The great education debate

Education policy has experienced tumultuous change and often polarising debate over the past 30 years. But what are the facts: has our education system improved in that time? Is teaching too child-centred? Should we prioritising skills or knowledge?

To answer these questions, Demos convened a roundtable of leading education policy thinkers including former minister David Willetts MP. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.

The participants


Daisy Christodoulou

Daisy Christodoulou is the head of education research at the charity Ark and author of Seven Myths about Education.

Rob Coe

Rob Coe

Robert Coe is Professor in the School of Education and Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University.

Sam Freedman

Sam Freedman

Sam Freedman is Director of Research, Evaluation and Impact at Teach First and former Senior Policy Adviser to the Secretary of State for Education.

Dean Machin

Dean Machin

Dean Machin is a Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at UCL.

David Willetts

David Willetts

David Willetts is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Havant and the former Minister for Universities and Science. David Goodhart[/caption]

CHAIR: David Goodhart is Chair of the Demos Advisory Group.

The Discussion

Robert Coe British education has seen big changes over the last 30 years. Real spending has doubled with a big acceleration under New Labour, though as a share of national income spending has stayed quite stable. So that’s partly just a reflection of us getting richer.

There has also been a big growth in the take-up of exams and qualifications plus a change in the expectation of who would take higher qualifications—from a minority of children to all of them. There has also been a big expansion of higher education.

Within schools themselves we’ve seen a raft of changes in governance and structure, beginning with things like city technology colleges and grant-maintained status and now academies are a big part of the landscape; meanwhile the role of local authorities in supporting schools has declined. And we’ve seen the birth of accountability systems, like Ofsted and league tables which only emerged in the early ’90s.

Against that background is a debate about what’s happened to standards. The short answer is that we don’t really know because we haven’t collected the right kind of evidence. But when you look at what evidence we do have, it’s a mixed picture. There is some evidence of a modest rise across primary education, particularly in maths, but it looks as though that isn’t sustained into secondary school. So performance at the end of secondary school is more or less flat. Some studies suggest a decline; some suggest a rise.

This is not consistent with the headline rise in GCSE or A-level performance. Those, I think we can say confidently, are not real increases. International studies—such as PISA and PIRLS—shed some light on outcomes but it is again a very mixed picture.

David Goodhart Thank you. That’s a useful overview. We now want to engage with some of the crunchier aspects of the current education debate. In particular the argument between the so-called traditional and progressive approaches to teaching and learning and the dispute between those who stress ‘knowledge’ and those who prioritise ‘skills.’ Daisy Christodoulou you are one of the educationalists often praised by Michael Gove, when he was education secretary, and the author of a recent book ‘Seven Myths about Education,’ can you give us a brief overview of your ideas and then David Willetts, who is sceptical about some of them, can reply.

Daisy Christodoulou In my book I argue that there are a set of ideas which are both widely prevalent in English education and wrong. I am critical of the idea that skills, like ‘critical thinking,’ can be taught in isolation and that facts and knowledge are relatively unimportant. I also argue that teacher-led teaching methods are more effective than those that rely on pupils discovering things for themselves.

Whilst this debate is often caricatured as being between ‘progressives’ who want to teach skills and ‘traditionalists’ who want to teach knowledge, I tend to avoid that terminology and focus on the latest scientific research instead. The best evidence from the field of cognitive science shows that the only way to achieve skill is through a mastery of knowledge. I also believe that knowledge has been downplayed and even denigrated by many in English education and we can find evidence of this right at the top in the school reports published by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, in publications by other educational quangos and in the work of many prominent educationalists.

Illustration by Modern Activity

Illustration by Modern Activity

David Willetts Can I give an overall reaction to Daisy’s book? First of all, I agree that what are often called ‘skills’ and ‘knowledge’ are so mutually dependent as to be indistinguishable—there aren’t free-hanging things called skills and something else called knowledge, I think on that you are compelling and what the cognitive psychologists say makes sense. And also the way in which drilling and practice have been downplayed in favour of the uncovering of innate talents—I remember reading Matthew Syed the sports writer on this and him describing how you can be at least a national-standard table-tennis player just as result of doing a hell of a lot of practice.

And I think of this too in my role as an MP. Someone observing me handling a child-support case brought by a constituent of mine now I hope might think I was quite skilled at handling such cases. But this has happened over 20 years, during which time I must have done hundreds of child-support cases and gradually, without even having a direct memory of acquiring the knowledge you work out what the Child Support Agency are interested in and how you handle it.

So a skill is a deposit through lots of practice and learning stuff. It is not different to acquiring knowledge. Now what about the point that Britain has been over influenced by progressive teaching ideas? There is some evidence for this in the work of Daisy and others but when you look at the PISA analysis it turns out that there are quite a few class-room benchmarks where we seem to be on the traditional end of the scale, in terms of levels of teacher didacticism and so on. We are not, it turns out, a scarily progressive nation. (And, interestingly, it looks as if our private schools are more ‘progressive’ than our state schools.)

But first of all there is a prior question, to the extent that this shift has taken place, why has it happened? And by this shift I mean the whole supposed bias towards people having skills as distinct from knowledge—as promoted through the structure of exams and assessment and Ofsted. The critics of progressivism, like Daisy, are largely silent on this. That’s not a criticism; it’s just an observation. Secondly, the posterior question; if it is true, what are we supposed to do? And I think that those are both worth investigating.

