Some evidence on schooling problems – a submission to the EU survey on the rights of children.
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Some evidence on schooling problems – a submission to the EU survey on the rights of children.

Ian Cunningham – edited from ‘Self Managed Learning and the New Educational Paradigm’, Routledge, 2020.


This extract from Chapter 6 of the above book provides sufficient evidence to show that the work in developing a New Educational Paradigm is both desirable and highly justified. And on the other hand, it shows that defence of the existing traditional schooling paradigm is not warranted. Some specific pieces of educational evidence affecting schooling include: the discrimination against summer born children: the negative impact of large schools: the problems of violence affecting schools: the negative response of schools to difference amongst children: the fact that there is no average learner and therefore classrooms cannot meet the needs of this mythical average learner: the need for a positive valuing of difference: the endemic nature of school bullying and its long-term effects: the subjectivity of the curriculum: what is taught does not equal what is learned: literacy is not the same as studying English: travel should be positively valued: linear progression is not achievable.


As much as possible, I will try to present evidence which is as incontrovertible. In many cases there is what could be described as objective evidence, such as that on the implications of birthdates. In other areas, evidence may be of a different nature, but I would regard it as important. However, I’m not trying to be encyclopaedic. What I want mainly to do is to provide sufficient evidence to show that the work in developing a New Educational Paradigm is both desirable and highly justified. And on the other hand, I want to show that defence of the existing traditional schooling paradigm is not warranted.

The area that I want to cover in this extract chapter is that around the social organisation of schooling. I believe that there is sufficient evidence here for a New Educational Paradigm that moves away from the existing schooling model into other forms of learning. Clearly some New Educational Paradigm providers continue to use the name ‘school’, but in many cases people are using other labels such as a learning centre or home education. My aim in this chapter extract is not to go into those particular structures, but rather to provide an evidence basis for material explored more fully my book (Cunningham, 2020).

Why the social organisation of schooling is failing

Summer born children

I initially became interested in the implications of the date of birth of boys (aged 9-16) while working with the Football Association in England on the development of young players. We obtained important data from all the Premier League football clubs in England for 2005. At that time there were 2,025 boys in the academies of these professional clubs. Among the findings, when we looked at birth dates, were the following: 19% of players had a September birth while only 3% had an August birth. Aggregated by months, 58% of the boys were born in the four months from September to December, 28% were born in the next four months January to April and 14% in the four months of May to August. Please note that these 2025 boys were the total of 9-16 year-olds; it was not a sample. Every club has to send in the birthdate of the boys attached to their academies and we were in possession of that data. When we looked at other professional clubs, the figures were similar right down through the other leagues in England. This was caused by the fact that 1 September is the start of the academic year in England and that if you are selecting a boy at the age of eight, someone born on 1 September in that year group is almost a year older than someone born in August. Developmentally this is a very large gap.

Incidentally, when we looked at amateur teams of young players, where they played in local recreation grounds, there was not this disparity. The difference came when there were selection decisions by scouts and managers from professional clubs.

Turning now to school specifically, the Department for Education’s own research shows that at least 10,000 summer born (May to August) children gain worse results at GCSE than autumn born (September to December) children just because of their birth date. Nothing else. The research shows that this gap appears as soon as children start at school and carries on right into higher education. 18.8% of August born young people enter university at 18 compared with 21.3% for September born young people. (1)

The figures also show that summer born children are more likely to be labelled as special needs and more likely to have been identified as having a range of symptoms such as learning difficulties and speech, language and communication needs. Indeed, by the age of 7 in primary school, August born children are nearly 90% more likely to be identified as SEN (Special Educational Needs) than September born children.

All this evidence points to the fact that current school arrangements and structures are inherently discriminatory. There is no way to make the classroom, the rigid subject-based curriculum and imposed timetables solve problems of inequality. The structures and processes of schooling are inherently faulty. They even encourage parents and teachers to make erroneous judgements. For instance, both parents and teachers of summer born children are more likely to underestimate the abilities of such children, according to the Government’s research.

School size

There has been a significant amount of research and exploration on the issue of the size of schools. Part of the problem with much of the research is what is defined as small or large. I am convinced by anthropological evidence and the work of people like Robin Dunbar (2) that 150 is the magic number. But it’s a magic number for the size of a learning community that can operate in a humane way. Given that adults would be involved, it probably means that the maximum for learners is below 120. Much of the research clearly does not look at schools of that small size. For example, many studies regard 500 - 600 a small size school. I do not.

