Friend or Foe? The science of empathy and relationships explained.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

4. Relatedness

We all know the feeling of meeting someone completely new. There’s a slight tension and greater alertness: the classic fight-of-flight response. In fact, our brain is programmed make a judgement about each new person we meet in order to assess the risk of the situation.

“The decision that someone is friend or foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning (Carter & Pelphrey, 2008). For example, information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts. When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits are used (Mitchell, 2006). Also, when treating someone as a competitor, the capacity to empathise drops significantly (Singer et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

If the initial interaction and conversation goes well then you get a sense that you are ‘warming’ to the other person. This feeling appears to relate to the release of oxytocin in the brain, a natural brain hormone associated with affiliative behaviour (Domes et al, 2007). It has been suggested that oxytocin not only allows us to bond with another person, but also helps us overcome existing preconceptions or stereotypes by easing the process of ‘unlearning’, an important point for conflict resolution. Oxytocin is known to be release in particularly large quantities at the start of new romantic relationships and when people become parents.

“Studies have shown far greater collaboration when people are given a shot of oxytocin, through a nasal spray. (Kosfield, 2005).”
(SCARF white paper)

Relatedness and its importance in in organisations and schools is not a new idea. ‘Team Building’ exercises are very common, although if these are implemented by simply throwing a group of people together at random then you’re not likely to get a great response. The key is to explore ways that people can see team members, colleagues and classmates as ‘like me’ in some way. This is important to counteract feelings of loneliness.

“the human threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction. Loneliness and isolation are profoundly stressful. John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick showed in 2008 that loneliness itself is  a threat response to lack of social contact, activating the same neurochemicals that flood the system when one is subjected to physical pain.”
(Managing with the brain in mind)

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

First and foremost this article should hopefully help to further dismiss the adage of ‘don’t smile before Christmas’. It is immensely important that students create a warm relationship with their teacher. When this happens then the empathy created will foster greater trust and better behaviour. The best teachers always take time to know and understand their students and try and relate to them.

It is also important that students relate to each other. In secondary schools in particular there are many different classes with different groupings, and teachers shouldn’t ignore the importance of relationships between students. Peer collaboration is a powerful learning tool, but won’t be possible until relationships have been properly established.

School Leadership

Professional development happens much more effectively when teachers collaborate, not only with performance managers, line managers and mentors, but with other members of their departments. The best school leaders encourage social activity within and outside the classroom, and give staff an opportunity to learn together. Teacher sports teams, yoga classes, choirs, etc. are all excellent to create useful relationships, but you may also like to experiment with a display of teacher photos with accompanying brief ‘biographies’ including interests. School leaders need to participate in this as well: a cold, aloof management team reduces trust, and means they are less likely to hear about problems until too late.

Education Policy

Politicians have left a trail of PR disasters as they attempt to wear baseball caps and proclaim ‘pop’ music tastes in an attempt to make voters think they are ‘like me’. When you’re in charge of such an enormously diverse group of people then the values and consistency demonstrated by your actions will be more important.

When management teams or ‘superheads’ are placed in schools then there needs to be serious time and effort put in to building relationships with existing staff, students and parents. New federations or chains cannot hope to pull together successfully unless they give time for staff to get out and visit colleagues in other establishments.


  • We are tense when we meet new people. Our fight-or-flight response kicks in.
  • ‘Warmth’ between people occurs when they find similarities, and this can help break down stereotypes and preconceptions.
  • Loneliness can be a severe problem, with mental repercussions similar to physical pain.
  • Effective organisations work on trust and empathy between staff, and it is worth spending time on relationships, although crass attempts at ‘team-building’ can be counterproductive.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Carter, E. J. & Pelphrey, K. A., (2008). Friend or foe?
    Brain systems involved in the perception of dynamic signals of menacing and friendly social approaches. Journal
    Social Neuroscience, Volume 3, Issue 2 June 2008 , pages 151-163.
  • Mitchell, J. P., Macrae, C. N., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Dissociable Medial Prefrontal Contributions to Judgments of Similar and Dissimilar Others. Neuron, 50, 655-663.
  • Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
  • Domes , G., Heinrichs, M., Gläscher J., Büchel, C., Braus, D., Herpertz, S. (2007). Oxytocin Attenuates Amygdala Responses to Emotional Faces Regardless of Valence. Biological Psychiatry, 62(10), 1187-1190.
  • Kosfeld, M. Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435, 673-676.
  • Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, B. (2008). Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Taking Control: Why Autonomy Reduces Stress

