So, what's wrong with school?

So, what’s wrong with maths teaching?

6th February 2015

Recent announcements from Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, include ensuring all children know their times tables up to 12 by age 11, with schools being penalised if all children do not pass tests in them. Yet when quizzed on air, she refused to answer maths questions under duress. What if children refuse to answer questions because of the stress of the test? And for those schools which fail to get all their students through this:
Headteacher Bernard Trafford, in The Journal asks:
“well, what will happen? Ah, I know. The primary school will be placed in special measures, the head sacked, and the school will become an academy.What if it’s already an academy? The Department for Education didn’t tackle that question. The maths doesn’t add up.
Times tables are not maths, though they can be useful, but in a world where everyone has a calculator on their phone or computer, this focus on the mechanics of calculation is backward-looking, tedious and will turn many off the glory of true maths for life, as when high stakes tests are given, that become the main focus of teaching.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers said:
“Our schools need to be accountable, but the current system stifles creativity, leads to ‘teaching to the test’ and does not promote sustainable improvements in education,” .

Is there a better way to do maths, a better way to learn and be inspired by maths?
ProfessorJo Boaler, never learned her times tables. She was educated in that glorious time when understanding numbers in a context was more important. My son never memorised them either but could, like Prof Boaler, tell you the correct answer pretty quickly. When I asked him how he did it he replied “I just learned the fundamental interconnectedness of the individual numbers and extrapolated it onto a larger scale.” It seemed to work.
In 1964 The Nuffield Foundation developed an approach to primary mathematics which had the aim “I do and I understand.” It enabled a generation of kids to get to grips with the world of maths in a fun and accessible way. Here is what their website says about what happened to their 5 – 11 approach:
The publications sold extremely well over a long period. The first National Curriculum featured many of the mathematical ideas explored and tested by Nuffield Maths 5/11. However high-stakes testing and later the national numeracy strategy brought about a marked change in classroom priorities and practice. The Nuffield slogan: ‘I do – and I understand’ faded into history.

Michael Gove implemented changes to the primary maths curriculum to over burden young minds even more, even forcing those who “fail” GCSE maths at age 16 to keep re-sitting it until they pass or reach age 18. Jo Boaler argues that the idea that some people are good at maths and others aren’t, hinders many from grasping and enjoying maths. Those that are labelled failures see themselves as incapable.
In Anchor Maths, Leslie A Hart tells us that maths needs to be practical, investigative and projective (involved in planning). In the average classroom: “Early arithmetic focuses on “naked” numbers (numbers on their own and not in any context), operations and algorithms. That can seem very dull and useless pretty quickly. Students spend many hours putting numbers on paper but there is no outcome. Nothing happens…apart from getting a grade. This diminishes both math and science.”

Conrad Wolfram argues that we do it all wrong – focussing on hand calculating (when computers do that so much better and quicker than we do) and losing sight of the many real world uses of maths, of concepts and practicalities that would make maths more relevant, creative and fun.

What stops schools taking up any of these approaches? The tyranny of exams and backward looking politicians. The desire to climb up international tables and compete with nations where rote learning increases marks on exams but stifles minds. “All together now Six times Seven equals something or other.”

For more on this see

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Economic Eugenics in the UK

30th December 2014

Staks Rosch coined the phrase “economic eugenics” in 2011 to refer to policies that aim to kill all poor people.1 This is being done by economic means, all seeming less messy than piles of bodies on the floor of gas chambers but just as lethal. Terms such as “welfare scroungers” have echoes of how Nazis described those they considered sub-human: Jewish people were called Weltparasit – world parasites. Similar language is used to describe those unable to find work or unable to work through ill health. Social cleansing of poor people out of cities into ghettos through housing benefit changes, also has resonances of fascism targeting those deemed sub-human.

This eugenics imprisons many in degrading poverty, with people unable to feed themselves, keep warm or maintain basic human dignities. Jobcentres now seem to have changed their remit from helping people find suitable jobs that make them better off, to a weapon to punish the poor with sanctioning targets2 and an aim to reduce the welfare budget, whatever the outcome for the human beings pushed into absolute poverty. The primary meaning of “welfare” refers to the health, happiness, prosperity and wellbeing of a person or group. It is not a dirty word. Everyone’s “welfare” is served when we treat each other with humanity.
Those who are sick are deemed by ATOS to be fit for work after a brief tick-box “assessment” by strangers. Jobcentre staff then say the sick person is not looking for work or is not available for work and stop all money. GPs who know their patients best, have limited power to intervene.

