Author Archives: colinschafer

Things I wish I had said or written #1

From the incomparable Ben Goldacre:


Homeopathy works no better than placebo. Which means it has an effect. But an effect that can be delivered without costing a small fortune. Homeopathic remedies contain no active ingredient. Homeopathic remedies contain nothing of any medical benefit. Homeopathic remedies are a very, very expensive way of buying water or sugar. That’s it.


Congratulations, Michael Gove!

Be honest, you weren’t expecting to see that headline, were you? Mr Gove, Minister (or “Mini-stirrer” if you prefer) for Education in the UK government has managed to unite 100 academics in a way I would have never thought possible. Check out the link…

A frequent problem encountered in education is that everyone’s been in it and therefore feels they have expert knowledge. Now, I’ve been a patient but that doesn’t make me a doctor. I’ve watched my car getting fixed but that doesn’t make me a mechanic. But everyone has been to school, including Michael Gove. So he feels that he’s an expert.

His recipe for education is that children need to know (and be able to recite) endless lists of “facts” before they can understand a concept. In Gove’s world, learning facts reinforces the learning of concepts. I’ll gently put aside the difficulties this approach faces with abstract concepts…..  I would dearly love to see his evidence for this. I suspect there is none. His ideology is, I’m guessing, based on his own experiences at school, which I doubt overlap much with the experiences of the majority of teenagers this century. Still, he’s been a pupil, so now he’s an expert. An expert is his on eyes at least. To the rest of us, he’s only an expert in his own ideology.

And what an ideology. One example: after consulting about a new history curriculum, Gove and his ideological pals re-wrote a draft curriculum such that one of the advisors Gove himself brought in to revamp the curriculum did not recognise it. The new proposals include the idea that children as young as six should understand democracy, civilisation and nation. No-one with knowledge of teaching six year olds is doing anything but laugh at this thought. Hell, I’ve hit my half century without being entirely happy with the way any of those three things are working.

I can’t list the monarchs of England (let alone Britain) in chronological order and have never been able to. This probably makes me a dangerous retard in Gove’s view but I’ve struggled past this inadequacy to earn a degree (and later a teaching qualification) and to perform at reasonably high levels in a number of industries before entering teaching. What helped me to do that? Thinking skills. Problem-solving skills. Creative skills. Collaborative skills. Analytical skills. Not rote learning. Got that, Michael? NOT ROTE LEARNING!

But Mr Gove cares not one whit about what teachers and educational academics think. His attitude appears to be that all we are interested in is defending the status quo. The idea that any of us might have the best interests of pupils at heart seems never even to have crossed his mind: if we disagree with him we are simply stubborn refuseniks who stand in the way of progress because we can. Well, Mr Gove, the education system in the UK is not perfect and outcomes for students could undoubtedly be improved. But your proposals (curricular and otherwise) will not do that. Teachers (OK, maybe not all teachers but a good chunk of them) will continue to work for what they believe is best for their pupils, whether this is at odds with your ideologically driven changes or not. And their knowledge and experience has value. And they should be listened to. Because your pals appear to favour ideology over pupils very single time. And that, Mr Gove, is a dangerous and offensive position to take.



I don’t expect the powers to be to take much notice of this but…

….. they ought to.

I’m a teacher, not in the USA but I have experience of teaching in three different countries and though the article is specifically about how Americans are missing the point of Finland’s educational success, the thrust of the piece is equally valid about UK education, particularly England. I’m only going to address one of the themes of the piece right now though I reserve the right to come back to others at a later date.

Once upon a time there were essentially three types of secondary school in England: private (paid for schools, confusingly known as public schools), grammar schools (state-funded but academically selective) and secondary modern schools (for the rest). This is broad brush stuff, I accept, and there were nuances which I’m not going into. Then the state sector was changed so that all schools became comprehensive (apart from in some limited local areas where the grammar schools were allowed to continue creaming off the brightest of students every year….). Skip forward two or three short decades and there are now many, many new types of school, some largely or wholly untested and introduced without evidence of need and for entirely ideological reasons. We have academies (state-funded but freed from local oversight), free schools (which can be set up by, well, anyone who fancies a go at this education lark, for whatever reason), faith schools (this is really going to help community cohesion and harmony, isn’t it?) specialist science schools, performing arts schools, business studies schools, the list goes on. All of which come in a bewildering array of flavours. This is supposedly in the interests of parental choice – something that was never demanded by parents. All the evidence suggests that far from demanding choice, parents simply wanted (and still want) a good school at the end of the road. In practice no choice exists except for though wealthy and/or scheming enough to game the system (the degree of outright fraud involved in otherwise spotlessly clean middle class families trying to appear to reside at their preferred post code is probably very scary indeed but that’s a whole ‘nother topic). Most parents have no choice but to enrol their offspring at the nearest school, assuming they fit the entrance criteria. If they don’t clear that hurdle, tough. They could end up shipping little Jack and Jill several miles a day to a school which will take them on. Competition, you see, supposedly solves all problems, including education.

No. Compare and contrast this to Finland’s clearly more successful one-size-fits-all approach. Wherever you choose to send you children they will get a good quality education. and the country will benefit from that economically and possibly in cohesiveness too. Is this the only factor in Finland’s success? Undoubtedly not. Is this ever likely to be implemented in Britain? Almost certainly not. Should it be? Probably, yes. If only we could keep the politicians and their meddling out of the education game… If only….


Clarity and sense

All parents should read this, especially the ones who are being hounded by the likes of the AVN and hectored into putting their (and others’) children at risk. This debate shouldn’t even need to be happening now.

Raising the pope’s public profile

I’m not a Roman Catholic so I don’t have a pony in the papal race and really don’t care much who they choose to succeed the retiring Benedict (my strong preference would be a black woman but apparently there aren’t any available to stand). However, I do have a handy suggestion that would raise the profile of the papacy, make people take more notice and just generally modernise the whole shebang. Whoever gets the nod, gets to rename himself, right? So instead of John Paul III or Benedict XVII or Pius “n” (where “n” is a large, positive integer), he should call himself Whizzy Wizzle Donkey Burger. Or something similar, I’m not wedded to WWDB, I’m flexible. But something a bit more, well, fun.