So why has this happened? It certainly did not come from the top because I was there! I was sitting in the Number 10 policy unit in the mid-1980s when E D Hirsch was working on his cultural literacy book. [Cultural Literacy by E D Hirsch, published in 1987, summarised some of the latest findings in cognitive psychology and applied them to education. Hirsch, a favourite of traditionalists, argued that wide general knowledge, what he called cultural literacy, was a vital tool for thinking and at the root of expertise.]

And I remember going to America with Brian Griffiths and meeting Hirsch and Bill Bennett, who was then the US Education Secretary and we said, ‘This cultural literacy stuff is fantastic. We’ve certainly got to do this in the UK.’ Ken Baker, who has British Education Secretary, was excited by it. Hirsch was completely compelling then and his book has gone through edition after edition. These ideas have been around for 30 years backed up in recent years by more of the neuroscience too. But nevertheless, clearly they have not taken hold. And why is this? I think there are several reasons.

First reason why the ‘skills’ approach apparently dominates is to do with a structure of assessment that tries to establish evidence that you have skill A or skill B. And that in turn is, I think, partly due to the computerisation of a mass examining system dealing with millions of GCSE scripts. So the combination of expansion and automation pushes us in the direction of teaching skills.

I think a second possibility is the influence of universities which—because of competitive entry exams—have a very significant influence on secondary schools in Britain, greater than most other advanced western countries. The A level exists to enable universities to identify whom they wish to educate at university. And you can see why universities with their academic traditions may have a bias towards wanting young people with the nascent skills of, say, a historian, rather than accepting that we just want young British citizens who aren’t apprentice historians but people who have got some knowledge of the shape of British history when they leave school.

And a third possibility is that it’s an Anglo-Saxon problem linked to deregulated labour markets and the decline of vocational qualifications and conventional routes into well-established industrial employment. This was replaced in the 1980s and 1990s with the idea that you need a new set of general, transferable skills for a new flexible world.

So there are some suggestions as to how we have got here, I don’t think it is simply a group of people in the education system with bad ideas who have imposed them on everyone. There has to be some social and political and structural explanation for something so pervasive.

DG But do you believe it is pervasive?

DW I’m not sure that it’s as pervasive as Daisy says. If we were sitting in on lesson after lesson in an English secondary school, I suspect there’d be rather more learning going on than she says. But the idea that what really matters is skills and the downplaying of facts, I think on that, Daisy is right.

DG So Daisy do you want to come back on some of that? Perhaps starting with this issue of how pervasive is the problem you describe?

DC Well, there are plenty of teachers who are properly teaching facts and who are doing a really good job at it. But they’re not helped by the fact that so much external official pressure is telling them not to. From my own experience as a teacher I have felt that pressure, and also witnessed many good teachers resisting it—as I say in my book, I couldn’t have written the book were it not for my mentor who was doing her best to not teach the lessons Ofsted praised.

And it isn’t just the pressure of an Ofsted inspection, it’s the senior managers in schools adapting to what they see as the Ofsted inspection framework. There’s a lot of pressure on people to not teach stuff and to try to teach skills in this very abstracted and unhelpful fashion. Very powerful state bodies are trying to dictate a method of teaching— their inspection reports are an important body of evidence.

DW So what would Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, say?

DC I think he’d say, ‘Oh, we’re working on it.’

RC Well, I’ve heard him addressing this exact issue, and making a joke of it and saying: ‘I’m being accused of being progressive!’ and the people with him just laughed. I don’t know how much he is progressive, indeed these terms progressive and traditional are not very well defined. But for the organisation as a whole, the evidence is clear: there are certain things that they advocate and seem to prefer and seem to value.

Sam Freedman The point is it doesn’t really matter what Wilshaw himself thinks, he has 3,000 inspectors and he doesn’t have an effective mechanism for inspecting his inspectors. We don’t know what they think. There’s no assessment to be an Ofsted inspector; they get appointed.

DG But we can see their reports and we can tell what they think from them, no?

SF To some extent.

RC I think they more reflect the zeitgeist than create it. Or they reflect the kind of slightly behind-the-times version of it.

Dean Machin If Ofsted IS the problem, why are they doing what they’re doing? What’s the explanation?

DC That takes us back to David’s ‘why’ questions, which are interesting. I want to take up this Anglo-Saxon point, not in the economic sense, but more in the zeitgeist sense that Rob mentioned. I talked to a friend in Australia about it. They don’t have an Ofsted there but they have exactly the same issues. And I think the root of the problem in the Anglo-Saxon world is the romantic concept of education going back 200 years.

The idea that education is a drawing out: that we’ve got these innate talents and abilities and education should be drawing them out and that putting things in is somehow stifling. So then the question is why do people believe in this? And you can come up with all kinds of sociological reasons for that. But one important reason why these ideas persist is that until very recently, we had no good evidence from cognitive psychology to challenge it. So someone could assert, ‘I want to draw the talents out of the child,’ and someone else says, ‘no, you’ve got to put facts in,’ and there has been nothing to resolve the question. It has just been based on opinion and anecdote. But over the past 50 years we have started to acquire a body of knowledge.

One analogy I like is with medicine in the late-19th century, where you have a theory beginning to develop of biochemistry and the germ theory of disease that is being matched up to experimental evidence—you have John Snow and cholera and that’s all coming together. But in the late-19th-century there’s still a lot of quack theory going around. It takes time.

DW But why were Britain and Australia and the US more susceptible to this than France and Germany?

