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.

Educational innovation: debunking the public vs private myth

The following are some reflections on Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking the Public Vs Private Sector Myths in relation to public or state-funded education.

Innovation is a necessary part of human activity. It is about developing new systems and approaches to existing and evolving challenges of life. Innovation is necessary in schools and school systems. However, current economic and education policy, in England, suppresses innovation. This will have long term effects on the educational outcomes of learners currently in the system. It will have consequences to England’s international standing in terms of school effectiveness. It will have long-term economic effects.

Innovation is generally attributed to the private sector. Producing creative new products that result in high levels of demand in new markets. Typically, we might think of companies like Apple and Google. On the other hand we see the public sector as bureaucratic, grey and uncreative. This, according to Mazzucato, is incorrect. Mazzucato proposes that it is the public sector that is responsible for far-reaching innovation.

On reading this book I was struck by the implications of Mazzucato’s thesis for state education. What are the conditions of our education system in terms of innovation and enterprise? The conditions are not healthy, there is limited resource and space for the kinds of innovation that resulted in say Apple’s success. And, handing schools over to the private sector, or to not-for-profits undermines the conditions for innovation and entrepreneurship further. These outsourced solution have to be even more cost concious and risk-averse than the public sector. Education policy since the 1980s has been based on outsourcing service rather than innovation and enterprise. Policy has been about service delivery rather than developing solutions and innovations in systems, practice and pedagogy.

Mazzucato discovered in her research of innovation that the private sector is risk averse, while the public sector provides opportunity for the research and development of risky innovations. The private sector fears failure, the public sector does not. Importantly, Mazzucato shows that public funding and public projects were the source of the major business successes of Apple, Google, green technology and the pharmaceutical industry. Companies have used innovations developed in public projects and through publicly-funded initiatives to develop considerable private sector success.

Mazzucato argues that that is within the public sector that creative risky blue-sky innovation takes place. It is the private sector that is effective in turning innovation into products and developing markets. This is fundamentally at odds with the received wisdom of the grey bureaucratic public sector and the innovative private sector.

What are the implications for public education (and for the health service, for that matter)? It means that underfunding schools, overworking teachers, underfunding research and development is unlikely to result in the kinds of innovation that will ensure that education continues to develop at a rate consistent with the rest of the world. It means that our understanding of learning in the context of schools will not keep up with progress in other areas. It could be that learning suffers because of it. This will ultimately undermine future economic growth nationally, regionally and internationally.

Since the inception of mass state-funded education in England and the UK we have struggled to develop prevalent traditional pedagogy and practice. We have struggled to take advantage of technological innovation, simply because of the lack opportunity to experiment with and create new pedagogies, practices and systems. Most of all, schools have struggled to respond to the changing needs of society.

Successive governments have been afraid to make the case for and support public-sector innovation. More recently, government have opted to outsource education to the private sector or not-for-profit organisations. Each of which are risk averse and by nature not able to deliver innovation at a rate and scale that we need. We need to rethink the role of public and private in state education. We need to think about how best to promote innovation.



Article in Huffington post 28 March: Stop Innovating in Schools. Please.



Political activism and the educator

The Labour Party leadership campaign this summer motivated me to become more politically active. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign represented a chance for greater democracy and fairness. I felt that for the first time in my life there was a chance that things could change. Importantly, I believed I had the power to contribute to change. Within a short time I became a political activist. I joined the Labour Party, and after Corbyn was elected got involved with the Cambridge Area Momentum group. A national group which was established to carry forward the grassroots enthusiasm generated during Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Overall I felt a greater sense of political motive.

I decided, like my colleague and friend at the University of Nottingham, Peter Gates, to integrate my activism with my personal and professional life. I have never been comfortable with compartmentalising my life. I like it simple. But it comes with its challenges. The following are my reflections on being an educator, a researcher and on being politically active.

The thing is about people on benefits: talking with a taxi driver

I was leading some professional development at a Cambridgeshire school in December 2015. I had to get a taxi. The driver asked me what I did. I told him. We got onto the subject of welfare and benefits. He said he thought too many people had too little incentive to work. I disagreed. I explained that I thought people on benefits had been unfairly represented on television and in some newspapers. I also explained that I believed the way to help people who find themselves trapped on benefits is through education and through supporting communities. Things do not change for these people through punitive measures, they change by having opportunities, having the skills, knowledge and confidence to take those opportunities.

