Please scroll down for the title you would like to read. Here you will find Thoughts on ...  


The definition of a good job


Good thinking – and why young people and adults should learn this skill


GCSEs failing the test (2)


Using school facilities in the holidays


The hundredth anniversary of Passchendaele





Thoughts on …                                                                         30/11/17


The definition of a good job


The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s recent comments about wanting work to be good quality and well-paid has prompted me to return to a theme I have touched on before.1 I am not sure precisely what the Chancellor means by work of good quality but I think I know what a good job is.2


Or rather I think I know what is normally meant by the term. It has a number of meanings. Used in everyday conversation the expression, a good job, often means a job with a high rate of pay attached to it. It crops up regularly in the context of young people preparing for employment as well as when our conversation turns to our present job or our prospects for the future.


For some people the expression probably also still carries, as it did for many decades, an association with white-collar employment which is steady, secure and reasonably well-remunerated with a satisfactory pension. For others it may be associated with well-paid, skilled, but not white-collar, employment in one of the key sectors of the economy.


Many people will consider, quite rightly, that a fulfilling job or an enjoyable job is a good job – even if it doesn’t pay as much as they would like it to. Going to work can bring a great deal of personal fulfilment whether this is through taking on a challenge, being creative or interacting with other people. Understandably, too, there are no doubt some who see a good job as being a cushy job – one that does not require too much physical or mental effort, or too much responsibility.


Although today it sadly seems to be a greatly diminished association, for a few of us at least, a good job can still mean a job which has a strong vocational element – vocational in the sense of being a calling. Becoming a nurse, a doctor or a teacher, for example, were once seen as occupations that some people felt called to because they offered a way to help others and to contribute to society.


There seems to be virtually a consensus these days that the best way to obtain a good job with good pay is to go to university and get a degree. Whether this is actually the case for all graduates may, though, be questionable at the moment. Probably seen as the second best way to obtain a good job is to gain a high level technical qualification and take up skilled technical employment.


However, I am not at all persuaded that possessing a degree or an advanced technical qualification is essential for obtaining a good job. I say this because non-graduate and so-called unskilled occupations are also good jobs. In my view almost all jobs are good jobs. They may sometimes be routine and a bit dull, they may not be in white-collar professions or require skills in technology or engineering, or they may not be particularly well-paid. But they are good jobs because they contribute enormously to the well-being of all of us as individuals, to the well-being of society collectively and to the health of the economy.


They do this by helping to provide the goods and services we need. Some of these goods and services are essential such as those provided by care workers, hospital porters and shop assistants in supermarkets – without whom we would have nothing to eat. Some of the goods and services add hugely to the quality of our daily lives such as those provided by van drivers, warehouse personnel or employees in coffee houses and restaurants.


It should be said that the term unskilled is often inaccurate when applied to employment. All jobs require skills of some sort which can either be learned on the job or at college. The skill levels required in some jobs may be greater than in others but this should not be a reason to consider those that are lower skilled as less important or less valuable to society. It should certainly not be a reason for many of those employed in them to be paid as inadequately as they are.


As a society we should be ashamed that care workers are not well-remunerated for the work they do. They are looking after some of the most vulnerable members of the community and their pay should reflect the value of the contribution they make. We should be ashamed, too, that there are many other groups of workers on low pay. By helping to provide us with our comforts and conveniences they are adding to our well-being and quality of life. And it is not unreasonable to suggest that to some extent many people’s well-being is at the expense of the low-paid since the better off in society could afford to pay the higher prices for goods and services which would enable low-paid workers to be adequately remunerated.


This is wrong. In fact it is quite appalling. It is exploitation. There is no other word for it. The present situation needs to change. As individuals and as a society we must recognise the way other people are helping us through the work they are doing and we must ensure they are well rewarded. My hope is that in the near future the minimum wage will be at least £12.50 an hour. If this means higher prices for us all then this is something we should willingly accept.