DG It may be partly the effect of the 1960s. The 1960s counterculture, 1960s liberalism, arguably took deeper root in Anglo-Saxon societies because we were already more liberal and individualistic.

SF There’s also an economic element to it. If you see the purpose of education as being to prepare people for employment, then specific subject knowledge does become quite an odd thing to be focusing on.

DM That’s not Daisy’s account though. I thought her critique was about a romantic idea of education not an instrumental, economic one.

DC That’s the interesting thing; it cuts both ways.

SF Yes, yes. Look at what the CBI has been saying about education for a long time now. They dislike the focus on knowledge because for them, a key purpose of education is employability.

DC Alison Wolf, one of the most respected figures in the academic study of education, has said that the only people she hears saying that there’s not a big problem with pupils not reading or writing well enough when they leave school, is when she talks to the CBI.

RC I want to return to Daisy’s point about the romantic zeitgeist. Because I can certainly remember when I started as a teacher, anecdotal though this is, that the pressure was certainly in that direction. It was all about how can we stop all this traditional nonsense and get people to be more progressive, to build skills and all that. So we had the Cockcroft Report, 1982. Plowden a long time before that.

But I also want to enter a big caveat here: in the actually observed behaviour of teachers in various studies in the 1970s—repeated in the 1990s—they found no difference at all in teachers’ behaviour in classrooms. This was right at the heart of when all that change was supposedly happening. I remember in the 1990s if you were applying for a job you had to talk about all these progressive things you did. But it didn’t mean you actually had to do them.

DM And I have another problem with the progressive takeover theory, it can’t explain why some schools are doing well and some are doing badly.

DC I don’t agree. You can explain some differences. For example if you look at the debate between the whole word method of teaching reading and synthetic phonics it is a classic example of the different philosophies of teaching we have been talking about. The whole word approach says don’t teach the building blocks of words just try get the children to absorb the skill of reading through osmosis if you like. Phonics is saying we can break it down into chunks, and when we teach the chunks of knowledge we get the skill. Synthetic phonics on every single study and every single trial is much more effective and the schools that do it get better reading scores. That’s empirically testable and has been.

So you have got some examples of success and those who are doing best, as in the case of synthetic phonics, are doing what I’m advocating about the relationship of knowledge to skills. But I agree with what others have said about traditional and progressive not being helpful terms, if I use them in my book I put scare quotes around them. Apart from anything else people may label themselves as one or the other but, as Rob says, if you actually look at what they do it doesn’t conform to the label. Similarly, I’ve seen lots of people saying the right things to Ofsted inspectors, and I’ve done it myself, and then doing something very different in the classroom.

DG Isn’t there evidence from international comparisons that can indicate the effectiveness of different teaching styles. If we are assuming that we are somewhat more skills based and child centred than, say, much of continental Europe and certainly the Far East, isn’t that some evidence for the failure of that approach? We’re doing worse than Poland, aren’t we? We’re doing worse than all sorts of places that spend a fraction of what we spend on education.

RC Yes. Okay. So you tell me what thing in education you like and I’ll find you a country where it seems to work. You know, you pays your money…

DG So you think the PISA survey is of no great value?

RC No, I’m not saying that. But I think it’s absolutely possible to come up with any kind of theory that we like and cherry-pick evidence from PISA to support it.

DG That may be so but the British record looks pretty poor doesn’t it both in international terms and in relation to our own past if we are saying—as you did at the beginning—that despite all these organisational changes and a doubling of spending in real terms there is no measureable improvement in educational outcomes at all in the past 30 years. This is extraordinary isn’t it and needs some explanation.

RC Well you are right when I first started saying there has been no clear rise in standards people did think it was extraordinary. They said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Of course standards are rising. Look at how good our schools are.’ Actually now what teachers much more often say to me is, ‘What? So we’ve held level over all this time. Well, that’s fantastic, isn’t it?’ When you think of all the social change and you think of how hard it is.

DG So just standing still is an achievement! Come on David Willetts, your party has been in power for at least part of this period. What have you been doing? Do you contest this story?

DW Well I do contest the idea that poor outcomes can be laid at the door of a progressive takeover. First of all, there was certainly no promotion of progressivism from the top when I was involved in Tory education debates in the 1980s and 90s, quite the opposite.

The second point, I touched on earlier, when you look at the responses given by teachers to PISA questions about teaching styles Britain does not look very progressive, at least not relative to high-performing PISA countries. So for example, in your learning strategy in maths, do you think that it is most important to learn by heart? China/Shanghai teachers, 25 per cent; UK teachers, 37 per cent.

In addition, in the UK, 35 per cent of students say they are given an opportunity to express opinions in every lesson; for Shanghai the figure is 47 per cent. And 66 per cent of UK students agree or strongly agree that there is a consensus among maths teachers that the social and emotional development of students is as important as their acquisition of knowledge. But 92 per cent of Shanghai students agree or strongly agree with this statement.

DC We are back to the problem of language. You are asking people what they think, what they believe; asking them to agree or disagree. And I think that can be useful. But it doesn’t actually tell you what’s going on in the classrooms. If on the other hand you look at TIMSS surveys [TIMSS is a PISA-like study of international science and maths performance which assesses primary as well as secondary pupils], in which they do video studies of lessons in different countries, it’s far more insightful and reliable than what teachers are saying about what they do.

