When is a mathematics education lecturer not a mathematics education lecturer?

On the signature at the bottom of my emails it says ‘University Lecturer in Mathematics Education’. There is a link to my blog in that signature too. You can follow the link and you will find things on politics, economics, social theory, schools’ policy and very little on mathematics education.

“Fraud!” you might justifiably say, “you are not interested in mathematics education! You are not that interested in maths!”

I argue that my field of mathematics education is specifically the area of mathematics education research that is not mathematics education. I am interested in the aspects of mathematics education that are not researched in or are at the margins of mathematics education.

Mathematics and mathematics education cannot exist without the things that are not mathematics or not mathematics education. I am a contra maths educator exploring what defines the social, cultural, economic and political space for mathematics and mathematics education. For many mathematicians and mathematics educators, the boundaries are strong in order to contain the logical integrity of their field. To maintain a secure space of thought and cultures. Axioms and practices, cultures and collegialities. I feel those boundaries and am inclined to hop over them to see what is on the other side and what is being missed by those on the inside.

I am the mathematician (not doing maths) and mathematics educator outside the boundaries of mathematics education. I should start a Journal of Research into Not Mathematics Education. I like the logical symmetry and completeness, and the dialectic.

So if you see me over the boundary, waving at a distance, please meditate on Stevie Smith’s most well-known poem:

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Anti-semitism: it is time to listen, reflect and learn

The issue of anti-semitism on the left has to be taken seriously. I do not believe that the Labour Party or even the left of the Labour Party is any worse than the rest of society or any other political party. But I do believe that members of the Labour Party have a special responsibility because we value and regard egalitarianism, equality and justice above all else. We have to be held to higher standards. We have to hold ourselves to higher standards.

There are lazy anti-semitic tropes, conspiracy theories, Israeli lobbies etc. We must do better. We can criticise the Isreali government, but we have to be more rigorous and more critical in the choice of language. We must become better educated in the history and culture of anti-semitism – an insidious destructive and evil form of racism.

We must be aware of the different Jewish perspectives on Zionism, nationalism and complexities of religious and political beliefs. There are orthodox Jews who consider anti-Zionism to be anti-semitism there are progressive Jews who make a distinction (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b083n15d). My point is we must not be lured into bigotry through intellectual laziness and idle appeals to conspiracy theory. It is worth reading the first part of The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt on the history of anti-semitism. Also, see this brilliant video from Eleanor Penny of Novarmedia.

For those with left views, we must remain focussed on our central project, the class struggle against capital, and for human rights and egalitarianism. We must not get drawn into a culture war by throwing around lazy tropes.

The allegations made against the left in the Labour Party are hard, the feel personal since we value morality and our morality is being questioned. It is easy – and I have seen comrades do this in the last twenty-four hours – to lash out and get drawn into mudslinging and in the worst examples, resort to anti-semitic tropes and conspiracy construct. Please don’t – pull back, reflect, read and consider the long history of anti-semitism. When our morality and moral purpose is publicly interrogated we only humiliate ourselves when we do not take the time to think or to educate ourselves. We do not humiliate ourselves when we concede that our past behaviours may have been misguided or wrong. That is the essence of education.

The last twenty-four hours have been a hard experience, but it also presents us with an opportunity to learn and adapt. If we refuse to do that, if we refuse to learn, then we adopt the bigotry of the far right.

Do I think we should ignore those that have used this situation for political gain? No, I don’t. When I see the likes of Norman Tebbit and Ian Paisley Junior standing shoulder to shoulder with Labour MPs, it makes me sick to the core. But like Mehdir Hasan, I can walk and chew at the same time, I can oppose anti-semitism, I can do what I can to make the Labour Party a safe place for Jews, but I can also call out the smears and political opportunism. The opportunism that in itself undermines and devalues the struggle against bigotry, anti-semitism and anti-racism.

It is important to see Jeremy Corbyn’s response not as a concession, as giving into bullies, but as a self-aware, reflective and intelligent response to the situation. It is an outstanding example for party members.

Out of this, we on the left will be stronger, more educated, more inclusive and even better equipped for a democratic socialist government.

… and three days to recover: an open email to faculty colleagues about the UCU strike action

The text of an ‘open’ email I sent to the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, University and College Union members, but also addressing all members of the Faculty Community

Thursday 9th March 2018

Dear Faculty of Education UCU members and non-members,

It is hard work withdrawing your labour.

I would like to begin by pointing you to this evocative Twitter thread by Tyler Denmead – words, ideas, feelings and images from the Faculty of Education picket line, it is a wonderful documentary of that experience.

This action has been tough: tough on those striking but also tough on those who have chosen not too. As we approach a day of truce, indulge me in giving this some thought.

I grew up around the North Nottinghamshire coal fields. Although my family did not work in coal mining, the three nationwide miners’ strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984-85 had a lasting effect on the community in which I grew up. The 1974 strike was a bitter dispute which led to the fall of the Conservative government. The 1984-85 strike was brutal, bitter, divisive and tinged with revenge. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was Education Secretary during the Heath government, that was deposed by the miners in 1974, was out to settle the score and to destroy the most powerful trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers. She did this in part, it was revealed later, by funding the Union of Democratic Mineworkers which supported miners in going back to work in order to break the strike. While the Yorkshire miners remained loyal to the NUM, the Nottinghamshire miners split and the UDM attracted increasing numbers. I witnessed the bitterness and brutality as the rift cut through families and communities. I am sure those scars remain in the former mining communities of Nottinghamshire to this day.

In those working-class communities, the divisions were clear, there was no grey-in-the-middle, there were no complexities of Ofsted, complex student needs or management responsibilities. As a miner you were either on strike or – forgive me for using the pejorative term – you were a scab. In our situation, it is far from binary, and from speaking with Faculty colleagues involved in the strike action, I believe everyone is well aware of this. The Faculty community – UCU members and non-members – are divided in that some have chosen to strike and some not. The reasons on each side are undoubtedly both complex and profound; so far I have witnessed nothing but respectful behaviour for each other’s position. They are, however, deeply conflicting positions.

I believe that as this action continues, and if those with the power to permit a speedy resolution fail to engender such, we will all become increasingly tired and there is danger that tempers become frayed and frustrations surface. Respectful disagreement in a divided community can degenerate into misunderstanding and mistrust. This could do lasting damage to our professional community. I don’t want that and neither do, I believe, my colleagues on the picket line.

I just want to say, on the eve of the one day’s break in strike action, that I have nothing but respect for colleagues who have chosen not to strike and that will remain whatever happens. Notwithstanding, it is my strongly-held view that if we all collectively make a stand against the decision to cut defined benefits from our pensions – a decision that is merely the visible part of fundamental and damaging transformation of the UK HE sector – we can stop it. These changes are not inevitable, but they will be if we do not draw the line and make a stand at some point.

While the strike action will have a lasting effect on the culture of the Faculty, the questions that are put in this dispute – that have divided us – are necessary to ask. The democratic governance of this institution at all levels has been increasingly marginalised and fundamental strategic questions have not been deliberated upon by all the members of the University. I will take the liberty of assuming that for those for and against strike action, these observations are not contested. What is contested is, how and when we do something about it.

