/ Parenting, Technology

Are children too dependent on technology?

Childrens tablets

Love it or hate it, but technology has become an essential feature of everyday life. But is it wise for this dependency extend to kids too?

We recently published a conversation on what future smartphone features you’d like to see, when an unexpected but interesting debate began to emerge. Ian started it off:

‘We’re inexorably moving towards a future in which we will become not simply dependent upon but almost certainly biologically linked to our mobile devices. It’s the logical next step, really. All that fiddling around to see the screen when it could be projected onto your retinas and overlaid with your real-time experience will become a thing of the past, regarded as quaint and in the same way we look back at early TVs with only four or five channels. We live in a time when we all need continuous social contact and when our tolerance for delay has become severely diminished.’

Computer kids

Arguably, technology has become effective in opening access to information and broadening our communications tools. So it’s no surprise really that technology has worked it’s way in to the classroom.

In school I had computer lessons on a big boxy desktop PC, but now my younger cousins are working off of tablets. To be honest, I’m a bit jealous of that – I wish I had a tablet in school.

But as Duncan explains, there are potential pitfalls to exposing children to advanced technology like this at such a young age:

‘The problem is young people are now being provided with tablets etc in schools under the pretext that “it will make them more computer literate”. But in actual fact their young brains will be programmed to accept that electronic control and electronic information is normal instead of human interaction by their teachers to teach them real life experience because most of their teachers are “internet ready” and have not experienced all of life’s problems but live in a semi-virtual word already.’

Advancement of technology

So are we just creating generations of technology dependent drones? Or is this just an example of the advancement of our education, as Wavechange points out:

‘Maybe we should not have given children books, pencils and paper, never mind let them loose on computers or phones. If they have something that demands a telephone call they could be allowed to use their parents’ landline. I find it interesting that watching films, TV and sport are widely regarded as respectable activities but more recent technology usually comes in for criticism.’

What do you think, are we being too critical or rightly sceptical? Should children be using new technology?


“Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Much of this can be laid at the door of our ubiquitous use of modern technology. The effect of this is being felt most profoundly in classrooms and lecture halls. But Craig Blewett and Ebrahim Adam argue there is no reason to despair. Students can be hooked into learning if they are presented with the technology – and specifically the games they play – that is the cause of their distraction. Gamification can improve attendance, enhance understanding of content, encourage engagement and ultimately improve academic performance.” 23/3/2016

Lead into this article

” Modern human beings have a shorter attention span than goldfish: ours is, on average, below eight seconds while the little fish can focus for nine seconds.
These decreasing attention levels are driven by people’s constant use of technology. One study found that people’s dependence on digital stimulation has become so high that 67% of men and 25% of women would prefer to experience an electric shock rather than doing nothing for 15 minutes. ………………… “

The sooner we get rid of watches and re-learn how to tell the time by the sun, the better.
When oil runs out, those with skills with horses will come into their own again, as will navies to dig ditches to supply water turbines for electricity generation for the houses of the rich.
Shortage of paper will mean that oral history and rote learning of facts and data will come back into vogue, and Fahrenheit 451 will be realized, but by different means.
Let us prepare now for the world envisaged by the dystopian writers, and by the Yankee Survivalists, for to echo that favourite supermarket jingle – When our Civilization is gone – it’s gone.

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DT: I suspect you’re mixing causality and consequence. Attention span tends to be about nine minutes – not seconds and is shorter in men than women but that seems to be a genetic predisposition. Men seek instant gratification whereas women are prepared to delay…

However, it’s not simply digital stimulation that we seek: numerous sensory deprivation experiments conducted in the mid-’50s and ’60s revealed that we need to be stimulated regularly in order for our minds to work properly. Of course, more experiments in the ’70s revealed that the process could have a positive effect. Without environmental stimuli to process, the central nervous system’s level of activity drops dramatically, sending the subject into a state of deep relaxation. The body undergoes positive physiological changes that work toward achieving homeostasis – the state of physical equilibrium. Muscular tension is released and proper blood flow is enhanced. Additionally, the body begins to balance any neurochemical imbalances caused by tension and stress. There is increased production of endorphins and T-cells, which provide pain relief and increased immunity, respectively. In essence, relieved of outward stimuli, the subject’s central nervous system can concentrate most of its energies inward for the restoration of physical and mental health. It’s a fascinating subject but one in which no firm conclusions have been reached. Overall, it’s unlikely that modern technology will do any lasting damage to children, who are fairly quick to adapt to change, anyway, and most of the ‘damage’ will be caused more by the nature of the communications on digital devices, rather than the simple act of using them.