The key issue here is more about having a school which I have heard described as one where: every adult knows every child; every child knows every adult and, most importantly, every child knows every other child. In such settings, it does seem from the research (2) that there are significant benefits which include learners feeling more engaged with the school; teachers and students being happier and feeling positive about the climate of the school; there is less violent behaviour and bullying; and in a properly designed setting costs can actually be lower, rather than the claimed economies of scale in large schools. Attendance also seems better in smaller settings and there is a potential better attainment and progression of learning, though we should not fall into the trap of just judging school on exam passes.

The average secondary school in the UK is much much larger than the 150 maximum. In such schools, which are typically more than 1000, the average teacher sees about 250 students each week (Wetz, 2009). It is not possible to know 250 people well. This is the conclusion of Dunbar’s research and that of anthropologists studying hunter gatherer bands and similar small communities.

The other feature of the research is that we have to look at the issue of having small learning communities where, as Wetz points out, relationships are at the heart of the school. This means that small on its own is not something to be valued. Small schools can be created with a hierarchy and an authoritarian style of teaching. In such settings the advantages that have been identified for small schools do not seem to manifest themselves.


This heading is really a subset of the case above because I hope to say something about the social organisation of schools and their size as part of my concerns here. Firstly, though, I can summarise some of the more psychological evidence that comes out of school shootings in the USA, though there been school shootings in other countries. Clearly the USA has had more problems with this partly because of the easy access to guns. However, school shooters there clearly had some of the following problems: fragile identities; a lack of social skills; depression; anxiety; loneliness or isolation; suicidal tendencies and a lack of empathy towards others. These factors have been identified in research by Langman (2009), Newman et al (2004) and Cullen (2009). Note that not all school shooters had all of these characteristics.

There are interesting interpretations as to why these shootings occurred and the Alternative Education Research Organisation in its newsletter after one of the school shootings explained that the main factors seemed to be that it’s shootings in schools. The newsletter said. ‘We don’t have teenagers doing mass library shootings, museum shootings or park shootings. What is the difference? Libraries, museums and parks are not compulsory or authoritarian, you go there when you want. You do what you want and leave when you want. They don’t judge you, test you, grade you, suspend you or kick you out. Schools need to change. Democratic and learner centred schools don’t have mass shootings. Statistics verify that’ (3).

Research by Langman (2009), Newman et al (2004) and Cullen (2009) confirm the opinions expressed above. Newman et al point out that the ‘attacks have been on institutions’ (P. 264). Langman is convinced that the ‘murders they [shooters] committed were not inevitable outcomes of their personalities, but actions they committed in a state of crisis. Had they been safely maintained through their crises, there is no reason to assume they would have become murderers later in life. (P. 154) He goes on to suggest that a strategy is that students who are struggling socially need to have connections to adults to help them through that. But he also points out that students need to feel safe in school and that while ‘bullying itself does not cause student school shootings anything that contributes to students misery, fear and rage can play a part in driving them to violence’. (P. 193).

Newman et al point out that the social structure of the schools leads to what they call ‘information loss’, and that there were warning signs such that tragedies could have been prevented if the information that was available had been shared. The problems that they identify are problems about the system itself and structural arrangements of secrecy - and that information that doesn’t fit the operating paradigms is dismissed. As they point out ‘problems can go unnoticed in school precisely because they do not disrupt its basic function. Individual student problems often do not interrupt daily routines and may therefore fester unnoticed until a major eruption, such as shooting, thrusts it into view.’ (P. 102).

Further ‘that the culture and social structure of public schools leads to information loss, which in turn obscures the pain and anger inside some students - emotions that, in rare cases, boil over into rampage shootings. The question is not how individuals could have missed the warning signs, but rather how the organisation of public schools prevents them from recognising and processing the information correctly.’ (P. 79)’. This evidence ‘of systemic distortion: information that does relate to an organisation’s ambitions or survival gets filtered out. Important information “disappears”, not because of intentional decisions to ignore it, but because “people deliberately do not seek out unfavourable information.”’. (P. 88)

The negative response of schools to difference

It is well-known that certain groups do not do as well in school as they should do, given a school environment which has not accommodated their difference. Some of these examples are very well known so I will make small reference to them and refer the reader to notes and references. Other examples are perhaps less well-known and may benefit from a little more explanation.

