Weak arguments and conspiracy theories.


Image: Crop Circle Symbology

In general I think we’re in a good place regarding educational debates.  There are lots of areas where people hold different points of view and I feel that, compared to the pre-twitter , pre-Gove era, there’s a much livelier climate of discussion and debate about what education is for and what constitutes effective or desirable practice.  Prior to 2010 (roughly) my sense is that we are herded sheep-like towards one position or another by the too-few voices of authority.  It was difficult to get a sense of a national debate on any technical issues – only those related to conditions of service.   The Gove vs The Blob period was painful for many but, ultimately, it has, in my view, unleashed a new wave of debate that we’re still riding.  Gove stirred (attacked?) the hive and we’re still buzzing.

In amongst all of this, there are several lines of argument that make me cringe; arguments that turn proper debates about technical issues or matters of principle, into partisan feuds between rival camps; saints vs sinners; goodies vs baddies; the enlightened vs the ignorant.  At its worst this descends to children-lovers and the bringers of peace vs childhood-snatchers and the merchants of doom.  We even get a bit of conspiracy theory thrown in:  Nicky Morgan is Illuminati. Confirmed.  Not much different to this:

Without going into detail, here are some of my bones of contention:

SATs are cruel and make kids cry.  Pressure does not come from taking exams; only people.  Kids only cry if their parents and teachers have created the conditions for that to happen.  Yes, accountability pressure is real but the children are feeling it, that’s an issue for schools to address. If we’re going to establish a different accountability culture, we can’t be using the tears of children as an argument when that is our fault.

Testing kills creativity.  No it doesn’t. Testing does not make schools exam factories that kill creativity.  Teachers who fear tests undermine any argument about the nature of assessment, the balance of the curriculum, the need to value more elements of school life. Tests do what they do and the more rigorous and reliable they are, the better.  The question is about what else we do and how tests are designed – not whether to test, but how to test and what to test.

Grade boundaries are gerrymandered.  No they aren’t. Boundaries have always existed and have always shifted; that’s how we keep a sense of what standards are over time.  Also, the DFE has no influence no them. OfQual is more independent than many want to believe and they are driven by technical analysis. If we don’t want grade inflation, we need to fix standards; that’s what happens. That’s how the system works.  The issue with Nicky Morgan and the bell-curve is more cock-up than conspiracy; I don’t think there is enough understanding at the DFE about how exams work; they talk tough (and nonsense) because that’s how they think they win votes; but they don’t instruct exam boards to fiddle the books.

Hard questions are unfair.  No, good exams have hard questions in them and, since they are the same for everyone, the grade distribution process sorts out any variation. The overall level of difficulty in a paper is determined by the spread of performance across the cohort year to year.  The system has flaws but let’s not continue this annual outrage at difficult exams. Students who have learned more deeply, have revised better and, probably, been taught better are likely to do better than others but isn’t that what we’d want from a fair exam system?

Academisation is privatisation.  No it isn’t.  I don’t think anyone driving the academisation agenda sees it as a way to make money; it simply isn’t.  It’s a huge financial risk if anything.  The agenda may be to break up LAs, to spread school resources around, to shield government from accountability responsibilities – but there’s no money in this. It’s a lame argument.  There’s a delusion that academisation=success, but that’s another matter altogether.  There is a sensible case to be made that having a mix of academies and maintained schools is unsustainable in the long run and, ultimately, every school-an-academy is more attainable than going back the other way.  Let’s debate that without resorting to conspiracies.

Exclusions are wrong.  No, they are a necessary aspect of establishing high standards of behaviour.  Excluding kids from schools for the sake of the rest is necessary; as is caring about what happens to them next.  ‘No Excuses’ is a position that needs sensible debate. It depends on whether we’re talking about the micro classroom level ( no pen = detention, no question) or the system level (where Heads can say ‘take it or leave it’ and walk away from system responsibilities.) But let’s not equate tough-line behaviour systems with a lack of love and care. That’s just rubbish.

And let’s be clear, whatever our views, we’re all doing if for the kids... don’t even get me started on that.





