Social cognitive theory

This blog post provides a summary of social cognitive theory. It begins with some background. I then move on to look at Bandura’s formulation of Social Cognitive Theory and finally I look at how the sub-component of self-efficacy can be used to evaluate professional learning

The origins of Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory has its origins in the work of William James (1891). James suggests the concept of the ‘social self’ as a constituent part of the ‘self’.

A man’s Social Self is the recognition which he gets from his mates. We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind (p. 294).

This perhaps marks the beginning of the study of the individual and their social environmental interactions. Alfred Adler developed this further, introducing the idea of ‘drive’ and suggested behaviour is purposeful and motivated by goals. With individual perception of and attitude toward the social environment influencing behaviour. And, importantly, a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours are transactions with one’s physical and social environments. Adler essentially recognised fundamental links between social environment, individual thinking, affect, motivation and behaviour.

Behaviourism has been influential in the development of social cognitive theory. This perhaps explains why social cognitive theory has not been popular in educational research: social cognitive theory has been referred to as radical behaviourism. Behaviourism is widely rejected in education out of preference for constructivist learning theories or situated learning theories. However, it is important in understanding social cognitive theory, to reflect on behaviourist theory. John Watson’s behavioural theory (circa 1913) considered behaviour as explicable by observable acts. Human behaviour is seen as a result of the action of an external stimulus (S) resulting in a response (R). This can be symbolised, S → R. This makes the individual a passive component in the formation of behaviour, but the simple stimulus-response model was very influential. Subsequent theorists have highlighted individual thinking as a factor in the stimulus-response model. Tolman suggested cognition had a mediating role in the stimulus-response model (see, for example, Tolman, 1932). The S→R scheme therefore becomes mediated by cognitive processes as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Tolman’s proposed relationship between stimulus response and cognition. S represents a stimulus, R the response and C cognition.

This can also be thought of as behaviour (B) being some function of, their thinking and personal characteristics (P) and the environment or context (E). And can be represented thus:

I will return to this relationship when I discuss Bandura’s formulation of social cognitive theory, in the next section.

<But, it is the work of Miller and Dollard that really marks the beginning of social cognitive theory. Central to their social cognitive theory is the idea that if individuals are driven to learn a behaviour, that behaviour is learned thorough observation (Miller & Dollard, 1941).

Social cognitive theory has been developed further and the following have been identified as the principle features of the approach:

  • People learn by observing others
  • Learning is an internal process that may or may not change behaviour
  • People behave in certain ways to reach goals
  • Behavior is self-directed (as opposed to the behaviorist thought that behavior is determined by environment)
  • Reinforcement and punishment have unpredictable and indirect effects on both behavior and learning (Ormrod, 2006).

Social cognitive theory has been influential; the theory has been applied to clinical psychology by Julian Rotter. He developed the ideas of behaviour potential, expectancy and locus of control. Robert Sears applied the approach to explain socialisation processes and how children internalise the values, attitudes and behaviours of a culture. Walter Mischel investigated how new experiences effect the individual. Ronal Akers applied social cognitive theory to criminology. But perhaps the most influential social cognitive theorist, in recent times, has been Albert Bandura. It his interpretation and application of social cognitive theory that I shall discuss in the next section.

Bandura’s social cognitive theory

Albert Bandura’s work on social cognitive theory began in the 1950s and culminated in numerous journal articles and a book Social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1977). Bandura’s project has been to develop a core theory of social learning and pursue empirical evidence and applications in health, criminology, therapy, sport, business and education. Like earlier developments of social cognitive theory the cornerstone of Bandura’s conception is imitative and observational learning. The importance of observational and imitative learning has, in education, been afforded lesser regard because of its associations with behaviourist perspectives on learning. Moreover, we have endeavoured to offer the learner greater agency and this appears at odds with the idea of learning through imitation. However, as I shall describe shortly social cognitive theory does afford agency as a result of the way in which observed behaviours are imitated, modelled and formed to be behaviours; it is not a non-agent behaviourist perspective.

Triadic causality and reciprocal determinism

Bandura (1977) begins by explaining the idea of triadic causality or reciprocal determinism, which is a central feature of social cognitive theory. Bandura takes the relationship suggested by Tolman:

This suggests behaviour (B) is a function of personal characteristics (P), for example, thinking and beliefs and the environment or context (E). Bandura theorised a greater level of interaction between these variables. At first suggesting a relationship signified in the following:

Immediately Bandura develops this further, producing a three-way connection between the social and environmental context (E), the individual—their thinking and personal characteristics (P) and the individual’s behaviour (B) (see Figure 1).

Personal and environmental factors do not function as independent determinants, rather they determine each other. Nor can “persons” be considered causes independent of their behavior. It is largely through their actions that people produce the environmental conditions that affect their behavior in a reciprocal fashion. The experiences generated by behavior also partly determine what a person becomes and can do which in turn, affects subsequent behavior (Bandura, 1977, p. 9).

Figure 2 Reciprocal determinism (Bandura, 1977, p. 10), B signifies behaviour, P the person and E the environment.

In such a way then, the social context influences the individual’s behaviour and thinking. This is largely consistent with sociological perspectives of the formation of behaviour: how we think and behave is influenced by the social, environmental and contextual setting and can be seen as the individual responding to prevailing norms and modes of behaviour. At the same time thinking and behaviour influence the social setting and environmental context. In the next section I will describe the ways in which behaviours are learned.

The formation of behavior

The cornerstone of social cognitive theory is learning through observation and modelling. Bandura argued that most human behaviour is learnt this way, people cannot simply construct novel behaviours based on their own experiences.

[F]rom observing others[,] one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action. Because people can learn from example what to do, at least in an approximate form, before performing any behavior, they are spared needless error (Bandura, 1977, p. 22).

The ‘coded-information’ is consistent with the conception of mental models proposed by Johnson-Laird’s (1983). Models are mental symbolizations of the external world and are the building blocks with which we reason and make decisions.

Bandura goes on to detail observational learning sub-processes; these have remained central, for a number of years, to social cognitive theory. These sub-processes consider aspects of attention, retention, production processes and motivation. In terms of attentional processes, Bandura stresses that individuals do not learn through observation unless they ‘…attend to and perceive accurately, the significant features of the modelled behavior’ (1977, p. 24). Similarly, from the perspective of retentional processes, observed behaviours will not have much influence unless a person remembers what they observed. The production
process involve the conversion of the symbolic codification of observed behaviours into action and finally the motivation processes address how, out of the numerous behaviours observed and symbolically retained, certain behaviours are constructed and enacted. I shall now consider each of these processes in a little more detail in order to unpick the nature of observational learning from Bandura’s perspective. A summary of this process is presented in Figure 3.

The attentional processes govern what behaviours are observed and what the observer attends to. Children may require simple tasks, that are salient and conspicuous to promote attention, while the more mature learner can force their attention to observe behaviours that are less conspicuous. The attentional processes are affected by the kinds of behaviour observed and also by observer determinants which may include prior knowledge, preconceptions and cognitive skill, these will have an impact on levels of attention. One other aspect of attention is the functional value of the modelled behaviour; it is more likely that a behaviour which has perceived value will command greater attention by the observer.