The groups that are well-known to do less well in school in the UK and less likely therefore to go into higher education include the following: children in care (looked after children, as they may be labelled); autistic children; those who are adopted; those on free school meals (which is evidence of poverty); young people with ADHD; working class children, especially from white and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds; young people with a severe physical disability. (4)

The group that is often not recognised as having different issues in school are those who are very introverted. Cain (2012) presents important research evidence about the discrimination against introverts, who she suggests make up more than one third of the population. As she argues, ‘many schools are designed for extroverts’ (P253). She suggests that ‘we tend to forget that there’s nothing sacrosanct about learning in large group classrooms, and that we organise students this way, not because it’s the best way to learn, but because it’s cost efficient and what else would we do with our children while the grown-ups are at work?’ (P. 253). I would argue that the attempt is low-cost, but actually inefficient for learners grouped in large classrooms. She does point out that too often, what children have to do is to be prepared to learn how to survive in a school day, just because they are more introverted. You could argue that that is similar to all the other negative differences, as perceived by the system, that I’ve indicated above.

Cain has a list of what she would regard as a desirable environment for introverted children. This list includes the following criteria for such a school:

  • prizes independent interests and emphasises autonomy.
  • conducts group activities in moderation and in small carefully managed groups
  • values, kindness, caring, empathy, good citizenship.
  • strongly enforces an anti-bullying program.
  • emphasises a tolerant, down-to-earth culture (P.257)

There is no average learner - at all.

It may be useful to focus on the fact that there is no average child. Therefore, by school classrooms working on the assumption that they can pitch teaching to the level of the average they are seriously at fault. The key author here is Rose (2015).

I need to start at the beginning of Rose’s book. The opening piece of research he refers to is that conducted in the US Air Force. There were a lot of problems of pilot error in the 1950s. The cockpits were designed to suit what was seen as the average pilot. However, pilot errors and crashes were a problem. Research was conducted on 4,063 pilots. When they took 10 dimensions of pilots such as length of arm, length of leg, etc they found that there was no average pilot. No pilot came anywhere near the average of 10 dimensions used to design cockpits. What they had to do was then to respond to the fact that individuals were different and that they could reduce pilot error by designing cockpits around the pilot, not around a mythical average. There is no average – it is a mythical invention.

The second piece of research that Rose refers to is that conducted by a US newspaper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer. They had worked with the local health museum, which had created a statue based on average data from 15,000 young adult women. The statue was to represent the truth about the average woman based on this research. The newspaper started a competition to see who might meet this average. They assumed that there would be quite a number of people and instead what they found amongst the 3,864 contestants was there was not one that even came close to all the dimensions of the average adult woman.

Rose then points out that too many organisations work on the basis of a myth of an average. His most important, evidenced statement is perhaps on page 8 when he says, ‘any system designed around the average person is doomed to fail’.

He also emphasises that the fact that there is no average at all ‘is a scientific fact’ and that this does not apply just to body size, but there is ‘no such thing as average talent, average intelligence, average character, nor are their average students or average employees or average brains for that matter ‘(p. 11)  He turned his attention then to various sectors, including education. He shows that any educational model based on the assumption of an average child is in error. He comments that schools still follow the same rigid patterns as they did a century ago ‘with fixed class durations, fixed school days and fixed semesters, proceeding through the same unyielding sequence of “core courses”, all of which ensure that every (normal) student graduates from high school at the same age with, presumably the same knowledge.’ (P. 125) He conclusively demonstrates that this is a complete nonsense.

He goes on to develop his notion of ‘pathways’ and as he comments: ‘there is no single normal pathway for any type of human development – biological, mental, moral, or professional.’ (P. 129) He particularly points out that speed of learning varies enormously, but has no bearing on the ability of the individual learner. Because of the fact that speed and learning ability are not related he states that ‘we have created an educational system that is profoundly unfair, one that favours students who happen to be fast while penalising students who are just as smart yet learn at a slower pace.’ (P 133). He goes on to show how this fast/slow dilemma is genuinely discriminatory in a very dangerous way. He points out, based on his pathway model, that there is ‘no universally fixed set of sequences for human development - no set stages everyone must pass through to grow, learn and achieve goals. (P. 135). Finally, on P. 188: ‘We continue to enforce a curriculum that defines not only what students learn, but also how, when, at what pace and in what order they learn it. In other words, whatever else we may say, traditional public education systems violate the principles of individuality.’

The positive value of difference.

