avoiding the laundry list literature review

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For anyone doing, drafting or redrafting a literature review, this is an excellent post that will help claify what a literature review is supposed to do.


I’ve been asked to say more about the laundry list literature review.The laundry list is often called ‘He said, she said” – as one of the most usual forms of the laundry list is when most sentences start with a name. And the laundry list is a problem. It’s hard to read and not very fit for purpose.

So, what does a laundry list look like? Below is a page of a published book. It is taken from a chapter reviewing the literatures on neoliberalism in ‘the university’. It’s a laundry list. I have:

  • underlined in red the sentence where the author says what they are trying to do (you might call this a topic sentence)
  • circled the sentences that feature a scholar as the subject of the sentence.

Now let’s see what’s going on in the writing. The second paragraph on the first page begins with the author’s intention…

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A brief twitter conversation on grammar schools, with Peter Hitchens

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Peter Hitchens is a very successful columnist – opinion writer and of that there is no doubt. Largely I disagree with him on major issues, but that does not mean I don’t recognise his skill, his passion and his ability to put forward his view.

On the issue of grammar schools he is adamant that their demise is like removing a bridge’s keystone, the whole thing (our education system) collapses.

He is happy that Theresa May is planning to bring back grammar schools.

I am not.

In a recent, brief ,twitter conversation we exchanged views. It began with a direct tweet from me.

His reply?

His reply was, in my view, rather off-hand and denied the undeniable, that comps as a whole are not ‘duds’.

It seemed to me that he was unaware of any of the evidence (and there is rather a lot) that disputes the value of grammar schools as either good vehicles for improving social mobility or as better schools for the most able (the hypothesis being that the most able children would not achieve their ‘best’ in a comprehensive non-selective environment). I asked Mr Hitchens another ‘direct’ question:

To be fair, from what I can ascertain from his wikipedia entry (and I know such entries can be rife with inaccuracies) he certainly didn’t attend a comprehensive in the 1960s, but there again, neither did he attend a grammar school. His academic pedigree is that of an independent (private) education and then a degree via Alcuin College at the University of York.

From ‘Dislike’ to ‘Hatred’ in one Tweet

Suddenly, I then become a ‘hater’ according to Mr Hitchens,

To be fair I did state that I had attended a grammar, didn’t think it provided a good education, that my father had done so as well – not progressed to a university, but became a shopkeeper. My ‘better education’ I maintain, came via the comprehensive school I attended for most (6 out of 7) years of my secondary schooling. Of course there then came the inevitable tweets from a range of others about ‘personal anecdotes’ not being evidence etc. which, if any of them had bothered to follow the conversation I admitted in the very next tweet.

I do not hide the fact that I did not like my grammar school, but I do know how to check bias by looking very carefully for evidence that is independent and which may confirm or deny my position. As a scientist by initial degree, I see evidence over opinion as the standard for debate in cases such as this.

There was a missing word in that tweet it should be ‘evidenced based opinion’. Mr Hitchens cites ‘1000 people’ he has met with anti-grammar views being just like me.

OK, firstly, this is not ‘evidence’ but anecdote. Secondly, who’s the ideologue here?

Evidence Matters – It Really Does

And now we get to the really interesting part of this conversation.

Mr Hitchens asserts (with no evidence) that grammar schools are better and if you don’t see that you are an ideologue. He didn’t even attend a grammar, but ‘knows’ they are better. The best form of defence, of course, is attack and so the following tweet from him ‘demands’ evidence for my position, though seemingly no evidence is necessary for his position.

The fact that I confessed to a ‘personal prejudice’ is the killer of course, designed to undermine my whole argument. I offered to send him the evidence via email if he provided a DM with an e-mail. I can understand that such a ‘famous’ person may not wish to divulge their e-mail to a mere lowly academic like me so that was not forthcoming.

OK tweets it is then.

The Evidence Against and For Grammar Schools

My first tweet was this – note, as a ‘starting point’, by no means all the evidence and not even a peer reviewed publication.

Mr Hitchens swiftly (he must be a fantastic speed reader) as, within 3 mins, he dismisses this as-

In response to my request for evidence ‘for’ grammar schools his response was simply this:

This is not evidence, but his opinion (and that of many others I agree).

But hold up, what, if he and others are correct? What if the exam system had ‘collapsed’?

