Some Battles You Just Don’t Win – A Quantum Change

Lots of words – like data, agenda, criteria, media, graffiti – seem to have lost their singular forms.  These days few people talk of ‘agendum’, or ‘graffito’.

Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be any sign of this happening with ‘quantum’. Perhaps its scientific heritage preserves a slight air of mystery.

Those without such a background need to use words like ‘quantum’ at their own risk. I was at a conference where I found the speaker to be rather patronising. He glibly talked of his project which was certain to introduce a quantum change in the teaching and learning of mathematics. I gave him a slight dose of embarrassment and many of the audience considerable amusement by pointing out that a quantum change was defined as the smallest possible amount of change and that no smaller change was conceivable or possible. Not quite what he had in mind.

I particularly enjoyed an even better example of puncturing an attempt to use pseudo-scientific jargon.   This time someone was foolish enough to attempt to use terms describing his pupils such as ‘cutting edge’ and ‘high-performance’. One of our group was a marvelously droll representative from the aircraft industry.  “Of course you realise”, he said, “that a high performance aircraft is inherently unstable”. I think many of us were still laughing at the end of the afternoon.






Some Battles You Just Don’t Win – The Agenda Are Dice: Time to Face Up and Take Sides

OK, convincing people that a square is a particular kind of rectangle (see xxxx ) is an uphill battle, but at least that battle is still ongoing. Others have been comprehensively lost.

I used to try to insist on using ‘die’ to mean just one item and ‘dice’ when there are two or more, but these days I’m not doctrinaire about it. I guess I decided it wasn’t worth the effort when I ran a course and a significant number of teachers went away having inadvertently learned that yes, there was a difference – but got it the wrong way round, so that they still talked about one dice but now went home talking about two die! Obviously it would have been better not to bother in the first place.

And NRICH (e.g. ) is just one authority to talk about ‘an ordinary dice’, so I’ll give up the die / dice argument. I’ll do this gracefully enough; I don’t really think the language is seriously impoverished by losing a fairly insignificant singular / plural distinction.

(But I definitely do not like it when people – many of whom should know better – talk about 6-sided dice, 10-sided dice etc. 2D shapes have sides, but 3D shapes have faces – so what’s wrong with talking about faces?)

But dice are just one example of words which have lost their singular form – data, agenda, criteria, media, graffiti have all gone exactly the same way, with the plurals being used irrespective of the situation. No-one seems to get too hot under the collar about the disappearance of datum, agendum, criterion, medium, graffito.

Interestingly, this hasn’t happened with quantum – and that’s for another post.






Some Battles You Just Don’t Win – Squares and Rectangles

One battle you never win is trying to convince people that yes, a square actually is a rectangle – a special rectangle but a rectangle nonetheless.

Even dictionaries like to hedge their bets. When I asked Google for a definition of a rectangle these three all popped up immediately:

Google says: a plane figure with four straight sides and four right angles, especially one with unequal adjacent sides, in contrast to a square.

Merriam-Webster: a parallelogram all of whose angles are right angles; especially one with adjacent sides of unequal length. a rectangle is a four-sided figure or shape with four right angles that isn’t a square.

So it’s really not surprising that children also tend to agree that a rectangle is a rectangle, a square is a square, and the two are totally separate. The National Curriculum doesn’t help, and has always avoided the issue. Key Stage 2 SAT questions always skirt around the problem.

Life might be a little bit easier if there were more encouragement to use the helpful and apposite term ‘oblong’. The name gives a clue – an oblong is a rectangle with one pair of sides longer than the other, i.e. it’s a rectangle that’s not square.

Now actually you can demonstrate the relationships very simply in this simple diagram. All rectangles are either squares or oblongs. A square is a rectangle and an oblong is a rectangle, but a square is not the same as an oblong.


That’s simple enough, but we can draw a parallel that everyone understands.

For rectangles read children, and replace squares and oblongs by boys and girls. No one has any difficulty now! All children are either girls or boys. All girls are children, all boys are children but girls are not the same as boys

This is indeed a very simple and helpful parallel though I can’t claim I’ve had all the success with it I would have hoped. As those dictionary definitions show, the idea that a rectangle is a rather defective square is so well entrenched that it’s one of those battles that’s always going to be an uphill challenge.






