Category Archives: education

A response to Secret Teacher’s breakdown

Dear Secret Teacher,

I found your report in the Guardian moving and important – recognition and acceptance that we have a problem is vital to recovery and I wish you well with yours.

I, like you, subscribe to Hargreaves’ “unconditional positive regard” and I am an unreformed “new romantic”, tempered with a little “lion tamer” and “entertainer” when needed!

Nevertheless, I was troubled by this paragraph:

“They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. At last I can admit that, yes, I do have a mental health problem. I don’t know what it is about me but, without my daily dose of antidepressants, I stop being the man I should be. There is a chemical inbalance in my brain that needs this but I have stopped wondering why: I just accept it. I have depression and, like my asthma, it’s something I have to learn to live with.”

I rewrote it in my own words as though speaking for society rather than as an individual:

“They say the first step to improvement is admitting there is a problem. At last society can admit that, yes, it does have more people experiencing mental health problems. We don’t know what it is about society but, without daily doses of antidepressants, people stop being as functional as they should be. There is a chemical inbalance in their brains that needs this but we do not need to wonder why: we just accept it. They have depression and, like asthma, it’s something they have to learn to live with.”

I find this rewrite unnacceptable!

It is not good enough for society to be satisfied with recognition of illness: we must challenge the root cause. In this case, the currently accepted model, that there is a chemical imbalance in brain, is not supported by the scientific evidence, as most psychiatrists will now agree ( see ).

An obvious alternative explanation for society to consider is that ill-health may be caused by the increased complexity and demand placed on teachers, especially if they are child-centred in their approach and subject to ever increasing inspection, parental demands and concerns about risk. I experienced a little of this stress recently as a school governor (my teaching days were in the seventies): we were expected to take responsibility for and annually review over twenty school policies, all with the threat of imagined risks if we were to put a foot wrong – and we weren’t even doing the day-to-day job!

My view is that we, society, needs to take this seriously: that we are placing too high a demand on teachers. When this is combined with teachers’ dedication to every individual child, management by targets & competition and a media habit of blaming teachers for problems in education, it can surely explain the kind of breakdown you report. It is in my view society’s responsibility to find solutions through better organisation of education. Sadly, it is simpler to blame the individual’s biochemistry and hand out unproven chemical ‘cures’ to paper over the cracks. It remains to be seen if it is cheaper or more sustainable.

I hope you do not take my words as suggesting that you were not up to the challenge of modern society and that if only you could “pull your socks up” you’d be able to overcome your condition – I am anxious here to show that the argument that we should “man-up” as individuals to modern problems is ignorant and inadequate. My purpose in writing this is to say we, society, have created the conditions for people to suffer and we should take our collective responsibility seriously. I suggest that for every person like you, there will be many more who aren’t able to recognise a mental health problem, but who are quietly self-medicating with alcohol.

With unconditional positive regard and the greatest respect to all those suffering,


PS Thanks to @Yorks_Bunny for alerting me to this, and for giving me this link to a Secret Teacher blog from a year ago which also addresses this issue.

The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs

The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs cover

I have recently read this excellent book  about research into the drug treatment of mental health conditions.

My review which offers an overview and my opinion is at the end of this post, but you may find it even more useful to listen to the author speak about the issues in this video made by the Open Paradigm Project.

The book made me think hard, and raised some very serious questions for me about our confidence in the ‘gold standard’ – double blind medical trial research data – which is held up as such a paragon of reliability. It is particularly annoying to think that education research is criticised as not being rigorous enough in comparison, when such a large scale failure of scientific thinking is reported.

The story, which tells of hubris and ambition amongst scientists, corruption from big business and the damage done, especially in relation to children, is enough to make me angry, but it also inspires me to look for parallel concerns in education.

One such concern is about the confusion between the organ which we call the brain and the phenomenon we call the mind. The story of drugs used to treat complex disorders of the mind is one of treating the brain with blanket interference at the level of the neuron and synapse, and then trying to explain the effects at the level of the mind.

It’s a bit like suggesting rain as a solution for society’s ills. Clearly rain has an effect on society’s functioning, but it has an indiscriminate dampening effect which doesn’t explain, predict or cause something like war, for example, although it may make for a temporary cessation if heavy enough. Indeed, it could be that such a break from the routine of war may help peace efforts to succeed. But nobody is confused that the rain is curing society’s problems in the way that ‘antipsychotic’ drugs are foolishly thought to target mental conditions.

These two things, brain and mind, are for me on completely separate ‘trophic levels‘, using the language of the ecosystems of food chains, just as rain and society are. One affects the other but not in simple ways that can explain the function of the mind through specific events in the brain nor vice versa, for that matter.

