On my mind

What’s happened to democracy in our education system?

Posted on Updated on


Democracy is a strange thing. The basic idea – that people have a right to decide is fine in principle, but what if the ‘people’ make the wrong choice? Who decides what’s right or wrong? I voted to remain in the EU referendum. 17 million people disagreed with me only 15 million agreed.

I still believe the choice was wrong, but try telling that to a gloating brexiter. “Who cares what you think”, I’ve been told, “we won so shut up and accept it”. I can argue that there were lies and deceit (actually on both sides) or that the question was too simplistic given the complexity of our relationship. I can even point to the drop in the value of the pound – which, by the way, increased the cost of my short summer break by hundreds of pounds. All I get back is “WHO CARES, WE WON!” Democracy has been reduced to a win/lose game.

You choose your side and hope it’s the winning side.

Education is not a game

The win/lose game has been going on in education for many years. But it’s never been as intense as in the last six years. A politician, by the name of Gove (remember him?), wanted to ‘win’ at all costs. He had enemies that he needed to defeat. His enemies were the enemies of his predecessors who challenged, but never fully won their battles with them. The teaching unions, the local authorities, the university education departments were all ‘bad guys’; ‘the Blob’; ‘enemies of promise’; ‘Trots’, that needed eradicating. Kill these groups and education would be back to where it should be – selective, ordered, pumping children full of facts and full of the traditional academic subjects and none of this trendy, irresponsible child-centred learning.

If it works for them, it’s bound to work for us

Gove’s bullying, autocratic narrative, right from the moment he took office, was breath-taking. He cherry picked successes from all over the world and simplistically and wrongly decided that a simple transplant of ideas would ‘fix’ a system he saw as broken beyond redemption. Only wholesale change would do.

Shanghai maths was lauded as the only reason students in the far east succeed where our students fail. Gove, then Morgan, now Gibb completely ignore the social and cultural context and the conditions under which teachers work in China. The narrative persists today – Shanghai maths is still being touted as ‘the answer’, and still the social context and the working conditions of the teachers is ignored.

Expert panels were hired for a curriculum review and summarily dismissed if they came up with the ‘wrong’ answer – that is, something Gove didn’t like. His tenure became so bad he was considered toxic and a threat to the success of the Conservative party in the 2015 election. He was summarily dismissed. Since then, his fall from grace has been quite spectacular.

The ‘Big Idea’ – every school better than the average

Gove’s ‘big idea’ was the academies programme. Here’s where democracy (not to mention knowledge of averages) really left the building, seemingly never to return. In ‘consultation’ after ‘consultation’, in vote after vote, plans to convert schools were rejected. The DfE response was, to be fair, consistent. ‘The only way to improve any school is to turn it into an academy’. Gove removed governing bodies that objected and put in place puppet governors who would do his bidding. The outcomes of any, seemingly all, consultations were systematically ignored. At the same time, parents were being told how important ‘parental choice was’ how parents should be able to choose where to send their offspring.

This paradox of simultaneously promising a democratic education system where parents have freedom of choice, whilst denying, in an overtly autocratic way, any dissent over the government ‘choice’ of who and how schools should be run did not seem to trouble the political elite at all.

It’s fine to ignore the will of the people, except…

The current government could ignore the outcome of the referendum; it was a close run thing, 52% for exiting the EU – 48% for staying. But, quite rightly the majority would say, that’s undemocratic. However, ignoring a parental vote where over 90% were against conversion to academy status, e.g. at Downhills Primary, was considered acceptable to the DFE.

There have been many controversial academy conversions, Downhills Primary school being an early, acrimonious and bitter fight against academisation which was lost. Others have been able to resist conversion, such as Hove Park school in Brighton. But the key thing in all these fights and in the programme of academisation which still rolls on unabated today is the loss of local accountability and the defeat of democracy.

Pedantic semantics

I know that a consultation and a referendum are two completely different things, but they are both tools of democracy – a way for the people to be heard, listened to and changes made in accordance with those views. But, as I was reminded once by a member of the DfE Press Office, ‘a consultation is not a negotiation. We are under no obligation to change our plans or abide by the results of a consultation. It’s merely something we have to do, consult’. Well the answer to the embarrassment of ignoring consultations is of course to change the law and remove the need to consult at all – which the DfE now plans.