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To continue a discussion regarding education, in which Malcolm posted this:

” I was brought up in the era of grammar schools. These gave an academic approach, whereas the other schools gave a more vocational approach. My feeling is that those anti this approach wanted everyone in the same pile, which did not then focus on specialist teaching where it could help diverse interests and talents. We do this later with university and colleges that are selective. My criticism of the grammar/secondary modern era was it seemed not easy for later developers, nor poorer performers, to transfer to a school that might be more appropriate. “

From reading that I take it that you’re highlighting the flaws in both systems, is that fair?

There’s a strong argument that Grammar School abolitionists were primarily teachers, interestingly. Like you, I was a Grammar School inmate and went on from there to pursue a similar path to Wavechange, I suspect.

It’s a fascinating topic, full of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’, but with no clear answers. If we look at the countries in the world leading the education rankings they do adopt a very different approach to it, the most significant perhaps being the immense respect in which teachers are held. Hard though it might be to believe, schools in places like Japan and Korea not only enjoy almost 100% attendance rates and far longer school days but have virtually no discipline problems.

I suspect Grammar schools once had a vital role to play. Whether they in any way compensated for the biggest issue – that of poor parenting – I couldn’t begin to hazard a guess. But they did delivr a very different curriculum to the Secondary Moderns.

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Duncan: that’s not true – in any way. If you can prove it, then post the definitive links, otherwise it’s wiser not to repeat it.

On the second point ‘getting the belt’ is unlikely to have taught you much other than to avoid school. You are somewhat obsessed with what you imagine is happening in Primary Education. You are sadly misinformed, however, and the real problems in Primary education are eluding you completely.

Ian, you have opened up a discussion that could lead to accusations of elitism, denial of equality, and so on, but I firmly believe appropriate education should be targeted. We are not equal – some are more academic, some more practical, some more intelligent some more willing to learn and put in the hard work and sacrifices, some less so. Grammar schools provided initially for those seemingly more receptive to an academic education; they also attracted staff appropriate to dispense that kind of curriculum. I would hope that a similar situation could pertain at what were then secondary modern schools – tailored to the aspirations of their intake. To succeed in a hard world, as a country we need to be properly educated.

In my layman’s eyes, looking back, both systems were flawed. There seemed little opportunity to transfer pupils between grammar and secondary when late development occurred, or when grammar school pupils struggled out of their depth. There should also be the means to give particular lessons, when appropriate, to either type of pupil in either type of school when the pupil showed a particular aptitude for one or more subjects. One solution might be to have both schools on the same site or in the same building, nominally but with easy interchangeability of resources. That may be what comprehensives (and academies) try to do.

“Selective” education, which I think is, or should be, selective in the ability of students not their background, happens in further education. Our universities are graded, as are the colleges, to ability and interest. Vocational training, apprenticeships, job training, etc. should help those who are not suited to the academic or college offering.

Duncan touched on hard work, long hours and discipline. I am inclined to be a little lazy but my school’s aspiration for good ‘O’ and ‘A’ level results, followed by a high success at university entrance, meant that we were pushed to do our work diligently. As we find out later in life, for most of us there is no substitute for hard work.

Here endeth…….

I don’t think a single thing you’ve said could invite “accusations of elitism, denial of equality” or anything else; I think you’ve posted an eloquent and very even-handed account of the British education system over the past 60 years. There’s also a lot of Psychology research which supports your conviction that “appropriate education should be targeted.”.

Historically, I believe the system was flawed in its emphasis on cultural education as opposed to STEM, which was partly because the Grammar system was based on the public school model, which itself was designed specifically to enhance class differences. Sadly, the Grammar schools then started to build on the very class divide that created social issues throughout the 1930s and the Grammar school teaching staff saw themselves as inherently superior. They were, in fact, academically better qualified than Secondary Moderns (except for PE staff) but that difference was keenly felt and contributed, I suspect, in no small way to the creation of the Comprehensive school.

But this is all history. I think your concerns are more with the present and things have changed. There is a feeling that school days are still too short, school terms too erratic (and too short) and many schools failing to prepare their students for HE. I wrote a short article on this some time ago:

“Statistically, throughout England and Wales, more than one fifth of lessons aren’t delivered by someone qualified in the subject. That means, in reality, that the teacher who does deliver the lesson material is often either simply ‘minding’ the class or ‘muddling through’. Either way, they’re being paid simply for standing in front of the class.

