The State of the State Sector: Unfulfilled Potential

Adam Seldon
14 min readJul 16, 2023

I spoke at last week’s premier Festival of Education. I had some humbling comments after my talk face to face and on Twitter. Humbling firstly because they pointed out that not many actually came to the talk, but humbling too as I was asked whether I could put the lecture up online as more should have heard it. Here is a slightly edited version of the transcript.

Narrow discussion and debate

When COVID cancelled schools and the rug was pulled beneath feet of young people, there was a brief renaissance on how to repurpose schools in light of exams being cancelled. “It wasn’t just about those exams! “There’s more to education,” we said. But now education continues unabated, we have reverted back to norm. The way the system educates is the same as if COVID never happened. We could not magic up a new purpose for education as schools are based on such narrow foundations.

The more research-informed approach to education discourse in recent years is hugely valuable partly for nurturing a strong community of sharing best practice and the busting of myths like learning styles. But I think there is a narrow discourse on places like Edutwitter, in conference programmes or day to day in schools, which focuses on the ‘how’ of teaching and learning. The understanding of what makes a great teacher is reduced to how good is your use of cognitive load theory or assessment for learning. Rather than for instance how are you supporting young people to flourish? Technical books like Teach like a Champion dominate and are treated as gospel. The why, considering whether the school is educating students in a broad sense for adulthood and the future, and whether its culture best shapes students are far more rarely touched on.

Schools are often deemed the mechanism to resolve various societal ills. “Schools should resolve problem x” we hear. It’s an issue Amanda Spielman at this festival yesterday rightly warned about. The demands put on schools can be frustrating. But schools are often dismissive of external input. We could be more judicious rather than dismissive. How often do we hear universities or employers say students lack certain skills that are desirable? People skills like teamwork for instance. Skills that the independent sector is very good at developing.

Schools can feel quote siloed from society, but also siloed from one another. State schools could do a lot more to learn from each other but also the independent sector and emulate certain things that are cost free. Schools are fairly siloed from how education is done abroad.

So schools run on autopilot, on a treadmill. Despite being the most common site of education in Britain, they can feel thoroughly unintellectual places to work where education is rarely discussed. I love my school staff book club where we might discuss such things, but that’s an ad-hoc forum. Schools are guilty of a certain presentism: we do things because that’s how we do things.

But that’s not good enough there are four horseman of the educational apocalypse suggesting a big problem with the system that necessitate a richer discussion:

Recruitment crisis: NFER research suggests at least 20% of subjects are below recruitment targets and half of all teachers plan to leave within five years. On this day of teacher strikes, pay and workload are often cited as issues. But this does not give enough consideration beyond these factors and how schools can be amazing places to work, because they should be!

Attendance: The average per student pre-Covid was 5 per cent of classroom time missed. Now it’s closer to 9 per cent. In the first normal year since COVID, the marked decline in attendance is totally devastating.

Student satisfaction: Government Social Research shows just 15% of students say they like school a lot. This had gradually declined for years. How sad that so few find school a place of joy.

National indifference: Just 8% of public according to the IPSOS issues index said that education was a high priority. Siloed schools are surely one reason for this.

Schools don’t engage enough on these vital issues. It’s not just the remit of state schools but teachers should be inputting. At this great festival of 450 speakers very few are state-school based. It’s important we engage especially because politicians cannot be relied upon to resolve such fundamental issues. We’ve had ten education secretaries in the last ten years. What a farce.

Narrow purpose

I believe state schools have a narrow purpose that is outsourced mainly to metrics. Their reduced by a fairly shallow institutional vision for what they want for their young people. The purpose of schools is mainly outsourced to data and metrics: exam judgements like progress scores, % of A*-C. Or the simply alluring Ofsted grading system of 4 rankings: let’s just aim for Outstanding and whack an Ofsted banner of validation on the school gates. Job done.