Autocratic Failures

Recently we were told about the Lilac Sky Schools Trust which, having failed to improve schools under its control, has just ‘handed back’ to the DfE control of nine academies across Kent and Sussex. Here we also see another complete failure of democracy. These schools will be brokered to new Multi Academy Trusts – most likely at a considerable cost to the taxpayer – with no consideration of what parents or teachers would like to see happen.

The academies programme has systematically failed to live up to its expectations as the sole tool of school improvement. This fact has never been admitted or entertained by Gove or Morgan. Whether Justine Greening succumbs to the will of her party, and is still intent on destroying the State Education system via the academies programme (most likely with the goal of full privatisation) remains to be seen, but surely failure after failure must raise serious questions about the academies programme? Perhaps she could be honest with the electorate just once and admit that academisation is not a magic bullet, but a vast vat of snake oil sold by a charlatan salesman with no experience or qualifications.

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment
By Clark Stanley (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Where lives matter, democracy is essential

The future of our education system is not a win/lose game to be played by politicians settling old political scores against their perceived ‘enemies’. With matters such as the future education of our children at stake, an autocratic approach that ignores the key stakeholders cannot be seen, even remotely, to be democratic. It is quite simply a dictatorship. By all means where matters are relatively inconsequential be autocratic – a democratic, consultative approach for every decision would result in no decision ever being made. But these are not inconsequential decisions, they are major decisions that will alter the educational landscape for decades, perhaps permanently.

As Mr Spock says at the end of Star Trek III: The Wrath of Khan (1982), “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh…” Kirk finishes “…the needs of the few.” Spock continues, “Or the one.” Since 2010, the needs of the one – the Secretary of State for education – have vastly outweighed the needs of the many. It’s time democracy was restored to our education system and the needs of the many become the driving force for change.


Love and Hate – two powerful human emotions

Posted on

There are two young children at the moment who will be struggling to understand the concept of hate. A hate so powerful it has taken the life of their mother. The children of Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, who was senselessly and brutally murdered could easily grow up to hate. I sense, from reading a statement made by Brendan Cox, their father, that he will do everything in his power to stop that happening.

In America, there are many families who are also struggling to understand why their loved ones were killed, simply because they loved someone of their own sex. Think about that, 149 people were killed, scores of others injured, not because they hated, simply because they loved.

I struggle to comprehend this.

On my way to work I pass my local primary school and since the horrific events in Orlando, they’ve flown the rainbow flag at half-mast. They shared the grief, recognised the love and did not buy into the hate.

There is much we can do as a society to stem the rise of such a destructive hate. One simple, yet important step is to think carefully about what we say and how we say things. We must exercise caution and apply a logic to our thoughts to ensure that we do not unwittingly feed the hate that dwells in some people.

Yet it seems to me that both caution and logic are missing from the campaigns of many of the high profile politicians trying to ‘win’ our vote in the upcoming EU referendum.

I was 16 when we last voted, but if I could, I would have voted to join. In this vote, I will vote to remain. My vote however hasn’t been ‘won’ by either the ‘in’ or ‘leave’ campaigns.

Both sides have twisted facts, told half-truths, spun stories trying to persuade us to vote ‘their way’. Neither side has convinced me. I’ve decided how to vote by looking beyond the hate and rhetoric.

What disturbs me most during this whole campaign is the stirring of a form of hate that I loathe. The ‘problem’ we’ve been told by both sides is ‘people’. ‘Too many people’ or ‘the wrong sort of people’ worst of all ‘foreigners coming here’. When it’s alleged that the cause of many of our ‘problems’, from housing to healthcare from school places to jobs, is defined by the existence of certain groups of people, you aren’t going to promote love, quite the opposite.

It has been, for me, a campaign characterised by hate.

Love and hate are powerful human emotions, so powerful they can unite or destroy, not just individuals, but whole countries. Jo Cox’s husband summed hate up perfectly for me, hate, he said doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.

Too often, rather than attacking problems, we’ve end up attacking people. This builds resentment and that leads to hate.