I want to make the case here that we need difference among people - that diversity in any society, community or working organisation is to be valued. The best text on this is Page, 2007. His book is entitled ‘The Difference’ and has the subtitle of ‘How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies.’ He presents rigorous research evidence to support this proposal.

The implications for education, which are examined later, show that we need to not just respect difference amongst learners, but also support that difference - value it and, if necessary, encourage it, rather than assume that we want a uniform output from a school.

Page’s two most important findings are; one that diversity trumps homogeneity that is that people with different perspectives and experiences, etc will outperform people who have more homogenous perspectives and experiences. Secondly, he shows that diversity trumps ability - that random collections of intelligent problem solvers can outperform collections of the best individual problem solvers.

His book reminded me of an old exercise that we used to use on courses with managers. It’s called the NASA Space Shot Exercise and the process is to give individuals a sheet devised by NASA. On the sheets are a list of items that could possibly survive in a crash on the moon. Individuals are asked to rate these items in the order of importance and to try to get as close to NASA’s own ranking of these items. They are then put into teams of about six or seven and asked to work as a team to come up with an agreed collective ranking. I have done the exercise dozens of times, as have many other people, and every time the group scores are better than the best individual score. By using the diversity of approaches and ideas of individuals the group is always a better performer than the best individual. This kind of result is confirmed in Mercier and Sperber (2011) who cite eight significant research studies that confirm this.

This is one demonstration of what Page shows in his book about problem solving and also about prediction. Further, he goes into more detailed research on specifics. Here is one quote ‘Careful empirical studies show this benefit to cognitive diversity: teams of people with diverse training and experience typically performed better than more homogenous teams. Studies that isolate diversity and skills, such as between the types of engineers, show evidence that diversity improves performance. Studies of creativity and innovation concluded that cognitive variation is a key explanatory variable. Studies also show that management teams with greater training and experiential diversity typically introduce more innovations. Based on this evidence organisational scholars generally agree that cognitive diversity improves rates of innovation.’ (P. 323)

As Page says; ‘People often speak of the importance of tolerating difference. We must move beyond tolerance and toward taking the world to a better place.’ (P.375) He shows that by valuing diversity and welcoming it we can genuinely make the world a better place, but only if we move away from the educational model that says, at best differences might be tolerated and at worst are suppressed.


Bullying is a major problem especially in post 11 schools, which of course are generally larger than primary schools. The exact figures for bullying vary greatly, but common percentages quoted are 40 to 50% of young people post 11 have been bullied sometime in school. (5). Whilst there are all sorts of initiatives, such as anti-bullying weeks and bully buddies to support bullied children, the problem of bullying in schools has not been solved and the situation is not getting any better, if one looks at national figures. The big problem seems to be that because it’s regarded as inevitable and endemic within secondary/high schools, it is not really taken seriously. I know that last comment will come as a surprise, because schools say they take it seriously, but they don’t actually stop it. If it was really taken seriously bullying would be a rare event.

One problem that I’ve seen locally is a growing trend to blame the victim. At a meeting where an educational psychologist was talking about their role with bullied children, they seemed to feel that the main thing they should do is develop resilience in bullied children. This does nothing to address the systemic issues within a school and can seem to those who are bullied that they are somehow lesser persons, because they need to have some training in resilience. As an aside, it seems to be also problematic that some psychologists have no interest in wider social problems and only wish to address the individual, as has been their training.

The second problem is that it’s assumed that children will be bullied and it’s just part of the growing up process - and once they leave school it will all be okay. Nothing could be further from the truth. A number of really rigorous research studies have shown that effects of bullying last into adulthood.

Lewis et al 2019, cite research funded by the Medical Research Council UK. It is estimated that nearly one hundred thousand children in the country are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of severe bullying. The study also revealed that half of young people with post-traumatic stress disorder had self -harmed and one in five had attempted suicide since the age of 12. A quarter were not in education, employment or training (NEET) and half had experienced high levels of social isolation and loneliness.

Evans-Lacko et al, 2016, performed an analysis using the National Child Development Study and the 1958 British Birth Cohort study. They showed that people who were bullied were more likely to use mental health services in childhood and adolescence, and also in midlife. Wolke, 2019, explained: “We want to eradicate the myth that bullying at a young age could be viewed as a harmless rite of passage that everyone goes through – it casts a long shadow over a person’s life and can have serious consequences for mental health.” His study showed that bullies and their victims have an increased risk of developing psychotic experiences in adult life.