State schools should not rely on Ofsted to define educations’ purpose given how the definition of outstanding constantly shifts. Following the recent downgrade of numerous schools from ‘Outstanding’ due to the updated inspection framework, Ofsted’s national director of education said the new judgments did not necessarily mean the schools had reduced in quality, that the opposite could in fact be true. Confusing isn’t it? There is lots of focus on curriculum in current framework. What’s next? Relying on Ofsted is fragile. Schools with stronger cultures and visions don’t rely on this external validation and should have robust visions irrespective of the latest Ofsted fad.

So we’ve drifted to valuing what we measure, partly because metric and numbers give a reassuring and simply communicated certainty, and numbers can be compared. But the idea that a number or rating can be an indicator of progress that integrates all the values we care about is deluded.

Albert Einstein warned: “‘Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” Metrics impoverish education and encourage paucity of purpose. Data is not an adequate substitute for public deliberation about what matters.

Some state schools rely on social mobility or meritocracy as their purpose. “We help kids irrespective of their background achieve success”, it is said. Noble no doubt. But social mobility and meritocracy as a purpose in schools has two problems.

Firstly, it is morally questionable. With mass education and the growth of mass higher education, Michael Sandel in his book the Tyranny of Merit, asserts that the “civic purpose of schools became secondary to their sorting function.” Schools are sifters for higher education. This generates a hierarchy of respect, where human worth is reduced to a single measure, predominantly achievement. More respect is accorded to those at the top.

Schools throughout the country next results today will share on social media pictures of students with stellar results. But how does that make the 1/3 who fail to get a pass in English and Maths feel?

The system tells kids their chief goal is success relative to others — better grades, higher pay. This has its issue for societal bonds, but also for the supposed winners too: Success in terms of status and income can often push you to highly paid but miserable jobs. Rather than jobs that for instance support happiness (how many kids know that florists are among the happiest of professions)?

The second issue Schools might say they ensure achieving social mobility but they can’t create social mobility alone. Great schools are not enough to create greater societal equality. Three stats among many to show this:

• An Institute for Fiscal Studies report showed that despite improved schools, there has been virtually no change in the gap between children on free school meals and their peers in the last 20 years.

• According to an LSE panel on education, schools only make 10–20% difference on student outcomes. The other 80% is for other factors.

• Grades are not enough: A middle class university graduate with a 2:2 is more likely to get a top white-collar job like a banker, lawyer, doctor than a working-class student with a first.

These stats can be contested of course, but what is clear is that factors outside schools matter as much or more for reducing inequality, such as investment in public services, the welfare state and other redistributive polices. Especially in Britain which, like the US, does terrible on social mobility.

It is dishonest if we think our state school alone is going to contribute significantly to social mobility. So a bit of humility is needed in the state sector about what we can achieve, which in turn necessitates a broader purpose to schooling.

A final issue with focusing on meritocracy is its short-termism. For students to succeed academically in the exam system, it often requires the staff in disadvantaged schools doing one hell of a lot to get them there. It impacts workload and burn-out. Further, that dependence on staff does not necessarily nurture the long-term independence, responsibility and resilience that young people need to succeed as adults.

So schools should think deeper about purpose. I visited the Lyceum, set up by Aristotle among others, and site of one of the first schools in human history. Aristotle’s ideas about purpose in education are shown here and his book Nicomachean Ethics. He had such an expansive view of education. Saying that “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” He speaks about developing the “complete human personality” including preparing students to be citizens, helping students to develop practical wisdom about right and wrong, developing rounded intellect, helping students think about happiness — as Aristotle says it’s one of the only things you don’t need to justify with reference to anything is happiness. Quite a compelling list really.

I saw a stat about 3/4 of young people want to be influencers. What’s happened since Ancient Greece?! Does that stat suggest are schools are doing a good enough job in fulfilling their function as sites of education?


Whether behaviour has declined since Covid is contested. Common chatter claims it has. But Teacher Tapp survey analysis showed behaviour issues were no worse in 2022 than 2018. Regardless, a persistent finding is that behaviour is an issue nationally. One report shows half of teachers in poorer areas expect behaviour to affect learning in lessons, as do a third in wealthier areas.