And if you look at those TIMSS video studies, what they’re showing is that Hong Kong, Chinese, Japanese teachers talk a lot more in class than teachers in other parts of the world; they use a lot more words. For every one word that the pupils say, the Far-East teachers are saying 15, 20; in America, it’s 8 or 9. A recent paper by academics at the University of Southampton confirmed that there is more whole-class teaching going on in Chinese classrooms compared to English ones, and less groupwork.

I certainly recall when I was training there was this blanket thing of, ‘Don’t talk too much. Don’t talk too much.’ There were even these rules of thumb like: ‘Never talk for more than 10 seconds at a time.’ Of course I am not against pupils expressing opinions but some of the ideas that have become part of teaching commonsense in Britain are not very helpful.

RC Yes, we shouldn’t really care too much about what teachers say; it’s what they do that matters. And part of the problem is they don’t know what they do and are subject to intellectual fashion.

SF Yes, so in the Far East they are aware that they are regarded as very didactic and traditionalist so they tend to highlight the opposite—pupil involvement and learning skills and so on.

DG But just leaving this pedagogic dispute to one side for a moment, I want to return to the question of standards in the context of a big widening of access to higher qualifications and university access and so on.

SF I think what we mean here by ‘standards’ is important. Because I think when Rob talks about a lack of measureable improvement he is talking about cognitive attainment at the age of 15, measured through test scores. Yet there has also been this big increase in participation in education post-16 and in higher education over this same period. So the education system has changed quite a lot in what it’s giving the population, even if the cognitive ability of 15 year olds is broadly the same.

And schools feel very different, which I think is why a lot of people struggled with Rob’s analysis when he first came out with it. Even when I started working in education, only 10 or so years ago, schools felt much rougher places. Behaviour was a lot worse in a lot of schools. Fewer people got any kind of qualification. I do think the system has become more inclusive. And for that reason many people, perhaps teachers above all, feel there has been an improvement.

DG So when adjusted for easier exams and so on the real test scores may not have improved, but its preferable for 60 per cent of people to get 6/10 than for 30 per cent to get 9/10 isn’t it?.

DW Well let’s go back to the history. What Keith Joseph agonised about, 30 years ago, was what to do about the fact that so many people left English schools with no qualification whatsoever or at best these CSEs that were worthless. So the question was, do you replace O levels with GCSEs? And he agonised about it. And he concluded that you should replace O levels with GCSEs that would enable many more 15 or 16 year olds, then the school-leaving age, to be assessed in a school-leaving exam.

Now there are still some people who claim that that was the point when the rot set in and we should never have got rid of O levels. But I’m with the majority who think that replacing O levels with GCSEs was the right thing to do. And it’s a very similar issue with A levels now. While you are trying to use your A-levels as a school-leaving exam—which might be sat by over 40 per cent of 18 year olds—you are also trying to use the grades to establish which Russell Group university best suits particular individuals. It’s very hard to have an exam that both reaches that incredibly fine-mesh judgement at the top and enables an engineering company to know that this person has reasonable enough maths and physics to start technical training.

The conventional critique of the old English education system was that it wrote off far too many kids. As you put it the top 30 per cent carried on getting 9 out of 10. But if you start to include other groups who were not previously participating in the system at all the average is pulled down and you have all these issues of reducing the rigour of the exams, teaching to the test and so on.

But there is another strand to this question of why standards have not risen more, and this overlaps with the teaching style argument and changes to the labour market. Remember that our frustration in the ’80s was with a traditional workplace training system that was training people for jobs that were disappearing. So, in my constituency for example, in the 1970s you went to school and you knew that when you left you would do an apprenticeship in the Portsmouth dockyard. And the school had a reasonable sense of what you needed to know to work in the dockyard.

So what happens? You say, ‘The dockyard is closing down; the steel works is closing down; the car factory has just gone bust. We don’t quite know what these 17 year olds are going to do but we’re pretty sure they’re not doing the old trade-union jobs in mass manufacturing.’ So they need some stuff that is broader and more flexible for a more flexible labour market. This is where the Anglo-Saxon element comes in that we touched on earlier and the overlap between the most rigorous free market Thatcherism and some of the skills agenda that Daisy disapproves of.

DC Yes. I would totally agree with that analysis. So you end up with quite unusual alliances between people like Keith Joseph and people who were touting this skills agenda. My problem is this: I can see that vocational training has to change but does general school education have to? Now, you said the school had a reasonable idea of what you needed to know to work in the dockyard. Did it? Were they actually at age 11 training the kids to work in the dockyard? I don’t think so. Nor do I think they had to.

If you look around the world at the kind of subjects you need to do well in a general school education they have not changed very much. You need, and Alison Wolf writes about this, really good literacy and really good numeracy. And that’s what you get from a good basic education. And that’s what we’re still not doing in this country.

There’s also the issue of preparing students not just for the economy but to live as citizens in a democracy. And I think in this discussion about the economy it often gets lost. But as we’re on the economy now, I’ll stick to that. If you look at those countries that have the best economic performances—such as the Nordics—they have the best-skilled low-skilled workers. So their low-skilled workers have good literacy and good numeracy. That’s what you need. And that’s where we don’t do well now and we haven’t done well for a long time.

If you look at the Sheffield report by Brooks and Rashid, 17 per cent of school leavers leave school with basically functional illiteracy; 22 per cent leave with functional innumeracy. They’re not really equipped to participate in the job market at all. That figure has been persistent over not just 20, 25 years, but over 50 years. So that in economic terms is the big issue for schools. If you fix that issue of the literacy and numeracy of the tail, that’s how schools can best help the economy.