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

3. Autonomy

“Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices. Mieka (1985) showed that the degree of control organisms can exert over a stress factor determines whether or not the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be highly destructive, whereas the same stress interpreted as escapable is significantly less destructive. (Donny et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

Human beings have evolved to carefully evaluate each social situation for danger. I previously wrote about status, but there is a broader evaluation of whether the situation supports or threatens one’s capacity for choice, presumably to ensure options for fleeing are available at all times.

A greater feeling of control leads to reduced stress. In a study of nursing homes, Rodin and Langer found that residents who had all their choices made for them were less healthy and had shorter life-spans than those who were given more control over decisions that affected them. Other studies in the workplace have shown that the number one cause for people leaving a profession is perceived lack of control over work-life balance.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

If teachers dictate the content, delivery and pace of every lesson then not only are they giving themselves a hard time but they may be unwittingly inflicting greater stress on students. If a child is faced with obligatory tasks that they feel they cannot do then they will become anxious, and their learning will be impaired. However if we allow them choices at these moments of stress then it can help them relax and enjoy themselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean kids should be allowed to opt for the easy low-challenge material, and we have to be careful that each challenge has that optimum level of uncertainty that promotes the greatest learning.

Teachers commonly proffer control to students in other situations, using choice to help defuse anger and bad behaviour, although we can see that transparently fake choices (‘it’s my way or you leave’) will only increase the tension further.

School Leadership

Micromanagement is well-known bad practice, and we can now see why from the brain’s perspective. School leaders should avoid dictating classroom practice as this piles on pressure when teachers need to be calm. Instead, offer structures with clear room for choice. At moments of high stress (e.g. inspections) offer staff choices and some control. “You have to do it this way” will lead to much more stress and resentment than “Something needs to change, which of these two options would you prefer?”

Try to give flexibility in working patterns – a good school will be clear that they will support part-time working if at all possible. If your timetable can introduce elements of choice for students then they will also feel more empowered and engaged.

Education Policy

Autonomy is the current buzz-word in education, although politicians are irresistibly drawn toward micromanagement and centralisation as it satisfies their own feelings of control and therefore safety. Devolving power may be intellectually satisfying but it increases the stress of policy makers when they don’t feel they have hands on the levers. Political leaders and commentators should recognise that stressed, insecure politicians centralise, and that attacking them incessantly can only exacerbate this.

School inspectorates have a tough but necessary job to assure quality. However even a small amount of autonomy could help. For example, allowing teachers to opt to choose broadly to be seen during one day or another would be massively beneficial. Teachers would be less stressed, and this would ensure observations were more realistic.


  • Lack of control or choice increases stress levels. This suppresses learning, demotivates, and can lead to poor health.
  • Leaders’ desire to reduce their own stress drives them toward taking control over everything, but this instinct will increase stress in everyone else. A balance needs to be maintained.
  • At moments of high stress, simply giving a choice can help defuse some of the tension.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Donny, E. C., Bigelow, G. E., & Walsh S. L. (2006). Comparing the physiological and subjective effects of self-administered vs yoked cocaine in humans. Psychopharmacology, 186(4), 544-52.
  • Dworkin, S I., Mirkis, S., Smith J. E. (1995). Response-dependent versus response-independent presentation of cocaine: differences in the lethal effects of the drug. Psychopharmacology, 117(3), 262-266.
  • Rodin, J. (1986). Aging and health: effects of the sense of control. Science, 233, 1271-1276.

Future Fear: Why Uncertainty Leads To Anxiety

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

2. Certainty

Our brains are constantly trying to predict the future, based on known patterns of behaviour. When you activate muscles to take a step forward your brain predicts the sensory information that should be forthcoming, and assuming all is well and that this pattern is matched by reality then the whole experience further reinforces the expected pattern and you continue with your next action or thought.

