Should we bring back grammars?




I found myself reading over many articles on the issue this morning, and just wanted to throw another voice into the mix.  I won’t say much, because better people have already said it better than I could – and I’ll link to them in a bit – but I want to highlight this one graph out of all the others.


Grammar schools entrench social division

The graph is taken from here.

It shows the following:

  • Wealthier pupils outperform poorer pupils
  • Attainment in London schools is, overall, better than anywhere else
  • If you’re poor, grammar schools lower your chances of success


Cast your eyes to the left of the graph – that’s where the least well-off live.  There are three scenarios shown, from top to bottom:

  1. Live in London
  2. Live elsewhere
  3. Live near a grammar school


Unless you’re wealthy, you’re better off living anywhere but near a grammar school.

In other words, grammar schools are not the engines of social mobility we have in the past – myself included – believed them to be.  They are engines of social division, for all but a lucky, lucky few.

Conversely, if you live in London, where the comprehensive school system is believed to have made the most remarkable gains in the past decade or so, then you will do better than ever; the gap’s still there, for now, but better than ever.

From this we might infer that the solution to social inequity is certainly not a return to grammars, as May and Greening would have you believe, but might lie in a determined effort to improve all schools, as championed by Gove and Morgan.


More on this

Chris Cook – Why not bring back grammar schools?

Jonny Porter – Grammars and the grain of truth

Natasha Porter – 5 reasons why a return to grammar schools is a bad idea

Toby Young – New grammars won’t do more for social mobility than comprehensives

Sam Freedman – Why grammar schools are not the real issue




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What are the three reasons we teach stuff?


  1. It’ll be useful
  2. It’ll allow you to access higher level content
  3. It’ll help you make sense of the world


I think we linger around 1 and 2.


It’ll be useful

‘When will we ever use this?’ is the refrain oft heard in maths classes, but I’ve heard (and said) it elsewhere.

‘What’s the use in learning French, everyone speaks English anyway.’

‘What’s the point in English?  I can already speak English!’

‘When will I ever need to know that the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1066, except for a pub quiz?’

‘Why do I need to know Newton’s Three Laws of Motion?  I want to become a writer, when will I ever use this?!’

It’s probably the weakest case.  Outside of primary education, and some basic mathematics and literacy, we will directly apply very little of what we learn in school.


It’ll allow you to access higher level content

‘You need to learn this so that you can have the choice to study it more fully, later.’

Yeah true… but why?  In the end this line of reasoning lands on either ‘contributing to expanding the body of knowledge’ i.e. become an academic, or to allow access to a choice of jobs or careers.

Valid, but hardly inspiring.  Why did I waste my time studying all the other things if I was just going to end up doing this one thing here?

Three years ago I wrote my first blog post, noting that ‘to get a job’ is not the most inspiring reason for study.


It’ll help you make sense of the world

This is the one I think we miss.  It’s passive, so we don’t realise we do it when we’re doing it: we read, we listen, we engage in conversation, we think, …we think, and we do it all within the confines of what we know.  The more we know, the more we can think, the more we can engage, the more we can make sense of the world.

We do it without even realising we’re doing it.

So we teach stuff so that, in the future, it might help children, who become adults, to make sense of the world around them, and the people in it.


If you brought this idea front and centre of your mind, rather than ‘to be used directly’ or ‘to lead to the next thing,’ would you change anything about the way you teach your subject, or the way you think about its place in the curriculum?

Do you agree that these three capture everything, or have I missed something?

Are they ‘MECE‘?


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Should we teach children how to study?


See here for how (How we Learn: What Works, What Doesn’t)

But how is this different from programmes and language like ‘Learning to Learn‘ or ‘Building Learning Power‘?

Programmes such as these seem to sit more in the affective domain, than the cognitive.  They tried to be a theory of everything, bringing in motivation, academic self-concept, meta-cognition, relationships with every stakeholder imaginable, and the so-called ‘soft skills.’

At the same time, they communicate next to nothing about what to actually do if you want to learn something.  ‘Learn from your mistakes’ might be sage wisdom, as you’d imagine dispensed from a village elder, but it hardly tells me what to do today so that I still recall all that lovely history tomorrow, or 20 years hence.  They appear to make the mistake of conflating output with input, providing a description of what we see when we look at a ‘good learner’ rather than what went in to making them a good learner.