The world is full of problems, but if all we do is attack people, for their beliefs or their ethnic origins, for what they have or do not have, then we poison the minds of others. They see the attacks and buy into the mistaken belief that the problem resides in the existence of ‘these people’. That’s when the hate takes hold.

Ultimately there’s just one race – the human race. We all inhabit the same planet, we all depend on each other and our ecosystem. Yes, I know that there are different cultures, religions, characteristics etc. that ‘define’ groups of people, but if you look at yourself in a strictly biological sense, you might be surprised.

I recently had my DNA analysed to look at my ancestry. I was surprised to find that I have 39% Irish, 32% British, 14% Scandinavian and 1% Iberian Peninsula heritage. I know this is not something to rely upon 100%, but it set me thinking. If we did vote to leave, am I ‘British’ enough to stay? I look, sound and behave very British (I’m told). Yet my DNA tells a different human story that I’m now motivated to investigate. Scandinavia? Really? The Irish I can see, I am Welsh, born in Wales – St Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland, was, after all, Welsh.

It’s easy for people to make assumptions about others and for those assumptions to be quite wrong. If we make too many assumptions, it’s a short jump to making illogical and incorrect conclusions. The path to hatred then is a very short one.

Are ministers getting confused between professional training and recruitment?

Posted on Updated on

Nick Gibb Minister

Nick Gibb – (his evidence to the Select Committee started at about 10:57)

Despite Nick Gibb’s assertions today at the education select committee hearing, that there is no teacher recruitment crisis, it’s merely ‘a challenge’,  the fact is, recruitment of good teachers is becoming more and more difficult. The change this year to the recruitment process, the ‘uncapping’ of numbers to allow the best to recruit as many (within a national cap) teachers as they want is failing badly. Already one subject, PE is closed to all providers, schools, SCITTS and university. History has been stopped for university providers (those above 75% of last year’s allocation can recruit no more, others can recruit up to 75% of last year’s allocation). Primary is on its first warning of closure and English is not far behind. This cap was supposedly to open up the market (after all a free market is a very Conservative idea) but it was a rigged market that will potentially shut off good or excellent provision to ensure the DfE policy of replacing ‘university-based’ training with ‘school-based’ training. As was pointed out, this is a straw man argument. No university provider works in isolation from its partner schools.

The talk from the DfE and National College of Teaching and Leadership is to let schools decide who to take on for teacher training. They are, it is argued, best placed to know who they want and where those people are wanted. Centralised systems of training may not be meeting the needs of schools, it has been argued. But just who has argued this and is it actually true? Again, today, Nick Gibb mentioned that the ‘evidence’ is that schools were not happy with the University training as too many trainees came out unable to deal with basics like behaviour management. This was lacking in new teachers’ training he stated. The obvious conclusion (drawn by some – usually in government) was that the training provided by universities was wrong – not emphasising the right things.

Schools are the places where teachers should train, of that there is no doubt, but fragmenting the system such that multiple schools, with multiple approaches to teacher training, all of which are based on that school’s individual needs, or the needs of a small group of schools, rather than a generic training, is harmful to the profession. Teachers who train in very specific circumstances, indeed for a particular employer, where their experience is limited and they are not encouraged to look beyond the approaches and pedagogies that a particular school uses will result in teachers not fit for the broader workplace.

If we take behaviour management training as an example. At Sussex we deliver training in behaviour management and classroom management (yes, the two are different) at a course level as well as at a subject level. Tied to this is the actual experience the trainees get when they are on placement. Our trainees feel well prepared for managing behaviour (according to our own evaluations and the NQT survey). Yet still we will have schools who berate our NQTs for not being good at managing behaviour. Why? Because they are not doing it the way that particular school wishes it to be done. Anecdotally I have had past trainees come back and say that their current school does not think much of our training programme as the school perceives there to be an issue with the way the trainee is managing behaviour. When you probe a little deeper you find that the school has a particular way of managing school discipline which may be at odds with our training.

In essence, there is nothing wrong with the way we trained that person, but as the school was in a different part of the country, not in our partnership and prefers the hard-nosed ‘crackdown’, no excuses, ‘if it moves put it in detention’ model over our less confrontational approach. The message is we are rubbish at teacher training, especially behaviour management.