We must never look down on other people’s jobs whatever they involve. We must acknowledge and welcome the invaluable contribution that less skilled but immensely worthwhile jobs make to the lives of all of us. If those who do these jobs continue to be exploited by being so badly paid we should question our values and morality.


Almost all jobs are good jobs because in their different ways they add to our overall well-being. I am happy, therefore, for my definition of a good job to be wider than that which it is commonly understood to be. I offer it to politicians and economists particularly. My definition of a good job is quite simply this. It is any job that anyone is paid to do which brings benefits to individuals and society.


Next time we see a hospital cleaner, speak to the person on the supermarket checkout or answer the door to a delivery driver we should remember the major contribution these people, and many others in low-paid work, make to our lives. 




1   See: Comment on 19/4/17: Why should a heart surgeon earn more than a McDonald’s employee? Plus Thoughts on ... Bus Drivers

2   I recall a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer once using the term dead- end jobs which drew a response from me in the web journal I was compiling at the time.




Thoughts on …                                                                          7/10/17


Good thinking – and why young people and adults should learn this skill



Given the title of this column it seems reasonable to begin by posing some questions to think about. The first is this. Can we actually learn to think, or more accurately perhaps, learn to think better than we do with just the innate thinking capacity that has developed as part of human evolution. The second is, if we can learn to think better can we also be taught to think better? The third question is one that takes us to the heart of our educational provision. If we can be taught to improve our capacity to think is this an aspect of the curriculum that schools should make more of a priority?


My answers are a resounding yes to all three questions but I concede that the reasons why this is so are based almost entirely on conjecture rather than empirical evidence. My conjecture relating to the first question has two components. One is that the more we need to think about practical or theoretical matters the more our brain cells set themselves  up to do this – in other words the more practice we get in thinking the better we become at it. The other component is that we can learn to think better if, along with the practice we get, we can also be taught some strategies that will help us. I believe there are in fact strategies that can be taught and if these are well practised across different contexts they will lead to better thinking – which answers the second question I posed.  


My third question implies that schools at present are not making it a great enough  priority to improve their pupils’ thinking skills. They are, of course, undeniably getting them to think. Teachers will be doing this consciously and unconsciously all the time. They will continually be asking their pupils searching questions about the content of what they are studying and continually checking to see they are thinking carefully about their written work, their maths problems or any other set task. Teachers could legitimately argue that they are always getting their pupils to think because everything they learn involves them doing some sort of thinking.


But the question I have asked is whether schools should be making effective thinking more of a priority. Whilst acknowledging that there is clearly a lot of thinking going on in schools is there more that can be done?  Are all teachers able to explore thoroughly, with either whole classes or individual pupils, the answers to the searching questions they ask? Do they have the time to check and assess thoroughly the quality of their pupils’ thinking when they mark their written work? Do the pressures of a crowded curriculum and the relentless pursuit of exam success prevent schools from making the teaching of effective thinking a greater priority?


Based on conjecture, once again, rather than empirical evidence, my feeling is that schools can do more. Conjecture is not the best implement in the good thinker’s toolkit but it is conjecture with some supporting circumstantial evidence. One piece of evidence is that I do not hear enough about how thinking is taught or assessed to be persuaded that it is a priority. Another piece is that there still seems to be a widely held view that learning thinking skills is more appropriate for older students studying for A levels or a degree. The fact that a qualification in critical thinking has only been available at A level, and not at GCSE, would seem to indicate that this is the case.1


It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that in referring to a specific A level subject the term critical thinking has been used for the first time. Although, as will be seen below, the term is used to describe a particular mode of thinking, it seems sensible to absorb it into the overall concept of effective thinking which can be defined as the process by which the brain is used intentionally to consider something with the possibility of a useful outcome being achieved. A lot of thinking, including a lot of effective thinking, is spontaneous and instinctive but this does not form part of the present discussion.   


In schools, colleges and universities the term critical thinking can be applied to any analytical thinking that is involved in studying any subject even when the term is not explicitly used. It can cover the thinking required in practical and creative subjects as well as the thinking required in traditional academic subjects.