We talked about whether the nation could afford this. He said we had overspent and the country was in debt. I explained that this had been misrepresented. Debt as a percentage of GDP was at a reasonable level, cutting public investment in poorer communities would add to the national debt because communities in decline cost more in the long term in terms of health, crime and welfare.

Our conversation was robust but good natured. But in the end he had some advice for me. He told me that someone like me in education should not be political. That I had a responsibility not to impose my political views.

Advice from a political philosopher

A mathematics educator colleague and friend from Loughborough University had, it seemed, been thinking about being a researcher and being politically active. He Tweeted the following.

It made me think.

Bas van der Vossen, a political philosopher, carefully and thoroughly examines whether political philosophers should also be politically active. Marx said it was a necessity. That the point of philosophy is to change the world. But van der Vossen argues that in order to conduct effective philosophy, it is important not be drawn into activism; to maintain impartiality and objectivity. Matthew agrees and that by analogy, educational researchers must also stay out of political debate.

I disagree.

Imposing my political views and biasing my research: a defence

So as a teacher – the argument goes – it is important not to influence the views and politics of those for whom you have responsibility for teaching. A teacher holds a position of trust and therefore must not use that power to coerce and unduly influence.

As a researcher, engaging in campaigns and activism makes it difficult to detach those aims from research. The researcher will inadvertently push an agenda through their research.

Yet, I feel strongly about the level of  inequality in our society. It is a political choice not to provide adequate services to support communities, particularly those that are disadvantaged. I do not believe the freemarket is the answer. But I am not opposed to business either.

The political educator and researcher

When I trained to be mathematics teacher, I soon became concerned with New Labour’s education policy. It oversimplified the learning process and undermined teachers’ professionalism. I became involved in the NASUWT and regularly attended the annual conference. The current education policy under the Conservative government is concerned with further privatisation and an even greater oversimplification of teaching and learning. I could not imagine that was even possible. As a teacher I have a duty to campaign for education on behalf of other teachers and on behalf of students and communities.

Even when I was less politically active, I was keen to encourage students to be aware of the politics of mathematics. In the classroom, I showed students how mathematics and statistics are used to influence opinion and beliefs. We looked at and discussed news items that used statistics. I explained how mathematics has and continues to be used to exploit those without mathematical knowledge. I was keen to develop mathematical literacy as citizenship.

Now as a teacher educator, I believe that trainee teachers, in order to become professionals and future leaders in education, should be in a position to critique education policy. They should understand how mathematics pedagogy might be effective with different groups of learners, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who do not find the learning of mathematics straightforward. I also want trainees to be aware of their own working conditions and pay, and that professionals need, at times, to act with solidarity to campaign for improvements. Improvements that allow them to be better professionals.

As an educator I encourage students to be critical and examine the bigger questions about the politics of mathematics and the politics of education. I draw the line at trying to impose a particular viewpoint or recruit students to political organisations.

As a researcher and academic, my work is applied social science. It is concerned with how to understand and improve educational practice and structures: to improve learning and consequently to improve society. My research is within a political context. I am not researching as a disinterested observer or as non-participant, I am part of that process. My beliefs drive my actions as much as logic and reason.

If I am politically active how can my research be valid?

The philosophy underpinning my approach to research is pragmatism. The philosophy proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910), and developed further by John Dewey (1859-1952) in and around education. Pragmatism presents truth not as determined through abstract reasoning,  i.e. through rationalism. Neither can it be determined through experience, i.e. through empiricism. For James, truth could only really be determined by what actually works in practice. Pragmatism is a practical kind of truth.

In my research this means carefully observing classrooms, theorising practice, developing approaches and assessing their impact using qualitative and quantitative approaches. My starting point is exploring existing practice, identifying and explaining patterns of behaviour using social science theory. The next stage involves formulating questions about how learning is taking place. This is followed by propositions about how practice might be changed or developed. Finally the change is examined and its usefulness is considered. The test of validity is the extent to which developments are implemented and that implementation is sustained. The approach is further explained and exemplified here.

The way in which I integrate my political activism with my teaching and research is by giving students the opportunity to be politically aware of the subject being taught but not imposing a particular view. In my research, validity is sought through pragmatism, it allows decisions to be guided by what works rather than by a political position.

I believe that being political is not really a choice. You can try and ignore political inclinations or you can try and integrate them into your practice in a critical and ethical way.