So, this analysis leads me to be cautious of any scientific report that attempts to relate brain biology directly to teaching and learning, although I have every confidence that hydration is important for our brains to work well and thus we should provide safe drinking fountains in schools, just as I find at Trinity College Dublin on every floor. Did I mention I now work there? 🙂

My review of The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs

A must-read for anyone concerned with the well-being of society

In this book, Dr Moncrieff explains carefully, soberly and with considerable academic integrity, how the world of psychiatry has become distorted by its own desire for recognition as a medical profession, its dubious assumptions about the nature of mental conditions and by the efforts made by drugs companies to increase their business.

Dr Moncrieff explains how the desire for psychiatry to be as scientific/medical as other areas of health has led to rushed conclusions about the link between brain chemistry/biology and complex mental conditions of the mind such as schizophrenia, manic depression and anxiety.

The assumption made is that a chemical imbalance in the brain requires toxic ‘antipsychotic’ drugs to counter it, and like insulin for diabetes, over a lifetime since it is a permanent deficiency in the brain. This assumption is shown to have little or no evidence to support it, yet is the mainstay of modern psychiatric practice. Dr Moncrieff proposes an alternative view, that the drugs are simply suppressing brain activity, and thus appear to ‘cure’ mental conditions. The trouble is, whichever view is taken, the drugs have toxic effects which are in many ways no different those from the illegal drugs taken for pleasure that we criminalise in society. These effects are downplayed as ‘side effects’ despite there being substantial evidence of long term damage to body and brain health.

Dr Moncrieff shows how drugs companies, keen to maintain and improve their business, have funded research which shows marginal and questionable improvement through their drugs and have suppressed negative reports. Despite contradictory results, this ‘research’ is followed by advertising and efforts to shift the wider society understanding of mental health, so that patients demand ever more drugs to ‘cure’ their sometimes modest problems, now made to sound like serious illnesses.

The distortions to academic practice, pyschiatric prescription and most damning of all, the attempts to treat young children with toxic drugs are revealed by Dr Moncrieff with careful attention to the published record in a convincing manner, providing a solid basis for further debate.

But, most damning of all, is the experience that Dr Moncrieff reports of a refusal in the psychiatric world to engage with these issues or to properly discuss the ethical dilemmas that arise. I found myself intrigued, challenged but ultimately enraged by the failure of the academic/medical professionals to ‘do no harm’.

I recommend this book without reservation to anyone prepared to think hard about these issues, and who perhaps has been unaware of concerns about mental health treatment and the huge cost to the well-being of society. It is then for us to take up the challenges Dr Moncrieff has described and ask how are we and society to respond?

Could Brentwood schools be more like Cambridge University?

Downing College, Cambridge

I have just read Derek Wenmoth’s blog ‘The Wrong Drivers‘ in which he comments on Michael Fullan’s concerns that we are pursuing ineffective school improvement strategies.

Much as though I find it easy to support Michael Fullan’s ideas for the right drivers, Derek Wenmoth’s commentary and Darren Sudlow’s comment, I am not so clear how to overcome the contradictions between a society’s call for accountability and the huge value of open and transparent data as a means of directing improvement in education.

In the UK we are being driven to the mistaken belief that a market should exist for education at every level.  If so, in order for this market to operate properly, the consumer needs to know who is selling the best value product. Unfortunately we don’t fully understand how educational quality is defined, in a way that can allow effective comparison, nor are we clear what price it is to the community (unless we buy private education). The consumer is persuaded to make judgements based on a muddled and (old) fashion-conscious set of beliefs, with narrow and misleading data sets.

This position has encouraged the development of ‘free schools’ (charter schools) based on parental demand rather than community need, but paid for by the community. Recently, one such secondary school is being proposed on the site of the closing Sawyers Hall College, a comprehensive secondary school which is closing this August and of which I am a governor here in Brentwood.

Over the last decade I have witnessed at first-hand the long and detailed deliberation about what our community in Brentwood needs and the extensive efforts to find sponsors for the kind of learning provision identified. One outcome was the realisation that there were too many schools for a declining demographic and so after consultation an agreed, supportive and professional school closure has been carried out over three years with an emotionally moving focus on safeguarding children’s well-being. The new free school proposal takes no notice of this in any way.

In fact the new free school is not needed by the community as a whole, has the wrong mix of values and educational provision and will cause another school closure if successful –  or its own if not – causing further expense and disruption to the community. My concern about this has lead to the formation with four others of the Educating Brentwood group, who are trying to hold educational developments in Brentwood to account (and highlight good practice). For further reading, my response to its unprofessional and poorly reported consultation is appended to this post. I believe the parents who are behind this new school are persuaded that schools in Brentwood are inadequate, and that the only way to improve their children’s life chances is to demand a new school. The basis for this is false evidence of  failure in current schools in Brentwood (the closing school recently received outstanding judgements from OFSTED), naivety and a deep selfishness – ironic when the school is proposed as a church school.

