The fundamental unaddressed issue of education

Perhaps I’m totally wrong about everything that follows. The problem with being the person saying that the emperor has no clothes is that 99 times out of 100, the emperor really is wearing clothes and the person seeing a naked emperor is merely hallucinating. However, given how strongly I feel about this subject, I don’t feel I can keep quiet, so here goes: there is a fundamental unaddressed issue in education. I see a naked emperor, and either he needs a new tailor, or I need some strong medication.

So, what is this fundamental unaddressed issue? Well, it takes a little explaining. As all foundation stage and key stage one teachers are acutely aware, children arrive at school with a vast range of experiences and abilities. There is an overwhelming difference between a child who has just turned four from a challenging family background and a child who is about to turn five from a supportive family background. (There are a variety of other reasons why such differences might exist. I have selected age and family background differences merely for illustrative purposes.) Attention spans, inhibitory control and social skills between these children vary to a bewildering degree. The first two years of education are spent desperately trying to get all children ready to learn, and teachers of the youngest children do a remarkable job… which brings us to Year 2 where I currently reside. At this stage, most children are just about ready to learn some academic content. And the fundamental unaddressed issue arises.

Let me give an illustrative example: the class is supposed to already be able to count up to and down from 100, according to the national curriculum objectives for Year 1, and around 2/3 of the average class can. This 2/3 is, in general, older and from more supportive family backgrounds. Around 1/3 of the average class, however, are completely lost. This 1/3 are on average younger and from less supportive family backgrounds. Their number formation is iffy, naming numbers above 20 is inconsistent at best, etc. All of the mathematics learning from the Year 1 part of the national curriculum is either dysfluent or entirely missing for the 1/3. But the 2/3 are ready to learn at a Year 2 level. They have practised number formation and counting at home and, in fact, much of the Year 2 curriculum is already understood by them before the year even begins. Of course, the split between the 1/3 and the 2/3 is actually more of a spectrum across the class, but this artificial split is indicative of a crucial dividing line between those who – in the time that is available – will be able to keep up with the pace of content and those who will not, due to gaps that already exist in their knowledge compared to their peers. With the Year 2 SATs in the back of the teacher’s mind, they dive into the teaching of two-digit place value. After a couple of weeks the divide between the 2/3 and the 1/3 is apparent. The 2/3 understand everything – in fact, they knew most of it before the year began. The 1/3 are still lost. The previous gaps in basic counting and number formation have slowed any understanding of place value massively, and they need much more time on this. Unable to tolerate holding the rest of the class back, the teacher sets up an intervention group – 40 minutes per week with a TA during assemblies and art/music lessons – and hopes that the kids will catch up.

They won’t. This is the fundamental unaddressed issue of education, and – speaking as someone who has worked as an intervention teacher with every age group from A-Level down to foundation stage – its effects amplify as a child in the 1/3 moves through school.  

This is the status quo. Now, the easy answer to this – and one that regular readers of my blogs are probably expecting me to give – is some idealistic advocacy of a mastery approach in which the teacher doesn’t move on so readily and provides deepening tasks that stretch the 2/3 while the 1/3 catch up. However, this isn’t that simple for two reasons:

1. The 1/3 are a long way behind. Catching up is a process that will take several weeks of teaching, at least, and probably require a much slower pace for the remainder of the year.

2. The vast majority of teachers, including relatively experienced ones like me, do not have the subject-specific knowledge to create these deepening tasks that genuinely stretch the understanding of the 2/3 while giving the teacher the time to catch up the 1/3.

Currently, from my experience, what happens in the majority of schools – though I’m sure that many will wish to pretend otherwise – is that this problem is ignored. The teacher moves on with the curriculum and the 1/3 are effectively written off. Interventions, overly scaffolded tasks and lots of adult support for the 1/3 help salve consciences, but make no mistake: the moment the curriculum moves on, most of the 1/3 have had their education utterly undermined, in most cases for no reason beyond the child’s poor fortune at being born in August or being from a family that didn’t teach them to count before they arrived at school.

This fundamental unaddressed issue plays out across all subjects through gaps in letter formation, phonics, etc, but it is particularly pronounced in significantly hierarchical subjects like mathematics. Some of the 1/3 do catch up, thankfully. Perhaps they are August-born children from supportive homes who just need a little more maturity and lot of help from someone at home. But this is not the case for the majority of the 1/3. For them, education will be an increasingly demotivating process of watching the gaps between them and their peers grow and grow.

This isn’t an attack on my fellow key stage one teachers who obviously are as talented and conscientious as the rest of the profession. Like all teachers, we operate within a system, and where problems arise, they are due to this system and the incentives that define it. There is no simple solution to this. The alternative to moving on with the curriculum is to accept that – for the long-term benefit of the entire class – the learning of the bottom 1/3 must be prioritised for a considerable period of time. Just imagine the uproar from the parents of the top 2/3 if this were an explicit policy of a school. Remember: the higher the numbers of disadvantaged pupils, the slower the curriculum would likely need to move. This itself would disadvantage the ‘brightest’ children in schools with higher socioeconomic disadvantage. And don’t forget Year 2 SATs; the curriculum must be covered ready for these!

And this brings me to a blog by @Solomon_teach. He advocates a smaller curriculum across the entirety of a child’s education as a way to address the effects of the fundamental unaddressed issue. I agree with the sentiment, but I only partly agree with the suggested solution. Yes, the curriculum is too large in key stage one. However, I strongly suspect that there is plenty of time to teach the entire curriculum – as it stands – in key stage two and beyond if the gaps that exist between the 2/3 and the 1/3 are addressed when they first arise in key stage one as a matter of priority.