Behaviour management is not an agreed ‘course’ that fixes all problems that can be taught in isolation from a school. In our partnership there are probably as many different approaches to behaviour management as there are schools, some more successful than others. We cannot deliver a bespoke training in behaviour management delivering on the immense variety of approaches, but we can talk core principles and allow our trainees to work with different schools to implement different strategies. Even then, I’m willing to bet that we won’t please all of the schools all of the time.

At the moment I think we are in danger of confusing a recruitment strategy with a professional training strategy. Breaking the system down so that individual schools are the marketplace for teacher training is a recruitment strategy, not a training strategy. Too often I hear from colleagues around the country that School Direct interviews are looking more for people who are ‘fit’ to teach as soon as possible, rather than recruiting people who are at the ideal point to undertake a professional training.

Too often I hear stories from trainees across the country who say that their placement in school direct is more cover supply than training. Too little is said about the need for a professional training to meet the needs of the profession rather than the individual needs of schools.

Behaviour management in teacher training, the example I used above, is not about meeting the behaviour policy needs of individual schools, it is about developing a core concept from the myriad problems and issues faced by teachers, pupils and parents and delivering strategies designed to help the new teacher cope. Once the teacher is in a school they can engage with the particular issues that school has and the approaches that school uses.

The crisis in teacher recruitment, and a crisis it is, is going to push schools into demanding very specific outcomes from training that meet their own individual needs for teacher supply over the generic need for good teachers nationally – that is the danger of the current model of teacher training allocation. It will not end well for the profession if it is continued.

Is Cheating Really Endemic In Our Schools?

Posted on Updated on

800px-CheatingChannel Four’s recent Dispatches programme (June 15th) unveiled a (not so) hidden world of league table manipulation and deliberate cheating in our schools. What it exposed was not the odd problem, but systematic cheating by all parties from the point where a child enters our education system until they leave (hopefully) with a degree. From supressing achievement in baseline and other tests, to enable claims of higher than average progress for children with large scale copying of textbook content submitted as coursework. Our schools appear to be hotbeds of cheating. The manipulation of pupil registrations in school to artificially inflate GCSE or A level outcomes was also exposed. We were left with the impression of an education system in desperate need of reform and stringent control.

As a former teacher, now lecturer in education, I can say, yes there is gaming of the system when it comes to examination results. It’s not new. Twenty five years ago I recall, as a head of department, being told by senior managers to ensure that coursework was always ‘of the highest standard’ (that was code for highest possible grades) and to organise ‘coursework days’ (code for make them sit down and do it all). As teachers we didn’t write it for them, but perhaps our ‘guidance’ trod a fine line between helping and prescribing. I would sign up to ‘trial’ key stage three tests, knowing full well that the trial test would be very similar to the actual test. We would have a head’s up on what was coming up that year. Did I think I was cheating the system? No. I was merely taking full advantage of any permissible means that I could to bump up the grades for my school. My job depended on it. Falling results was an issue that could have cost me my job. Today the situation is worse with much greater pressure placed on Heads who transfer this down to Heads of Department and, finally, teachers.

The current mantra is that, ultimately, it’s the Head and the classroom teachers who are responsible for the examination results and the performance of the pupils.

I disagree.

Teachers are not responsible for the examination results. The only person who can be held responsible for the outcome of any examination is the person who sits it. This is where our system has gone wrong. We are foisting responsibility on the wrong people.

Teachers, Heads of Department and Heads should be held accountable for the education they deliver, but being accountable is not the same as being responsible. Schools must be accountable for what they teach (making sure they teach the correct specification for example), for the quality of teaching – ensuring that the teachers they have are properly trained, kept up to date etc. Heads must be accountable for the resourcing of their schools so that the staff and pupils have the right access to equipment, textbooks and materials. Teachers are accountable for the classroom environment, ensuring good discipline, planning, teaching and assessing the work that their pupils do. If the school delivers on all these things, they must also ensure that the pupils and parents are clear on their responsibilities. Parental support of the school and their own children is vital and, eventually, the children themselves must come to understand that they are responsible for their actions when it comes to working hard and revising for and sitting the examinations.