In what is a deeply difficult time for our professional community, I believe that we can and will come back from this stronger and we will restore the warm and neighbourly professional community that existed before this dispute. In the meantime though, I will, as I expect others who are taking part in the strike action will do, put my full effort into the action that the UCU has democratically agreed to take. I will argue my position robustly and attempt to persuade others to participate in the action, but I will do my utmost to respect different views and with respect for my colleagues who have chosen not to strike and I expect you to tell me if I don’t.

At least we do not have Margaret Thatcher, Robert Maxwell and MI5 conspiring to drive a wedge between us.

In solidarity with all,

Steve Watson

Faculty of Education UCU co-rep

The Higher Education pensions dispute: a perfect storm of neo-liberalism, marketisation and austerity

The current dispute between the University and College Union (UCU) and the representative body of the employers, Universities UK (UUK), is over imposed cuts to pension benefits. According to the UCU, the annual retirement income of academics will be reduced by 10 to 40 percent. This is on top of real-terms pay cuts of 19.5 percent since 2009/101http://www.ucu.org.uk/circ/pdf/UCUBANHE14.pdf, while surpluses in UK Universities have gone up from £1.85 billion in 2014/15 to £2.34 billion in 2015/162Ibid. The accounting model changed in 2016/17 but the sector continued to secure considerable surpluses..

The dispute is more than about pensions though: on the surface, it appears to be a debate about the justification for changes to pension benefits, but beneath is a fundamental argument about political economy and the further push toward a privatised and marketized higher-education sector. Within the sector, within universities, decisions are being made without sufficient democratic scrutiny from members of staff and the wider community. Moreover, many academics may be unaware of the economic underpinnings of what appears to be conflict over pension affordability and university staffs’ pay and conditions. I set out here the underlying political and economic issues that are driving policy in government and that have led to the decision to cut pension benefits. I hope you will see that the pension cuts are the symptom of a deeper malady. I wish to show that the inherent threats to higher education are way beyond being about the comfort of academics in their retirement. And that anyone who believes strongly in the value of scholarship, research and learning should show solidarity with the striking members of the UCU.

I begin with some background to the dispute over pensions and the role of my institution, the University of Cambridge, which along with Oxford has taken a particular stance. I follow this with a quick summary of the economic context. Finally, I bring these elements together and demonstrate that we are in the conditions of a perfect storm for higher education. The underlying debates about the projection and level of risk in the pension fund are connected to government economic choices.

Finally, I argue that universities have a moral duty and should not simply accept the political and economic orthodoxy, rather than acquiescing to the parochial rationality of neo-liberalism and marketization.

Background to the dispute

The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) was valued at £41.6 billion in 2014 and £60 billion in 2017. The most pessimistic valuation leaves the pension fund with a shortfall of £5.1 billion in 2017. On the other hand, a best estimate valuation suggests a surplus of £8.1 billion. The question of whether there is, in fact, a shortfall depends very much on the model used to calculate future liabilities, growth and risk. An important factor in this is what is deemed to be an acceptable level of risk. Universities have been particularly keen to reduce the level of risk and a strategy of “de-risking” has been adopted. Equities, are higher risk investments than government bonds or gilts but offer higher returns. However — and I shall explain why in the next section — gilts offer a much lower rate of return than equities. Between 2011 and 2017 the percentage of the USS fund that has been in equities has reduced from 55 percent to 37 percent. While the amount invested in gilts has gone up from 13 percent in 2011 to 31 percent in 2017. Reducing the level of risk leads to a reduction in the rate of returns and is a factor in the pessimistic valuation of the USS fund.

It is the issue of risk that is central to the current dispute. According to Michael Otsuka, who analysed the results of the employers’ consultation over USS3https://medium.com/@mikeotsuka/oxfords-and-cambridge-s-role-in-the-demise-of-uss-a3034b62c033, only a minority (32 percent) of employers were looking for changes to the way in which contributions are set and assets and liabilities calculated. In other words, most employers were happy with the scheme as it stood. However, 73 percent of Oxbridge institutions (which presumably includes constituent colleges as well as universities) were opposed to the current arrangements.

The USS is based on last-man-standing mutuality which means that should all the universities go bust the liabilities would be passed to the last remaining universities. This means that Oxford and Cambridge, as the richest institutions, would bear the liabilities in the unlikely event that the other universities went to the wall. This also assumes that government would not intervene should the whole of the higher education sector go in to complete meltdown.

Otsuka points out that in their submissions to the September consultation on USS both Oxford and Cambridge expressed concern about the level of risk in the last-man-standing scheme. Cambridge objected that:

The University (and the other financially stronger institutions) continues to lend its balance sheet to the sector, which contains the cost of pension provision for all employers. In a competitive market for research and student places the University would be concerned if this appeared to be having an adverse effect on the University’s competitiveness (by allowing competitor universities access to investment financing or reducing their PPF costs in a way that would not be possible on a stand-alone basis).

Within this, Cambridge acknowledges that higher education is and will remain a competitive ‘market’, there is no sense in which Cambridge characterises itself as a public institution there to provide a universally available service in collaboration with the rest of the sector.

This also became evident to me when the government were trying to hurry through the Higher Education and Research Bill at the time the General Election was announced in April 2017. I approached the Conservative Member of Parliament, in whose constituency my Faculty sits, with objections to the Bill. Heidi Allen MP explained to me in her response, that the University of Cambridge had already been in touch with her to explain that they were happy with the Bill as it stood. I am aware how Cambridge, and most likely Oxford too, are seemingly sanguine about the marketisation of higher education and are preparing themselves to exist in this environment.

USS have reacted to a minority (42 percent), of whom, according to Otsuka, Oxford and Cambridge are the most prominent and hawkish members. The majority, however, were happy with the current levels of risk. The UCU describe how on the 23 January 2018, Chair of the USS Board, Sir Andrew Cubie, used a casting vote at a meeting of UUK-UCU Joint Negotiating Committee to remove Defined Benefits from all members of USS. The USS now transfers to a Defined Contribution scheme, where all contributions are placed in an individual investment portfolio. The risk is entirely transferred to contributing members of the USS. It also means a reduction in pensions of between 10 and 40 percent, particularly affecting younger entrants to the scheme.

The national economy does not work like a big family home

It is a common belief that a national economy works much the same as a household; that income must at least equal outgoings and preferably income must exceed expenditure – for that rainy day. Yet, there is a major difference between household economics and a national economy. In a household economy, expenditure is independent of income, one or both can change without really affecting the other. In a national economy, government income or taxation is dependent on its spending. The reason for this is that government spending is the only means by which currency can be introduced into that economy. Government spending creates currency, taxation effectively destroys it.

Within a national economy, all deficits and all surpluses must sum to zero. To understand this, imagine if there were just two people in a national economy. If one person has a surplus, i.e. they have more income the outgoings, the other person must be running a deficit, they must have more outgoings than income. The sum of deficits and surpluses is zero because there is a fixed supply of currency. Now imagine adding more people until there are 60 or 70 million, the sum of deficits and surpluses must still be zero for a fixed supply of currency.

By convention, nations divide economies into three sectors: the public sector (government spending and taxation) the private sector  (households and businesses) and ‘overseas’ (imports and exports). The sum of public-, private- and overseas-sector surpluses or deficits must sum to zero. The UK has an overseas deficit, we are a net importer, so currency is leaving the UK4It is not really leaving the UK, more accurately it means there is domestic accumulation of Sterling as a consequence of overseas trade.. We have a public-sector deficit, government spends more than it receives and the private sector is in surplus, households and businesses have more income than expenditure. It is important to realise that this is an aggregate surplus across the whole private sector, it is just the wealthy individuals and businesses that run a surplus, while poorer households are running a deficit and accumulating debt.