  1. Agree, mainly, apart from Academies. Academies priviatise a public system. Money which could be spent on public services goes to consultants, lawyers, contractors etc. The system then becomes open to private exploitation with no public oversight. There’s little or no profit in running a school – but money leaks out into private hands without for-profit schools. Look at Pearsons – making profit from public money. There are many others…

    Liked by 3 people

    • So public money didn’t go to consultants before? So money was not top-sliced by the LEAs to pay for, what at times, was poor CPD and the incompetent personnel who delivered it? As for money leaking to private hands – where do you buy the pencils from? Tables, chairs? Who repairs the buildings? If the private sector is always so awful then why is it that buy back schemes were so cost inefficient that schools such as my old one had awful internet provision? Pearson’s may make profit from public money but so what as long as they are delivering the service required? This whole reifying of the public sector needs to stop because it ends up justifying terrible wastes of public money rather than thinking about what should be public and why.


  2. On your comment “Academisation is privatisation. No it isn’t.” not quite sure about that. There may be no money to be made directly from education, (unless education staff become sponsored like formula 1 drivers, with product placement on their lapels and have a word from a sponsor before a powerpoint presentation); but the business of land and buildings might become more significant. As well as the removal of elected governing bodies to replace them with potentially business oriented bodies, individuals of which. may by coincidence, have an interest somehow, in a product or service which the school buys into . .then it might get messy. But after all, it is just business.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Tom, I always read your posts keenly and with admiration, but I’m surprised you suggest that academisation has nothing to do with profit-making. Even if you don’t personally know anyone who’s entered the arena with this intention and you haven’t seen any first-hand evidence, surely the experiences of charter school policies in the US and Sweden – who’ve both been following this path for longer than us – would warrant a little caution? Or do you think the policy environment in England is totally different from those two countries?

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    • I’ve been involved with various academy chains and multi-academy trusts. Making a profit simply doesn’t come into it. The argument against academisation should focus on the mechanism for school improvement; it’s a weak case. But, in my view, so is the profit-fear. I just don’t see it; it feels like conspiracy theory territory. Ark, Harris etc ? They may have any number of dubious motives – who can say – but making money isn’t one of them.


      • Thanks for your reply. There are some chains/trusts for whom sub-contracting is clearly aimed at generating profit or at least at testing the strength of the not for profit legal regime. While there are indeed other arguments re academisation, I’m only addressing the issue of privatisation. Mine is not a fear of the private sector, who clearly play a vital role in supplying goods and services to the education sector. Nor is it necessarily about buildings and land. After all, the train companies run on state-owned track. It is about handing the overall control of a public service to what is effectively the private sector, with the result that equity, community and inclusiveness will often – not always – become the poor relations. I don’t see how this can be seen as a weak argument or conspiracy theory. (If you have no knowledge of the US of Swedish experiences I can’t expect you to comment on them, but they provide clear lessons.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s actually a mixed picture. A maintained school which becomes a converter academy (which is probably the model you have had most direct experience of) means the new academy gets its funding directly and occupies buildings held in trust. The transfer generally doesn’t involve a huge change in ethos and that gives the impression that it’s just self determination (and as you say, it is a huge financial risk. It’s a lot harder restructuring when you don’t have a local authority backing redundancy and redeployment.) Conversion removes resources from the local authority, though, as well as taking the land and the buildings and staff terms and conditions become optional instead of statutory.

        A forced academy, acquisition by a chain, or brand new academies and free schools involve an external organisation acting as a trust. From then on, everything depends on how fastidious the organisation is prepared to be with public money because nobody seems to care much about how the money is spent until it ends up in the press and the schools gets handed to another chain.

        In my area, two new academies, one a primary school, the other a UTC, were funded by the EFA when they wereset up, and built by a football club. From what I can see in the accounts, the academies pay the club (or, in one case, a property company which bought the school building) more than £500k each in rent, with a guaranteed annual increase well above inflation. Neither school is remotely full. One is actually closing and a new academy is coming in. The other has failed once already and been re-academised at further cost. I’ll need some convincing that these aren’t private organisations getting a chance to profit from state provision and negotiating, mostly on their own terms, for an unguarded pile of public money.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Hello, Tom. Do you still maintain that no one ‘driving the academisation agenda sees it as a way to make money’? ‘Yes’/’No’ will be fine.


  4. Exclusion is failure. Failure of the student, parent and school. Poor behaviour are the symptoms of something not being right with the young person. The school in collaboration with the parent must attempt to find the suitable fix. However, there are times when exclusion has to take place to protect the school community. But it is still a failure But an opportunity for the school to learn from.


    • All exclusions happen to protect the school community. And in some contexts that will be needed more than others. The truth is that social issues or years of historical ineffective or even damaging parenting can’t be undone easily. Often the parents can’t solve the issue; they are part of the problem or the problem is too big for them. The failure is shared – it’s not the school’s issue alone. That’s why I advocate a system where no school is an island and all schools – literally all schools of any type – play a part in providing the safety net required for an inclusive system.


