You’ve been selling us the wrong dream

This was the comment piece published by the Telegraph to accompany the Open Letter on the 12th September that launched the ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ Campaign.

Too many assessments, far too soon for schoolchildren

There is nothing wrong with seeking high educational standards, says Wendy Ellyatt, Founding Director of the Save Childhood Movement, but it’s wrong if this comes at the cost of child well-being.

“I think we should not educate children to be similar according to a standardised metric but help them to discover their own talents and teach them to be different from one another. Diversity is richness in humanity and a condition for innovation.”
Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons


 We really need a national debate about the purpose of the education system and the meaning of success. Who is the system for? What is it serving? And in what ways do its values relate to the needs of the future?

The issue of what to do about education is increasingly becoming the subject of blogs, radio shows and dinner party conversations around the country. We all know that things aren’t right, but there currently seems to be a growing wave of concern from exhausted practitioners and teachers working at the grassroots level: it’s time that we actually did something.

The Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg has just published a book about what he calls the ‘GERM infection’ (Global Education Reform Movement), with its key symptoms including: standardisation, a focus on core subjects, the search for low-risk ways to reach the required learning goals, the use of corporate management models and test-based accountability policies.

It seems that England has a particularly bad case of the infection – and it’s spreading. Even our four-year olds are now at risk of being the subject of baseline assessments and, despite the fact that 90 per cent of countries in the world prioritise social and emotional learning and start formal schooling at 6 or 7, in England we seem grimly determined to cling on to the erroneous belief that starting sooner means better results later.

There is nothing wrong with seeking high educational standards and accountability, but there is surely something very wrong indeed if this comes at the cost of natural development, creativity, diversity and child well-being.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been doing a lot of research on what makes life worthwhile, and talks about personal and social well-being as the two crucial aspects of how people experience their lives.

According to NEF, well-being involves four key characteristics:

  • a sense of individual energy/vitality (VITALITY)
  • undertaking activities which are meaningful, engaging, and which help them to feel competent and autonomous (PERSONAL MEANING-MAKING)
  • a stock of inner resources to help them cope when things go wrong and be resilient to changes beyond their immediate control (RESILIENCE)
  • a sense of relatedness to other people, so that in addition to the personal, internally focused elements, there is an external appreciation of the needs and perspectives of others (RELATIONSHIP AND CONTRIBUTION)

All these aspects are going to be crucial if we want to have a society of healthy, compassionate adults who care about themselves, others and the wider world. In a recent Radio 4 ‘You and Yours’ programme a seventeen year old who was talking about her own experience ended by simply saying ‘You’ve been selling us the wrong dream’ – and this seems to encapsulate the essence of the problem. We are selling young people the wrong dream and they are beginning to realise it.

From the time that they are five, we have been making it clear to our children that the only things that really matter are external results and credentials. In the process we’ve completely neglected the life processes that are centrally about personal fulfilment and joy; the things that actually make life worth living.

Creativity, spontaneity and ‘flow’ facilitate the kind of divergent, ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking that will be so essential to the world of the future, and yet these are so rarely achieved within the rigidity of the current system.

How can teachers be expected to inspire when they are no longer inspired themselves? And how can children be expected to engage in deep learning when they spend so much time in fragmented environments that have no personal meaning for them? There are some great schools out there, but they are constantly having to battle the system.

Even our youngest children now quickly learn that what gives them value in the eyes of adults, is how well they know their numbers and letters. Yet we now know that children have multiple intelligences and that, in the early stages of life, what matters most is that all these intelligences are engaged through experiences with the sensory world. That is how their bodies and their brains grow.

Denying children access to sensory environments, and particularly the natural world, denies them the ability to make the connections and relationships that give life meaning, depth and the fascination to want to know more.

So we think it’s time for some fresh thinking, and that what is needed is for policy-making in the UK to be grounded in the Science of Human Learning and Development. Such a multidisciplinary, evidence-based approach would transcend political boundaries and would recognise the responsibility of all governments to put the developmental rights and well-being of the child at the centre of all public policy-making.

It’s already happening in other countries. For example in Finland and Sweden all civic action relating to children must take the best interests of the child into consideration, as per Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Furthermore, in the USA, Harvard University currently hosts the multidisciplinary and multi-university National Scientific Council on the Development of the Child.

It’s the biology, neurology and psychology of healthy developmental processes and values that we should be focused on, rather than targets and results. With a rapidly changing world, and increasingly worrying statistics about child health and well-being in the UK, we really can’t afford not to.

