Or not?

In a paper published in Educational Psychologist last year, Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer of Maastricht University and Paul A. Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands challenged the popular assumption “that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning.” This assumption forms the  basis of much of the approach to ‘progressive’ education.

There are three problems with this premise, according to van Merriënboer and Kirschner   The first is that novices, by definition, don’t yet know much about the subject they’re learning, and so are ill equipped to make effective choices about what and how to learn next.

The second problem is that learners “often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them;” that is, they practice tasks that they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would actually enhance their expertise.

Third, although learners like having some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating—as well as mentally taxing, constraining the very learning such freedom was supposed to liberate.

In any case, they argue, the whole agenda is not based on well tested theories backed by empirical evidence but instead on research that is methodologically flawed. In short. its  based on ‘pseudoscience’.





Very similar modest rates of improvement in academies and local authority schools for disadvantaged pupils


According to the latest Annual Academies report (July),Sponsored academies have higher proportions of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) than the national average for state-funded secondary schools whilst converter academies have rates that are below. In 2013, across all state-funded primary schools, 17.4% of pupils were identified as having a special educational need. In primary sponsored academies the proportion was 23.2% and in primary converter academies it was 16.1%. In 2013, across all state-funded secondary schools, 19.0% of pupils were identified as having a special educational need. In secondary sponsored academies the proportion was 24.3% and in secondary converter academies it was 16.5%

At key stage 4, results for SEN and non-SEN pupils in sponsored academies went up at broadly the same rate (+1.6 for non-SEN pupils and +1.4 for SEN pupils). Results for SEN pupils went up at the same rate as SEN pupils in local authority schools. Results for SEN pupils in converter academies went up at a slightly slower rate than in local authority schools but overall their attainment remained much higher

The proportion of pupils in sponsored academies who are known to be eligible for free school meals (FSM) is considerably higher than the average across all state-funded schools. In January 2013, 26.3% of pupils in secondary sponsored academies were known to be eligible for FSM compared to 15.1% across all state-funded secondary schools. In primary sponsored academies, 36.6% were known to be eligible for free school meals compared to 18.1% across all state-funded primary schools

The Annual report states

• results for FSM pupils in converter academies were above the average for FSM pupils nationally. In converter academies, 43.7% of pupils achieved 5+ A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics compared to 39.1% in local authority schools;

• results for SEN pupils in converter academies were above the average for SEN pupils in local authority schools. In converter academies, 30.4% of pupils achieved 5+ A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics compared to 23.4% in local authority schools;

• results for FSM pupils improved at a similar rate in sponsored academies, converter academies and local authority schools. The proportion of FSM pupils that achieved 5+ A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics improved by 1.6 percentage points in sponsored academies and 1.8 percentage points in converter academies and 1.7 percentage points in local authority schools; and

• results for SEN pupils in sponsored academies improved at a similar rate to SEN pupils in local authority schools (an improvement of 1.4 percentage points in both cases). Results for SEN pupils in converter academies improved, but at a slower rate than in local authority schools.

The Annual report is deficient in the sense that it doesn’t look at Value Added measurements. Ministers should also be concerned about the very modest improvements being made with respect to FSM and SEN pupils. There is very little difference in the performance here between academies and local authority schools . It is after all a major and  worthy  priority of the Coalition to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged and mainstream pupils and academies were expected to significantly speed this process up. What we are learning  though is that  some academies and academy chains are very good indeed. Others not so, and there is too much variability in their overall performance. We also know that  the Pupil Premium, extra funding targeted at FSM pupils , is not always being used to good effect.



If we are looking for transformation in education, our Leaders must be enthusiastic and effective Learners, says Steve Munby
Steve Munby, CFBT Education Trusts’ Chief Executive, in his speech last month to the Inspiring Leadership Conference, evoked the example of one of the greatest US Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, to help articulate his main theme- learning centred leadership.

Lincoln was presented to us as a learner, portraying humility, curiosity, and a desire to understand the people and the world around him.

The message is that if we are serious about delivering the sustained transformation of our education system then at its heart must be high quality – learning centred leadership and leaders.

Lincoln deliberately surrounded himself with not just clever people, with very different perspectives, but his own political rivals . He was eager to listen and learn something new from them, every day. He knew, of course, that  they would challenge him and be awkward, but  the product of this dialectic  could then inform  his leadership and personal development. That benefited him .But  it  also proved indispensable   to  his troubled country. We can learn from his approach to leadership.
Steve said “I believe the success of our education system depends – more than ever – on our ability as leaders to be learners ourselves and to know how to enable those with whom we work to be powerful learners too. Learning sits at the very foundation of a self-improving education system. It is by learning from one another – as teachers and leaders – that we will generate the professional confidence and empowerment to chart the destiny of our education system.”