Many state school behaviour approaches are behaviourist and use behaviour management techniques: they prioritise the observable over inner-feelings and thought. There are rewards to incentivise good behaviour, punishment to deter bad. Behaviour management emphasises routines. Where students do thinks because that’s what they’ve been trained into, without having to think about right and wrong at all. They are cajoled into doing things automatically and for extrinsic factors, based on reward system.

The system clearly has its uses. It’s easy for armchair critics to dismiss silent corridors or ‘no excuses’. Without order, there can be no learning, which totally fails students. However, primarily relying on the behaviour management tool kit, as so many schools do, is not sufficient.

It’s very transactional. One thing that causes me tremors is when a student says “I’ll do it sir, if you give me a merit.” Robert Putnam talks of generalised reciprocity, ideally in communities you do things, even if you don’t love them, because you are part of a community that you know help you in the long run will help you. Behaviourism is very far from that goal.

Behaviour management not does not nurture civility or kindness. A big issue is a lack of respect in state schools. If someone were to walk off the street into some state schools, they’d be shocked by some of the ways teenagers talk to teachers. And you would not get that in an independent school. I would very rarely at my private school have any rudeness. Last week a year 10 told me to ‘fuck off’ after I politely asked him to leave the corridor and go to his PE lesson. State school should be as unapologetically ambitious for students for who they are as people as they are about their grades.

Behaviour management is very dependent on teacher and their techniques. If there is a problem, the teacher needs to improve, rather than thinking about what we can do to improve the kids’ behaviour. This is not good for staff wellbeing or workload. Teaching at an independent school was so much less tiring partly because you won’t firefighting permanently.

Behaviour management is a fragile crutch: if there are changes in the system, like a cover or new teacher, the system can collapse. It it is very reactive, where considerable time is expended on how to implement or tweak the system, rather than thinking long-term and upstreaming how to make students good people in the long run. Often, it’s the same kids who misbehave.

Behaviour management does not consider the importance of peer culture sufficiently either. I love the Graham Nuttall quote “when there is a clash between the peer culture and the teacher’s management procedures, the peer culture wins every time”. Behaviour management offers little to develop peer culture. Schools could think more strategically on how to use students to positively influence their peers.

The relationship approach — ensuring good relationships between students and staff — is often touted as the alternative approach to behaviour management. However, this approach has its issues with nurturing young people for the future. A student behaving should not be contingent on whether they like the teacher in front of them (who may well be leaving at the end of the academic year). The environment should ensure there is respect from student to teacher for their teacher’s vital role in their future development and the vital role they play in a civilised society.

State schools could better focus on virtues and values. William Bennet describes how schools should become “communities of virtues” that students buy into. Where we explicitly develop the character of students in an intentional way. Most schools are secular, so it is incumbent on them to define what moral behaviour is and why it needs to be done. It’s not overly paternalistic to do that, young people are moulded the whole time by the signals they get in everyday society, but schools could be better at being inputting into that process.

Virtues should be leaned into so students become part of a powerful school culture in which they choose to behave primarily because it is the right thing to do rather than for fear of punishment. State schools often have noble values, but they are not embedded meaningfully in the day-to-day experience. In a word cloud of a school day, ‘detention’ should be outnumbered by use of school values.

In a school I sought to embed values like kindness, resilience and gratitude that were shared every-day language to support with the community, expectations and relationships.

Mental health

Our kids are facing big issues. One of the things people want most in life, is to be happy. Schools could, but do not, contribute meaningfully to this goal.

A Times editorial last week said ‘the kids aren’t alright’ by referring to rapid increase in young people with mental health disorders. In In 36/37 countries, loneliness has increased among teenagers year on year since 2012.

Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist, cites the hours teenagers spend on social media being a prime factor in this: “Among young people, there is now a great deal of evidence that social media is a substantial cause — not just a tiny correlate — of depression and anxiety”.

There are many reasons for why social media is so destructive, but one is the social comparison it sets up, encouraging the young to focus on what they don’t have materially, physically, socially. And it is addictive, capturing attention with transient whacks of satisfaction.

Schools are in a war with big tech social media companies. There’s a reason Sheryl Sandberg restricted her children’s use of social media. Schools are going into battle against the big tech drone missiles armed with spears.

