The Great Education Wars

One of the fascinating aspects of the recent Festival of Education at Wellington College was the exceptionally wide range of speakers and the breadth and diversity of opinions on offer. Ultimately, however, they divided into two camps.

In the ‘traditionalist’ camp were all those who believe that the main aim of education has always been, still is, and always will be, the attainment of high scores in time-limited, high-stakes tests and exams. These people also believe that through various efforts to ‘drive up’ exam scores we can measure students, teachers and schools.

The major exponents of ‘traditionalism’ were present in force at Wellington – Michael Gove, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Lord Adonis, and their various acolytes. Their sessions were extremely well attended, though not by me. Instead of going to Wilshaw’s session I preferred to listen to the head of Eton, Tony Little, who is clearly a man who sees the need to develop the whole of each individual, and not simply cram for tests and exams. In fact Mr Little has stated publicly elsewhere that he sees no need at all for 16+ exams.

Both Eton and Wellington recognise the need for the holistic and all-round development of individuals – which of course includes development of the intellect and the achievement of academic success – though it’s not entirely clear whether the broader range of achievements would be sacrificed by either school if academic success wasn’t forthcoming.

The Great Education Wars are now a worldwide phenomenon, and reminiscent of the continuing wars between the two schools of economics which have been raging since the 1960s. In the fields of finance and economics you’re either a Keynesian or a Friedmanite/monetarist. In education you’re either in the camp that says “attainment” is the only thing that really matters, or you’re in the camp that says the holistic development of individual children and young people across all of their aptitudes and intelligences is what’s truly important.

Some of us have known about these wars taking place over several decades, whereas some  just echo Leonard Cohen – “I didn’t even know there was a war”.*

Well it’s time to get real. There IS a war, and it’s not going to go away. No amount of words from the likes of Michael Gove are going to change the minds of those who say children have a fundamental right to the kinds of personalised learning that value their individuality and enable them to succeed across all of their intelligences – personal, social, emotional, spiritual, practical, creative, etc. Just as those on the child-centred side are never going to change the minds of those who are adamant that academic success is the be-all and end-all (whilst paying lip service to other areas of learning and personal development).

The attainment-at-all-costs brigade has been christened GERM by Pasi Sahlberg** – the Global Educational ‘Reform’ Movement. The leading GERM nations are the USA, the UK and South Korea.

The nations that have moved away from didacticism and high-stakes testing to embrace pupil-centredness and the ‘new learning revolution’ are Finland, Singapore and more recently Shanghai/China. The success of the learning/teaching revolution in Shanghai is now spreading to the rest of China, which has learned its “Finnish Lessons” very well. The GERM supporters ought to be aware that China is not known for undertaking massive social and economic changes without some very solid reasons – or evidence, if you prefer.

So what is the evidence that has compelled these changes in China? Firstly, the long-term success of Finland in topping the OECD/PISA assessments. Secondly, their own understanding that in China “driving up standards” using so-called “traditional” methods  produced young people who are conformists, who are simply good at taking tests, and who lack imagination, creativity, self-direction, resilience, self-motivation, entrepreneurship, joy in learning for its own sake, social skills, teamwork skills, and so on. In other words – all of those skills, intelligences  and abilities that are essential in a connected and fast-changing world where test-taking ability is of no value in terms of real employment skills. The GERM approach, on the other hand, has nothing to do with developing the skills and attitudes that are needed to be a creative, productive, confident, adaptable and imaginative individual who’s able to enjoy life and function well in a complex world.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, and similarly in the USA, exam results seem to be all that matter – even if they are achieved at the expense of turning schools into education factories, turning pupils into fact-memorising automata, and turning so many young people into stressed, anxious and fearful individuals with high levels of depression and frustration and low levels of emotional literacy. This is not our opinion of our young people’s wellbeing – this is the conclusion of UNICEF after extensive research.


This is not a war that’s going to diminish or fade away. Some of the combattants – especially teachers – will decide that the personal and professional costs are too high and will withdraw, either temporarily or permanently. There are too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo, the academic pyramid, and the system we have developed for more than a century of grading individuals according to their test-taking ability – which somehow still serves as a proxy for general ability, intelligence and human worth.

Does anyone care to ask young people about their views on all this? Not really. We have no idea what they think about GERM, or about making their learning truly personalised so as to allow them to pursue their own self-directed learning pathways. Would young people prefer to demonstrate their abilities through personal portfolios of achievement or through sitting high-stakes exams? Who knows? Who cares?

Which side are you on?

What did you do during the great education wars?


* Leonard Cohen – There Is A War

** Pasi Sahlberg – Finnish Lessons


AC Grayling at the Wellington College Festival of Education
(c) 3Di Photography

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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1 Response to The Great Education Wars

  1. Pingback: Why do progressives deny the debate? | Scenes From The Battleground

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