Now, that statistic doesn’t take into account the 55% absence rate among staff that’s been rising slightly, year-on-year, and in most schools they employ substitute staff to cope with these absences. The social and interpersonal dynamics in teaching mean it’s all but impossible for a substitute teacher to do anything with the class in terms of actual teaching, so they end up ‘minding’ the class. In other words, they’re paid for simply standing in front of a class.

This becomes more of an issue when you take into account in-service training. Almost all staff are given time off for in-service training – and much of it is compulsory, such as GCSE standardisation meetings, and so on. In that event, all their classes are covered by substitute staff, who are paid for simply standing in front of a class.

The percentage of FTE (Full Time Equivalent) teachers with QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) has been steadily falling for some years. From the Government’s own statistics “Secondary schools employ the majority of the 20,300 FTE teachers without QTS; 11.5 thousand (57 per cent). Primary schools employ 5.9 thousand teachers without QTS (29 per cent) and the remainder work in special schools or are employed directly by local authorities.”

Now, the situation is that when those who are attempting to elevate the quality of teaching visit or assess these people they can’t effectively do anything, since they’re employed in the full awareness that they’re not holding QTS. So in that instance “There’s little to no check on the quality of what they deliver”.

If we then examine the average, fully subject-qualified teacher standing in front of their class one might imagine that they deliver a lesson that excites, enthuses, stimulates and educates every time they do. Sadly, the reality is anything but. Part of that has to do with the ways in which schools are organised; Secondary schools, for instance, often work under a structure which actively denies children and staff the opportunities to receive and deliver high quality education. There are many reasons for this, but the outcome is the same: a poorer quality education than the children deserve.

In England children in Secondary schools pupils on average spend between six and six and a half hours per day in school. But let’s look at that. If we take the timetable of a school rated as ‘Good’. then we see it has 6 x 50 minutes periods (lessons) per day. Which sounds reasonably encouraging, because we can assume the kids are getting at least 5 hours education per day. You might notice that’s down significantly from the 6.5 hours they spend actually in school.

So then we look at the actual lessons. In a typical day at least one lesson will be delivered by a sub. Yes – work might be set by the teacher who’s missing, while the sub is paid for simply standing in front of the class, but it’s not the same as being taught.

So now we’re down to 4 hours 10 mins. But in Secondary schools children move from room to room and, in the larger schools, that takes time. Allowing for a minimum transition time between each of the 6 scheduled lessons, it can eat up around 40 minutes per day, simply moving along corridors, lining up outside classrooms, waiting for lessons starts and so on.

So now we’re down to 3 hours 30 mins in actual lessons being taught.

Bu that’s not the end of it. Far from it, as the teacher in each classroom has to ensure an orderly start to the lesson, deal with the minutiae of taking a register, missing books, absences, sorting out homework and stopping the children who enjoy challenging staff from disrupting the class for everyone else. All that easily adds another 30 – 45 mins per day onto the non-teaching bit.

So now we’re down to under 3 hours of actual taught lessons and I haven’t even started on fire drills, games lessons, PE lessons, potential disruption and so on.

Once we finally get into the classroom where we can actually learn something the teacher has to arrange the lesson to allow for the 30 or so individuals of varying ability they have to teach. So how is the quality monitored?

Well, there’s actually no universal agreement as to what makes a high quality lesson. There are a lot of terms thrown around. of course, buyt they’re often fairly meaningless when examined in the real-world context. Since there’s no agreement, OFSTED and others have drawn up ‘recommendations’, but all too often those are simply book-keeping measures which don’t even start to deal with quality of teaching.
The sad thing is that excellent teachers do exist, but all too often they’re driven out of the job by the increasing pressures to maintain the books.

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Thanks, Alfa. Yes – I’m aware of this, which seems to be a growing trend on the part of some parents who seem anxious that their children might suffer gender confusion. But this is squarely aimed at parents whose children have already expressed interest in gender identity, which some do. A growing number of adults have also written extensively about their own issues, and have pushed for early intervention by local authorities whom, I suspect, are simply trying to avoid upsetting parents. But it’s a long way from what Duncan was suggesting.

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Hello @user-66219, I can’t spot your comment anywhere in our system. Do you want to try again? 🙂

Can I ask you and others to step back and try and debate in a friendly manner. I know this is easier said than done, but it makes everything easier in the end. I’m signing off for the evening, so hope things have cooled down by the time I wake up.