This prediction system allows the brain to operate much more efficiently – instead of carefully and consciously evaluating every single nerve sensation received on each step our brain compares the signals to the expected pattern. If it matches then very little energy is expended. However, if it detects a mismatch then we suddenly go in to ‘error’ mode, and our attention is rapidly switched to the situation to decide what to do next, along with the production of stress hormones, i.e. the threat response. For example, if our foot lands on a banana skin and starts sliding we become rapidly and consciously aware of what is happening in order to decide what to do about it. (Hawkins, 2004).

Because this prediction is so much more efficient, we have evolved to crave certainty. Even slightly uncertain situations (perhaps an unknown surface to walk on, a slightly different type of maths problem, or meeting a new person) redirects the brain’s attention away from one’s goals in an effort to concentrate on finding new patterns, and greater certainty. (Hedden, Garbrielli, 2006)

Of course uncertainty is also necessary for learning because the brain’s ‘error’ response is responsible for forming new patterns.

“Mild uncertainty attracts interest and attention: new and challenging situations create a mild threat response, increase levels of adrenalin and dopamine just enough to spark curiosity and energize people to solve problems”
(‘Managing with the brain in mind’, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009)

However, if there are multiple sources of uncertainty then attention cannot be focused on learning so effectively.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Every new problem we pose in the classroom poses some sort of uncertainty. As teachers we are aware that we can begin a lesson in an unexpected way in order to focus attention, but we also know that we should have consistent expectations and routines in order to decrease stress. It is a difficult balancing act and the mark of the talented professional is one who can create the optimum level of uncertainty at all times for each student. However, it is worth realising that if a student comes in to the room who is experiencing uncertainty in other parts of their life then they won’t be able to fully engage in the lesson or learn effectively. We can reduce uncertainty stress by ensuring that students have a clear map of the future learning, and are aware of any future changes well in advance.

School Leadership

Teachers face uncertainty every time they step in to a classroom. With a difficult class the teacher’s stress levels are raised from the very start as they cannot be sure what will happen. IT-failure, fire bells and late-comers all increase anxiety no matter how experienced we are. A looming threat of inspection, uncertain job prospects, or lack of clarity about routines can decrease teacher’s creativity and enjoyment. Leaders can help reduce these problems with clear timetables and expectations, road maps for the future, and clarity about when and where inspections will take place.

Education Policy

Schools will have more opportunity to be creative and effective in a certain political climate. Endless changes of policy create anxiety and reviews that fail to deliver on time exacerbate the problem. Policy leaders should create clear roadmaps and timetables and stick to them clearly. Policies should not be changed too often or else people will be anxious when engaging with any current set of rules as they will fear their work will go out of date.


  • Our brains crave certainty. Every unexpected outcome creates stress. A small amount is useful for learning, a large amount is debilitating.
  • Creativity and learning will be blocked with too much uncertainty or too many sources of it. Reduce stress with transparency, share rationales, publicise changes in advance, and break complex processes down in to smaller steps.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Hawkins, J. & Blakeslee, S. (2004). On Intelligence. Times Books.
  • Hedden, T., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2006). The ebb and flow of attention in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 863-865.

I Win, You Lose: Why Losing Status Hurts.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

1. Status

“As humans we are constantly assessing how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. Research published by Hidehiko Takahashi et. al in 2009 shows that when people realise that they might compare unfavourably to someone else, the threat response kicks in, releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones” (‘Managing with the brain in mind’, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009).

Social status is something that we are all implicitly aware of at all times. Studies have shown that we use the same areas of the brain for evaluating social pecking-order or seniority as for mathematical calculation (Chaio, 2003) and that this area is activated whenever we are interacting with other people, constantly reassessing our position  (Zink, 2008). This isn’t merely a superficial self-aggrandising reaction, it really matters to our health and wellbeing. Our perceptions of relative social standing have been shown to correlate with our life-expectancy and health, even when controlling for factors such as education and income (Marmott, 2004). It has even been shown that experiencing social rejection causes the same brain activity as physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003)

This mental reaction is our evolutionary reward for developing behaviours that promote our superiority in our ‘pack’ and thereby achieve a level of safety and security in our lives. Increase in status can be incredibly rewarding. In fact one study showed that an improvement in social standing prompted the same reactions as a financial windfall (Izuma et. al, 2008).

