Defending the Judeo-Christian Heritage, limited government, and the American Constitution
Sunday February 7th 2016

An Interview with Christopher Woodhead: A Desolation of Learning

Michael Shaughnessy,

1) Chris, your latest book “A Desolation of Learning “  has just appeared. What are the main points that you were trying to make in this book?

I have Motor Neurone Disease (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and, in all probability, do not, therefore, have long to live. I wrote A Desolation of Learning (DoL) in order to explain to my own satisfaction if to nobody else’s what has gone wrong with education in the UK and many other parts of the world including America. The first chapter demonstrates how examinations in the UK have become progressively easier over the last thirty to forty years (see answer to question 5 below). I then ask the fundamental question: what is the explanation for this catastrophe?

In my view, it is two mistaken beliefs which have driven left/liberal thinking over the better part of the last century. The first is that all children have equal potential if only we could overcome the disadvantages of their upbringing; the second is that in the modern world what matters is the teaching of the skills needed to be a successful ‘learner’ and which the adult business world is said to demand – knowledge, that is, has become an anachronistic and elitist indulgence. I examine the way these ideas drove education policy under Mr Blair’s Labour administrations, analysing in some detail the way in which the UK National Curriculum was corrupted and the extent to which organisations such as the National College for School Leadership have created a heavily policed thought world in which the teacher who thinks outside the ideological box finds life exceptionally difficult. There are also chapters on the failure of the comprehensive ideal, the future of fee paying schools in the UK, and the reasons why a Conservative administration would be unlikely to rescue UK schools from the mess they are in. The book was written before last year’s general election.

Sadly, I have to say that I think my predictions have proved to be right. The current UK government is making the right educational noises, but lacks the political courage to implement truly radical policies and to challenge and defeat the educational establishment which has been responsible for so many damaged lives. As you can see, it is a book to infuriate most members of that establishment. It has, though, as I know from my mailbag, resonated with a good many parents.

2)      How has “learning “ changed over the past 10, 20, 30 years?

The nonsense spouted about ‘learning’ has escalated exponentially over the last few years. The nature of learning has, of course, not changed at all. As human beings we learn through listening to somebody who knows more than we do, reading, writing, talking and doing if it is a practical skill we are seeking to master. My experience of MND has shown me that we know far less about the workings of the brain than many in the world of education would like to believe. I do not have any time for our current obsession with ‘learning styles’. We need to adopt different approaches to learning new knowledge according to the nature of the knowledge. How, for example, is a kinetic learning style going to help deepen my appreciation of Wordsworth’s poetry?

3)      It seems that there is less emphasis on critical thinking and higher order thinking in the current zeitgeist. Am I off on this?

I don’t think this is true in the UK, though our new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, is a fan of Hirsch and wants our national curriculum to be revised so that core subject knowledge has more prominence. The great and the good of the world of education continue, it seems to me, to believe that one can think critically in a knowledge vacuum. In so doing, they demonstrate their inability to think, let alone to think critically.

4)      Many teachers bemoan the fact that they have to teach students with various special needs, exceptionalities and the like. How has this contributed to the problem?

The problem stems from our continuing commitment to mixed ability teaching – a commitment (see answer to 1 above) which stems from our egalitarian inability to accept that some children are more intelligent than others. I have a great deal of sympathy for teachers who have to teach classes where there is a very wide range of ability. I think, in fact, that it is impossible in such a situation to do justice to either the most able or those who have the most difficulty. Teachers end up teaching to the middle, challenging and supporting nobody.

5)      Let’s talk about the A and O Levels- is there still academic integrity involved or have these become convoluted?

There is precious little academic integrity in A levels or in the GCSE examinations which replaced the old O levels some years ago. You only have to compare today’s syllabuses with those of a few years ago to see that more difficult topics have been abandoned. A question which was once asked in an O level Biology paper turned up in an A level Biology paper recently! There is also the fact that most GCSEs and A levels involve a high percentage of coursework which nobody, as everybody knows, can authenticate with any confidence. Our examinations are now, moreover, ‘modular’. This means that the syllabus is segmented into units which are examined one by one. If the student does not like the grade they have achieved, they are allowed to take the exam again, and again, and again. So: the knowledge tested lacks the intellectual challenge it once had and the format of the examinations is less demanding. It’s a mess.

6)      Discipline in the classroom- is it lacking and has this contributed to the problem?

In some inner city schools it is a huge problem and in many schools there is an incidence of low level disruption which makes it difficult for teachers to teach and more motivated students to learn. The explanation for poor discipline is obviously complex and to an extent must reflect wider social and cultural problems. I think, however, that, once again, the belief that all children must follow an essentially similar curriculum is highly significant. If I were fifteen years old, functionally illiterate, and bored by academic subjects I did not understand, I think I might misbehave.

7)      In your role in OFSTED, what did you try to do and what seemed to have happened during your time in OFSTED?

I tried to ensure that parents and the local and national politicians responsible for education had regular and accurate information about the strengths and the weaknesses of UK schools. I also believed that all schools benefit from a rigorous external challenge from time to time. So, inspection in my day tried to render the system accountable and raise standards through professional dialogue. What happened? The unions made so much fuss about the fact that our inspections were identifying failing schools and incompetent teachers that in the end, after I had left the job, pusillanimous politicians caved in and the inspection regime was changed. I have to admit that a good number of my own colleagues were unhappy about the allegedly punitive nature of the regime. They preferred to be the teacher’s friend, offering professional advice in private.

8)      Is there a diminished seriousness of purpose to education and schooling?

Indeed, there is. I think that the philosopher Michael Oakeshott was right: we are not born human, we become human through our mastery of the various ways in which men have understood the world in which we live. Education is the enterprise upon which our humanity depends. Now what matters is the relevance of what is taught to the experience of the pupil and to the demands of civic society and the economy. We have a skills based, rather than knowledge based curriculum and anybody who argues for liberal ideals is pilloried as an elitist dinosaur.

9)      There seems to be particular concern about the preparation of students in maths. Could you comment?

Following on from my previous answer, I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘preparation of students’. For me, it is, with maths and every other subject, an initiation into the magic and the mystery. We have in the UK, as you have in the US, a major problem with both literacy and numeracy. The teaching of mathematics is weak in our primary schools because the national curriculum assumes children can run, as it were, numerically, before they can walk and because many primary school teachers are not competent themselves in mathematics. The first problem could be solved relatively easily given the political will, the second is a very hard nut to crack.

10)   Who publishes the book and how can readers get a copy?

A Desolation of Learning is published by Pencil-Sharp. The ISBN number is 978-0-9562573-0-7. It is available on Amazon.

11)   What have I neglected to ask?

I think we’ve covered the ground, Michael.

Michael F. Shaughnessy is the Senior Columnist for

Used with the permission of