* The LDRP exists to undertake and publish independent research and training materials in education
* It was established in 1981 with pump priming funding from the Schools Council
* It is a non-profit making organisation

Underachievement: The role of the Education System in the English Riots of 2011

Prof Dr Diane Montgomery, Emeritus Professor in Education,
Middlesex University, London

Underachievement of the gifted and now the ordinary learner has been of considerable concern to English educators since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989. The reasons were because the new curriculum was regarded as overfull of content, arbitrarily divided into 10 separate subjects even for children aged 5-11 and the methods approved to teach it were indoctrinatory and content driven. The children were to be assessed in all the subjects at 7, 11 and 14 years with national tests (SATs) and teachers and schools would also be assessed on their pupils’ results.

Assessment objectives were soon revised to tests only in the core subjects English, mathematics and science. Even so children spent a lot of time being prepared for them and lost curriculum learning time as a result. Baseline assessment on entry to school was introduced.

School league tables were published and ‘failing schools’ were identified and if they did not improve in a specified period were closed. To enforce this system a regular series of school inspections were carried out by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) inspectors. The inspectors, often not trained teachers, were given three day training courses and a set of criteria by which to identify good lessons. A good teacher and a good lesson were encapsulated in the following: - a teacher who is an expert in his or her subject which is delivered in a lively manner to the whole class with good questioning to follow. Group work was frowned upon.

This model of ‘good’ teaching was not based upon any research but on the experience of politicians and administrators who had enjoyed this form of education themselves, mostly in their private schools and grammar schools. The notion that it was not fit for purpose for the majority of young people did not occur to them and when it was pointed out it was ignored in favour of the ideology (Montgomery, 1986, 1998).

Since 1994 a number of corrections and amendments have been made to the system such as cutting the content twice, dictating lesson structures, specifying a National Literacy Strategy (NLS, 1998), specifying a National Numeracy Strategy (NNS, 1999) then revising them and then withdrawing them. Several major revisions were made to the NLS to insist upon phonics and then Synthetic phonics but without a sufficient grasp that literacy was more than about the teaching of reading. Most recently it has been decided that teachers should be the ones to determine the type of broad and balanced curriculum they should offer and how they should teach it. The State would continue to inspect and assess the results.

What is of concern to me and other educators is that this process has created a wider range of underachievers than previously and caused many more to become classified as learning disabled.

It has indoctrinated their teachers into a role that requires them to follow procedures and protocols laid down in the hundreds of government documents issued to schools, usually 60 to 100 per year. It has deprived them of autonomy as learners themselves and reduced their creative abilities in the design and implementation lessons. These conclusions are based upon the responses to the many professional development programmes I have run in schools and the three MA professional development programmes by distance learning recruiting internationally for my university

Teachers’ original professional training programmes have also followed the content led format under central control favouring a 3 year degree programme followed by 36 weeks of professional training. This professional training consists of 12 weeks in an Institute of Higher Education to learn what they must teach of the National Curriculum and 24 weeks on placement in schools with a mentor or sitting by Nellie’ as in the old apprenticeship system.

20 years of these methods have not ‘driven up standards’ (Timms, 2004) nor have they been beneficial to learners or society in general (Montgomery, 2009; Wallace and Leydon et al 2009). Instead they have undermined many of the values and coherence of a developed society.

I would place these education policies of successive governments at the centre of the causes of the riots that engulfed a wide range of young people and permitted criminal gangs to exploit them. Society is not broken but education policy has made a major contribution to alienation and disaffection especially amongst the already vulnerable and disadvantaged as its unintended consequences.

In addition, our education has not prepared its ‘successes’ to manage their behaviour and lives in a reasonable, ethical and moderate manner so that others, particularly the young, can have respect for them. Politicians have cheated on their expenses, bankers have gambled our money away and priests have abused children.

Research has shown that Singapore, a country much admired by our politicians because its students come top in international assessments in education, operates a high stakes assessment driven system just as England does. It produces students who,

‘exhibit a narrow mindedness, and see the paper chase as the means to the ‘good life’ ---- ‘They make good employees but few can think out of the box, much less lead’ (Heng and Tam, 2006 p 172).

Gregory and Clarke (2003) found that 1 in 3 children in East Asian primary schools did not think life was worth the living and were constantly in a state of fear because of the frequent tests and the authoritarian and punitive style of education. They were spending 2 to 3 hours per night on homework and taking extra classes to keep up. One in five children in English primary schools were of a similar opinion.

Didactic education such as demanded by the English National Curriculum system is found in 90 per cent of classrooms worldwide (Skilbeck, 1989; Rogers and Span, 1993; Wallace and Ericksson, 2006). This includes European countries such as Germany and Finland so much admired for their examination successes in international surveys. It was a system that England had begun to leave behind in the 1980s (Montgomery, 1981, 1983) as teachers found critical and constructivist approaches more effective in promoting lifelong learning and academic stretch in a developed country.