So what is learning centred Leadership?

According to Steve Learning-centred leaders:
have a compulsive interest in making sure that all the children and young people in their care become powerful learners.
establish a community whereby all staff develop and improve their professional expertise
are effective and enthusiastic learners themselves and they model these behaviours.
They have an insatiable well of curiosity and constantly analyse how they can improve their own performance.

help to lead the system and support future learning. They are committed to the sustained success of children in all schools and to the development of the education profession more generally. They aim to leave things in much better shape than they found them and they expect the same from those who come after them.

The message here is that you not only have to lead but you have to be able to absorb knowledge about learning and apply it continuously for the benefit of children. In a telling passage Steve said “I think school leaders have a responsibility to be deeply knowledgeable about what works in terms of classroom practice – it is the core business of the school”… “it is beholden on you as head teacher or principal to know enough about the emerging evidence of what works to ask challenging questions, to signpost colleagues to recent evidence and to remove barriers to learning if they occur”. This is a Paen in support of professionally rooted, evidence based teaching practice and leadership. As a school leader, in Steve’s view, you must have the ability to ensure that your teaching staff always provide “the relentless focus on high quality teaching and learning for every child”
This may seem a self-evident proposition. But, step one pace back, and think of some school leaders, you will probably know, who are so weighed down with the daily mundane pressures of running their schools, and what is sometimes called “the tyranny of stuff” to be sufficiently attentive to the core business of their school – learning, and what is happening day in, day out, in their classrooms . The quality of teaching and doing what works in the classroom should not be based on intuition. It should be based on sound evidence and evaluation of what works , and what is needed to embed sustained learning. So Steves message was that it is up the Learning Centred Leaders to deliver on this and to make sure it happens. In every school. We owe this to our children



Why, how, and what lessons can we learn?
Two reports have been published recently on the success of London’s schools in raising pupil attainment and narrowing the achievement gap. The most recent, from The Centre for London and CfBT Education Trust, was published last week- “Lessons from London Schools: Investigating the Success,”. The other, slightly earlier report, was from The Institute for Fiscal Studies for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission ‘ Lessons from London schools for attainment gaps and social mobility’, published on 23 June. The reports should be read in conjunction to get a handle on the complexity of what was happening in London, and the different interconnected variables at play that contributed to improvements in student outcomes.

The unanswerable fact, of course, is that London Schools have improved dramatically since 2000.If you happen to be a disadvantaged child you probably have better education prospects now in London than almost anywhere else in England.

The CFBT report found, for example, that ‘Pupils living in the most deprived neighbourhoods in London are more likely to achieve 5+ A*-Cs at GCSE (including English and mathematics) compared to their peers in the nearby South-East region. Schools serving disadvantaged pupils in London are more likely to have ‘Outstanding’ teaching and leadership than elsewhere in the country’.

How come?

The IFS report suggested that ‘The major explanation for this higher and improved (London)performance does not seem to relate to the effectiveness of secondary schools and various initiatives targeted at London’s secondary schools over the last decade, as is often suggested. Instead, the improvement is more likely to be due to the increase in attainment at primary school over time for disadvantaged pupils in London’. In short, a large proportion of ‘the London advantage’ in GCSE performance could be explained by prior attainment at primary school level, with the report highlighting London’s achievement in English at Key Stage 2.’

The CFBT report found ‘Four key school improvement interventions provided the impetus for improvement – London Challenge, Teach First, the academies programme and improved support from local authorities.’

The report said ‘Our research identifies common features that link together all of these interventions:
a focus on data and data literacy
the need for a culture of accountability
the creation of a more professional working culture
a collective sense of possibility and highly effective practitioner led professional development.
The improvement of London schools also depended upon effective leadership at every level of the system.

‘The research shows that the success of London schools cannot be explained in terms of the ‘contextual’ advantages that London has over the rest of England – factors such as gentrification, ethnicity and opportunity.

‘The improvement was assisted by a set of factors that we describe as ‘enabling’, these include issues relating to resourcing: finance, teacher recruitment and school building quality. Improvement in these areas enabled improvements to flourish but London’s success was not fundamentally caused by these factors.’

The CFBT report, although including quantitative analysis, is clearly more focussed on qualitative research – specifically interviews with headteachers, academics, civil servants and other experts. The report argues that London’s schools exist in a particular context and that this has shaped improvement but does not fully explain it. Instead, the authors conclude, there were barriers to success, such as recruitment and funding, which impeded school improvement in the 1990s. Once these were tackled and reduced, excellence was secured by creating a sense of collective moral purpose and possibility through outstanding, data-driven leadership at every level (whether in Local Authorities, academy chains, by system leaders).