Learning to Learn


Building Learning Power

Dunlosky, Willingham et al. have put together a super-simple guide to what probably works, and what doesn’t.  It’s short, it’s actionable.  Here it is:

Gold Stars (definitely do)

  1. Self-quizzing
  2. Distributed practice

Runners Up (maybe do…)

  1. Elaboration
  2. Self-Explanation
  3. Interleaved Practice

Don’t Do!

  1. Highlighting
  2. Rereading

Notably, it is *not* a theory of everything, and here’s where the word ‘study’ becomes important.  For my part, I see study as an activity that a person will engage in with relative independence from the teacher.  It might be entirely on their own, it might be with others, but I would expect it to take place mostly outside of a classroom.  I see ‘studying’ as the act of either working to ensure content it retained for the long-term, or elaborating on existing knowledge to build connections, meaning and therefore deeper understanding.

While knowledge of the above is of course important to teachers as well, teaching is not studying.  I know that sounds obvious, but often distinct activities within, or without, a classroom, become conflated with the entire enterprise of teaching.

The ‘independence’ is important, because it involves choices on the part of the student, therefore the student needs to know how to make good choices, therefore we must teach them how to make good choices.  Whether or not they will make them is another matter, which can be dealt with by other theoretical models and practical approaches.  But they do need to at least know how to study effectively, independently, and we need to teach them.  It would take very little time to do, rather than taking over the curriculum.


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The NEED for better rhetoric.

Agreement about needs, then, depends upon agreement about values. An adolescent, you may say, needs freedom to express himself; I may say that he needs to consider other people’s feelings. To claim, therefore, that education should ‘meet the needs’ of adolescents (or any other category of pupil), or to argue that the curriculum is a good one if it ‘meets the children’s needs’, by itself is meaningless. ‘Needs’ for what? Unless goals are specified no ‘needs’ can be identified. Even then, unless goals are agreed to be good ones, ‘meeting needs’ is still far from being justified. A young bully, for example, from his point of view may ‘need’ to find victims. Plainly this is a ‘need’ which, though identifiable, should not be met. Further still, though, even if we managed to reach agreement about which of his ‘needs’ we satisfy, it would still have to be shown that it was education, specifically, which should be employed to bring about these deprivations and satisfactions.

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971


We need to stop talking about children’s needs.


I like rhetoric.  Even Plato grudgingly acknowledged it has a place, in the Gorgias; but its place is to serve the philosopher: the custodian of truth and virtue, someone who carefully defines their terms, and knows what they mean when they speak.  There’s a great exchange about who better knows what medicine would cure the patient: the doctor, or the sophist?  Admittedly, the doctor.  But… who might be better to persuade the patient to take their medicine?

‘Rhetoric,’ as Sam Leith points out, is often prefixed in people’s minds by words such as empty, just, mere, and only.  Yet, Leith argues, it is unavoidable.  Rhetoric is everywhere, all around us, even now.  It is the world that has been pulled over our eyes to blind us from… wait…

The analogy is not so far fetched.

Earlier this week I wrote about reading a line in a document, and in that moment, something hit me.  It was a realisation, and realising that realisation felt like waking up.


You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

That’s pretty much what it was like before.  I heard Daisy Christodoulou describe a similar feeling when she realised how much of what her teacher training had taught her did not hold up under scrutiny.

It is the rhetoric of need.

Everywhere, all around us, even now.

As a result, we don’t notice it anymore.  People just talk about needs, children’s needs, meeting the needs of children, meeting their needs.  Need, need, need, need, need.

But of course, when you start talking about people as an amorphous blob of need, you rob them of all power.  As Wilson wrote, quoted above, what needs?  The need to be educated?  Well I feel like we’ve got that down.  The need to get into school each day so that they can be educated?  Again, I feel like we’ve got that covered.  The need of a social worker.  Wait, what?

Talk about needs, and you can mean anything.  I wondered when this all started, how we got stuck on needs, and of course, Old Andrew was there, eight years ago, pointing out how we’ve been making this mistake for at least 47 years now.  Wilson and Andrew together make the point far more eloquently than I can (thank you to Andrew for the quote from Wilson at the start of this post.)

So, we need a new rhetoric.

We need to stop talking about needs.

If you find you regularly talk about ‘meeting the needs of children,’ take a moment to ask yourself what you really mean.  What needs, exactly?

