A testing regime that impoverishes education

A flurry of complaints from teachers and parents that a recent national year 6 reading test – described by one headteacher as “utterly miserable, scary and quite middle class” – was too difficult has again ignited the debate about the purpose and value of standardised assessment tests (SATs) for young children. It comes in the wake of calls to pause Ofsted’s programme of inspections following the suicide of a headteacher. A high-stakes system of accountability for schools and an obsession with quantifiable targets like SAT results lead to skewed priorities and create perverse incentives. “The entirety of [my children’s] time in year 6 until the day of the test in May is devoted to SATs revision,” says a parent. The immense pressure such a system of accountability places on schools has created the worst outcome of all: the impoverishment of children’s educational experience.

SATs are tests taken in England by pupils in year 2 and year 6 – children aged roughly six and ten respectively – to assess their reading, writing and maths skills. Some teachers and parents were unhappy with this year’s English reading test for year 6 pupils. The paper included texts on a giant bat colony, which was adapted from a New York Times article, a camping trip featuring sheep rustlers and a boy on a remote Scottish island who hears a wolf.

One headteacher, interviewed by the BBC, said that the test included some “GCSE-level” questions and that some pupils did not finish the paper and were left in tears. Others have expressed concerns about the number of words in the paper compared with previous years’ papers, the sequencing of questions and possible cultural bias.

The Department for Education (DfE) said that the tests were “designed to be challenging”. Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said that SATs have to test a range of ability “to make sure that we can show what proportion of children are exceeding the standard” but that they are not meant to be too hard.

Results from 2022 indicated that overall standards in reading, writing and maths have slipped among year 6 pupils in England since the pandemic. They showed that 59% of pupils met the expected level in these combined areas, down from 65% in 2019. By 2030, the government wants 90% of children leaving primary school to reach the expected standards in reading, writing and maths.

There may – or may not – have been a problem with the 2023 reading test. The Department for Education has since blogged that this year’s SATs were no more difficult than in previous years. And no one is arguing against the need to assess children. It is important for parents, schools and government to know how well young people are doing.

The problem is the weight that is given to tests like SATs and GCSEs in measuring schools’ performance.

We wrote this in our recent blog Alternatives to Ofsted:

A high-stakes competitive system results in an obsession with quantifiable targets that skew priorities and create perverse incentives – off-rolling, a focus on some children at the expense of others, a hollowing-out of the curriculum for ‘key’ year groups to concentrate on passing assessments or exams. In short, the impoverishment of children’s educational experience.

from our blog Alternatives to Ofsted

The responses of two parents during a BBC Radio Five Live phone-in about this year’s SATs give a flavour of how the pressure on schools to achieve ‘good’ test or exam results may or may not be passed on to the pupils:

Children came out feeling distraught, anxious and stressed. These three emotions are not what we want to bring our children up to experience. The teachers are stressed because that’s the only measure they have that they can show that they’re doing their job. [The children] want to do well, so naturally that stress is going to be passed down [to them].

Parent 1

Our school puts very little pressure on our children for the SATs. It’s been quite a positive experience.

Parent 2

In a letter to the Guardian newspaper a GP was very clear about the impact of SATs on children:

SATs are designed to be a quick test that takes place on one day in year 6 to assess the teaching standards of the school. The theory is that the children are not being examined, that they should not think or feel that they are being examined, and that they should be unaware of their ‘result’ and feel no stress from the situation. It is the school’s job to educate children and the DfE’s to assess the school. It is not a child’s role to provide emotional support to these adult‑run institutions.

It seems that much of the anxiety and pressure that schools and the DfE feel about standards has been placed squarely on the shoulders of children. My children have gone, and will go, through the ritual. The entirety of their time in year 6 until the day of the test in May is devoted to SATs revision. Almost no education outside these narrow terms takes place. Children feel immense pressure over a nebulous goal.

A letter to the Guardian newspaper, 14 May 2023

Another letter-writer made the point that schools “should be places of joy, escape and ladders to the future. Children deserve so much more”.

We agree.

Image at the head of this article by tjevans from Pixabay.

More About New Thinking in Education

Using archaeology to boost wellbeing


Historic England has launched a pilot programme that aims to use archaeology to improve young people’s wellbeing. The public body, which helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s historic environment, says that its Rejuvenate programme is the first of its kind for young people, enabling them to step into inspiring historic places to benefit their physical and mental wellbeing. It is based on an existing programme that helps injured service personnel. Activities range from archaeological digs and using flint tools to building prehistoric structures and learning how to survive outdoors. This fascinating project encapsulates two ideas that underpin Life-Based Learning thinking: participation (that getting involved and doing something is a good thing and is itself beneficial to mental health) and empowerment (developing social and leadership skills by enabling young people themselves to be at the heart of decision-making).

Rejuvenate aims to promote the wellbeing of young people who are facing challenges, including lack of engagement in school and reduced attendance. Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, says that the project “is all about taking inspiration from history and prehistory to learn new skills, get active and build friendships focused on a common task away from the classroom”.

The project is inspired by Operation Nightingale, a programme that has been running since 2019 using archaeology as a tool to help injured service personnel. The aim is to see if a similar approach can have an equally positive impact on students’ wellbeing.

