Daisy Christodoulou on Educational Myths

I was delighted to see that the magnificent Daisy Christodoulou, who featured quite a lot in my recent mini-essay on the curriculum, contributed an article to last week’s Spectator.

Her point that some of the trendiest education ideas are actually rather old hat was very well put:

“…one popular buzzword at the moment is ‘21st-century skills’, which sounds about as cutting-edge and modern as it gets…But a similar case was made at the start of the 20th century. In 1911, a prominent US educationalist criticised the way that schools taught pupils ‘a mass of knowledge that can have little application for the lives which most of them must inevitably lead’. Today we also hear a lot about the importance of ‘innovative’ project- and activity-based learning. But in England in the 1930s, the Hadow Report into primary education counselled that the curriculum should be thought of ‘in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored’. We’ve been trying these ideas, and failing with them, for a very long time.

I had never considered this:

…the reading researcher Keith Stanovich has argued that ‘education has suffered because its dominant model for adjudicating disputes is political rather than scientific’.

I also feel, and am heartened by, this:

“…my impression is that we are at a turning point in education. More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.”

The whole article can be read here.

Roger Scruton on knowledge, the curriculum and the state’s contribution to education

In a recent BBC Point of View broadcast, intellectual heavyweight Roger Scruton  gave a fascinating history of education since the nineteenth century. It is well worth a read.

Having just written a mini-essay on the curriculum, I was especially struck by this thought:

The state inherited well-funded, long established and dedicated institutions and a tried and tested curriculum that large numbers of people knew how to teach.

Hear hear! He also shares my feelings about the importance of knowledge, encapsulated in this tidy phrase:

Education, we must remind ourselves, is not about social engineering, however laudable that goal might be. It is about passing knowledge from those who have it to those who need it.

(Full article here


Making independent schools affordable

If there is one concern that privately-educated friends of mine with new-born children all share it is that they will not be able to afford the education that they themselves were lucky to receive. I predict that this topic will come to dominate UK boarding schools over the next decades.

Andrew Adonis commented on the inflation in boarding school fees, and its cause, in a speech last year:

‘From the 1980s onward, there was fierce competition for theatres, swimming pools. Independent schools wanted to gold plate all their assets. There was a big reduction in class size… ten or not much more became an article of faith, half the level of the state system. And they pay their teachers more. Put all of that together and you have had private school fee inflation of two, three, four, five times the level of inflation at large.’

Will other schools follow Milton Abbey’s lead and cut their fees?

An interesting response from Scotland in the The Independent:

In her price on independent schools (25 February) Rosie Millard makes the all-too-common mistake of picking the biggest number she can find and crafting a lively narrative around it.

The majority of pupils who attend independent school, at least in Scotland, are day pupils who live locally. Annual fees, for those who do pay full fees, are well below £10,000 – not the £30K figure quoted, which is more than any full boarding experience in Scotland would cost.

On top of that, the charity law in Scotland requires means-tested financial assistance for pupils who wish to access the education of independent schools but require fee assistance. The sum of that assistance is well above £30m annually, with bursaries ranging up to 100 per cent.

All of which is why the landscape, seen from here, is a lot more diverse and welcoming than Rosie Millard sees.

John Edward, Director  Scottish Council of Independent Schools, Edinburgh

Mini-Essay: The Curriculum

In almost a decade of answering questions from parents about boarding schools, I have never been asked about a school’s curriculum. And yet it is hard to think of a feature that has more of a bearing on a child’s education. This short essay makes a case for why the curriculum is quite so important, and suggests a few ways to judge individual schools on the merits or demerits of their curriculum.

I should say a word on the term. A school’s ‘curriculum’ is the course of study it has chosen for its pupils. In detail, it would describe the content of every lesson. Although schools are directed to some extent by national examinations, they nevertheless – and especially in the independent sector – have a lot of freedom to design their own curricula.