    • Exclusion is the end of the relationship between the pupil and school and sometimes it has to be done in order for there to be a healthy outcome for all. What is unhealthy is thinking that no matter what the behaviour, the other person/people involved have to simply put up with it. If a child can’t/won’t change their behaviour it’s a choice. We are always responsible for our own behaviour in the end even if negative behaviour is understandable, it doesn’t make it excusable. The latter is when relationships turn abusive – a trap that many who value relationship for the sake of relationships fall into.


      • I think we agree. As I said, sometimes exclusions have to happen. They are necessary but still a failure,

        I actually work in a LA where we don’t have access to a PRU and technically can’t PEX. Although we receive money to cater for these students it creates many challenges.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Awesome, especially piercing on the issue of ‘tests are hard and mean’. Whenever I read about parents saying their children cried during the SATs, I have the same thoughts as you – how could the school or parents fail them so horribly? I suspect often these stories are apocryphal – everyone knows that crying children who have had their love of learning drained by an ‘exam factory’ make for an emotive lever to pull, as reflected in the comments for every piece ever. (I have my own concerns about the *content* of KS2 tests, but that’s a totally different matter, and the two are too often conflated.)

    Importantly, though, academisation *is* privatisation, in that it is moving nationally owned assets into private ownership. That’s the definition of privatisation; it doesn’t have to be for profit.

    Privatisation (from Google) – Definition: The transfer of ownership, property or business from the government to the private sector is termed privatization. The government ceases to be the owner of the entity or business.

    So it’s not about whether the organisation is motivated by profit (the definition for that is ‘business’, and no one is realistically claiming that academies are businesses, some of the more egregious service-procurement scandals notwithstanding), but simply who the owners are (eg charities don’t operate for profit, but they are privately, not publicly owned). Your argument seems to be: it *is* privatisation but who owns the assets is irrelevant, as academies operate on the same principles as any other school, and the spectre of ‘profit’ is a straw-man. Fair enough, but you’d surely concede it’s a different point in a number of significant ways.


    • Thanks for the comment. You are not correct about academies. Academy Trusts are not ‘private’ as such. That’s not how it works. They run schools; they don’t own them. The funding is from public money; the property is publicly owned. A big part of the macadamisation process is to agree at the leasing of the buildings to the trust; that’s totally different to transferring public assets into private hands. The SoS has executive powers etc — it’s a misunderstanding of academisation to regard it as privatisation.


      • Hi thanks for the clarification. The budget, which would be paid by the LA to the school for disbursement by the governing body, is instead paid to the Trust. I see the distinction you’re making, in that no physical property is being transferred. The fact it’s public money doesn’t change the fact that it’s transferred into (regulated) private hands to be spent. The teachers are also employed by the trust. They’re not government employees. They’re employees of an organisation empowered with public money to deliver a service. The equivalent would be outsourced services at the council level – the council uses public money to pay the contractor to collect the bins, but we wouldn’t describe the refuse collectors as operating privately. Incidentally, at my school the building is *already* privatised (from when Labour were in charge). I think this is fairly common.

        Despite the heavily partisan tone of the piece, I found this useful https://disidealist.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/the-mysterious-case-of-the-disappearing-schools-how-state-schools-will-be-privatised-without-anyone-noticing/ The guy clearly *hates* academies, which as an argument I think is DOA given that half of schools are academies and what matters is whether they’re good. But nonetheless, it does a good job of distinguishing what makes these qualify as private non-profit-making enterprises, and also disabuses a few misconceptions around the difference between what a Trust *does* do (retain the governing body, continue to allow the Head autonomy) and what it is legally *empowered* to do (dissolve the governing body, parachute its teachers around its various ‘branches’, ignore the pay scale, summarily remove the Head with only the say-so of the trustees, appoint trustees by whatever means it wants). If these powers were too broad and sweeping for schools that are locally accountable, why are they appropriate for private trusts that are accountable to no one?


  6. Tom, I am going to write this as it seems that the academisation one is going to be a hard myth to bust. The reality is that its centralisation not privatisation. The MATs, such as Perry Beeches, can be dissolved and schools given to other MATs, etc. There is some debate about land ownership but to lobby over this is a different matter to lobbying over where academies should exist in the first place. By decrying what is not profit-making as profit-making, we don’t as a profession do ourselves any favours. It’s conspiracy theory rather than reality as you say and it doesn’t actually enable us to move forward.