DM If that is all true it does mean that the ‘progressive takeover’ or whatever you want to call it cannot be blamed for this long tail, as it clearly pre-dates the modern teaching ways that you dislike.

DC The ‘modern teaching ways’ I talk about in my book are not actually that modern: the Hadow Report in the 1930s was pushing them and the intellectual antecedents go back to Rousseau. You are right though there is no golden age. The 17 per cent, 22 per cent, that’s pretty persistent over time. However, as Rob has said, we now spend a lot more money on education than we did in the 1950s, and the influence of these ideas might provide a reason why that money has not led to improvement. It’s a really persistent and unhappy story and I think it is worth looking abroad at countries that do better than us on this score. A lot of it, I think, is about political will as well.

DM But presumably rote learning of arithmetic would be a good way to improve.

DC Rote learning is a very pejorative term. But I would say that, as with synthetic phonics, the alternatives are usually quite experimental and it’s often the poor who get experimented upon. So I think if you’re asking why the long tail has persisted even as money and policy attention has been thrown at it, yes it’s because we have been using faulty methods. I know most about reading. But I would say the lack of focus on procedural fluency in maths is important too. Those are the things, particularly for weaker students, that they need extra help on. Again, if you look at all those countries who do very well with this…

DM I won’t disagree with that. But if pupils just learn their times tables, they may get 8×7 but they don’t know anything else, they don’t get the logical basics of numbers. Rote learning is not giving them that…

RC Words like ‘drilling’ or ‘rote learning’ have come to have negative connotations. So let’s ask a specific question instead. Is it important for a child to be able to tell you what 8×7 is without a delay? If they have to think too hard to answer that question, their cognitive functioning is used up with that and they can’t do anything else. If you have 56 in your memory then you can do another calculation at the same time. So actually there is thinking as well as knowledge in regurgitation of a rote fact.

DM Then the question is do we now know how to instil these abilities?

RC Yes, I think we know quite a lot about that—as Daisy has been saying the evidence from cognitive neuroscience is now quite impressive, though our knowledge is quite recent. And there is still, alas, a big place for myths and various forms of nonsense because education seems especially vulnerable to intellectual fashion. We seem to be driven by the desire for novelty.

DC Yes. I think that’s true. And what is so seductive about the skills idea is it offers short cuts. It offers you a way of saying, there’s a way to get this skill by short circuiting the slog of acquiring knowledge. And it’s a dream.

DW Well let’s start to think about what the consequences of some of this should be in the classroom. I buy the arguments about deep memory and working memory and all that. But what is supposed to happen in a class as a result of this observation?

There is an example in Daisy’s book of kids who are supposed to be learning history who are asked to paint a crest and so their thinking is all about the colours of the crest, not about history. Getting the kids to think about the things you then wish them to remember is not a straightforward activity. We had all these debates in the 1980s. One of the issues was, well, you’re making education more like marketing; you’re saying it’s got to be interesting; it’s got to hold the child’s attention. But, critics say ‘surely kids should just be taught the stuff and memorise it.’

The second big question is, to what extent do you accept a kind of Piaget-type picture; that there are stages of mental development to which styles of learning are appropriate. I think one of the problems in English education is we start too much formal learning too soon. I’m not aware of evidence that starting to learn to read early or even starting maths early particularly helps you. Some of the continental systems that outperform us start formal learning later.

And a final point I would like us to consider: is the 21st century different? I know this is one of the myths that Daisy’s book attacks but I have become a bit susceptible to it because during my time as a minister I became a technophile. Now of course I agree with you that the 21st century is not different in the sense that the times tables have not changed nor the importance of having a sense of your country’s history. But I do think that the 21st century is very different in at least two other respects.

First of all, I do think education and technology can now have a productive relationship. When you see some of the education technology research programmes, often prompted by the neuroscientists, that are designing new techniques for learning its hard not to be impressed. We are developing these skills, and we’re very good at this in Britain. These techniques enable you to hold someone’s attention, to keep them gripped. And some of the techniques that are used in computer games can be used to hold people’s attention to the things you want them to think about and then remember. I think the gamification of learning is probably a good thing.

And I also do think that computers do change maths. You still need your times tables but some other activities where we’ve kept things simple so that you can do them in your head or at least using a log table, are now being computerised. That means you can do more complicated things, you can write more elaborate functions and then press buttons for them to be calculated. So I think maths, and what we need to do with maths and how we manipulate numbers, is different in the 21st century.

DC Let me respond to some of those points. So number one, what should a lesson look like? I think the direct-instruction model, which you can see elaborated in various different forms is quite a good one. John Hattie talks about this in his book Visible Learning and he outlines a seven-step process. I can’t recall all the steps. But essentially it’s activate prior knowledge, so making links to what the pupil has learned before; then there’s teacher exposition; then there’s practice. And it’s guided first and then independent.

On gamification I agree with you, I think there’s huge potential. Indeed, a large part of the work I do at the academy chain ARK is about using quiz technologies in the classroom. Technology will never take away the need for us to know stuff but it will make it easier for us to know that stuff. It will make it easier for teachers to get it into long-term memory. There are the online apps, quizzing, making it fun, the gamification. The Khan Academy is already there. There are all sorts of nice little flashcard apps. And there’s lots of cognitive psychology backing that up.

The other big thing is the use of data in the classroom. Getting immediate feed-back on what has been learnt, what is sticking, and what isn’t. And that’s something that we’re trialling at ARK. One caveat, I think technology in the classroom has not been helped by the fact that so much money has gone into so many things that have been a waste of time. The fact that we’ve had so many bad ideas guiding the way we use technology, means we haven’t used it in the powerful ways it could be used.

