It all starts from a false premise

Phil Taylor's picture
The false premise being that there are large differences in school performance. There aren't.


* Schools do make a difference; and mostly they make the same amount of difference.

* Comprehensive Schools have been a great success story.

* The 47% of students who leave school with fewer than 5 GCSEs (including English and maths) at grade C or above are not failures.

* The fact that 53% of all students leave school with at least 5 GCSEs (including English and maths) at grade C or above is an amazing achievement by young people, schools and teachers.

See my website:

and my blog:
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Adrian Elliott's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 09:33

Good to see you on this site. Like you,having spent many years in schools, I became disgusted at the unrelentingly negative coverage of state schools in most of the national media.

I've enjoyed your writing in the TES and for SHA. Keep up the good work.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 10:44

A SIP who doesn't think schools need to improve. Hilarious. Or would be if it weren't for all those kids whose lives are blighted as a result.

Let's consider the kids who attended the old Stamford Community High School in Tameside during the late 1990s, when the school was getting only 11% achieving 5XA*-C. That was alright, was it? How many ended up in prison or on benefits? Or condemned to a lifetime of cultural poverty and ignorance? That's okay, is it?

If there were any justice, it would be the teachers whose sickening complacency ruined those kids' lives who should have ended up behind bars.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 12:53

Ricky - the 1997 figure you give for Stamford Community High School is very poor especially compared with the LA average of 38% and the national average of 45%. By 2007 the percentage achieving 5+ GCSEs A*-C had risen to 41% (LA av 55.4%, national av 62%) so results were improving despite the fact that this school had a larger percentage of SEN (Statemented or School Action Plus) pupils (17.5%) than any other school in Tameside.

You may be correct that the teaching in 1997 was inadequate, but it doesn't necessarily follow. There are other factors: number of SEN pupils, FSM pupils, levels of attainment on entering secondary school, number of pupils with poor English, rates of absence, mobility of pupils as well as teaching and leadership quality. Knowing the context is important - it's too easy to accuse teachers of having "sickening complacency".

In 2007 Ofsted said, "This is a satisfactory school overall with good features and there are clear signs that it is improving." This was in the context of a challenging background (see below for full Ofsted).

Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 13:02

Some of the current problems in English education have been researched and identified as follows:

'Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited in the United Kingdom. Average PISA scores, measuring cognitive skills of 15–year olds, have been stagnant and trail strong performers such as Finland, Korea and the Netherlands........

Evidence suggests that improvement in exam grades is out of line with independent indicators of performance, suggesting grade inflation could be a significant factor.'

Thus, there is at least a suspicion that the taxpayer's money has not been spent wisely, at least on education, over the last decade or so.

That, and evidence of exam grade inflation, must, surely, be powerful arguments for reform.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 14:38


Ricky – the 1997 figure you give for Stamford Community High School is very poor especially compared with the LA average of 38% and the national average of 45%.

Quite so, Janet. Which somewhat contradicts Phil Taylor's case that there are no large differences in school performance and that schools all "make the same amount of difference".

And Phil really ought to know. If, that is, he is the same Phil Taylor who was head teacher at Stamford High.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 16:16

Ricky - Phil Taylor was the head when the school was judged satisfactory with good features as I said above. Ofsted found that the school was becoming increasingly popular with parents. Pupils' personal development and well-being were judged good. Inspectors recognised that standards were low but students make satisfactory progress. Inspectors noted the "determined leadership" of the head and the staff's "high level of commitment".

Ofsted found the learning (as opposed to teaching) was only satisfactory but preceded this judgement with: "Students start school with exceptionally low levels of attainment. The variety of needs is extensive and complex ...In addition, the student population is constantly changing throughout the school year. The school has responded to these challenges effectively by raising the quality of teaching and providing a curriculum that engages students in their learning... Much of the teaching is now good and as a result students are more focused in lessons, enjoy learning and are aiming higher."

This is a long, long way from your description of "sickening complacency".

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 17:18

And Phil Taylor was head in 2000 when he was decrying setting by ability, denouncing the Blair government as "New Tories", dissing David Blunkett and Estelle Morris, badmouthing Excellence in Cities and...(returning to the key topic) citing Harvey Goldstein in support of the contention that there was very little (2% max) difference between performance in different schools.

