George Monbiot on Factory Schools and the Future of Education

On his website George Monbiot writes that:

While you can be definitively wrong, you cannot be definitely right. The best anyone can do is constantly to review the evidence and to keep improving and updating their knowledge. Journalism which attempts this is worth reading. Journalism which does not is a waste of time.

Just as importantly, journalists should show how they reach their conclusions, by providing sources for the facts they cite. Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references. A charlatan, in any field, is someone who will not show you his records.

This is good to know, in the light of an article he wrote called:

In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant

As a trainee Luddite I was quite hopeful when I saw this title, maybe it would be an attack on the mechanisation of our schools from the enthusiastic techno-warriors who try to ruin the environment of education by throwing technology at every child as soon as they have learnt to gurgle and cry. But no.

The piece opens with this paragraph:

In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

As Monbiot suggests, he cannot be definitely right when he writes this. Yet has he reviewed the evidence? Has he updated his knowledge? Has he provided evidence for the facts he has cited? Has he shown us his records?

Well, maybe he has a crystal ball, but I’m not sure he knows what the jobs of the future will be like. Although I’m surprised that he implies education is primarily for preparing children for jobs I wonder what jobs he is thinking of, I’d like to see his evidence for this assertion. Finally, evidence wise, which schools are teaching children to behave like machines? I only ask because Monbiot suggests I should:

Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references…

Monbiot writes that:

…why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

He doesn’t provide sources for the facts he is citing here, but as a drama teacher I can assure him that at A level and GCSE collaboration is not called cheating…

but, of course, it might be him referring to written exams only… but this misunderstands group work, sometimes children try to hide they can’t read or can’t do a task, assessment is important for the teacher to find out who can’t do something so that they might help the pupil. If every test was collaborative, would the education for the future that Monbiot has already described achieve his aim? But, oddly, Monbiot believes the schools we currently have are:

…designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards. Collaboration and critical thinking were just what the factory owners wished to discourage.

Yet if we do a bit of research we can see that in the 19th century, the schools which were designed to:

provide for England’s newly-industrialised and (partly) enfranchised society 

Were not ones in which

workers who would sit silently at their benches all day

In ‘Schools of Industry’ (As factory school as you can get):

The children were taught reading and writing, geography and religion. Thirty of the older girls were employed in knitting, sewing, spinning and housework, and 36 younger girls were employed in knitting only. The older boys were taught shoemaking, and the younger boys prepared machinery for carding wool. The older girls assisted in preparing breakfast, which was provided in the school at a small weekly charge. They were also taught laundry work. The staff consisted of one schoolmaster, two teachers of spinning and knitting, and one teacher for shoemaking. (Hadow 1926:3-4) In 1846 the Committee of Council on Education began making grants to day schools of industry towards the provision of gardens, trade workshops, kitchens and wash-houses, and for gratuities to the masters who taught boys gardening and crafts and to the mistresses who gave ‘satisfactory instruction in domestic economy’ (Hadow 1926:9).

Sounds like collaboration was needed, and not too much sitting in rows.

This is similar to Monitorial Schools:

The curriculum… was… the ‘three Rs’ (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) plus practical activities such as cobbling, tailoring, gardening, simple agricultural operations for boys, and spinning, sewing, knitting, lace-making and baking for girls.

Whereas in Infant Schools:

The first infant school was established by Robert Owen (1771-1858) in New Lanark, Scotland, in 1816. Children were admitted at the age of two and cared for while their parents were at work in the local cotton mills. The instruction of children under six was to consist of ‘whatever might be supposed useful that they could understand, and much attention was devoted to singing, dancing, and playing’ (Hadow 1931:3).

Elementary Schools:

The question of how to organise children above the age of six in elementary schools was first addressed in Great Britain by David Stow (1793-1864)… He believed that in primary education the living voice was more important than the printed page, so he laid great stress on oral class teaching.

All this information is freely available here. It gives a lie to Monbiot’s assertion about what the 19th century education was like.