The biggest problem is the defining of human worth by the ability to sell our labour on the market. If we can’t, we are deemed worthless and may as well die. Those who are unable to work through mental or physical health limitation are not seen as fully human by a system that only counts in pounds not people. The unpaid work upon which every society depends (raising children, caring for relatives and friends, unpaid charitable and social work) is also invisible because it doesn’t show up in GDP.

But growth can be toxic. One of our biggest exports is arms, sold to anyone who will buy. We should not be proud of an economy based on death. John Major, when he was Prime Minister, said we should understand a little less and condemn a little more. That condemning has stretched beyond crime to condemning to destitution all those our society has no use for. What we need is more understanding of the human lives blighted by an economic system based on greed and not need.

Suicides increase in economic hard times, but each death of a claimant saves the country money. Those who only look to the bottom line see positives instead of the misery they have induced. Cuts in services to help those suffering as a result of job loss or from the extreme mental and physical stress of poverty, merely make such deaths more likely.3
It has been known for decades that the poor die younger than the wealthy, and that in greatly divided societies like our own, the life expectancy of all is reduced. The accountants see a reduction in those living to the ever-increasing pension age while those who need to claim benefits to exist are less likely to get there. But our government wants to put the onus on health professionals to tackle inequalities that are caused by fiscal policies.4 Giving people nutrition advice when they can’t afford to buy food is mere victim-blaming. Referrals of sick people to employment advice when there are no suitable jobs further victimises.

We need a radical rethink. The Green Party policy of a citizen’s income,5 where each person gets enough for basic living and earnings are on top of that, would be a great step towards a more compassionate society. No-one is promising full employment, but there is a huge amount of work to be done. By allowing people time to do what needs doing – creating communities where we all want to live and valuing unpaid work – we can create a fairer and more humane society. To those who say we cannot afford to care, I would argue that we cannot afford not to.

Jessica Mwanzia is the author of So, what’s wrong with school? 125 reasons not to send your kids

References: accessed 2nd August 2013. He is primarily referring to the situation in the USA
see John Domokos and Patrick Wintour (Tuesday 26 March 2013) Hodge demands explanation for DWP denial of jobcentre sanctions targets The Guardian
Sarah Bosely (Tuesday 14 August 2012) Rise in suicides blamed on impact of recession
The Guardian
BBC news (18 March 2013) NHS told to do more to ‘reduce health inequalities’

To buy my book in paperback, click on the book cover on the home page or visit   To order a PDF use the CONTACT form on this site or the BUY PDF page or email jessica.mwanzia125(at)

HESFES 2014: What is Education For?

11th August 2014

A wonderful week at Stonham Barn with lovely people and weather.

As promised, I have typed up my notes on the talk “What is Education and what is it for? I have summarised the responses I received to my open questionnaire and included the responses of the audience on the day. I was fascinated by the variety of responses and how we all have different ideas about the purpose and content of education – but then variety is the spice of life. How boring, and somehow totalitarian, if we all thought the same.

Summary of HESFES talk

It is more important to ask pertinent questions that to have all the answers
4 year olds ask 400+ questions a day – then what happens?

the hardest to answer but most important to ask
reflect upon the Why of education as this is what sustains you
what is the purpose?

Important because
Why ➭ What ➭ How

The purposes you see influence what you see as education and how it is to be done.
The GOAL shapes the means

e.g. If state education is seen as a way to produce economic generation units, that shapes what is considered education and the how becomes rigidly defined too.

There can be a gap between the why and the what.
e.g. a quote:
“I believe education allows individuals to become authors of their own life story.”

This was Michael Gove in 2009:

The why is influenced by:
-values and beliefs about children, society, the future, God
-own experiences

When a group of American high school students were asked the question:
What is the purpose of education? Here are some of their responses:

The future of our society
Get a job you enjoy
Get a better job to provide for your family and help others around you
For better communication skills
Happiness in what you do
Can’t do what you want without it
Teach others what you learn
It’s something to do
To feel accomplished
For a better country – to out compete other countries
If no-one is educated, the government can do pretty much whatever they want

source Youtube video

A wide variety of responses from HE parents, HE young people and others have similarities and differences from these.