It can also refer to the recognised academic discipline that is taught at A level. The specification for the course offered by the OCR exam board begins with this definition: “Critical Thinking is the analytical thinking which underlies all rational discourse and enquiry. It is characterised by a meticulous and rigorous approach.” It goes on to list  the processes involved in being rational which include: analysing arguments, judging the relevance and significance of information, evaluating claims, inferences and explanations, making coherent arguments and forming well-reasoned judgements and decisions.2


It is claimed that studying the subject will equip young people with reasoning skills they can use in life, work and further study, whether academic or vocational. Moreover it provides opportunities for them to reflect on issues they encounter as members of society and, crucially, it enables them to make decisions that are based on evidence and argument rather than assumption and prejudice.


I see no reason why critical thinking should not be taught as a separate subject. It need not be placed permanently on the timetable but could be studied each year in modules and organised according to the preferences of individual schools. This would ensure that thinking skills were well-covered, it would provide a tool that would be invaluable in other subjects and it would enable pupils to revisit and regularly practise what they had learned. They would sit a critical thinking test at 15 alongside English, maths and computing – key subjects which would replace GCSEs and establish the primacy of these essential skills.


But as well as being taught as a separate area of the curriculum it should be the norm that the development of thinking skills is a priority for teachers in every subject from primary school upwards. History teachers should therefore be challenging their pupils to evaluate thoroughly the conclusions that can be drawn from historical evidence, science teachers should be requiring pupils to make valid inferences from their observations and teachers of design and technology should be asking their pupils to give careful thought to planning their methods of construction. In their religious education lessons young people should be thinking about big questions in the realms of ethics and morality and, provided it is handled sensitively and gently, they should be examining the question of the existence of god.


In their citizenship lessons pupils should not simply be told how our political system works they should be subjecting its structures and conventions to rigorous scrutiny, one that is much more rigorous than the system currently receives from politicians or the media. The purpose of this will not be to foment revolution but to examine rationally issues such as  the meaning of democracy and its advantages and disadvantages, whether political parties are necessary, and whether we should keep the house of lords or the monarchy. Pupils should also be closely examining the social and economic basis of society by, for example, assessing the arguments for differences in salary levels or discussing the scope of the welfare state. They should look at the advantages and disadvantages of a free market economy and a centrally controlled economy, and they should regularly examine the big social and political issues of the day paying particular attention to the validity of the arguments they see and hear in the media.


In their PSHE lessons pupils should be thinking seriously about many issues which affect their daily lives.3 They need to think about how they should shape their values and attitudes, how they can deal with their emotions, how they can resist peer pressure and how they should engage in social interactions and relationships.


If they have been taught to think effectively in their critical thinking studies and in the learning they do in other subjects young people will have learned how to assess a wide range of information and also how to apply their thinking skills to make rational, carefully thought-out decisions about how they live their lives. These decisions will encompass everything from how they behave with their family and friends, to what they eat and to what they do at the weekends. They will have learned how to think for themselves and how to question what is happening in society. And they will have learned the value of reflecting on, and not rushing into, their actions and judgements.


I believe that if instilling the ability to think effectively were made a much higher priority in schools it would bring enormous benefits to individuals and society. It would improve the quality of our values, our attitudes, our relationships, our social interaction, our opinions, our judgements and our decisions. It would improve all these things because we would be thinking about them. Of course we will always be influenced by many other factors, especially instincts, emotions, psychological needs, and upbringing, but if we have learned to think effectively we should be able to recognise these factors and take them into account. A society in which rational thought shapes our individual and collective values and decision-making must surely be one that is worth striving for.


Teaching good thinking in schools will improve the quality of thinking in our future adults but what about the quality of thinking in those of us who are adults now? Undoubtedly a lot of good thinking is going on at the moment in the home, the workplace and in government but there needs to be more of it, and much more of it on occasions – in every aspect of life. People need to think more carefully about the way they drive, their spending priorities, the lifestyles they lead, the embedded opinions and beliefs they hold, and the way they treat others. They should be reflecting on what is happening around them in their own lives and in society at large and they should be willing to reappraise long-established patterns of behaviour and rethink long-established views about the world.