Monbiot’s assertion also ignores the social pioneers who pressed for reform throughout the 19th century, resulting in more schools educating the poor, educating girls, and also providing education education for ‘special needs’ children.

As for other schools, for the more ‘well-to-do’ the 1868 Taunton Report recommended, along class lines that schools should be seen as three different types:

first-grade schools with a leaving age of 18 or 19 would provide a ‘liberal education’ – including Latin and Greek – to prepare upper and upper-middle class boys for the universities and the older professions;
second-grade schools with a leaving age of 16 or 17 would teach two modern languages besides Latin to prepare middle class boys for the army, the newer professions and departments of the Civil Service; and
third-grade schools with a leaving age of 14 or 15 would teach the elements of French and Latin to lower middle class boys, who would be expected to become ‘small tenant farmers, small tradesmen, and superior artisans’. (The Commissioners treated these schools as secondary schools because the Elementary School Code of 1860 had fixed the leaving age for elementary schools at 12).

The Elementary Schools act of 1870 which took up to 20 years to enact is one where schools:

catered for children up to 14;
were for the working class;
provided a restricted curriculum with the emphasis almost exclusively on the ‘3Rs’ (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic);
pursued other, less clearly defined, aims including social-disciplinary objectives (acceptance of the teacher’s authority, the need for punctuality, obedience, conformity etc);
operated the ‘monitorial’ system, whereby a teacher supervised a large class with assistance from a team of monitors (usually older pupils). 

Perhaps these are the schools Monbiot meant? Some of which were only around for the last decade of the 19th century. These schools were not preparing children for the 19th century factory but, maybe, the 20th century one. Yet they were also doing something socially extraordinary, if we look back to 19th century Sunday Schools in which no child was taught:

writing or arithmetic or any of the ‘more dangerous subjects’

because they were:

‘less necessary or even harmful’

The fact that poorer children were being taught to read and write and do their sums was a great advance. Yet even then, at the end of the century, further social reformers were looking to improve the academic level of education for the poor, which led to many great schooling innovations in the twentieth century.

I have a great deal of sympathy with many of Monbiot’s sentiments, but his inability to provide much evidence at all for his assertions in the first half of his piece then leads to worries about the singular nature of the evidence he provides in the second half of his article.

In fact the whole piece reads as though instead of

constantly reviewing the evidence and keep improving and updating his knowledge

it looks as though he already had a conclusion in mind and went on social media to provide ammunition for his prejudices.

Surely he wouldn’t have done something like that?

And yet on the 8th February Monbiot had tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 21.20.27.png

Next time, wouldn’t it be interesting if Monbiot followed his own advice and tried to produce (I paraphrase):

Journalism that is worth reading.

NB The image above is from the USA somewhere between 1900 and 1920

20 thoughts on “George Monbiot on Factory Schools and the Future of Education

    1. Monbiot describes my primary & secondary education well. Sat in rows facing the front, silence in class, only speak when spoken to, repeat the information provided by the teacher, learn by rote. I’m 50, educated in Scotland. My kids 18yrs old now had a slightly more liberal version of the same. A bit of group learning & collaboration here and there but essentially the same model with some fluff added on. Try to seriously challenge the hegemony by questioning school staff about their values and the iron curtain comes down. For example; kids campaigning for clean toilets and working water fountains in their “school council”, ignored and marginalised. Resulting lesson learned: democracy doesn’t work, might has right. Most people my age could fill a book with examples of teachers undermining & ridiculing weaker pupils to meet their own need to feel powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bill, there’s old fashioned teaching and modern teaching. There’s also good teaching and bad teaching. It is a category error to confuse the two.

        I’m about 50 too. I was sat in rows, mostly in quiet in my very formal school. I was also taught extremely well, and our school consistently did very well academically.

        Across town at the same time (because these “new” ideas are actually old) there was a school that didn’t do that. Students sat in groups, there was heaps of group work, and ideas were questioned with enthusiasm. The students at that school were, however, very poorly taught and its students did very poorly. (Not just at formal exams, the unfortunates from there really struggled at university because of the large gaps in their education.)