Once a modelled behaviour has been attended to, the next process involves retention this ‘…involves the active transformation and restructuring of information about events’ (Bandura, 1986, p. 56). According to social cognitive theory there are two representational systems: imaginal and verbal (p.56). An imaginal representation is an abstraction of an event rather than a visual image. A verbal construction can be understood by considering the way in which geographical directions are communicated; as a series of right and left turns. In this way, behaviours are coded as linguistic instructions. Bandura suggests that these two representational systems are difficult in reality to distinguish and separate.

The next stage of the process is production. This sub-process involves the transfer of observed behaviour, that has been retained mentally, into the construction of a future behaviour. It is the process through which mental representations of behaviours are developed as possible courses of action. This involves the organisation of elements of representations, spatially and temporally into an arrangement consistent with the perceived activity. This process is influenced by matching thoughts and representations to the situation at hand and is also influenced by the individual’s skills and abilities.

The final sub-process, motivation, involves choosing a course of action or behaviour from the range of possible constructions. This is related to internal and external motivations and the degree of effort that one might perceive necessary to expend.

From the perspective of social cognitive theory, thinking influences behaviour by the enactment of mental models. However, as has already been explained, the mental models constructed from the observation of behaviour are not simply re-enacted: this is not direct imitation. Individuals, according to Bandura (1977), reconstruct mental models in order to create a behaviour that they believe is most suitable for a given situation. There is a self-regulative dimension to this production process. A person, from the perspective of social cognitive theory, can construct a behaviour based on the perceived likelihood of success with that behaviour. Self-efficacy is an important theoretical aspect of social cognitive theory and is used to account for the self-regulative aspects of behaviour. It is defined as a self-reflective belief that a person has in the extent to which they believe they will be successful in a particular activity or domain. Bandura presents a range of evidence demonstrating a relationship between self-efficacy and underlying skill (1997, p. 37).

Self-efficacy and teaching

Bandura considers self-efficacy to be of particular importance in understanding the cognitive and social dimensions of behaviour. This led to the book Self-efficacy: the exercise of control in 1997. Bandura suggests in the preface:

Much contemporary theorizing depicts people as onloooking hosts of internal mechanisms or orchestrated by external events. They are stripped of any agency. People are proactive, aspiring organisms who have a hand in shaping their own lives and the social systems that organize, guide and regulate the affairs of their society (Bandura, 1997, p. vii).

Bandura goes on to define self-efficacy. ‘Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments [Bandura’s emphasis]’ (1997, p. 3). While Bandura considers self-efficacy in a wide range of human activity including medicine and health, sport and organizations he also looks specifically at teachers’ perceived self-efficacy. He suggests teachers’ beliefs in their teaching or instructional efficacy contributes to students’ determination of their intellectual capabilities (p. 240). Bandura refers to the study by Gibson and Dembo (1984) in which teachers’ efficacy beliefs were measured in respect to teaching difficult students. They found that the higher efficacy teachers gave more time to academic activities and provided students with more guidance than low efficacy teachers. Lower efficacy teachers also spent more time on non-academic activities and were likely to criticise students for their failures (Bandura, 1997, pp. 240–241). Bandura also draws on evidence from research into student teachers’ efficacy (Saklofske, Michayluk, & Randhawa, 1988) which revealed that those with a higher sense of efficacy were more adept at presenting lesson plans, offered more effective approaches to questioning and were better able to manage their classrooms effectively (Bandura, 1997, p. 241). In terms of practising teachers it has been found that higher levels of teaching efficacy also relates to the way in which teachers view the educational process. Low instructional efficacy teachers are more pessimistic about student motivation and believe in strict classroom regulation and rely on extrinsic inducements and negative sanctions to get students to study (Woolfolk & Hoy, 1990; Woolfolk, Rosoff, & Hoy, 1990 cited in, Bandura, 1997, p. 241). In a later section I shall describe further work that has been done on developing scales for measuring teaching efficacy as well as other studies where teaching efficacy has been related to student achievement and teachers’ propensity to experiment, innovate and sustain changes in their practice. These findings suggest that attention needs to be given to how self-efficacy can be developed as part of teachers’ professional learning. In the next section I want to present what Bandura considers to be the sources of self-efficacy more generally.

Sources of self-efficacy

Bandura proposes four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experiences, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physiological and affective states (Bandura, 1997, pp. 79–113). Enactive mastery experiences offer the most powerful sources of self-efficacy beliefs. If we are successful in something our efficacy will increase, if we fail it will be undermined. Easy successes beget an expectation of quick results but can lead to being easily discouraged by failure (1997, p. 80). Self-efficacy can also be developed through vicarious experience, this provides an alternative and complementary source where individuals assess their own abilities and capabilities based on the attainments and successes of others. Bandura illustrates the process:

More often in everyday life, people compare themselves to a particular associate in similar situations, such as classmates, work associates, competitors, or people in other settings engaged in similar endeavours (Bandura, 1997, p. 87).

Comparing our performances with others leads to increases in self-efficacy; if we believe we can be realistically more effective than the person observed.

A further but weaker source of self-efficacy is through verbal persuasion. If an individual is persuaded that they have the abilities and capacities to achieve a particular level of success this will have an influence on whether the outcome of their performance is successful. However, if the persuasion is unrealistic then this can undermine the individual performance and also discredit the persuader (Bandura, 1997, p. 101).

Finally physiological and affective states have an effect on self-efficacy. If we feel ill or we are in a bad mood this will have an impact in the extent that we believe we will be successful. This according Bandura is especially relevant in areas related to ‘physical accomplishments, health functioning and coping with stressors’ (1997, p. 106). This is particularly important in teaching in which high levels of stress are often experienced. As a consequence, self-efficacy can be enhanced by improving physical status, reducing levels of stress and correcting misinterpretations of bodily states. Effectively, improving our physical condition and the way in which stress is dealt with as well as having an improved understanding of our physical self.

In this section I have summarised the idea of self-efficacy and how self-efficacy is developed through mastery, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physical an affective states. I will now look in more detail at teaching self-efficacy and its measure. I illustrate this by revisiting one aspect of the exploratory study I referred to earlier, this was a small-scale piece of research looking at how self-efficacy can be used to evaluate professional development.

Operationalizing social cognitive theory: teaching self-efficacy scales

A teacher’s self-efficacy beliefs (TSE) have been defined as ‘[a] judgment of his or her capabilities to bring about desired outcomes of student engagement and learning, even among those students who may be difficult or unmotivated’ (Tschannen-Moran & Woolfolk Hoy, 2001, p. 783). While TSE emerges from strong theoretical ground, its validity has also been demonstrated empirically and it has been shown to be related to other important factors. For example, TSE is related to student achievement (Allinder, 1994; Ashton & Webb, 1986; Tschannen-Moran, Hoy, & Hoy, 1998). In addition, it has been shown to be related to teachers’ willingness to experiment with and adopt new practices (Berman, McLaughlin, Bass-Golod, Pauly, & Zellman, 1977; Guskey, 1988; Stein & Wang, 1988). These present useful findings, as measures of TSE can also indicate levels of student achievement and teachers’ capacity to develop their practice.