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Children are acutely aware of status as they establish their identity and position in the world, and teachers are masters of using status in the classroom. We have traditionally used status-based rewards when we use competitive behaviour in our lessons, and the mere thought of status-raising associated with sport and games make them particularly appealing. The downside of this is that we have sometimes reinforced feelings of failure and anxiety in students – a problem that has led to over-compensation in the form of ‘all must have prizes’.

However, the lessons from this research is that while we can’t (and shouldn’t) shield students from ‘real-world’ status-related issues, we can encourage a culture where we value improvement, effort and resilience. This will mean that, wherever possible, status in our classroom is gained through effort and not ingrained ‘talent’. We need to encourage classrooms where success is celebrated in a number of different forms. An obsession with publicising levels, for example, might reinforce status anxiety.

School Leadership

Given that most classroom teachers are on a relatively level status playing field, school leaders should realise that status anxiety can easily become heightened among staff. The mere thought of inspection judgements, classroom outcome data analysis, or student surveys about teachers can send staff in to a fearful state that results in anger, defensiveness, and closed-mindedness. The simple act of a colleague saying ‘may I give you some feedback about that?’ will probably be at least partly interpreted as ‘I know more than you, I am superior’. The much vaunted 360-degree review will have little beneficial effect when the recipient is sat anxiously expecting a wave of status-lowering criticism from their colleagues.

Of course, it would be ludicrous to conclude that you have to avoid all comparisons or any of the aforementioned quality-assurance methods. However a wise leader will ensure that all staff feel fully valued for their strengths and improvements, and that they begin appraisals, where possible, with self-evaluation.

Education Policy

League tables, inspections and exam systems vigorously reinforce the notion of status in education. Generally speaking successful political leaders, journalists and business-people will have been the recipient of the upside of these systems – if you succeeded in staying at the top of the success ladder at school then you will view competition as being very beneficial as it provided you with a huge amount of positive reinforcement.

On the flip-side, a system with a very narrow view of educational success/status will simply create anxiety and, eventually, disengagement, as only a small proportion of schools and students can ever be top of any specific pile. Of course, policy makers need to strive for success and would be in danger of a lack of focus if they attempted to consider too many metrics at once, but they should avoid denigrating the teaching profession or groups of schools as failures. This will simply make it more likely that staff in those schools spend more time in ‘fight-or-flight’ brain mode – exactly the wrong state to be in when attempting to improve teaching skill or find creative solutions to help difficult students.


  • Value a range of skills and talents. A narrow definition will encourage anxiety and ‘gaming’ in order to achieve status-based rewards.
  • Feedback should be handled carefully. When presented in a threatening way it could be worse than no feedback at all.
  • Status doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. It is possible to raise status through praise and positive feedback, or by providing an alternative field in which to excel.

This is the first post in a series of five on lessons for education from SCARF.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Michael Marmot, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, Times Books 2004
  • Eisenberger, N. i., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRi study of social exclusion. science, 302, 290-292
  • Chiao, J. Y., Bordeaux, A. R., Ambady, N. (2003). Mental representations of social status. Cognition, 93, 49-57.
  • Izuma, K., saito, D., sadato, N. (2008). Processing of social and Monetary Rewards in the Human striatum. Neuron, 58(2), 284-294
  • Zink, C. F., Tong, Y., Chen, Q., Bassett, D. s., stein, J. L., & MeyerLindenberg A. (2008). Know Your Place: Neural Processing of social Hierarchy in Humans. Neuron, 58, 273-283.


Gifted and Talented

Dear parent,

We would like to let you know that we have not included you daughter in our latest “Gifted & Talented” list. You may assume we feel she has no notable gifts, and no particular talents. We shall therefore exclude her from various clubs, trips and opportunities. We will make sure that every teacher who has her in their class sees a big, fat, “NO” in the “Gifted and Talented?” column on their class spreadsheet. These teachers will have to make no specific provision for her in their planning.