If you don’t, start challenging it in others.  When they talk about needing to meet the needs of all children, ask them to take a moment to consider what they really mean by that.  What needs, exactly?


Part 1 – Should we meet the needs of all kids?

Part 2 – When did we start to see children as needy?

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When did we start to see children as needy?

On Wednesday I wrote this.

In it I wondered when and how we ended up steeped in a rhetoric of need: ‘Children are needy, and all their needs must be met.’

People rattle off the words today without a thought as to what they mean.  Try asking the next person who uses those words what they mean by them.  I’ve done it a few times and the rambling conversations that ensue are remarkable, and often remarkably unhelpful.

Today, I chanced across this (Why Sir Alan Steer Should Stick his Stupid Lying Report up his Arse,) from Old Andrew’s back catalogue.

I remember reading the Steer Report as a part of my training.  I remember being taught to believe that if only my lessons were good enough, well-planned enough, engaging enough, then good behaviour would materialise.  The inverse was of course implied: that if poor behaviour manifests, it is because my lesson wasn’t good enough, well-planned enough, engaging enough.*

Rob Peal trained alongside me back in 2011, two years after the report was launched.  He describes pretty well what it felt like to have this as a part of your teacher training in Lies my teacher training taught me.

I saw this for the first time though (Unruly Pupils Need Support), and I started to get a hint as to how we got here; an upper bound, 2009, at least.  It’s a short video, 3 minutes, worth a watch.

Skip to 1:45 and you’ll get to here the old Behaviour Tsar utter the immortal words

“…so that children’s needs can be met…”

What needs?

‘Unruly pupils need social workers.’


This morning was a funny old trawl through some writing from before my time, and the early days of my teacher training.  There were references to the DCSF, an acronym that I’m so grateful I’ve never had to use myself, and even a reminder that the old Steer Report misquoted Plato (Old Andrew makes the point here, but Daisy Christodoulou really goes to town on it almost exactly three years later, here.)

And so flicking through Andrew’s old posts, and Daisy’s, and Rob’s, I was reminded of how much seems to have changed, in so short a time.  That Sir Alan is no longer the Behaviour Tsar, but Tom Bennett (long may he reign.)  That I don’t hear people denying poor behaviour in schools so much anymore, but wanting genuine systems to help teachers tackle it.

But I say seems, because, maybe I just got lucky.  For three years I’ve worked in a school that, despite challenging circumstances, has an excellent system for handling behaviour, with support from SLT.  Teachers still have a responsibility to use the system effectively, yes of course good lessons and relationships are considered important, but teachers are not left to feel disempowered as they are in schools where SLT refuse to take responsibility for pupil behaviour.

So are there still schools in which managers utter the refrain ‘Well-planned lessons lead to good behaviour’?  Are there still schools in which you’ll hear ‘You need to use your classroom management techniques,’ as a throw away solution the school’s poor culture?

Probably.  I hope the tide is changing. I hope we’re doing better.  But as Rob said four years ago: “Is it any wonder that half of new teachers leave the profession within five years?”

I’m not sure we’ve yet seen any hint of decline in that figure, and so I hope, at least, that we will do better.




*For anyone interested in logic and logical fallacies, this one is called Modus Tollens.  It follows this logical form:

if P then Q

not Q

therefore not P

“If you plan a good lesson, then there will be good behaviour.  There was not good behaviour.  Therefore you did not plan a good lesson.”

This is a valid logical inference; the conclusion is correct provided the premise is correct.  In other words, if you teach trainees to believe that ‘Good lessons lead to good behaviour’ you should expect them to naturally, and inevitably, conclude that any poor behaviour in their lessons is the sole consequence of their own poor planning.

What good comes of that.

The lie of the premise is supported by a logical fallacy, Commutation of the Conditionals.

if P then Q

therefore, if Q then P

“If you plan a good lesson, there will be good behaviour.  Therefore, if there is good behaviour, you must have planned a good lesson.”

To understand why the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise, consider the following:

“If it rains, the road will be wet.  Therefore, if the road is wet, it must be raining.”

Once a person buys into the lie that ‘good planning leads to good behaviour,’ it can be perpetuated by asserting that wherever good behaviour was seen, there was, of course, good planning.

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Should we meet the needs of all kids?


I read something recently: …having their needs met.

The line related to the engagement of pupils in an activity that their school had paid for, in order to help them.  The assumption was that some pupils would find it harder to engage, and so would need to have their needs met.

