None of Your Business: The role of government in an autonomous school system

After a Twitter debate yesterday on whether removing National Curriculum levels was a good thing (hint: it was), I realised that the  main point of contention lay in what we actually thought the role of government in education is. Rather than continue skirting around the issue, I’m going to lay out what I think.


The education system is going through a period of flux. Where the empire of government once ruled, now increasingly autonomous schools pick up the power to rule themselves. To adjust to a new system we need to understand the roles of all the players. Our new system might be school-led, but what does that actually tell us about the rightful role of government and teachers?

The role of government: to decide on the ends of education
What is education for? You can’t run an education system without an answer to this question, and yet it’s probably the most contentious question out there. The problem is that there isn’t a demonstrably correct answer. This question cannot be delegated to a double-blind randomised controlled trial or conclusively resolved by a panel of experts. It is far too fundamental for that.

Given we need an answer, but cannot seek one from science or consensus, the best place to turn is to democracy. A democratically-elected government should decide whether and what to examine, what schools should be aiming to achieve through education, and how to hold them to account for achieving it. Practically this means that they should set terminal exams, accountability frameworks, and little else.

The role of schools: to decide how best to achieve these ends
Once a government has set the ends of education, it is up to schools to decide how best to achieve them. This must be left to schools, and any mission creep by government or its agencies into this area should be hastily challenged. This role is for schools (rather than for government or teachers) because:

  • Schools see the whole education of each student, and have to balance the competing demands of different subjects.
  • Schools know the specific circumstances of their students and their intake, and are best-placed to respond to these.

Once the end goals are set, schools should determine the curriculum needed to achieve these, and the assessment system needed to keep on track. Where schools have their own set of values they are free to go beyond the expectations set by government, but may not drop below.

The role of teachers: to continually improve the quality of teaching
Schools will set curricula and assessment, but it is teachers who translate these into lessons. To quote the now old adage, the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. But improving the quality of teaching is not a job for schools or for government, it is a job for teachers. Only we teach our lessons. Only we are in the classrooms with ourselves all day. Only we know our greatest strengths and our greatest challenges. Only we can actually make our teaching great. But this is not the current culture.

The current culture, developed through decades of National Strategies, government guidance, and school policies, sees the quality of teaching as the preserve of schools and governments. Teachers are not fit to make decisions about teaching, but are mere enactors of policy and followers of instructions.

We must break the culture of professional development being done to us by schools, of research being given to us by government, and of good ideas being handed down in quango-branded folders. Good teaching is our responsibility, and we should reclaim it.

The Power of Practice

Maths “ability” is just practice. For all the rhetoric we hear about ability in maths, any innate component is of relatively little consequence. What appears to be ability is just practice masquerading as talent. But despite this we have a Western obsession with innate ability. Culturally we treat Maths as something you are either born good at, or born bad at, and those in the latter camp should brashly accept it. After all, if your genes make you bad at something why should you be shy about it?

But innate ability is a distraction from the real cause of good performance – practice. Practice is the single most important component of success in Maths.

Practice matters because knowledge growth is compound. And it’s compound because:

A. Connections strengthen memories. As we learn more, and so have more associations to make with each new piece of content, we remember more. These new connections in turn strengthen our old knowledge, and contribute to the wider structure of knowledge that forms our view of the world. This often looks like innate ability. A student who knows about fractions will learn more from a lesson on percentages than a student who doesn’t know about fractions. We might hypothesise that this is because they are “better at Maths”. In fact it’s because they can build connections with their fractions knowledge, and so understand percentages better (and are more able to remember this new knowledge).

B. Mastery frees up working memory. Our working memories have a limited capacity. Once they’re full they’re full, and we cannot process any more information. One model of working memory conceptualises it as having a fixed number of slots. Each slot can hold one piece of information, like a step in a method or a number being remembered. Trying to carry out a complex process can easily overload working memory as all the slots get filled and thinking grinds to a halt – meaning the thinker is unable to learn. However fluency bypasses the constraints of working memory. Once you have mastered a procedure you carry it out without thinking – it does not occupy multiple slots in your working memory but frees it up to learn instead. This means that the student who has practised to the point of fluency will learn faster, and have an appearance of greater ability.

C. Fluency solves problems. Because fluency frees up working memory, it gives students the space to think about challenging problems and come up with creative solutions. The most well-practised students will therefore come up with ideas that challenge their thinking, and so learn more at the boundaries of their knowledge.

Getting better at practice must be a national priority. We have a national fear of practice. When being trained as a Maths teacher I was told to “Beware the three Xs. Examples, exercises, and more exercises.” The intention – that incredibly dull lessons should be avoided – was a good one. But there is no need to make practice taboo. It is the hallmark of elite performance, a necessary prerequisite to any worthwhile achievement. It is not an end in itself, but the ends we seek cannot be accomplished without significant practice.

There are two components of this challenge to practice better. We need to:

1. Increase the quantity of practice.
Every time a new international study shows that our relative performance is worse than the Far East there is an outcry from people who argue that the outcomes are just not comparable. It is not fair, they argue, to compare UK results to the results of Singapore, Shanghai or South Korea, because in those countries children do hours of homework, have private tutors, and spend far longer practising. This is not an excuse. If the quantity of practice is the cause for this gap in performance then we need to get that same quantity of practice for our children.

2. Increase the quality of practice.
Good practice means learning the right thing, the right way, and with the right feedback. For this we need:

  • Better resources – well thought out sets of practice questions that develop understanding and challenge thinking. No current UK textbooks (that I have found!) are up to scratch, and downloads from TES certainly aren’t. Schools and groups of schools need to put real effort into designing the best resources so that teachers can stop reinventing the wheel and focus on how to teach to the specific group of students in front of them.
  • Better teaching – teachers need deep subject expertise to make sure students receive good quality explanations and are guided through the practice properly. Subject specialism is important here, but so is ongoing professional development. No specialist is too good to carry on learning, so without a better culture of effective CPD we will continually miss out on the potential of the workforce.
  • Better feedback – good feedback is both precise and timely. It must be precise enough to guide you to action (no vague targets please), and timely enough for you to correct any misconceptions before they settle. Without precise and timely feedback your practice could make you learn mistakes rather than the actual concept itself.

The hallmark of elite performance is a relentless dedication to practice. Sportspeople drill basic techniques over and over again, making them instinctive so that in the heat of a game they can be deployed effortlessly. Musicians practise pieces for days and weeks so that they can begin to play them with feeling and creativity. So too must students practise basic techniques until they are fluent, before they can enjoy the dizzying heights of elite performance. Only with fluency can they begin to tackle truly rewarding problems.

Tim Oates describes how, in the drafting stages of the new National Curriculum, he went through battles to have the word “practice” included in the Mathematics section. It was simply too unpalatable. We need to debunk the two pernicious myths: that maths ability is innate, or that fluency is not a prerequisite for good performance. Practice has the power to make everyone good at Maths, and we need to start to unleash it.


This post is based on a presentation I gave to schools at the first Maths Hub Forum in Manchester last month.