The austerity measures of the last eight years were intended to reduce public-sector deficits. Reducing public-sector deficits while maintaining an overseas trade deficit reduces private-sector surpluses and puts more of the poorer households and businesses into debt. The wealthy are then able to lend their accumulated wealth to the poor profitably.

Austerity uses a household analogy to justify reducing public-sector deficits, where in reality it increases the debts of the less well-off and the wealthy can the profit by lending. Indeed, it is preferable for the wealthy to profit through lending rather than investing in productive business and enterprise. If the poorer are in debt, they will be reluctant to spend, so aggregate demand is reduced making business investment riskier and less attractive.

Austerity is an exercise in trickle-up economics and the poorer are paying rents (that can be rents on property or money) to the rich. This leads to an accumulation of currency and creates a demand for government bonds or gilts as a low-risk means of saving. This is also referred to as the national debt, which is not really debt, but savings. The high demand for gilts (and so-called high national debt) reduces the returns on them. In an investment-led economy, money invested in gilts would more likely be invested in businesses, because government spending and investment increase aggregate demand and the risk of business investment is reduced.

Neo-liberalism: choice and competition

Neo-liberalism is closely aligned to austerity, it is based on the belief that the free market is the most efficient means of exchanging goods and services and that competition results in lower prices, efficiency and improved productivity. A further characteristic of neo-liberalism is the transfer of public services, utilities, nationalised industry and public transport to the private sector. The first moves toward neo-liberalism in the UK were in the 1970s. In 1976, Denis Healey, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, accepted a loan from the IMF, attached to it were conditions that forced austerity, i.e. reducing public-sector deficits. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 public assets were sold off to individuals and investors, including public housing, utilities and public transport for example. At the same time, there was increased financial liberalisation which facilitated more lending. Outsourcing and private finance expanded through John Major’s premiership and was further extended by Tony Blair during the New Labour government. While it might seem that privatisation reduces the size of the state, the state is still required to fund public services such as health, education, prisons and transport infrastructure Privatisation presents an opportunity for businesses to profit from the provision of public services. Importantly, losses and risk are largely underwritten by the state. The provision of public services by the private sector is an attractive investment: in a period of austerity, with low aggregate demand in the private sector, investing in public service provision with socialised risk, is very attractive.

A further lucrative low-risk investment is the financing of capital projects in the public sector, so-called Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), Public Private Partnerships (PPP) or Private Placements where an institution issues a bond to raise finance.

Privatisation, marketisation, neo-liberalism and austerity are beams of the same sun. They don’t happen without political will and citizen consent; the neo-liberal project has to be lobbied for and promoted. The project has many outriders, think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Policy Exchange, all funded by business and wealthy free marketeeers (sometimes transparently but quite often opaquely), to assemble evidence, create arguments, lobby and advocate, through the media, the benefits to the public of choice, competition and private-sector efficiency and innovation. Of course, this is driven more by a fundamental need for capital accumulation, than it is out of a concern for the provision of quality public services. Though the neo-liberal project attracts its enthusiasts and disciples who espouse the benefits of autonomy, individualism, efficiency and innovation.

Neo-liberalism and austerity have been central to growing economic inequality , in addition, the privatisation of public services has contributed to a growing democratic deficit, a powerlessness over the conditions of the community, where service provision is provided by an unaccountable public service . There is a growing inequality in the access to public services, where the principle of universal provision is replaced by an increasing amount of part or wholly private-paying services.

A perfect neo-liberal storm in higher education

The pension issue in the UK’s higher education sector is a perfect storm in the progress of privatisation and marketisation. There are two aspects. Firstly, poor returns from government bonds (gilts) mean that a low-risk investment of the USS pension fund in bonds give returns lower than the consumer price index. Other types of investment, such as equities, are higher risk because of the low aggregate demand in the economy. This is a consequence of austerity and the attempts by successive governments to manage the economy by balancing the books i.e. by reducing the public-sector deficit. Austerity leads to deflationary conditions with low aggregate demand in the economy and high demand for low-return low-risk government bonds. This makes the USS fund vulnerable to pessimistic valuations and to anxious evaluations of risk.

Secondly, the government continues to pursue an outsourced, privatised and marketized model for public services. This is driven by a capitalist lobby that seeks to maintain and expand a rentier economy. The introduction of student loans, tuition fees and subsequent increases are all part of the commodification and privatisation of higher education. The Higher Education and Research Bill that was hurried through before the general election in 2017 further embeds the consumerization of higher education, with the creation of the Office for Students and providing opportunities to establish challenger institution to increase competition in the sector.

The government claims that the reforms introduced since 2010 have resulted in more disadvantaged young people entering higher education, but the evidence suggests that there is an uneven distribution, with disadvantaged students more likely to take up places in less prestigious institutions5https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/new-figures-reveal-dearth-poor-students-russell-group-universities. Further competition and marketisation in higher education will lead to greater inequality, as institutions are forced to compete for the most university-oriented students, generally those from backgrounds with high social, economic or cultural capital.

Higher Education institutions have increasingly adapted to the neo-liberal reforms . This has seen the emergence of ‘New Public Management’ of ‘new managerialism’ as a hierarchical system of control and performativity. The cultural shift is away from democratic governance and collegiate professionalism to executive decision making principally drawing on management accounting and metrics. The disciplining and performative and managerial cultures lead to conformity and undermine academic freedoms except for, say, a few at the pinnacle of elite institutions.


I hope I have demonstrated the connection between the pension dispute, the introduction of student loans, the privatisation and marketisation of higher education and our current national economic policy. For me, as I take part in UCU’s action over the pensions, it is not just about being comfortable in my dotage. I love my job, I love the environment in which I work and I love working with students. There are so many achievements that my institution and the UK higher education sector, as a whole, can be proud of and with which it has led the world. So my motivation is to prevent public education from sleepwalking into becoming a further fragmented and inequitable system. A system that treats students as consumers and undermines scholarly inquisitiveness and the pursuit of ideas, ideas whose inspiration might arise from unusual and unconventional lines of inquiry. The performativity of neo-liberalism fosters a conformity, a narrowness and too often the safe and mundane.

I say we are sleepwalking, because it feels like this here in Cambridge, decision making has become concentrated with a few, no doubt highly-skilled and rational managers. That same rationality appears to have usurped the University’s democratic governance. Of course, it makes sense to reduce the University’s liabilities and exposure to risk to attract private finance, it makes sense to make the University competitive internationally and of course, there is logic in reducing staff pay and conditions to maximise surpluses. But these are rational judgements based on an acceptance that austerity and neo-liberalism are a) necessary and b) the only choice of political economy. It is not the only choice and, as I have argued, austerity is a political choice and not an economic necessity and in accepting it as though it is, we, as a University, make a moral choice. Or worse, we dispense with moral deliberation and accept that growing inequality and a deepening social crisis in society is simply a cost, a risk that can be put into and evaluated in our management analysis. If a university fails to accept its moral mission and fails to engage in genuine democratic moral deliberation over what society should look like, then it has failed as an institution. It may have secured private investment and have good metrics, but, nonetheless, it has failed.

The reason I take action as a member of the UCU is to encourage the higher education sector — and especially the elite institutions — to take responsibility and offer moral leadership. And not to acquiesce to those who look to perpetuate a rentier economy. Universities must offer a robust independent voice based on independent scholarship and promote the same moral purpose and critical thinking in their students.