Even if the exam system is poor, what has that to do with the teaching in grammar schools? Grammar schools do not set the exams and the quality of the exam system is NOT the quality of the school system, it is ‘one’ measure of the quality of the system (and perhaps not the best measure).

If the exams were that poor surely schools could get 100% A* passes in no time at all leaving plenty of time for the important things like a ‘real’ education, independent of the exams.

Even if every school was a grammar school we could still have a bad examination system. To be fair he later backed this tweet with an article written in 2004, again not what I would call evidence but I do agree that the examination system was (and still is) not fit for purpose.

So what evidence did I provide against grammar schools?

I provided links to all the following:

Gorard, S. and See, BH. (2013) Overcoming disadvantage in education, London: Routledge, ISBN 978-0415536899

Crook, D, Power, S, and Whitty, G. (1999) The Grammar School Question
A review of research on comprehensive and selective education London: Institute of Education

Jesson, D. (2013) The Creation, Development and Present State of Grammar
Schools in England York: University of York

Burgess, S, Dickson, M and Macmillan, L. (2014) Selective Schooling Systems Increase Inequality Department of Quantitative Social Science Working Paper No. 14-09 May 2014

Harris, R and Rose, S. (2013) Who benefits from grammar schools? A case study of Buckinghamshire  Oxford Review of Education Volume 39, 2013 – Issue 2

So far, silence from the other end of the conversation. It could be that Mr Hitchens is reading these as we speak, hence the silence, but I doubt that somehow.

My conclusion – when you are called out to provide evidence, do so. But don’t expect the same level of detail or rigour back from a journalist or an opinion writer – their opinion, it seems, is their evidence.

My advice on evidence to journalists?

1. Your opinion, no matter how deeply held, is not evidence
2. Another newspaper article is not evidence
3. If you ask for evidence and get it be gracious, say thank you and read it, don’t ignore it or dismiss it within 3 mins.

A Christmas present from a tweeter

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You make a casual remark on twitter and before long demands are made to defend a researcher’s methodological approaches.

It started innocently enough:

At this point I have to state that I know Jo, know some of her work and worked with her at Sussex for a few years. That said I am not a maths ed expert, neither do I subscribe to or have expertise in her methodological approach to maths ed research. She does large scale longitudinal studies, I am more case study in history of science ed., though I also research creationism and evolution from the standpoint of the nature of science and scientific understanding.

I made a casual remark in reply – a disagreement of the opinion (remember it was Tom’s opinion) given.

Twitter, as we know, is imperfect in conveying subtlety in what you write. I said ‘mostly good stuff’ (that means the stuff I know about) yes, I admit it can be read that I am trying to defend nearly everything she has ever written which of course I have not even read, not being maths ed. I did add I don’t agree with 100% but that seems to have been lost in subsequent exchanges.

So let me state. I’ve read some of Jo’s work, I thought some of what I read was good stuff (note I’m not saying true, universally applicable, incontrovertible, God’s (if you have one) gift to maths education or a ‘paradigm shift’ in maths teaching and learning). I’m also not saying her epistemological, ontological and axiological positions are 100% and not to be disagreed with. It was a ‘casual’ comment where on reflection I should have said ‘some’ not ‘most’ – my bad!

I then had the temerity to say this which starts a mini twitter storm (actually more a brief gust in an alley)

So right from the start I say I’m not maths and I defer to maths experts

I do rate her research in that some bits that I found interesting also worked in a science classroom but not in a way that could be reported in a peer reviewed journal. I do rate her methods – longitudinal studies using hundreds of students (though again I have not studied in depth her methodology for every study she has undertaken) but in general longitudinal studies are good – aren’t they?

Queue entrance of Twitter’s very own @oldandrewuk asking how I adapted her work in science ed.

So I said what I did

OK he thought initially I was ‘defending her research methods’ but as I clearly stated I was not, I was talking about a teaching method I found interesting and that I did a small bit of action research with a few science trainees about 6 years ago.

I also posted this, knowing the vile attempts that have been made to attack her personally, professionally and how spiteful and vile some ‘experts’ in US maths have been towards her.


This prompts OA to write:

Which is NOT what I said, though it’s useful to characterise me as doing this and so cast me as unwilling to acknowledge that there are any proper dissenters to her views on teaching and learning maths, nice one OA good set up.