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There’ll be no offence taken by me, I can assure you on that front, Duncan. But I am involved with the UK education system at a national level and I can assure you that when you say pre-primary school children are asked “are you sure you are a male/female and so on (edit) before the 2X table , thats once they can talk English that makes sense ” I believe you’re simply wrong. In the case to which Alpha linked it was parents being asked to comment and they were free to refuse t comment if they so wished. But you have to understand that Local authorities are merely reacting to the growing pressure and emerging evidence from those who have changed genders and attempting to ensure they ‘get it right’. I have never accused you of lying, either; that’s not something you would do, but people often misunderstand how the Education processes work and newspapers like the DFM are only too quick to post their caricatures of the process.

Sadly, I’ve long believed that Education is actually too important to be left in the hands of local authorities and certainly not the DFM…

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I still haven’t seen a link which establishes the veracity of what you;re saying, Duncan. But, again, you;’re making several points in one sentence, so can we look at each of them?

You argue this is because of minority pressure, but using your same yardstick we’d presumably seek to abolish all disabled facilities, since they only form a minority of the population. But you also make unsupported allegations. You say “In other places it has caused intense trouble for those children of a weak mind later in life needing psychiatric help” so please post a link to the evidence for that.

When you say “ I don’t care what other people or minorities do but once that impinges on the majority that’s a different story.” we’re back to disabled facilities again. They’re a minority, so surely there should be no disabled seating on trains, etc?

A further point was when you said taking children’s welfare out of Scottish parents hands by appointing a government “Guardian ” so that parents ability to bring up their children or even look after them would be hit by draconian measures of permanently removing the child even for slight non-compliance can you provide any evidence for that? I don’t think you can, because early intervention is a doctrine that’s been proposed many,. many times, and has some merit, in fact.

To continue, you forget that no child can be permanently removed from its parents other than through the independent judiciary. Even temporary removal is subject to very strict regulation, and the rights of parents are thoroughly safeguarded at every tune. However, some parents do a lot of damage to their children through crass stupidity and a host of other reasons. Are you arguing, then, that parents who routinely abuse their children in countless ways should not be subject to scrutiny? Who will protect the child, if not the parent?

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You see, Duncan, you’re not prepared to discuss the detail or read the research that supports some ideas but you are prepared to post things which bear no relation to reality and for which you have no supporting evidence. So again – when you say “brainwashing babies due to pressure from a small minority either provide links to reliable sources to support your accusations (‘Brain washing’ is illegal, BTW) and inform the police or I would invite you to withdraw your comments.

Duncan: this is a balanced article which you might find interesting:


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That was a terrible case, Duncan, and is a rare example of genuine evil. But I hope you’re not trying to compare the inhuman, sadistic actions of mentally damaged abusers with the actions of those who genuinely seek to try to make life better for all children? Sadly, child torture and murder are not as rare as we might hope, but I really don’t see a link between these malign individuals and what happens to children in schools.

I’d also suggest that your image of ”would be Lesbians with a fixed political correct agenda who being part of the L+G communities act in a forceful measure to “pronounce ” young children as-the wrong body” visiting infant schools is a flawed one. Under very strong UK law those who even visit schools are taken very seriously and those allowed to talk to classes and have contact with them are vetted carefully.

Furthermore, Head teachers are responsible, along with Governors, for what happens in these instances and they would want to be reassured that what they were approving wouldn’t land them in trouble.

So while I agree that it’s not appropriate to have potential murderers and abusers interrogating infants, this is not what was proposed in Scotland, nor is it what’s happening in other areas.

But you make an interesting point about the effects on young minds of almost anything. There’s a great deal of carefully researched evidence that indicates very young children assimilate a great deal more than most people think. In one sense it’s exactly why parents need to be so careful, and the question that most good parents ask is not ‘Have I damaged my children’ but ‘how badly?’. Children survive despite their parents, and some children have parents that really work hard to ensure their offspring are nurtured in a loving environment. But I believe bad parenting is the number one cause of social problems today, and the concept of the traditional nuclear family has changed drastically over the past few years.

Just stepping back into history for a moment, I agree with Malcolm about the inherent weakness in the Grammar and Secondary Modern school system that prevailed in most areas for at least twenty years and still exists in some places today. In my view the biggest weaknesses were the lack of transferability and the unintended hierarchical structure of secondary education which did create an elitist class. The products of the Grammar schools [and ex-public school boys] have been in charge of this country at various levels since the 1960’s and influenced almost everything that has happened, although there were a growing number of enlightened and influential people who saw the future in comprehensive education with no streaming, mixed-ability classes, and the oft-quoted paradigm of ‘parity of esteem’.