Rejuvenate includes activities such as:

  • working with environmental archaeologists to forage in the landscape for prehistoric materials, making natural dyes and inks, and learning how to survive outdoors by building fires and structures
  • taking part in an archaeological dig – mapping and sketching the landscape, preparing and digging ‘test pits’, cleaning and recording finds, and exploring what this reveals about the landscape and how people lived thousands of years ago

We know the positive impact spending time outdoors can have on our mood and sense of wellbeing. This heritage and landscape inspired project is all about exploring the potential of archaeology to have a positive impact of young people’s sense of self, wellbeing and confidence. Working with our partners including Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, we are creating moments of reflection, connection and creativity through sharing new experiences and trying new skills.

Leigh Chalmers, heritage inclusion manager at Wessex Archaeology, quoted in the Historic England press launch

Life-Based Learning and mental wellbeing

We have written before that it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to use words like ‘crisis’ and ‘meltdown’ in the context of children and young people’s mental health. Recent data shows that the number of children needing treatment for serious mental health problems in England has risen by 39% in a year to more than 1.1 million.

We need well-funded support systems – turning politicians’ fine words about taking mental health as seriously as we do physical health – into something real and accessible. But we need to be proactive as well as reactive. Life-Based Learning (LBL) offers an approach to looking after our children and young people that not only addresses acute and immediate problems but also puts in place a bold strategy to promote future wellbeing.

LBL advocates teaching children from an early age about their emotions and how to manage them, much improving their chances of growing up happy, comfortable in themselves and emotionally resilient. They also need to have free and regular access to activities – like the Rejuvenate programme – that promote good mental health. Our blogs regularly highlight the benefits to children’s mental health and wellbeing of regular physical exercise, outdoor and nature-based experiences and participation in activities that involve them in positive change.

For example, in our blog Getting involved with nature is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety we highlighted the growing popularity of ‘green social prescribing’, an approach that involves individuals and, increasingly, health and community services using nature to boost mental wellbeing.

And in blogs like Immersing children in nature from a young age is a massive win-win we promote the twin benefits — to education and to health — of putting nature at the very heart of children’s lives, regardless of whether they live in the middle of the countryside or the middle of a city.

The image at the head of this article is taken from Historic England’s Facebook page and is being used to promote the Rejuvenate programme.

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Healthy habits for life

Healthy habits for life

A new survey has found that tiredness is a key barrier to healthier lifestyle choices for many UK adults. Lack of motivation is another reason why many people do not make changes to their diet and become more physically active. It comes in the same week that analysis by the pressure group Action on Salt found that half of all pizzas contain ALL the salt recommended for a full day. These figures – yet more evidence that we are failing to meet the health challenge, particularly around obesity – are grim but sadly unsurprising. We need to do much more to support people to eat healthily and live active lives. It is a huge long-term challenge, and schools have a key role to play by developing healthy habits and a healthy mindset in children and young people that they will carry with them into adult life.

The survey of 2,086 UK adults was carried out by YouGov on behalf of the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). It highlighted some of the main things that prevent UK adults from making healthy changes to their diet and physical activity levels. Lacking motivation (38%) and feeling too tired (35%) were the top reasons cited by respondents.

A lack of confidence ranked highest among 18–24-year-olds (26%) as a barrier to making healthy changes. This compared with fewer than 1 in 10 for the over 55s (9%).

When asked what was preventing them from eating more healthily and being more physically active, nearly half of 25–34-year-olds (48%) answered ‘feeling too tired’, compared with less than a quarter of over 55s (23%).

Women (40%) were more likely than men (29%) to cite ‘feeling too tired’ as a factor.

The WCRF has launched an eight-week online healthy living plan to support people to make changes to their diet and become more active. It is called Activ8 and encourages participants to take on a different challenge each week. The WCRF says that, from making healthier food and drink choices to being more active in different ways, “the programme is designed to be as easy and inspiring as possible” – including for those with busy schedules.

Living in a healthier way, whether that’s cooking from scratch more often, or getting more active can be easier said than done, especially when tiredness and motivation play such an important role. It can also be challenging knowing where to start, yet alone motivating ourselves to make changes. That’s why, with the help of Activ8, we want to support and empower people on their journey towards being healthier.

Matt Lambert, health information and promotion manager at World Cancer Research Fund, quoted in the WCRF press release

The Action on Salt research, meanwhile, was published as part of Salt Awareness Week (15-21 May). It found that one in two pizzas provide a day’s worth or more of salt per pizza. A Domino’s pizza (the sizzler standard mozzarella stuffed crust medium pizza) contains more than three times the maximum daily salt limit (which is 6g per day) and is actually saltier than seawater.

Action on Salt says that, despite the government’s plan to reduce salt, many pizzas now contain more salt than they did in 2014.

Life-Based Learning and healthy habits for life

The long-term challenge is clear: improving the health of the nation. The evidence is stacking up that we are failing in this, and that we are in effect sleepwalking towards a massive public health crisis in the future. Long-term challenges need long-term thinking. We cannot just carry on more or less as before, resulting in the same unsatisfactory outcomes as before.

Life-Based Learning is about reimagining education so that we prioritise the massive life challenges we face, bringing greater meaning to children’s learning, particularly subject learning, by making life itself the primary purpose – and focus – of learning. Tackling obesity – and promoting physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge.