Responses to What is education for? that were given in the session:
Gain independence and choice later in life
Understand and find your place in the world around you
To enrich your life
To get maths, English science
to get a job
How to look after animals
mental health of person being educated

Summary of home educating parents’ responses to What is education for? from questionnaires.
understand others and how to deal with them – socialisation – communication
understand the world – awareness of environment – seek own answers- find own place in the world
understanding self – emotions – minds – find what you want and what you love – how to get it
create and discover – possibilities – choices – innate talents – expand knowledge – advance the world – share what you learn -experience new ideas and concepts
become a better person – discover innate talents – broaden horizons – learn how to think – develop values – to do what you want to do well – self-development –
make a better world – contribute to society – increase joy, peace and happiness in the world – create a fair, sustainable world
survival – skills – tools for life – means to achieve what they want – fulfilling employment – preparation for adult life – fulfill cultural expectations
motivation to learn – encourage curiosity
leaning how to learn – to research – to evaluate what you learn
pleasure – intellectual satisfaction – enjoyment – happiness – enrich your life
raise next generation
meaning and purpose in life

Home Educated young people’s responses:
survival: skills for job you enjoy- to earn money to fund a positive lifestyle
make a better world: get a foundation to progress e.g. areas of science and maths
understand the world: maths to use in later life
enjoyment; enrich life – fun – interest
inspire to learn more

Note that the 3 lists have some strong similarities.

Using a model to frame the discussion
Models can be limiting and enlightening – use with care
Problems come when try to make the world bend to the model
One worth looking at is Thomas Berry’s : Education is to Survive, Critique and Create on a personal, community and planetary level.

Survive includes: to live a life worth living in the context of a healthy community on a healthy planet
Critique includes: understanding and questioning the world, “crap detecting”
Create includes: making a better world, expressing own creative drives

(O’Sullivan E. (1999) Transformative Learning: Educational Visions for the 21st Century (London, New York: Zed Books A fascinating analysis of education under the headings of Survive, Critique and Create (though not an easy read)

Can we fit the responses we have from all the groups into this framework?

Get a job you enjoy
A job to provide for a family
Happiness in what you do
Teach others what you learn

Can’t do what you want without it
To feel accomplished
fulfill cultural expectations

If no-one is educated, the government can do pretty much whatever they want raise the next generation
survival – skills – tools for life – means to achieve what they want – fulfilling employment – preparation for adult life
Independence and choice
how to look after animals

Mental health
earn money to fund a positive lifestyle

Community and planetary survival:

The future of society

For better communication skills

Teach others what you learn

For a better country – to out compete other countries

Raise the next generation

understand the world – awareness of environment – seek own answers- find own place in the world
understanding self – emotions – minds – find what you want and what you love – how to get it
understand place in the world
evaluating what you learn

Community and Planetary understanding:

Understanding other people and how to deal with them



Understanding the world



Create and discover – possibilities – choices – innate talents – expand knowledge -experience new ideas and concepts
Become a better person – discover innate talents – broaden horizons – learn how to think – develop values – to do what you want to do well – self-development
Enrich your life – have fun – follow interests
Curiosity and motivation to learn
How to learn and research – creating new knowledge
Enjoyment, happiness
Meaning and purpose in life

Community and planetary creativity:

Share what you learn

Contribute to society – increase joy and happiness in the world – create a fair, sustainable world

Advance the world

Make a better world.

Foundations in place to advance in science and maths etc.


For some answers, it isn’t easy to decide where they belong. Is meaning and purpose something we create or something necessary for our survival? Or both?

We need to know our purposes or at least ask the question.

What is worth knowing?
Postman N and Weingartner C (1969) Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Delta) looked at a curriculum based on the questions that learners wanted to ask and answer, prompted by the question “What is worth knowing?”

I asked this of my kids at various times during our home education journey and with their permission will share some of their ideas:
-how to cook:
-history especially horrible histories
-how to behave and be polite
-your rights and the law
-disguises and espionage
-lock picking
-survival and how to defend yourself
-how to spot a bargain
-understanding other people
-looking after your teeth
-how to hop backwards
-having your own thoughts and not doing what everyone else thinks is important

Survival skills and future jobs merge with relating to other people, practical skills and knowledge.

Audience responses to What is worth knowing?
-how to find something out
-different languages
-things to know for the joy of knowing
-finding innate talents
-different ways of making a living
-whatever interests you is worth knowing
-where we have come from
-new experiences e.g. travel that challenges us
-mastering ourselves
-coping strategies
-knowing what you’d like to have happen
-trading without money
-envisioning the future fro ourselves and our society
-self-reliance – ability to look after ourselves
-growing own food
-resilience – being able to swim against the tide
-learning to live within our means
-communication skills
-how to relax, turn off, sleep,
-listening to your own body
-learning what can hurt/kill us and how to avoid it
-how to get our needs met
-preventing society from stopping our positive natural tendencies
-how to sing
-learning to cope outside our comfort zone
-confidence – learning how to be OK with yourself.