The 1944 Education Act – a remarkable measure developed in the thick of wartime – identified three types of secondary school – Secondary Grammar, Secondary Modern, and Secondary Technical, all of equal status but each tailored to a particular educational objective and with no implicit restriction on interchange across the types. It was expected that Grammar schools would prepare pupils for higher education through a longer exam-based curriculum, that Modern schools would lead to vocational qualifications and practical skills for commercial and public service occupations, and that Technical schools would develop trade skills and crafts for work in industry and manufacturing normally via apprenticeships. Unfortunately, very few Technical schools were created but the few that were successfully met their objectives. The Modern schools were also successful but there is no doubt that some pupils should have had an opportunity to transfer to a Grammar school just as some pupils in Grammar schools would have performed better at a Modern school. The elitism and hierarchical structure was reinforced by the nature of Grammar schools housed in ancient or mock-ancient buildings, with ‘masters’ wearing gowns, and an emphasis on tradition. For no reason that I have been able to fathom the word ‘Secondary’ was rarely used in mentioning a Grammar or a Technical school but was always used [and painted on the signboard] in respect of the Modern schools. This perpetuated a concept of a ‘second class’ education and it affected the nature of the establishment, the quality of the teaching, the aspirations of the school, and the outcomes for the pupils. I believe a much more fluid system would have been much better [although tutorially challenging] and that the eventually successful development of Comprehensive and co-educational schools has benefited the country enormously.

I can see advantages in developing specialist schools to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or indeed on the classic subjects, but I do not see why they need to be called Grammar schools with all the baggage that goes with such a name [nor do I like the pretentious name Academy]. I think the last grades of schooling, from whatever age is chosen by each education authority, should be conducted in a High School. Sharing of facilities across sites for activities like music, sport, art, drama, and other forms of cultural development, and a cross-fertilisation of teaching staff, would also help to develop a more collegiate and equality-driven approach and an avoidance of artificial classification.

I was at a Grammar school from 1958-65, and loved every minute of it, but I was aware of the system’s limitations from an early stage when my sister was allocated to a Modern school largely because of the single-sex organisation of schooling in our area and the lack of capacity for girls to pursue a more academic path. Nevertheless she enjoyed her time there, learnt to type, cook, make an apron, and do pottery which all enabled her to start work, after some time at technical college, as a dental surgery assistant in a major teaching hospital. Arguably she acquired the more useful skills for life.

I would say that we all agree about the history of the system from that lucid and detailed account, John. The real problem is why are we currently not achieving as we ought?

The national picture is a little worrying: essentially the system favours girls (detailed work, a lot of writing, etc.) but more worryingly over the past 30 years boys have become more and more disenchanted with education in general. And in many places teachers are not regarded well by the pupils. There’s no ‘natural’ acknowledgement of the teacher’s status, and that bring a whole raft of problems.

Malcolm touched on one consequence of this, briefly. I’d be interested in hearing more.

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There are really two points there, Duncan. The first being what you deem ‘Politically correct’ and the second being how you perceive the Education strategy and its potential outcomes.

Political correctness is a term largely coined by the US media and is almost exclusively used pejoratively. There’s no general agreement, either, of what constitutes Political correctness, so it’s used as a tool with which to belittle ideas people don’t like. From my own perspective I always feel when people resort to its use they’ve already lost the argument.

The second aspect is that you have a worrying perspective on gender: you talk about “male occupations like engineering /science/maths” which, to be frank, I find denigrating to the huge numbers of girls doing sterling work in those very disciplines. Should Madame Curie have stuck to cooking and toilet cleaning? There are incredibly few occupations which can be categorised as Male or Female, as our female fighter pilots would tell you.

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News to me, duncan. My children of both sexes were never forced into jobs. A daughter is happy doing a combined supervisory / manual job and wanted to be a car mechanic. A female friend is a panel beater. There is, I would agree, a wish to see apparent discrimination removed from what women earn in equivalent jobs, and what they can aspire to and this leads to an over-reaction. So insisting we have 50% of women on boards – company or public – and to aim for equal numbers of MPs, regardless of ability, is where it all goes wrong. And as many younger women will leave work when they raise a family it is understandable that companies are more wary of investing heavily in expensive training when they are more likely to lose them than they are men.

Duncan: if you’re going to quote what I say, please ensure you do actually quote it and not simply make it up. I did not say there were “incredibly few jobs women cant do that men can”. I said “There are incredibly few occupations which can be categorised as Male or Female” which is quite different.

But let’s deal with the first point. “Should males be forced into female occupations?”. Are you alleging that’s what’s happening? Please provide a link to the evidence. You then say “what we have now is Positive Discrimination against males“. Again, please provide evidence.