Some reflections on Nottingham-shire – a voice for education

Information about the event is here:

This day was about a rejection of the neoliberal orthodoxy in education. It was about reclaiming education for the people. Not only was it about an alternative vision, but it was about how that might be done. There were a number of practical examples where communities and groups had resisted academisation or other non-sensical neoliberal policy and held out and forced change.

I was an alien at this conference since the focus was on Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. Howard Stevenson had encouraged me to come after some interaction between us on twitter. So I travelled from Cambridge to the University of Nottingham, to see what I could learn and what I might do in Cambridge.

Though I am not a complete alien in these parts, since I was born and grew up in East Retford in north Nottinghamshire, I did my A-levels at North Notts College of Further Education in Worksop and I did my PhD at the University of Nottingham. I was pleased to talk to people who had a similar East Midlands accent to mine.

What did I learn? I went along with the idea that teachers need to become more active and that they should be using the power of solidarity to defend  against the increasing privatisation of schools. Schools should be run by teachers for their communities. You will see this in my previous blog posts.

The most important message for me is that teachers and communities need to go beyond resistance. They need more than protest and campaigning, they need a plan, they need an alternative too. This was the message offered by Howard and the conference keynote Hilary Wainwright.

I found out about the fantastic work of the NUT in resisting academisation in Leceister City and from this campaign implementing an amazing reading programme in the city. I also heard about the effective and colourful protest which returned some funding to ESOL in FE. Though sadly I was made so much more aware of the threat to FE, and was sadder for this because of the second-chance I had in FE. There is no doubt I would not be where I am now without FE.

In all then, to successfully reclaim education, requires effective, creative, collaborative campaigning and protesting by multiple stakeholders: teachers, parents, students, unions… These collaborations can be complex but also creative. Along with this, as well as challenging existing orthodoxy, we need a plan, a vision for what education, schools, colleges and universities might look like and how they will work to serve people and their communities.

This is a time of opportunity and I hope I can contribute to something in Cambridge and support an emergent national organisation.

Many many thanks to Howard Stevenson and whoever else helped to put this conference together. I hope we can hold something similar in Cambridge.

A democratic education system for social justice and equality: the case of a coastal a school

One thing I have noticed in my relatively short time working here in Cambridge is that it is a strongly democratic university. Or at least it aspires to be. There is broad discussion over issues, where, especially if they are contentious, members of the university are asked to vote to reach a decision. Last year there was much debate over the funding of a chair to commemorate the life and work of Stephen Hawking. Potentially 3000 academics and academically-related staff could vote as Members of the Roll of the Regent House. Another feature is the academic freedoms that individuals working in the University enjoy, with which I feel a sense of duty and responsibility. I am proud of the values the institution preserves and sustains and, of course, very proud of the university of which I am part. All of this, I feel, brings out the best in me as a professional.

I argue that for schools to improve, they need to move away from hierarchical management structures, to democratic and distributed leadership models, much like the University of Cambridge. Schools need to empower teachers to have control over their professional work and ensure that they  have involvement in setting the direction of the school’s mission. This is an alternative model of cooperative school-led self-improvement as opposed to the in-vogue  top-down neoliberal school-led system in current policy.

Now you may very well point out that I work in an elite institution and as such it is in a unique position. I wouldn’t disagree, it is elite and there is much that can be said about the extent to which it is socially just. That debate, however important, is for another day. What I want to consider is how to get the best out of education professionals working in schools. My working model for this are the democratic principles underpinning the culture of the University of Cambridge. I return to this later, but let me a describe a case, a coastal school.

It was not so long ago that I was working in very different kinds of institutions, state-funded secondary schools in North East Lincolnshire. The first school I worked in, was, as a consequence of an inspection by OFSTED, identified as failing and placed in special measures [1]. I recognised, along with a number of other colleagues, that there were many things in the school requiring improvement.

However, the school was (and still is) located in a community with a high proportion of disadvantaged white British working class families. There was also a shortage of teachers; few, I imagine, consider moving to a coastal area in economic decline to work in a challenging school. Until the 1950s, the principle town in North East Lincolnshire, Grimsby, harboured the world’s biggest fishing fleet of 600 trawlers. Conditions in the town are different since the decline of the fishing industry, currently a quarter of young people are unemployed, that is almost twice the national average [2].