We will specially appoint a gifted and talented coordinator in our school to organise lots of extra stretch and exciting activities. This coordinator will ignore your daughter, and spend none of their time doing anything for her benefit.

You may also be interested to know that there used to be a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth. They did wonderful work in providing support for talented young people. As your daughter is is neither gifted nor talented, she would have effectively been entirely invisible to this organisation… although they’ve closed now, which will make her feel better, I’m sure.

Incidentally you may be interested to know that the government defines gifted learners as those who have abilities in one or more academic subjects, like maths and English, and talented learners as those who have practical skills in areas like sport, music, design or creative and performing arts. Your daughter has none of the above.

Kindest regards,

Your school

Note: Just updated after being slapped on the wrist and reminded NAGTY was closed in 2007 (or possibly 2010, the wikipedia article is unclear). Oops. Apparently the replacement is either Warwick Uni’s IGGY or DfE’s YG&T. Incidentally I’d welcome someone writing an opposing view to this – always happy to be contradicted.

Edit: Fantastic opposing view (also in epistolary form!)  by @GiftedPhoenix

Questions for Evan Davis on Education

Do you have questions you would like to pose to Evan Davis about education? I shall be interviewing him over the next week or so and would like to get your ideas about what you’d like to ask.

Evan is currently presenting a new show on BBC,  Made in Britain which accompanies the excellent book of the same name. He is a presenter on Radio 4’s Today show, BBC TV’s Dragon’s Den, as well as Radio 4’s The Bottom Line. Until 2008 he was the BBC’s chief Economics editor (see his blog).

One of his key points in his book is that, as a nation, we can be extremely proud of our universities which are among our most successful ‘exports’. In fact Evan stresses the importance of the knowledge economy and of ensuring that we are all able to gain the skills to enable us to move in to high-skill and higher-value industries. I shall be asking him what lessons he feels there are for our school system in ensuring this continues to happen.

You may wish to read a previous, Open University interview with Evan which include some of his thoughts about education and enterprise.

Please post your question ideas, or tweet them to me @informed_edu.

Competition is no panacea

There is much talk of applying competition between schools as a new panacea. As I have said before, I simply don’t believe there is an undiscovered panacea in education.

My feeling is that if you turn learning in to a commodity then you end up with a cheap way of delivering shallow facts in a bland way that lacks suitable challenge and deep learning. I’m sure the customer service for delivery of those facts would be excellent, and the service very cheap, but it entirely misses the point that the best learning is a chaotic, difficult, and often uncomfortable journey, with incredible highs and frustrating challenges. Who would choose this over an easy, bland diet of pre-packaged, pre-digested facts? Would the majority of parents choose the school that challenges them to be a better parent over the school that allows them to abdicate responsibility?

In a reply to Loic Menzies’ excellent article on competition between schools, Jacob Kestner asserts that supermarkets would be worse and less efficient if they had collaborated, and therefore schools should follow the supermarket/competitive model. I think Loic’s response deals with a number of flaws in this argument very well, but he only briefly mentions the motives of ‘consumers’ in education, and the ability of competition and choice to foster quality.

Competition between supermarkets has created cheap, plentiful food with an abundance of choice. It has not created talented cooks. Quite possibly the opposite, in fact. Customers are, more often than not, choosing the easy route to eating – pre-prepared, pre-packaged meals. Convenience and ease-of-consumption generally rules over quality, and in many cases these choices are leading to long-term damage to those same consumers, and society as a whole.

The fundamental flaw with ‘competition’ logic is that many people will choose the option that is easy, that is pleasant, but not necessarily the option that is good for them in the long run. In education we see the effect of competition in the examination system. It is not the market forces that have been responsible for trying to retain quality of assessments – quite the opposite. The popular exams tend to be the more shallow, comfortable options rather than the ones that increase the challenge and force teachers to work harder. It goes further than the tests themselves – exam boards create recipe-book text books that sometimes de-skill the teachers who end up teaching to the test in a boring way, in response to demand from schools for ways to improve their results.

Competition is clearly one lever for improvement in a system. It works very well to ensure value for money. It works pretty well to ensure that consumers get treated well when something goes wrong – they get a pleasant experience, and a comforting one. Can we rely on this lever by itself?