There’s a cartoon that I show trainee teachers. In the first panel, dated 1961 we have two angry parents waving an inadequate set of exam results in the face of a trembling child. ‘What’s the meaning of these grades?!’ they declare angrily. Move then to 2011 where the parents utter the same words, wave the same poor results, but this time, not in the face of the child, but the child’s teacher.

The biggest obstacle to tackling cheating and gaming of the system is the use of examination results and league tables as the main measure of school success. When teacher and school effectiveness is only measured by pupil progress and results, teachers will ensure that progress, whether real or not, is shown and that results will, by hook or by crook, improve.

It’s a fact of life that progression in learning is never continual, smooth and nicely incremental. It’s a bumpy ride that does not always move forwards, sometimes it goes into reverse. It’s also a fact of life that different cohorts of children, year on year, will perform differently in high stakes examinations, even when all other factors, such as the teachers etc. remain the same. School examination results should only be one factor in our accountability system. They should be looked at over time, say a five year period, not year by year. What we are now developing in our education system is ‘football manager/league syndrome’ where Heads are hired and fired, seemingly on the basis of a results blip and schools are ‘brokered’ across private companies, bought and sold like a faceless commodity with little or no reference to parents.

Choosing a primary or secondary school is a long term investment for children. Over five years the best schools can easily slip from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Requires Improvement’. Assessing how good a school is shouldn’t rely on short-term exam data only, but a long-term holistic assessment of the education provision.

“The One Show”: BBC perpetuates the myth of Learning Styles

Posted on

Pie chart of learning styles


I was interested in an item recently broadcast on “The One Show” featuring advice on memory and how to improve your memory. The show item was, in itself, fine and provided quite commonly available advice on one way of improving memory. Viewers were directed towards a BBC website for more information.

Section 6 has highly disputed information, presented as if it were accepted ‘fact’. It’s our old enemy Learning Styles! You know, the thing that ‘progressive’ university types are trying to indoctrinate trainee teachers with? Except of course many of us fight the Learning Styles guff we see in schools at every opportunity.

Creative Commons with attribution licence

 So this is how the BBC iWonder website supported the item on “The One Show”

Section 6  Live and Learn

The section begins with the statement (attributed to Dr Jess Quirke, a clinical psychologist).

“When you want to learn specific information, before an exam perhaps, it’s best to know what style of learning is your strongest.” Clinical psychologist Dr Jess Quirke says: “By using your preferred learning style you are more likely to retain and remember information. These usually breakdown into three areas: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning.”

In education we are fighting hard to dispel the myth of learning styles which seem to pervade our schools. The reality of learning styles is that there is no such thing! People may describe or provide a ‘preference’ but research shows that this in no way aids their learning.

In a published peer reviewed paper in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Pashler et al (2008) state in their conclusion that: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”  (full text available by clicking here).

Riener and Willingham (2010) state, “students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning” (p. 35). A careful review of literature suggests that, while learning styles are prominent in education, there is nearly no supporting evidence of their existence, and that the theory should not be used in education.

A meta-analysis of research into learning styles by Coffield (2004) also concluded that “learning style researchers do not speak with one voice; there is widespread disagreement about the advice that should be offered to teachers, tutors or managers. For instance, should the style of teaching be consonant with the style of learning or not? At present, there is no definitive answer to that question, because – and this brings us to the second problem – there is a dearth of rigorously controlled experiments and of longitudinal studies to test the claims of the main advocates.” (p.140)

Baroness Susan Greenfield is also a critic of learning styles, stating that “The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak [visual, auditory, kinaesthetic], or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits.” She goes on to state that “We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.”

Additionally, while learnings styles is also common in business management, its use there has also been severely criticised e.g. by Reynolds (1997) who states that there is inadequate research to support the use of learning styles and that there are considerable doubts about its validity (full reference available by clicking here)

There is a considerable body of evidence to show that learning styles are a popular myth, with no empirical research that conclusively shows the advantages of such categorisations for individual learners.

I’ve submitted a complaint. I wonder if W1A will take note…


Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre (pp. 1-182). London, UK.

Dekker, S., Lee, N.C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology: Educational Psychology, 429, 1-8.