Very Brief History

To understand the importance of the curriculum, it is necessary to have a whistle-stop look at its history.

Before the nineteenth century, boarding schools offered a curriculum that appears baffling to the modern parent. Most schools exclusively taught the Classics; Harrow also offered…Archery.

From the nineteenth century onwards, though, after spirited debate as to the merits of new-fangled subjects like Science and English Literature, the curriculum began to take the shape that it was to retain to the present day. This is a curriculum arranged into discrete subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, and organised around the core knowledge included in these subjects. To my knowledge, no more effective curriculum has ever been devised or instituted.

Such a curriculum is what late nineteenth century commentators such as Matthew Arnold called a “liberal education.” (For more on the term, read my mini-essay on the topic.) Importantly, it was thought to be a curriculum that should not be limited to independent schools, but which had universal appeal and benefit. From the 1870s onwards, it met with the approval of headmasters, politicians and commentators of many different stripes. And it was just such a liberal curriculum that inspired the formation of the first National Curriculum in 1988.

However, though the support for such a curriculum was broad, it was by no means unanimous. Weakened by the ideological currents of the 1960s and 70s, the consensus faltered and, as David Conway charts in his brilliant summary of the events, the mainstream educational establishment began to view this curriculum as elitist, irrelevant and not fit for purpose. Since 1988, the National Curriculum has been steadily distancing itself from the curriculum beliefs that had been upheld for so long by both the independent sector and beyond.

From the late 20th Century onwards, then, there was has been a decoupling. The National Curriculum has become ever more suspicious of traditional subject knowledge, and has promoted instead a curriculum that is based on skills (such as “collaboration” or “project research”) and rooted in the knowledge brought to class by pupils rather than knowledge imparted to pupils by teachers. The independent sector, on the other hand, has by and large stuck to the curriculum principles laid down in the nineteenth century.

How does this affect boarding school parents?

Concerns for Parents

Parents should be anxious as to whether the independent sector is safely insulated from the modern educational orthodoxy on the curriculum.

This is not the place to go into detail about why a traditional knowledge-based curriculum is so important for children. For parents who want to read more, the book to read is Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education. For now, one quotation of hers out of many that favour the traditional boarding school curriculum will suffice:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge.

So do boarding school parents have any reason to be anxious? In general, I am glad to say, no. Most independent school leaders have rejected modern curriculum orthodoxy, no doubt seeing that their belief in traditional subject knowledge is one of the reasons why the private sector has so outstripped the maintained sector in the last few decades.

However, there are a two concerning trends that I have noticed:

  1. An increasing number of teachers in boarding schools have been subjected to two years of modern curriculum philosophy during their training on the PGCE. “Skills-based” curricula are terribly seductive. I should know: I was enthralled by them when I was a recent graduate teacher myself. What was the point of learning pointless lists of Kings and Queens, when – in the twenty first century – knowledge is just a click away? The modern child surely did not need such an outdated curriculum; he needed to be a flexible, resilient, lifelong learner instead! Without the underpinnings (scientific and philosophical) of a knowledge-based curriculum, many new teachers are prey to the seemingly more enlightened theories of Sir Ken Robinson et al. I have met many well-educated and well-meaning teachers who have been trained to look on traditional curricula with hostility. Such teachers are ever more numerous in UK boarding schools.
  2. For the same reasons that a “skills-based” curriculum is seductive to new teachers, it is also seductive to many new parents. Hence the ever more frequent promise on school websites that they are “preparing students for the twenty first century” by, for example, “developing skills of creativity, flexibility, lateral thinking and enterprise”; or by “fostering intuition and resilience” or by “nurturing empathy and courage.” If these melodious mission statements are achieved by sticking to a traditional subject-based curriculum, the potential for damage is limited; if they are accompanied, as they are in some boarding schools, by a subversion of the curriculum, the potential hazard is immense.

Tips for Parents

How can parents tell whether a boarding school curriculum is knowledge-based or skills-based?

