Educational Politics – Part I

I just read an excellent post here by Andrew Old which clarifies a frequent misconception in debates about education.

Put simply, there are two key debates in education – one is about the content of the curriculum, and one is about entitlement. But generally, these two ideas get conflated. Thus, if you believe in traditional academic content, people will automatically assume you are also in favour of a system that is academically selective at 11. Likewise, they will assume that if you are in favour of a comprehensive system of education at 11, you will be in favour of non-traditional content in the curriculum. It is easy to see why this conflation has come about: in the UK, in practice, most of the people who believe in academic content do tend to want the grammar system, and vice versa. However, there is no intrinsic theoretical reason why these two views should go together, and indeed in many countries the ideas do not go together at all. I would argue that is merely a historical contingency that these separate arguments should have become intertwined in the way they have. Indeed, even in this country, the conflation of these ideas results in some complete illogicalities. I recall a governor of a nearby school explaining fluently to me why he believed that the grammar system was unfair, undemocratic and demoralising. He then segued into an equally persuasive defence of why his school didn’t offer French, English Literature or History beyond year 9.

Andrew has come up with a nice quadrant to represent these different beliefs.


Andrew’s argument is, quite perceptively, that on the issues of both entitlement and content there were striking similarities between David Blunkett and the coalition front benches (although he also notes correctly that the Tory back benches are keen on a return to grammars.) I would largely agree with Andrew on this, with one caveat. Firstly, David Blunkett, whilst a traditionalist on behaviour, uniform and reading methods, was in fact not such a traditionalist in other aspects of the curriculum. Blunkett’s literacy and numeracy hour reforms had the entirely predictable side-effect of reducing the amount of time available for History, Geography and Science. That is not a traditional approach to content and nor is it a particularly effective one, as this video from Dan Willingham makes clear. Also, the very names of the ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ hours show how much the Blunkett reforms emphasised the idea of transferable all-purpose skills, not the idea of traditional bodies of knowledge. To a large extent, the Blunkett reforms organised the primary curriculum around the idea that skills could be taught in isolation from knowledge.

I will discuss similarities and differences between the Blunkett reforms and the Gove reforms in my next post which will also involve a quadrant! Oh, the excitement! If one of the problems with blogging is people wilfully misrepresenting you on Twitter, then one of the joys of it is people actually reading your posts about quadrants on educational politics.


8 thoughts on “Educational Politics – Part I

  1. Pingback: Educational Politics Part II « The Wing to Heaven

  2. teachingbattleground

    I’d stick with what I said about Blunkett. A dedicated hour each for literacy and numeracy in a day at primary seems to me to be a reasonable balance in a traditional knowledge-based curriculum, and at the time would have only been a major shift for those schools spending a lot of time on project work or learning through play, rather than a distraction from other academic disciplines. Also, while I take your point about the names “literacy” and “numeracy”, the introduction of the numeracy hour (but perhaps not the literacy hour which I believe was a bit woolier) was an unprecedented push towards traditional teaching methods. The focus on mental methods, recall of times tables and number bonds, and whole class teaching and, also, the prohibition of calculators, flew in the face of the progressive orthodoxy at the time.

    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      Blunkett was undoubtedly a traditionalist when it came to behaviour, reading methods, and maths methods. On actual content, he was not. Remember, Blunkett was a man who felt that the state could and should dictate what to do. Unlike Gove, he had no free market scruples about this. Thus, I think it is fair for us to say that if he didn’t make things compulsory, that’s almost as significant as if he did. When he thought there was a problem with literacy and numeracy, he introduced the literacy and numeracy hours. When he thought there was a problem with kids being uncivilised, he introduced Citizenship (and that alone is significant evidence for him not being a traditionalist). Thus, the fact that he NEVER introduced any mandated traditional content is very significant, I think. I did some research on this for my book and I cannot find one speech or paper where he spoke of the importance of traditional knowledge. You can find a lot of him saying things like this: “Our top priorities must continue to be literacy and numeracy. Without these basic skills, no child can gain maximum benefit from the rest of the curriculum.”