But no, it won’t wash.

I am happy for there to be debate on the pros and cons of any educational activities, but the attacks MUST be about the issues and not the person, when it strays to the personal and attempts top get people sacked because you don’t like their views, or charges of intellectual dishonesty which were investigated in full, then dismissed, but continue to be made knowing they’ve been fully investigated and dismissed that crosses a line. I refer to the unprofessional hounding of a professional by two other maths experts who happen to disagree with Jo and what she does.

I won’t bore you with the full exchange, but it resulted in demands for me to defend her methods and research or admit I have failed to do so. I defended one aspect of the work she conducted by reproducing it in small scale. It was group work in explaining a difficult concept in a mixed ability setting. I know enough about research to know that what I did was not robust enough for me to publish myself, so I did not. I also said that the approach was interesting (which it was).

The full exchange reminded me very much of the sorts of exchanges that I frequently have with creationists on twitter – the creationist evangelicals. I don’t know OA personally, have never met him, have no idea what he is like at teaching maths. It strikes me that his approach to debating on twitter (though I could be way off the mark) is somewhat akin to an evangelical creationist in maths education terms. That is there is a right and fully evidenced and scientifically robust way of teaching and everything else is wrong. Try to even suggest that something like mixed ability teaching in maths or group work could work or be a valid way of teaching and I will challenge you to the death to prove it beyond doubt in peer reviewed scientifically valid and robust terms that can have no doubt or any flaw in its approach or else you MUST admit defeat and admit that I am right and you are wrong. What happened in the end is also what happens with many evangelical creationists – they block when you try to have a reasonable conversation and put the view that perhaps we don’t know everything, and that things could happen but it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your faith to see that other things could happen.

One further example of ‘extremis’ in OAs arguments is seen in this tweet and his response to my tweet to another tweter about science being about finding the ‘truth’. I said that only maths can claim to find the ‘truth’ science can never do this. His response to this conversation with the other tweeter was:


He either does not understand science and the methods of science or is deliberately trying to get me to say that science is really lies so the can come back and prove me wrong.

Science is about the ‘best explanation’ we have for anything. At no point can we claim that explanation to be ‘the truth’ as new evidence can always contradict our best explanation – at which point we must modify the explanation or abandon it completely for a new one. So no, science does not tell ‘lies’ but neither can we claim ‘truth’ for science. Our best explanations are the theories in science.

I don’t know why OA plays these games as it always ends (with me) with him going off in a huff and blocking. He did it before then inexplicably unblocked me. I don’t know why he bothers at all with me, he clearly will not bother to engage in a proper conversation, but always makes demands and tries to ‘win’ all his arguments at all costs.

So thank you OA for the xmas present of not having to respond to your demands (not that I was going to anyway – it was not necessary and it’s not my field of expertise). It’s a pity you despise Jo and her work. She is a wonderful person, warm dedicated and always thinking of how to improve maths education for all children. No she doesn’t always get everything right, none of us, including you OA can ever do that, but at least she tries and at least she is not a vile, nasty, unprofessional maths expert, unlike her US tormentors.Creation_of_Adam

Whose Knowledge is best?

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By Frits Ahlefeldt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, Nick Gibb MP gave a speech in which he advocated a ‘rigorous knowledge -based curriculum’



Gibb was addressing the launch of a new organisation, Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PATE).

There’s a narrative, mostly found on Twitter, but also evident in other social media and education commentary in the press, that teachers somehow eschew teaching ‘knowledge’. That knowledge is almost incidental to ‘better’ ways of teaching like group work, problem solving etc. On top of this, teacher training, we are told by others, teach theory like ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ which is also ‘anti’ knowledge.

Such attacks are convenient sticks with which to beat the ‘progressives’ who, themselves, it is claimed, are anti-knowledge. To be honest, I’m getting quite tired of this obviously flawed logic and rhetoric.

Teachers are teaching ‘knowledge’ all the time – regardless of the methods they use. Even in group work knowledge is being delivered. I’ve yet to see any curriculum document that does not contain some form of knowledge. I’ve yet to see a lesson where a child has never engaged with any knowledge at all.

To imply that teachers – any teacher – does not deliver knowledge in teaching is frankly silly.

So what is the argument really about?