Out of all the aspects of a school’s daily life, the curriculum is one of the hardest to get a handle on. Whenever I visit schools, I do my best – but am often left none the wiser about the content of a school’s lessons. This is particularly the case as few registrars ever have intricate knowledge of a school’s curriculum. A few tips will suffice, though I would be delighted to hear more:

  • Ask to be shown round by a pupil, and ask them what they have been learning in their subjects recently. I particularly enjoy asking about their History lessons. I was told by one group of prep school boarders, with inestimable delight in their eyes, about all the intricacies of the Battle of Waterloo. If pupils relay knowledge (as opposed to vaguer accounts of history projects or source analysis), it is a very healthy sign.
  • If you can’t gain a good idea of a school’s curriculum from its website, ask whether the Director of Studies would mind receiving an email from you. Ask him or her simply what principles underlie the school’s curriculum. If the emphasis is on knowledge over skills, or at least if knowledge is seen as the essential foundation block upon which skills can be built, you can rest easy.

This is a thorny but fundamental topic and, if parents have the time, one that well repays further reading.

Emotional Resilience

This sort of thing is increasingly prevalent in the independent sector:

Yesterday, it was announced that head teachers from 200 of the country’s leading independent schools will attend a conference next month to learn how to equip their pupils with emotional resilience, so that they can deal better with stress and failure.

(Full article in The Telegraph)

As ever with curricula that promote skills over knowledge, it is hard to find fault with the skill itself. Who wouldn’t want their children or pupils to be emotionally resilient? It is the method by which these skills are ‘taught’ that is more suspect. 

Pastoral care; competitive sports and examinations; the study of traditional subjects (especially the Humanities): all of these facets of school life, to name just a few, have been, in the hands of humane and experienced teachers, the seedbed of ’emotional resilience’ for many centuries. The only suggestions I could find in this article (“nurture a positive view of yourself”; “practice optimism”) seem at best banal. At worst, such suggested ‘interventions’ are an invasion of unnecessarily therapeutic language into an arena in which they may help to aggravate the very problem they purport to solve.

Stillness – what’s wrong with chapel?

One of the mini-essays I’m planning is a profile on Anthony Seldon. Is he our generation’s Thomas Arnold? One thing is for certain: there is no man in independent education today who is better at dominating the headlines.

Yesterday, he was promoting his Conference on Mindfulness by commenting on stillness in schools:

He said that the decline of old fashioned religious assemblies had robbed many pupils of the ability to “reflect during the school day” just as large numbers of children faced unprecedented levels of stress.

Not a bad idea in theory, but it left me thinking: what was wrong with chapel?

The Independent Curriculum

I have been following the Independent Curriculum (or, to give it its full title, the “IC Programmes for Learning”) for a number of years now. Its parent company, Galore Park, have done prep schools a good service by publishing traditional, knowledge-rich text books (including the 1905 Classic Our Island Story) written by excellent independent school teachers like Theo Zinn. Hats off to them.

All of which makes their sponsorship of the Independent Curriculum the more surprising. The IC pays lip-service to knowledge (it “introduces Knowledge Strands alongside cross-curricular Learning Skills to ensure your pupils have the canon of knowledge required from a rigorous, academic education”) but its essence repudiates traditional knowledge-based education at every turn.

The principles outlined in its brochure (available here) are characteristically, if not deliberately, anti-liberal education. You can read it for yourself, but here are just a few highlights:

1) The false dichotomy between knowledge and skills.

“For education to be relevant and effective for the future, it demands a curriculum which not only imparts knowledge but affords learners the opportunity to discover it for themselves, to scrutinise it, to apply it within creative, problem-solving situations and then debate, discuss and communicate it to others.”

2) The invocation of alarmist, irrelevant scenarios to justify educational change.