TSE is potentially, a powerful measure but it has not been widely used in the evaluation of PD. However, Ross and Bruce (2007) conducted a randomized field trial using measures of TSE with grade six mathematics teachers (n=106) in the USA. It was shown that the PD had an effect on TSE. Karimi (2011) evaluated the effects of PD on EFL (English as a foreign language) teachers’ efficacy finding the PD had a positive effect on TSE. The reason for the limited number of PD evaluations using TSE is that this aspect of PD research is in its infancy. Desimone (2009) argues that PD evaluation is underdeveloped—there is a need for more empirically valid methods—previous studies have relied on ‘…teacher satisfaction, attitude change or commitment to innovation rather than its results…’ (p.181). TSE presents a suitable construct that goes beyond attitude change and commitment to change, it has the potential to measure the effects of PD on student achievement, albeit indirectly.

Much work has been done in recent years in developing TSE instruments. Tschannen-Moran and Woolfolk Hoy (2001) developed the Teaching Self-Efficacy Scale (TSES). This instrument is often regarded as a standard. They tested the validity of the scale by comparing it with other measures of TSE and found high levels of correlation. They also identified three factors: efficacy for instructional strategies; efficacy for classroom management and efficacy for student engagement. Efficacy for instructional strategies includes items relating to assessment, questioning, providing explanations and differentiation. Efficacy for classroom management has items relating to the control of student behaviour, establishing classroom rules, getting students to follow them and dealing with challenging behaviour. Efficacy for student engagement is concerned with motivating students from different backgrounds and encouraging them to value learning and to think critically and be creative. The TSES instrument was used by Ross and Bruce (2007) and Karimi (2011) in their evaluations of PD. While the development, validity and reliability work for the TSES had been carried out in the USA, the instrument has been shown to be valid across culturally diverse settings (Klassen et al., 2009).


The source of this historical perspective on social cognitive theory has been guided by Stone, D. (1998) Social Cognitive Theory, unpublished manuscript [, accessed 20/6/2012] and Bachar, K. J. (n.d.) An overview of social cognitive theory, unpublished manuscript, [, accessed 20/6/2012]


Allinder, R. M. (1994). The relationship between efficacy and the instructional practices of special education teachers and consultants. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 17(2), 86–95.

Ashton, P. T., & Webb, R. B. (1986). Making a difference: Teachers’ sense of efficacy and student achievement. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs; N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Berman, P., McLaughlin, M. W., Bass-Golod, G., Pauly, E., & Zellman, G. L. (1977). Federal programs supporting educational change, Vol. VII: Factors affecting implementation and continuation. Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.

Gibson, S., & Dembo, M. H. (1984). Teacher efficacy: A construct validation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(4), 569–582.

Guskey, T. R. (1988). Teacher efficacy, self-concept, and attitudes toward the implementation of instructional innovation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4(1), 63–69.

James, W. (1891). The Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Orignally published in 1890.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983). Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Karimi (Allvar), M. N. (2011). The effects of professional development initiatives on EFL teachers’ degree of self efficacy. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 36(6), 50–62.

Klassen, R. M., Bong, M., Usher, E. L., Chong, W. H., Huan, V. S., Wong, I. Y. F., & Georgiou, T. (2009). Exploring the validity of a teachers’ self-efficacy scale in five countries. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 67–76.

Miller, N. E., & Dollard, J. (1941). Social learning and imitation. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Ormrod, J. E. (2006). Educational psychology: developing learners (5th ed., International ed). Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Ross, J., & Bruce, C. (2007). Professional development effects on teacher efficacy: Results of randomized field trial. The Journal of Educational Research, 101(1), 50–60.

Saklofske, D. H., Michayluk, J. O., & Randhawa, B. S. (1988). TEACHERS’ EFFICACY AND TEACHING BEHAVIORS. Psychological Reports, 63(2), 407–414.

Stein, M. K., & Wang, M. C. (1988). Teacher development and school improvement: The process of teacher change. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4(2), 171–187.

Tolman, E. C. (1932). Purposive behavior in animals and men. New York: The Century Co.

Tschannen-Moran, M., Hoy, A. W., & Hoy, W. K. (1998). Teacher Efficacy: Its Meaning and Measure. Review of Educational Research, 68(2), 202–248.

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Woolfolk Hoy, A. (2001). Teacher efficacy: capturing an elusive construct. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(7), 783–805.

Woolfolk, A. E., & Hoy, W. K. (1990). Prospective teachers’ sense of efficacy and beliefs about control. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 81–91.

Woolfolk, A. E., Rosoff, B., & Hoy, W. K. (1990). Teachers’ sense of efficacy and their beliefs about managing students. Teaching and Teacher Education, 6(2), 137–148.

A National Education Service is exactly what we need

Jeremy Corbyn has been floating the idea of a National Education Service since his Labour leadership campaign last year. The idea is breathtakingly simple and, in fact, blindingly obvious. The formation of a fully-funded, cradle-to-grave education service is the antithesis of the outsourced fragmented and anti-democratic reforms that have been creeping in since the 1970s. These are a few of my initial thoughts on the idea.

The National Education Service would provide a coordinated high-quality education service that supports learning from early years, through schools, sixth form, further education, undergraduate, postgraduate to adult and lifelong learning.

Schools would no longer be in a position where they are artificially competing with each other, but they would coordinate their strategies and maximise the use of their resources to better serve local communities and regions. It would mean a change from the current fetishisation of leadership to promote mutual and cooperatively run services, where teachers, parents, pupils and communities are recognised as stakeholders and have a greater say in how schools function.

At present there is a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, a National Education Service would address this. Teachers would have more professional esteem and have greater control over their work, pay and conditions. The intensity of their work would be reduced by shifting the emphasis from centralised accountability to local democratic accountability.

While some examinations would continue to be important, this would not be at the expense of developing broader skills and more holistic school contributions such as the education of the community and emphasizing inclusivity, collaboration and partnership. Certainly it would move away from excessive compulsory testing for the purpose of accountability. It would mean a departure from a narrowly defined curriculum to one which reflects the needs of the community in which the school is located. The overall aim would be to equip students with the skills and capacities to contribute to society and help them develop as individuals. An overarching aim would be to put education at the heart of making society a more effective, fairer and more inclusive functioning democracy.

In further education, it would mean an end to degenerate privatisation, but provide a service that supports post-16 education, both academic and vocational – without necessarily drawing strong distinctions between the two. It would offer adult learning, whether it be developing skills, allowing people to develop their interests or in helping them prepare for advanced studies. University education would be freely available to all and include opportunity to blend academic and vocational studies. The Open University would be restored to a position where it can offer low-cost and flexible approaches to university-level education.

This is ambitious and the main objection is, simply, that we cannot afford it. My argument is that we cannot afford not to do this. Education is not having the impact on society that it should be, it can do more to improve the quality of outcomes for communities; developing skills and knowledge and helping people make a difference in their lives and to the people around them. While all society’s problems cannot be solved by schools, education can be at the heart of improvement, by equipping the next generation to be more active and effective participants in democracy.