Henry, J. (2007) Professor pans ‘learning style’ teaching method Daily Telegraph

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles. 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior (pp. 92-99). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science,9(3), 105-119.

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42(5), 32-35.

Rogowsky, Beth A.; Calhoun, Barbara M.; Tallal, Paula (2015) Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 107(1), Feb 2015, 64-78.

Today’s 13-year-olds are not as bad as we’re led to believe

Posted on

In 1982 I was toying with the idea of a career in teaching. That year a controversial film, Made in Britain, starring Tim Roth was released and I almost didn’t become a teacher. The film’s central character, Trevor was a dysfunctional, violent, foul-mouthed youth – everything society hates and fears. My natural fear was how would I, as a young teacher, cope with a classroom full of such kids? Of course the film is fictional. It portrayed the 1980s accurately – but did it portray Britain’s youth accurately?

With the way some of the media represents young people, you may be forgiven for thinking that Roth’s character is alive and well and infesting our streets and schools. Different newspapers have their favourite terms for teenagers: the Daily Mail likes “yobs”, while the Daily Express goes with “feral kids”.

Changing preoccupations of Year 9s

But a new longitudinal study of 13 to 14-year-olds has painted a very different picture of the youth of today. They are drinking and smoking less and bullying is on the decrease – despite the inexorable rise of social media making bullying much easier than it was 30 years ago.

More here:  Today’s 13-year-olds are not as bad as we’re led to believe.

Intelligent Design Creationism is not Science

Posted on Updated on

I’m just back from the BBC studio in Brighton having done 9 regional interviews/debates on the issue of teaching intelligent design creationism as science in schools.

It is quite simple, intelligent design creationism is not science. It is not accepted as science by the scientific community and, as such, cannot be taught as science in schools.

The interviews also featured Dr Alastair Noble (former science teacher, science inspector for schools and lay preacher at the Cartsbridge Evangelical Church Glasgow). He is the director of the Centre for Intelligent Design based in Scotland. He is a firm (in some ways aggressive) supporter of intelligent design. In debates you know that things are going wrong for one side when it descends to name-calling, which is what Dr Noble did, certainly in the final interview this morning.

As the interviews carried on, from regional station to regional station, you could hear in his voice the frustration and it ended with name calling. It seems that I am an ‘intellectual fascist’ who does not understand the ‘science’ and who fails to explain the ‘information’ contained in DNA. I also, he says, don’t know the history of the intelligent design movement.

All these charges are false. Dr Noble consistently and aggressively misrepresented the call for the ban signed by myself and the other 29 leading scientists and educators, he’s claiming that we wish to ban all mention of creationism or ID. He ridiculed the signatories’ position saying that we would have to get the police in (I think he mentioned the ‘thought police’ once as well) to stop mentions of these ideas in classes. Despite patiently explaining to him that the call is that neither creationism nor Intelligent design should be presented AS SCIENCE  he continued with his ridiculous claims of intellectual fascism etc.

His claim that I did not understand or define intelligent design correctly was also similarly ludicrous. The definition I quoted came from the discovery institute website, so if it is wrong then it is the DI who have it wrong. I explained, patiently on several occasions the roots of the ID movement in the USA; the ruling that it was religious by the courts; the intent of the Wedge strategy and Philip Johnson’s calls to keep the religion out of the debate so that ID can be accepted and only then discuss the religion.  Dr Noble vehemently denied that Johnson’s goal was to get religion into schools. But this is simply not true. For example, in describing how they would get creationism and God into the science classroom Johnson wrote:

Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.

American Family Radio, Jan 10, 2003 broadcast, in which Johnson discusses his book: The Right Questions, encouraging Christians to actively debate issues of eternal value

Johnson has also said: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science. It’s about religion and philosophy.” Witnesses for the prosecution

Dr Noble stated that he knows Philip Johnson and that my claims that this started as a religious movement and that the strategy is clear, get ID accepted then move on to the acceptance of the Christian God and the designer, is untrue.

Readers can judge for themselves who has the strongest argument here. Dr Noble and his denial or Philip Johnson and his recorded and reported admissions.