An Index

If I find it a major challenge to locate an item I know is somewhere on the site, then I’m pretty sure you must as well.  Furthermore, anyone who just drops in can’t have any idea of what else might interest them if they only knew it was there.

So I’ve built an index of all postings since 2013.  I’ve built it as what WordPress calls a Page, which means that no matter what you’re looking at there’s a button at the top of the page marked Index which calls up the comprehensive index.

WordPress seems to want to make it as difficult as possible, so every time I tried to plonk the table in I ended up with an impossible mess of different font sizes and types and missing columns, even when I tried to use a PDF version.

I’ve managed to produce something which is readable and undistorted, but I’m afraid I’m afraid the entries aren’t live and are unclickable.  Sorry, but it’s a convincing victory for WordPress, albeit on points rather than a knockout.

By the way, when you do call up the index there are several entries in blue.  These all relate to my recent interest in the history of elementary schools in the nineteenth century.  I’ve eventual plans to move these into a separate blog, but for the moment they’re still here.




My Mathematical Adventure Games

In my previous post I wrote about a terrific lesson using one of my adventure games – here’s more about what they involve.


It was in the 1970s that I first came across a new type of game called Dungeons and Dragons in which the players explore an unknown environment, encountering various puzzles and problems on the way.

Not long after, the first popular computers appeared and soon entered the classroom. There was a wave of brilliant software produced (and, of course, there was a hundred times as much garbage) – to my mind much of the best is still valid today. And some authors realised they could utilise the D&D format in an educational context – and in primary mathematics Anita Straker was amazingly prolific, despite having to teach herself programming in a hospital bed from a textbook. I introduced school after school to her Martello Tower programme. Indeed I may be the last person in the universe still using it today, and it still grips and challenges children nearly forty years later.

I can’t imagine Hertfordshire’s education department ever spent £70 better than buying the licence to use Martello Tower in its 500 primary schools, but unfortunately many of the 500 couldn’t manage to make successful use of Martello Tower. Most teachers were still very nervous of computers, and in any case schools might have just a single computer – i.e. not even one per class. In the most successful schools talented teachers were able to devote half a term to exploring the Tower and all the mathematical challenges it presented, but for most teachers it was too big a step.

I promised myself that when I got the opportunity I would attempt to devise a format that utilised the motivation and challenge of the adventure format while being easy to use even in the classroom with no computer, and when HCC decided it could do without me I set to work.

I decided my adventures had to maintain the idea of a motivating story-based setting. Also essential was that children should meet a variety of problems (about eight or nine) and these should be related to the theme. The whole adventure might be completed in just two or three lessons.   The only equipment would be what you’d find in any classroom.

I wanted an adventure to be usable by any teacher, and furthermore for there to be no need to mark each task the pupils completed – I wanted the teacher to be free to watch and listen to their children (usually working in pairs) as they tackled the problems they met. So I needed to free the teacher from marking, so she could concentrate upon observing the children’s learning. Hence each time they completed a task the children might collect a codeword and at the end all that was necessary was to check that they had the eight correct codewords.

For this to work I decided each activity needed to have half a dozen plausible answers each with its own codeword. (There is, incidentally, a real dichotomy here. An adventure actually feels open-ended and exploratory, but to make this possible the activities themselves need to be closed, with a strictly limited set of possible answers. I’ve never resolved this problem though to be honest in practice it’s never seemed to matter too much.)

Another constraint was that I wanted to avoid imposing an extra photocopying bill upon schools. So I ensured the activities could be done in any order and just two copies of each task were adequate – which incidentally made it easy to store everything – teachers’ notes and the activity sheets should easily into an A4 folder.

Eventually I produced about seven or eight adventures. A teachers’ magazine published several of them and I produced photocopies for interested schools and teachers; a few professionally produced copies are still sold today.   Basically, however, schools became more and more squeezed by the demands of National Curriculum assessments, and for teachers the opportunity to use the adventures largely disappeared.

(Intriguingly, there was a moment when the National Curriculum itself could have led to the adventures being much more widely known. Twenty years or so ago the curriculum body of the time was looking to highlight problem-solving in maths, and commissioned an adventure from me which would be given to every school. They were even kind enough to pay me, and I devised ‘The Fantastic Fairground’. But the next stage never happened; a reorganisation saw a new body appointed and the initiative got forgotten about. Indeed I’d forgotten it myself, and when Dilly and Lemmy ( ) had a go at it was the first time I’d pulled it off the shelf this century.