On your point about maths being different. I’m not a mathematician; but what I would say is, how different is it for primary-school pupils? How different is it for secondary? Not much. Maybe upper secondary, perhaps. Yes, at the level of university, at the level even of vocational study, things are changing all the time. New knowledge is being created and we do have to stay abreast of it. But the fundamental foundations don’t shift as much.

DW So Conrad Wolfram, who has influenced my thinking about these issues, would say memorising your times tables is still incredibly helpful. But being able to do long division has become almost irrelevant; you don’t do long division as you go through life, you can press the button. The challenge is to work out which are the mathematical techniques you need in order to do maths well using the modern technologies available. Some of the heuristic devices that people used to learn we no longer need to learn because there are gadgets which enable people to do more sophisticated things, even in the primary school.

RC But this comes down to a question of what it is you think maths is. What are they learning when you teach them that long-division algorithm? If they’re just learning that as a set of rules that you follow, then yes, there’s little value in doing that. But if they’re learning something a bit deeper about how the numbers relate and so on.

DC Exactly. And it’s this issue again, this unhelpful dichotomy between procedural fluency and deeper stuff. Actually, I would even say the deep structures come from the procedural fluency. It’s when a kid has done 10 or 15 or 20 long-division problems that they actually start to see the deep structures underpinning it. Right? There’s no guarantee they will, but that’s the route to it.

And I’ve actually seen that happen in class. I was in a lesson this morning, a grammar lesson. And as the pupils are doing more and more examples, you can actually see their understanding. The way they talk about something after they’ve done a set of examples compared to the way they talk about it before is different. Understanding arrives after you’ve built up that procedural fluency.

DG There seem to be a fair amount of agreement on this. But there is less agreement that our teaching methods have drifted off in the wrong direction in recent decades? So if improvement is not about having more teacher-led, knowledge based lessons what is it about?

DW As I said, I’m absolutely not standing in the way of evidence from the neuroscience and much of Daisy’s core message. But I’m not sure I accept this idea of ‘drifting off in the wrong direction’. If you could go back to the 1930s or the 1950s, and if you went into an average primary school or secondary school, I don’t think you would find kids who were in any significant sense better educated than they are today. Kingsley Amis complains in Lucky Jim that, ‘More means worse,’ he complains that we are already letting into university everybody who can read and write. And he first wrote that in 1954 when something like 5 per cent of the population went to university.

DG So should we think of it like this: that some dilution is necessary but the question is how much is acceptable.

DC I don’t think we should think of it like that. That is maybe what has happened in this country. But it definitely doesn’t have to be. The classic example here is Finland. Finland went comprehensive at the same time as us but paid really close attention to standards, to the extent of mandating state text books. They felt that curriculum and pedagogy and what the pupils were learning in class was vitally important. And it worked.

I think we can have a mass system with high levels of participation and very high standards at every level. I think that’s possible. I don’t think we have it now, indeed we have never properly had a mass system that works. But it is possible and that’s what we’ve got to aim for.

DG But how do we get there? And is some sort of mandated change to teaching methods part of the answer?

D Christodoulou Right. I would say, no. David was talking earlier about the unintended consequences of top-down political interventions by Margaret Thatcher or Keith Joseph. It just has to be bottom-up. Because what is going on in the classroom I think is so complex with so many interactions going on all the time. It has to be a process of the profession becoming more evidence based.

SF I agree, we don’t know enough to mandate a particular teaching method. But I do think government can help create the infrastructure that allows for good information to be passed around the system.

DG And the fact that we now have much more variety within the system is surely a good thing too. The fact that you have ARK, you have different academy chains with different systems and you have a huge variety of free schools.

DW And they will produce all these different schools and then other schools can come and see what they’re doing.

DC I think pluralism is a big part of it. If you have a monolithic system and it goes down the wrong road, the whole thing swings in behind it. I have seen that with the old level one to eight National Curriculum assessment levels, which we have now got rid of.

DW Do you think the National Curriculum was wrong, either in its original 1988 version or its latest incarnation? Because the irony is when we were constructing the original National Curriculum in the mid-80s, E D Hirsch’s, cultural literacy was a big influence on us.

DC The national curriculum was probably ‘right’ in some schools and ‘wrong’ in others, because curriculums are interpreted in different ways. With any curriculum, what matters is how it is interpreted and used in practice. That is something that is not susceptible to top-down state control. Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are all tied up with each other. A top-down change of the curriculum on its own will not change pedagogy or assessment. So generally speaking this is not something that can be done by the state. Finland did do it via the state. But I don’t think the state in this country can do that. So it has to be up to non-governmental organisations, people who are a bit closer to the action.

DW Yes I think what subverted the National Curriculum was the assessment processes. We said that as part of our National Curriculum we want you to learn the broad shape of British history. And of course at the end of this, you will have some skills in working out the difference between probably true and probably false accounts of things. But what happened at some point in the assessment and the examining process is they said, ‘Right, we’ve got to show you’ve got those skills and we can’t use the fact that you’ve just written a decent essay about the Wars of the Roses.’ Instead the assessments were trying to measure if the pupils had some kind of generic skill of historical analysis. So they would give you three different accounts of the same event and ask you to compare them. There was something in the assessment process where the original intention was subverted.