Campbell and Morrison, 2007, showed that bullying was significantly associated with a predisposition to psychotic experiences. Varese et al, 2012, showed that children exposed to bullying and related abuse were 2.72 times more likely to have psychosis in adult life than the rest of the population. Moore et al, 2017, showed that victims of bullying are associated with a wide range of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, suicide attempts and illicit drug use. Copeland et al., 2014, found high levels of markers of inflammation in young adults who had been bullied. and Takizawa, 2015, showed the same in midlife. (Inflammation markers are correlated with both mental and physical health problems.) Brugger, 2019, showed that exposure to bullying is associated with symptoms of mental illness and that this continued beyond childhood.

Lieberman, 2013, makes an impeccable case against the harm done by bullying arguing that it is ‘probably the most pervasive form of social rejection that we have’. (P. 69). For instance, he cites a Finnish study of over 5000 eight-year olds. Those bullied by that age were more than six times as likely to have taken their own lives by the age of twenty-five.

One saying I used to hear when I was young was; ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. This was to say that the name-calling and verbal bullying was not as serious as physical bullying. We now know, from the neuroscientific research, that this saying is untrue – see Lieberman, 2013. Emotional pain and physical pain occur in the same part of the brain and it is clear that verbal bullying is extremely serious and does lead to mental health problems. In monitoring suicides by children who have been verbally bullied it appears that verbal bullying is more likely to produce a suicide or attempted suicide by the young person than physical bullying. So again, the lack of serious attention to this situation is appalling.  It is clearly grossly unprofessional to allow this to happen in schools.

Further Lieberman, 2103, cites research that social pain – such as from verbal bullying - significantly reduces intellectual performance. As he comments: ‘This must be a profound distraction and a major strain on classroom learning.’ (P. 279)

The subjective curriculum

Any choice of curriculum for young people is a subjective choice. There is no objectively right curriculum. One of the interesting aspects of Britain is that there is devolved government in Wales and Scotland. The curricula for schools in Wales, Scotland and England are all different. Yet there is no evidence presented by Governments that there are significant differences amongst children in the different parts of Britain, such that these large differences in curricula are justified. There are Welsh and Scottish young people in England who do the curriculum as imposed from Government for England. There are English students in Wales and Scotland who do the curriculum for those countries. One example worth mentioning is that of the English baccalaureate (EBacc). This supposed qualification drives the curriculum in schools in England. The requirement to get an EBacc is that young person must take GCSEs and pass them only in academic subjects. The particular subjects that have to be passed are English, maths, a science, a foreign language and history or geography. Any learning outside these five academic subjects does not count in terms of the judgement against a school for its performance in the EBacc.

The Government in England introduced measures in 2011 for this qualification. The National Foundation for Educational Research has plotted changes since that time (see Hepworth, 2019). They say that between 2009 and 2019 the number of GCSE entries increased by 1.9% overall. Entries for the Ebacc subjects have increased by 12.6% over the time period while entries into non-Ebacc subjects have fallen by nearly 30%. Another way of looking at the figures is that 81.4% of all GCSE entries in 2019 were the Ebacc subjects compared to 73.6% back in 2009. They comment that this is an enormous shift. They show the impact for technology subjects that have decreased greatly the 10 years from 2009, as have music and drama entries. The choice of having this English baccalaureate is a subjective choice from a Government that imposes this on schools, but where the case for this choice is not adequately justified.

A good example would be the reduction in subjects in what Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport called Creative Industries. (6) That Government department has shown with its figures for 2017 that the creative industries sector of the UK economy has increased by 53.1% since 2010 and its contribution to the UK economy is estimated at £101.5 billion per annum. If we make a comparison between Creative Industries and the rest of the UK economy, then that 53.1%, as almost twice as much as the growth in the UK economy overall, which was 28.7% over that time. For the country Creative Industries and their contribution to the economy and to jobs is crucial. Yet the Department for Education has been guilty of reducing the contribution in schools to creative activity. It’s clear that the two Government departments, if they talk to each other at all, must be at loggerheads because I would have thought that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would be wanting more young people to be taking creative subjects in school and yet the Department for Education is making certain that there is a drastic reduction in provision in schools.

This is where I’m making a case that the subjective choice driven by politicians is dangerous and is having a negative impact on both the lives of young people and the economic future of the country.