As adults we should make a conscious effort to train ourselves to think rationally about how we act and behave and about the views we hold. Our politicians, particularly, should engage in effective thinking and apply critical thought to what they say and do instead of constantly repeating the slogans that are doing the rounds. They need to do far more thinking for themselves and far less following the party line.  


Like all of us they should spend time reflecting on important issues and teasing out their moral and ethical implications. They need to concern themselves less with the quick thinking they feel obliged to display in parliament or on Question Time and more with the deeper thinking that is required to make decisions that have been carefully examined from every angle.


As well as carefully examining the issues that affect us we should use our capacity to think to look inwards and evaluate ourselves and the lives we lead. If we can build self-evaluation into our internal conversations, and if we can teach future generations to engage in this process, we will be equipped to make changes to our lives that will improve our mental and physical well-being. I am hopeful we would lead more contented, fulfilled and purposeful lives if we subjected ourselves to some honest self-appraisal with regard to our actions, behaviour, attitudes, opinions and beliefs.


In recent years there has been some interesting debate about whether, and how, schools should teach critical thinking skills.4 I am not sure that sufficient robust evidence about their use in schools has so far been collected to judge whether the effect has been beneficial or not so I accept that my enthusiasm for making them a greater priority is based on a mix of common sense and optimism. What I am sure of is that there is absolutely no contradiction between pupils learning to think and their acquiring specific subject knowledge. Subjects should be used to develop critical thinking and critical thinking should be used to help process and absorb subject knowledge. Those who are not enthused by critical thinking are wrong, in my view, to claim that it is not a transferable cognitive skill that can be widely applied.


I would like to see all of us as adults in permanent thinking mode and belonging to a thinking society. We should aim to be doing good thinking all the time about what we do, what we hear, what we believe, what we say, how we behave with one another and how we live our lives. Good thinking will lead to good well-being for everyone. We therefore have a duty to ensure that our young people learn to be good thinkers and that as adults we too learn to think effectively.   




1   Unfortunately the subject is being discontinued as an A level.


2   OCR specification is here.


3   PSHE is personal, social, health and economic education


4   A selection of contributions to the debate is set out below:


Teachers understand critical thinking? That’s fake news, D Halpern, H Butler. Article in tes, 1/9/2017

Dr Heather Butler’s website

Article: Why students should not be taught general critical-thinking skills, Carl Hendrick. LSE Impact Blog

Article by Toby Young, 29/8/2013


Plus see the section entitled "To instil the ability to think effectively" in my chapter on Purposes.

And the book that has interested me since I read it a long time ago is: Teach Yourself to Think, R W Jepson




Thoughts on …                                                                             9/9 17


GCSEs failing the test (2)    


This is a longer version of last year's post of the same title but it makes the argument in slightly more detail.                                                    


The new school year has begun and the production-line is ready to start up again. In secondary schools all over England, Wales and Northern Ireland the task of turning out hundreds of thousands of students with qualifications at GCSE level has begun. Many young people will undoubtedly work hard with the subjects they study but some, of course, will work harder than others.                         


Yet despite the massive investment that schools make in GCSEs in terms of time, energy and money I’m afraid I take the view that these exams are not necessary and nor are they conducive to a good education. With regard to the latter point they encourage too much cramming and do little to enthuse young people with the pleasure of learning. The volume of information that has to be absorbed in a limited amount of time reduces opportunities to assimilate knowledge thoroughly and is a hindrance to making full use of pupils’ natural curiosity.


But are GCSEs necessary? It is my belief they are not. They are simply not an effective means of fulfilling two of their main functions: preparing and selecting people for employment. The first of these, preparing future members of the workforce, is ludicrous. Looking at the examination process itself, rather than the content of what is being tested, the ability to write at breakneck speed about the characters in Romeo and Juliet, or the factors that led to the rise of Hitler, is not a skill that is ever likely to be required in the world of work. Nor for that matter is the ability to solve quadratic equations at a rapid rate.