Didactics is a teacher-led, lecture style system in which pupils are taught what, not how to think. They have ‘learnt’ when they can reproduce what has been taught and a good learner is equivalent to a data bank filled with ‘stuff’ (Paul, 1990; Desforges, 1998). Just as the new strategic approaches to learning and teaching were being introduced central control was first exerted over teacher education (CATE, 1983) and then over the design and implementation of a national curriculum (NC, 1989).

The audit culture of regular SATs, accountability, inspections (to government specified criteria), and league tables all in the effort to ‘drive up’ standards has inexorably led to a narrowing of the curriculum as teachers are obliged to teach to the tests in order to reach the standards and cover the syllabus, as predicted by Feller (1994). Extrinsic motivators such as these serve to damage intrinsic or personal motivation to learn for its own sake (Deci, 1988; Ryan and Deci, 2000). As SATs loom large and children fail in their own eyes early in primary school our education system like those in East Asia creates and elite of winners and a large underclass of losers (Gregory and Clarke, 2003).

What has proved successful in overcoming underachievement in disadvantaged and demotivated groups (Montgomery, 2009) can be widely used to improve the general health of our educational system because it has worked with slower learners, the disadvantaged and the gifted. The theory and practice is based in constructivist approaches to learning in which children puzzle their way through to knowledge and learn how to think. They are repositories of concepts, strategies, rules and principles and acquire a greater mastery of content in the process (Paul, 1990). This approach has also been called teaching ‘the cognitive curriculum’ through every subject. An early example was the Perry Preschool Project (Headstart Programme) although the long-term beneficial effects for lifelong learning were not identified for over a decade. It is not content free but content dense in that pupils learn more and need more content to work on than in didactic approaches.

In this country we have been teaching thinking and problem solving in the school curriculum in many projects (mostly under the wire, Montgomery 1998) that have been successful in reclaiming the interest of disaffected learners and challenging the successful. For example TASC problem solving (Wallace 2000, Wallace and Leyden et al, 2009); Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education (Shayer and Adey, 2002); Realising Equality and Achievement of all Learners (REAL) project (Warwick, 2009); Cognitive Process Strategies for inclusive teaching (Montgomery, 1990, 1996, 2009).

These techniques promote participative learning and extended talk by pupils and assist social and communication skills and academic writing. Aspects of some of these approaches such as thinking skills and challenging questioning have even been adopted in recent government strategies (Higgins, 2002). The problem is that all teachers cannot easily incorporate them into their repertoires because of the ways in which they have been educated and professionally trained. So they can ‘walk the talk’ their training needs to do the same.

Thus teacher education also needs to be rethought for the changes required cannot be made through ‘bolt on’ provision later, it needs to model higher education on it if it is to be effective. When teachers learnt by the constructivist methods we wished them to teach their standards were raised (Montgomery, 1993) and they learned far more than previously. Unfortunately although short courses may create interest and change in a few individuals it does not reach the majority, or its effects peter out within a short period.

Critical and creative thinking methodology needs to be backed by other strategies. For example we can learn from private education that the transition years in the State system are crucial. Class sizes in Reception and in Year 7 when pupils move into secondary school need to be reduced to 15 pupils to one teacher. This will allow Reception teachers to give every child a secure grounding in literacy and numeracy especially if articulatory phonics and then morphemic approaches are used (Montgomery 2007). There also needs to be a balanced approach to literacy giving spelling and handwriting more appropriate emphasis (Montgomery 2008). In Year 7 half classes will gain time for each child to be known, to integrate and be heard and cut the disaffection that has been recorded in Year 8 (Hackman, 2005).

Size of a school population also needs to be reconsidered. The unintended consequences of institutions over 1200 can be to increase anonymity and alienation amongst pupils. Perhaps it would be beneficial to organise more sixth form colleges with schools for 11-16s.

My argument is that pupils, especially those from socially and culturally disadvantaged environments in a developed society are particularly vulnerable to failure, disaffection and alienation in our current state education system. It can give rise to the generalised anger and aggression expressed by many of the young rioters. They found it exciting, had little thought for the consequences of their actions and blamed ‘them’ (authority in general and the ‘rich’) and lacked any understanding of the effects of the mob. They became easy prey for criminal gangs to incite to action for their own purposes as well as to their own greed and exploitative natures under the licence and anonymity of the mob.

This is not to deny that out-of-school community activities, parenting classes, education in prison and well-structured probation have an important role to play but schools should be in the lead in prevention and development by changing their teaching and learning methods.

The auguries for change are not good. Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) presenting the Schools White Paper (DfE, 2010) said:

‘The countries that come out top of international studies into educational performance recognise that the most crucial factor in determining how well children do at school is the quality of their teachers.’

‘We are putting teachers in the driving seat of school improvement and we are setting out changes that will make schools more accountable to their communities and their parents.’

We need to ask - how and who will determine this quality? The last occasions when this issue was addressed was when appraisal was on the agenda and it consisted of how many degrees teachers had, not how well they could teach what they knew (Montgomery, 1985; 2002)

Teachers can make a strong contribution but they need to be allowed to redevelop as a profession first. Teaching teachers to teach is not just about teaching them how to teach their subject in a lively manner. It is a third order set of principles and practices that encompass theory, research and practice across age ranges and disciplines. Teachers have to become theoreticians, researchers, subject and practice experts before they can develop the necessary skills and knowledge to do this work (Montgomery, 2002).

