Gavin Gradgrind

It’s been reported that Gavin Williamson told a private Tory 1922 Committee meeting he plans to make children face the front of the classroom since this is a “good traditional teaching method” and a “commonsense approach to teaching”. Clearly it’s not a teaching method (pedagogy) – it’s a seating arrangement.

(He also called the National Education Union (NEU) the “No Education Union” and said he was going to end his “softly, softly” approach to the teaching unions.)

Dr. Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the NEU, responded with the following tweet:

It says, “Stunningly ill informed. Stunningly ill timed. Stunningly useless”

“Gavin Williamson has said he wants all children to face the front of the classroom when schools reopen in September.

The education secretary told Tory MPs that he was concerned that in many classrooms children were sitting at round or square tables facing one another.

He said the approach was “wrong” and that he wanted to “get the class to pay attention to the teacher” when lessons resumed.”

As Dr. Bousted said, this onslaught from the minister is largely to detract from the government and Williamson’s evident incompetence and their failure to plan for a sensible, appropriate and safe return to schools – having worked collegiality with the teacher unions.

She said his comments were,

“a clumsy attempt to divert attention from his own lamentable performance as education secretary – and his failure to work with the profession to achieve the safe opening of schools”.

If Williamson’s comments weren’t so offensive, they would be laughable. However, they are insulting and they’re not funny.

Only a matter of days ago, we wrote about Gradgrind education –

In this post,  we referred to a quote from Sparknotes.

“Ironically, while Gradgrind refers to the pupils in his school as “reasoning animals” and compares their minds to fertile soil in which facts can be sowed, he treats them like machines by depriving them of feeling and fantasy.”

Mr Williamson seems to be oblivious to an entire philosophy of education – its history, its practices, its purpose. He appears to have no concept of why children are grouped facing one another and how effective this is for learning. He wrongly assumes that children only learn when facing a chalkboard (whiteboard, smartboard, etc) and teacher. He wrongly assumes that knowledge-based learning through fact fodder is the only essential learning that takes place in schools. He seems oblivious of the power of collaboration, of working collegiality, sharing ideas, encouraging and supporting one another in learning. Nothing of “feeling and fantasy”, of creativity, of empathy, of collaborative problem solving, etc.

That we have yet another Secretary of State who hasn’t bothered to understand why specific teaching and learning strategies are utilised in schools is abhorrent. Decades of  debate about teaching and learning, and competing views about different pedagogies, have been ignored by a man who has no experience whatsoever of working in a school.

This is preposterous and unacceptable.

But of course, he’s taken his lead from Michael Gove, who could barely contain his vitriolic smirk when telling various media outlets that children would have to return to a more “traditional” style of learning post-Covid to ensure safe social distancing in schools.

See this clip, 2 minutes into the video for Gove’s response to how to deal with social distancing:

This pair of Gradgrinders would deny any hidden agenda or a desire to be dictatorial, stating that their insistence on children sitting in rows facing the front is only about safe-distancing in order to get more children safely into schools. However, history reveals their agenda for a narrowed curriculum, a high stakes testing regime, “knowledge-based” learning and disregard for the importance of activity, creativity and interaction.

There are many in education who agree with this approach to teaching and learning. For instance, Laura May Rowlands aka @TillyTeacher who writes for the TES. (We’re assuming she’s a secondary school teacher with little experience of primary schools).

We’ll leave you with some of the responses to the above article so that Gavin Gradgrind might get some understanding of why teachers are so distressed at his incompetence and his ignorant, offensive comments.

“Having worked in both mainstream and SEND schools as a Maths teacher, I can confidently say sitting in rows is not the best way for most students to learn. A good teacher will provide opportunities for students to learn through discussion and collaboration; through experience and play. The best way to facilitate this is by allowing students to work together.” – Annie Raine

“When he says all children… how are we going to enable our 5 year olds to actually achieve the early years curriculum of they are sitting in a row? Has he read it?” – Jo Tregenza

“The idea of one size fits all is exactly what is wrong with teaching. Trust teachers to make the right decision for their style of teaching and what suits their classroom best.”Aron Rowe


A reminder from Hard Times by Charles Dickens:

“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. “

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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