“But the world is changing – and fast. The perceived wisdom of past generations is no longer sufficient. The pace of technological advancement, the globalised marketplace in which we must all now compete, the depletion of the world’s natural resources, and the everpresent [sic] threats from global warming call for skills beyond literacy, numeracy and knowledge retention. We need innovative, intellectually curious, revolutionary thinkers leaving school with their creativity and courage still intact.”

If the educational philosophy is fluffy, perhaps the content of the curriculums is more rigorous? Alas not.

For evidence, have a read of their suggested Year 4 Curriculum. It is structured so that the learning (Discovering) is in the column to the left and the associated skills (Applying and Communicating) are in the middle and right hand column. Little indication is given to recommended timings on each section so let us suppose that we divide the columns equally. At the most, then, pupils are spending only ½ of their time actually learning the story of the past; the other two thirds are spent doing activities like “imagine a day at a Roman School” or “put together a PowerPoint slide on a typical Roman school day.” This is typical “project-based learning”: a well-meaning suggestion that is rarely an effective use of time because pupils spend their time thinking more about PowerPoint design than they do about Rome and because pupils are left making a project with very shallow knowledge. When you realise that many of the suggestions in the Discovery section are covert projects (“Research what a Roman home would look like”), one is left with the impression that if this curriculum was implemented, very little history would end up being committed to memory each year.

The brain is rarely riper than in Year 4 for soaking up oodles of History knowledge: a typical Temple Grove pupil in the middle of the nineteenth century was reading Thomas Carlyle by the end of Year 5. It is not out of cruelty that liberal educators would bid the child to put down his Pritt Stick; there are plenty of other times in a child’s day – e.g. at home or in Design and Art class – when they would actively encourage it. Liberal educators asset knowledge instead of projects because the reverse leads to the waste a 9 year old’s precious History lessons with thoughts and activities not related to the learning of History.

Mini-Essay: The Abolition of Man

It is a frequent lament of liberal education enthusiasts in this country that they must so often turn to the United States for inspiration. So it was that, via the US education think-tank the ISI, I first came across C S Lewis’ slim, digestible book on education, The Abolition of Man. Few books have had such a profound effect on me, especially on my views of education. It can be read for free here, and I much recommend this accompanying lecture (number 118 on the list, I believe) by the entertaining and rather mellifluous Dr. Richard Gamble.The book can be read in one sitting, and I would hate to spoil the experience for the uninitiated, so I shall limit my commentary to just one point – on sentiment in education.C S Lewis’ writing is a wonderful tonic to modern conceptions of sentiment, which leave most commentators divided between automatons and sentimentalists. Today, it seems, one is either in favour of regimentation, efficiency and accountability (see most of McKinsey’s reports on education systems, or politicians’ regular praise for the education systems of Korea and Singapore), or else one would rather schools resemble Rousseauian playgrounds, exalting creativity and individual expression above all else.

C S Lewis would be appalled by both visions, though it was his fears about the former – the technocraticisation of English schools; the mechanization of their products – that led him to write the book. In my favourite line, he writes: “The job of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

What did he mean by deserts? He worried that children were being educated in a way that robbed them of their souls – though atheists may prefer the word spirit. He illustrates his point with several examples, most from a popular elementary textbook of the time. I’ll repeat just one – on horses. In the textbook, the writer has found “a silly bit of writing on horses, where these animals are praised as the ‘willing servants’ of the early colonists in Australia”. The writer “debunks” this piece of writing and explains that horses were not interested in colonial expansion.

That C S Lewis picks out this example is a testament to his value as a writer on education, and to what we’ve lost now that his like are not around. Most parents or teachers would skim over this tiny detail as incidental, a bit trivial, not worth worrying about. Not Lewis, who writes:

“I find that the same operation, under the same general anaesthetic, is being carried out. Orbilius [his name for the writer] chooses for ‘debunking’ a silly bit of writing on horses…Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—he has not a word to say. Even of the problems of animal psychology as they exist for science he says nothing. He contents himself with explaining that horses are not, secundum litteram, interested in colonial expansion. This piece of information is really all that his pupils get from him. Why the composition before them is bad, when others that lie open to the same charge are good, they do not hear. Much less do they learn of the two classes of men who are, respectively, above and below the danger of such writing—the man who really knows horses and really loves them, not with anthropomorphic illusions, but with ordinate love, and the irredeemable urban blockhead to whom a horse is merely an old-fashioned means of transport. Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost; some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received; some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds. That is their day’s lesson in English, though of English they have learned nothing. Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.”