The argument is about ‘what’ knowledge is delivered and to whom it is delivered. Even Nick Gibb had to imply that there was something special about what he called for. It wasn’t just a knowledge based curriculum, oh no, this is a Conservative rigorous knowledge based curriculum and so the absurdity continues. Now, it’s not just knowledge that has to be taught, but rigorous knowledge.

What is the difference between knowledge and rigorous knowledge?

By NBC Television (ebay item front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is my knowledge of Star Trek rigorous? Does the fact that I know Captain James T. Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius, after his grandfather who admired the Roman Emperor Tiberius, make my knowledge of Star Trek rigorous, or would people say that no knowledge of Star Trek is worthy or rigorous, as it is just a TV/film science fiction franchise and so unimportant in knowledge terms?

Knowing or not knowing facts about Star Trek is for the most part irrelevant. Though the science of Star Trek is worthy of note as they employ real astrophysicists while writing their scripts and bring real scientists into their narratives.

For example, is Star Trek frivolous when they go to the trouble of name checking Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin, correctly describing his view of the likelihood and probability of alien life existing in the Universe?

What it all boils down to is a value judgement and the power of a ruling elite to control what is taught (and therefore, by definition, what should be learned) by our children.

Gove was a control freak on this aspect of education – he wanted to define what history was taught and how, and  strip our curriculum of American literature in favour of more British literature.

What we teach our children is not what is always useful or important.

By W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith. of Cleveland, Ohio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Somebody, somewhere, decides that teaching Shakespeare, Dickens etc. is a necessary part of a good English education. As a scientist I ask why do we not study Newton’s Principia or Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle instead of Shakespeare and Dickens? We can learn as much, if not more, from these two classic science texts as we can from the literary classics.

The answer is that someone somewhere, who probably didn’t study the history of science, deemed them unimportant, perhaps too difficult, or boring – whatever, they didn’t make the cut into any ‘rigorous knowledge’ curriculum. Shakespeare and Dickens did.

Poetry corner

Byron, By Richard Westall (died 1836) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I also saw a tweet that recommended children should learn poems off by heart as this was good for them.

Why is this good for them?

I am now going to show my abject ignorance. I don’t know a single poem by heart. I have fragments of lines of poems. I can do a few bits of random Shakespeare – but not because I learned it in school for English literature, but because I acted in Shakespeare as a youth.

I also fail miserably to identify songs correctly and music from the era of my youth – the 70s and 80s – some may say this is a good thing. But I’m pretty good on show tunes from musicals.

This is what puzzles me. Why is being able to identify Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto in B flat minor opus No. 23 a sign of a good education?

Correctly naming “La Cage aux Folles” as the musical which contains the song ‘I am what I am’ or knowing that ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ started life, not as  a football song, but in the musical Carousel  is not, it seems, the sign of a ‘good education’. Why?

Why is knowing key quotations come from the Bible or Hamlet a sign of a good education and perhaps rigour, yet being unable to correctly identify the man who gave us one of the most important phrases in science, the ‘survival of the fittest’ unimportant? By the way, it wasn’t Charles Darwin though many people think it is. The phrase finds its way into everything, from t-shirt slogans to the clarion call to arms of those who take part in TV shows like Gladiator and Ninja warrior.

Whose curriculum is it anyway?

Gather 100 teachers and ask them to construct a whole-school curriculum and what they insist ‘must be taught’ will result in a set of knowledge requirements that cannot be met.

We first did this in the 1980s with the National Curriculum (NC). Look at the various drafts and track its evolution from its inception through the various iterations and you will see the problem revealed. There is just too much knowledge for us to teach.

In the 16th Century, a Natural Philosopher (scientist) would have a good grasp of the entirety of scientific knowledge of the day. By the 19th Century, the exponential growth in our knowledge (which carries on to this day) didn’t just outstrip the mental capacity of the natural philosophers (by this time now being separated into the various disciplines we see today) but it began to overwhelm all major disciplines.

During the twentieth Century – starting from a baseline of a relatively stable unchanging corpus of knowledge within the different disciplines – we encountered issues over diversity of knowledge in the various examination syllabuses.

Surprisingly, it took until 1976 and Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech to initiate the ‘great debate’ over what we should teach. This was the conception, though the gestation and birth took another 12 years, of the NC. The idea that we should have a core set of subjects with specified content that all children should be taught.