Tackling health and wellbeing combines a focus on children learning how to look after themselves with a coordinated, whole-school focus on physical activity. LBL emphasises participation in sport, physical activity and outdoor play to help children grow up physically and mentally healthy. There is also an emphasis on food education and healthy eating. The aim is to help children develop healthy habits and a healthy mindset that they will carry with them into adult life.

Education is important so that people have the knowledge and skills to make informed individual choices around healthy lifestyles – what to eat, whether to exercise and so on. But it cannot be left solely – or even primarily – to individual choice and tinkering around the edges of existing policies and approaches. It also needs a collective effort, with government driving forward significant changes in how we live our lives. We need to rethink, changing our common frame of reference so that healthy lifestyles become an urgent priority.

Click the New Thinking & Curriculum Reform link on the right-hand side of this page to read much more about changing our common frame of reference.

Image at the head of this article by daniel puel from Pixabay.

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Volunteering in decline?


We read that six million people in the UK took part in The Big Help Out on Monday 8 May. The event – part of the coronation celebrations – was intended to “highlight the positive impact volunteering has on communities across the nation”. Six million is a lot of us. However, as the organisers themselves say, The Big Help Out is not for one day only. We need to nurture the volunteering spirit. Our communities are precious, but many are in trouble. Volunteering in itself will not mend a broken community but, as we have argued before, it is a glue that can help bind a community together. Worryingly, newly published research suggests that there has been a sharp decline in volunteering in recent years. Life-Based Learning is about strengthening communities and bringing people closer together. We need to ensure that our children and young people have the knowledge, skills and values to want – and be able – to make an impact on the wellbeing of everyone by contributing positively to community life throughout their lives.

Time Well Spent is a research programme run by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), focusing on volunteers and their experience. In 2018 it conducted a national survey through YouGov of more than 10,000 members of the UK general public. The survey explored volunteer participation, motivations and barriers to volunteering, the quality of volunteers’ experiences and the impact of volunteering. At the end of 2022 NCVO ran the survey again with 7,000 members of the public.

NCVO said that the impact of the ongoing crises “can be clearly seen in recent data”, with a drop in some key volunteering activities:

  • Those raising money or taking part in sponsored events was down from 11% to 6%
  • Those organising or helping to run an activity was down from 14% to 7%
  • Those campaigning on behalf of the group, club or organisation was down from 8% to 4%

It also found that, among recent volunteers, the overall likelihood to continue volunteering declined slightly from 80% to 77%. Most people cited less time due to changes in circumstances as the main reason for stopping.

The survey is also a useful reminder of the benefits of volunteering for the individual. Among those who had volunteered in the last 12 months through a group, club or organisation, 92% said that they were either very or fairly satisfied with their experience. Asked about specific benefits, at least 70% of respondents agreed with each of the following statements:

  • I enjoy it
  • It makes me feel I’m making a difference
  • It gives me a sense of personal achievement
  • I meet new people
  • It broadens my experience of life
  • It improves my mental health and wellbeing
  • It brings me into contact with people from different backgrounds or cultures
  • It gives me more confidence
  • It gives me new skills and experience

The data shows the impact of Covid on volunteering has been profound. People who were lifelong volunteers broke their habit during the pandemic and haven’t yet got back to it. Given how important volunteering is to our social fabric – and how much people get out of it – we need an urgent focus on helping people find opportunities that suit them.

There are also positives with high levels of satisfaction among volunteers. This is a testament to the hard work of volunteer-involving organisations. Many have had to adapt their volunteering opportunities over the last few years to respond to social distancing measures as well as new need in communities.

Sarah Vibert, chief executive of NCVO

Life-Based Learning and the importance of community

The long-term future of our communities depends to a large extent on today’s young people and on the generations that follow. That’s why community education matters. Any long-term strategy for building stronger communities must involve looking at what we are teaching children in school.

Life-Based Learning (LBL) would raise the profile of community by treating it as one of nine equal themes through which all subject learning can be delivered. LBL encourages community pride and activism, and – in a similar way to volunteering – promotes agency and empowerment.

In our blog Vibrant communities enrich us all and need to be strengthened, for example, we highlighted and celebrated the amazing community work of a small selection of young people. We also wrote about the importance of community education.

Life-Based Learning aims to organise learning around the modern-day challenges we face. The themes of Relationships and Community sit within a broader category called Society: crucial to human life and living is the ability to relate to – and interact positively with – others, be it family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues or wider society.

Image at the head of this article by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

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Collective action on obesity

Action on obesity

This is the third in a short series of blogs (see below) prompted by the recent report from the highly respected Institute for Government, which argued that past governments have failed to effectively tackle rising obesity’s root causes, that politicians’ fear of the charge of nanny statism is constraining effective government action on obesity, and that a new long-term strategy is required, involving a radical shake-up in government. As we have said before, Life-Based Learning (LBL) is not overtly political, and certainly not party-political. But any discussion of principles, values and aims cannot be entirely divorced from the realm of politics. LBL is predicated on the idea that we cannot simply carry on as we are – not least in relation to health and wellbeing. We need to empower individuals and we need to harness the power, the moral authority and the immense resources of the state. These are not mutually exclusive. We need to do both.

The current approach is not working. Analysis after analysis, data dashboard after data dashboard, projection after projection, provides compelling evidence that, when it comes to obesity – and health and wellbeing more generally – we are sleepwalking towards disaster in the coming decades.