In terms of cost, it has been estimated that the bank bail-out, with all things considered was as much as £1.2 trillion1. Much of this investment went toward the preservation of these institutions and the preservation of the wealth of their key stakeholders. The National Education Service would be fraction of this investment. Of the order of tens of billions each year. Investment that would go directly into the economy but at the same time would result in considerable growth. If it were done carefully this kind of investment would have little impact on the deficit but would have considerable economic and social benefits2.

1.  Episode 5, The End of History. Economist James Meadway citing IMF estimates

2.  I discuss the economics of school spending in the following blog post:

I published this post on the Cambridge Area Momentum site previously

Concerns about the Prevent Strategy from the perspective of the teacher educator

The following I wrote for a discussion at the University of Cambridge, Senate House 9 May 2016. It sets out my concerns about the Prevent Strategy.

A good proportion of my teaching in the Faculty of Education involves lecturing on the Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE). This is a one-year masters-level programme for trainee school teachers working in the state sector. It leads to Qualified Teacher Status. The programme is run as a partnership involving the Faculty of Education and local partner schools.

This year I have had involvement in the Prevent Strategy training for the first time. A specialist police officer presented to the 200 trainee secondary teachers in the auditorium at Homerton College. They explained how Prevent was part of the government’s counter terrorism strategy and its importance in reducing radicalisation and terrorism. Case studies were used to illustrate how vulnerable young people may be attracted to extremist groups such as those associated with the Islamic faith and those right wing extremists who apparently go to football matches to recruit dissatisfied and dislocated youth.

The narrative presented (and there was no indication whether the case studies were real or illustrative) is that early intervention can combat extremist associations, can encourage young people to realign extremist thoughts and lead to them having a much happier life. The presentation went on to show how intervention had saved these youngsters and encouraged them to a better life without extremists or extremist views. The police officer explained that she believed absolutely in the efficacy of the Prevent Strategy.

After the police officer’s presentation, I spoke with a group of twenty trainee teachers. Many of them accepted the strategy uncritically. The general view was that it was a good idea in order to reduce the risk of terrorism. They accepted that extreme views held by young people might lead to them becoming violent terrorists. The widely held view among this group of twenty was that it was worth intervening and notifying the appropriate authorities if it reduced radicalisation that led to terrorism.

I spent time with them deconstructing the Prevent strategy, while reminding them that they have a legal duty to implement it in schools. First we considered the risks associated with terrorism in the UK, we used data to show that more deaths occur annually in the UK as a result of encounters with items of furniture in the home than they do as a result of terrorism [1]. Why is it we do not have a furniture safety strategy? We then considered what motives the government might have in bringing in legislation that raises anxiety and fear about particular groups? We also considered research about extremism, radicalisation and terrorism, in particular the unsubstantiated claim that there is a conveyor belt from extremist thought to terrorist act. We spent almost an hour discussing the issues.

In spite of this critique, I reminded them of their legal duty to implement the Prevent strategy.

Even though we spent time discussing and thinking about the implications of this strategy and the importance of freedom of expression, these teachers will go on to work in state secondary schools.

State schools have, over the last twenty years, become increasingly subject to centralised control through the reporting of progress data and through punitive inspection by the Office for Standards in Education. Foucault would have described this in terms of surveillance and discipline. As such our state schools have become socially conservative. Teachers can find they have limited autonomy to act critically in implementing policy and legislation.

What I fear then most of all is that through implementing the Prevent strategy in the context of initial teacher education, not only are we in danger of undermining free speech within the university, but also we help perpetuate and promote socially divisive behaviours and action through our complicity. We will be sending young teachers in the profession who will be obliged to single out any child who they suspect might have extremist views. We have to be aware of the University’s role in this.

I therefore ask that we think very carefully about how we implement the Prevent strategy, because if we simply comply with it, not only do we undermine a fundamental academic right to freedom of expression, but, like in the example of initial teacher education, we can end up contributing to divisive behaviours in schools and perpetuating fear and mistrust in society. Ideally I would like to see the University and Colleges robustly challenge the Prevent Strategy.

[1] Estimates of risk of death from terrorism come from as 1 in 15.8 million compared with accidental deaths in the home (around 6000 per year) as 1 in 10200. If say 5 of those deaths involve furniture in the home, the risk is approximately 1 in 12.2 million (see in support of this estimate). It is crude but it illustrates the risk order of magnitude.

I am a grammar school dropout

As the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, floats the idea of a return to grammar schools, the debate about social mobility rages. And I tweeted I went to grammar school, that I left at 15 with one O Level.

But my story is not so straightforward. It is a story about me, grammar schools, comprehensives, teaching approaches, policy and the implementation of that policy.

Steve King Edward VI Grammar School 1976In 1976 I got the news that I passed the 11+ examination and that I would be going to King Edward VI Grammar School in East Retford, Nottinghamshire. I remember sitting the exam, the first formal exam I had ever taken, in the dining hall at Thrumpton County Primary School. There was no exam preparation, as there would be now for SATs, I just sat the exam. The result meant that I would not be going to the secondary modern, Sir Frederick Milner (which my father attended), nor would I be going to the town’s comprehensive, Ordsall Hall.

King Edward VI Grammar School was small, about 400 boys, with a sixth form. It was a gateway for the middle class and the aspirant middle class to university and on to the professions and to senior management. My parents were beginning to do well with the furniture and carpet shops they had in Retford, New Ollerton and Gainsborough. The 1970s were the start of deregulated credit, expanded consumerism and house purchase. The good folk of Retford were furnishing their homes individually and colourfully: fitted axminster carpets, Dralon three-piece suites, teak dining-room sets and made-to-measure curtains. My father was able to buy a new car every couple of years and we were able to have the occasional summer holiday abroad.
The now empty site of King Edward VI Grammar School, East Retford, Nottinghamshire

But when I think back to the kids who passed their 11+ and got a place at the grammar school, the split seemed to be more about social class; the middle class and aspiring middle class went to the grammar schools (the girls went to the high school). The others went to the secondary modern or the comprehensive. I have no evidence, but I believe the decision on places was not solely based on the outcome of the 11+.

I enjoyed the first two years at the grammar school. It was small, it felt safe and I enjoyed the lessons. I did very well in annual examinations. I talked about science with friends out of school. I read and was interested.

King Edwards 1X
Form 1X 1976, I’m back left!

Interestingly, teaching approaches were both traditional and progressive. The traditional teachers were experienced grammar school masters: austere and teacher-centred. My favourite was my Latin teacher Bernard ‘Boris’ McNeil-Watson. In spite of traditional formality, Boris was warm, witty and well-liked. I loved how he would send us out during a double lesson so he could have a smoke and how he became animated as he recited passages of Latin from the textbook Latin for Today.

In contrast there was a new cohort of teachers with new ideas about teaching and learning, they were attempting to introduce more progressive student-centred approaches. Phil Blinston was one of these teachers. His first post was at King Edwards and in his first year he was my form teacher, English teacher and Religious Education Teacher. I specifically recall how Phil had us debating fox hunting in RE. I remember being passionate, but not particularly articulate in my speech against fox hunting. I felt a sense of liberation and subversion, as I was given opportunity to express myself and hold a view in a school setting that was principally traditional and austere.

The mixture of traditional and progressive teaching made for a rich experience and left a lasting impression on me.