There was then a discussion about whether everyone “should” learn anything like singing or only those who found it interesting or enjoyable.

From the questionnaires the answers to What is worth knowing? were wide ranging:

-many said everything, or anything – all knowledge has a value and a purpose
-whatever you are drawn to, whatever interests you, whatever your heart seeks

Many referred to skills and tools for life:
work with the hands and practical skills
dealing with change
using the internet
making and maintaining relationships
how things work including people
how we do things
the 3 R’s
the law
washing up
public speaking
what you need ot know

Many referred to understanding that helps us in our life:
that people aren’t 100% reliable
that knowledge is a common good
that there are multiple truths
that everything is subjective
how the universe works
where food comes from
where babies come from and how not to get them
how to get on with people
not to be bamboozled
how people learn differently
sustainability and ecological awareness
systems that work with rather than against nature
problem solving
history of dominator cultures

Some answers to What is worth knowing? fit into any and all categories. I have chosen to think of them as creative:
vision questing
whatever makes you happy


Other sessions in the conference look at the How? of education.

There is a spectrum from child led to parent led
Learning versus teaching – peer to peer,
Learning without teaching – one laptop per child, internet, technology
Learning to learn

The one-laptop-per-child project gave tablet computers in boxes to kids in remote Ethiopian villages where no-one had ever seen the written word or any technology. Within 4 minutes a child had the box open and the machine switched on. The kids used lots of apps and learned the alphabet and how to hack the security systems. They taught themselves and each other.

This is similar to the hole-in-the-wall experiment in India where computers were placed in holes in the wall and slum dwellers given free access to them. The children learned very quickly how to use them.

Who should decide?
This is the crucial arguments we are having to retain HE autonomy – if the state decides the why and the what it limits the HOW.

Questionnaire responses:
The student: The vast majority said the student should decide but some said you have to pick something
The parent or main carer: a smaller number stated the parent
Child and parent: a few stated that both together should decide e.g. parent sets framework, team of the learner and those who love and respect the learner, individual in the context of society, need to be shown what is available and how to access it.

Other: if not parent then other adults, you and the people you ask, a kinder society, cooperatively, someone without an ideological agenda, people who have lived through all eventualities in life.

Other questions we may want to ask:

The idea of critical periods for learning many things is being challenged by neurophysiological findings of plasticity of the brain (it’s ability to change with new experiences) being maintained throughout life. A fascinating book is The Brain that Changes Itself

Asking questions:

Keep asking those questions.

Quote from Terry Pratchett:

“Albert grunted. “Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?”
Mort thought for a moment.
“No,” he said eventually, “what?”
There was silence.
Then Albert straightened up and said, “Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve ’em right.”

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So, what’s wrong with Amazon?

20th January 2014

Well, I naively ticked a box to place my book on Amazon, only to discover that they undercut me and take every penny. Then I tried to remove it from their listing and they refused to do so. They are collecting emails of people interested in buying my book, when I have no intention of selling there again. This effectively blocks sales, prevents people getting a copy of the book at all and puts small publishers out of business. They bully publishers who try to stand up to them.

Of course, that is the tip of the iceberg in Amazon’s unethical practices. Housemans list their other sins:

Amazon prevent their workforce from unionising for decent wages and conditions, which allows them to treat their staff  badly with no sick leave and excessive work loads. They intend to monopolise the online market, undercutting competitors. This is only possible by robbing workers of decent pay and conditions and robbing publishers, writers, producers and sellers of goods of a fair cut. Their monopoly puts many out of business. By dodging tax (they pay zero tax in the UK in spite of £7.5 billion annual sales) they have another unfair advantage over legitimate businesses that respect the rights of their workers.

The Kindle is an interesting idea – you can only buy kindle books from Amazon and the kindle books you buy REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF AMAZON:

Amazon’s eBook reader, The Kindle, demonstrates Amazon’s “scorched earth” approach to competition. They created an eBook reader that is proprietary. All books loaded onto The Kindle must be “purchased” from Amazon – and they remain the property of Amazon. All other eBook readers on the market allow customers to buy eBooks from a variety of sources, including independent bookstores. (Read more: Kindle: How To Buy A Book But Not Own It)”

All in all, this evil behemoth cares nothing for writers, publishers or even their customers. All they care about is putting competitors out of business by undercutting them and conveniently making no profit so they pay virtually no tax.  (in 2012 despite 60 BILLION dollars of sales, Amazon reported a 40 million dollar loss) They do this by investing in expansionism to avoid paying tax on the huge revenues they take. ) Now there’s an education for us all.

