Why that primary school teacher post is unhelpful.

Ok I’ll bite.

Excuse the dramatic example that follows, but I think that it illustrates why lots of people have got cross about *that* primary school post, and why the post was so unhelpful (and potentially dangerous).

So, here is a tweet posted by a US DJ earlier in the year:Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 13.35.13I hope that made you angry. It should. What the author did was take a single experience, and then made huge generalisations based on that experience. Worse still, it played to negative prejudices that people may already have about that group, seeking to confirm their biases.

Andrew Old defended publishing the post on the basis that it was merely an opinion piece from a primary school teacher. But the post wasn’t simply an opinion piece. It made sweeping generalisations about a whole institution and the professionals that work within it.

The key problem with the post, then, is that it commits the overgeneralisation fallacy. It makes statements like ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘primary teachers believe’ and ‘children these days’.

This is very different to, ‘In my experience I’ve witnessed x, which I think is damaging’. Nobody could argue with that with the initial statement, although they may debate on what grounds you feel that it is damaging. The author of the post, however, made much stronger claims. And, just as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, strong claims require strong evidence.

Consider, for example, the claim ‘All children like ice-cream.’ This is a strong claim because it makes a claim about all children. To refute it, you would have to find just one child who does not like ice-cream. In predicate logic, this is called a universal quantifier which states that all items within a domain conform to a given predicate.

Compare this to an existential quantifier, which merely states that there exists at least one item that conforms to the predicate. We can then debate about how many items conform to the predicate, which would require some evidence gathering. Boring, right? Boring, boring sound reasoning.

For my part, I’ve never seen play-based-learning used past year three in a primary school. This is based on the dozen or so schools that I have been placed in for observations, training and teaching, and the conversations I’ve had with the rest of my primary training cohort (several dozen teachers).

That’s not to say that it never happens. It would be foolish for me to say that because I experience something, this is commonplace. Perhaps there is a school, as the author suggests, where play is used throughout the curriculum and across all phases, and where behaviour management promotes a ‘lack of discipline’ and ‘no structure’.

I would question how this could happen, because to gain QTS you have to evidence that you meet Teaching Standard Seven, which states:

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 14.54.01

But perhaps there is such a school, and within it teachers who have been allowed to ignore the teaching standards. My question, then, is this: what are this school’s results like? All schools in England are regularly inspected by Ofsted, and their results are scrutinised annually.


a) this school turns out great results, in which case we have no grounds to criticise their methods; or

b) the school turns out terrible results, in which case Ofsted would judge the school to require improvement or worse.

Ofsted, in fact, make reference to behaviour 78 times in their new inspection handbook, and make clear that the behaviour of children make a key contribution to their judgment. If terrible behaviour is an orthodoxy in primary schools, why aren’t Ofsted failing primary schools on a huge scale?

To recap, the original post makes two claims:

1) That all (or most) primary schools deliver the curriculum through “play-based”, “child-led system”, and do not care for “structure”, and that children are allowed to “do what they like”; and

2) This is damaging to their education.

We had a look at how the first claim is unsubstantiated in its strongest form. Let’s examine the second claim, that such an orthodoxy, if it exists, is damaging children’s education and results in them entering secondary school with an “inability to read, write or add up”.

It is true (and shameful) that some children enter secondary school functionally illiterate and innumerate. But to make the claim that this is because of one particular teaching style, or pedagogic approach (for instance play-based learning) you would have to show a relationship between schools who employ that method and poor results. The author does no such thing.

I empathise with the author, who obviously feel that they are trapped in an environment that is harmful to children’s education. I can understand why that would make someone cross. They clearly care for children. But to take this and make sweeping generalisations about the whole primary sector is unhelpful, unreasonable and damaging.

I implore the author to either substantiate their claims, or make clear that they do not represent the entire (or even most of) the primary sector.




  1. On the first point of logic (which is one I alluded to in my latest blogpost) is to assume that statements without a quantifier, have “all” as an implicit quantifier.

    The statement “dogs have 4 legs” is generally considered true even though not every dog has 4 legs. If we had to make it explicit the meaning is closer to

    “dogs normally have 4 legs”


    “one would expect a dog to have 4 legs”,

    It could even mean “ideally a dog would have 4 legs” or “a dog naturally has 4 legs” but that’s not really relevant.

    Anyone describing what schools are like can be considered to be expressing their opinion of what schools are normally like, or what they would expect a school to be like. While they may still be wrong about what schools are like, it is not enough to say you are aware of exceptions and, therefore, they are wrong to generalise.

    As for the argument that the teaching standards or OFSTED are indicators that behaviour cannot be poor across the system… are you serious? There are examples in every sector of schools where OFSTED have not noticed even the worst behaviour and of teachers who have qualified but still (through their fault or that of others) have to face hideous behaviour very often.

    Now, if your own school is so good you would send your own kids to it (in my view the only genuine vote of confidence a teacher can give to their school) then ask the supply teachers that come there how many of the schools they visit are just as good.

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