18 Feb 2018

Afterword to paperback edition of ‘Cleverlands’

In light of the recent comments by the new UK Secretary of State for Education announcing his intention to expand schools that select children by ability at age 11, I thought I would share this afterword with those of you who don’t have the paperback edition. 


If common sense were to be believed, democracies ought to provide better quality education than non-democratic countries. The logic goes something like this: voters care about the quality of education in their country, and politicians in democracies care about votes. Therefore, it stands to reason that politicians ought to pursue those things that lead to improved education – at least if there is information available about what these most promising reforms are. However, an article in the Washington Post recounts recent research based on data from one hundred countries, which shows that democracies do not deliver better education than countries without this need to please the electorate.[1] They suggest a simple reason for this surprising finding:

Voters have trouble holding politicians accountable for education policies. To hold politicians accountable, voters must be able to trace the outcomes they care about to specific policies. Few ordinary voters are familiar with the details of supposedly ‘quality-enhancing’ education reforms; nor are they able to evaluate those effects.

Therefore, contrary to common sense, it is actually not in the interests of politicians in democracies to take actions that lead to higher quality education. Rather, it is in the interests of these politicians to take actions that look like they will lead to higher quality education. If they look like they’re doing something useful, it is only a secondary concern as to whether this ‘something’ has succeeded or failed at other times or in other places – voters won’t know the difference.

This leads to situations where politicians pursue irrelevant hobby horses, or, worse than this, policies that result in the opposite of what they are intended to do. Having read this book, and the research and reasoning about the negative effects of selecting children into different schools at a young age, you’ll understand my concern when the UK government announced its intention to expand the practice of putting children into different schools based on a test at age eleven. This was done in the name of social mobility, despite research comprehensively showing that such policies have the opposite effect. Not enough of the voting population know about this research, and to my mind it was a lucky escape that this plan was dropped due to a disappointing election result for the incumbent party.

Which brings me to why I wrote this book. Politicians in democracies will continue to do what they think impresses voters. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope that only politicians with enough courage/conviction/political naivety to do otherwise will end up with the education brief. We need to make sure that what impresses voters are the actions that are the most likely to improve education quality. We need to protect ourselves and our children from populist educational reforms. And to make this possible, enough of us who care about education need to know, think and engage in informed debate about education research and education policy.

Researchers who study effective reforms and practices therefore have an important reason to make their findings accessible and relatable to the public. I will continue to endeavour to do the same. So, if this book deepened your own understanding of education approaches, or made you more likely to question the educational status quo where you live, please share it with a colleague, a parent or a friend, and let’s move towards a situation in which politicians don’t need to choose between popularity and sensible education reform.

[1] Dahlum, S., and Knutsen, C. H. (2017), ‘Democracies are no better at educating students than autocracies. This is why,’ Washington Post. Retrieved 12 June from



    Lucy Crehan 26 Sep 2018

    Thank you so much! Glad to be of use. Lucy

    Lucy Crehan 26 Sep 2018

    Hi Duncan,
    So sorry for my slow response to this. Yes it can be depressing, certainly that’s how I felt when I was teaching. I think though, that there is gradually more and more sense being spoken by the education community (politics still a bit of a mess) and some promising organisations popping up, like the Chartered College of Teaching. So I feel cautiously optimistic! Thanks so much for your support. Lucy

    Duncan Smith 09 Aug 2018

    Isn’t there a deep irony that the education ‘system’, if such a disordered and dysfunctional entity can be described as a system, of our country has come to it’s current state? Ironic in that it does little to actually educate. I taught for over 30 years and wasted so much effort and energy resisting ill thought through and seemingly constant changes. Our lovely class system has and continues to play it’s insidious part.
    Thank you for doing what you do, is anyone listening to or reading what you are doing? What can we do to change things for the better?
    I’ve long thought a simple way to effect great change is to use the elitist system we have by Oxbridge taking a couple of students from EVERY secondary school and nationalising private schools for those with ‘special needs’.
    Keep up the good work, Duncan.

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