I suggested on air that he should read the wedge strategy and the book Creationism’s Trojan Horse. I explained that the call does not want a ban on talking about philosophical or religious viewpoints in RE lessons, or philosophy lessons etc. BUT and here is the nub of the argument they should be presented as faith and belief positions and NOT as science.

In one of the interviews he stated quite openly that he didn’t want intelligent design taught in science, so I don’t quite understand what his position really is. Nobody is stopping the discovery institute from doing what they do. If they can convince the academic community of scientists that their ideas are borne from science then fine, debate it and once it attains the status of science it can be brought into science teaching. But ID does NOT have a mandate to jump the queue, get injected into mainstream science teaching with no body of evidence and peer review behind it and certainly not while the community of scientists disagree with it.

Dr Noble kept challenging me to explain the ‘information ‘ in DNA and how it arose. It could ONLY have come from an intelligent mind, he kept repeating. I pointed out that Information scientists do not accept the ID definition of information. I cited Professor Jeffrey Shallit who has criticised Stephen Meyers’ definition of information as confused wrong. He says of Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell”; “Two things struck me as I read it: first, its essential dishonesty, and second, Meyer’s significant misunderstandings of information theory”. He goes on to say that:

Creationist information, as discussed by Meyer, is an incoherent mess.” and “Intelligent design creationists love to call it “specified information” or “specified complexity” and imply that it is widely accepted by the scientific community, but this is not the case. There is no paper in the scientific literature that gives a rigorous and coherent definition of creationist information; nor is it used in scientific or mathematical investigations.

Meyer doesn’t define it rigorously either, but he rejects the well-established measures of Shannon and Kolmogorov, and wants to use a common-sense definition of information instead. Stephen Myers Bogus Information Theory

I asked Dr Noble to define information, in one interview, several times and he did not.

In another interview I challenged Dr Noble over some accepted science, the age of the earth and common descent, knowing that he probably does not accept this science (though he is very, very careful not to expose his own views on creation and Biblical literalism). He said that there was a ‘lot of evidence’ for these things ‘but do you accept the premises?’ I asked. I pressed him, more than once. He did eventually admit that he didn’t necessarily accept them. This, I think, is the closest he has come to admitting publically his own creationist beliefs (that said I have not heard all his public talks so he may have divulged his true beliefs elsewhere).

In many of the interviews I said that accepting ID as science would mean that other pseudosciences would also be entitled to acceptance in science such as crop circles and astrology, both claim to use scientific methods, both claim mathematical foundations. With crop circle science, for example, they have their own research (very small) institutes; have PhD qualified scientific staff; carry out lab based experiments and publish in peer-reviewed science journals. In some ways they are ahead of the ID movement. They characterise their science as dealing with:

  • Number, complexity, and placement
  • Changes to plants
  • Electromagnetic and radioactive effects
  • Physical side effects
  • Highly intricate mathematical design
  • Eyewitnesses and balls of light

Surely, I said in one interview, they would have more claim for crop circle science to be taught as science than ID?

I also mentioned astrology. This again, its supporters claim, uses scientific methods, makes observations, measurements has testable predictions – but we are not going to teach that as science in school either!

I kept coming back to the point that school science is not the place for these debates. Both Dr Noble and I referred to the latest ‘shocking’ science, that a particle could possibly travel faster than the speed of light. We will not, I said, go into schools tomorrow and teach that Einstein was wrong that our understanding about the speed of light barrier is wrong. We must wait for the scientific community to verify this new experimental data and down the line (possibly many years) we may have to revise our thinking or we may find that it was the result of experimental error. The classroom is not where such things should be decided. We will not present this to children and say ‘you decide’.

I stated, many times, that ID starts from the premise that design and a designer exists and they look for evidence to support this. In the one solo interview I had, I pointed out that while scientists now may do a lot of theory confirming experiments and tests on our understanding of evolution, the idea which became a theory did not start that way.

Darwin and Wallace both wondered about how new species arise. They observed they gathered data they went into the field they amassed evidence and then, only then did they move towards an explanation, a scientific theory. They were, in effect, theory building They conducted real science they did not begin with the idea that things have developed and diversified through a mechanism that they called natural selection. They did not go out to seek to find evidence to fit this idea.