Darren’s call in his comment on Derek’s blog to “make the learning visible to the community” will only help if the institution is seen and trusted as an important partner in whole community development, as Keri Facer suggests, rather than a service to that community.

I suggest that institutional leaders must move from building their organisation as a coherent community in its ivory tower, to becoming more incoherent but embedded locally and in solid partnership with all other institutions in the neighborhood, committed to raising mutual quality hand-in-hand. Parents may then believe that their child’s future is solidly safe in the school most convenient to reach, because all schools in the neighborhood are working together to facilitate the transformation of that most precious of society’s assets – the child.

This call for incoherence and embeddedness challenges the orthodoxy of competitive institutions, walled-in shiny buildings, safeguarding policies, militaristic uniform, faux community engagement (seen as a kind of missionary work), technological firewalls and many other outward signs of institutional power, but not at the expense, one hopes, of the value of the family that school offers and the focus on knowledge sharing & acquisition as an end in itself.

What if there was only one educational institution in Brentwood for all learners and trainees of any age and say like Cambridge University, you attended and ‘lived’ in a college that was modest in size, local to you, but part of that larger institution with its comprehensive opportunities?

Perhaps we can learn from the best university in the world – I think the benefits are obvious.



My Response to Becket Keys, Brentwood Consultation
20th April, 2012Dear Sir/Madam

I am respondng as an individual, I am a governor at Sawyers Hall College and the parent of three children.
I am also a Reader in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics (sustainable education systems) at the University of Bolton and a Director of a nonprofit education consultancy based in Brentwood.
My postcode is CM15 9BZ.

QUESTION 1: Should Becket Keys enter in a Funding Agreement with the Secretary of State?

QUESTION 2: Please give reasons
The Secretary of State should not enter into a Funding Agreement with The Russell Education Trust because the impact on other local schools has not been fully evaluated nor publicly shared with the parents whose demand is the basis of the proposal.

As a governor of the closing school in Brentwood, I fully appreciate the detailed care and attention that must be paid to the children and their parents due to the disruption of closing – a process that has carried on over three years. It is vital not to recreate the situation in Brentwood that causes there to be another closure in a few years – it would be ignoring the lessons of recent history and the real need for vocational education that has been established by extensive analysis and consultation over the last ten years.

The Secretary of State should recognise that the proposers of the free school have deliberately misled the public and parents about this, by publishing incorrect information about admissions, overstating the likely continuing admissions at Sawyers Hall College if it were to remain open. In addition they have incorrectly speculated in their publicity to parents on the numbers of children likely to take up places in selective, independent or other maintained schools, contrary to the evidence.

Furthermore they have propagated the popular myth that an academic approach to teaching and learning is in the interests of every child, when it is clear from the research evidence that there is a diversity of learning styles that require a diversity of teaching approaches. The schools in Brentwood already offer clear pathways to academic children, all of them above average in their results. But there is room for improvement, and this is particularly in the area of learning-by-doing. This does not necessarily sacrifice the opportunity to follow academic pathways as the learner matures and gains confidence. There is also a need to improve the mix of vocational education offered in Brentwood as recognised by more than one extensive, professionally run consultation over the last decade. Our country must improve its position as a manufacturing force in the world, but we seem prepared to ignore those children who would be delighted to put their practical intellectual capability into use in learning, and thus develop the high level skills through this route that the country needs.

The company who are promoting this free school, not the instigators and parents who I believe have acted in good faith, have followed a marketing path to make money, with a reckless disregard for Brentwood and indeed the country’s needs. Their credentials to successfully run the school are unclear and are not revealed when asked. The Secretary of State would be ill-advised to risk our taxpayer’s money on such a funding agreement and should recommend to the company involved that they form an independent school and seek private investment, where their record and experience will be examined very carefully by investors before taking such a step.

As a resident of Brentwood, a parent, a taxpayer and a voter – hence an investor of sorts – on the basis of my own due diligence enquiries and their failure to establish any confidence in the proposing company, I can see no merit in the proposal.

Ultimately, I believe they have established an inflated parental demand on false information – a practice that no reputable business in Brentwood High Street would get away with for long.

QUESTION 3: Should Becket Keys adopt the proposed 2013 Admissions Policy without any further changes?
QUESTION 4: Please give reasons
The admissions policy is over-complicated, will confuse and ultimately obscure the basis for admissions. The schools chosen are not all the closest to the site and it is a significant omission to ignore the demands of parents at St Mary’s Shenfield.

QUESTION 5: I would like to suggest the following change(s) to the proposed 2013 Admissions Policy.
The Admissions policy and its catchment area must be rejected and rethought.

Richard Millwood