What is taught does not equal what is learned

This seems to me to be a fairly obvious statement. If everything taught in the classroom was perfectly learned then, of course, every student would pass every test they took. This doesn’t happen because what we know is that much teaching does not lead to learning. I have shown how from research there is very little that is taught in school that transfers into useful skills or knowledge for adults.

In the traditional classroom it gave rise to the notion of the ‘hidden curriculum’. Writers identified that the hidden curriculum either encourages dependency on the teacher or counter-dependent rebellion. The process of a teacher-controlled learning environment has these effects on many learners, and this undermines the ability of young people to grow up as fully autonomous human beings.

The notion of a hidden curriculum was originally articulated by Jackson (1968) and then explicitly developed by writers such as Snyder (1970) who saw the socialisation of the classroom as reducing autonomous action and having longer term negative effects. Vallance (1983) makes the case for considering the strong role of the hidden curriculum in her statement that it includes “the inculcation of values, political socialization, training in obedience and docility, the perpetuation of traditional class structure-functions that may be characterized generally as social control” (P. 10).

Studying English is not the same as developing literacy

The kind of curriculum that is common in England for learning English has a great emphasis on writing essays, analysing Shakespearian plays and learning grammatical rules. The foolishness of the curriculum for primary school children and the need to learn grammatical forms is criticised by professional writers. After the age of 11 in secondary education it gets even worse in terms of its lack of relevance to literacy. Literacy is about being able to read and write, so that you can function effectively in society. The evidence from research in England shows a rather depressing situation for school children. One in five children leave primary school unable to read or write properly. Sherwood, 2019, quotes research that says: ‘It is estimated that 9 million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate and one in four British five-year-olds struggle with basic vocabulary. Three quarters of white working-class boys failed to achieve the government’s benchmark at age 16. Research also shows that functionally illiterate adults are more likely to be socially isolated and lack self-esteem’.

In comparison to this evidence from schooling, the research evidence from home educated children is much more positive. The best research on this is Pattison, 2016. She showed from her in depth research on home educating families that children are not taught literacy, but develop it through practices in the home and the opportunities they are given to manage their own learning. The children in her study might learn at different ages, but they all became literate without the use of classrooms or formal teaching. In some cases, the parents themselves did not know how the child came to be able to read and write. Because the parents responded to the needs of children, then in the absence of a uniform approach children could learn in ways that suited their own predilections.

Travel supports learning

In our research on adults it is apparent that travel tends to come out as a very positive experience from the point of view of learning. It may not be always positive from the point of view of enjoyment, because sometimes travelling goes wrong. People learn from these things. There is nothing like going to another culture to understand more about that culture than you get from dry textbooks. The textbooks have their place but, for instance, on my first visit to India, I knew about history and cultural differences and the religious differences, and so on in India. What I hadn’t experienced before was the sheer scale of the country and the population and the impact of not just the sights, but the smells and the feel of the place. That can’t be obtained from a textbook.

Travel is of enormous value even if it is in one’s own country and visiting areas that one doesn’t know about. All of this can provide enormous learning, often unconscious. Therefore, it is interesting that the Government in England is ferociously against parents taking their children out travelling during term time. A BBC report of 21 March 2019 (7) commented that the number of fines issued to parents in England taking children on term time holidays almost doubled in the year. Penalty notices rose by 93% to almost 223,000 in 2017-18.

Local councils require parents to pay £60 each per day per child that is taken out of school, without permission, such as for travel. This rises to £120 if not paid within 21 days and after 28 days parents can be prosecuted. There were 19,508 prosecutions in England in 2017-18 for non-payment of fines up from 13,324 in the year before.  Parents have been known to try to go to court to defend the right to take their children on holiday during term time, but they have failed to make the case.

Government sources have tended to suggest that every day that the child misses school they are missing out on learning - and that this is a terrible thing for parents to do to their children. What they do not comment on is that state schools have much longer-term times than expensive independent schools. In our locality the terms for state schools are around 39 weeks per year and some of the independent schools they are 34 weeks. Now if parents are paying out a lot of money to send their child to an independent school and then not getting as much teaching as in a state school there can be a question as to why parents are doing this. The answer of course is that amount of time spent in the school is not a measure of the quality or quantity of learning and that parents who take their children on holiday during term time are providing educational benefit.