The CFBT research concludes with seven key lessons from the success of London’s schools which could be applied throughout the UK and internationally:

Ensure that policy is based on hard evidence of effectiveness
Maintain a sustained and consistent policy momentum for change over time
Use performance data systematically to make the case for change
Transform underperforming schools through well-managed, sector-led school improvement activities
Develop an effective ‘middle tier’ to support sector-led improvement activity
Ensure that teaching is a career of choice for talented and idealistic recruits
Apply pressure for change through allowing market entry to new providers of education services

It was outside of IFS reports scope to look at the whole education system, across the period of improvement, but given the sequence of events, the IFS report suggests that the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies may have played an important role.(CFBT Education Trust , by the way, were responsible for getting the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies off the ground ,managing them, initially, on behalf of the government before Capita took them over for the second phase).

The IFS also ,though, found that even controlling for primary performance, a secondary school advantage remained. Furthermore, Chris Cook of BBC Newsnight has argued that the IFS may have substantially under-estimated the size of the London effect at Secondary level, since London schools have been less reliant on low quality ‘equivalent GCSEs’

The two reports do seem on the face of it to contradict each other.

The IFS report argues that programmes like academies, Teach First and London Challenge cannot explain London’s success because they were not prevalent in primary schools during the period of improvement.

Sam Freedman says ‘At first glance it’s hard to reconcile the positions taken in the two reports. The IFS focus on primary, and to a lesser extent pupil characteristics, while CFBT focus on secondary policy changes. I think, though, they are two different bits of an extremely complicated jigsaw that hasn’t been finished yet – and because of the lack of evidence/data – never will be. Like the apocryphal blind men with the elephant they’re looking at different parts of the whole.’

Hence it makes sense to look at the reports, in tandem.

Everyone knows the name of Professor Tim Brighouse, whose leadership helped provide the glue and was so crucial to the London Challenge. Less well known though ,and who are always given credit by Brighouse, is the crucial role played by a cohort of inspired London Heads, pulling together and demonstrating effective sustained leadership throughout the system, helping each other and collaborating effectively . Also the support work undertaken by Professor David Woods and others , which enabled meaningful collaboration to work between schools and groups of schools to help drive up student outcomes and narrow the attainment gaps.

LKMco helped with the research for the CFBT Education Trust report and Loic Menzies ,an LKMco Director, responding to IFS’ view on the role of Primaries wrote:
‘ To some extent this is true. Similarly, we found no one London story when it came to these programmes: different boroughs had contrasting experiences and trajectories. No single programme or policy can claim credit for the improvement: some boroughs had many Teach First-ers, some had few or none; some opted for rapid academisation or outsourced their local authority, others drove improvement through their borough leadership; some had large numbers of Keys to Success schools (the most intensive London Challenge intervention) some none. Yet almost all succeeded.’

Menzies, identifies four approaches that worked in London: dealing with barriers to success, such as teacher shortages and dilapidated buildings; the systematic use of data; a willingness to intervene on the part of central and local government and the use of positive language to create a sense of identity and moral purpose.

Menzies stressed the importance of a London narrative and identity. He wrote ‘A shared identity and a moral purpose was created and reinforced by using positive language about ‘London Schools’, ‘London Teachers’ and being ‘the best’. These were reinforced by programmes like Chartered London Teacher, Key Worker Housing and professional development opportunities, all of which were symbolically powerful. These changes were coupled with a new sense of possibility involving ambitious goals and school collaboration which illustrated what might be achieved. Whilst this sounds intangible, the contrast with the much maligned ‘national challenge’ could not be clearer.’

There is another complicating factor, which Nick Morrison flagged up in a Blog – London’s changing demographics.

Morrison says ‘ Although the two reports disagree on the effect of the changing populations, a raft of economic and social indicators – from house prices and average incomes to participation in higher education and English as an additional language – show a growing disparity between London and the English regions. London has always been a magnet for talent, sucking in the ambitious and the driven. What has changed in recent years is that this has reached such a point that London is now quite distinct from the rest of the country. This is bound to have some impact on education in the capital.’

Steve Munby, Chief Executive of CFBT Education Trust, wrote ‘’The London story is above all about the power of purposeful leadership at every level of the system. From national politicians to headteachers, leaders were responsible for driving the changes. One of the most innovative aspects of the London renaissance is the role of head teachers as system leaders, taking responsibility not just for their own schools but other schools in their communities. London has shown that the theory of system leadership can be turned into an exciting ‘high impact’ reality’.