In our December 2022 review of the year we highlighted some of the troubling data on obesity and health outcomes that has been published in the last twelve months or so. For example:

These are worldwide problems, of course – not ones exclusive to the UK or to the affluent West. We blogged in September about projected health outcomes for China in the coming decades. Death rates from non-communicable diseases associated with an affluent lifestyle – and therefore previously seen in high levels primarily in the West – are likely to reach staggering levels there by 2050.

Health outcomes in other rapidly developing countries around the world are likely to follow the same trends as China as affluence levels rise. Lung cancer, linked to high rates of smoking, is high up the list of non-communicable diseases killing millions, as are diabetes and heart disease, often caused by a combination of a rich diet, low exercise levels and high blood pressure.

And yet few of our politicians are willing to seriously discuss what needs to be done to prevent this mass sleepwalk to disaster. To repeat, the current approach is not working. It cannot be left solely – or even primarily – to individual choice and tinkering around the edges of existing policies and approaches. Something more radical is required – a collective approach to obesity, led by and including an active, interventionist role for the state – if we are going to prevent a public-health disaster in the decades to come.

Last week’s blog discussed the concept of the Overton window – the range of policies voters will find acceptable – and how a fundamental rethink of a policy approach or strategy requires a shift in the Overton window, so that something that was previously deemed extreme, impossible or unthinkable becomes acceptable, doable and achievable.

Education (of adults as well as of children) is, of course, important so that people have the knowledge and skills to make informed individual choices around healthy lifestyles – what to eat, whether to exercise and so on. But it also needs a collective effort, with government doing what only it can do, driving forward significant changes in how we lead our lives and pressurising public and private organisations and actors to rethink their priorities.

How we educate our children and young people is an example, specifically the curriculum we offer in our schools. LBL is about reimagining education so that the life challenges that we all face – now and in the future – become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. But only government can give the green light to such a curriculum rethink.

Seizing the opportunity to reimagine education is all part of changing our common frame of reference – of shifting the Overton window – so that promotion of healthy lifestyles become an urgent priority for society. It means having difficult conversations about what is required, something that politicians are often loathe to do (hence the Institute for Government’s reference to “political squeamishness”).

Health policy is New Zealand offers an interesting test case. The Labour government passed a law in December 2022 to phase in a near-total tobacco ban. It means that anyone born after 2008 will never be able to buy cigarettes or tobacco products in New Zealand. The long-term benefits of this policy will include people living longer lives, people living healthier lives and a saving of billions of dollars in smoking-related health costs.

Despite the obvious appeal of these benefits, the new law has many critics. There is, for example, concern that it will fuel a black market in tobacco because some people will still want to smoke. There is the economic impact on small shops that make much of their money from the sale of tobacco-related products. And, of course, there is the familiar charge of governmental overreach: the opposition ACT party have referred to the new law as “nanny state prohibition”, tapping in to that feeling that the government is meddling where it shouldn’t.

These criticisms and concerns need to be taken seriously – as does the financial cost of any long-term health strategy. Any fundamental rethink, anything ambitious and radical, will not be cheap. The public finances are going to be tight for years, if not decades, to come. But to govern, it was once said, is to choose. Politicians – and society as a whole – have a stark choice. We can opt for retrenchment. Apply sticking plasters. Cut costs. Part-fund. Trim.

Or, we can do whatever it takes to meet the challenges we face.

If we don’t do it now, when will we? If it is folly to continue as we are, what sensible alternative is there to changing direction?

Image at the head of this article is by Moondance from Pixabay.

Read More about Obesity and Nanny Statism

Shifting the Overton window


A key phrase in the Institute for Government article on obesity that was the focus of last week’s blog was ‘political squeamishness’. Though the article’s headline referred to “ministers’ fear of nanny statism”, the phrase was there in the standfirst (the brief summary below the headline) as well as in one of the subheadings. The actual report’s opening summary speaks of “difficult politics” and says that “politicians worry about the perception of ‘nanny-statism’ and policies hitting poorer people harder”. The report states that ministers’ fear of nanny statism is constraining effective government action on obesity. We agree. As we said last week, we need to fundamentally rethink and recalibrate. And that means altering the very terms of debate when we discuss how we best respond to the obesity challenge.

The terms ‘nanny state’ and ‘nanny statism’ are popular on the political right. In a nutshell, hostility to an activist, interventionist state that ‘interferes’ in our lives and limits our ability to act as free individuals combines with a belief in the economics of low taxation.

This is what the right-wing MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said about the government’s recent mobile phone emergency alert test:

It is back to the nanny state – warning us, telling us, mollycoddling us when instead they should just let people get on with their lives and make sensible decisions for themselves.

And this is how former UK prime minister Liz Truss was introduced when she delivered the 2023 Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture organised by the Heritage Foundation (a right-wing thinktank in Washington that has a Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom):

Prime Minister Truss spoke for free people all over the world. For those of us who are Americans, we have a special affection for her because she delivered finally on Brexit. She confronted the big tax, big government establishment in her country and, dare I say, even her own party.

Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation

Nanny statism – ie the beliefs, values and assumptions of those who use the term nanny state – is indeed a worldview closely associated with Margaret Thatcher (UK prime minister from 1979 to 1990) – and Ronald Reagan (US president from 1981 to 1989) – and it is a safe bet that most of those who share this worldview would cheerfully self-identify as Thatcherites (or Reaganites).