The myth of neat linear progression

In our research on effective leaders we found that many had very erratic career paths. It is well-known that many successful entrepreneurs left school with few or no qualifications. But even those who have climbed the corporate ladder may have started off erratically before developing their career successfully. My concern about schools is an expectation of neat linear progression. Performance is measured and tested regularly, and students are supposed to be on track for whatever predicted destination the school might come up with for that individual. The outcome seems to be unacceptably high levels of discrimination against individuals who are different, and who progress differently.

Treadway, 2015, has done the serious slog of actually comparing real life situations within schools from extensive data. In the English system, there are a series of what are called Key Stages and the expectation is of a linear and predictable progress between each of the stages. These stages are Key Stage 1, which finishes at age 7, Key Stage 2 at age 11, Key Stage 3 at age 14 and Key Stage 4 at age 16. School pupils are judged for attainment at each of these stages, with this expectation being a linear progression. Treadway has shown that this assumption is erroneous. As he puts it, children’s learning is too idiosyncratic to be able to make these kinds of predictions. It also shows that children who have a low attainment at Key Stage 1 are particularly likely to show a development process which is so unpredictable that it’s not worth attempting the task. The trouble is that this means that such young people are ‘slow tracked’ and discriminated against within the school system.

Here are some examples of particular individuals that might help to flesh out the generalities of that research.

Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society Sir Venki Ramakrishnan was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4. Here is someone who is about as respectable as you can get. Yet being questioned about his education he was happy to say that he was a poor attender at school and at university. One trick he explained at university was to sit in lectures by the window so that after the register had been called, and the lecturer had turned his back to write on the board, he could climb out of the window and go off for a coffee.

It reminded me of Bill Bryson’s tales of school and that he was the worst attender in his high school. He was regularly hauled up for his poor attendance. At one meeting with the careers counsellor she had trawled through career options, given his poor school records, and in the end said; “It doesn’t appear that you are qualified to do much of anything.” He replied; “I guess I’ll have to be a high school careers counsellor then!”. For this response he was marched to the principal’s office (and not for the first time). It’s a shame that the school did not recognise his obvious comedic talents instead of punishing him.

He developed his writing talents by spending time on things that interested him and also learning a great deal from the world around him. He became an excellent self-managing learner.

Another example is of a boy in Bolton, Lancashire, with no apparent interest in his schoolwork. He tended to spend time with his mates or watched comedy VHS tapes that he had recorded. He gained one GCSE, then after school did a series of seemingly dead-end jobs, such as in the bingo hall and at the local cinema.

Because he enjoyed cracking jokes and fooling around, he started to do some stand-up comedy gigs in local pubs. Eventually he developed a comedy stand-up act. He was officially entered in the Guinness World Records book for the planet's biggest-selling stand-up tour ever. His ‘Tour That Doesn't Tour Tour… Now on Tour’ show sold 1,140,798 tickets in 113 arena dates between February 2010 and November 2011, earning him a place in the 2013 edition of the book. His name is Peter Kay and he has also won awards for his comedy acting.

His time when he was seemingly loafing and doing nothing was actually a crucial time of learning for him. He learned from watching comedians the art and craft of doing stand-up. He also used his time in the bingo hall and at the cinema to listen to people so that he could learn the potentially funny things that went on in daily life.

Looked at from a short-term point of view he was a complete failure. Taking a longer view it’s the opposite. He was, and continues to be, a brilliant self-managing learner. This is also true of the scientist Sir Venki Ramakrishnan and the best-selling author Bill Bryson.


In this chapter extract I have focused on aspects of the research and evidence about the impact of schooling. Other chapters in the book (Cunningham, 2020) focus more on wider issues that also play a part in the education of young people. I have shown that factors such as when you were born, the size of the school you go to, the level of bullying, and the response to difference within the school will be important factors in whether the young person learns what they need to learn to be able to go on to lead a good life once they’ve left school.

I accept that there are some young people who enjoy school. With my son and daughter, I urged them to use the school rather than be used by it. I supported them in doing things that were in their interests, even if it was against what the school wanted. However, they both knew of the limitations of the schools they went to and were able to work through them with support of parents and others in the family and their friends.

I recognise that a child born in the first half of the academic year in a privileged family, whose extrovert confidence supports their presence in the school, may well feel more positive about their experience than a child born into poverty, taken into care, and diagnosed with autism, who is very unlikely to find school a positive experience. There is a crucial issue of social justice here that most societies seem prepared to sacrifice. It is also frightening that parents may do the same, especially if they feel that they must follow the crowd and do what everybody else is doing; even though their child is refusing to go to school and desperately unhappy. I do know that many parents in England do not know the law and are not aware of their rights and that, along with the social pressure to do whatever everyone else is doing, can allow a young person to have a bad experience in the school system.