        That you were badly taught is unfortunate, but it isn’t a necessary consequence of sitting quietly in rows. Bad teachers would just have been even worse teachers if they couldn’t at least get you quiet.

        There’s plenty of evidence, both formal and anecdotal, that kids need quiet to learn. (No-one says, “i’ve got an important piece of work to do, I need to find somewhere noisy and distracting to work in.”)

        The effect of rows/groups has also been studied, and if there are effects they are minor.

        So your anecdote doesn’t actually say anything about the truth of Monbiot’s ideas. You need to show how the fact that you were taught that way was the reason you were taught badly.

        But you didn’t actually say you were taught badly, did you? I am left to suspect you were taught well, but you didn’t like it. Turning the school system upside down needs to have somewhat more behind it than “kids often don’t like school very much”.


  1. Have you perhaps missed the point, Martin? I didn’t read his article quite so literally and it made a valid point that the shifting emphasis on assessing ability to recall lots of basic knowledge, facts (things robots can do) over ability to apply, analyse and synthesise (things robots cannot currently do) is doing a disservice to our young people by ill-preparing them for the world they will face (a rapidly changing one). I do appreciate the article is clearly written from an outsider looking in, but as an insider looking out in an academy where there is no emphasis on independence or creativity anymore, I have to say the point made is a good one.


    1. I think there is a discussion to be had, as I implied in my piece I have some sympathy with some of his thoughts. However, sometimes things are so loosely written and Ill thought through that they can cause more problems than they think they might be helping to solve. As for some schools being run like little offices, with targets, tracking every fortnight with a grade sent to central control then he might have had a point had he found some and had a look at what they do. He didn’t. I think it was (another) wasted opportunity in the conversation about education.


  2. Monbiot usually posts a referenced version of his article at
    Give it a few days and it should be there.

    I sort of agree with both of you, I think Monbiot’s article could be a lot better, it seems too general and lacking experience in the current education system. I find you point interesting about the intent of education. I think almost everyone now assumes school is to prepare you for work, no matter the initial intent of universal education.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought the Monbiot article was ok, not brilliant but ok.

    Of course people should be as unlike machines as possible, this is a no brainer. If you resemble a machine then likely you may be replaced by a machine. The less you are like a machine, the less likely you are. I can’t see the issue here.

    Much of what he says is common sense. It is very likely that a good many people who currently do what machines can do will no longer be working in 20 years time. This includes most teachers.

    For me what is a little tragic, is that the easiest bit of teaching to replace with AI is the knowledge part. I already relegate this aspect to Quizizz, Kahoot, Articulate, Lectora and Captivate. It wont be long before they take me out of the equation also.

    The neo trad will soon be replaced by AI leaving the more complex stuff to the remaining progressive teachers. I say this not to be provocative but to state what I believe to be the case.

    The call for “evidence based”, to try to make every tweet, blogpost and article into an exquisite piece of scholarly activity is for me a bit daft. Mr Monbiot is expressing his view, take it or leave it.

    He will have evidence for what he says but it all makes good sense to me without him providing evidence for every sentence. If people take the trouble to learn some of the background knowledge that underpins some of things he says then there would be less need for him to justify everything he says.

    You are able and I am sure you do, express views about the Trivium without proving a Harvard referenced commentary as you are an expert. “Evidence based” is much over rated in education I believe.