Finally, I ask: colleagues, students, parents and communities please stand in solidarity with the striking members of the UCU.


Radice, H. (2013). How we got here: UK Higher Education under neoliberalism. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 12(2), 407–418. https://acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/969/823
Stiglitz, J. (2012). The price of inequality. Penguin Books.
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Harvey, D. (2011). A brief history of neoliberalism (Reprinted). Oxford Univ. Press.

The heritability of intelligence

The field of behavioural genetics attempts to identify aspects of human behaviour that are heritable. This line of research can be traced back to the nineteenth-century researcher, Francis Galton (1822-1911). Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin and was inspired by Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), this led him to investigate heredity. In particular, he was interested in the heritability of ability and intelligence. In 1869 he published Hereditary Genius. In this work,  he set out his method of historiometry, where he examined the achievements of relatives of eminent men. He observed that amongst more distant relatives there were fewer eminent people and he concluded that ability is heritable. But Galton did acknowledge the limitations of his research and he anticipated the study of twins as an improvement. Twin studies were an important part of behavioural genetics from the 1920s. I come to this research shortly. But casting aside any doubt about his own research, Galton believed in improving the genetics of human society. He coined the term eugenics and talked about race improvement.

I think that stern compulsion ought to be exerted to prevent the free propagation of the stock of those who are seriously afflicted by lunacy, feeble-mindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism, but that it is quite different from compulsory marriage .

Galton’s critics were understandably concerned with the idea of selective breeding in order to improve the human race. For Galton, these criticisms appeared to be an overreaction. After all, he said, he was not looking to manufacture compulsory unions, it was simply a matter of restraining “ill-omened marriages” (ibid.). Importantly, it appeared to Galton that it was science and mathematics that had led to the derivation of the facts about heritability. And that we must, for the sake of society, ensure that democracy is “composed of able citizens” (ibid.) and that we must be aware of “the true state of things”. This is regardless of the fact that his own methods were inconclusive.

This is a prime example of how Enlightenment thinking can lead to folly, where blind faith in science – and the scientific method –  leads to dangerous conclusions and unethical consequences. Social science is not a science, it is political and a moral philosophy. It can draw on studies based on the scientific method, but we are in error to believe that social science, such as educational research, is a science. Social science does not lead to facts, it leads to the potential to make individual and collective judgements that are informed by theory and evidence. Decisions and judgements leading to evidential claims are based on power and moral choice not on absolute truth.

Undoubtedly Galton was an accomplished individual, he is generally characterised as a polymath. His contributions are startling and impressive. Galton developed the idea of regression to the mean and standard deviation. He also pioneered the use of questionnaires. What he seems to have been unaware of, was the real causes of the conditions of society. While Galton assumed that inequality in society was natural selection – the cream rising to the top – Karl Marx was explaining the existence of poverty as a result of the failings of liberal economics. The free market kept the rich rich and the poor poor and exploited. The conditions of the poor ensured that they were starved, overworked, poorly housed and consequently they were wretched examples of humanity. While Darwin’s natural selection takes place over thousands of generations, the conditions of the working poor in Victorian Britain had developed within a few generations. There is nothing natural about what Galton observed of lunacy, feeble-mindedness, habitual criminality and pauperism. These things were entirely man made.

Galton – and it is pretty much unforgivable – gave those who benefitted from the economic status quo scientific ‘facts’ to justify and explain the tracts of squalor and depravity across industrialised Britain. It was, they could say, just a matter of heredity. That the well off are well off because of their genetic superiority and the poor are that way because of their inferiority. But it becomes more sinister. There were programmes of sterilisation in some European countries and some states in America in the early 1900s. Adolf Hilter was inspired by eugenics; consequently, the Nazis killed thousands of disabled people in the 1930s. The Holocaust was the ultimate in racial cleansing with the gassing of millions of Jews during the Second World War.

Perhaps there is a case for eugenics: Toby Young. Perhaps his father, Michael Young, should have been made aware of the possible consequences of an “ill-omened marriage”. We could have avoided a retrograde step such as Toby Young. But we are all wise after the fact. And as a matter of principle, as you will no doubt have gathered, I am opposed to eugenics. But Young Junior, with his characteristically ill-informed gobshitery, argues for ‘progressive eugenics’ . Young rehashes many of Galton’s original arguments for eugenics with little smatterings of evidence, partial readings and partial understandings. Blah, the best people have the best IQs, blah. I am suddenly struck by the immensity of Galton; he was mistaken and the consequence of his work was the death of millions, but he was no second-rate right-wing establishment bum licker, he was an original thinker. What Young tries to do is to input into his ‘bold’ progressive eugenics some fresh thinking – poor people should be allowed access to genetic manipulation to improve their babies when the technology comes available. Eugenics remains abhorrent and an unacceptable form of social engineering, even if we do prefix it with ‘progressive’ and the state funds designer baby programmes to those on benefits and low incomes.

The father of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), identified physical characteristics of pea plants that were heritable: plant height, the shape of the peapod, seed shape and colour, and flower position and colour. While biologists at the time believed that inherited traits were blended, Mendel’s experiments showed that there were dominant and recessive traits that are passed from parent to offspring. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the significance of Mendel’s work was recognised. Heritable information is carried in genes which come in pairs and offspring inherit one gene from each parent. Genes are made from DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). A gene is a length of DNA that codes for a specific protein. A DNA molecule can make copies of itself and it carries information for creating proteins. One gene will code for the protein insulin, which has an important role in controlling the amount of sugar in the blood; human beings have 20,000 to 25,000 genes6http://www2.le.ac.uk/projects/vgec/highereducation/topics/dnageneschromosomes. In humans, observable heritable traits include height, hair colour, earlobe attachment, tongue rolling, dimples, handedness, freckles, curly hair, red/green colour blindness and hairline shape, for example. DNA codes for proteins that result in the development of these characteristics. Behavioural genetics assumes that if physical characteristics are inherited, then our inherited hardware and architecture can lead to the inheritance of higher-order characteristics such as intelligence and personality. But to what extent is our behaviour, our successes and failures, attributable to our environment and upbringing. Or is it already hard-wired into us genetically? Are we preloaded with certain capacities that can predict our outcomes?

Galton anticipated the use of twin studies to identify the genetic basis of psychological traits such as IQ and personality. The methodology exploits the fact that identical twins share the same genes and that non-identical twins share half their genes. Differences in the behaviours of identical and non-identical twins can be used to estimate the proportions of their behaviour that are inherited. Krapohl et al. , claim that academic achievement is a result of just over 60 per cent heritable characteristics. This, in turn, is a result of heritable intelligence, self-efficacy and personality. The study is based on a classic twin study involving 6,653 pairs of twins in the UK and using GCSE7General Certificate of Secondary Education. The examinations taken at the end of compulsory schooling in the UK at age 16. results. The assumption is that the similarities in the performance of identical twins are entirely genetic since identical twins have the same genes and they have been brought up in the same environment. Underpinning this assumption is the belief that the environments that identical and non-identical twins develop in are similar: each twin in both groups has a similar experience of the environment. This is referred to as the equivalent environment assumption. Yet, it is recognised that identical twins are generally treated in the same way as they grow up, much more so than non-identical twins. Therefore, identical twins’ behaviours may not be attributable to their genes, but to the way in which they were brought up and not treated as two individuals. The equivalent environment assumption is therefore unjustified: at best it means that findings from twin studies overestimate the heritability of psychological aspects, at worst it invalidates these claims altogether .