But there’s another point, here: if an occupation is male-dominated, why should females not be given the opportunities to compete? Let’s look, for instance, at two occupations: Surgery and Comedy.

In Surgery females comprise only 11% of the total number of consultant surgeons. Why d’you imagine that is, Duncan? In probability terms alone they should make up at least 40%. This might explain some of it:


Given surgical appointments panels are often male-dominated, perhaps there’s a need for females to enjoy a degree of positive discrimination. Interestingly, comedy has the same issue. It’s extremely hard for female comics to get bookings, yet some female comics are outstanding. The BBC addressed this by forcing shows to include at least one woman on each panel show. Why should that be necessary, Duncan?

As someone who has spent his working life teaching males and females and working with male and female staff, I am strongly in favour of equal opportunities. Yes women have children and may want a career break but that’s something we need to live with. Maybe the fundamental problem is when we put people before money.

For me, achievement is more about realising ambitions than accumulating wealth. Using this criterion, my most successful PhD student went on to run a new academy that cost about £50m to build and seems to be doing well according to recent reports. I am very proud of her. A year or so after the building opened I had the opportunity to see the facilities and chat with some of the staff. I do wonder how the academy will maintain some of the facilities because technology soon becomes dated and is costly to replace.

As an interesting aside, I did a vacation job for a small company that had a machine shop. The owner told me that he would not appoint anyone who was left-handed, explaining that their lathes and other equipment was designed with right-handed people in mind. That’s a good enough reason for discrimination but I don’t accept that anyone should be denied opportunity simply because of their sex.

One challenge that school teachers don’t have is children changing sex. One of our male graduates came back as a woman to do a PhD and one of my colleagues had a sex change. I’m happy with my gender but would suggest that anyone making the change might be well advised to move to a different institution. 🙂

I’m left handed and it has never stopped me working with machinery. One drawback, though, was in cheque books. When I used a fountain pen the side of my (left) hand tended to wipe across the damp ink, smudging it and also leaving a blue smear on the heel of my hand. Discriminatory? No – most banks will supply cheque books with the stubs on the right – although I only discovered this when the internet arrived and answered everything. .

Gender changing is certainly becoming a very hot topic:


and I do know of two cases at least, in Primary schools where this has happened. And there’s a curious thing too: the children at both schools were reported as having found no problems whatsoever, but their parents were a different matter. Interestingly, most of the issues seemed to stem from the men and the most severe from the least educated.

I did not know that, Ian, but I learn a lot from Which? Convo. Maybe we should leave it there because there are more common challenges in school education. 🙂

As Ian says, we can agree about what happened in the past. Well in broad terms if not in detail. Discussing our time in grammar schools is of limited relevance to the current educational system. Log tables and slide-rules have been consigned to museums and books and wall-charts are no longer the main learning resources available to help children learn from teachers parents and their peers.

In order to be an effective teacher, at any level, it’s useful to both engage with those you are teaching, which helps command respect. I well remember our first physics teacher who ran a very tight ship and he was there to teach us whether we liked it or not. Not surprisingly, his nickname was that of a notorious politician associated with WW2. Most of us learned more from our chemistry and biology teachers who were friendly and approachable, and fortunately we had an enthusiastic young man teaching physics in the sixth form. I have long been convinced that in general (and there are plenty of exceptions) schoolchildren learn more from younger teachers. In the fast moving world of technology, there is plenty of opportunity for the teachers to become the learners, which helps promote engagement.

In teaching we often create artificial boundaries between subjects. That’s convenient for assessment but perhaps by having more overlap between subjects it helps people understand how to use existing knowledge and understanding in other ways. Consider the ways in which our Conversations have helped us explore subjects, making us better informed and being able to help others, both online and in the real world. Computers etc can greatly help with learning and peer support, provided there is plenty of opportunity for face to face contact.

One of the reasons I enjoyed biology, chemistry and physics at school and then at university was the opportunity to work with others through practical work. It helped to be able to see how these subjects inter-related. It would have been easy to integrate other subjects but I saw no evidence of that in my day. Even if it proves too difficult or resource intensive to organise field courses providing kids to work together, there are still opportunities in the classroom and as homework, helped by modern technology.

I agree with your comments, Wavechange. Motivation seems to be the key both for the educators and the pupils. The modernisation of the classroom experience has been a quiet revolution but perhaps it has not always achieved its potential in improving useful engagement and interaction. I know so many people who left teaching in the 1980’s and -90’s for more lucrative careers in other fields, although that was not always the motive that precipitated the move as the occupation itself was becoming increasingly unrewarding, and I feel that education has lost a great deal of talent.