    It’s a basic starting point of any argument – meet the issue you dispute with a critique of that issue, this is flying off the handle and so we can’t debate what’s in front of us because what we have to debate is where it’s all (inevitably) leading which leads to hysterics but nothing that can lead to discussion, negotiation or compromise.


    • I agree. There is no good reason for my school to become an academy in our current circumstances and, if I want to fight that, I find the profit-scare argument gets in the way. It’s unhelpful.


  7. Tom – I find this is the trickiest of your posts to agree with (in parts). ‘SATs are cruel and make kids cry’ – there is a real dilemma for Y6 teachers: do you shield your class from the fact they will be made to resit tests in Y7 of secondary school if they don’t his ‘expected standard’ (with all the implications of a narrowed curriculum or lunchtime and after school intervention lessons) – or do you tell them? This is pressure from a DfE policy that makes the tests ‘high stakes’ and to deny there is pressure to perform well doesn’t apply in this case. As for ‘Hard questions are unfair’ – a question can be hard by a demanding mark criteria to an open-ended question, or be phrased in a manner that is tough to interpret. I get the sense that lots of students who despaired at their SATS found they couldn’t access the questions. It’s that ‘robust’ mantra that the DfE are churning out. At GCSE, tiered papers confronted this issue, but those will now be history. Put the two together and, yes, it is unfair it students can’t demonstrate what they know because they can’t work out what the robust question is asking, and yes, there is substantial pressure if you let students and parents know what the implications of them not achieving robust ‘national expectations’ are.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. As a teacher who voted for their school to ‘Academise’ because of the financial benefits for our students, I am not anti-academy per-se. What does bother me is the rapid rise of MATs and Academy Chains. Here CEOs, Business Managers and Executive Heads are drawing ever-increasing salaries, which could be spent on additional TAs, classroom teachers, supporting out of classroom learning etc.. Whilst I realise that these inflated salaries – inflated in terms of the salaries earned by classroom teachers – are nowhere near the inflated salaries in the ‘real’ business world, I cannot see their educational justification. As a parent, I have watched two Executive Heads become ineffective through being spread too thinly across socially, geographically and educationally disparate schools, losing their grip on their flagship Academy and the heartache that followed for students and staff as the school’s lost their identity and their way. As a teacher, I am watching the same thing happen to the Outstanding academy I currently work in; standards slipping because our excellent Headteacher is now the Executive Headteacher of a rapidly expanding MAT and is difficult to find these days. From the perspective of our Academy, he is being paid more and achieving less.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for the debate! I agree with most.
    I mainly agree about SATs. I’ve never minded them: but this year they have been so hard, it has rocked kids’ confidence.
    Personally, I don’t see why they can’t be a little more accessible (yet still challenging and based on the curriculum) and the grade thresholds just a little higher?
    Children will feel like they are achieving, and it will still be comparable?


  10. Thanks for the blog. Always throws up more questions than answers. Privatisation or not, the worry for me when the Academy questions crop up is the issue of unqualified staff. Knowing that certain academies are currently replacing staff with inqualified £18k personnel is disturbing. There is no curbing this. It has already begun. What can we do to ensure that the profession itself is not derailed by all this ‘freedom’?


  11. You’re clearly on the bandwagon here. I give it five years and look forward to hearing from you just why these things are all actually bad ideas, with little to recommend them.

    Just one case in point – your comments re a sense of standards over time and grade boundaries is simply and profoundly incorrect. A study of results here wrt international standards over the same period shows no increase in standards despite an almost continued increase in grades. See here:

    Click to access ImprovingEducation2013.pdf

    As for your academisation is not privatisation, well it doesn’t deserve to even begin to be taken seriously. Simply look at what is happening.

    “No excuses” is baloney. We could all do it, if allowed. It would be hilarious to see.

    To be honest, I’m more worried about someone I know well being asked to cheat by the head of a MAT. Not an isolated incidence either, by any means.


    • Thanks James. Just to be clear, I’m saying the same thing about standards. Grade inflation is problematic – hence boundary shifts; they are no conspiracy, simply a technical feature of year on year grade setting. I’ve worked in an academy; the school hadn’t been privatised. I know lots of CEOs of MATS; they’re working in the state sector as always. Your response is typical; all debate shuts down and academies become part of some corrupt empire. That’s baloney in my book – and, importantly, it doesn’t help the case for keeping maintained schools like mine. And, sadly, Heads have been asking teachers to cheat for decades – irrespective of their academy status.


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