Probably ‘Blackbeard’s Treasure’ (an adventure about pirate gold), and ‘S.A.-N.T.A. C.L.A.U.S (where children are working in Father Christmas’ toy distribution centre) are the best known of these. Perhaps I like using ‘The Haunted School’ best – it translates most directly to a year 6 class preparing for Key Stage 2 SATs

It came as some surprise to me a few years back when I realised when I discovered that Questions Publishing group had actually taken the step of publishing five of these commercially. But it does allow me to say that I’ve written seven books, even if in two I was the co-author and the other person did all the work, and I didn’t know I’d written the five in the first place!




A Lesson That Will Stay With Me

Please forgive me – I wouldn’t normally write in such an effusive style. However, it was a lesson that will stay with me for always. Needless to say, my lessons don’t always go as well as this one.


As it turned out, it was the last lesson of the school year. There was no reason it should have been anything particularly unusual, but halfway through something happened. I’ll never know exactly what triggered things, but the rest of the lesson was like no other – a riot of excitement, exaltation, and jubilation. I was thrilled by how things went, and the pupils themselves were rather stunned by how they felt.

Dilly and Lemmy were working using problems from one of my mathematical adventure games. I’ve never previously written about these, and I’ll say more in my next post. But essentially what they do is put children into a setting where they have to solve eight or nine problems all linked to the scenario. One of the great benefits of the adventures is that activities that in themselves are quite mundane become intriguing challenges.

They were working on activities from ‘The Fantastic Fairground’ adventure. All was proceeding well enough – they were involved and working well, but it was more or less business as usual. Almost unnoticeably there was a gradual build-up and intensification of commitment and excitement.   More and more problems got tackled and explored, methods were devised, improved, and perfected, until by the end we were all overwhelmed by the outpouring of something that was little short of joy at what they’d achieved.

They themselves were rather dazed by what had happened.  Had they really had a mathematics session where they’d contributed a torrent of ideas, where the next challenge couldn’t come quickly enough?  Had they really shouted and cheered their delight at each problem they’d solved (it was lucky there was no other classroom nearby, or we might have been very unpopular with other teachers)?  Most of the children in our school quite enjoy maths, but I don’t think I expect them to see it as generating as much excitement as an action movie.

Here are remarkably poor scans of the four activities they worked on in that 30 or 40 minutes as their excitement mounted. Of themselves none of the tasks is particularly interesting, and certainly they’re not innovative, but they are all loosely tied to the fairground setting that gave the atmosphere. Incidentally, the last ten minutes were spent feverishly exploring one of the Fortune Teller’s predictions – do all sets of three consecutive numbers sum to a multiple of 3? Sets of big numbers? Negatives?   What about sets like 2, 4, 6 and 10, 20, 30? ….

I’ve been using the adventures for thirty years now so I know children enjoy them, and I’m used to children being fully involved and pleased with themselves when they complete them. But I really think this session tops them all and it’s difficult to imagine any lesson going any better.

Postscript: no one knew at the time but this was the last week in their primary school career, and I’m rather glad that this lesson might be one of their final memories of primary school mathematics rather than Key Stage 2 SATs.




Thompson, Rumford, and the Royal Institution

Hands up if you’ve heard of Sir Benjamin Thompson.  No?  How about Count Rumford?  Still no, I imagine.  Rumford (né Thompson) isn’t the most famous of names, even though President Roosevelt described him, along with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as one of the three Americans he most admired – a generous tribute, given that he left America in something of a hurry to forestall a tarring and feathering attempt for un-American sympathies.

As I wrote a while back ago, very little beats being invited to speak at the Royal Institution, to stand at the very same iconic desk as Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday and countless others after them (and being asked back was pretty nice, as well) – though I must confess, that, unlike Davy, my sessions didn’t bring the traffic in Albermarle Street to a halt.


Benjamin Thompson’s life involved so much espionage and sexual conquest that it’s surprising no-one’s written a whole series of novels.  The closest comparison would be James Bond, but compared to Thompson Bond is just a pallid imitation of the real thing.  Thompson was a first-class scientist, held high political office, and was a philanthropist as well.  Even Bond would never have dreamt of being a British Under-Secretary of State, or Bavaria’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St James.  And no-one has ever seen Bond as a likely inventor, or social reformer.