It was Kenneth Baker who acted as the midwife and brought into the education world ‘The National Curriculum’. Baker’s baby, however, went much further than his boss,the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, wanted. She envisaged a small core curriculum of maths, English, Science. Baker was much more ambitious and wanted every subject covered. He got his way when he threatened to resign as Secretary of State for Education unless the NC was implemented in full. Such a resignation, so close to the launch of this major curriculum reform, some say the most important education initiative since the 1944 Education act, would have seriously embarrassed the government, Thatcher’s government.

Since that day the curriculum has undergone numerous reforms and, in my own subject area, science, has been both concentrated, diluted and re-ordered to such an extent that, to use an evolutionary analogy it could be deemed to be ‘not fit for purpose’ and doomed to become extinct. The difference between the initial document and the present day ‘animal’ is much like the relationship between the early mammals and current Homo sapiens. I can see commonalities and links, but the fundamental differences make us very different species.

I have no objection to the teaching of ‘knowledge’. Even in Bloom’s Cognitive domain, if you think about what it is actually saying, rather than what you might think it is saying, things like synthesis, evaluation, application (higher up the domain) cannot be achieved without the foundation of knowledge. Yes, knowledge is ‘at the bottom’ because it recognizes that without knowledge there is nothing to synthesize, or apply, or even evaluate. When it comes to those, oh so despised (by evangelical traditionalists), activities like group work, problem solving etc. none of that can happen without knowledge.

Knowledge is vital in any teaching and learning. The debate is not about whether we have a ‘knowledge based curriculum (even a rigorous one) or not’ knowledge in teaching should be a given foundation.

The debate must be on what knowledge we teach, whose knowledge deserves to be foremost in our various subjects and why that knowledge, above all the other knowledge that could be included, should be prized.

Why urban myths about education are so persistent – and how to tackle them

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The Conversation

James Williams, University of Sussex

As children across England and Wales go back to school, it’s worrying to think that in many classrooms, teachers will be starting the new term believing in teaching “methods” that have been debunked by research evidence.

One of the most persistent “edumyths” is learning styles – the idea that there are a number of styles of learning, such as visual, aural or kinaesthetic – and that certain children respond better if teaching is directed towards their preferred learning style.

Learning styles have been far too easily accepted by some schools and teachers despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness. The prevalence of references to learning styles in School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) programmes from Durham, to Surrey and Cornwall shows how ingrained the concept still is. Despite learning styles being debunked, the concept still forms part of the formal school-based training of a number of teachers across a number of subjects.

So why, in the face of such damming evidence, are edumyths still accepted and used by schools and teachers?

Cat out of the bag

A simple Google search for “learning styles” reveals 5.9m links. Many websites are devoted to it alongside other related educational “approaches” and variations on the theme. Sites provide “testimonials” of effectiveness, but very few provide any solid peer reviewed evidence to back this up.

Studies from the fields of psychology and medical education have shown the futility of learning styles as an effective teaching approach. A systematic and critical review of learning styles catalogued 71 different learning styles models, 13 of which were identified as “major models”. Suffice it to say that, as education scholars Myron Dembo and Keith Howard concluded in a 2007 paper on the use of learning styles in education:

Learning style instruments have not been shown to be valid and reliable, there is no benefit to matching instruction to preferred learning style, and there is no evidence that understanding one’s learning style improves learning and its related outcomes.

Spread of education learning myths

From the ubiquitous Brain Gym that flourished in schools in the late 1980s and early 90s, to the idea that some people use one side of their brain more than the other, or the “fact” that we only use 10% of our brain, exactly how these myths spread is a complex and difficult to understand process.

Who is to blame?
Monkey Business Images/www.shutterstock.com

The blame has been laid at the door of university initial teacher training courses, as well as commercial companies, individual “education consultants” and some teachers. Even the Department for Education (DfE) pedalled the view that universities promoted “useless” theories in teaching and learning.

Yet, a survey by the Wellcome Trust, reported by the charity Sense about Science showed that teachers were not getting learning styles predominantly from their university teacher training. Instead, they:

Commonly come across neuromyth-based methods by word-of-mouth – from their institutions (53%), individual colleagues (41%), and from training providers (30%), who are often linked to those promoting neuromyths.

Are myths necessary?