      But they are nearly always followed up with something like this: “However, in the workforce of the future, I have always recognised that creativity, adaptability, and communication skills will also be vital. We must enable young people to develop their creative potential and to meet the fundamental challenges that face our country.”(both from here

      And you never, as far as I know, find anything where he says anything about traditional knowledge. What the above quotations show are that he did just think of knowledge and skills as being separate, and even opposed. His entire aim was to make sure that kids could read and write and count, but that once they had that they could go off and do whatever Ken Robinson was planning. He failed to understand the point that knowledge is the fundamental basis for all creativity and all further skills. In a sense he bought into the transferable skills agenda – if we teach kids the skills to read then they can go off and transfer that into any new material. He heavily promoted synthetic phonics (and in my opinion was right to do this). But he thought that was enough – he didn’t realise that once you can decode, you need knowledge to become a good reader.

      If you look at a lot of the language used in his speeches and policies, it just reinforces this. The 1998 Green Paper ‘The Learning Age’ doesn’t contain anything quite as bad as the 2007 curriculum revisions, but it’s still pretty bad ( It still talks a lot of guff about ‘being on the brink of a new age’. It still also uses the word ‘learning’ as a noun when you should be using knowledge (Mick Waters did this at the start of the 2007 curriculum: ‘we should cherish this curriculum, it is the learning we are setting before our children.’ No! No! No! You can’t set learning before someone! You set knowledge before them!). These are little things, but they are significant. They reveal, or perhaps even betray, a mindset.
      On top of this, he spent a lot of time promoting thinking skills. A lot of time.
      ( It’s a sign of how bad things have got that a man who spent a lot of political capital introducing thinking skills into the curriculum can be considered to be a traditionalist. Chris Woodhead’s article here ( does what you recognise in your spectrum post – it conflates the two issues of content and entitlement. But everything it says on content is sound, I think, and it all shows that Blunkett is not as close to the edge of the ‘content’ axis as you suggest.

  3. teachingbattleground

    I don’t think this is fair.

    Firstly, when Blunkett was in charge of education the old National Curriculum was still in place even at Key Stage 4. As a result the traditional subjects were pretty secure in secondary (some things, like compulsory MFL went further than even the current direction of travel). For this reason there is no particular reason for Blunkett to have focused on the place of traditional subjects in the secondary curriculum.

    Secondly, I don’t think you can judge a politician by what they say when welcoming reports they commissioned but then ignored. Blunkett’s response to Robinson’s creativity report could be compared to Gove’s response to the Vorderman task force,on maths teaching: positive at the time but in no way an indicator of conviction. Ken Robinson was certainly not happy with the government’s attitude to his report.

    Thirdly, judging this in the context of 1994-2001 the things Blunkett said reflected a traditionalist agenda *at the time*. Numeracy and literacy at primary, and standards in general, were the key concerns of the day. Blunkett certainly upset the progressive educationalists of the day. I do think there was a tendency towards making everything out to be modern, and towards the use of slogans, but these are the vices of most politicians rather than a strong indicator of sympathy towards progressive education. The thinking skills speech is definitely a low point, However, I simply cannot accept Chris Woodhead’s judgement as reliable. They had fallen out quite badly over their years of working together and I think this was as much personal as ideological. While I imagine Woodhead might have seen that as being a result of his ideological purity against Blunkett’s progressive tendencies (he was probably right to be concerned about some of Blunkett’s advisers by 2001) this is not how Blunkett saw the disagreement. He believed that Woodhead, apparently closely allied with Melanie Phillips, was in the habit of “making what in politics we used to call transitional and impossible demands; whatever you’re coming up with, they’re looking for something more, and whatever you do and achieve is never enough”.

    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      Look, I can certainly accept that Chris Woodhead’s judgment is unreliable. But I am hardly accepting Blunkett’s judgment as totally reliable either. Are you seriously taking that Blunkett quotation at the end at face value? It would not have been a ‘transitional and impossible demand’ to NOT introduce thinking skills into the curriculum! ‘The thinking skills speech is definitely a low point’? Is that all? Andrew, you know that if anyone else had spent that much time and political capital promoting thinking skills, getting it introduced and getting it on the national curriculum, for crying out loud, you would have them on toast! And rightly so! Plus, it wasn’t just a speech – it was an entire strategy!! ‘Barber, Blunkett and McGuinness between them propelled five types of thinking skills into the national curriculum in 2000’ – ‘information-processing, reasoning, enquiry, creative thinking, evaluation.’