Thompson was born in 1753, a sixth-generation American of farming stock, in Woburn, Massachusetts, and as a boy had a passion for science and discovery – like many another boy, there were lots of bangs and explosions, and even an attempt to repeat Benjamin Franklin’s dangerous experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm.  (It’s salutary to note that – 80 years before England introduced the most limited elementary schools – a child born in 1753 benefited from the Massachusetts law that everyone could receive a grammar school education.)

He did some teaching in Concord, New Hampshire, and in 1772, at just 19, married the most wealthy woman in town.  With revolution brewing, he hitched his wagon to the British cause and his spying activities against his fellow-citizens of Concord made him more and more unpopular, and early in 1776 he left America, as a British soldier, never to return.

His army career flourished and he rose to become a Lieutenant Colonel, described as “An enterprising young officer who appears to have an uncommon share of merit and zeal”.  However, the army soon became too limiting and in 1783 he resigned on half pay which continued for the rest of his life.

In England he’d found plenty of opportunities for using his espionage abilities, and his extensive skills as a social networker gave him lots of scope – spying for the army against the navy (inter-service antagonism has a long history!), possibly for France, then in Vienna and across much of Europe.  His espionage career is full of secret writing, invisible ink, coded messages, stolen documents, being waylaid by hostile agents, and like any good agent, things are so murky that it’s likely we don’t know of half his activities.  Certainly the various authorities kept close tabs on him – even today the Foreign Office still holds copies of coded messages about his behaviour.

Thompson wasn’t short of confidence and was an expert at finding ways to climb the social ladder and promote his own interests, and in 1784 he was knighted by George IV.  He’d made plenty of contacts in places like Vienna and Munich, and received permission from the King to enter into the service of the Duke of Bavaria in a position of some authority.

It’s difficult for us today to appreciate just how backward and inefficient Bavaria was at the time; a corrupt princedom with a top-heavy array of titled privilege (including a Grand Admiral even though the nearest sea was hundreds of miles away).  At the other end of the social scale were a vast number of beggars, perhaps 5% of the whole population.  Trade and industry hardly existed – Bavaria had more monasteries than factories.

It was largely through Thompson’s guidance that Bavaria grew into the influential power it subsequently became.  In 1788 he was appointed Minister of War, Minister of Police, Chamberlain to the Court and a state councillor, and he determined to put the posts to constructive use.  He concentrated first on putting the army into order.  Like other institutions, the Bavarian army was grossly inefficient.  At least a quarter of the troops were officers; other ranks were largely conscripts, uneducated and unmotivated.  Thompson increased soldiers’ pay and provided them with free clothing and equipment, and gave them leave when they had to go home to help with sowing and harvesting.  He improved the education of troops and officers, and used his scientific skills to tackle two of the major expenses in running an army – food, and clothing.

He researched better agricultural productivity, an improved diet, and devised better means of preparing and cooking food for the troops.  Further experiments gave them improved uniforms to keep them warm in winter and cool in summer, and members of an army that had been little more than a disorganised and discontented rabble began to see themselves as committed and valued citizens – and incidentally his work was so significant it brought him a high award from the Royal Society in London.

He then turned his attention to Bavaria’s legion of beggars, giving them employment, wages and healthcare, and introducing the first-ever universal system of public schools.  These schemes worked so well and were so popular that before long they were making a profit.

Thompson spent a dozen years in Bavaria, enjoying the company of several more titled ladies, and acquiring more titles, notably being made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, choosing the title of Count Rumford – the town where he’d left his wife and daughter on his departure from America.  By the time he left he was a national hero for managing to keep Bavaria from becoming embroiled in war between Austria and France.

He never let other activities prevent him from continuing his scientific work, which was of such quality that he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1778.  In 1795 on returning to London from Bavaria he was ambushed and robbed of a trunk containing all his private papers and documents.  He claimed these were solely to do with his scientific matters, but there’s always been the suspicion that the motive for the attack was that he was carrying secret documents and information gleaned from spying.

Back in England in the late 1790s he continued his scientific work into improving domestic living.  He made significant improvements throughout the home – in lighting, in heating, in nutrition, and in cooking.  Any one of these would have made him a vast fortune, but he refused to patent any – and given that he was a man widely regarded as personally unpleasant this was a most generous and public-spirited decision.

