The Problem with Education in England

Did you know England tops the world’s league table in rote memorisation? This is, most certainly and without equivocation, a bad thing. There are three main reasons this is a bad thing:

1/ It’s a bad thing because of factories and Victorians. Our schools are nothing more than exam factories where we churn out young people who’ve memorised loads of useless stuff that Google knows better. And the people who oversee all this? They would be the droves of Dickensian autocrats hell-bent on making sure our young people are totally unprepared for jobs that don’t exist yet.

2/ It’s a bad thing because of Finland. We are not Finland. We should be Finland. Our children could be children again were we Finland.

3/ It’s a bad thing because of deep learning. Our children don’t learn anything deeply. You know, really learn anything. I mean, they know that 4 × 5 = 20, but do they really know what 4 is? Do they really know what 20 is? They certainly don’t know that 20 ÷ 4 = 5. They definitely don’t know that you can show this with an array, or use it in a word problem. They’re just forced to memorise those damned times tables all day long. (And phonics, don’t get me started on them).

4/ It’s a bad thing because important people tell us it is. Schleicher, Boaler, the Unions. They’re all telling us the same thing, so it must be true. Ken Robinson prophesied it in his TED Talk, we’re hyperbolically killing creativity and churning out robots.

Ok, that was four reasons, but then I’ve been through the English education system so you must forgive me that one. And please forgive me the following four reasons why this is all great rhetoric and poorly-evidenced nonsense:

1/ Modern schooling did not start in the Victorian era to make factory workers. Schooling across England has developed dramatically over the last century-and-a-half. To claim otherwise is lazy. For a start, education was only made compulsory for all 5-10 year-olds with the Elementary Education Act (1880) and it wasn’t until the Education Act of 1918 (the Fisher Act) that schooling was enforced for all children up to 14 years old. In 1904 the first annual Regulations for Secondary Schools were published which mandated the teaching of a certificated course in English language and literature, geography, history, a foreign language, mathematics, science, drawing, manual work, physical training, and, for girls, housewifery. Not sure why, or which, factory workers needed quite such a broad curriculum there.

Schooling spread to the masses, rather than being the preserve of the elite, because people recognised that education is the key to improving society on all levels. Thank goodness for those awful Victorians and their factory models.

2/ Copying another country isn’t the answer. There are jurisdictions which perform better than us on international tests – Finland, Singapore, Shanghai, Estonia, Vietnam – but each one of these countries has its own unique identity, culture (the importance of which can never be overestimated in education), problems and solutions. We can learn a lot from each. Singapore, for instance, has a very stable educational system where all teachers are trained centrally by experts with decades of experience behind them. They are not subject to the whim of the latest Secretary of Education and the state views the human resource as its most valuable resource due to the lack of exportable goods in the country (Prof. Berinderjeet Kaur of the Ministry of Education told me this in November 2017 when she visited my school).

We can always learn more, we can always improve, but there is no golden bullet and in an ecosystem as complex as education we need to understand that any change we make will be limited in its success by the myriad other things we can’t change. If it works, a change will make slow gains at best. At least that means that the opposite is also true – it would be extremely hard to implement full-scale disaster.

3/ Don’t believe the people who tell you we are “forcing” kids to memorise instead of teaching things properly. Those with an ideology to push will tell you that we are forcing children to learn things like times tables at the expense of any kind of proper understanding. This is patently untrue. Primary-age children aged 5-11 are learning their times tables as part of the bigger picture of learning mathematics. They learn how multiplication and division are related, how multiplication can be expressed as an array, how it is both repeated addition and stretching, how it underpins proportional reasoning.

We can do it better, of course we can. At the moment there is a huge push from all corners on the idea of “mastery”, where children don’t only meet something and move on but they spend time on it in order that it is learnt well, where one topic fits into a broader curriculum carefully sequenced to support everything that is learnt. We are taking findings from cognitive science and trying to apply them to schooling to help our students learn better (although this is in its infancy in terms of spread across the system). We are learning from the examples of Shanghai and Singapore where possible. Last month saw the British Congress of Mathematics Education (BCME) where hundreds of maths teachers from around the world came to talk mathematics pedagogy. Organisations such as Cambridge Mathematics are dedicating years to creating a framework of mathematics learning for the advancement of practice, “committed to championing and securing a world class mathematics education for all”. All this happens because teachers in England are dedicated to improving the mathematics learning of all their students. We are not making children chant their tables meaninglessly and any suggestion that we are is ill-informed, patronising and rather rude. Next time you see someone in a position of influence suggesting what an awful job we are all doing, stand up to it. If nothing else, it makes you feel a little less annoyed.

Don’t get me wrong, there are children in our system who struggle immensely with mathematics and those who get scared by it, partly because where there are elements of memorisation involved they find it extremely difficult. But the teachers who aren’t doing everything they can to help these children and improve their experience of maths are few and far between.

4/ The PISA evidence that we are giving our students a diet of poor-quality rote learning is, well, poor-quality. Self-reported data is not exactly robust. Self-reported data based on poor methodology, where people are forced to choose from a non-exhaustive list of options is even less robust. To collect data through statements such as “When I study mathematics, I make myself check to see if I remember the work I have already done” and then extrapolate that data to make inferences about the way mathematics is taught in the classroom borders on the deliberately misleading. This is what PISA has done, and it is not reliable. For more start here and here.

There are many problems with education in England – fragmentation, lack of support in society, the immense power of the Secretary of State who changes so frequently, underfunding, to name a few – but these problems don’t lie with teachers forcing students to memorise disconnected facts. Teachers work hard every day to do the best for the students in their charge. It’s about time the teacher-bashing stopped.






  1. Your four reasons memorization is important in initial learning are nicely done! Let me suggest a number 5. The consensus of scientists who study well-structure problem solving (like math problems) is that while solving the problem, the brain must rely almost entirely on facts and procedures that have previously been well memorized. See http://www.ChemReview.Net/CCMS.pdf As Herb Simon (nobel laureate) and colleagues put it: Assimilation sets the stage for accommodation.


  2. A fuller perspective on your first point shows the broad 1904 statement as a reaction against the rigidity of the 1862 Payment By Results system which dominated the curriculum for thirty years. This was totally based on rote learning and mechanical procedures.

    The 1904 curriculum advice was very largely influenced by a particularly progressive chief inspector of schools, Edmund Holmes, and you can read many examples in which Holmes wrote of the inadequacy and lack of success of a curriculum which didn’t require children to think, but which did demand them to perform routine mechanical calculations without any understanding of the situation or indeed of the numbers involved. He quoted the example of visiting schools where children would happily work out that the classroom was five shillings and sixpence wide.

    Holmes railed against the existing curriculum dominated by testing and rote learning, and encouraged schools to develop pupils who could think for themselves and take responsibility for their own learning. Even today his aspirational thinking seems challenging, and to think that his policies were being advocated more than a century ago is remarkable.

    I’ve written several posts at


    • Thanks – I shall take a read of what you’ve written. I don’t know a huge amount on the history of education and by writing this have already learnt a lot through discussion with others.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s