Not just the missed opportunity to leave a child uplifted, but the actual reduction in scope and spirit that a lesson like this might cause, is tragically revealed. Elsewhere in the book, Lewis repeats the damaging consequences: “The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him…It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognised as a controversy at all.” That the capacity for worthy, “ordinate” sentiment is what it means to be human is why C S Lewis chooses such a fearsome title: by robbing children of this capacity, we are abolishing the species.

A very good friend, who teaches English at a top London independent school, tells me that C S Lewis’ fear is well-placed with regard to many of the colleagues he has worked with. One telling observation was the number of his colleagues – clever, professional, sometimes brilliant, well-meaning men and women – who would disparage as childish or needless their students’ tendency to imagine characters’ lives beyond the pages of a novel. History departments do the same damage to their students’ historical imaginations when they refuse to be drawn into class discussions on counterfactual history. As Lewis says, the result is that “we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”

There is nothing about the sentimental approach encouraged by Lewis that means that the education has to lack rigour – so often the case with modern attempts to prioritise the sentimental. The English public schools used to be purposeful standard-bearers for a middle way, managing to be at once academically rigorous and encouraging of “ordinate” sentiment, but I for one have fears that this is now under threat. It is interesting to note that C S Lewis, like Tolkein, T S Eliot and other writers who left school before WWII, were the last generation to have had a rigorous classical education. Anyway, the book has much more to it than what I’ve discussed above, and I heartily recommend it.

Mindfulness – gathering momentum

I have been meaning to research Mindfulness in more detail this year. Like “Neuro-linguistic Programming” (NLP), the word has a rather synthetic quality – but I shall endeavour to read more before commenting. 

All I can say for now is that it is gathering momentum in many UK boarding schools. See this letter published in The Guardian yesterday (which cites this fuller piece):

While mindfulness gains popularity and we hear of its increasing use in schools, I want to bring your attention to the long held practice of Quakers, where we gather in silence to calm the mind and focus the attention. While other schools start bringing this mindful practice in to their extended curriculum, Sidcot School in Somerset celebrates the fact that they have provided breathing space for staff and students for over 300 years.
Jacqueline Bagnall
Director, Centre for peace and global studies, Sidcot School

The letter led to another discovery: Sidcot School have a Centre for Peace and Global Studies!

Mini-Essay: What is Liberal Education?

One cannot be a modern “educationalist” without a pithy defence of what education is and what (or who) it is for.

One cannot be a modern “educationalist” without a pithy defence of what education is and what (or who) it is for. Definitions for the purpose of education are to be heard everywhere, and are often loaded with personal or political bias. Someone new to the topic – told at every turn that education is one of the most important features of modern life – can be forgiven if he is left scratching his head, or if he is attracted by the meretricious glow of trendy definitions (or manifestos, as they increasingly seem to be called) currently doing the rounds.I have found it helpful to look backwards at how education has been defined in the past. It is a great comfort to do so, for although details and methods are debated, the central purpose of education seems to have been universally understood since it was begun in Athens in the 5th Century BC. The phrase “liberal education” – and this site – takes its inspiration from this old common understanding of what education is for. That this definition should be supplanted by something fit for the 21st Century is a case that has been repeatedly made; I would ask which developments have made the definition below no longer fit for purpose.The essay to read is Anthony O’Hear’s Introduction in his The School of Freedom, from which this brief, and personal, summary draws its inspiration.Firstly, how is Liberal Education liberal? In two principal ways:1. Its purpose and scope is broad.