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League tables, ranking and the value of the unmeasurable

10th December 2013

Last week Pisa test results put Singapore at the top of the international league tables for 15 year olds with UK at 26 out of 65. Yet in 2012 UK were in the top 10 for reading and maths in primary schools by a US survey

The Sutton Trust argues that these measurements are misleading.  with politicians using them to back up whatever agenda they already have. Levels going down? We need these market led reforms. Levels going up? That just shows that our market led reforms are working and need to be intensified.

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation said “Whatever the average ranking of English education, we need to focus on reducing social segregation which is greater in England than almost all other OECD countries” 

The problem is not whether the rankings are accurate or meaningful, but whether we should be ranking at all. Proposals to rank every child in the country against every other child at age 11 , merely rigidifies what already happens.

In response to the discovery that, shock horror, England and the UK have fallen down the table, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “For children to achieve their potential, we need to raise the bar.” So how does that work exactly? “Raising the bar” would simply ensure more failed to clear it, so more would be labelled as failures from a young age.

The problem is not our position in the tables but the fact that we are relying on one-off test results to come to unjustified conclusions about children, education and what changes need to happen. If we look at the amount of dishonesty by schools that influences Ofsted reports, we have to ask what is the point of all this measuring and ranking? Most of us do not want to live our lives in a “global race” and certainly do not want our small children to have to hit the ground running to keep up.

If we want to see the outcomes of an education system we need to look at the society that is produced. As Nelson Mandela told us “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

The rankings we should be most disturbed by are those that show the levels of inequality and poverty in a society, the injustices and human rights abuses, the wars engaged in and the levels of violent and premature death, of homelessness and mental ill-health. But when we measure social justice as the ability to participate in a market society rather than the ability to live a life of peace and dignity, with access to the resources that are needed to maintain a healthy body, mind and spirit, then we have to question whether the “market” can ever deliver those things to all in society, when making a profit for the few, dictates the terms of engagement. When this flawed market model is applied to the education of our children, is it any wonder that the “market” collapse model can also apply? Our children are not just another commodity to be compared and graded for sale on the global market. The more there are the cheaper they become, with the lowest ranked being considered disposable people.

To truly reflect a society we need to look at the unmeasurables that lead to a quality of life. How much kindness do we experience in our daily life? How safe do we feel about the future? With what sense of self and trust do we greet each day? What is the nature of our connection to nature? To educate a whole person, and not just the bit the market wants us to express, is the real challenge of any education system and most are found wanting.

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Support the right to home-educate in The Netherlands

5th December 2013

In early 2014, ministers in The Netherlands are planning to discuss the abolition of home education. There is a small but active home education community fighting for the right to continue to educate their own children. An international petition about this can be accessed here:

For an inspiring flashmob of Dutch Home Educators see

See world wide attacks on home education     to see this is part of a global trend towards erosion of rights of children and freedom of thought. Parents can’t be trusted with their children’s education but a disinterested, hostile state which sees our children as economic generation units, somehow believes it acts in the best interest of children by separating them from their parents.

Teachers know the problems with targets


11th November 2013

The Guardian’s Secret teacher tells it like it is: the pressure put on teachers and students to “perform” to ludicrous, inhuman targets takes its toll on all in the school system. Teachers are deprofessionalised and mistrusted; pupils stressed and made to jump through hoops. Target-driven education is  bad for everyone’s mental and physical health. Ofsted becomes the driver of it all.

In reason 94: Ofsted: the engine that drives it all I quote The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. In 1863 he foresaw the ogre of Ofsted:

“Here comes the examiner-of-all-examiners. So you had better get away, I warn you, or he will examine you and your dog into the bargain, and set him to examine all the other dogs, and you to examine all the other water babies. There is no escape out of his hands, for his nose is 9000 miles long, and can go down chimneys and through keyholes, upstairs, downstairs, in my lady’s chamber, examining all little boys, and little boys’ tutors likewise.”

In reason 83. Standards, targets, league tables and other number nonsense

I paraphrase  Clive Harber (2004) from  Schooling as Violence – How Schools Harm Pupils and Society , “The rating and ranking of teachers and schools all hang on the performance of pupils in tests and assessments. The obsession with targets, standards and accountability has led to an escalation of testing. This is not to give information to students but to allow all levels in the education hierarchy, from teachers to countries, to be ranked.”

Teachers can see this. More and more parents are seeing this. How long until Michael Gove, Education Secretary, sees it?

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