Incidentally, I was so pleased what you said, Daisy, about education technologies. And we nearly missed out here. Because we had the neuroscientists and the technologists working together on really exciting educational programmes which were largely closed down in 2011, 2012. But we have reversed that and now we have the potential to flood the classroom with data. And as you said, we will have all this feedback on what people are not understanding.

SF Yes though don’t forget that the way technology is used in the classroom at present is still pretty dire. I’ve sat through so many lessons watching people fiddle around with iPads when you just don’t need an iPad to teach the thing they’re trying to get to.

DC And money was thrown at interactive white boards with minimal impact.

RC So it comes back to the point we raised earlier, if you want people to learn something, you have to get them to think about it. Too much technology has been focused on engagement and just making something interesting and its actually not about thinking at all.

DC Exactly. It’s about distractions.

DG Returning to the politics of it all. I can see the benefits of the new pluralism, establishing what works and what doesn’t. But surely there are things we know right now that could and should be changed. The state is handing over £50bn a year or whatever it is. It is in charge of almost the whole system. The state trains teachers. If we know that some methods are better than others we should be doing something about it now!

DW A more direct approach to the new schools might have been possible. We could have required more control over the new schools and this might have been used to drive innovations. It is much easier to tell a new academy chain to do things than to try to instruct the Lancashire County Council what should happen in their secondary schools.

But neither top-down nor bottom-up is better per se. What matters, I agree, is pluralism. You’ve got variety and some real success stories. What we need now is a kind of quality ratchet that means the best gets promoted, gets incentivised, gets disseminated. That’s the bit we don’t have. Fashion still drives too much. There’s no way of picking out the best stuff and saying, ‘Right. Let’s give power to that.’

SF And the accountability/transparency system is so distorting that it’s impossible to work out what’s working and what isn’t.

RC Yes, the current accountability system is too blunt and the idea of a market with parent choice doesn’t really work either.

DG What do you mean by the accountability regime not working?

SF There are two main forms of accountability test results and Ofsted. Rob’s work on Ofsted lesson observations shows why plenty of schools that are rated as outstanding are nothing of the kind. And consistency of inspection is not good. So it doesn’t necessarily tell you who is good and who isn’t. On tests, Labour’s biggest mistake was to allow the explosion of what they called ‘vocational qualifications’ for 14 to 16, which were in fact knowledge-lite pseudo-academic qualifications like BTECS. But schools then took these up in droves. And because the quality of what you’re testing is so variable and difficult to compare, it’s very difficult now to read secondary-schools results.

DG So what should we do?

SF Changes to the league tables are coming, which is good. So we will stop measuring schools on five A*s to C.

DC Yes five A*s to C was just statistically so badly designed. It was based on a threshold measure, it’s much better to have an average. And it means schools won’t focus all that attention on the C/D threshold.

RC The quality of the assessment matters too. I think the curriculum is a very junior partner in Daisy’s triple of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Because the pedagogy and the assessment effectively define the curriculum. So the reason that Of Mice and Men was the only book that 15 year olds ever read is because the assessment allowed that. And that won’t be the case in the future.

DW In the last few minutes can we talk about teacher training? Are too many teachers a product of past mistakes in the education system, for example they simply don’t know enough grammar or English history to teach them properly? And is the teacher training function in the university part of the problem or potentially part of the answer? After all in universities there are neuroscientists and other smart people digging up the hard evidence for things that we have all been enthusing about.

RC Not in schools of education.

DW If not in schools of education, what is the problem there?

SF There is a real issue with initial teacher training. In some places there is a complete lack of engagement with the evidence in initial teacher training—a lack of engagement with their own institutions on subject knowledge let alone things like neuroscience, cognitive science. Of course there are pockets of excellence and some really good stuff going on.

RC Yes most of the people who work in schools of education, and certainly people who are involved in teacher training, are from the school world—they are typically ex-teachers—not from the university world of research and evidence and so on.

DW So they are unreflective practitioners just carrying on teaching what they did. And you would like them to be more like university people?

RC Not exactly. Because I think if you want to train people to be better teachers a lot of it is skills based and technique based even. Yet we still have this powerful assumption that teaching is something that’s kind of instinctive and you can either do it or you can’t, and you get forged in the furnace of the classroom in those first few years and if you survive that, well, you’ve got what it takes.

DW And is that good or bad?

RC It’s dreadful. Because teaching is like any other kind of hard thing; there are specific skills and techniques that can be learned.

SF Yes and the hostility to learning techniques is incredible. The idea of learning heuristics to help you become a teacher—that seems bad because you’re not discovering your inner teacher.

RC So you’re accused of being reductionist and reducing teaching to a set of recipes and all of that stuff.

DG So we’re back to Daisy’s romanticism applied to teacher training?

RC Yes, though of course, complicating the picture still further, the myths are not completely wrong. So the story about teaching being more than just a set of skills is true, of course it is. It’s also about an instinctive sense of when somebody’s about to blow up in a classroom and those kinds of things. And those are really hard to teach and to learn and they can’t be broken down. In the same way that if you want to be a violinist, you practice the scales and studies but that doesn’t make you a great violinist. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DC And good teacher training can speed up a lot of those learning processes.

DW Did you do teacher training?

DC I did Teach First. Yes.

DW And did that involve going into a university teacher-training setting?

DC Yes, yes.

DW And how did you find that?

