Education:   filling  pots or  lighting fires ?

The poet W B Yeats is often quoted as saying

“Education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire.”

but actually, 2000 years earlier, Plutarch had a similar thought.  He wrote

 “The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.”  

Of course, it is the idea that matters, not who first said it.


Governments since 1988 tend to discuss schools in terms of what can be measured by being “put in a pot” – tests at 11 and examinations at 16 and 18.

But education in the eyes of teachers, educationists, parents and many others, is much nearer to “lighting fires”.

Here is one ‘lighting fires’ view of Education:

  • The great purposes of Education are to enable individual citizens to be capable of thinking for themselves, to be moral beings well equipped with the many and varied attributes that they learn in their years of schooling, including the wherewithal to earn an honest living and so contribute to the national economy, and able to continue to develop and learn purposefully throughout their lives in a contented pursuit of worthwhile life, liberty and happiness.

And here is another approach to ‘lighting fires’:

  • The aims of education are to promote: well-being; engagement; empowerment; autonomy; encouraging respect and reciprocity; promoting interdependence and sustainability; empowering local, national and global citizenship; celebrating culture and community; exploring, knowing, understanding and making sense; fostering skill; exciting the imagination; and enacting dialogue.


Education rarely surfaces as a major issue in the world of politics.

Probably this is because with so many major issues demanding attention Members of Parliament are unaware of the unfolding crises affecting the schooling of our children.

But now two national petitions to Parliament, each attracting over 140,000 signatures, should trigger a debate on education:

  • “Scrap plans to force state schools to become academies.”
  •  “Hold a public inquiry and a referendum over turning all schools into academies.” 

Call this “Crisis 1”.



The White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere” states that the Government intends to make every school an academy, most of them governed by multi-academy trusts (MATs), where the children will be taught by “great teachers” in “great schools” with “great leaders” and “great governing bodies”.

It is difficult to see how renaming schools as academies and moving their governance from local authorities to cross-country trusts will either fill more pots or even light more fires!

But it will deprive schools of many well-established services, currently provided by local authorities.

Typical local authority services for schools:

  • Finance, payroll and internal audit services
  • Insurances
  • HR and legal services
  • Special needs support
  • Health and safety services
  • School meals service
  • School transport services
  • Cleaning and grounds maintenance service
  • ICT services including school websites
  • Governor training
  • Governor clerking service
  • Education library service
  • Schools swimming service
  • Instrument teaching service
  • Document services – school brochures

One way or another every school needs these services.  Larger schools may organise their own but smaller schools (like most primary schools) need outside support and currently draw on the years of experience of local authorities.  Is this now to be provided by the academy trusts?


There are other crises affecting schools.

Crisis 2. Over a quarter of English children at 10 and a third at 12 express a dislike for going to school. (Report of the Children’s Society).                         

Children spend over 5 hours a day for 39 weeks, year after year in school on lessons.  When over a quarter of them express a clear dislike for school this must be seen as extremely serious.  It would seem to be a consequence of teachers being expected ‘to fill pots’.

Crisis 3. Teachers are oppressed by an excessive and stressful paper-dominated workload outside teaching hours.

(Reported in DfE survey)

Crisis 4. There is a growing shortage of qualified teachers, especially in maths, English and science. (The DfE disagrees but the Chief Inspector confirms the shortage)


Crisis 5. Most primary teachers are opposed to the amount of testing required by government: schools are becoming “exam factories” they say.


Crisis 6. The National Curriculum is overloaded with factual material. (Yes – filling pots not lighting fires!) It is obligatory in local authority schools, but not in academies. (Is this an incentive for schools to become academies?)                       


Crisis 7. There are increasing numbers of children in schools but local authorities are not permitted to build new schools.


Crisis 8.  Teachers’ pay is falling in real terms with the 1% cap. Research shows that performance-related pay is wrong for cognitive workers like teachers.  (This crisis may soon lead to strike action)


Crisis 9. OFSTED acts to enforce Government policies and in the process terrorizes many teachers.  

(Ofsted claims that its inspections raise standards in schools.  This is part of the ‘factory model’ of schools.

Actually standards rise because young people choose to study hard, are taught well by their teachers, are encouraged by their parents, and influenced by a positive climate towards school-work by their peer group of class-mates.) 


So, what action is needed?


Establish a National Education Council (representative of all interests) with oversight of schools and academies and a brief to advise government on these crises in the spirit of ‘lighting fires’, not ‘filling pots’, and trusting the commitment and expertise of the teaching profession with our children’s future.


Crisis 1  Create no more academies and adopt a ‘collaboration not competition’ policy between schools. 

Crisis 2  Set up a major enquiry into why so many children are unhappy in school and how to prevent this.

Crisis 3  Set up a major enquiry into how to reduce teachers’ workload by avoiding unnecessary paperwork.

Crisis 4  Develop effective planning for teacher recruitment and training.

Crisis 5  Abandon primary school government tests other than a simplified one at age eleven.

Crisis 6  Make the National Curriculum advisory and not obligatory.  Encourage schools to devise their own curricula.

Crisis 7  Empower local authorities to plan for and build new schools and new classrooms as needed.

Crisis 8  In consultation with unions reinstate a universal Teachers’ Pay and Conditions policy and abandon performance related pay.

Crisis 9  Replace Ofsted inspections of local authority schools by local inspections based on appraisal, challenge and support.


In the form of a booklet I sent this to the 625 Members of Parliament at Westminster in mid April 2016.  MB