The great challenge now facing our self-improving school system is how to replicate the London success story in other cities but, also, crucially, what lessons are applicable in rural areas and seaside towns where many disadvantaged pupils are educated. You couldn’t simply transplant the London Challenge for example into another city or rural area and expect the same results but there are some lessons to take on board. We also need to evaluate more carefully the on-going collaboration programmes whether in Wales or elsewhere ensuring that this is a data rich environment and we are constantly evaluating what is happening . And, as Morrison points out, if you want to work out what will work elsewhere it is just as important to understand how schools differ as it is to discover what it is they share in common.

Sam Baars, Eleanor Bernardes, Alex Elwick, Abigail Malortie, Tony McAleavy, Laura McInerney, Loic Menzies and Anna Riggall-June 2014 –Centre for London, CFBT Education Trust .The report was written with support from LMKco


IFS Report


Schools Minster David Laws spoke at the reports launch, 27 June, with CfBT’s director for research and development, Tony McAleavy delivering a synopsis of the report. What it was like to be a Head under the London Challenge was described by Dame Joan McVittie. There was then a panel discussion, joined by consultant Robert Hill and Sam Freedman of Teach First.



Dan Willingham is an American cognitive psychologist who recently   wrote a rather good  and popular book – Why Students Don’t Like School  . Cognitive psychology is on the education agenda –it basically attempts to work out how the brain works and how people think , learn and,  indeed, retain learning and information and  how they decide and make choices . If you know this you can adjust your style of teaching and the learning environment accordingly to aid student learning. At least that’s the theory.
Some educators believe that part of the problem in schools is that pupils lack motivation and engagement, due to boredom. Even back in Aristotles day pupils got bored and education was regarded by many children as a painful experience -ie the roots of education are bitter , but the fruits are sweet etc . So, maybe the biggest challenge  remains as it was in his day  to make education more interesting and relevant. In other words, as you teach children show them how they can apply what they are learning to everyday life, demonstrating to them the point of it all. But Willingham doesn’t buy this. He writes:
‘ Trying to make the material relevant to students’ interests doesn’t work. As I noted in Chapter One, content is seldom the decisive factor in whether or not our interest is maintained. For example, I love cognitive psychology, so you might think, “Well, to get Willingham to pay attention to this math problem, we’ll wrap it up in a cognitive psychology example.” But Willingham is quite capable of being bored by cognitive psychology, as has been proved repeatedly at professional conferences I’ve attended. Another problem with trying to use content to engage students is that it’s sometimes very difficult to do and the whole enterprise comes off as artificial.’


‘As I’ve emphasized, structuring a lesson plan around conflict can be a real aid to student learning. Another feature I like is that, if you succeed, you are engaging students with the actual substance of the discipline. I’ve always been bothered by the advice “make it relevant to the students,” for two reasons. First, it often feels to me that it doesn’t apply. Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way they can understand right now? Is trigonometry? Making these topics relevant to students’ lives will be a strain, and students will probably think it’s phony. Second, if I can’t convince students that some material is relevant, does that mean I shouldn’t teach it? If I’m continually trying to build bridges between students’ daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don’t have much to do with me. I’m not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in. What I’m suggesting is that student interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas.’



Placing professional development at the top of the agenda

Calls for government action

The TDT celebrated its second anniversary, this week, in the Commons. Jointly conceived by David Weston,a former maths teacher and Mark McCourt formerly   a senior Director at Tribal , the TDT  is now seen as an influential player, which  crucially has access to the higher echelons of the education establishment .The TDT raises awareness of the vital importance of professional  development and develops resources and partnerships to help  teachers and school leaders to transform their practice, ‘ thereby  achieving success for all their pupils’.

The Trust says that too many teachers still experience mainly one-off professional development in the form of one-day courses, lectures or written texts.  Indeed as little as 1% of these are ‘transformative’, in other words, able to sustainably improve teaching, while just 7% of schools and colleges evaluate the wider impact of professional learning on student outcomes.  In many of these institutions, the choices of partners and suppliers remain frequently non-systematic and ad hoc. So its all a bit hit and  miss.

The TDT now has some significant funders and a strong Board of advisers and Trustees

Lord Andrew Adonis ,the former Minister of State for Education, has just joined  the Trust as its  Honorary President . Sir John Holman, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of York and Senior Education Adviser to the Wellcome Trust, joins its Board of Trustees, as the incoming Chair

While the TDT detects a movement  in the profession towards greater collaboration, sharing of resources and considerations around evidence-based practice, and a desire for professional development that is effective  and has  measurable impact, their  recent research has raised concerns that the outcomes of children and young people in England are being negatively impacted by the barriers facing the professional development of our teachers,  limiting their ability to find and  access high quality CPD. Indeed, there is no support they say ,for a systematic approach to choosing CPD suppliers.