Schools labelling students over building capacity does not help. The number of pupils in England issued with a special needs support plan has more than doubled in the last eight years to 180 a day. Labelling and a static narrative about a child’s outlook needs to be balanced by nurturing resilience.

Wellbeing, or similar, is often delivered through PSHE or equivalent, and tacked on as a bolt on. It does not get the depth of thought in anyway near the way the main subject curriculum does. I don’t blame teachers for that –if I am choosing my attention between my year 11 lesson and someone else’s hastily made PSHE slides on happiness tomorrow, I’m focus on the former. That’s the system we operate in. But ask any parent what they want their child to be, and many will say for their child to be happy.

And schools can make an impact on happiness. Richard Layard, the economist who researches happiness, cites research showing how happy children are aged 16 is as much influenced by their secondary schools as parents.

One ways schools can help is to lean into the virtue of gratitude. Feeling and expressing gratitude is so impactful as it helps you focus on the good things rather than social comparison. It helps you be in the moment. Giving gratitude gives a literal chemical hit of happiness.

It can be perceived as a “gateway” virtue to other virtues like kindness. One of the best ways to deal with stress is to be kind to others.

Gratitude fosters community and belonging. Seeing acts of gratitude can cascade through the social network and others are moved to do the same. It nurtures civility where people say thank you. I heard ‘thank you’ far more in my independent school than state schools. This matters less for politeness and more for what it says about the strength of the community.

Gratitude nurtures relationships in a community and the research is very clear: strong relationships and the single biggest determinant of happiness, mattering far more than achievement.

I led a Gratitude Week recently in my school, zooming in on that value. Every kid in school got a thank you card to write in. Many wrote in a card with an envelope for the first time. Handwritten gratitude particularly effective due to the effort involved. Students gave speeches in assemblies about who or what they were grateful to. It’s incredibly affecting when a teenager does it.

And the point is if you once, kids are more likely to do it again, and we’re building momentum of that week.


“People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own social meaning in a chaotic world” said E. O. Wilson. State schools do not have cultures that are resonant of a sense of pride. They don’t necessarily nurture a culture of belonging or a sufficiently clear identity. I once watched a state school head say in the end of year leavers’ assembly, “If our school has taught you anything, I hope it’s that you know that actions have consequences.” A fine point, but it didn’t exactly speak of a tribal distinctiveness. Assemblies can often be very mundane because they are not underpinned by a strong school culture.

Many independent schools have their own clear identity about what they are about and what they do. You aren’t going to see many with an ISI banner (the independent equivalent of Ofsted) on its front gates. They really nurture that sense of pride in community and older students like prefects really embody this culture, harnessing peer influence. This pride is continually upheld by rituals that are embedded into the daily fabric of the school.

State schools could do better to embrace Ivan Illich’s concept of the Hidden curriculum. The informal lessons that happen outside the classroom: cultures and values, the physical environment, the social environment, that subtly mould values and group norms. For instance, the honour boards of winners of award going years back. We could be much better at nurturing these cues and signals to students. Peter Higgs says his interest in physics was sparked at by noticing the name of an ex-pupil on the honour board multiple times who went on to help find out about dark matter. Visual culture matters.

Extracurricular is also important for nurturing cultures of belonging, alongside developing skills, engagement, and connections. “The most important education takes place outside the classroom” Tony Little, former master of Eton argued.

Often in state schools extracurricular is an afterthought and not done meaningfully. Those high-stakes moments of performance or occasion can generate the most precious of memories. Those occasions can in turn become traditions.

Having a really clear internal purpose and culture is essential and a feature of a great school. This can be done by having clear virtues and values that I spoke about before, and meaningfully embedding them. However how often is culture and purpose, defining it and analysing its implementation, really talked about in SLT meetings compared to for example data and assessment?

Among two of various state schools I’ve visited are Michaela and XP school. They’re very different and in some ways controversial. Michaela is strict with didactic teaching. XP in contrast uses restorative justice and discovery learning. But they have their own clear, distinct purpose and culture they’ve defined rather than it being outsourced.

State schools in a challenging environment are doing so much so well, but they could do so much more.