Ian raised the question of the esteem in which teachers are held. I remember John Major at some point in his premiership grasping that point and saying how the teachers should once again be serious figureheads in their communities, be proud to live in the areas where their schools were based, and be respected by their community. I can’t remember how he said that would be achieved but I am sure it hasn’t come to pass.

Finally, there is a little cartoon in the current Private Eye which neatly parodies the gender assignment furore. It shows two toddlers in a sandpit and one says to the other “What do you want to be when you grow up? Boy or girl?”. As Wordsworth wrote over two hundred years ago, “The child is father of the man”.

I agree with most of what has been said, here. I was particularly interested in your thought, Wave, that children might learn more from younger staff. In general, that does seem to be the case, but I’ve never been quite sure exactly why. The comments about subject partitioning are also extremely relevant today, possibly more so than at any time in the past.

We live in a rapidly changing world and a world in which knowledge transcends traditional subject boundaries and compartmentalisation can be seen as an almost primitive attempt to segregate learning experiences. There have been some attempts to introduce thematic cross fertilisation within schools (it already happens – by force of circumstance – in Primary education) but problems have been encountered.

One issue, perhaps surprisingly, is the varying levels of literacy amongst secondary staff. I well remember dealing with a Physics teacher at a Comprehensive whose ability to form a coherent English sentence was severely limited. But there’s also significant resistance at the staff level from teachers of different subjects, despite a great deal of research pointing to the very obvious fact that relating mathematical concepts to historical events, for example, such as sieges, not only enhances interest n the concept but also aids retention of the ideas.

In many ways there’s a crisis looming in Education, and it has to be addressed in some radical ways. But that’s not going to be easy and will take a lot of political courage. In one quite good comprehensive school only one person – the Head of Music – knew what E=Mc2 was, outside of the Science faculty.

Thanks for keeping this fascinating Conversation going. Although I worked in HE, I have been fascinated by what happens in schools and particularly the challenges of moving into HE, either as school leavers or becoming mature students.

I appreciate your comments on my third form history lesson, Ian. I am one of those people that likes to see where we have come from before deciding in which direction we should go forward in case there are any lessons to be learned. The present generation of secondary school children are the grandchildren of the pupils at Grammar and Modern schools in the 1960’s and -70’s. That might – or might not – have a bearing on the current discussion.

One of the curiosities of modern secondary education is that every few years the school leaving age is raised but the quality of the output [and its usefulness for the country’s needs] does not appear to benefit to the same degree. Many schools no longer run a sixth form [mostly for good reasons as they cannot efficiently cover the breadth of curriculum now required by some students] so their pupils go off to sixth form centres or colleges and deprive the school of a leadership cohort and aspirational models. I expect this eventually has an impact on the teaching commitment and quality.

Seriously, you’re spot on with needing to learn from history. And equally adroit with that perceptive observation about the loss of VIth forms at schools. But in fact, I suspect the entire system needs a radical overhaul.

I suspect we need much larger schools: about 3000 seems to be an optimum size for various reasons, and we are moving towards the larger model. I also suspect we need to look at the abandoned idea of the ‘Middle school’ – the 10 – 14 year age group. When I use the term ‘school’, by the way, I’m only talking about a collection of pupils. not a building. I see no real reason, for instance, why we can’t educate children from 3 – 18 in the same local group of buildings, although I can anticipate many of the objections.

But the major problem, the biggest issue of all, is the children who have no interest in learning. In developmental terms that’s almost an oxymoron. Yet classes in all schools are held back and seriously disadvantaged by a tiny minority of disruptive children. There are myriad issues, both psychological and environmental why these children become as they do, but they exert a disproportionate strain on any school they attend, diverting resources, damaging the education of other children and bringing schools themselves into disrepute. Mostly, they can be contained by sound teaching, but that varies from teacher to teacher, and some cannot cope.

Successive Governments have shied away from tackling the issue at the earliest opportunity but it remains a major problem and one for which radical action is sorely needed.

The test of the effectiveness of our education system is surely how we compare with others?
“The UK is still lagging behind leading countries at education and has made little progress in international rankings since results three years ago.

The influential Pisa rankings, run by the OECD, are based on tests taken by 15-year-olds in over 70 countries.

The UK is behind top performers such as Singapore and Finland, but also trails Vietnam, Poland and Estonia.

The OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher, describes the UK’s results as “flat in a changing world”.