But it is also a fairly safe bet that most voters in the UK are not such enthusiasts for this minimal-state, ultra-low taxation, red-in-tooth-and-claw iteration of capitalism. Most of our politicians certainly are not, including many of those in the Conservative Party. And yet the Institute for Government talks of “difficult politics”, of long-term “political squeamishness” and of “past governments” – plural – failing to effectively tackle rising obesity’s root causes.

The Institute for Government is a thinktank that aims to improve government effectiveness through research and analysis. Its report is clear that part of the reason for the long-term failure to tackle obesity is “cross-party policy-making incoherence”. Part of the solution, it says, involves a shakeup within government, including the creation of a cross-government food and health unit. In other words, the government needs to do more, and it needs to do it better.

It was not Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush but Bill Clinton – champion, along with Tony Blair in the UK, of what came to be called ‘the third way’ – who proclaimed, in his State of the Union address in 1996, that the era of big government was over. What we might call the Thatcherite worldview has set the terms of debate about public policy since the 1980s. It is the paradigm within which mainstream politics operates. Fear of the perception of nanny statism – of governmental overreach – continues to limit what administrations of all hues are willing to do.

The Overton window – named after an American political analyst – is a concept used in political science. It refers to the range of policies voters will find acceptable. A policy that is outside the Overton window will not be accepted by the mainstream voting public. Any such policy may be widely seen as extreme or simply as impossible to achieve – and therefore any fundamental rethink of a policy or a set of policies (ie an approach or a strategy) will almost certainly require shifting the Overton window so that what was previously deemed extreme, impossible or unthinkable becomes acceptable, doable and achievable.

The Overton window concept is closely linked with the idea of common sense – ie with what instinctively seems right. The reason why Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric from the 1980s is still popular today is because it became the dominant paradigm, setting the terms of debate and defining what was seen as common sense in politics and economics.

The political commentator Sonia Sodha has argued persuasively that, in economic policy, “the narratives of the political right are more compelling because they are more intuitive”. Thatcher’s claim that running one of the largest economies in the world was no different from running a household budget, though ridiculously simplistic (and, according to many economists, fundamentally wrong), was easy for voters to understand and seemed to make sense because it aligned with how they lived their lives.

Shifting the Overton window – changing the popular mindset – involves altering the terms of debate. But individuals do not form their worldview in a vacuum, of course. Our thinking – about what is or is not right, acceptable, achievable – is heavily influenced by the media and other opinion shapers. For good or ill, much of the battle to reset the terms of debate needs to take place on this terrain.

In her article Sodha discusses the notion of the maxed-out credit card. It is a commonly used metaphor in the media and on the political right in arguments about government spending. It seems to make sense. It fits with our everyday experience of having to limit what we spend because we only have a certain amount of money and at some point it will run out. It would be great if the government could do more to help the poorest, to support families, to improve our public services – but where is the money coming from? Or so the argument goes. There is (to quote another well-worn phrase) no magic money tree.

But look what happens, says Sodha, when we change the metaphor. Think of government spending not as partying on the credit card but as taking out a mortgage. It is something that is equally part of the everyday experience of many people, a commitment that millions of us take on as a sensible long-term investment for the future.

Let’s think of tackling obesity as a sensible long-term investment for the future.

In the final blog in this short series we will explore why we need a collective approach to obesity.

The image at the head of this article is by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

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A strategic approach to tackling obesity


References to ‘the nanny state’ and ‘nanny statism’ have been much in the UK news since last Friday (21 April) following the resignation of Dominic Raab from the government. The justice secretary and deputy prime minister resigned after a bullying inquiry found that he had acted in an “intimidating” and “aggressive” way towards officials. Not everyone agreed that he was right to resign. Meanwhile, some politicians followed up over the weekend by arguing that the government’s mobile phone emergency alert test was more evidence of the nanny state in action. Much less commented on was a report issued by the Institute for Government last week which argued that ministers’ fear of nanny statism is constraining effective government action on obesity. Its call for a “robust long-term strategy” chimes with one of the key principles underpinning Life-Based Learning – that we cannot continue on our current path. We need to recalibrate. Obesity is a health challenge we cannot afford to ignore or tackle in a half-hearted way.

We have previously described the phrase ‘nanny state’ as “a politically loaded term, used tendentiously to make an ideological point, namely that it is not the job of government to interfere (another loaded term, of course, as is ‘red tape’) in our everyday lives and decision-making”.

The phrase suggests that it is not the proper role of government to ‘meddle’ (loaded term number three) in people’s lives because it is a denial of our basic freedoms. For those sympathetic to this view, individual choice must be at the heart of any obesity strategy. The government should not be ‘instructing’ people on things like what they should and should not eat. They also argue that the greater the role for government, the greater the financial cost, meaning increases in taxation and government borrowing.

The Institute for Government is an independent and highly respected thinktank which aims to improve government effectiveness through research and analysis. Its report – Tackling obesity: Improving policy making on food and health – is, the thinktank says, the first in a series of reports on chronic policy problems, looking at why they have persisted and how government can tackle them more effectively.

It characterises such problems in this way:

Some policy problems seem to be too big, too complicated, or just too political for governments to fix. Ministers make grand statements of intent. New initiatives are launched to much fanfare. Strategies and targets appear on a regular basis. But still the problem remains.

The report makes the case that a combination of “political squeamishness and incoherent policymaking” are preventing progress against the government’s obesity targets.