Myths quite often have some basis in reality. For learning styles, there’s no doubt that people will report a preference for how they learn, but this does not mean they learn better using that “style”. Learning styles also gain traction in the education community because of a general conflation with a push to deliver content in the classroom in a variety of ways. How information is presented to children needs to be varied, if only to stop boredom kicking in. The best teachers have a variety of approaches that mix and match the best learning experiences for their children.

Variety in how information is presented and ideas are explored is not a bad thing. The problem is that this can also lead inadvertently to providing evidence that the idea being used, far from being a myth, actually works. On many occasions I have had teachers tell me that learning styles work, regardless of what the research evidence says. At this point, it’s worth remembering the Hawthorne effect: simply doing something different can have an effect and that effect can be a positive one, but the effect may not be real.

Training is key

The way to tackle edumyths surely must be to provide teachers with the evidence and show them that the idea they accept as true is actually a myth. If only it were that simple. The social psychologist Norbert Schwartz and his colleagues showed that often, when presented with compelling evidence that certain statements were false, people often mis-remembered the false statement as being true.

The move to sideline or even remove universities from initial teacher education and increase school-based teacher training programmes may have the opposite effect to that hoped for by the DfE. Instead of edumyths and “useless” theories dying out, they might become more prominent and even more difficult to remove from teaching. Once misconceptions are implanted, they are very difficult to remove. If teacher education shifts further towards a school-based model of delivery, the potential for implanting misconceptions increases exponentially.

Teachers need two things to improve their practice and eliminate what doesn’t work in favour of what does. First, training in how to look beyond the attractive yet empty claims of the peddlers of educational snake oil and second, time to undertake effective professional on-the-job training that has been shown to be both reliable, rigorous and effective.

James Williams, Lecturer in Science Education, Sussex School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Schools. Or “Of Course It’s Bloody Privatisation”

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A brilliant excoriation of all those who suggest that forced academisation is not a danger to the independence of our local schools.

Disappointed Idealist

This week, Nicky “I’m not Michael Gove, Honest” Morgan and her chum George “I’m not Satan, Honest” Osborne, announced that every school in England would be forced to become an academy by 2022. This has proved, to put it mildly, a little controversial. Opponents of academization, both forced and unforced, have generated a petition of more than 100,000 signatures already, while unions, teachers, politicians and Mumsnet(!) have united in fairly vitriolic opposition. Even Tristram Hunt and David Blunkett came out against this, which tells a remarkable story in itself. However, the “Glob“, as Francis Gilbert termed the very vocal and influential minority who actively support Gove’s privatisation agenda, has been predictably active too. More chaff has been thrown out by supporters of this policy in the last week than the RAF chucked out of its bombers over Germany in 1944, and all with the same intent: to obscure…

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A Spat with a SpAd Part 2: Choice? Not if it’s forced it’s not!

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Choice, Forced Choice, No Choice


When is a choice not really a choice? When it’s a forced choice. Magicians can do this in card tricks. They force a choice then low and behold stun you by claiming they had magically predicted that choice in advance.

In my conversation with Jamie Martin (@jamieamartin1) his central thesis is that Gove provided Heads with choice. His reforms were all about taking power away from politicians and giving it to Heads. In addition, Mr Martin also defends robustly the ‘superiority of (the) pleural syst(em)’. The problem, I said, was that the implementation of School Direct was so badly done, so rushed that many universities were having to prop up the system to make it work – only for the sake of the schools who had been left in dire straights and in chaos when it first came in.


This pleural system is School Direct, Teach First, School Centered ITT (SCITT), the Undergraduate BEd and the University ‘led’ PGCE. In essence nothing to disagree with on a superficial level. Of course more choice is better than just ‘one’ route. But again this assumes that prior to Gove’s ITT reforms there was less or very limited choice.There was also the idea that the university route was less desirable as it was ‘university led’.

Prior to 2010 we had a number of routes into teaching. For primary the predominant route was the BEd (characterised by Mr Martin, you’ll recall from my first post, as ‘awful’) with also a PGCE route; there was the University PGCE with QTS route; there was the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP) the ‘on the job’ training route, for secondary and primary; we also had School Centered Initial Teacher Education (SCITT) which may or may not lead to a PGCE but could recommend QTS and of course Teach First. So choice was always there. Post 2010 the ‘big’ innovation was the scrapping of the GTP and the introduction of School Direct. Heads could now, it was claimed, recruit and train teachers with minimal (or no) partnership with universities. This was the choice that schools, head teachers had.

