Seldon: Education ministers are 'fundamentally stupid'

Former Wellington head makes impassioned critique of English education policy at the OECD Pisa launch and does a headstand to show how education must be turned 'on its head'

Catherine Lough

Sir Anthony Seldon_editorial

Sir Anthony Seldon made an impassioned defence of "soft skills" in education today, as he criticised the failures of England's schooling system, and branded the world's education ministers as being "fundamentally stupid".

Speaking at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) launch of the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in Paris, he said England's policies were failing large proportions of pupils, teachers and university students.

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The former master of independent Wellington College and current vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham demonstrated how he wished to overturn education policies by performing a headstand on stage.

"For any school teachers in the room, you will know that if you want the kids to remember what you say, do something special and different," he said.

"The point I’m going to make here is that the entire education system needs to be stood on its head."

He said the OECD needed to accelerate its focus on innovation in schools, and  condemned the English education system for failing swathes of pupils and driving up teacher attrition rates.

"Warning, I’m going to be rude about global education ministers," he said.

"They’re not bad people, I’m sure they don’t beat their husbands and wives, but they are fundamentally stupid, and they know nothing about schools. They know nothing – we are not going to get change from them."

He added that society needed to listen to children themselves when designing policy, as well as entrepreneurs, athletes, trade unionists and creatives.

"Just about everybody gets it apart from government education ministers around the world."

Sir Anthony said schools needed to experiment more with a range of teaching methods, citing Ashley Primary School in London, which has its own farm and helps pupils to grow their own crops.

He argued that while some will decry experimentation in schools, the results of current education policy in England were less than positive.

"We are undertaking a vast experiment with our young people.

"In Britain, a third of our teachers leave after five years, beaten down by the dullness and the anonymity of the system."

"Secondly, one third – 30 per cent – of British school leavers are failed by the system. They are told that they are failures! You tell anybody that ‘you’re a failure’, and they become one.

"Is it surprising they turn to crime, they have very low self-esteem, they have mental health problems?

"They are not the failures, the system has failed them," he said, adding that it had "failed to find out what they uniquely can contribute to the world and be successes at".

The forgotten third – a term for the third of pupils who leave school without gaining standard passes in English and maths – have been at the heart of recent campaigns by the Association of School and College Leaders to reform the examination system so that pupils do not leave school with nothing.

Sir Anthony added that at the University of Buckingham, a third of undergraduates had a mental health condition.

"So one-third of teachers are leaving very early, one third are failed by the system, and one third are reporting mental health conditions at the end of this system.

"And we think we have a fantastic system, and we don’t think that’s an experiment. Well if that’s not an experiment, I don’t know what is."

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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