Even the confident privileged extraverts who pass all their exams with flying colours, can find that their lack of ability to manage their own learning can catch up with them. An example is in Oliver James (2007) who discusses research on female undergraduates in an Oxford college, one third of whom had had an eating disorder and 10 % had an eating disorder at the time of the research. Some of this evidence is discussed in the next chapter as we get a chance to look at mental health issues that are neglected in the current schooling system.



  1. The Department for Education evidence is in ‘Month of Birth and Education’, Research Report DFE-RR017 of 2010.

However, this research has been replicated elsewhere and by independent academics. For example, in Bell and Daniels, (Published online 02 November 2010). This paper shows that the effects are international. The issue is the start day of the academic year – which varies across countries.

Mc Donald, 2018, shows that August born children were 30% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than older peers – from a study in the USA.

  1. Grauer, S. and Ryan, C. (2016)‘Small Schools: the myths and reality, and potential of small schools is at

Human Scale Education is a good UK site for information on small schools and their    value:

  1. The Alternative Education Resource Organization produces an excellent newsletter on alternatives to school. The quote is from the edition of February 2018. The site is
  2. Here is some evidence in relation to the problems that school creates for certain young people.
  • Adoption UK. accessed 01/07/2018 quotes their research entitled ‘Bridging the Gap’. 77% of adopted young people agreed with the statement “I feel confused and worried at school. Two-thirds of adopted young people said they were teased or bullied in school because they are adopted. 60% of adoptive parents do not feel that their child has an equal chance at school”.
  • People Management journal of May 2017, P 48. Only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment – ‘a figure that has remained static for the past eight years’.
  • Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) ‘Pinball Kids: working together to reduce school exclusions’ Accessed at – 2 May 2018. The risk factors that predict the likelihood of exclusion are 2x as likely to be in care; 3x as likely to be ‘children in need’; 4x as likely to have grown up in poverty; 7x as likely to have special educational needs and disabilities and 50% have a mental health problem. Four in five excluded children are likely to be Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET).
  • Wetz (P 106) He quotes a study in one British city that 15% of young people aged 16-24 NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) died within 10 years due to risky behaviour.
  • RSA Journal Issue 3 2018, P 7. ‘Only 6% of children in care went into higher education in 2016.’
  • report 2018.’as many as 26,000 autistic young people were unlawfully denied a full education last year’,
  • Grant, R. (2019) Research shows that grouping at any age is more to do with classroom management, and nothing to do with helping children learn.
  • Astle, J. (2019). ‘Pupils who qualify for free school meals currently arrive at primary school an average of four months behind their peer and leave secondary school 18 months behind. Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities start 15 months behind and finish three years behind.’ (P 41) Schools make the situation worse.
  • Hainey, F. (2019) Research study by Coventry University and the University of Roehampton cites the following:

‘In 2017, more than 16,000 parents in the UK were prosecuted by the courts for their children being absent from school.’ ‘it is most commonly children with special educational needs who are regularly missing school and families feel these needs are not being met adequately in schools’. ‘Of the parents prosecuted in 2017 71% were women and 10 parents (nine women) received custodial sentences .‘ (They went to prison).

  • Partridge, L. (2019): ‘Students eligible for free school meals, those with special educational needs and disabilities and those from certain ethnic groups are significantly more likely to be excluded than their peers’.
  • Social class discrimination has been discussed in Chapter 4 but here is more specific example. ‘Panic! Social class, taste and inequalities in the creative industries’ April 2018, Edinburgh College of Art, the University of Sheffield and Create. From a survey of 2,487 arts professionals the researchers found that people from working class backgrounds and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic workers all confronted significant exclusion from the sector that is biased towards upper-middle class, white males.


  1. Research by the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label has the highest figure of 50% from its study of 8,850 people aged 12-20. (Quoted in the i newspaper, 19 April 2016, P. 6). Brugger (2019)) quotes a Department for Education figure of nearly 40% in a 12-month period and 6% on a daily basis (from Baker, et al. (2016)).
  2. This evidence is taken from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Economic Estimates 2018 (the latest available figures being for 2017 at the time of writing)
  3. is the url for the article from the BBC.




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