There were big changes by the end of my third year. Retford had held out against Labour’s educational reforms and had retained its grammar schools. But in 1978 pressure was mounting to end the selective tripartite system. My mother opposed it with other parents and became active in the Parent Teacher Association, they wrote to Shirley Williams. Their campaign was dismissed with a postcard from the Labour Secretary of State. Resistance was futile. I went into the fourth year as it merged with the secondary modern and there was an intake of girls into the first year.

I found the transition to a comprehensive extremely destabilizing, the school went from being small and well-ordered with compliant students to being larger and more chaotic. The change in population meant a change in culture but that would need time to establish. While a grammar school stream was retained the changes were too fast and not well planned. Some time in the fourth year I stopped going to school, I worked in the furniture shop or stayed at home. In the fifth form I just stopped going altogether and missed most of my examinations.

Of course I felt cheated by this, by the disturbance, and I felt angry that my stable selective school had been disturbed and my education disrupted. I felt sympathetic to grammar schools through my twenties. Although I began to reflect on the issues of selection and socioeconomic segregation.

When I trained to be a teacher at Sheffield University in 20o1, my first placement  was in a large comprehensive, Meadowhead School, in the south of the city. The effect of this made me regress, and I felt the same way as I did as my school became a comprehensive in 1979, it felt large and chaotic and I felt ill-equipped to work and teach there. I felt confused, isolated and anxious. It was no surprise then that I failed my first placement. I did however go on to successfully complete my second placement at Valley Comprehensive in Worksop. I subsequently worked as a mathematics teacher in challenging comprehensive schools in Cleethorpes and Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire.

My view of grammar schools and selective education has changed. From being supportive, to ambivalent, to now, where I am strongly opposed to selective education. Selection creates segregation, increases inequality and does not encourage social mobility. There is an abundance of evidence to support this (see for example Sutton Trust).

I have heard it said that the argument should be that all schools should be as good as grammars: they should have an academic curriculum, behaviour should be of a high standard and they should observe some of the traditions. What they overlook is that teaching in many comprehensive schools is so different, it requires different kinds of skills from teachers. They need to have extensive understanding of the sociocultural context and an understanding of the psychosocial aspects of pupils’ learning. Teachers need to employ more advanced and ambitious pedagogy to meet the needs of pupils in a comprehensive setting.

Future education policy, therefore, should be focussed on teachers as professionals, highly trained, with excellent pay and conditions, as champions of education and democracy in their community and as experts in their subject areas as well as in the practical and theoretical aspects of teaching and learning.

Perhaps grammar school dropouts like me have the experience and perspective to contribute to this.





The Cambridge Campaign for Education

Parents, especially of primary-age children, are concerned about the introduction of new and revised tests. Teachers are concerned about workload, curriculum changes and changes in pay and conditions. Headteachers are concerned about forced academisation, high-stakes accountability and the recruitment and retention of teachers. Other stakeholders, for example, school governors, the local community and education academics all have concern about the rate of reforms in schools. And out of these reforms no one is really quite sure where state education is headed: is it privatisation, as critical commentators suggest? Will schools be accountable to the communities they serve? Can parents, pupils and teachers have any say in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment? It seems the answer to these questions is “no”.

Schools are increasingly being directly funded by and accountable to the Department of Education (DfE). As more schools become academies this  will become widespread, ubiquitous even. State education will take the form of an outsourced service, parents could end up with the same kind of relationship with their children’s school as they do with their broadband provider’s customer service department. Even when headteachers set out to engage with parents and the community, they are, in many cases, as a result of narrow accountability measures, restrained.

Thankfully there is growing opposition. National campaigns about testing such as, Let Our Kids Be Kids, are gaining attention as a result of – in the case of LOKBK – parental anger and concern about testing in primary schools. But parents have different views to say teachers, and most certainly parents will have different views among themselves. In fact each stakeholder group will have its own perspective and concern. But at the core there is a sense of powerlessness; groups have little or no say in how their school is run. It seems as time goes by, there is an increasing democratic deficit in our education system. Communities have little chance to influence their school’s philosophy, aims and mission.

The Cambridge Campaign for Education has been established to address these concerns, to campaign on issues like testing, and in the longer term to campaign for a more democratic approach to education. It is a campaign group where parents, teachers, headteachers, educators and students can organise in order to have a greater say, together, in how our schools are run.

It was initiated and convened by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and has held two public meetings, so it is in its infancy. While the emphasis has been on schools and tertiary education, the discussion in the two meetings has included higher education, prompted by the possibility of higher tuition fees. The following campaign themes have emerged from the meetings:

  • the need for campaigns on particular issues, for example primary testing, baseline tests and SATs.
  • To provide a forum for stakeholder groups parents, teachers, headteachers, governors, advisors, academics and students to openly discuss different perspectives, develop expertise and build solidarity.
  • To build a movement for change, for democratically run local education services.
  • To design  and support local democratic and mutual approaches to school organisation.

If you want to know more please get in touch.



Is there autonomy in schools?

Margaret Archer suggests the following:

Change could not be initiated endogenously because subordination never involves lower autonomy than when it occurs in a relationship of mono-integration. Dependence on a single supplier of resources makes education extremely vulnerable and highly responsive to control by the ownership group (Archer, 2013, pp. 63 -64).

Archer uses the concept of mono-integration to describe how education has a single relationship with another social institution. In England schools (acadamies) are mono-integrated with the Department for Education (DfE). The DfE is the single supplier of resources. The implication is that school autonomy is vulnerable:

The dominant group defines education in relation to its goals and monitors it closely to ensure that it serves these purposes (p. 64)

Interestingly, Archer is referring to education in a historical context. She is describing education in eighteenth century England, where the dominant group is the Anglican Church. She goes on to say that in the present day considerations of change would have to take account of the contributions of the professional body of teachers. Yet in the last five years, how much of this professional voice and expression has been diminished? Leading to the mono-integrated characteristic of the eighteenth century. It suggests that present day school autonomy is very limited, if in fact it is real at all.


Archer, Margaret, S. (2013). Social Origins of Educational Systems (2nd Ed). Routledge: Abingdon.

Co-operative schools: an answer to forced academization?

I would like to thank Mark Merrywest, Eastern Region Director of the Co-operative Schools Network for his contribution to this post

I became interested in co-operative schools after speaking to a colleague from the Educational Leadership and School Improvement academic group in the Faculty of Education here in Cambridge. I mentioned I had been writing about my experience of teaching in a school in special measures in North East Lincolnshire. I explained my interest in shared leadership, stakeholder and community participation and governance. He alerted to me to the existence of a growing movement of co-operative schools. It is estimated that there are approximately 850 primary and secondary co-operative schools in England, with approximately 50 of these being academies[1].  Yet they do not get much attention from the media and Government. Although, Warwick Mansell wrote about co-operative schools in The Guardian in 2011, and on the Government website there is a document examining the potential of mutuals in public services. The co-operative school model was originally envisaged as an alternative to academization with an overarching foundation trust being formed to support larger groups of schools. With hindsight many schools joined these groups with the intention of staving off forced academization and some trusts demonstrate different levels of co-operation than others. Protection from forced change has not turned out to be possible, however the model is still sound with many high performing trusts operating very successfully around the country.