Given the claims that it was the profession – the grassroots teachers and heads – who had cried out for this very reform, it should have been an instant success. If the BEd and PGCE was so awful and the 3rd rate programmes were failing to supply the teachers that Heads wanted then surely schools would be ditching other courses and embracing School Direct and making it a success. Of course the notion that there were many 3rd rate programmes in ITT that Gove shut down was refuted in Part 1 of my blog.

On the issue of the BEd and low entry qualifications, I have a degree of sympathy with that view. I do think that in some instances the grades required to enter a BEd were set too low in some institutions. The answer is not to shut down the courses, but raise the entry standards.

I could see that the idea of attracting, training then employing your own teachers might be snapped up eagerly by some schools and Heads. Yet after its introduction, School Direct was not the raging success it was built up to be. Alongside its introduction was the scrapping of the requirement for teachers employed in Academies and Free Schools to have any form of teacher qualification. The GTP route last ran in 2012/13 then came School Direct.

And so began the teacher recruitment crisis.

Professor Sir Tim Brighouse wrote about a government induced crisis in ITT it’s well worth reading in full. Many of the things he predicts as problems are a reality today.

Places for ITT in HEI were suddenly slashed by a third – no warning, just a cut. The evidence for high quality ITT in school-based training was poor, as Sir Tim noted:

“The 2010-11 Ofsted annual report found that Higher Education (HE) routes into teaching were more effective than employment based routes. Ofsted evidence: ‘shows that there is proportionately less outstanding provision in employment-based routes than in HEI-led partnerships’ (The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2010/11, HC 1633, page 76). The numbers are quite telling: 65 (47%) HEI-based courses gained outstanding whereas only 19 (19%) employment-based providers were found to be outstanding.”

at that point (2010/11), it’s should be emphasised that nearly 50% of all ITT in University provision was not just good or better, but outstanding if you add in the good provision as well, as my previous post showed, very few providers were less than good.

This is the choice provided to Heads, fewer teachers being trained in outstanding provision and lots of scope for setting up new provision that ‘may’ be good or better, but the record shows that just 20% reached the outstanding level. What sort of a choice is that?

In 2013/14 and 2014/15 there were further cuts to university ITT provision despite the fact that School Direct consistently under-recruited while university provision recruited incredibly well despite obvious downturns in numbers applying to teach. Universities still managed to get around 80% of its total allocation filled. In some cases universities had more applicants than places – the NCTL answer was to try and persuade people who had chosen university over School Direct to take a School Direct place – thereby artificially inflating the recruitment figures for School Direct.

When it came to advertising for teacher training – guess what, the advertising was centred on School Direct – there was little to no mention of university routes. That is still the case today. Rarely, if ever, will university routes in teaching be mentioned by any DfE spokesperson or any minister commenting on how there is ‘no crisis’ but just a ‘challenging’ situation.

It’s worth remembering as well that when School Direct was first introduced, the NCTL was not above instigating a dirty tricks campaign to try and poach potential applicants to PGCE courses. In 2013 providers were alerted to the following email:

(Source: Jonathan Savage’s excellent blog on School Direct which can be found here: http://www.jsavage.org.uk/category/ite/schools-direct/ )

If the Government wanted real choice for schools and Heads then they would have allowed the schools to decide where the allocation of teacher training numbers should be. Yes, allow Heads to bid, but then allow the heads to transfer numbers to the providers of their choice. That would be a real choice and to a large extent market led. If Heads do not like the type of teachers trained in a particular institution it could place numbers with another, or trade the numbers for changes in provision that suit the Heads. That would be a real choice. What we have here is a forced choice or no choice.

The teacher training applicant may feel initially that they have a free choice of routes into teaching, but with the current shenanigans resulting in caps on numbers and sudden closures of university routes, we have people who have been invited for interview suddenly being informed that no places are currently available and the only ‘choice’ is School Direct. Stop pretending DfE and NCTL: it’s a rigged market not a free choice and certainly not an open, level playing field. And please acknowledge that the recruitment crisis is real, then work with us to solve the problem. Don’t marginalise us. Tell the truth for once.

In Part 3 I will look at the QTS vs Non QTS debate – hopefully coming later this week.