      And citizenship – tell me you are not going to defend the introduction of citizenship? Perhaps I can’t judge a politician on the basis of reports he commissioned – can I judge a Cabinet Minister on the basis of his white and green papers, neither of which make any significant mention of the benefits of traditional knowledge (as opposed to traditional teaching methods)? I have agreed all along that he was a traditionalist on teaching methods. You can’t find me one bit of evidence that shows me he was a traditionalist on subject knowledge – or if you can, I bet it is mightily outweighed by the effort given to the thinking skills and citizenship policies.

  4. teachingbattleground

    I’m not suggesting that Blunkett’s account be taken at face value, just showing that their accounts differ to the point where they did not even agree on what they disagreed about and that Blunkett certainly did not consider it a disagreement over skills versus knowledge.

    As much as I am hostile to Citizenship, I don’t think the intent was to reduce content but to add to it.

    The reason I haven’t been particularly irate about thinking skills is because this is the first I had heard of it, despite having spent quite a lot of time looking over Blunkett’s career and having paid quite a lot of attention to it the first time round. It’s not something I remember being mentioned in his ministerial diaries or something that was controversial at the time. At the time Blunkett was often presented as something a Gradgrind figure.

    The difference may well be because back then thinking skills was not seen as potentially a separate subject, nor as anything more than being able to carry out conventional forms of reasoning. Michael Barber gave as examples of thinking skills being “able to spot a non-sequitur, identify the moments when facts and opinions are elided and treat with caution the weighty conclusion based on flimsy evidence”, I also think that even now when it comes to politicians the debate on thinking skills is not framed as for or against, but how they are to be taught. I can even find a speech where Michael Gove noted the importance of encouraging thinking skills while actually making quite a traditionalist argument.

    I think it is inevitable with politicians that we have to identify their positions from the debates at the time rather than the controversies that arose later as a result of their actions. Sometimes slogans and shaky concepts move around the spectrum depending on what curriculum they could be used to support. For instance, in the 70s and 80s traditionalists were often the first to talk about vocational education and workplace skills. In the early twentieth century it was traditionalists who believed most strongly in transferable skills (and Toby Young apparently still does). During 1994-2001 the key issues about curriculum content were primary literacy, numeracy and the weight that should be given to GCSE results in policy-making. On those issues Blunkett was favouring knowledge and content.

    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      So is the thinking skills policy a ‘low point’? Or is it a traditionalist policy I have misrepresented?

      I find it interesting that you appeal to Gove and Toby Young as markers of what is traditional. I wouldn’t. I would appeal to E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch. They would be at the traditional end of my ‘content’ spectrum. And I am afraid nothing you have said about Blunkett convinces me that he is that close to them on the issue of knowledge (as opposed to teaching methods).

      “I think it is inevitable with politicians that we have to identify their positions from the debates at the time rather than the controversies that arose later as a result of their actions.”

      Yes, I agree, and that is what I have tried to do. (Indeed, on the issue of phonics I have deliberately judged him on what he said and clearly intended, not on the outcomes – which are not as traditional or successful). And that is why I’m still waiting for the quotation from a debate or a speech or a green/white paper or even a memoir – just one quotation – where he celebrates traditional knowledge. Given that you know so much about him and I have researched his writings for my book, it’s pretty striking that between us we can’t find one.

      1. teachingbattleground

        Thinking skills was a low point because it led to a ridiculous initiative (although I believe it was rolled out after Blunkett had left), but I can see that it was probably not intended as an attack on traditional knowledge. I am comparing him with Gove, rather than academics, because I have different expectations of politicians who are more in the business of selecting the emphasis of policy rather than an exhaustive account of the issues. I might add that with Diane Ravitch, I could make a case against her traditionalist credentials if I limited myself to her political speeches, interviews or tweets rather than her books.

        With regard to quotations in favour of traditional knowledge, I think this just comes down to a question of which knowledge that is and what amounts to a belief in it. I see an early emphasis on literacy (particularly phonics) and numeracy (particularly mental arithmetic) as a traditional, knowledge-based primary curriculum. I see whole class teaching as the method based on the explicit transmission of knowledge. It is on these two points that I class him as a traditionalist. For a politician at that time, an emphasis on the 3Rs alone is enough to be marked out as a traditionalist on the curriculum, perhaps it is not far along the scale, but it is enough to be on that side of the graph. He may have fallen out with Chris Woodhead, but at the time they were reviled together by the progressives.

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