World-renown think tank infiltrated by child-centred orthodoxies, claims Minister

Janet Downs's picture

‘Why on earth, I ask myself, would an organisation which is geared towards improving educational outcomes profile a struggling school with unimpressive examination results as an exemplar? The only answer I can reach is that for many in education, a preference for child-centred teaching methods is still allowed to trump actual evidence of failure and success.’  

Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, 26 January 2016

What is the identity of this think tank infiltrated by ‘child-centredness?  Surely Gibb would have unmasked any organisation which ignores evidence? 

Not so when the culprit is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the author of the report citing the school was Andreas Schleicher, the man once described by Michael Gove as ‘the most important man in English education’.  

OECD comments are regularly used to support education reforms.  The Government’s desire for the UK to climb the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment tables has been the main impetus for the Department for Education’s ‘acting first, thinking later’ policies of the last few years.

It’s rather embarrassing, then, for Gibb to suggest the OECD is a member of the Blob.

The school, which Gibb didn’t name, is Matthew Moss High School, Rochdale.  But is Gibb correct that the evidence doesn’t justify Schleicher singling it out as an example?  Gibb says the school requires improvement and fewer than 50% of its pupils (48%) reach the GCSE benchmark.  That’s true now but it wasn’t when the case study in Schleicher’s report was written. 

The case study for Matthew Moss appeared in a September 2013 OECD report highlighting innovative practice.   The school was Good then and exam results in 2012 and 2013 were 53% and 52% respectively.

The school was not judged Requires Improvement until after the report’s publication.   Despite the downgrading, Ofsted recognised the school’s approach as one of its strengths:

‘The school’s creative approaches to teaching are recognised both nationally and internationally.’

The case study was presented to the OECD by the Innovation Unit which has published a brochure listing examples of schools adopting innovative methods in England.  If Gibb’s reasoning is correct then we could expect schools using such methods as ‘motivational interviewing’, ‘collaborative projects’ and half-term modules co-designed by pupils and staff to similarly struggle.   But of the thirteen individual schools mentioned, three are Outstanding, four are Good, two Require Improvement and four are Inadequate.

Not all ‘struggling’, then.

The Innovation Unit also cited two trusts as exemplars: Harlington Area Trust and the Harris Federation.  None of their schools which have been inspected are less than Good.

It may be that not all the innovations introduced in these schools would match Gibb’s description of ‘child-centred’.  However, the Minister was particularly scathing about ‘inquiry learning’ and ‘authentic learning’ – pupils working on real-life problems.

But the Harris case study described how students investigated teaching and learning practices, interviewed teachers and ‘experts’ and trialled ‘new practices in collaborative enquiry projects’. 

Perhaps Gibb’s next speech will censure an unnamed academy chain for its inquiry and authentic learning.   As Harris is one of the Government’s favourite academy trusts, however, this is unlikely.




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Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 31/01/2016 - 09:25

I have a slightly different take on this. It is horses for courses. The knowledge based curriculum praised by Gibb certainly does work, but only for knowledge based exams. These now include the GCSE up to C grade. The OECD international PISA tests are not knowledge based. How could they be as schools in different countries have different exam syllabuses and approaches.

See my LSN Post that compares PISA and TIMMS. Students that take the PISA tests are confronted with questions that demand high level thinking in a context that they are unlikelt to have met before. The countries that do well in PISA are those like Finland that produce academically resilient students. Gibb would write off their schools and the way their students are taught to think. This means students that expect to make mistakes and learn from them. It results in a 'growth mindset.'  I have just read a remarkable book by Matthew Syed entitled, 'Black Box Thinking'. It all about learning from mistakes and distinguishes beween what he calls 'Closed Loop' and 'Open Loop' thinking. It is not mainly about school based education at all but safety in various contexts from aircraft to hospitals. I will write more about this shortly. Closed loop thinking is jusytified by the way it is tested, which is based on a circular concept of success. Open Loop loop thinking is based on learning from mistakes and failure. All of the examples that Gibb praises are 'Closed Loop' in nature. They are essentially behaviourist. See this article on my website. 'Open Loop' thinking is developmental as in the schooles cited by OECD and condemned by Gibb.

It is my belief that the students taught in such schools are much more likely to do well in PISA tests than students in the schools praised by Gibb. The English education system is being taken over by these methods. The US system too. That is why the countries are making such litt;le progress in PISA. I predict that things will not get better in the next PISA round.

We shall see.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 01/02/2016 - 15:39

Matthew Syed's book is really important in relation to whether the government's judgement of what constitute good schools stand up to evidence. See my LSN post and the longer article

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