It says that:

  • past governments haven’t effectively tackled rising obesity’s root causes
  • political squeamishness and cross-department policy-making incoherence have got in the way of more ambitious measures
  • government needs a robust long-term strategy and a cross-government unit to deliver it

The report argues that the idea of ‘nudging’ individual behaviour through education, information campaigns or nutrition labelling – empowering people to make healthier choices – is “laudable” but of limited effectiveness in the face of “huge changes in our food systems over the last 50 years, which have left us increasingly surrounded by food that is ultra-processed and high in fat, salt and sugar”.

The report urges politicians to get over their squeamishness about so-called nanny statism. Polling shows that “the public are highly concerned about rising obesity, particularly in children, and support government action, including interventionist measures like the sugar tax or advertising bans”. It cites the example of the smoking ban introduced in 2007 as a measure that has proved incredibly popular.

The report goes on to say that tackling obesity has not been a serious priority within Number 10 or any government department – “not even the health department, which is more accurately a department for the NHS”. It argues for “a robust long-term strategy backed up by clear targets and evidence-based policies – as it has for net zero”, and recommends changes within government, including the creation of a new cross-government food and health unit.

In the next blog we will explore how we might reimagine education as part of a fundamental rethink about how we tackle life challenges such as obesity that we face in the coming decades.

Image at the head of this article by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay.

Read More About Obesity

Dealing with diabetes

Dealing with diabetes

New figures released by Diabetes UK show that the number of people in the UK living with diabetes has topped five million for the first time. The charity’s chief executive says that the UK is in the grip of a rapidly escalating diabetes crisis. This new analysis provides yet more compelling evidence that obesity – and poor physical health more generally – is a challenge we cannot afford to ignore or tackle in a half-hearted way. As the charity says, it doesn’t have to be this way. A key principle underpinning Life-Based Learning is that we cannot simply carry on as we are when it comes to physical health and wellbeing. Unless we do more to ensure that individuals – including children and young people – adopt healthy lifestyle choices, we will continue to sleepwalk towards disaster.

The figures released last week show that 4.3 million people are now living with a diagnosis of diabetes in the UK. In addition, the charity estimates that there are 850,000 people living with diabetes who are yet to be diagnosed. This brings the overall figure to more than five million. The charity also points out that registration figures for 2021–22 increased by almost 150,000 from 2020–21.

Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high. There are two main types of diabetes:

  • type 1 – where the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin
  • type 2 – where the body does not produce enough insulin, or the body’s cells do not react to insulin

Around 8% of diagnoses are of type 1 diabetes and around 90% of diagnoses are of type 2 diabetes. People with all types of diabetes can be at risk of developing serious complications. Every week (according to figures in the Diabetes UK press release) diabetes leads to 184 amputations, more than 770 strokes, 590 heart attacks and 2,300 cases of heart failure.

The charity is particularly concerned that type 2 diabetes is becoming increasingly common among those under the age of 40. While numbers of under 40s with type 2 diabetes remain a small proportion of total cases, it is known to have more severe and acute effects on younger people.

There are several risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes. One is overweight. The charity says it is concerned that the high numbers of people living with overweight or obesity across the UK – currently 64% of adults in England – is translating into an increase in cases of type 2. It warns that more than 2.4 million people are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the UK.

Diabetes is also prevalent in areas where there are higher levels of deprivation. “Factors such as income, education, housing, access to healthy food, as well as poorer access to healthcare, have been shown to be strongly linked to an increased risk of developing several health conditions – including obesity and type 2 diabetes,” the charity says.

Diabetes is serious, and every diagnosis is life-changing. It’s a relentless condition, and the fear of serious complications is a lifelong reality for millions of people across the UK.

These latest figures show we’re in the grip of a rapidly escalating diabetes crisis, with spiralling numbers of people now living with type 2 diabetes and millions at high risk of developing the condition.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. With the right care and support, cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented or put into remission. What we need to see is the will, grit and determination from government and local health leaders to halt this crisis in its tracks and improve the future health of our nation for generations to come.

Chris Askew OBE, chief executive of Diabetes UK

One of the measures that the charity wants to see is the government pushing ahead with its stalled obesity strategy without further delay. The strategy was announced in 2020 but much of it has since been delayed or shelved.

Life-Based Learning and improving physical health

We continue to argue that radical new thinking is need if we are going to prevent a public-health disaster in the decades to come. This is not just about diabetes or about health in the UK. Projected health outcomes across much of the world over the coming decades are shockingly bad. To take just one example, smoking-related diseases – including lung cancer and respiratory and heart disease – will kill one in three young Chinese men by 2050, according to current projections.

Encouraging children and young people – and adults – to take part in regular physical activity is not, on its own, going to magically solve all our health problems. There is a clear link, for example, between health outcomes and economic circumstances. Choosing healthy food options is not always easy – or cheap. Anyone living in cold and damp accommodation is likely to have health problems. Meanwhile, a junk-food culture seems to be, in the words of the restaurateur and food campaigner Henry Dimbleby, “all-pervasive”.

However, regular physical activity does have lots of benefits – especially for children. For example:

  • it improves bone health, muscle strength and heart health
  • it helps reduce anxiety and increases confidence
  • it supports self-esteem and happiness

Schools have a massive role to play. Life-Based Learning is an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. Tackling obesity – and promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge.