My purpose for writing this post is to argue that co-operative schools present a viable solution to address some of the fundamental issues in educational reform. I want to promote some discussion, provide links to resources and ideas, and introduce what I hope to be a line of future research in collaboration with schools and other organisations. But before going further, for those not familiar with the principles of mutuals and co-operatives, it is worth watch the following. If you are more familiar, then read on.

I have a long-term (albeit passing) interest in mutualization. As a result of working in  a range of sectors, I have long thought about how best to empower professionals within an organisation. This has led me to believe that professional empowerment and quality of service is more likely when professionals and users are stakeholders within that organisation.

It is worth explaining how my interest in school organisation, leadership and culture relates to my research: research concerned with teaching and learning mathematics. There has been something of a tradition, in mathematics education research, to focus on activities, tasks, and learning acts, dialogue and behaviours. The classroom is all too frequently viewed in isolation to the school and to policy. My first major piece of research was concerned with the professional development (PD) of secondary mathematics teachers (Watson, 2014). I concluded that PD is not sustained unless its aims are consistent with the school culture. PD can facilitate teacher innovation by empowering teachers to investigate and evaluate alternative approaches in their classrooms. But unless there is a culture of innovation, collegiality and collaborative autonomy the effects of PD are not sustained. This research in four mathematics departments, over two terms, illustrated how hierarchical and managerial approaches undermine the long-term impact of PD. It made me realise that effective PD is inseparable from school organisation and culture.

The structure of a co-operative school facilitates democratic input, not only from pupils, staff and leaders, but also the wider community, especially parents. My eight years teaching in North East Lincolnshire, and latterly Lincolnshire, confirmed to me that community involvement is vital (see my blog post here). I accept that this is not easy, the community can be reluctant and may feel that they are not equipped to participate, but it is necessary that schools work toward supporting community involvement. A co-operative approach is more likely to contribute to this as it is a core and fundamental value.

Education Excellence (and Mutuals) Everywhere

My interest in mutualization of schools and co-operative education was rekindled recently by the publication of the Government’s White Paper, Education Excellence Everywhere . It occurred to me that the White Paper, should it become policy, provides an opportunity to develop co-operative education further, since the overall approach may address many of the issues that schools face at present.

In the White Paper, Government proposes to academize all schools in England by 2022. This is in spite of limited evidence that academies perform any better than Local Authority (LA) schools. This also removes the possibility of schools having a foundation status [2] which is the legal status of  most existing co-operative schools. Forced academization has not received a warm reception, except from stalwart enthusiasts of Tory school reforms. People from across the political divide have objected to the diminished role of the LA and reduction in the role of parent governors. The White Paper has also been criticised for not addressing immediate difficulties. Chief amongst headteachers’ current concerns is recruitment and retention, especially in shortage subjects. Teachers’ morale is low, according to a recent National Union of Teachers (NUT) survey, over fifty per cent of teachers want to leave the profession. The sources of dissatisfaction are ascribed to excessive workload.

Interestingly, the opposition are vocally supportive of co-operatives. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, wants more mutuals and co-operatives in the public and private sector. It is also worth noting, the previous Coalition Government has also backed a mutual approach to the public sector.

The thorny issue of parents and community

The White Paper seeks to abandon the requirement for parental governors. There has been something of a protest over this and the diminished role of voluntary governors, as the preferred model moves towards an advisory board of individuals with ‘specialist skills’. In response to protests, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Nash, presented a softened position.

High quality governance and leadership is especi ally important as we devolve more power from local and national government to schools – and it is critical to our vision of an autonomous school-led system. We want schools to be able to make the decisions about what is right for them – and this includes the expertise and experience that they need on their governing board. That is why we were clear in the White Paper that those on governing boards should be those with the right mix of skills to help improve schools and support leaders and not people chosen simply on the grounds that they represent one particular group, be that parents, the Local Authority or staff (Nash, 2016).

Even in this, Lord Nash, sees governance in terms of the maximisation of outputs rather than in terms of stakeholder participation. For further discussion on Lord Nash’s views on parent governors, see Bennett (2016).

However, it is fundamental that schools fully engage with the communities which they serve. Even if this is not straightforward.

Autonomy + accountability = deprofessionalisation

Underpinning the White Paper’s academization plan is an assumption that school autonomy leads to more effective education. This principle goes back to the 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching. While this sounds appealing, autonomy does not generally extend to teachers. As Glatter (2012) observes:

… autonomy is a subtle and relative concept, varying in nature and degree by context, activity (such as curriculum, assessment, resource management) and level. For example an earlier international study of 11 countries found that when school systems were decentralized institutional leaders tended to enjoy more autonomy but the impact on teaching and support staff was questionable as concerns about their job security increased … (Glatter, 2012, p. 565).

The international study that Glatter refers to, suggests that changes to teachers’ contracts limits practitioner autonomy within a decentralised system. I argue further that accountability contributes to limitations in the way in which teachers can act autonomously. This is supported by Mausethagen (2013), who from a review of research, found that the overall impact of accountability, i.e. a focus on examination results, reduced the relationship-oriented aspects of a teacher’s practice. There was a narrowing of focus.

My own experience, as a teacher, is that accountability leads to a results-driven culture, where the emphasis is on examination outcomes. These narrow definitions of success are concomitant with hierarchical and managerial cultures: a mechanism with which success in limited goals is achieved. School and headteacher autonomy can contribute to this, as borne out by research in the Netherlands (Noordegraaf & De Wit, 2012).

Education Excellence Everywhere and its predecessor The Importance of Teaching talk in terms of outcomes rather than processes. Outputs and  outcomes become too narrow, focussing on examination results, rather than young peoples’ broader successes and achievements. The policy intention was to give headteachers and teachers the freedom to use whatever approach they feel is necessary. This was Michael Gove’s promise of letting teachers teach. However, the consequence of this, combined with intense and narrow accountability, leads to diminished professional judgement. The organisational mission – which might be stated in terms of a broad educationally moral purpose – in reality, becomes reduced to delivery of results. Performance management is confined to narrow outcomes. In the most extreme examples, there is high staff-turnover, low staff morale and high levels of stress. It is not unsurprising that since the introduction of policy promoting school autonomy, there have been increased difficulties in recruitment and retention and professional dissatisfaction. It is also unsurprising the response Nick Gibb received at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conference:

Not all schools and academies operate a managerial culture of compliance and there are many examples where academies afford teachers professional autonomy. There are many excellent headteachers that retain a school mission that is holistic and responsive to the needs of the community it serves. They continue to ensure that teachers retain their professionalism and promote collegiality. From my own experience and from my research, it is in the struggling school, the school in tough circumstances, the school where examination results are below expectations where problems arise. It might be inexperienced leadership and through desperation, that compliance cultures emerge and a regime of fear and performativity appears. It can also arise as a result of limiting headteachers’ professional autonomy. With the Government’s preference for Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), a chain of centrally managed schools, the headteacher can lose their professional autonomy. They become subordinate to a MAT executive headteacher or CEO.

What can a co-operative education offer?