Considering the content of the GCSE syllabus, as opposed to sitting the actual exams, is a separate issue. Obviously, like all acquired knowledge and skills, the course content provides a foundation on which future learning can be built. However, apart from basic skills, I am doubtful whether much that is learned is directly applicable to the workplace.  Learning about electricity in the classroom does not prepare an electrician to rewire a house and nor does learning some elementary human anatomy prepare someone to carry out heart surgery. These examples of employment, and many others, require learning and training that is designed to prepare people for a specific occupation or occupational sector.


Which is why we should seriously consider moving towards a different system altogether. I suggest that, with the exception of four basic skills, teaching different subjects at school up to the age of 15 should be about inspiring pupils with an intrinsic interest in everything in the world around them – the physical and natural world, the social and political world and the world of creativity.  Pupils would follow a national curriculum but it would be taught in ways that enthused them with learning. Subject knowledge would still be assessed but not by exams that were replicas of GCSEs.  Post-15 young people would begin to prepare properly for specific employment and would need to be rigorously assessed on their capabilities. GCSEs would be replaced with a basic skills test taken at 15 that would assess English, maths, critical thinking and IT – skills essential for all occupations these days.


The second function for which GCSEs are used is to select young people for their future employment. On the basis of their results they are steered into either vocational or academic routes – the former often involving various qualifications offered by FE colleges, the latter requiring A levels followed by university.  


At this point in their education steering them into these routes is not, in my view, a sensible course of action. There are two good reasons why it is not. One is that the vocational/academic divide is based on the misguided belief that we are born with innate abilities which incline us towards either practical or theoretical tasks. This is not a belief I share. In fact I believe the opposite, which is that most of us are perfectly capable of doing both to a high standard.


The implication of this is clear.  If pupils are encouraged and supported, both at home and at school, and if they are well-motivated and work hard, nearly all of them can do well in any subject. At present the grind of doing GCSEs does not seem to motivate a high percentage of them to make an effort with everything they do. If they were all interested and well-motivated, and they all worked conscientiously with every subject, the majority of them would, with sufficient encouragement, be able to follow the academic route.


The second reason why GCSEs should not be used to steer young people into either a vocational or academic route is that making such a decision at this stage in their lives does not allow for subsequent cognitive or motivational development. As they get older their ability to think will improve and their motivation to study and train for employment that appealed to them will increase.


Let me end my argument by returning to a point I made earlier: GCSEs are not conducive to a good education because cramming is not the most effective way to learn or to harness natural curiosity. Even more of a hindrance to a good education, however, is the actual existence of GCSEs. For decades the inescapable pressure of these exams has distracted us from thinking seriously about the purpose of secondary schooling.


Most people seem to agree that schools should be more than exam factories but what they should deliver, and what their priorities should be, receives little attention. How much of a priority, for example, should it be to teach teenagers about well-being, to give them the ability to think effectively, to shape their behaviour and values, or to equip them with basic life skills? These are questions that are far more important to individuals and society than the results of GCSE examinations.


GCSEs fail the test of adequately preparing young people for employment. They fail the test of being an equitable means of selecting them for employment. And they fail the test of providing them with the best possible education. It is time to remove them from the system.  




Thoughts on …                                                                            2/8/17


Using school facilities in the holidays


It’s that time of year again when great swathes of our publicly owned leisure facilities are virtually deserted. Deserted when they should be buzzing with activity. I’m referring to the extensive facilities that exist in our schools and which have just been used in term time by our children and young people. Now, when the long summer holiday has arrived they are silent and empty.


Why is this? Why, at a time when we should be encouraging our youngsters to be physically active, are these facilities not in use every day of the holiday well into the evening. Why aren’t children taking a football to their nearest school playing field and having a game amongst themselves? Why aren’t they taking a cricket bat and some stumps and imagining that every big hit they make is going into the stands at Lords?