In 1796 he came up with the idea that eventually became the Royal Institution.  Initially it was a proposal for an organisation which would feature various mechanical devices for improving domestic comfort and economy; he wanted it to offer a reliable source of information about new applications of science into everyday life, and, more widely, feed the poor and give them useful employment.  There were public kitchens to feed 60 000 people every day, and similar operations in France and Switzerland which brought more honours to Rumford – all these were ideas very much in tune with his philosophies in Bavaria.  The King became patron of the Royal Institution and the board voted Rumford life member of the management committee.

The appointment of Rumford’s protégée Humphry Davy proved a masterstroke.  Davy proved to be a great inventor and chemist, who discovered several of the chemical elements.  He was young and rather glamorous, and his lectures were so popular that Albemarle Street needed to be made the first one way street in London.

In 1813 Davy employed a young laboratory assistant called Michael Faraday, who ensured the Royal Institution became even more successful.  He made a number of very significant chemical and electrical discoveries and in 1826 began the series of Christmas lectures for children which are still held today and are always broadcast on national television.

Fifteen scientists attached to the Royal Institution have won Nobel Prizes.  Ten of the chemical elements were discovered there; the electric generator was devised at the Institution, and much of the early work on the atomic structure of crystals was carried out within it.

(Immediately outside the lecture theatre at the RI is a fascinating painting, showing the audience for one of the evening discourses.  This one dates from 1904, and the audience – lords, ladies, politicians – are shown in their finery, and listed by name.)


Rumford, however, had left England in 1802 and never returned.  He renewed contacts in Bavaria but found an even better welcome in France – even though he was in theory still a serving British officer and the countries were at war.

In France, he didn’t let middle age interfere with his ever-spectacular love life.  During the course of his career his metaphorical address book was invariably well-stocked with titled ladies – among many many others were various countesses, the wife of the British Prime Minister, and eventually (and disastrously) he married the widow of the great chemist, Antoine Lavoisier.  He said of her “She has been very handsome in her day, and even now is not bad looking …”.

With compliments like that perhaps it was no great surprise that things soon went wrong.  For a few weeks he rhapsodised about their ‘magnificent’ lifestyle, but after just a couple of months he was expressing his doubts, and before long they were at each others’ throats like participants in a daytime television confrontation programme – he locked the gates to prevent her guests visiting, while she poured boiling water on his treasured flowers.  Within a year he called her a female dragon and soon “the most imperious tyrannical unfeeling woman that ever lived, and whose perseverance in pursuing an object is equal to her profound cunning and wickedness in framing it”.

They were divorced within five years, but he remained settled in France where he died quite suddenly in 1814.  Rather fittingly, his two final publications reflected his life’s interests in both science (‘Heat Manifested in the Combustion of Inflammable Substances’) and in improving domestic living (‘Excellent qualities of Coffee and the Art of Making it in the Highest Perfection’).

At 61, it hadn’t been a particularly long life, but it had certainly been one full of interest, excitement, and achievement.  When Franklin Roosevelt nominated him as one of his most admired Americans he mentioned that Thompson, like Jefferson and Franklin, lived a most happy life, never ceasing to look for new experience and new discoveries.




The Early Years of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools; HMI 1837 to 1870, Part 1 …… The First 25 Years

In the second half of the nineteenth century elementary schools had to keep a logbook. Thousands of these survive today and they’ve never been looked at by anyone. Each time you read a new one you find a story that’s been forgotten. I’ve come across some remarkable teachers and – perhaps to my surprise – plenty of evidence of how positively many school inspectors contributed.   It’s turned out to be pretty long, so I’m publishing in four sections.


It seems to be pretty well known that, right from the very start, Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools were elderly and overbearing. The trouble with that is that when you look into it, you find this does HMI a great injustice. To start with, they weren’t elderly – the typical new HMI was under 35. And while some inspectors may have been pompous and high-handed this was by no means generally true – for example, Inspector Bellairs conducted inspections with “gentleness, patience and good humour”.

From its inception Her Majesty’s Inspectorate quickly became a highly professional body, supportive of teachers and schools, and as time went on, inspectors were more and more likely to find this put them at loggerheads with the Education Department and the politicians – who pioneered many of the techniques of subversion and disinformation used to this day.