The goal of liberal education is…to produce educated persons. Qualifications may be more or less required depending on the historical circumstances, but the chief measure of a liberal education is a frank look at the end product: is this person educated, or is he not? How do we test this? Principally, by how much he knows. This is where that glorious – but much too debated – phrase from Matthew Arnold comes in: that children should be fed a diet of “the best that has been thought and said.” The point is that the knowledge selected for the child to be taught should not be dictated by how useful it will be for a particular job, but for its own inherent quality. This means: the best novels; the most ground-breaking scientific breakthroughs; the great events in history. I disagree with a few points of Martin Stephen’s essay The Strange Death of Liberal Education, but he does use this attractive phrase. A liberal education, because it is concerned with more than training for a particular job “has time to gather flowers by the wayside.”

2. Its ambition is to liberate.

The more specific an education, the more trapped are its graduates. The payoff for the rigours of a liberal education is intellectual liberation. A diet of “the best that has been thought and said”, if taught in the right way, equips children with the mental armoury needed to be truly autonomous, protected in adult life from the temptations of sophistic hucksters or commercialist knaves. It was an education designed, in the words of the 15th Century writer Vergerio, to be “worthy of a free man.”

I shall leave to a future essay the central paradox of liberal education. To my mind, it is the reason that its name is so often taken in vain. Briefly, it is this: in order to achieve liberal education’s highly ambitious ends, teachers and parents have to use means, especially in the early years, which will feel illiberal. Memorisation; grammar tables; rote learning; high standards rigorously upheld. As Anthony O’Hear very eloquently puts it, “personal freedom requires an internal locus of control.” Supporters of liberal education have a low estimation of a child’s ability to reason. As Aristotle says in his Ethics, “no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life.” Again, this is put very well from Professor O’Hear: “it is the responsibility of parents to exercise judgment on behalf of their growing children, and the most generous choice is to train the child’s own reason in anticipation of his or her necessary freedom in majority.” It is in these coercive areas – a recommended canon of knowledge, rigorously taught – that the Liberal Education tradition runs counter to some of the orthodoxies of modern permissive parenting. The payoff is worth it though. Anthony O’Hear again: “by aiming at such uniformity schools produce all the diversity of freedom…No pedagogy has ever shown more faith in its charges; no generation has ceded so much power to their successors.”

Liberal education is defined in essence above. It has two interesting lesser priorities, which I shall touch on very briefly here. The first is that it has an aesthetic element to it. Martin Stephen says that “A liberal education seeks to inculcate an awareness not just of why a thing works, but that it can be beautiful in its working”, and Professor O’Hear agrees: the ideal product has “…an educated sensibility in matters of value and the aesthetic.” The last point is that it includes quiet political ambitions too. Students who have been truly liberally educated want to engage with the world politically. “Reason,” as O’Hear says, “will call its pupils to action.” I shall be discussing the non-intellectual character elements of liberal education in another essay.

As a last point, it is worth answering the question of who, as opposed to what, liberal education is for. After its coercive elements, the next biggest problem for liberal education in this century is the whiff of elitism that accompanies it. Of course, it was precisely this elitism that made it attractive in the past. In more ambitious ages, people of all backgrounds thronged to the great books and ideas precisely because they basked in glory. This should be the rejoinder in the present age: when previous generations from all backgrounds took such succour from liberal education, why is it modern young people from poor backgrounds who are denied it? It is, after all, the unprivileged who have more use for intellectual autonomy than the privileged. The book to read on the topic is Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. In it, he charts the reading habits of the British working class over hundreds of years. The book teems with fascinating portraits: Catherine Cookson’s biography is famous; my favourite are those of the Midland weavers who had copies of Great Books propped up on their frames as they worked. As O’Hear points out, the initial aims of Liberal Education were to extend aristocratic Athenian culture to all Athenian citizens; this ambition needs to be urgently re-stated.