    1. I found your post, Brian, the best part in this whole conversation. Putting so much emphasis on Monbiot’s lack of “evidence” is kind of missing the point. Monbiot’s is an opinion piece, not a scholarly article. I tell my (philosophy) students to go to blogs for ideas, but somewhere else for factual evidence. It sure did its job, since it got so many people getting into the discussion!
      In any case, too much of Martin’s post is focused on what schools _were_ a century or two ago (and I’d agree with Chester Draws that there was probably a mix of the good and the awful. Read Roald Dahl’s “Boy” for a first-person account of the awful). The problem is what schools are now. I’m not saying it’s all bad, but I’d say at least there are a couple of dangerous trends. (I speak of the U.S.) A subtle one is the idea (magical thinking?) that putting a lot of emphasis on the STEM fields (or worse, on technical schools) will solve every problem. And a more dire one is that of standardized testing and “teaching to the test” as the main focus of elementary and middle school curricula, a toxic side effect of legislation such as No Child Left Behind and such.
      Apart from that, and even though I’m a big fan of game-based learning myself, I haven’t quite made up my mind as to how far the school reform should go. These posts, starting from Monbiot’s and all the responses that followed, are giving me a lot to think about!


  4. I’m happy to show Monbiot why collaboration is called cheating.

    I’ll follow him around at his work and I’ll work hard. But I’m not really suited to be a journalist. Then having produced pretty much nothing usable, despite trying, I’ll take half his earnings.

    Because just because you try to actively collaborate doesn’t mean you can actually contribute usefully.


  5. Excellent response Mr Robinson. So good to read a piece that is historically well informed and referenced. So many journalists have attacked schools and teachers, literally undermining the profession and honest institutions. So many of my student teachers are anxious about becoming a teacher until they go on prac and see that schools and classrooms are positive, dynamic environments. Thank you for such a well-balanced but assertive piece.


  6. I normally agree with George when I read his articles however I beg to differ with him on this one. I have over 30 years of teaching (mainly senior chemistry and junior science and maths) under my belt and I am confident that the traditional approach works best for the majority of students. I would not risk sending any of my kids to the sort of school favored by George.


  7. Luddies one & all could look at John Taylor Gatto’s series of interviews produced in 5 hours of video under the title “The Ultimate History Lesson”. This man was a teacher until he resigned in the mid ’80s as he no longer wanted to “harm children” with the education system as it was. I fully agree with Mr Monbiot that the education system is in need of change & not just changes to history that suit each new government as is happening all over the world, white washing a county’s past mistakes.


  8. I suspect that the reason many teachers & educationalists find Monbiot’s comments distasteful or difficult to identity with is that they, themselves were people who were “good at school” and for whom school worked well.
    These “good at school” pupils go on to University & straight back to school as teachers. They are perplexed that others do not share their joy & satisfaction in book learning or getting a good score in a pointless, irrelevant trigonometry test.
    I can assure you that a significant proportion of people find school harmful, off putting and spirit crushing. I roundly hated my secondary school experience and so did many of my peers. Most of the teachers were social inadequates who could not have held their own in an all-adult environment or work place. It took me about 15 years to recover my self esteem after school.
    I have a degree now, but I also enjoy creative pursuits none of which were valued at my school.


    1. Most of the teachers were social inadequates

      Because you, as a child, could spot social inadequacy in adults? Forgive me for thinking that most children do not understand nor respect adult ways. They cannot tell a reserved person from a shy one, for example. Why social inadequates would select to work long term in situations involving so much face to face contact (and with adults, as well as children) is a mystery to me.

      I can assure you that a significant proportion of people find school harmful, off putting and spirit crushing

      I’m not assured.

      Most kids find school boring at times, for sure, but leave with little emotional attachment. I’d like to see some evidence beyond your views, because mine would be the exact opposite.

      Even given you are correct, and the school system needs changing, that still does not make Monbiot correct. Change based on best intentions has a habit of making things worse. We need evidence based change, not change because some people didn’t like it and anything else must be better.

      Where I live there are schools that have been teaching using Monbiot’s philosophy for long enough that the students are now parents. Those parents have a nasty habit of choosing to send their children to other schools — ones that work in more traditional ways. Either they hate their children or, more likely, they didn’t enjoy the noisiness and distraction of progressive schooling. In NZ, at least, old-fashioned single sex, church schools with uniforms and traditional schooling are booming.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Monbiot did reference his article on his website. His Guardian articles tell you to go there for the fully referenced edition.


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