To counter this, behavioural geneticists have used studies of identical twins that had been separated at birth and who have subsequently been brought up in different environments . However,  Joseph argues that the comparisons between identical twins raised together and those raised apart still do not justify the equivalent environment assumption. He identifies the following similarities between identical twins raised together and those raised apart:

  • They are exactly the same age (birth cohort).
  • They are always the same sex.
  • They are almost always the same ethnicity.
  • Their appearance is strikingly similar (which will elicit more similar treatment from the social environment).
  • They usually are raised in the same socioeconomic class.
  • They usually are raised in the same culture.
  • They shared the same prenatal environment.
  • Most studied pairs spent a certain amount of time together in the same family environment, were aware of each other’s existence when studied, and often had regular contact over long periods of time  .

The study of identical twins raised apart has not provided a valid defence of the equivalent environment assumption. More recently a defence of behavioural genetics has come from genome-wide association studies . GWAS involves scanning markers across the complete sets of DNA, or genomes, of many people to find genetic variations associated with particular behaviours8https://www.genome.gov/20019523/genomewide-association-studies-fact-sheet/. Effectively, this is a hunt for genes or sets of genes that lead to particular behaviours, intelligence or personality. However, it has not been possible to identify the sets of genes that contribute to intelligence and academic achievement. Krapohl et al.  found that sets of genes (genome polygenic scores, GPS9http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/v20/n1/fig_tab/mp2014105b2.html) explained ~2% of educational achievement.  And according to Joseph, this kind of molecular genetic research, is a result of a mistaken belief that the twin studies provide unequivocal evidence that genetic factors contribute to observed variation in behaviours; gene-finding exercises are unlikely to yield results .

Intelligence is a social construct, we judge intelligence based on observed behaviours. In parallel with the work of behavioural geneticists, psychologists have attempted to distil a measure of intelligence10An excellent summary of the history intelligence tests and IQ measures can be found here https://logicalincrementalism.wordpress.com/2017/07/22/evolved-minds-and-education-intelligence/. Yet, measures such as intelligence quotient (IQ) are measures of how good participants are at the IQ tests. IQ is confounded by socioeconomic status, the tests have a class bias and reflect the social and cultural capital of particular groups. Yet, I acknowledge also that intelligence involves cognitive processes as well as being a social construct. Intelligence has the following features (but not limited to these): perception and recognition, reasoning, the creative use of existing knowledge, strategic and tactical planning, and the capacity to act and adjust actions as information is updated and the context changes. Our intelligence, our reasoning and the decisions we make are sensitive to emotions and affect. Confidence, self-concepts and motivations have a profound effect on our attainments and will have an effect on any assessment of our intelligence. In addition, our physiological and affective states also have an impact on how intelligently we act. Intelligence is a complex psychosocial construct, it is unsurprising therefore that it continually eludes behavioural geneticists.

Philip Johnson-Laird, a cognitive psychologist and philosopher, explains human reasoning (the core of human intelligence) using mental models . He draws on a dual processing model of human reasoning. One type of reasoning is entirely conscious and can draw on logical analysis to derive solutions and construct action. Although, as Johnson-Laird points out, people are quite bad at logic and there are many situations where there is insufficient information to permit an entirely logical analysis. Information is missing, assumptions have to be made, gaps have to be filled and judgements made using synthetic mental models. This draws on past experience and relies on matching the situation at hand to situations and strategies. The second type of reasoning is almost entirely intuitive and subconscious. Rational conscious thought is demanding and consumes resources, it appears to be hard-wired into humanity to limit rational thought, probably because of the resources it requires and also to allow sensory resources to be available should something unusual come our way, such as a predator. Much of the time, in our day-to-day lives, and in many of the things we do routinely we use subconscious reasoning. In this we rely on shared cultural patterns of behaviours and shared mental models; we are at ease in our communities and families and have a sense of how others will act and respond in these contexts without the constant demand for conscious thought.

The complexity of human reasoning and intelligence is irreducible to a genetic marker, but genetics dictates the format of our central nervous system and our neurophysiology. Intelligence is the ability to reason and act effectively in different situations. Thus, a person with the quality of intelligence would be judged by an observer to have negotiated an obstacle, problem or context, efficiently and effectively. There has to be some degree of challenge in the problem, some complexity or novelty that requires reasoning. The challenge faced cannot be solved using a routine, method or algorithm. In other words, the distinction between a robot and an intelligent being is that the being has the capacity to use creative reasoning processes to solve problems. A robot or artificial intelligence is reliant on routines and algorithms to negotiate the situations it meets. Intelligence is primarily dictated by the way in which we learn to use our ‘hardware’. Experiences, relationships and the contexts in which we learn and how we learn really define how intelligent we become. I want to use the analogy of cinema.

Edison’s patented invention, the Kinetoscope, was introduced in 1891, the Lumière brothers’ first projection of films to a paying audience took place in 1895. Films create an illusion of continuous movement by passing a series of images in front of a light source enabling the images to be projected on a screen. The moving image as a form of collective entertainment spread in the form of photographic images printed on a semi-transparent celluloid base cut into strips 35 mm wide. This was devised by Henry M. Reichenbach for George Eastman in 1889 . Through the twentieth century, cinema technology evolved with the introduction of sound and colour. More recently cinema has used digital technology and computer-generated images. The hardware and technology have evolved, improving the quality of production. Cinema, as an art form, is dependent on the technology but relies on human creativity, reasoning and culture to create a narrative, a visual and auditory effect, a spectacle and artistic form. From the point we had the technology to project a feature film a century ago, the artistic content has not advanced significantly. Clearly, film makers have more sophisticated technology, but the limitation of the art form has been human creativity, society and culture. For example, according to the IMDb11http://www.imdb.com/ website, D W Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance is rated 8 out of 10, while Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009) is rated similarly. Clearly, there is a considerable amount of high-quality contemporary output, much more than there was at the time of the release of Intolerance. However, while cinematic hardware has advanced dramatically the quality of the artistic output has progressed at a steadier rate.

Our genetics provide us with the hardware, analogous to cinematic hardware: our brain, central nervous system is like the projection equipment and the film. Human intelligence is like the film content, constructed and devised based on free will, knowledge and in congress with culture and society. Genetics and heredity are important, but only in giving us the hardware. It is our experience of society, knowledge, culture and ourselves that allow us to develop intelligence. Or, indeed a poverty of these things does not permit the development of intelligence.

George Orwell in his anthropological account of the British working class in the 1930s provides a unique insight into the conditions of society and how it impacts on working people living in poverty. He reflects on the intelligence of his boarding house landlord and landlady, the Brookers. Orwell, observes first hand how conditions and political economy crush intelligence and reason.

The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way they say the same things over and over again. It gives you the feeling that they are nor real people at all, but a kind of ghost for ever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole…But it is no use saying that people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them. For this is part of what industrialism has done for us .

Thirty years previously Robert Tressell, observed a similar impact on the working class: conditions of poverty, limited opportunity, repetitive drudgery and exploitation that lead to the apparent absence of intelligence . Like Orwell, Tressell attributes conditions to political economy and the political choices of those who hold power and wealth.

When we consider intelligence we have to look at society, culture and political economy and not at genetics.