And I realised, this is ubiquitous language in education.

Not just in schools – it wasn’t the school who wrote this – but amongst those attached to or engaged with the enterprise of education in some way, shape or form.

And I wondered, how did we get here?

Here is a school, choosing to discharge money gathered from the taxpayer to help improve a child’s life, and rather than expecting gratitude, or at the very least some level of grudging acceptance of their responsibility to themselves, and to their society, we automatically default to assuming the child has ‘needs’ that are not being met?  Were we always this indulgent of the ungrateful?

By this rhetoric, all children are needy, disempowered.  When and how did we stoop into such a tacky quagmire of neediness, in a vacuum of responsibility?

Kennedy’s 1961 speech is considered one of the greatest in history, for that line in particular.  It has endured over half a century.  Yet Kennedy learnt that lesson himself from his own school headmaster.

Do we have a responsibility to children in school, to our future generation of citizens?  Yes, absolutely.

But they have a responsibility to themselves, and to us, too.

It’s time we remembered that.

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Should we have consistent messaging on group work?

I just read a short piece on how to study in groups.  In it, the author made the point that, done correctly, it seems to help over 100% alone study.

She also admits that her parents were right to not let her join study groups in middle school; when she finally did join them in high school, they simply combined their mutual powers of procrastination.

Here we have the ‘group work debate’ in a nutshell.  One side argues it will have many benefits, the other argues it doesn’t, and pupils learn less, the first argues the second simply wasn’t doing it right.  Bring out the epicycles!

I expect that, at the time, the author was deeply unimpressed by their parents’ decision to insist that they study alone.  After all, all their friends were allowed to study together, why can’t I?!  Yet even the author admits later that their parents had it right.

For me, the following has been clear for a long time: there are obviously times when human being learns more from studying in groups, but getting that right takes such great effort and maturity that it will certainly more often than not go wrong.  It’s not that one group of teachers aren’t ‘doing group work right,’ it’s that getting group work into anything that approximates a good learning environment on even rare occasions takes a herculean effort.  From this it follows that we should naturally expect it to fail over time – successful group work represents an unstable point, requiring great effort to maintain, and desperate to sink back into procrastination and debates on the relative virtues of One Direction at any moment.  This is all before considering whether, actually, the pupils would have covered more ground and retain the knowledge better over a longer period of time if they had worked alone – in most cases, cognitive psychology suggests that they would.

Like Ptolemy’s model of the universe, that resulted in an endless construction of epicycles on top of epicycles to make it work, perhaps the group work model becomes unworkable in its complexity because we have the wrong model: lone study is the best way to learn.  Doesn’t sound very compelling; sounds a bit cold in fact.  You can see why it’s easy to sell people on the warmer pedagogy of ‘togetherness,’ but if we are to be experts and professionals, do we not have a duty to the truth, rather than what we wish to be true?

In the run up to the exams, I watched a Year 11 girl exemplify this.  She poured an enormous amount of extra time into studying maths outside of school, coming to sessions outside normal hours and so forth.  In the final week, with only days to go, and the unusual advantage of having only four pupils in the room to one teacher, she would ‘get to work,’ looking all determined, and then a few seconds later ask a question like “What would happen if we failed this exam?” or “How did last year do?”  All things that were on her mind, all questions that weren’t going to help her achieve her goals.  The other pupils had been working with solid focus, but were now instantly drawn in to her irrelevant conversation, rather than rebuking her and continuing with their own study.

The group unit is an unstable one when it is populated by people who are not yet mature.  It is not the case that ‘practising working in groups’ will solve this, and how much time have we already wasted trying?  How many futures have we hindered or wiped out because we liked the idea of group work, and the kids liked ‘working’ in groups, and there was the faintest whiff of ‘sometimes people learn better in groups’ in the air.

What if we had more consistent messaging on this?  What if, like the parents in the article above, we recognised collectively the difficulties and pitfalls of group study and held a consistent line that said ‘no, not until you’re ready.’  Imagine if every time a pupil had asked ‘Can I work with X?’ they had been met with ‘Of course not!  What a silly idea, you’ll only learn if you do the work yourself,’ instead of a mixed message from different teachers.  How quickly would the idea of ‘learning better in groups’ evaporate in the face of such consistent messaging from education professionals…

Pupils hate it because it’s hard work.  We need to love it, because hard work is what they need.

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