Wallace (2006), in her summary of the main points from a galaxy of contributors worldwide concluded that although educationalists were full of hope and optimism there was:
• a universal stubborn adherence to a content curriculum
• a dominant culture that sought to preserve itself
• bureaucracies resistant to change
• 19th century education systems based upon authority, didactics and authoritarianism (Wallace and Eriksson, 2006)

A few words of caution:
‘ Because we have all been to school it does not mean we know all there is to know about teaching’.

CATE 1983 –1991 CATENOTES London: DES/Committee for the Accreditation of Teacher Education

Desforges, C. 1998 ‘Learning and teaching: Current views and perspectives’ pp 5-18 in D. Shorrocks-Taylor (ed) Directions in Educational Psychology London: Whurr

Deci, E.I. 1988 ‘Extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, in control group studies among the gifted’ Conference Keynote Plovdiv. 10th International Bulgarian Conference on Education

DfE 2010 Schools White Paper: The Importance of Teaching London: DfE

Feller, M. 1994 ‘Open book testing and education for the future’ Studies in Educational Evaluation 20 (2) 235-8

Gregory, K. and Clarke, M. 2003 ‘High stakes assessment in England and Singapore’ Theory and Practice 42 66-78

Hackman, S. 2005 Secondary National Strategy: Educating the Most Able the Challenges we Face, the Challenges we Bring London; DfEE
Higgins, P. 2002 ‘Teaching and Learning in the Foundation Subjects; An overview of the Key Stage 3 strand’ Curriculum Briefing 1 (1) 3-6

Heng, M. A. & Tam, K.Y.B. 2006 ‘Reclaiming soul in gifted education: The academic caste system in Asian schools 178-86 in B. Wallace and G. Eriksson (eds) 2006 Diversity in Gifted Education: International Perspectives on Global Issues London” Routledge

Montgomery, D. 1981 ‘Education comes of age: A modern theory of teaching’ School Psychology International 1 1-3

Montgomery, D. 1983 ‘Teaching thinking skills in the school curriculum’ School Psychology International 3 (4) 105-12

Montgomery, D. 1985 ‘Teacher appraisal: The nub is credibility’ Education 22nd March p 259

Montgomery, D. 1986 ‘CATE and the primary teacher’ and ‘Oxbridge influences’ Education 31st January p 101 and February 7th p 127

Montgomery, D. 1989 Managing Behaviour Problems Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton

Montgomery, D. 1990 Children with Learning Difficulties London: Cassell

Montgomery, D. 1993 ‘Fostering learner managed learning in teacher education’ 59-70 In N. Graves (ed) Learner Managed Learning Leeds: Higher Education for Capability

Montgomery, D. 1996 Educating the Able London: Cassell

Montgomery, D. 1998 ‘Education as a subversive activity’ Education March 236-7

Montgomery, D. 2002 Helping Teachers Develop Through Classroom Observation London: David Fulton

Montgomery, D. (ed) 2009 Gifted, Talented and Able Underachievers 2nd edition Chichester: Wiley

NCC (National Curriculum Council) 1989 National Curriculum Guidance York: NCC

Paul, R. W. 1990 ‘Critical thinking in North America’ 18-42 In A.J.A. Binker (ed) Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Know to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World Sonoma: Sonoma State University, Centre for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique

Rogers, K. S. and Span, P. 1993 ‘Ability grouping with gifted and talented students: Research guidelines’ in K. A. Heller, F. J. Monks and A. H. Passow (eds) International Handbook of Research and Development of Giftedness and Talent Oxford: Pergamon

Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.I. 2000 ‘Intrinsic motivation: Classic definitions and new directions’ Contemporary Educational Psychology 25 54-67

Shayer, M. and Adey, P. (eds) 2002 Learning Intelligence: Cognitive Acceleration Across the Curriculum from 3 –25 Years Buckingham: Open University Press

Skilbeck, M. 1989 School Development and New Approaches to Learning: Trends and Issues in Curriculum Reform Paris: OECD

Wallace, B. 2000 Teaching the Very Able Child: Developing a Policy and Adapting Strategies London: David Fulton

Wallace, B. and Eriksson, G. (eds) 2006 Diversity in Gifted Education: International Perspectives on Global Issues London: Routledge

Wallace, B., S., Leyden, S., Montgomery, D., Pomerantz, M. & Winstanley, C. and Fitton, S 2009 Raising the Achievement of Able Gifted and Talented Pupils Within an Inclusive School Framework London: Routledge

Warwick, I. 2009 ‘Improving the quality of identification, provision and support for gifted and talented learners from under-represented communities through partnership working’ 219-65 In D. Montgomery (ed) 2009 Gifted, Talented and Able Underachievers 2nd edition Chichester: Wiley

©2021 www.ldrp.org.uk This website is hosted and maintained by Lodge Information Services