Janet, you put your finger on it precisely when you refer to the improvements at Stamford - surely there is some inconsistency in Taylor insisting now (as he did in 2000) that there is no need for school improvement, when his professional life has been spent in turning round a crap school, acting as an LA school improvement adviser and SIP? If a doctor doesn't believe his patients are really ill, why practise medicine?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 13:31

Tim - you are correct in highlighting the problem of grade inflation. FullFact looked at the evidence about inflated grades in 2010 and found it inconclusive. The Radio 4 programme, More or Less (2009), however, found there had been grade inflation at A level of about two grades. (c 20 mins in)

But it is not further "reform" that is needed - it is less emphasis on raw results as a sole indicator of success in English schools. This is not just leading to grade inflation but teaching-to-the-test, "gaming" (at best, cheating at worst), and the neglect of important non-cognitive skills.

This is discussed in more detail here:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 18:17


....the neglect of important non-cognitive skills.

While I agree with you (and Prof Heckman) that non-cognitive traits are important, I'm not sure that they really are 'skills' that can be taught.

Resilience, dependability, persistence, confidence etc. are aspects of character or personality. Perhaps they can be inculcated, but can they really be taught?

We went up a blind-alley with other 'skills' such as critical thinking, learning skills and creativity. Belatedly we learned that some of these required background knowledge or weren't teachable, transferable skills at all.

You can't, for instance, teach creativity.

I worry that personality traits are as problematic. Foster them - sure. But for heaven's sake don't make them targets.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 07:37

Ricky - I have never suggested that non-cognitive skills should be made targets. We've got quite enough targets already. Non-cognitive skills, which include interpersonal skills, persistence, communication skills, creativity and other "soft" skills, are difficult to measure objectively but they can be encouraged. And they are essential for employment and life after school (see below for further info).

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 10:45

"Resilience, dependability, persistence, confidence etc. are aspects of character or personality. Perhaps they can be inculcated, but can they really be taught?"

The evidence suggests they can Ricky.

Having always spent a proportion of my time teaching students maths in ways which are specifically designed to foster these skills I can confirm absolutely that these skills can be taught and are important for many reasons - most obviously that unless students are given supported opportunities when they struggle with the challenges of working out which maths to use in 'real' situations, many will be unable to transfer the maths they have learned to situations outside the classroom.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 11:06

"You can’t, for instance, teach creativity."

It's virtually impossible to teach creativity if teachers are offered no time whatsoever to be creative themselves and to have professional control (that it freedom within appropriate boundaries) of what they do.

Children learn to be creative if they are allowed to experience creative environments in which they are inspired by the creativity around them and have sufficient space within that situation to be creative themselves.
Not all teachers enjoy teaching in this way and it is not essential that all can or do. But children need to experience such opportunities as part of the mix of what they get at school if they are to achieve their full potential.

It's important to understand that when we are 'teaching creativity' we are not 'teaching' in the same way as we are when we have specific skills or vocabulary to teach. We are putting students in situations where they have some freedoms regarding they way in which they engage with a task. When we do this some students will panic, others will start and get stuck, more will not know where to look for the information they need, some will need to develop technical skills they haven't got , others will struggle to collaborate or to ask for help when they need to and so on. As teachers we try to facilitate these situation in ways which ensure that all students experience and overcome personal challenges and therefore become more confident and resilient in the ways in which they engage with new or challenging situations.

Here's Sir Ken exploring the importance of at least some of children's schools experiences being configured in ways which engage with and nurture creativity.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 11:16

"We went up a blind-alley with other ‘skills’ such as critical thinking, learning skills and creativity. Belatedly we learned that some of these required background knowledge or weren’t teachable, transferable skills at all."

Did you Ricky? I'm sorry about that. many of us didn't. If you were in a school which failed to teach critical thinking well then you should be learning from those schools which have succeeded in teaching it well. It has been taught well in a wide variety of ways and different teachers engage well with different methods.