The school that ‘transforms’ itself by playing the system to ensure that its examination statistics are as high as possible clearly wins the parents’ vote, over the school that takes the longer view and works on teaching and learning quality solidly to slowly drive up standards.

The school that enforces mainly rote-learning, students sat in rows, and ignores new research about learning (i.e. makes students learn the way their parents did)  may be much more understandable for parents who prefer it over one where subjects are taught in non-traditional ways that force them to challenge their own preconceptions about what makes a good education. In fact this is the big problem that politicians and journalists have – those that consider themselves intelligent and successful decide that the solution is to benevolently impose their same life-experiences on everyone else, regardless of suitability.

I’m not saying competition has no part in education. I support schools being freed up to make their own choices about where they buy services and supplies – where commercial approaches are much more proven. Also, if the other levers of self-evaluation, inspection, exam indicators all fail then we need to ensure parents can, as a very last resort, consider moving away from an area in order to avoid a school. However, clearly this advantages those with the means to do so, and massively disadvantages those who are not able to move, or not willing to prioritise their children’s learning. We cannot use this as the lever of first choice, or even second or third choice.

Supermarkets become more efficient because inefficient ones can slowly die and go out of business. We can’t afford for schools to do the same. We can’t guarantee that parents will pick the best choice for the long-term, or that a lever that has increased efficiency in selling food produce will drive up standards in learning.

I welcome your thoughts.

Summarising information

This fascinating snippet from the 2009 PISA report should surely have had higher profile?

“High-performing countries are also those whose students generally know how to summarise information. Across OECD countries, the difference in reading performance between those students who know the most about which strategies are best for summarising information and those who know the least is 107 score points. And students who say that they begin the learning process by figuring out what they need to learn, then ensure that they understand what they read, figure out which concepts they have not fully grasped, try to remember the most important points in a text and look for additional clarifying information when they do not understand something they have read, tend to perform better on the PISA reading scale than those who do not.”

To put this in context, that’s about 1 whole year’s worth of academic progress! Surely a massive endorsement for AfL, graphic organisers, etc.?

If I were the minister…

A first draft of an introductory speech my ‘dream’ minister for education would make. What do you think?

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would firstly like to thank the Prime Minister for allowing me the privilege of serving you as minister for education.

What a fantastic education system we have in this country. There  are tens of thousands of dedicated professionals delivering ever-more outstanding lessons in our schools, every day. They have a passion for learning, and they enthuse their students. Children of all backgrounds, of all abilities, with an enormous range of interests and needs are having their eyes opened to the fantastic possibilities offered by science, culture, arts, technology, humanties, languages, and so much more.

We can be proud of what has been achieved so far, and I thank my predecessor for his work to make the country a better place for the young people of Britain. He and I may not always have seen eye-to-eye, but there is no doubt that he, and the entire education department, worked tirelessly to keep our education system improving.

Amongst the notable successes of the previous government were the increases in numeracy and literacy, investment in to our school buildings, better terms and conditions for teachers and a drive for innovation. However, like this country’s best schools, and best teachers, we will not be complacent. Even with fantastic efforts from so many talented professionals, there are still children who are not getting the opportunity to achieve their potential. There are still some schools where students and teachers are not enjoying the learning experience that they deserve, and there are well-meaning schemes that have cost a great deal but, sadly, delivered very little in terms of improved outcomes. We want to take the best of our education system and improve it, and we will look long and hard at every scheme and every piece of bureaucracy to ensure it delivers effectively, and with good value for our taxpayers.

I want to engage with passionate educators up and down the country and create a vision of education that everyone can believe in and work towards. In the past, government has not always treated the education profession with the respect it deserves, and has pre-empted every policy announcement with a barrage of criticism of everything that has gone before. I will not do that. I do not, and shall not ever, subscribed to the view that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I want to hear the best ideas about how to take good systems, and make them better. Innovation, based on quality research, will be a central feature of this department’s work.

I never want teachers, unions, or indeed my own department, to suffer from a siege mentality. If constructive dialogue breaks down, and trench warfare ensues, nobody wins. Nobody has turned around a struggling school by encouraging leaders to publicly criticise the staff, nor by allowing teachers to attack their own leadership teams, and the same is true of the national education system. I will not play to the media with crisis stories, nor indulge in mudslinging. Respect and collaboration are key principles that my department will observe at all times.