Compared to other countries – for example, Austria, Holland, Prussia, France, and indeed Scotland, England had a lot of catching up to do. Effectively, widespread elementary education in England didn’t begin until 1833 when the government offered the first grants towards setting up of schools. The initial grant – to cover the entire country – was £20000.

The Committee of Council on Education (the precursor of the Education Department) was formed in 1839, and the grant was increased by 50% – but even so, £30,000 was less than half the £70 000 allocated for the Royal Stables at the same time.

The first inspectors had been appointed in 1837. Inspectors were required to collect information and above all to be supportive “… afford them your assistance in all efforts for improvement in which they may desire your aid; but that you are in no respect to interfere with the instruction, management or discipline of the school, or to press upon them any suggestions which they may be disinclined to receive.”

Previous experience in education was not a consideration, and in many cases the new inspectors were appointed through the influence of friends or relatives in high places. What they did need to have was a high social standing, good academic record at university, and acceptability to the church authorities.

Even so, inspectors were impressively rapid to understand the problems of the schools, their teachers, and their pupils. Perhaps surprisingly, given their privileged background, they had a high awareness of social issues – one of the very first wrote such strong reports that he was hurriedly redeployed elsewhere. In the first twenty years they sought to make schools safer and healthier places, they looked towards the better training of teachers, and they worked to give children a longer and more profitable time at school.

The government grant ensured more and more schools opened, staffed by teachers who themselves had little educational background and no professional training whatsoever. Consequently inspectors, with their knowledge of practice in other schools and their advice about successful techniques, were often welcomed with open arms.

Given the low starting point some of their achievements are hugely impressive.   A teacher wrote of Joseph Fletcher, who was an inspector until his death in 1852: “No-one could be the subject of his day’s inspection without becoming wiser and better ….   His departure was often regretted with tears. Children and teachers all felt he was a friend.

Fletcher and his colleagues may have been called inspectors, but in practice they were much more advisers and supporters. They observed successful teaching ideas and techniques and took them to other schools; buildings, apparatus, teachers, and methods were all improved in this way.

And because the inspector was of similar social standing to the school managers he was able to recommend improvements in a way the teacher could not.   HMI encouraged managers to provide adequate accommodation for teachers, and pointed out that when teachers were “worse paid than the village carpenter or blacksmith, what hope is there of finding any but the most incompetent person …?

What I find most noteworthy of all is that in little more than a decade inspectors came to judge schools using criteria which even today many critics would reject as too progressive. In 1848 inspectors used the school at King’s Somborne in Dorset as the example for all to follow “dealing with reason rather than facts, and things rather than words“.





The Early Years of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools; HMI 1837 to 1870, Part 2 …… The Coming of the Revised Code

In the next few years the education system continued to expand rapidly and in 1858 the government realised with some dismay that its initial £20 000 had rocketed to £700 000.

Probably none of us would be surprised to learn what the government chose to do.   Deploying an impressive range of misinformation techniques, it

[a] took fright,

[b] set up a committee (the Newcastle Commission),

[c] made sure that the membership of that committee was very largely the people who would come up with the recommendations it wanted,

[d] appointed just six members of HMI (who were seen to be dangerously independent in their thinking, and who were considerably outnumbered by the ten assistant commissioners parachuted in from outside),

[e] introduced spurious statistics, but nevertheless

[f] hinted that reports of the inspectors themselves weren’t to be trusted.

When the Newcastle Commission reported there was no surprise that the government welcomed its recommendation – Payment By Results, a system which effectively tied the grant received by the school to the performance of pupils in the three basic subjects of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

Equally unsurprising was that Inspectors themselves were strongly opposed to Payment By Results and the predictable straitjacket it placed upon teaching. HMI were greatly in favour of retaining, or at least modifying, the existing system based on advice and support, but their suggestions were ignored.

It wasn’t only HMI who were appalled by the rigidity of the proposals. Across the country the initial reaction was almost universally hostile – a wave of objections came from churches, communities, educational experts, school managers and teachers, and statistical societies (who pointed out how unreliable the report figures were).

When the detailed proposals – “The Revised Code” – appeared (conveniently delayed until the very last day of the parliamentary session of 1861) elementary education entered the era of Payment By Results.