Wendy Ellyatt is the Founding Director and CEO of the Save Childhood Movement

Read the letter sent to the Telegraph by the Save Childhood Movement

The Save Childhood Movement is launching its first campaign ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ to call for a stop to developmentally inappropriate policy-making in the early years –

Research links children’s psychological problems to prolonged screen time

James Melke at The Guardian reported on this yesterday. We know that we are now seeing some of the unintended consequences of the digital world and we are interested in how we both acknowledge its value (and that it is here to stay) but also safeguard children’s wellbeing. As per our previous post we think it is really all about achieving a healthy balance.

Research links children’s psychological problems to prolonged screen time
Study by Public Health England backs concerns raised by doctors that lack of exercise leads to unhealthy lifestyle.

Spending too much time in front of television, DVDs and computer games is taking its toll on children‘s physical and mental health, according to a government-commissioned report published on Wednesday. Public Health England says there is evidence that children who spend more time watching screens tend to have higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety and depression.

The agency, which is using the data as the basis of a campaign to encourage families to adopt healthier behaviour, claims over 70% of young people did not undertake the recommended daily hour of physical activity.

The research echoes concerns raised by doctors last week that children’s lack of exercise was leading to more unhealthy lifestyles. A third of 11-year-olds are now either overweight or obese.

The proportion of young people with a low estimation of their own wellbeing almost doubles from 14% to 24% between 11 and 15, according to the independent NatCen Social Research organisation, which presented new analysis of a broad set of data for the Department of Health.

Young people who spent less than one hour a day playing computer games were almost three times more likely to say they enjoyed good wellbeing as those who played four hours or more, according to the research.

Similarly those who shared an evening meal with their family on at least six days a week were more likely to be happy about their circumstances.

Lil Caprani, director of communication, policy and campaigns at the Children’s Society, which recently found half a million children in the UK were “struggling with their lives”, said: “We found a strong association with being active and being happy. Things like cycling, swimming or playing football all had a clear relationship, but simple things like just going for walks were associated with higher wellbeing.”

See the full Guardian article

Attention Restoration Theory

 “According to research on “Attention Restoration Theory (ART),” when someone interacts with a natural environment their attention is captured in what is referred to as a “bottom-up” process, meaning that it is driven by calming external stimuli seen in nature, allowing the parts of the brain that are overworked to recover. In contrast, according to this theory, urban environments contain stimuli that capture our attention dramatically with sights, odors, and sounds, which requires attention to overcome the aversive stimuli and leads to less calmness and more residual brain activity at the attention level.”
iDisorder, Larry Rosen, PhD


Attention Restoration Theory (ART) asserts that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature. The theory was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s in their book The experience of nature: A psychological perspective and is discussed below by Larry Rosen. PhD. in an article in Psychology Today.

Given the amount of time that young children now spend looking at screen technology it is an interesting thought that nature could help to restore some of the natural balance that their young brains need.

“I don’t want you to assume that I am a naysayer, a technophobe or simply anti-technology and am railing against it. Quite the opposite is true. I have written extensively about the virtues of technology in education and elsewhere and I own nearly every gadget imaginable and have accounts at more social media websites than I can count. What I am seeing in my research and that of others is a growing obsession or compulsion to constantly check in with our technology often at the expense of engaging with the people around us or even the world around us. It is time to take stock and set some limits on our behaviour. Instead of reading your email while you are in a grocery store line, start a conversation with the person next to you. Instead of walking around with your face staring down at your smartphone screen, try looking at the world.

Our brains need “restoration” and we don’t seem to get that from constant attention to our virtual worlds. Instead we need to pay attention to the real world and the people who inhabit it. You don’t have to give up your phone or go on a technology detox as was suggested in a recent New York Times article. Aspinal’s walkers spent about 8 minutes in the green belt and that led to a marked increase in restorative brain activity. In iDisorder I recommend that you take 10 minute breaks every 90 minutes to two hours and do something restorative: walk outside, exercise, talk to a real human being, listen to music, meditate, or do something that you personally find calming. It is too easy, and too compelling, to spend our lives engaged with our virtual worlds and we are doing so at the expense of our brains and our mental health. You don’t have to give up your phone, computer and other electronic devices but I do recommend that you try taking short technology breaks that will restore your brain and help you feel better and, most likely, function better when you are immersed in technology.”

See the full article


Pasi Sahlberg’s fascinating new book shows how Finland created a high performing education system by adopting policies counter to that which came in across most Western education systems. He calls these the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement.

From his website

“In FINNISH LESSONS: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? I conclude that rather than introducing sequential educational revolutions, Finnish education policy has been built upon periodic change and systemic leadership led by commonly accepted values and shared social vision that resonate closely with contemporary ideas of sustainable educational change. Importantly, the main features for developing a equitable, high-performing education system are similar to those underlying the social and economic transformation of Finland into a welfare state and a competitive knowledge society. It is, therefore, difficult to identify particular reforms or innovations per se that served as driving forces in raising the level and quality of Finnish education.