The best schools know that they will improve most effectively by carefully analysing the information they have about students and staff. They know that one or two numbers can never give you the full picture about a student, but they know that good data is vital to shine a light on what is really happening. I intend to take the same approach nationally. We will collect data, analyse it carefully, and use it together with observations, discussions and professional judgements. Every school will be held up to the highest standards, and we will make careful comparisons locally, nationally, and internationally. However, no school will ever be judged to be failing on any single measure again. Education is complex, and we always recognise that.

I will work hard to provide vision and leadership, and ensure every school in the country has the capacity and ability to improve itself. Gone are the days where central government handed down strategies and schemes from on high and expected every teacher to function in the same way. I want schools filled with collaborative and innovative teams who critically review their own work and use the result of the best in education research to improve their practice. I want every stakeholder in education, be they parent, student, teacher, or leader, to truly understand their responsibility and power to improve the learning of every student in this country, and to work together to achieve it.

There is so much to do, and I have so much to learn. Like the best teachers, I will begin by checking my own understanding. Like the best schools, I will be gathering opinions from everyone. Like the best student, I will promise to work hard, to keep trying even when the going get’s tough, and to treat my peers with respect.

I am excited to begin, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself to you. The next chapter begins now.

Cheesy, and perhaps a little West-Wing-esque, but hopefully gets my point across. What do you think – could a minister really take this approach or is this wishful thinking?

German Education Reform

Many thanks to Alex Bellars (@bellaale) who pointed me to the most interest German national education/curriculum survey conducted in German in March, where everyone was invited to give their opinions on the state of German education. I downloaded the responses summary and using some rough-and-ready Google Translation along with my own almost-forgotten GCSE German, here are the key findings. Do let me know if I’ve mis-translated anything.

  1. A good education was seen as highly important by the vast majority of respondents, and they felt that reform was necessary to respond to the challenges of the 21st century and changing demographics
  2. The main priority for investment (for 70% of respondents) should be schools. The second priority should be early-childhood education. Teacher quality was seen as strongly linked to children’s future success.
  3. 80% of respondents rated the German government’s willingness to conduct reform as “low” or “very low”. The pessimism increased with respondent’s age and level education. In contrast the majority trusted teachers to be able to change, although it was felt dedicated teachers needed more incentives.
  4. The central task of the education system should be to create upward social mobility. Strikingly this was felt by all respondents regardless of educational background or income. Notably a third of Turkish immigrants were in favour of specifically promoting of migrant workers, whereas the rest of respondents were not.
  5. Two-thirds of respondents would accept higher taxes in order to improve education, rising to 80% support among Turkish Immigrants. This was just as true for those with low- or medium-attaining educational backgrounds. Most respondents expected nursery and daycare to be free, although there was support for income-dependent tuition fees.
  6. The vast majority of respondents were in favour of compulsory nursery school. The most popular compulsory start-age was three years old. Most respondents wanted to delay transition to secondary education, with older respondents in favour of longer delays.
  7. 80% of respondents were in favour of full-day education, with very few supporting half-day schooling. Teachers and students tended to prefer optional full-day schooling, with parents preferring compulsory full-day schooling.
  8. 90% of respondents were in favour of standardising exams, and moving away from federalised education to a more national structure. The great majority viewed competition between states as unhelpful, regardless of educational background or age.
  9. Around 90% of respondents did not believe that inclusive education (mixing special needs with mainstream) was beneficial for children. This was particularly true of respondents who were students, or who were Turkish migrants. The summary report notes that Germany has obligations under international treaties to push for inclusion.
  10. Only just over 50% of respondents were in favour of targeting resources at schools with particular challenges, but there was little consensus on this issue.

For me the key features here are:

  • the relatively high trust in teachers – would this be the case in the UK or USA?
  • the willingness to accept greater taxation (by all segments of society) in order to improve education, and consequently social mobility
  • the enthusiasm for moving to a national ‘standardised’ education system from a federal one.

A fascinating study. It would be wonderful if such a survey was carried out in the UK!