Life-Based Learning priorities children’s physical and mental wellbeing. This includes opportunities for regular sport and physical activity – including the Daily Mile or something similar – and an emphasis on food education and healthy eating.

Image at the head of this article by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay.

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A celebration of volunteering


You may or may not be a fan of the UK monarchy. You may or may not be interested in the upcoming coronation of Charles III. But even convinced anti-monarchists will surely applaud the fact that recognition of the work of volunteers and charities – and community-mindedness more generally – will be a key part of the coronation weekend. It is particularly welcome that young people will be honoured for their efforts. The volunteering spirit aligns closely with the values of Life-Based Learning, particularly in relation to strengthening communities and bringing people closer together.

It was announced this week that more than 850 community and charity representatives have been invited to next month’s coronation. This includes more than 450 recipients of the British Empire Medal (BEM) in recognition of “the contributions made by remarkable volunteers, charity representatives and community champions up and down the country”. There will also be 400 young people in attendance representing various charitable organisations linked to the royal family or nominated by the UK government.

The organisations selected by the king and queen consort include the Prince’s Trust, Barnardo’s and the National Literacy Trust. Young people will also be representing the Scout Association, Girlguiding UK, St John Ambulance and the National Citizen Service, which have been nominated by the UK government. The four organisations are providing stewarding, route lining and first-aid services across London on the day of the coronation.

One of the BEM recipients is Max Woosey, who has now received a Guinness World Record (I initially wrote ‘who is now in the Guinness Book of Records’ but that just shows my age!) after raising more than £700,000 for North Devon Hospice. Max, who has become known as the Boy in the Tent, began camping in his garden during the Covid lockdown to raise £100 for the hospice and was still there three years later. He is now 13 years old. The chief executive of the hospice said that “Max has directly funded 15 nurses for a whole year. The funds he raised for North Devon hospice in this time have made a real difference to the patients and families we support.”

Another BEM recipient is Sahil Usman from Blackburn. While battling leukaemia at the age of 15, Sahil dedicated time to support vulnerable people in his local community during the Covid lockdown. Sahil also coordinated a cancer awareness-raising project, designing presentations for delivery in schools to help young people understand the impact of cancer.

The public was invited in February to nominate volunteers for Coronation Champions Awards. By the time the awards closed at the beginning of April almost 5,000 people had been nominated. A total of 500 Coronation Champions will be chosen. They will receive a specially designed Coronation Champions badge and a certificate signed by the queen consort. They will also be given tickets to either the coronation concert at Windsor Castle on 7 May or the garden party at Buckingham Palace.

Meanwhile, the Big Help Out is being organised by the Together Coalition and other partners to “highlight the positive impact volunteering has on communities across the nation”. Monday 8 May is a bank holiday and members of the public are invited to take part. The aim is to encourage people to try volunteering for themselves and join the work being undertaken to support their local areas.

Life-Based Learning and the importance of community

We need to protect and nurture our communities. We have argued before that volunteering and community go hand in hand: volunteering is a glue that helps bind communities together. As we wrote in our blog about the Big Help Out, volunteering – and helping others more generally – brings many benefits:

  • It is rewarding in itself
  • It improves wellbeing
  • It teaches us new skills
  • It makes us more outward-looking
  • It helps bring people and communities together

The long-term future of our communities depends to a large extent on today’s young people and on the generations that follow. That’s why community education matters. Any long-term strategy for building stronger communities must involve looking at what we are teaching children in school. Life-Based Learning emphasises the importance of community pride and activism, and – in a similar way to volunteering – promotes agency and empowerment.

Life-Based Learning (LBL) would raise the profile of community by treating it as one of nine life-based themes delivered through subject content, and ensure that our children and young people have the knowledge, skills and values to contribute positively to community life.

The image of Sahil Usman at the head of this article is from an article on the ITV website. The image of Max Woosey is from his JustGiving page.

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Alternatives to Ofsted

Alternatives to Ofsted

The Ofsted approach to inspecting England’s state schools has evolved over the last thirty years. Read our blog Ofsted under the microscope for more on this. But its high-stakes nature – and the costs it incurs – remains essentially unchanged. Let us for a moment accept that the education system needed the radical shock therapy that Ofsted delivered in the 90s. It does not follow that the same approach is still needed, when – even on Ofsted’s own terms – the vast majority (85%) of state schools are deemed to be good or outstanding. The benefits no longer outweigh the costs, if they ever did. Even worse, the current approach sets up some schools to fail. It is time to look again at our quality-assurance processes, to consider alternatives to Ofsted and to rethink not just how we support all schools but also – and more fundamentally – how we measure school success.

Ofsted’s focus is too narrow, and is overly driven by what is easily measurable – assessments and exams, attendance, exclusions, post-16 destinations. All of these things matter, of course. But exam results, attendance rates, exclusions data and the rest tell only a limited story – partly because data can be misleading and needs to be handled with care and partly because so many other things are also important in the work of a school.

Data is great for creating performance tables and comparing schools. Performance tables are hierarchical, creating winners and losers. Think of the Premier League in men’s football. If, at the start of the season, six clubs set their manager a target of achieving a top-four finish (to qualify for the following season’s Champions League) two of those six managers are bound to fail.