Bouchard, T. J., Jr., Lykken, D. T., McGue, M., Segal, N. L., & Tellegen, A. (1990). Sources of Human Psychological Differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Science, 250(4978), 223–228. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.2218526
Cherchi Usai, P. (1996). Origins and Survival. In G. Nowell-Smith (Ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema (1745508883; p. 11). Oxford University Press; Screen Studies Collection. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1745508883?accountid=9851
Galton, F. (1908). Memories of my life. Methuen.
Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2006). How we reason. Oxford University Press.
Joseph, J. (2013). The Use of the Classical Twin Method in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: The Fallacy Continues. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 34(1), 1–39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43854465
Joseph, J. (2011). The crumbling pillars of behavioural genetics. GeneWatch, 24(6), 4–7. http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/GeneWatch/GeneWatchPage.aspx?pageId=384
Joseph, J. (2010). The Genetics of Political Attitudes and Behavior: Claims and Refutations. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 12(3), 200–217. https://doi.org/10.1891/1559-4343.12.3.200
Krapohl, E., Rimfeld, K., Shakeshaft, N. G., Trzaskowski, M., McMillan, A., Pingault, J.-B., Asbury, K., Harlaar, N., Kovas, Y., Dale, P. S., & Plomin, R. (2014). The high heritability of educational achievement reflects many genetically influenced traits, not just intelligence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(42), 15273–15278. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1408777111
Krapohl, E., Euesden, J., Zabaneh, D., Pingault, J.-B., Rimfeld, K., von Stumm, S., Dale, P. S., Breen, G., O’Reilly, P. F., & Plomin, R. (2016). Phenome-wide analysis of genome-wide polygenic scores. Molecular Psychiatry, 21(9), 1188–1193. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2015.126
Orwell, G. (1986). The road to Wigan Pier. Penguin Books. (Original work published 1937)
Tressell, R. (1993). The ragged trousered philanthropists. HarperCollins. (Original work published 1914)
Young, T. (2015, September 7). The fall of the meritocracy. Quadrant. https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2015/09/fall-meritocracy/

A clarification of the meaning of ‘self-efficacy’

This post is a response the Andrew Davis’s healthy scepticism about the concept of self-efficacy. This was in response to a recent post:


So what I intend to do here is clarify its origins and meaning drawing on the work of Albert Bandura .

Andrew’s first question suggests that self-efficacy is equivalent to a pupil believing they will be successful in a test. That the pupil’s ‘beliefs’ may be inaccurate. I responded by saying that this illustrates the difference between confidence and self-efficacy.  On this Bandura says the following:

It should be noted that the construct of self-efficacy differs from the colloquial term “confidence.” Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor. Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s agentive capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment. A self-efficacy assessment, therefore, includes both an affirmation of a capability level and the strength of that belief. Confidence is a catchword rather than a construct embedded in a theoretical system. Advances in a field are best achieved by constructs that fully reflect the phenomena of interest and are rooted in a theory that specifies their determinants, mediating processes, and multiple effects. Theory-based constructs pay dividends in understanding and operational guidance. The terms used to characterize personal agency, therefore, represent more than merely lexical preferences .

This makes an important point about the meaning of self-efficacy – “it is a construct embedded in a theoretical system” in contrast with confidence as a “colloquial term” which refers to the strength of belief without necessarily identifying the nature of the task. However, this was not quite the point that Andrew was making. The question he raises is, should mathematics self-efficacy be defined as the true belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems?

To respond to this, to address the distinction between the true belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems and mathematics self-efficacy. Bandura defines self-efficacy as follows:

Percieved slef-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments 

On the face of it, given Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy, they would appear to be equivalent. But there are subtle differences. Andrew’s definition refers to outcomes alone, whereas Bandura refers to beliefs about personal capability. This is a subtle difference but important and probably best elucidated by looking at the underlying theory.

Origins of self-efficacy: agency and control

The problem that Bandura is addressing in the introduction of self-efficacy is concerned with human agency and control. Agency is concerned with the power, knowledge and disposition an individual has in exercising the right to chose the way to act. Control is related to this, it is the motivation and drive a person has to have agency in their lives.

The striving for control over life circumstances permeates almost everything people do throughout the life course because it provides innumerable personal and social benefits. Uncertainty in important matters is highly unsettling .

Approaching this from social science disciplines other than psychology this might not seem such a big deal. Sociology readily constructs agency and control, it is implicit within the field to consider the impact of the social word on personal freedom. Similarly in anthropology where the effects of culture and society and a key part of theory in this discipline. Yet in psychology, agency, in reference to the social world, is given little attention. B. F. Skinner, for example, considered the individual as having limited agency, behaviours are responses to environmental responses. In behaviourism, there is an absence of ‘self’ or ‘control’.

Another important idea underpinning self-efficacy is the notion of ‘intentionality’: people generate courses of action to suit given purposes .

Intentionality and agency raise the fundamental question of how people actuate the cerebral processes that characterize the exercise of agency and lead to the realization of particular intentions  .

So we can see in this how the concept of self-efficacy is different from a self-assessment of how well the individual will perform. Self-efficacy is concerned with agentic action and the construction of a course of action in response to situations.

…the making of choices is aided by reflective thought, through which self-influence is largely exercised. People exert some influence over what they do by the alternatives they consider .

The multidimensionality of self-efficacy

Self-efficacy represents the deliberative processes preceding action. It involves the consideration of alternatives courses of action and decisions about how to proceed. Going beyond this, Bandura locates self-efficacy as a self-concept as a self-assessment. But “self-efficacy beliefs are not simply inert predictors of future performance” . What distinguishes self-efficacy from the ‘inert’ predictor or perceived capability is the multidimensionality of self-efficacy belief systems.

Efficacy beliefs should be measured in terms of particularized judgements of capability that may vary across realms of activity, under different levels of task demands within a given activity demand, and under different situational circumstances .

In attempting to measure self-efficacy, we are not simply asking whether the individual is going to be successful in a particular activity. It requires careful assessment using gradations of task demands within the domain of concern. It also requires a clear definition of the domain of activity and a careful conceptual analysis of the aspects, knowledge, skills and dispositions required.

I hope, I have illustrated here some the key differences between perceived capability in respect to performance in a particular context and the multidimensional multi-faceted concept of self-efficacy. When measured appropriately, self-efficacy is a strong predictor of performance but is not a specifically an assessment of personal capability.


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

It’s not taxpayers’ money!


It’s not taxpayers’ money.

The only taxpayers’ money is that which is in your arse pocket;

Or in your piggy bank;

Or in your savings and current accounts.


It’s not taxpayers’ money,

The taxpayers didn’t create it,

The government did,

By spending it.


And it’s not taxpayers’ money!

The government creates money for us to save and spend;

If they don’t spend it, we don’t spend it,

Then, we don’t save or buy.


The government is there to serve us,

Or it should do in a functioning democracy.

The government can spend what it needs to serve the people.

Don’t tell us anymore there is not enough money!


The rich have got richer,

There has been enough for them,

But the poor have got poorer

Our common services have been run down.


We can afford everyone to have decent work, healthcare and education,

This fact is hidden in the vaults of the Bank of England,

So that those with wealth and power can exploit us,

And an impotent government presents us with lies.


The way this stops is when we all say it stops,

The powerful never give anything away,

Until we all demand it of them.

“Spend what is needed!”