So how does a co-operative education offer a different approach should forced academization become a reality? Since their conception in the mid 19thCentury co-operatives have been created to meet similar needs to those we are facing with schools today. Leaving aside the detailed area of co-operative management and learning, co-operative education can offer a better way of working together. The co-operative values and principles provide a core basis for a joint vision and way of working that enables groups of like-minded schools to create more value than the sum of their parts. The key elements for school structure in particular are:

Voluntary and Open membership – There is much speculation in the press regarding small and rural schools not being ‘wanted’ by larger academy groups. Co-operatives should be open to membership from any group or schools who share the key values and principles of co-operation.

Equality and Equity – schools need the ability to work together on an equal footing without the need for one of their number to take a lead. Their joint mission and collaborative support will ensure that all will succeed. This actually encourages a ‘bottom-up’ way of working from an operations management perspective.

Member economic participation – through the creation of a jointly owned mutual operation, members contribute to and democratically control the capital of their co-operative. This means that no one school or individual can benefit from any surplus, which is kept for the benefit of all. Services and improvement initiatives can be traded with other groups, particularly other co-operatives.

Democratic Member control – within the defined framework from the Department for Education, there are large elements of control which can be delegated to the individual schools. This is at the core of co-operative values and should always be a major part of co-operative education. Membership can stretch to all stakeholders including the parents and the local community.

Autonomy and Independence – co-operatives work hard to maintain the autonomy and independence of their individual parts which still maintain their link to the bigger picture. This key principle is vital within a school system setup to default to a central ‘top-down’ model.

Co-operative schools and academies under the wider banner of co-operative education are still accountable to the same performance measures e.g. Ofsted and test results, as any other group. The approach internal approach taken to meet these external measures however is encouraged to be fundamentally different.

The key to any co-operative is to buy in to the vision and ethos as the partnership only works if everyone participates. These principles above are not simply a-nice-to-have or a utopian view, they are key principles outlined and used by co-operatives internationally. Foundation and academy trusts adopting this approach, should they wish, can clearly benefit from a well defined co-operative business model and shared vision.

Possible research questions

I conclude this post by considering some possible research questions. I would be keen to hear from individuals, groups or organisations interested in developing a research programme along these lines.

  • To what extent does accountability act as a barrier to implementing a mutual organisational model?
  • How do co-operative schools ensure that stakeholders participate (for example, parents in low socio-economic contexts)?
  • What are the processes and experiences of a school transitioning to a mutual model?

Further information

There are co-operative groups across the country offering support, information, advice and guidance for schools who may wish to use a co-operative approach.  Further information can be found on the websites below.

Schools Co-operative Society Website – The overaching membership body representing all co-operative schools.

Co-operative Academies Trust – the academy trust operating in the North of England under the banner of the Co-operative Retail group – the well known high street stores

Co-operative Schools Network – Local networks of co-operative educators working on the ground across the country to support co-operative schools

Co-operative College – The originators of the Co-operative Foundation Trust model providing resource and support for co-operative schools


[1] Based on an estimate supplied to me by Mark Merrywest of the  Co-operative Schools Network, 2 April, 2016.

[2] In England and Wales, a foundation school is a state-funded school in which the governing body has greater freedom in the running of the school than in community schools. Foundation schools were set up under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to replace grant-maintained schools, which were funded directly by central government. Grant-maintained schools that had previously been voluntary controlled or county schools (but not voluntary aided) usually became foundation schools.

Foundation schools are a kind of “maintained school”, meaning that they are funded by central government via the local education authority, and do not charge fees to students. As with voluntary controlled schools, all capital and running costs are met by the government. As with voluntary aided schools, the governing body employs the staff and has responsibility for admissions to the school, subject to rules imposed by central government.


Bennett, M. (2016, March 25). The Schools Business. Retrieved from
Glatter, R. (2012). Persistent Preoccupations The Rise and Rise of School Autonomy and Accountability In England. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 40(5), 559–575.
Mausethagen, S. (2013). A research review of the impact of accountability policies on teachers’ workplace relations. Educational Research Review, 9, 16–33.
Nash, J. (2016, April 4). Our school reforms. We want parents to be more involved in their children’s education – not less. Retrieved from
Noordegraaf, M., & De Wit, B. (2012). Responses to Managerialism: How Management Pressures Affect Managerial Relations and Loyalties in Education. Public Administration, 90(4), 957–973.
Watson, S. (2014). The impact of professional development on mathematics teachers’ beliefs and practices (eThesis). University of Nottingham. Retrieved from


Honest, ill-judged or deeply cynical? Nicky Morgan at the NASUWT conference

At first sight, a brave act. Following what has already become a deeply controversial education White Paper, proposing the forced academisation of all schools in England, Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan addressed the NASUWT annual conference this morning in Birmingham. A tough gig by anyone’s standards. I am a little puzzled why she chose to do this. It was the first time a Conservative education secretary gave a speech at a teaching union conference since 1997.

Again on the face of it, an act of courage, but was Morgan coming to the NASUWT conference to be honest and sincere about her new policy, was it misjudged or was there another purpose?

Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, as I understand from a few Tweets, had asked delegates to be restrained and polite. The General Secretary traditionally holds an intimate address to conference on the first evening, where public and press are not admitted. No doubt it was during this time that she would have requested that delegates be respectful.

Morgan began her speech, I understand, in a supportive tone, wanting to protect teachers from online abuse and from elsewhere. This prompted some warmish applause. It seems there was a little isolated heckling, but on the whole delegates behaved reasonably as she outlined policy from the White Paper. The initial restraint and politeness did not last. It was the point at which she accused the union of talking-down the profession and creating a negative impression of teaching, that the vast majority of the audience could no longer contain themselves, and were reduced to incredulous laughter.

Morgan asked that the teaching unions get behind the Government’s reforms and this combined with her direct criticism of the unions, in relation to recruitment and retention, was not a conciliatory or respectful line to take. There was no need to go there. There was no need to directly provoke conference delegates at this and the NUT conference that is concurrently taking place in Brighton.

So why?

My view is that the Government is expecting trouble over their proposed reforms. There is widespread opposition to forced academisation. It is even reported that members of Conservative party and even some Conservative MPs have expressed reservations. The Government has been bruised by poor public opinion in relation to the BMA and the action taken by the junior doctors. Morgan’s speech is a tactic. She has been sent to get sound-bites of badly behaved teachers to pre-empt and undermine any action taken by the teaching profession in the future. If you think I am being a little too cynical then imagine if you were in Morgan’s position and were genuinely looking to garner support and cooperation from a profession that is opposed to your reforms. Wouldn’t you have adopted a different tone and used a different line of argument? Would you have not attempted to reconcile views? Morgan’s line was provocative and divisive.

Although, we cannot know exactly what the Secretary of State was thinking, I have to conclude that Morgan’s speech was at best ill-judged, at worst deeply cynical. Thankfully though, delegates at the NASUWT conference were largely restrained.

It’s good to talk

This I wrote earlier this year in response to furious ‘debates’ on twitter about pedagogy. I decided to post it on my blog in response to this tweet. This is not the only piece of research that establishes that evidence alone does not change people’s views.

The debate over the relative merits of traditional or progressive teaching has become boring. This suggestion has caused outrage in some corners of education social media. While it has prompted a shrugging indifference by others. Since there are strongly held views about the right to have this debate, I thought I would re-examine it. I also examine the nature and value of debate in resolving this issue.