The Trust’s Annual Report findings, , revealed  that despite 83.6% of schools stating that the continued professional development (CPD) of staff directly  impacts student attainment, a staggering 53.4% (rising to 60% for secondary schools) have found it harder  to meet teachers’ development needs in the past 12 months because of financial pressures on the school.

Accountability measures in England are also influencing decisions around how to develop our teachers and leaders. Almost one in five secondary schools felt pressured to complete CPD in response to accountability  frameworks such as Ofsted, league tables, data requirements and safeguarding, compared to one in eight  Academies and one in 10 schools nationally.

The report though has exposed gaps in schools’ strategic decision-making with cost considerations moving to the centre of many decisions around professional development rather than the impact on pupils – with some schools stating there is no budget available for external support.

Its vision is for the system is one ‘where teachers are engaged in continual professional development, prioritised by school leaders within schools and colleges who exist within national networks of professional learning.’ The Trust wants action.  It believes the government should:

1 Fund the creation of a national database of leading practice.

2 strengthen the role of Teaching school alliances in brokering support and partnerships for schools.

3 embark on a national communication drive to promote the findings from professional learning research.

4 contribute toward an ‘incubator’ organisation to prepare the ground for a new royal college of Teaching.

5 Facilitate discussions and provide funding around new  professional career levels.

6 Build confidence and capacity at the Department for education to facilitate and support system-led improvement in professional learning.

7 prepare for a future personal entitlement to professional learning.

8 Increase the funding of research into effective professional development and effective knowledge sharing

It is a somewhat ambitious wish list, and it might have been better to prioritise and  focus on a narrower set of objectives to start with,  that are bottom up rather than top down. But this is an ambitious organisation with some cross  party  clout and momentum behind it, so its easy to understand why they have chosen this approach.





Both David Didau and Dylan Wilam in their extremely civilised discussion on Assessment for Learning (Formative Assessment) at the Sunday Times/Wellington College Education Festival last weekend mentioned the work of Robert A. Bjork  at the  University of California, Los Angeles .

As it happened Didau and Wiliam agreed on quite a lot.  Essentially teachers tend to assume that what they teach pupils has sunk in. But often it hasn’t.  And you cant rely on teachers judgement or intuition when it comes to understanding whether or not their students are  actually learning . So Formative Assessment is about using evidence about classroom learning to adapt teaching and learning to meet student needs. This assumes that you can assess what pupils have learned in an individual lesson, and then adjust future teaching based on this information.

But Didau makes the point that if  we measure pupils’ performance we can only ever infer what might have been learned. If nothing has changed in the students  long-term memory,  though ,nothing has been learned.

This is where Bjorks work comes in. He argues, backed by a body of evidence, that Learning and Performance are different  though  we often assume they are the same.

Bjork says ‘The major goal of instruction—whether in the classroom or in the field—is, or at least should be, to equip the learner with the type of knowledge or skills that are durable (i.e., capable of sustaining long periods of disuse) and flexible (i.e., capable of being applied in different contexts). That is, the goal of instruction is to facilitate learning, which must be inferred at some  point after instruction  Learning, however, must be distinguished from performance, which is  what can be observed and measured during instruction or training. This important and seemingly paradoxical distinction between learning and performance dates back decades, spurred by early research that revealed that learning can occur even when no discernible changes in performance are observed’

Indeed, he says, research demonstrates that learning can  occur without changes in performance .

Bjork makes it clear that teachers or instructors ‘frequently misinterpret short-term performance as a guide to long-term learning’.That is a mistake.

The great challenge for teachers and teaching remains how to ensure students retain learning, over long periods and can apply their learning in different contexts. Most of what students are taught is not retained by them, or retained for only a short period ,so  is not embedded, although most teachers assume that it is. And their intuition about what works  and how their last lesson went is,  rather too frequently,  flawed.

Spaced Learning may have a role  to help  retention , through repetition over intervals, hardly a new idea, but there may be scope for more research and piloting here.



Academics at the University of East Anglia recently  tested 594 bioscience students in their first week of term at five universities on their ability to remember key pieces of knowledge from their A-level studies. The students, most of whom had scored a grade A in A-level biology, were asked to answer a series of multiple choice questions drawn from old AS and A-level papers. The findings showed that on average, the students answered about 40% of the questions correctly.

LEARNING VERSUS PERFORMANCE  Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork

University of California, Los Angeles