On the EU, the Single Market and the Labour Party

The result of the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum on 23rd June 2016 resulted in 51.89 per cent of the electorate voting to leave. I voted remain.

The terms of the referendum stated clearly that the government would act on whatever the outcome of the referendum was.

There continue to be arguments about whether the referendum was merely advisory and that it should not be binding, or whether the Leave campaign lied and misled voters and leave won under false pretences or whether there was a sufficient majority or participation to make it clear.

My view is the result is what it is and that under the terms of the referendum, the result must be respected.  I don’t mean that people should not continue with arguments for staying in the EU, but, in my view, the outcome, prima facie, should be respected.

During the referendum campaign I was equivocal about the EU, I see its benefits but I see its drawbacks too. On balance – and because it would be a Conservative-led departure – I voted remain.

I fully acknowledge that leaving the EU is a huge undertaking, there are many risks and the scale and complexity of the task is beyond comprehension. The constitutional lawyer, Professor Michael Doughan, sets out some of the numerous interrelated constitutional matters that must be resolved. The uncertainty of the process, the lack of planning and the lack of an overall plan, could in themselves lead to a conclusion that we should simply remain in the EU. I have sympathy with that, but I don’t agree.  My two main reasons are as follows.

The first is that ignoring the referendum result would result in a crisis of democracy, perhaps even a constitutional crisis. People having made their decision and voted accordingly would rightly feel cheated if the result were overturned. Moreover, it would add to a growing sense of mistrust in politics and politicians. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2017:

Among the least well-off 25 per cent of the population, trust in government has fallen to just 20 per cent, one of the lowest figures ever recorded in the history of the Trust Barometer. This might not be surprising, but the sickly condition of trust seems to have infected even the wealthiest tiers of British society: last year 54 per cent of the wealthiest said they trusted government; this year that figure has plummeted to 38 per cent12Edelman Trust Barometer 2017, Crisis of Trust in post-Brexit Britain, p. 2

It is imperative that we uphold democracy. Although a worthwhile purpose in itself, it is of particular importance when it is the far right who would capitalise: the nationalists and xenophobes who trade on people’s emotions under conditions of democratic deficit and lack of opportunity.

Liberals may say that the trade off is not worth it. Sterling is falling, private debt is rising, growth is slowing and EU workers, as a consequence of uncertainty, are leaving the UK. All this, they might say, is reason enough to stop Brexit.

I disagree. While I agree with some of the above concerns; some, such as falling sterling are not as serious as is suggested. But central to our economic woes is austerity. This has the overriding influence on our economy. That is not to say our relationship with the EU and our trading arrangements is not a factor, but primarily we have to look at domestic fiscal policy as well as our own industrial strategy to see the principle drivers of our economic problems. And this is my second main reason for upholding the referendum result, political economy.

It is the UK’s commitment to liberal economics, over the past 40 years, that has put us in our current economic spot. It is based on the belief that a freemarket, with minimum regulation, generates wealth and this rising tide will float all boats. It hasn’t. Thomas Piketty’s  analysis demonstrates the growth in inequality over the last few decades in the UK, Europe and in the USA. And although some centrist governments have made greater commitments to public spending, liberal economics has been prioritised. This means a minimal role for the state, the reductions and minimisation of public deficits and controls on nationalised industry and services. Furthermore the liberalisations of finance to permit the growth in private-sector debt.

These conditions, often referred to as neoliberalism, have been the defining features of political, economic and social conditions in the US and Europe. The EU, as a supranational organisation, is of this, it has grown under these conditions, its constitution is based on the principles of liberal economics and the freemarket. The Maastricht Treaty and the Single Market are there to engender free trade, the harmonisation of regulation and law across boundaries.

Generally, the principles of the EU are intended to serve humanity and protect and represent the people of Europe fairly and with respect to human rights. But there is a fundamental clash. A clash between the liberalisation of markets, as a priority, and the needs of those who have limited representation and minimal power. We see capital within the European Single Market privileged over and above the rights of workers.

We can look at the EU as a monument to multinational liberalism, a great achievement. But, at the same time, we cannot ignore its limitations in terms of political economy. The power it has been granted means that the centre of gravity within its operations favours freemarkets and capital, over labour and workers.

The Tory vision of Brexit means one of two things, or even a combination of the two. 1) Sovereignty, returning law making and decision making back to the EU, so that the UK elite have unfettered right to exploit the working class of the UK. 2) A reduction in corporation taxes to attract business to exploit UK labour and compete with the EU.

The Labour approach is nuanced. It respects the importance of trade with the EU and the complex supply chains that exist within and without of UK territoires. Trade with the Single Market is of major importance to the UK economy. At the same time, it is important that a UK Labour government has the freedom to have a democratically agreed industrial strategy. This might require nationalisation or state aid. This has the potential to clash with the principles of the EU. It is necessary that the UK remains open-minded in its negotiation with the EU over its membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

It is important to be reminded that although Labour did not win the General Election in 2017, its showing was significant in both national and international politics. What the Labour Party has demonstrated is that it is in a position to win a general election with a manifesto that represents a break from neoliberalism. It has a commitment to Keynesian economincs, using public spending to create full employment and manage demand and distribute prosperity more widely and fairly.

This represents a challenge to the EU consensus. I imagine not an unwelcome one in many parts, since there must be recognition of the limitations of the EU’s economic liberalism and the problems and inequalities that has created across Europe.

Given the complexity and scale of the issues within nations and across them. It has to be welcomed that the UK Labour Party is looking to try to negotiate productively and fairly with its neighbours. It has opted to be open minded, but is committed to fundamental principles of social justice, equality, fairness and functioning democracy.

It is disappointing that fifty or so Labour MPs, including my own, supported Chuka Umunna’s amendment to commit to the EU Single Market last week. While we must not rule out such a membership, we have to commit to a more nuanced position. And, while still encouraging debate, I suggest that Labour MPs prioritise party unity. They need to be ready to govern and ready to have some grown-up discussions and debates with the country and with our EU neighbours.


Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.



Recent research in cultural differences in the development of mathematics self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is a conceptualisation of self-belief, developed by Albert Bandura . It is the belief an individual has in their capacity to be successful in a domain. It is a self-assessment of skills, knowledge and dispositions in a context. It is domain specific in that self-efficacy is contextualised, with demanding but related sets of challenges. The activities cannot be so trivial that the action required is relatively routine or straightforward. We are talking about problem solving in contexts, where there are complex decisions which may have multiple solutions and multiple means by which outcomes might be achieved.

Mathematics self-efficacy is the belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems. It is a belief that they can achieve a level of success when undertaking maths-related work. Mathematics self-efficacy correlates with mathematics performance. Mathematics self-efficacy is an important predictor of mathematics performance .

According to Bandura, there are four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physiological and affective states. I will explain each of these in turn:

Enactive mastery experience

Self-efficacy is developed through experience, through working on and solving problems; if we we are to limit our discussion to mathematics self-efficacy. This can be easily understood from our own experience, if we practice and get positive results, i.e. we are successful, then we become more confident. However, Bandura, takes a more profound view of success, a broader view, and allows the possibility of acquisition of self-efficacy even when we fail.

Mathematical self-efficacy is developed not just as a consequence of getting questions right or simply by finding solutions to problems. Self-efficacy is developed through reference to the strategy that we took in solving problems. Effectively, we assess the the approach we took and how it led to the outcome. In developing self-efficacy, we do not assess the outcome in absence of the method we used. This explains why, even though our final result might be wrong, we can develop self-efficacy. The essence is in being be able to connect our actions to the outcome and understand, rationally, how that led to the result.

