New book claims the system needs a radical overhaul


A common lament about our education system and schools, articulated by Dr Anthony Seldon and Professor Ken Robinson, among others, is that they mimic a factory production line in which the only benchmark for success is passing tests and exams.

The consequence of this is that teachers teach for the test, rather than provide a rounded education for children.(this is not  the fault of teachers –it’s what the system demands of them).

A new book from leading academics appears to back this claim. The current model of education has turned our schools into exam factories and our colleges and universities into skill factories for British industry, according to Frank Coffield, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, London, and Bill Williamson, Emeritus Professor at Durham. They argue that the system is outdated and is “being kept together less by the logic of the policies that are applied to them than by the commitment of educators to their learners.” They say educators should work together to create more democratic options – “communities of discovery” — beginning with their own workplaces. In From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The democratic route, Coffield and Williamson also accuse the Coalition government – like its predecessor – of centralising the education system rather than devolving power, as is claimed.  They argue that Exam factories are places where a standardised and tested “product” is made to explicit design specifications. In the UK, they say we have seen the standardisation and centralisation of curricula and testing. Educators have lost much of their professional autonomy and ability to innovate flexibly with learners. This situation has come about over the past three decades as successive governments, responding to the demands of employers, have attempted to boost educational attainments in the interests of economic competitiveness. The authors claim is that these pressures have resulted in education policies that are narrowly instrumental, short-term and which compound rather than challenge some of the greatest weaknesses of the educational system.  They say the policies of all three main parties ignore the main threats to society’s well-being, such as global warming and growing inequality.  “Power is being centralised at the highest possible level,” they say. Under proposals in the latest Education Act “Academies, for example, will be under the Secretary of State’s direct control and he is angling for all schools to become academies.  “So within a few years, the Department of Education, instead of local authorities, may be running all 22,000 schools in England. Academies and ‘free’ schools will in effect become government schools, controlled by an annual funding contract.”  This “galloping centralism” is making those at the chalk-face feel powerless, say Coffield and Williamson. “Instead, we need all our teachers to become powerful, democratic professionals, who are not only experts in teaching and learning but who also play an active part in improving their institution, local community and the education ‘system’.”

In a postscript, they relate last summer’s riots to “the continuing neglect of the bottom 30% of the school population, generation after generation”. They continue: “As in previous moral panics… the fundamental structural problems of our society are fleetingly acknowledged and then flatly ignored.”  The authors assert: “This book is not an academic treatise but a passionate polemic arguing for a new ingredient in our schools, colleges, universities and society: democracy. And democracy cannot be taught, it must be lived.”  In a call to action they urge educators to:

·      Demand from government equal partnership in the design of new qualifications and policies;

·      Reclaim professional freedom of thought and action over teaching methods

·      Carry out a democratic audit of their institutions

·      Set up communities of discovery wherever they work with others “who equally despair of the current policies of all the main political parties”.


A strong theme of the book is the need to build up ‘learning-rich’ work environments where young people at the start of their working lives can develop abilities, understandings and skills that they will be able to build on throughout their learning careers in the worlds of employment and civil society.  The authors agree with Jerome Bruner who wrote in the Culture of Education that “learning is at its best when it is participatory, proactive, communal, collaborative, and given over to constructing meanings rather than receiving them”

Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The democratic route, Coffield and Williamson; Bedford Way Papers;2011


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