The current slow pace of learning in key stage two and beyond is dictated by the gaps that exist between the 2/3 and the 1/3 and the near impossibility of addressing them once they have become too large. (Teaching the rounding of numbers, for example, to children who have a weak understanding of place value does indeed take a long time. With genuine understanding of place value, however, children grasp it rapidly.) The accumulation of the gaps between the 2/3 and the 1/3 slows the pace for everyone. We can teach the entire curriculum to almost everyone, but not without some difficult choices in key stage one.

What the prioritisation of the 1/3 in key stage one would look like in practice is up for debate. I imagine that many schools across the country have already recognised the fundamental unaddressed issue and have taken some radical steps in an attempt to address it. I imagine that these schools aim to get everyone to a similar standard by the end of Year 2 or even Year 3 so that all can learn at a good pace thereafter. (The brilliant @mattswain36 has discussed the idea of using timetable slots of ‘keep up time’ to – among other things – give teachers time to consistently address the gaps between the 2/3 and 1/3 in key stage one; this ‘keep up time’ then remains as a buffer for any child who needs a little more time with a new concept, facilitating a mastery approach to teaching.) I am convinced that prioritising the learning of the bottom 1/3 in key stage one benefits every child in a school in the long term.

Sadly, I don’t see the majority of the profession accepting my view of this fundamental unaddressed issue any time soon. It’s much easier to pretend the issue isn’t there. Many will argue that I have presented a false choice between prioritising the 1/3 in key stage one – allowing them to catch up – and moving at a pace that suits the 2/3. However, in my experience, attempts to compromise between these two choices always drift inexorably towards the status quo, and once again the 1/3 are left behind.

As I said at the start, perhaps I’m wrong about all of this. Perhaps I’m seeing a problem that isn’t really there. Nevertheless, I see a naked emperor, and I suspect everyone else does too.

7 thoughts on “The fundamental unaddressed issue of education

  1. Yes yes yes!

    See here for an argument fir a reduced curriculum.

    View at

    Also look up the EPPSE study. The difference in the 1/3 (in many circumstances) is the home learning environment before school. I have argued that the most important year of schooling is early. My theory is that a skilled early years teacher can bridge lots of gaps. Also what we need is a list of key skills ( maths) that we should identify at end of ey. Kids should go over and over them till they get them.

    As to fixing current situation… we should identify key skills for every year group. And focus on those.

    I’m a y6 teacher currently.

    Great blog.


  2. Bravo!.

    I’m much older, and a lot less brave than you.
    I started teaching in 1973 in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. I retired in 2002. I was teaching students-at-educational-risk in my last few years at school. I enjoyed my reputation of being the reading whisperer, and the handwriting queen.

    Today my Rotary friend David rang me because I’d asked to visit with his grandson Andrew during the school holidays to check on his progress.

    I first saw Andy when he was in kindergarten. I recommended to his mum (David’s daughter-in-law) that she should purchase a My Jolly Phonics kit from the Jolly Phonics website, and teach him herself.

    BIG MISTAKE! What I should have done was ask her to buy the kit for Andy, THEN offered to teach her how to use it. It’s MY time that I should have given to my friend David.

    Andy is now in Year 2 and hopelessly lost. He is still a loving little boy thankfully, but as he read his predictable text he didn’t even look at the repetitive page, and hesitated at the word ‘exercise’ then proceeded to say it confidently. When grandma came back from shopping I announced that Andy had read the word ‘exercise’ in his book about the rhino. Andy helpfully piped up, “It stars with ‘e’ so I already knew.”

    I have now offered his grandma Judy, the ten hours of my time, that I should have offered three years ago.

    I made an error, but I’m not responsible for Andy’s failure to thrive at school. He’s one of the !/3.



  3. One approach to this would be to follow European models and delay formal instruction by two years, using the extra Early Years teaching to help the left behind and struggling, but also reducing the effective age difference on entry into school (there’s a much more significant difference between 4 and 5 than between 6 and 7). This could be coupled with Solomon’s idea of teaching less, though a more compressed curriculum might not be so limiting given much of the two “missing” years is currently being used trying to bring up stragglers.


  4. Very interesting blogpost. I’d like to hear more about why some might “pretend the issue isn’t there”. A question… you mention @mattswain – is there anything missing in the twitter name??


    1. I think that the reason for the ‘pretending’ is that accepting the reality requires difficult solutions. Far easier to pretend the issue doesn’t exist or that something the school already does addresses it.

      Thanks for the pointer on Matt Swain. I’ll update it now. He is brilliant and well.wlrth following.


  5. I thought that was a really interesting article. I’ve also taught across KS1,2 and 3 and I now work with EAL pupils mainly in KS3 and 4. I see the results of the left behind 1/3 in secondary schools: kids who haven’t caught up and are still struggling across the curriculum. Most of them have sadly given up on school which in all honesty I can completely understand.

    I like the solution given by Danny Yee above; a European style system, while not perfect, at least allows for the age gap to be reduced (in percentage terms at least). But as with all things European at the moment, it might not be flavour of the month…

    Another solution, albeit an expensive one, is to provide more 1-1 teaching with pupils from the 1/3. Of course, the govt would never countenance such a system, preferring to blame the ‘failure’ of these kids on teachers/unions/the system, while sending their own children to schools in which the 1/3 just aren’t really present. Hoever, as many studies have shown, early intervention, while expensive in the short term, saves even larger amounts of money in the future.

    As a class teacher, I always found it baffling that the children with the most complex needs were taught by adults who had the least qualifications to teach them. That isn’t to denigrate the work done by TAs during assemblies and art lessons, they often achieved huge amounts, but it doesn’t suggest that schools are interested in putting the resources where they’re most needed.


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