The same zero-sum logic applies with school league tables. It sets up some schools to fail. They are in effect ranked against each other, with some doing ‘well’ and some not. And yet, research published by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership showed that the government’s preferred Progress 8 measure for schools’ GCSE results fails to give an accurate picture and “effectively punishes schools teaching high proportions of disadvantaged pupils”. In other words, the system isn’t fair.

A huge emphasis is put on GCSE exam results when judging secondary schools – but the exam grading system itself creates winners and losers. It is the logic of thinly disguised norm referencing via moveable grade boundaries and political pressure to guard against ‘grade inflation’. If a limit on the number of students who can achieve an ‘acceptable pass’ at GCSE is put at (say) 60% then 40% – four in ten students – will, in effect, fail.

A high-stakes competitive system results in an obsession with quantifiable targets that skew priorities and create perverse incentives – off-rolling, a focus on some children at the expense of others, a hollowing-out of the curriculum for ‘key’ year groups to concentrate on passing assessments or exams. In short, the impoverishment of children’s educational experience.

And it is those with the deepest pockets who benefit. Pick an indicator at random – attendance, children’s attainment, exclusion from school – and the figures are better for those from affluent backgrounds than for those from deprived backgrounds. As noted above, Progress 8 is much criticised: “Progress 8 can … be argued to give too much emphasis to schools, rather than government or society, as primarily responsible for the national underperformance of these groups.”

A former Ofsted inspector told the BBC this week that the current system was “scrutinising” schools without giving them support, and that he felt his role could cause “more harm than good”.

We can choose to continue with the big-stick approach to quality assurance, a brutal system capable of causing immense damage to individuals, schools and communities, one that simplifies complex situations and institutions down to single-word judgements and forces schools to compete against each other on a playing field that is anything but level.

Or we can choose to do things differently.

We recently highlighted the ideas of former Olympic rower Cath Bishop on how we measure success. She talks of:

  • developing a sense of purpose and meaning beyond simply coming first or hitting short-term targets
  • focusing on constant learning, progress and personal growth rather than outcomes and extrinsic rewards
  • prioritising cooperation and collaboration over competition, creating authentic relationships rather than transactional ones

It isn’t hard to imagine these three principles as the basis of a new approach to school improvement and quality assurance, one that challenges schools but in supportive ways, helping them – and the individuals who work in them – to grow and develop, rather than forcing them to compete against each other.

In the eyes of some, the National Education Union is part of the reason why Ofsted is needed. The NEU is the largest teaching union in England and Wales. It wants to get rid of Ofsted and is running a campaign called Value education – Value educators. Its Replace Ofsted website cites an effective accountability framework drawn up by the OECD. Three (of nine) points immediately catch the eye:

1. Support and challenge the work of teachers and leaders and assist schools and colleges to support and improve their performance.

2. Encourage teacher creativity and local innovation and promote teacher self-efficacy and agency.

4. Reflect the complexity of teachers’ professional understanding and practice and not be driven by summative performance measures.

Frank Coffield is emeritus professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education. His proposal for an education inspection model that would be “just, humane and developmental”, based on an Education Improvement Agency, was the outcome of three years’ work by a group of teachers, lecturers and researchers.

The EIA would be a democratic organisation of local and national inspectors, with the former assessing the quality of education for all students in a given area rather than individual institutions in order to prevent some schools gaining an advantage by excluding pupils. The latter would be called in when serious problems were found and to ensure comparable standards across regions.

from the article Ofsted: what would an alternative look like? by Frank Coffield on the TES Magazine website

Some sort of collaborative system, then, that helps schools to improve and grow. A healthy combination of robust self-evaluation and let’s call them ‘challenge partners’ who work closely with individual schools, taking time to find out about the context in which the school operates and really uncovering the work the school does. And, as others have said, little but often, removing the fear factor so that quality assurance becomes something to be valued rather than dreaded.

More generally, we need to rethink what we are trying to measure and work out how to effectively evaluate the things that really matter. Ironically, the current Ofsted inspection report template does centre on two sensible questions:

  • What is it like to attend this school?
  • What does the school do well and what does it need to do better?

Underlying all of this is the question of what the purpose of education is and, more specifically, what sort of education system we want for our children and young people in the years and decades to come.

Life-Based Learning is predicated on the idea that we cannot simply carry on as we are in education. It is a bold call to make life itself and the life challenges that we all face – now and in the future – the focus of a fully-rounded approach to children’s learning and development.

How interesting it would be to read school improvement plans and inspection reports that focused their attention on some of these LBL priorities:

  • physical health and wellbeing – including opportunities for regular sport and physical activity, and an emphasis on food education and healthy eating
  • mental health and wellbeing – including building emotional resilience
  • helping every young person discover the joys of reading and giving them the skills to express themselves not just accurately and functionally but also creatively and imaginatively
  • ensuring that young people are able to learn effectively and think clearly, inspiring a love of learning and developing a learning mindset that will benefit them throughout their lives
  • skills that enhance dignity and fulfilment in the workplace and prepare young people for the jobs of the future
  • giving young people the knowledge, knowhow and skills to live sustainably and in harmony with the needs of the planet
  • promoting access to and appreciation of culture in all its varied forms, igniting the creative spark in every young person and bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to life
  • political literacy – ensuring that young people can play their part as active, informed and responsible citizens, helping build a cohesive society founded on strong communities

Image at the head of this article by Donate PayPal Me from Pixabay.

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