A number of different reasons explain why they aren’t doing these things. One reason is that nearby school playing fields and outdoor amenities, such as tennis courts or all-weather pitches, may not be accessible in the holidays. Another reason is that parents may understandably be reluctant to let their children go off on their own. And an all too likely reason is that many young people will be spending their time sitting in front of some sort of screen either engrossed in social media, watching TV or playing computer games.


What can be done? If it’s the first reason, and school facilities are not accessible, it is time they were. Clearly school premises have to be secure during the holidays and children need to be kept safe but these difficulties can be overcome by enlisting parents and other volunteers to supervise informal and more organised sports sessions.


If schools are deserted for the other reasons I’ve mentioned, one solution springs to mind. It would encourage our youngsters to be active as well as ensure they were safe.


Why don’t we promote the idea that parents should try to make time regularly to join in a wide range of sporting activities with their children. At their nearest school they could play football, cricket and tennis with them or simply do some jogging round the field. They would be playing with them for the enjoyment that everyone would share but at the same time would be helping them develop their skills. Moreover, if parents had particular skills in a sport they could pass these on to their children and encourage them to practise what they learned.


This shared participation would be good for the health and well-being of our young people, good for the health of their parents and good for family life. 


We have become far too sedentary as a society. Too many people of all ages are not getting enough physical exercise in their daily lives. Making full use of the abundant facilities for sporting activities that exist in our schools would be one way of compensating for this.


A shorter version of this post appeared as a column in the Western Daily Press.



Extract from Forever Learning, ps 114/115


My second proposal is for society to insist that schools should be open for much longer than they are. They should be open in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays. This would bring many benefits and contribute significantly to raising standards. It would enable pupils to receive individual tuition, allow them to use school facilities to extend their interest in a particular subject and provide opportunities for doing more sport and physical exercise – an aspect of our education system where standards urgently need to improve...




Thoughts on …                                                                            31/7/17


The hundredth anniversary of Passchendaele


We must always remember and honour the courage and sacrifice of those who have died in battle defending our country. Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of the battle of Passchendaele and ceremonies are taking place to remember the event. The sheer horror of the carnage that took place on the battlefield is unimaginable. Surely you would have had to have been there to know what it really felt like to be in such a vision of hell and see your comrades shot or blown to pieces. Reading about it, or watching a film or documentary, can never replicate the trauma of the experience.


Nor does the emotion we feel at a service of commemoration bring home the true reality. If it could we would have had no more wars.


Along with remembering and commemorating the courage and sacrifice of those who died at Passchendaele and in the First World War as a whole we must make a much greater effort to reflect on the horrors of the battlefield and the vast number of men who were killed on both sides – hundreds and thousands of them in this one battle and millions altogether.  We must reflect on their suffering and reflect on the anguish of their families back home. We owe it to them to do this.


And as we remember the enormity of the tragedy that was Passchendaele we should also reflect on the fact that it was caused by human beings. It was not a natural disaster. Like all armed conflicts it was entirely avoidable.  Its root cause was human folly. I am not referring to the folly of the politicians or generals who planned the campaign since I do not know the military strategies that were involved. I am referring to the folly of the human species as a whole. Despite the incredible brainpower that evolution has given us, when it comes to resolving disputes and disagreements between nations we have been, and still are, unbelievably foolish.


Today’s ceremony, and others that commemorate those who have given their lives for their country, should be used not only to remember the past but to commit ourselves to building a world without war in the future  – a world that will be as one, as John Lennon put it.


The way to achieve this is through education. We must educate ourselves, and every human being on the planet, to accept that disputes between individuals or nations should never be settled by killing people. Such a course of action is not a rational response and nor is it emotionally mature. It does not require much of our acquired brainpower to reject this behaviour as completely foolish.


We must take our leaders with us in the educational process that we embark upon and never allow them to wage war in our name. The agony of Passchendaele should teach us that a peaceful resolution of conflicts must always be the direction we follow.