It is necessary to identify broader policies – and especially how different public sector policies are interconnected with the education system. It is also essential to emphasize that although Finland has been called ‘a model pupil’ in listening to the policy advice from the international organizations, especially the OECD and the European Union, the Finnish education system has remained quite uninfected to viruses of what is often called the global education reform movement or GERM. And the reason for that is clear: professional strength and moral health of Finnish schools.

GERM has emerged since the 1980s and has increasingly become adopted as a educational reform orthodoxy within many education systems throughout the world, including in the U.S., England, Australia and some transition countries. Tellingly, GERM is often promoted through the interests of international development agencies and private enterprises through their interventions in national education reforms and policy formulation.

Since the 1980s, at least five globally common features of education policies and reform principles have been employed to try to improve the quality of education and fix the apparent problems in public education systems.

First is standardization of education. Outcomes-based education reform became popular in the 1980s, followed by standards-based education policies in the 1990s, initially within Anglo-Saxon countries. These reforms, quite correctly, shifted the focus of attention to educational outcomes, i.e. student learning and school performance. Consequently, a widely accepted – and generally unquestioned – belief among policy-makers and education reformers is that setting clear and sufficiently high performance standards for schools, teachers, and students will necessarily improve the quality of expected outcomes. Enforcement of external testing and evaluation systems to assess how well these standards have been attained emerged originally from standards-oriented education policies. Since the late 1980s centrally prescribed curricula, with detailed and often ambitious performance targets, frequent testing of students and teachers, and test-based accountability have characterized a homogenization of education policies worldwide, promising standardized solutions at increasingly lower cost for those desiring to improve school quality and effectiveness.

A second common feature of GERM is focus on core subjects in school, in other words, on literacy and numeracy, and in same case science. Basic student knowledge and skills in reading, writing and mathematics are elevated as prime targets and indices of education reforms. As a consequence of accepting international student assessment surveys, such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, as criteria of good educational performance, reading, mathematical and scientific literacy have now become the main determinants of perceived success or failure of pupils, teachers, schools, and entire education systems. This is happening on the expense of social studies, arts, music and physical education that re diminishing in many school curricula.

The third characteristic that is easily identifiable in global education reforms is the search for low-risk ways to reach learning goals. This minimizes experimentation, reduces use of alternative pedagogical approaches, and limits risk-taking in schools and classrooms. Research on education systems that have adopted policies emphasizing achievement of predetermined standards and prioritized core subjects, suggests that teaching and learning are narrower and teachers focus on ‘guaranteed content’ to best prepare their students for tests. The higher the test-result stakes, the lower the degree of freedom in experimentation and risk-taking in classroom learning.

The fourth globally observable trend in educational reform is use of corporate management models as a main driver of improvement. This process where educational policies and ideas are lent and borrowed from business world is often motivated by national hegemony and economic profit, rather than by moral goals of human development. Faith in educational change through innovations brought and sold from outside the system undermines two important elements of successful educational change: First, it often limits the role of national policy development and enhancement of an education system’s own capabilities to maintain renewal, and perhaps more important. Second, it paralyzes teachers’ and schools’ attempts to learn from the past and also to learn from each other.

The fifth global trend is adoption of test-based accountability policies for schools. In doing so school performance – especially raising student achievement – is closely tied to processes of accrediting, promoting, inspecting, and, ultimately, rewarding or punishing schools and teachers. Success or failure of schools and teachers is often determined by standardized tests and external teacher evaluations that devote attention to limited aspects of schooling, such as student achievement in mathematical and reading literacy, exit examination results, or intended teacher classroom behavior.

None of these elements of GERM have been adopted in Finland in the ways that they have within education policies of many other nations, for instance, in the United States and England. This, of course, does not imply that education standards, focus on basic knowledge and skills, or accountability should be avoided in seeking better educational performance. Nor does it suggest that these ideas were completely absent in education development in Finland. But, perhaps, it does imply that a good education system can be created using alternative approaches and policies orthogonal to those commonly found and promoted in global education policy markets. This is why I wrote Finnish Lessons.

By contrast, typical features of teaching and learning in Finland are:

  • high confidence in teachers and principals as high professionals;
  • encouraging teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches, in other words, to put curiosity, imagination and creativity at the heart of learning; and
  • purpose of teaching and learning is to pursue happiness of learning and cultivating development of whole child.

The best way avoid infections of GERM is to prepare teachers and leaders well. In Finland all teachers must have masters degree in education or in the field of their subject. This ensures that they are good in what they do in classrooms and also understand how teaching and learning in their schools can be improved. School principals are also experts of educational change and can therefore protect their schools and school system from harmful germs.

Lessons from Finland help you to kill 99.9% of GERMs.”