In maths, the UK is ranked 27th, slipping down a place from three years ago, the lowest since it began participating in the Pisa tests in 2000
In reading, the UK is ranked 22nd, up from 23rd, having fallen out of the top 20 in 2006
The UK’s most successful subject is science, up from 21st to 15th place – the highest placing since 2006, although the test score has declined”

Not very good, is it? So is it the quality of our teachers, messing with the curriculum, discipline, …………..?

And if I understand these figures correctly we seem to have been spending more GDP per capita than most others. Perhaps we could study a little harder other countries’ approach to education and learn how to do a better job?

If you examine the other countries’ systems you will find three things: longer school days, shorter holidays and a much higher status for teaching. In Japan, for instance, the sensei is widely respected and generally they themselves respond, becoming almost obsessive in their desire to do things well for their students.

But if we want to improve the system here we have to change the length of school days and holidays at the very least. And the Government needs to remove itself from the entire Education arena. Teaching should be the province of teachers – not politicians .

Another test of the effectiveness of our education system is how well it produces the minds and aptitudes the country needs for the occupations that will make it prosper. I don’t know how that is measured but anecdotal evidence suggests that we have failed in that for decades. Of course, in the next ten years we are also going to need a lot of construction workers but I am not sure that is being addressed either.

I have no objection to the processes of education being entirely determined by teachers so long as politicians determine the allocation of resources and monitor the results of the national investment.

I planned to retire when I was 60 but my decision was helped by the decline in opportunity for academics to run the show. In my experience, teaching is increasingly run as a business, with decisions being taken by administrators. That is a common complaint from many who have been in HE for twenty years or more. I don’t know to what extent this problem is shared by those involved in schoolteaching.

I would prefer administrators and politicians making decisions about education to have moved from a successful career in teaching.

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I won’t comment, Duncan, because I believe your basic premise is entirely unsubstantiated and that to argue the point would not be good for this Conversation.

Duncan: why are the two issues mutually exclusive? This topic is about education here – but if there were a topic on human rights in Saudi, I’m sure we’d all contribute. It’s simply not of immediate relevance in here.

Of course all children are influenced – by many things. The most significant, however, are parents, followed by peers once they attain the ages of 11 – 12. I suspect you vastly overestimate the influence schools wield.

But there are a number of points you make for which you have no evidence. When you say “I wasn’t subjected to political /social pressure to “think a certain way ” for all the heavy hand of teaching I got it certainly was left to me to mentally come to my own point of view of politics and society the essential concept behind conditioning or ‘Brainwashing’ is that the subject is unaware of the conditioning. So you might have been conditioned to say everything you’re now saying. The crucial point is how would you know otherwise?

But you still haven’t answered any of the questions I asked you.

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I think this has gone way off topic, so all I can say is that my schooling, that of my children, and of our grandchildren shows absolutely no sign of “social engineering”, whatever that might mean. How do you assess the school your neighbour’s son went to as socially engineering their pupils? I suppose educational establishments that prepare students for careers in particular sectors will help them with the necessary skills – the diplomatic service would need diplomacy as a skill no doubt, something not inherent in many people’s make up in my experience.

Sorry. Duncan; until and unless you can provide some objective evidence I can’t continue this.
Malcolm: indeed. The major influence on children is their parents. Ordinary schools pale by comparison.

Which is the best thing to go on for parental control for mob and tablet

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Back on topic, Stephen Todd asked:

“Which is the best thing to go on for parental control for mob and tablet?”

The only candidate best answer I can give is the one from those rare households where the use of this technology is confined to public rooms like living rooms and prohibited in the privacy of bedrooms.

I suspect that many households cannot achieve that standard.

Does anyone know more about “nanny” software?

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A ‘disheartening’ piece of research published today in Science reveals that Girls start to see themselves as less innately talented than boys do when they are only six years old. So by that tender age Gender stereotyping has already done damage to children’s self confidence and perceptions.

Abstract and full text:

BBC news report:

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There are a couple of points, really. This was talking about early childhood – not mature females. And it was research which confirms what has been noted before: that children are susceptible to varying influences when extremely young.

There’s a different psycho-social expectation for boys in our society and, although you’re right about this being US-centric, many social trends there are mirrored here, to an extent. But even in our own family, where we have some decidedly extremely high-achieving females, they’ve often told us how they felt, when they were much younger, that boys were superior.

If you read the original research as well as the BBC report, you’ll see how the findings were arrived at. Once again we come back to parenting. We did not get our boys guns or cowboy outfits when they were young; and we never opted for the blue colour scheme. It always surprised me just how many of our relatives thought we were being ‘unkind’ by not playing to the gender stereotyping that’s so rampant among companies providing for infants.