DC I had reservations about some of what we were taught. If you look at the most popular teacher-training textbook, one that’s really widely used, it’s still got a chapter in it on learning styles. Learning styles is the idea that pupils learn in different ways, and that you can apply their favourite learning style to any piece of content and that will mean they are more likely to learn that content.

So for example, if a pupil has a kinaesthetic style of learning and you are teaching them the novel Great Expectations, you will try to do so through physical movement, dance, drama, etc. And learning styles as Rob will tell you must be one of the most debunked theories ever. The truth is that you have to teach according to the style that best suits the content, not the learner. Your student might have greater kinaesthetic ability, but that doesn’t mean it translates into a kinaesthetic learning style.

RC Yes it’s back to this fashion problem. And our job is to challenge some of those behaviours with evidence but also to bring some measurement into the process so that you can actually see if things are working or not.

DG Any final thoughts?

DM Well, back to the long tail problem. I don’t think that much of what we have been talking about helps to explain the causes of that. The misguided fashions of the teaching profession is not an explanation.

RC I think you’re right. That is the challenge. I think the stuff about progressivism and fashion doesn’t fully explain that.

DG So how do we explain it? We don’t want to say that a certain proportion of people are simply not capable of performing better, which is too pessimistic and anyway disproved by the evidence in other countries. So is there some particularly British cultural inheritance—associated with our industrial past—which makes some people unable or unwilling to learn?

DM As you say the experience in places like Germany with a similar economic history suggests that this need not be so.

DW I think my final thought would be at the other end of the spectrum, a reflection on what the universities think of the 18 year olds who turn up. And what they say nowadays is that students expect to be spoonfed. They think students are more dependent.

DC That’s right. And I address that in my book. As you say the academics say, ‘They just want to be spoon fed.’ And their analysis of it is, ‘This shows you that they’re just getting a very spoon-fed, rote-learning diet at school.’ And I argue precisely the opposite. That because if you refuse to break skills down into knowledge, then you end up spoon-feeding because you’re not breaking it down into composite bits that they can get.

Dorothy Sayers, not known for being an educationalist, wrote a brilliant paper on this. She had a lovely metaphor. She said, ‘It’s as though we taught a child to play the Harmonious Blacksmith off by heart but then didn’t teach them any scales or any musical notation or anything underpinning it.’ And that’s exactly the same as the whole-word theory in reading. This is the product of a heavily skills-based approach that assumes these big huge skills can be taught in one go, when they can’t be.

And what flows from that is so-called teaching to the test, when pupils get coached through an essay or a piece of course work and then you ask them to write another essay and they’re completely flummoxed—because they haven’t been taught all the individual, detailed points that go into making up that essay. I found that problem constantly when I was teaching A-level English.

DW That reminds me of a conversation I was having with a vice-chancellor the other day saying that kids who turned up from schools that Ofsted rated outstanding rarely get firsts. That being a good school in Ofsted terms is not necessarily good for your long term education.

RC Well, we could definitely test that hypothesis! There’s heaps of data that links school to degree outcomes.

DG A final thought. People sometimes say Britain needs a national narrative. We used to have one in the 19th century as the first industrial nation and the home of liberty and so on. There have been various 20th century stories—world wars, building the New Jerusalem, economic liberalisation under Margaret Thatcher. The narrative which is often advocated today is Britain as a great nation of education, science and innovation. The creative island. Can we be that? In particular, can that be our national story when 15 to 20 per cent of the population still can’t read and write and do sums properly?

SF I think it is a good narrative to frame what we do around. But there are another 30 or 40 other countries who are using the same narrative. So we’re not going to have it to ourselves. And there are countries that are further ahead of us in playing that role at the moment.

DG Such as?

SF Singapore is one obvious example.

DM I would say South Korea.

DG And is it a necessary condition of being this country of education and creativity, albeit amongst others, that we sort out our long tail? Or do we just have to live with the long tail.

RC No we absolutely don’t have to live with it. There are schools probably within half a mile of here in central London where they don’t buy this, they are raising the bar and doing a fantastic job. We don’t have to go to Korea or Singapore to see that.

DW It is obviously hugely desirable to have as high a floor as possible and eliminate the tail. Our society would be better for it. But if your priority is economic growth—and we all benefit from growth—the tail may not be the right thing to focus on. There is, for example, quite a lot of literature on how you raise the performance of a firm or the productivity of a factory and the general level of education of the workers in the

factory is less important than the level of education in the small number of people who are in management at senior levels. And secondly it is possible to import people to improve our economic performance. America clearly does this—someone described the American overseas student programme, which is far more ambitious than ours, as the world’s longest job interview. Obviously, America is very different from Britain. But when I went to the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 2010, we had four Nobel Prizes and only one of those Nobel prize winners had been born and schooled in Britain.

DG That’s fine. But you don’t necessarily need net immigration of 250,000 a year to get your three Nobel prizes. And, in any case, is it possible that we now value high cognitive performance above everything else? In the 19th century, people thought character was more important than intelligence. Is it better to be good or to be smart? Character is a more democratic notion than intelligence, everyone can be good not everyone can be in the top half of the cognitive performance spectrum.

DC Yes and we have spent rather too much time today talking about education in the context of the economy and not much about society. In the 19th century education would never have been defined in terms of the economy. It would have been defined in terms of a cultured person. And there is a missing conversation here about educating people for democracy. Hirsch makes this point—he says a democratic republic can’t exist without an educated citizenry. Of course we need education that is relevant for economic success but there is also something bigger—that broad background knowledge, that understanding of the world you live in, the country you live in. That’s necessary too.