"learning skills"
Many teachers teach these well within their own lessons and its well recognised that students benefit from having some specific sessions to help them develop their skills in personal learning and their revision skills at specific stages in their school life. There are now many sources where schools can get training for teachers and resources for such sessions. I have no doubt that more could be done to improve the quality of what is provided. The most obvious gain would be for heads and key teachers to have more opportunities to discuss and analyse what is and isn't working and to share best practice.

It's a substantial problem that the staff who have the strongest skills in these areas are always the first to be culled when special measures comes calling again.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 11:19

"Foster them – sure"

Here's one highly effective way to foster them.
I'm delighted to hear that Sam Freedman has made it clear that the DFE will work to ensure it does not behave in ways which stand in the way of the Mod Bacc becoming widely adopted. I gather it's due for major national launch in June now that modifications have been made to it following the feedback from the trial year.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 12:35

One of the reasons perhaps that so many schools do need improvement is because over the years so many teachers have been peddling various brands of snake-oil instead of teaching properly. Brain Gym may be the most blatantly absurd, but Learning Styles is arguably the most prevalent.

My son's teacher still believes this hokum.
Can't they show this at INSET?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 19:12

Your use of the term 'snake-oil' makes me laugh Ricky as it reminds of the lavender oil and other essential oils some of my colleagues spray after a particularly ripe class of children have left the room.

Let me tell you a bit about how we generally engage with inset and other training which relates to learning styles.

The thing is that most of the points these people have to make are based on real experience which has prompted them to think about the ways in which students learn. All training session have to have a title but behind that title will/should be a person with interesting experience. During the inset I particularly enjoy sessions where they talk about the real life experiences where they have been able to make a significant difference due to using whatever system they are describing. I want to know why they think what they think so I can begin to work out if it has any relevance to me or not. I want time to think through what I currently do and to think whether adopting any part of what they've said will enhance what I do or not.

Over time your experience and training as a teacher widens and deepens and the practical consequence of this is that when you find yourself in a situation where your diagnostic tests tell you that students have not properly learned something you thought you had taught them well you can rapidly come up with an alternative teaching strategy which is likely to fix the problem.

So for example in maths you may realise that some students do not know which way is clockwise and which way is anti-clockwise. A quick exercise where they use their arms as the hands on a clock to show different times and you make them move their arms to show time moving forward will help them remember this. It's a quick and effective fix.

So that's how teachers engage with this type of profession development normally:
- demand the real stories behind the conclusion
- analyse why the presenter thinks what they think
- think through whether it has any relevance to their classroom practice or not
- use it as part of their repertoire of possibilities they think through when students are getting stuck and they want to puzzle out why that might be and how to move them on.

I did once experience a situation where lists were handed out telling us which students were visual, audio and kinaesthetic learners and we were all told we had to learn them. But this only happened because HMI had instructed it should and we knew we'd be tested on it and failed if we didn't know. Personally I didn't follow that order because I would have had to have not done things which were actually very important for student progress to find the time to do so.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 15:30

FullFact also looked at the OECD report pointing to likely exam grade inflation in Britain in March 2011, remarking:

'As OECD reports are authoritative and well respected, it is worth looking at these articles and what the Organisation itself said.'

The OECD report made the following recommendation:

'The expanded “academies” programme and the setting up of “Free Schools” increase choice for parents. As many of these new schools will cater to better-off families, further reforms are needed so that all children can benefit. One way would be to give other schools similar freedoms.',3746,en_21571361_44315115_47385066_1_1...

I am delighted to say that, though we differ on the need for reform, we can find common ground in the need for less emphasis on raw results.

I am but an uninformed outsider but the quotes below sound spot on:

'school autonomy and teacher professionalism are often mentioned as the dominant factors explaining strong educational performance in Finland. The school is the main author of curricula. And the teacher is the sole authority monitoring the progress of students.'

'Successful school in Finland is one that is able to help all children to learn and fulfill their aspirations, both academic and non-academic. Many educators in Finland think that measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. That’s why assessment of and in Finnish schools is first and foremost a responsibility of teachers and principal in school. They are reporting to parents and authorities how successful their school is in achieving commonly set goals. By this definition, school success is a subjective thing that varies from one school to another.'

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.