The main objection to subduing this debate is, first of all, simply, that it closes it down. But more importantly – and with some allusion to a sinister plot to undermine open discussion – it removes the right of teachers to express their views and have a voice. Moreover, that it is an attack on teachers’ professionalism. I use little hyperbole in conveying the strong feelings that were prompted by the suggestion that the trad/prog debate was over.

There is more.

There have been arguments that it goes against fundamental democratic principles by not allowing debate on this issues. Appealing to the precedence of academic and philosophical discursive engagement as established practice.  There have been claims too, this debate is central to improving education. Indicating a view that debate would be the means by which one or the other, traditional or progressive, could be proven the most effective.

On the other side of this debate about a debate. Teachers have argued, from a practical perspective, that I do both anyway; I have some rote learning and learning of facts, but I have some groupwork and project work. Others, have argued that the debate cannot really help improve things. Traditional and progressive are abstractions of what really happens in classrooms: they do not reflect what goes on in schools.

A further issue is that there are differences in the extent to which the two approaches can be defined. Traditional can be more clearly defined as a teacher-led transmission approach to learning, featuring teacher explanations, demonstration and instruction, followed by student practice or exercise, followed by review or assessment. Progressive approaches are less easy to define, yes you can say student-centred, you might refer to inquiry- or discovery-based learning, and you might refer to dialogic teaching, student collaboration or groupwork. But the variants are vast and approaches diverse. It is easier to define progressive forms as the things that are not traditional. The debate becomes traditional (T) vs not-traditional (not T). This makes debating the issue almost impossible, for reasons that I will attempt to make apparent.

What is a debate?

The purpose of academic debate is to explore different positions and viewpoints. It involves people communicating their views and presenting an argument and evidence in support. There is opportunity to question each other’s positions and examine the arguments. This presents each with an opportunity to reconsider and explore their thinking. It allows the quality of argument to develop. It is a meeting place of ideas, some of which might be in opposition. So it is a forum to formulate new understanding based on the ideas put forward. It might be opportunity for synthesis; for participants to formulate new positions or perspectives with which they collaborate and contribute to a shared and inclusive position. The character of debate is one of collegiality, which does not mean accepting without question what participants have to offer, but it does require that views are respected.

Suppose the debate begins and ends with opposition, that there is no ultimate agreement and that parties cannot find any shared ground. The debate is characterised by some strongly held entrenched positions with opponents unwilling to give any ground. Beliefs and views become fiercely contested. On social media this is where debates can end up.

The debate is no longer a debate it is a dispute.

How do you proceed once in dispute? I have observed people try to examine the logic of their opponent’s argument and to impress on them the sheer weight of scientific evidence supporting their position. With what aim? Presumably the aim would be to change the opponent’s beliefs. Yet changing someone’s beliefs in a dispute situation is unlikely.

In the traditional versus progressive debate, whichever side you take – assuming you do take a position – the evidence is equivocal. There is always going to be an argument, one way or the other. The implication is that the views on either side of the debate are based on beliefs rather than certain truths.

As an opponent in a dispute, what are the options? Agree to disagree? Or, pursue further argument and attempt to disarm the opposition with overwhelming evidence and by exposing the holes in their arguments?

If you pursue the latter course what is the likelihood of changing their view? The answer is close to nil. To change peoples’ views, it necessary to engage with their ideas over a period of time, to understand their perspective and the basis for that perspective. You collaborate. In return they do the same. In the end you learn about yourself and others. They learn about you.

Debate will get you so far with this, but only so far, because you don’t have opportunity for shared experience of practice (that’s where collaborative action research is a valuable activity).

What is destructive is the point at which the debate becomes a dispute. It becomes intractable and irresolvable: views even become more entrenched. Of course you might resolve a dispute in a civil court of law, but even after a judgement has been made, it is not going to change people’s beliefs.

Debate is valuable, but if it ends up in dispute, continuing the trad/ prog debate is so much worse than boring.

How much should we spend on schools? Part 2: How to fix schools in ten years

In part 1, I described how reducing government spending on schools, in England, offers little economic advantage. In fact, it is highly likely that it would contribute to increasing national debt. I will look at the contribution to the economy in part 3. In this post I answer the question, how much should we spend on schools? And, how much should we spend to overcome the two key issues in education:

  1. The quality of students’ learning, progress and outcomes.
  2. Teacher recruitment and retention.

My solution includes reducing teacher contact time by increasing the number of teachers in schools. This would improve recruitment and retention, as the job would be more attractive. I would increase spending on research and development in HEI, the third sector and in collaboration with schools. I would increase teachers’ pay. Finally I would considerably increase the number of teachers training to teach and also improve the quality of training.

For this post, I have developed a simple spending model to be implemented over a ten-year period. Although this model is simple, I intend that it explains and illustrates the nature of education spending and that it may be the basis of more sophisticated modelling later. Most of all I want to show that funding is not a barrier to developing a world- class school system, with the highest standards of practice, professionalism and innovation.

Increasing pay and teacher supply

I propose the following:

  1. Teachers’ pay increases 3% per year for ten years.
  2. Increase the number of training places for teachers to 50,000 each year – this would be a fully-funded two-year masters course combining school-based practicum/ internship with Higher Education-based programmes. This is intended to add an additional 15,000 teachers into schools each year in order to reduce workload and increase the quality of teaching and learning (see Table 1).
teacher numbers
Table 1: Estimates of increased teacher numbers of a ten-year programme of expansion of teacher-training

Projected spending over ten years

Now I bring these elements together. In Table 2 I have included the cost of additional teacher training, the salaries of additional teachers [1], the total numbers of teachers in schools [2], teachers’ average salaries [2], the cost of increased pay, additional research and development spending (£100 million per annum). I have then calculated total spending as a percentage of GDP.

Table 2: Total projected education spending (based on year 1 prices)
What this shows is that generous investment in schools does not have a major effect on overall spending on education. Notice, in particular, total additional spending in row 8 of Table 2. There is a small increase in spending but as a percentage of GDP it remains reasonable; judging by international comparisons (see Figure 2).

Effectively, then, the problems we have with learning and progress, and teacher recruitment and retention could be solved. It begs the question why does the government choose not to?

In this model, after ten years, education spending as a percentage of GDP would be 5.7% (see Table 2). This is comparable with other developed nations, notably Finland which is often cited as an example of an effective education system  (see Figure 1).

OECD primary to tertiray spending on ed as percent of gdp
Figure 1: OECD comparisons of education spending (as percentage of GDP) for 2012
In part 3, I will look at the multiplier effect to see how additional investment might have a positive long-term effect on GDP.

[1] I have not included an increase in student numbers. However, the model could be scaled accordingly, to consider the effects of increased student numbers.

[2] The current average teachers salary and teacher numbers have been sourced from the  School workforce data. In November 2014, average teachers’ annual pay £37,400. The total number of teachers in England (primary, secondary schools) is 454,900. The total annual salary bill is £17 billion.


Update 9 April 2016. This post is really useful. Argues for education to be treated as infrastructure for the purpose of closing achievement gap

Update 10 April – some analysis of school spending by Becky Allen (2012)[1].pdf