Vicarious experience

A second but weaker source of self-efficacy is through vicarious experience. We can develop self-efficacy by observing others carry out activities. If the modelled behaviour is self-efficacious then it can provides a source of self-efficacy for the observer. This is especially true if the observer identifies with the individual modelling the behaviour. If, as observer, we see ourselves as similarly, having similar capacities and potentialities, then we are likely to improve our self-efficacy by observing them model actions, and in mathematics, by modelling mathematical problem solving.

If the observer perceives the person modelling the action as considerably different – they might feel that they are more intelligent or more able – then it is less likely that the observer will develop self-efficacy vicariously.

Verbal pursuasion

A third, but still weaker source of self-efficacy, is verbal pursuasion. We can use encouragement to persuade learners of their capacity to be successful. If the encouragement is misplaced and we try and persuade learners that they will be successful and they ultimately fail, there is the possibility that self-efficacy will be undermined. Encouragement must be based on accurate assessment of the individual’s capabilities and potential. Furthermore, if the more knowledgeable other is not trusted by the learner, then it is unlikely that self-efficacy will be developed.

Physiological and affective states

Illness, tiredness and stress all undermine self-efficacy. It is important that learners are challenged and are set challenging objectives. But if the demands becomes overwhelming, then there can be negative effects. Equally, if a learner is unwell or if there are external stressors then self-efficacy is undermined and there will be a noticeable effect on mathematical performance.

Cultural differences in the effects of vicarious experience and verbal pursuasion

consider cultural differences in the extent to which the social sources of self-efficacy impact on self-efficacy and mathematical performance overall. It has previously been suggested that social effects are different in cultures that are predominantly individualist, like the US and Western Europe, to cultures that are collectivist, as in South East Asia.

undertook a quantitative study in the US, the Philippines and in Korea.

The important results are as follows:

  • Mathematics self-efficacy has a significant positive correlation with students’ mathematics achievement. This is consistent with previous research, both theoretical and empirical. It also provides evidence that this relationship is independent of culture.
  • Mathematics anxiety is negatively correlated with mathematics self-efficacy. Again this is an expected result and previous research has suggested this also. In more vernacular terms it means that the more confident a learner is in mathematics the less anxious they are.
  • Students in individualistic cultures report stronger mathematics self-efficacy compared with collectivist cultures. This is often in spite of superior performance by learners in collectivist cultures. This could be because people in collectivist cultures refrain from higher ratings because of a cultural desire to express humility.
  • Vicarious sources of self-efficacy tend to be from teachers and verbal pursuasion comes from family and peers. 

Concluding remarks

This research confirms the importance of self-efficacy in mathematics learning. It challenges the view that mathematics learning should be predominantly rote learning and practice. Problem solving is necessary to develop self-efficacy. Learners need chance to explore and examine non-routine problems. Importantly they need to develop the capacity to assess the strategies they use, themselves and with the support of teachers and peers.

Not only does self-efficacy correlate with mathematics performance, it is also important in respect to mathematics anxiety. The more self-efficacious the individual the less anxious they become.

Finally, although this research considers self-efficacy sources in different cultures, it draws attention to the importance of social sources and within what contexts this might develop. The research shows vicarious sources tend to be from the teacher, verbal pursuasion comes from family and peers. This is important in understanding multiple social roles in learning mathematics.


Ahn, H. S., Usher, E. L., Butz, A., & Bong, M. (2016). Cultural differences in the understanding of modelling and feedback as sources of self‐efficacy information. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(1), 112–136.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman.
Pajares, F. (1999). Self-efficacy, motivation constructs, and mathematics performance of entering middle school students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 24(2), 124–139. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1998.0991
Pajares, F., & Miller, M. D. (1994). Role of self-efficacy and self-concept beliefs in mathematical problem solving: A path analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(2), 193–203. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.86.2.193

Government has left a void in education, teachers and educators must assume responsibility

The minority Conservative government is teetering. They have no authority, they have no programme and they have no ideas. The Queen’s speech today was thin, the Conservative General Election manifesto has been ditched. The Queen’s speech intended to allow government to cling to power. So weakened is Theresa May and the Conservative government, it looks like they could collapse at any time.

Since we are without an effective government, it is time for educators to act. We have a duty to provide authority in education, to establish principles, uphold values and implement programmes, in the absence created by an ineffectual minority government. This authority must be assumed collaboratively, deliberatively and democratically, underpinned by scholarship in its broadest sense.

We have been restrained by neoliberalism and disciplined through centralised high-stakes accountability and punitive testing regimes. Consent for this has collapsed. Public acceptance of austerity and neoliberalism has dramatically declined. People want the public services to be well-funded and to serve humanity, rather than serving a few who run them as outsourced business.

Educators now have a new responsibility for their profession and for state education.

For those working in schools, further education and higher education it is time to push back against the economic and intellectual oppression that has characterised the last seven years. It is time to become active within unions and start to organise. We need education to be a democratic, values-based and a community-oriented public service.

In the last few weeks we have seen Tory economic legitimacy crumbling. The need to cut spending and impose austerity has been revealed as a mechanism of exploitation. The yolk of austerity and neoliberalism is slowly being lifted from our shoulders as we come to realise that it has no power to exploit us and exploit our public services.

We need to mobilise across education and demand that schools are properly funded. School funding must keep pace with inflation and increasing pupil numbers. We need to ensure that teachers pay and conditions are improved so that the job becomes manageable, enjoyable and a profession that teachers can sustain long term. This will improve recruitment and retention and ensure that children receive high quality education with teachers who are not overworked, tired and stressed.  We need effective democracy in state education so that teachers have a greater role in school governance, operations and in local and national policy. We need to move away from a system that puts the control of schools and policy into the hands of small numbers of people who are not directly accountable to the communities who they serve and school stakeholders.

This is a time of great change. Therefore, it is incumbent on those working in education to take responsibility and wrest control of education from centralised neoliberalism and give that control to communities, learners and education professionals.

Go now, meet with colleagues, organise and start putting forward your collective vision for an inclusive education, for greater democracy and social justice.


Interesting addition to this. Following this post from Geoff Barton.

I recognised the ‘space’ referred to by Geoff as similar to the void I saw develop above.

Rather than trying to respond to Teach Talks in 140 characters, I thought I would do it here, since it reflects the general flavour of this post about the void left by government or as Geoff Barton said, the space created by the Queen’s Speech. I want to address the secondary questions ‘can a weak government lead to greater uncertainty?’ And ‘should we look at a Finnish multi party system?’

The government is weakened and this means that it cannot impose an ideology-driven economic, social and education policy. It is weak in the sense that it cannot set the agenda, it necessarily has to support the democratic demands of the people and show that it is being fair and reasonable in doing this and in managing conflicting interests. It is incumbent on the education sector to define, using deliberative democratic processes, what the range of educational philosophy is and how that will operationalise. This strengthens the hand of the democratic governance of state education. What it is has to be is more defined by what communities and stakeholders (including the teaching profession) want.

In terms of having a cross-party approach, I agree in principle but it is necessary that education has strong democratic governance and is able to negotiate a shared vision for education. The opportunity here for democratic self-governing system can help contribute to this.

There are great opportunities here and organisations like ASCL and the teaching unions will have a pivotal role.