Good or Bad Education – An End of Year Review 2013

One of the Journalists I admire most is Ben Goldacre. Back in the day when the paperboy (most likely one of our own sons it must be said) trudged up the driveway to chez Nous to drop off a copy of the daily Guardian, on receipt I would quickly flick through the pages to see if Ben had reported on an aspect of Science, reported in the press or journals in some way. Its headline was Bad Science.

For those not aware of the Goldacre Oeuvre, it needs to be pointed out that he is not universally liked. Over the last decade or 2 of his work, he has managed to attract the wrath of big pharmaceutical companies and of other stake holders in the medical world. Read more here –

It must be said that I have tried to book him for speech day, but his agent (and Ben) tell me he is too busy. That’s a good thing, because Ben and his work needs to be out there and in public. In short, he is the independent principled reporter doing that thing that gives journalism a good name – turning over the rocks and exposing corruption wherever it occurs.  And not just in Medicine.

In their book, Bad Education, Debunking Myths in Education,  Philip Adey and Justin Dillon debunk  many of the educational myths currently supported by those who don’t know better.  You can buy your own copy of their book here – and as the Amazon website states – “This book asks awkward questions about these and many other sacred cows of education. Each chapter tackles a persistent myth in education, confronting it with research evidence and teasing out any kernel of truth which may underlie the myth.” Suffice it to say that on publication I bought 10 copies and force-fed my senior managers with it. That’s a good thing by the way; as the legendary researcher John Hattie’s work exposes, direct instruction is enormously powerful. But I digress. ImageBen Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma:How Drug companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, he explains how all that happens. Today in my in box popped up a post-publication sequel from Mr Goldacre, and it makes sobering reading – in short things are not getting better.

Now as someone who writes about education, I’ll cease publicising stuff about another sector of public interest, and revert to words on Education. Messrs Adey and Dillon do us all a great service, by surfacing current knowledge on what research evidence indicates about best practice. But like all books, their work is based in the past, not the present. Education is now such a political football that researchers the world over now await the latest government dictat and policy statement, and then almost before the ink is dry on the parliamentary order or OfSted memo, teams of researchers set out to investigate what’s happening in the classroom as a consequence and report back.

And what’s good for us who run schools is that there are just as many heads and classroom practitioners awaiting the very first soundbite from that research, to check our status and position accordingly. Have a look at Larry Ferlazzo’s website just to get and insight into what I mean in this regards – the man is a legend of the ether.

Closer to home, Tom Sherrington at King Edwards Grammar School, Chelmsford does a pretty good job too, making a principled stand against the tide of authoritarian hogwash, being his most recent example. I was moved to comment on his latest post “I read your blogs in awe and sorrow. Awe because your values seem so clear and driven by the professional integrity absolutely necessary when the education currency has been so debased by the false gold of political expediency.And equally because as a genuinely independent headteacher of an avowedly broad ability school in the private sector, I see formerly great state schools being reduced to empty husks by the pressure to conform to the 2 legs good 4 legs bad theologies you speak of.”

Tom was kind enough to ping back ‘Thanks James. I recognise that sorrow…but I remain hopeful that the tide is turning. Albeit slowly!’

At the close of the year, I think it is worth restating that for our school, Education works because we have clear Aims, Values, Characteristics we know need to be admired and a principled framework established within which to operate.

The Key Values of Claires Court are:

  • Responsibility for ourselves

  • Respect for others

  • Loyalty to our School

  • Integrity above all

We aim for our pupils to pursue and acquire:

  • a modern relevant education

  • a love of learning

  • a range of life skills – academic, social, musical, creative and sporting

  • a strong spiritual and moral character

We call our Learning Philosophy the Claires Court Essentials. These cover the entire age range of the school, and are developmental in their approach. They are underpinned by leading research outcomes, identified by John Hattie and other world researchers as the best way of proceeding in education.


  • We recognise the importance of building confidence and self–esteem in each of our young people, and to prepare them for the next step in their schooling

  • We work in partnership with parents and guardians to help our pupils achieve their full potential

  • We promote an understanding of the need for care and consideration for others within our community and the wider world

These final 3 bullets no longer sit in our aims, hardwired as they are in everything we do and promote. Sure Thing, we can’t please everyone every time, but that’s because their concerns aren’t that we miss these targets, but simply that our hairshirt might sit less comfortably than they would wish.

As readers of my blog and/or watchers of our newsletters may know, we have had an extraordinary end of term, in both school development and pupil achievement terms. We have been able to identify a possible complete renewal of the school and envision how that might be funded without cost to parent tuition fee on our 50+ acre campus by our Junior boys school, Ridgeway. At the same time, to have one of this year’s GCSE students, Amber Hill be voted as BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year brings particular pleasure and resonance to a school leader who makes it pretty plain to anyone who chooses to listen – we don’t select our pupils on ability on entry, but what we do try to do is help our young children look to the future and achieve beyond the imagination. Here’s a simple set of slides from an assembly at the start of the last academic year, one in which we celebrated that 2 past pupils had competed in the London Paralympics – Almost 2 years ago I took a senior school assembly focussing on our forthcoming charity week, the talk being entitled, Normalising the Extraordinary –

Arguably one of the most powerful educational tools in the box is building in children the ability to hear and make verbal their inner voice. I have no doubt that anyone listening to Amber Hill on TV last Sunday evening couldn’t help but be impressed by her simple, straightforward grounded comments. ‘Cool as a cucumber’ is Amber, and she needs to be in her chosen sport of skeet shooting.

And for a child to develop their inner voice, their teacher must be very careful in what they do and say. Successful learning comes from missing the target hundreds of times, but only just. In educational terms this is what is understood by the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky who developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, often understood to refer to the way in which the acquisition of new knowledge arises through the skill of the teacher placing the next step within reach of the learner. In recent years, in state schools it has been required to show that every learner makes progress every lesson, a methodology imposed with little research to indicate that it would work. It seems blooming obvious that ‘no child should be left behind’, but that’s not the same as requiring every child to stay up with the pacemaker. Education isn’t linear and learning specifically is not. We can all remember the striving to achieve the unachievable, and great teachers make that struggle evident, not invisible.

This summer not only did Amber shoot in World Championships, but her contemporaries Ellie Rayer played Hockey for England whilst Josh Harris and Rory Kempson rowed for England in the Home Countries regatta. Their fellow students, from the junior boys school, Nikolai Hinterreither and Ethan Bains–Gillespie, were selected to play Chess for England for the next 7 years, until they are 18 years old. For a school to graduate 6 internationals in one summer is quite an achievement, and for one of those to be voted BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year is beyond our wildest imaginations. And that’s what our school programme sets out to achieve for our young people; we are modest when we state we wish them to reach their potential, but what we know is that their potential is far beyond their own belief system when they join our school.

If you were able to listen to Amber speak last Sunday evening, on receiving her award from Clare Balding, you hear our school talk – straight, no-nonsense, unassuming. It is by small steps that might journeys are made, it is by striving and failing and having another go that we can develop the character that underpins success. That’s what brings me to work each day, and a promise to find for each child the chance to excel, not in things the government wants, but that which has grown within their own heart.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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