Was the blob responsible for the success of London's schools?

Henry Stewart's picture
We have heard much this week of "the blob", which Michael Gove - and his supporters - hold responsible for "the poor standards" in education in the past. Who is part of the blob? It seems to include the teaching unions, the local education authorities and university education departments. According to David Green, Director of Civitas, it also includes Chairs of Governors. But Toby Young tells me it doesn't include teachers.

Gove has written before about "the blob", describing them as the "enemies of promise" (then he did include "the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools"). Matthew Ancona, in his book "In it together" makes clear that defeating "the blob" is the single-minded obsession that drives education policy for the government.

It is why Gove promotes academies and free schools, to get them away from local authorities. It is why he often seems happier with people running schools who have little educational experience, than with those from the "educational establishment". And it is why he is trying to move teacher training away from universities. Indeed the reason that Michael Gove sems so often to be pursuing ideology over evidence is his focus on taking education away from the dreaded "blob".

London Challenge: A blob project?

It is now generally acknowledged that the most successful transformation of English education in living memory took place in London over the last decade (eg, this from the Telegraph). Yet this was surely a project that had "the blob" at its heart. Local education authorities played a central role, university professors were actively involved in the design and the teaching unions were fully supportive - working, of course, with heads and teachers. Rather than having low expectations and commitment to failure, "the blob" found a way to secure a level of school improvement far beyond anything Michael Gove and his friends have achieved.

Three times this week I asked Toby Young to explain this contradiction, that his much-hated blob was centrally involved in this success story. He answered my other questions but repeatedly ignored this one. Gove recognises London's achievements and made a brief attempt to claim sponsored academies were the source of the capital's turn around. But the Ofsted report on the London Challenge made clear this was not the case. They found key factors to be clear leadership, peer mentoring, collaboration between schools, local authority support, teacher development, tracking pupil progress and timely intervention - but specifically not changes in school structure.

Be proud to be part of the blob?

We must not let Michael Gove, Toby Young, David Green and the other "blobbists" get away with their denigration. Let us take pride in the achievements wrought by the educational establishment in London and spread the lessons across the country.

There is a conference this Saturday to learn the lessons of London's success. Tim Brighouse, London Schools Commissionaire throughout the period of improvement, will be a keynote speaker. But the organisers are not the Department for Education, who seem to have shown little interest in what can be learnt from London. Instead it is being organised by the teaching unions, core members of Gove's "blob".

Is it only me that sees the irony that the people wanting to learn from success and spread school improvement across the country are what Michael Gove would see as the enemies of progress. Perhaps Michael should step beyond his prejudices, open his mind beyond narrow preconceptions and attend on Saturday to see what he himself can learn. (I would be happy to welcome him to the session I am giving on what the data tells us.)

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Henry Stewart's picture
Wed, 05/02/2014 - 21:58

To give credit to Toby Young (@toadmeister on Twitter), he did respond when I tweeted him again today on the London Challenge blob question:

@localschools_uk: @toadmeister Again, How does your view of blob fit with their success in London Challenge? http://bit.ly/1kRifB6

@toadmeister: @localschools_uk Don’t see much evidence of that orthodoxy being challenged by London Challenge

@localschools_uk: @toadmeister ok, if London education transformed but orthodoxy not challenged, maybe orthodoxy not as bad as you think?

@toadmeister: @localschools_uk Maybe, but in general the child-led, progressive approach has contributed to the attainment gap btwn rich and poor

@localschools_uk: @toadmeister But gap is smallest in London. Do you see child-led progressive approach wrong even if it works?

I find this interesting. It seems that educational improvement is not the point. Toby apparently doesn't see the London Challenge as a success, even though it improved outcomes and narrowed the gap between rich and poor - because it didn't fit the ideological position of the blobbists that a "child-led" approach must be stopped.

This fits with the attack on Wilshaw. His crime was to argue that what mattered was not the style of teaching but the result - in student engagement and learning.

So we have the teaching unions, core members of "the blob", seeking to learn from what works and then the blobbists, driven by a rigid ideological approach, ignoring what works and focusing instead on their ideological battle to rid the world of "child-led" education.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 09:53

Henry - toadmeister's language is striking and an example of how words can be twisted. On the Newsnight programme, Robert Wilne, head of London Academy of Excellence where Gove made his latest Govoration, said education needed to be "child-centred" because, he asked, who else should be at the centre?

Green immediately equated this with "child-led" which implies that children are allowed total freedom to decide what activities they follow and teachers have no input. He went on to attack this strawman saying how the views of Dylan Williams (mentioned by Wilne), even Piaget, had been "discredited".

Fiona said "child-led" and "teacher-led" was a false dichotomy.

"Child-centred" is NOT "child-led". This was made clear in the Plowden report which recommended a "favoured a measured progression from a relatively open curriculum in the early years". The "measured progression" has been missed by those who claim Plowden supported "child-led" education. This measured progression has to be "teacher-led".

Perhaps Toby Young, David Green, Michael Gove et al who blame Plowden for a "child-led" approach should read Robin Alexander's "Plowden, Truth and Myth: A Warning".


Newsnight can be watched here (12.35 mins onwards):


Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 14:09

Only on the far out fringes of private fee-paying education such as A S Neil's Summerhill School are Toby Young and David Green likely to encounter 'Child-Led' education or anything remotely like it.

I suspect that this is not the independent school model that Gove wants to import into the state system.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 15:38

Unfortunately, Roger, the myth about "child-led" education holding sway in Britain's classrooms is pushed by those with a vested interest in placing more control on schools via government-approved curricula and league tables while at the same time saying they're giving schools more "freedom".

Gove's heavy-handed national curriculum is mandatory in non-academies but he's made it clear which curriculum the so-called autonomous academies should follow: the Hirsch-inspired curriculum reworked for England for Civitas by the short-lived head of Pimlico Free School, sold by Civitas, used in academies sponsored by Lord Nash's Future Academies and in some "flagship" free schools such as WLFS and Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust schools.

More sinister is the attempt over the last thirty years to discredit child-centred education which is misrepresented as "child-led" anarchy. A cynic might say that opposition to child-centred education, with its emphasis on inquiry and thinking, is fueled by a fear that if it were too successful then it would lead to adults who question too much.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 16:17

The Blob is a useful political tool, writes Peter Wilby in the Guardian. It plays the same role as "the red menace" in the US: invoking a threat which only a strong government can put down. But, as Wilby argues, this Government's policies are

(a) likely to make Ofsted a tool through which Government can impose its ideas about teaching, however ill-informed. That explains the recent attack on Sir Michael who said any teaching method would be acceptable if it worked.

(b) downgrade teaching training from an-academic discipline to a practical skill which can be "taught" on-the-job without having to bother too much about theory (derided as "progressive" and "child-led" wooliness).


Add new comment

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