because of the long holidays. This common misperception sadly persists. I barely get time to meet up with my sister during school holidays because of her workload.

    The tip of the iceberg revealed in the Guardian article is not so terribly different from the newspaper phone hacking scandal, even if of a milder nature. What will subsequently come out may indeed warrant a Leveson type inquiry.

  28. You mention attacks. Are you able to email me directly about these, to be treated in strict confidence? These sound very worrying.

    • Are you on linkedin Neil? If so I’m easy to find (no glasses in that pic). Or I’m @cyberrhetoric on twitter.

      Neil this stuff from the DFE has been going on relentlessly. Did you not read the emails and the information about the cover ups from Cummings and de Zoete first time round. I’m watching BBC news 24 and there’s no mention of it at all.

      • Rebecca,
        I have only been monitoring education news since November, so missed a lot of the DfE history (and histrionics). My LinkedIn name appears to be one of my email addresses : please try it and see (I have yet to get to grips with LinkedIn).

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