Intelligent Design,  as the Discovery Institute admits, seeks to find evidence to support their assumption that some things are so complex they can only have been designed. I put it to Dr Noble that how they characterise ‘design’ is based on looking at the features of things that we know to be designed (that is that are man-made). If they feel that the universe and many natural things are ‘designed’, what is their frame of reference? How do they know what the features of an unintelligently or non-designed universe or cell look like? If your notion of design is simply referenced to designs by humans then the logical conclusion is that the designer is human: so God is human, a human is God (or substitute ‘the intelligent designer’ if you wish). Again Dr Noble said this was not what they were arguing. Yet according to my reading of the Discovery Institute definition of ID that is exactly what they are arguing.

This is the Discovery Institute definition, taken from their website, I was using for reference:

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in  nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.
 Discovery Institute definition of Intelligent Design

From this very definition there are contradictions which were rejected by Dr Noble, as he claimed that I was not defining Intelligent Design properly!

They start with their ‘theory’ that there is a designer for things that are so complex we cannot conceive of how they could have evolved. So their work is not theory building (evolution theory as mentioned above started with evidence and built up to theory) but theory confirming they state that they are ‘seeking evidence’ so the clear implication is that they do not, as yet, have such a body of evidence. In science, particularly biology, the ‘theory’ comes from the evidence not the other way around!

The definition also confirms that their point of reference for deciding if something is ‘designed’ is by comparison to man-made objects that we know to be designed. The assumption here is that the ‘intelligent designer’ works to the same notions of design as humans, why? Why should they have to do that? Hence my comment that the logical end result is that the intelligent designer must therefore be human or that the intelligent designer is only capable of thinking and acting like a human.

I pointed out that ‘theory’ can have different meanings and that in the case of intelligent design ‘theory’ is being used in a speculative way, little to do with evidence, more a hunch or notion that the answer may be ‘designer’ and then you go and look for something to confirm what you already ‘know’. Theory in science, especially biology, means we have the data, the observations and the evidence and our explanations for the natural phenomenon take in what we know and have observed and serve to provide us with a means of making predictions. It is also accepted by the scientific community.

Many times Dr Noble kept banging on about randomness and blind chance. I pointed out that evolution is not about randomness and blind chance and that environmental conditions are the ‘directive force’ in evolution. He of course ignored this and kept on about randomness and blind chance. No doubt he will accuse me of ignoring his claims that ID did not come from religion and to all intents and purposes still is a religious position.

I was clear that this call does not want any mention of ID or creationism banned, that we are not going to call in the police (not even the thought police, as he hinted we might have to) to enforce it and that it was not the job of science teachers to remove religious views from the classroom or tell students that God does not exist. When ID or creationism comes up in science lessons the way to deal with it is, in my view, straightforward. Science is not about faith or belief, it is the acceptance of evidence. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming and just as we accept gravity and atoms, so too should we accept evolution. ID creationism and Biblical creationism are faith-based positions and, as such, require a belief in the supernatural. Science is about the natural world.

If someone wishes to believe in a creative force that instigated ‘the big bang’ fine. If you wish to call that force ‘God’ fine, but all the evidence for the diversity and development of life on Earth does not require the intervention of a designer. It is a product of natural processes.

I have no doubt that Dr Noble will be proclaiming a great defeat of me in his debates today. That I failed to address any of his challenges and that I am ignorant, clearly, of intelligent design.

I could also claim a great victory. Dr Noble clearly does not understand how school science teaches accepted, verifiable and reliable science and that the ‘controversies’ we do talk about are based on the application of science (technology, such as GM foods, mobile ‘phone radiation etc.) and as such  these are more social controversy than scientific controversy, though they have their origins in the science. I could also claim that he clearly does not know how ID is defined by his own peers at the Discovery Institute and that their ‘science’ is no more reliable than crop circle science or astrology. I can also claim that despite explaining very clearly what the call by the signatories is all about. He clearly did not read or understand what our position really is.

I could, but I won’t (well, OK, I admit that I just have). I’ll simply say that after two hours it was only one side that resorted to name calling (intellectual fascist) and that is the true sign that someone has lost an argument!