Schools’ income would be determined very largely by the numbers of children who could reach specific standards in the three subjects of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. The Commission’s view was clear “Till something like a real examination (my emphasis) is introduced … good elementary teaching will never be given ….”.

Teachers’ magazines and schoolmasters’ associations deplored the Code, and perhaps half of the Individual inspectors (particularly those with the most experience) were also against it – but their arguments were largely dismissed.

When the Code came into practice in 1862 the role of Her Majesty’s Inspectors therefore changed focus dramatically; they were no longer advisers and now became examiners who visited annually to test each pupil.

Since the first government grant in 1833 there had been 25 years of rapid progress in which HMI had played a prominent part. Now the Newcastle Commission dramatically reduced their influence and status. Not surprisingly, the inspectors saw the Code as an attack on themselves and their way of operating; well over half of them signed a letter describing themselves as a “body of public servants who feel themselves to have been unjustly aspersed”.   Rightly or wrongly, by accident or design, the Revised Code marked the first, but certainly not the last, step in the marginalizing of HMI.





The Early Years of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools; HMI 1837 to 1870, Part 3 …… The Revised Code in Operation

The name most associated with the creation of the Revised Code was that of Robert Lowe, the Vice-President of the Committee of Council on Education. He made sure the Code was driven by his desire for competitiveness and economy, and it was said the Code made him one of the most hated politicians of the century.

Lowe worked hand-in-glove with Ralph Lingen, whose focus upon rigid economy matched his own. (Lingen subsequently became permanent secretary of the treasury – a role which famously required incumbents to say “No” so disagreeably that nobody would dare ask a second time.)

Certainly Payment By Results achieved one of Lowe’s and Lingen’s main objectives, and the education budget was slashed by hundreds of thousands of pounds.   Financial cuts began not just before the Code became law, but even before it was published.

Lowe believed that teaching was little more than instruction “We pay for instruction; if the child has been properly instructed, he will know the things we require; if he does not know them, the work has not been properly done ….” Lowe’s code was designed as “an amount of knowledge which could be ascertained thoroughly by examination”.

Lowe would not be the last politician to work on the belief that children’s attainment could be found simply and accurately, and with little more difficulty than was needed to measure their height. Most inspectors saw this as simplistic, and stood their ground. For twenty years they had used their skill and professional judgment to advance education as a whole, and had little sympathy with Lowe’s view that learning could be assessed by a purely mechanical process.

Inspector after inspector criticised the Revised Code. The most famous of all, Matthew Arnold, warned the Code would result in mechanical instruction. J G Fitch – who uniquely had taught in an elementary school – pointed out that not only did the Code force teachers to narrow the curriculum, but that publishers were being quick to spot opportunities: “I find an increasing eagerness on the part of the teachers to get hold of text books which are ‘specially adapted to the requirements of the Revised Code’ and which claim as their chief merit that they do not go a step beyond those requirements”.

J D Morrell used words that still resonate today: “Formerly we were occupied chiefly in examining processes; now we are occupied almost entirely in testing results …. Every educator who is worth the name knows his best results are those that cannot be measured at all”.

Other inspectors – including Messrs Fearon, Nutt, Bellairs, Mitchell – also expressed their concerns, and a further consequence of the Code was that grants for developing pupil-teachers were withdrawn. Pupil-teachers – essentially apprentice teachers who learned their trade while still being pupils themselves – had been one of the great successes of the previous 25 years. The pupil teaching route made a huge contribution to raising the quality of teaching in schools, and offered a professional career path for females as well as males – but after the introduction of the Code their numbers fell by more than half.

In fact, the measured results of the Code were even more meaningless than the inspectors feared. As long as an inspection generated sufficient numbers the administrators were satisfied; not the slightest effort was made to ensure comparability of standards.   Some inspectors would deliberately inspect to a more lenient standard until teachers became more familiar with the Code’s procedures. One inspector might allow a child to make three mistakes in their writing, another just two or even only one. The variability wasn’t just in standard; but also in actual procedure and nature of the inspection. One inspector might take a full day; another might inspect a school in just a couple of hours.

Matthew Arnold had been an inspector since 1851, and had seen the position of HMIs change dramatically. They had become examiners rather than inspectors and in doing so had lost most of their opportunities to work creatively with schools. I’ve got considerable sympathy with Arnold and those who thought like him – my own role went through just this change of focus a century after he died in 1888.