Through several generations the availability of secondary education has not mitigated the lack of opportunity and not led to social and economic improvement. It is unsurprising that there is a predominant culture of educational disaffection amongst the considerable group that can be described as disadvantaged. It is ironic that there exists free high-quality education, yet many in the community have little belief that it is going to benefit them. What is more, if you grow up in a family where your parents, grandparents and possibly even great grandparents have not been successful at school then it is hardly going to impact positively on your own perspective and educational self-efficacy. Not only do you experience, day-to-day, models that are negative, there may be few opportunities to develop some of the prerequisite skills to access a curriculum that is based on, principally, the curriculum philosophy of a sixteenth-century grammar school.

This is not the soft bigotry of underachievement, as it been characterised by current government ministers, it is the reality of underachievement. Moreover, it cannot be solved by implementing a more challenging curriculum, setting ever higher targets, increasing the amount of testing or parachuting in expert teachers. The solution to this problem is for highly qualified teachers who have a long-term commitment to the community to find solutions to the educational challenges in their locality and turn them into a practical and cost-effective educational project.

What is needed is a community-based cooperatively organised school, fully staffed by educational professionals with considerable professional training. Teachers require confidence, courage, knowledge and intellect to develop a school and curriculum that fully meets the needs of the community. They require similar levels of disciplinary knowledge to medical practitioners. Where doctors have anatomy, physiology and a range of medically-related scientific knowledge; teachers need knowledge of education, psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy, for example. These provide the knowledge base that combined with practical and practice-based implementations would start to bring about sustainable change.

This all contrasts with the craft-level curriculum-delivery model that is being surreptitiously introduced by the present government as part of its school-led agenda.

Over the last 25 years, and at least since the introduction of Local Management of Schools as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act, schools have been increasingly modelled as market entities. New Labour’s deliverology [3] introduced accountability and attempted to distil educational outcomes into reductive targets to ensure central policies were delivered. This represented a commodification of learning. In 2010 the newly elected Conservative Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, retained much of New Labour’s accountability but removed the agencies that supported the delivery of policy, like for example, the National Strategies. This means schools are responsible for both outcomes and the processes. Effectively academies sub-contract to the Department for Education for the delivery of education. It is looking less like a public project.

So  these are the factors that have led to hierarchical and managerial structures in schools and academy chains, be-suited corporatism is symptomatic of the increasing privatisation of state education. This in turn has led to deprofessionalisation since educational purpose is largely determined by accountability demands and the definition of improvement processes by school leadership teams. Teachers’ work is increasingly moderated by managers’ interpretations of accountability frameworks and certain kinds of performances become more valued over others [4]. Compliance with leadership-sanctioned institutional cultures is valued over and above the kinds of teacher behaviours that have educational value and the pressure to ensure students perform well in high-stakes examinations is considerable.

The emergence of this kind of management structure, approach and culture in schools runs counter to effective improvement. It may result in short-term gains: improvement in examination results and better OFSTED inspection judgements, but in the long term it does not have an impact on the education of the communities like the one I described earlier. For long-term improvements teachers and schools need to be holistic and responsive.

This brings me back to where I began. The kind of culture we need in schools must permit teachers to be responsive to the context in which they work. This requires a democratic, distributed-leadership approach that is oriented toward the professional, like we have in Cambridge. School management structures need to be flattened, so that those holding senior leadership positions are more responsive to the processes within the school and are able to support the interpretation, analysis and decision making of teachers. There would be no need for a non-teaching executive principal with a six-figure salary. Senior leadership, would be simply that, experienced teachers guiding, supporting and helping analysis and interpretation: a group of senior professionals with representation and participation from the junior and support staff. Decision making would be collaborative, consultative and collegiate. Bigger issues might involve a vote amongst all stakeholders.

And with this level of professional responsibility and fulfilment, there would be no recruitment and retention crisis.


[1] The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) lowest category following inspection is special measures. Schools placed in special measures are subject to regular further inspection.

[2] Bagehot. (2015, April 15). The view from Grimsby: A coastal clue as to why the economic recovery isn’t producing votes for the Tories. The Economist. Retrieved from

[3] see Bangs, J., Macbeath, J., & Galton, M. (2010). Reinventing schools, reforming teaching: from political visions to classroom reality. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis.

[4] Au, W. (2007). High-stakes testing and curricular control: A qualitative metasynthesis. Educational Researcher, 36(5), 258-267.

Update 14 December 2016

Useful podcast from the New Economic Foundation on Coastel Communities