The Devil’s Educational Glossary A-L

The Devil’s Educational Glossary was inspired unashamedly by ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, written by the American journalist Ambrose Bierce and published in 1911. If there is a single entry in that work that epitomises it, and him, it would be this one:

Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

And in that vein:


An aptitude, gift or learned competency that may or may not have relevance or usefulness within the state education system.


A school that has been turned into a cash cow for private enterprise.

Age-related expectations

The pretences:

  • that because we treat all children born within an arbitrary 12-month span as being of the same age for the purposes of school organisation, they are the same age and should therefore be expected to develop and achieve in the same ways and at the same pace as the age-related expectations suggest (which would be an unrealistic expectation even for a group of children born on exactly the same date);
  • that an age-related expectation is a meaningful or useful educational measure and;
  • that it is useful to give early and regular reminders to a sizeable group of children that they are disappointing, particularly when the measure against which they are being assessed is meaningless.


That part of the educational process in which the raw product, having been weighed and measured at the outset to determine its potential future yield and then cultivated, is squeezed and the juice that it exudes is measured and recorded.  At the height of the summative assessment season, the husks of those fruit that contain little or no juice are discarded.

Attainment 8

An arcane set of calculations, based on a carefully narrowed curriculum (curriculum narrowing is anathema to Ofsted) for determining which schools are to be labelled as having succeeded and which are deemed not to have succeeded.  Two subjects, English and Maths, are counted as being twice as important as any of the others.   While literacy and numeracy remain essential components of the core curriculum, which has changed very little since 1870 on the basis that we shouldn’t make hasty changes, this does not account for the double weighting of GCSE English and Maths, which are to literacy and numeracy what the advanced driving test is to the Level 1 Bikeability cycling test

So while very few would argue that a knowledge of Romantic poetry since 1789 and a full understanding of Pythagorean triples constitute doubly essential learning in equipping pupils to manage their lives as adults, that is the view that has prevailed.

Catch up

At its simplest, the implausible but improbably durable idea that children who have missed some time in school should make good on all of the learning missed, but in their own time and without unnecessary fripperies such as the input or guidance of the teachers whose lessons they were not able to attend.  How this is also to be achieved without some mastery over the laws of time is left to the discretion of children and family groupings.

Ofsted has a different conceptualisation of ‘catching up’ which makes teachers responsible for addressing ‘gaps in knowledge and skills’.  The central premise is that if teachers just pop back and plug these gaps, this will redress learning lost because of the pandemic.  How this is to be achieved without some mastery over the laws of time is left to the discretion of teachers and schools.

Ofsted also sees gap-plugging as a way to ‘powerfully address social disadvantage’.  Why teachers didn’t think of the idea themselves is beyond comprehension.  But if the aim is for more children from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve better academic outcomes, this premise founders completely on an exam system which is constructed to ensure that the proportion of candidates who achieve each grade is both limited and determined in advance (see ‘cohort-referencing’).


Adjective used (in statute) for several years to describe schools deemed to be good but whose continued good performance was viewed as a failure to improve, thereby ensuring that even successful schools could be chastised by Ofsted.


A subset of norm-referencing, cohort-referencing is the system used to fix, in advance, the proportion of children who will be awarded particular grades within formal exams and assessments – SATs, GCSEs and A-Levels.  Year on year, very small increases in proportions of higher grades are allowed, in order to give the appearance that ‘standards’ are improving under that particular Government’s tenure.  This leads to the periodic requirement to change the assessment system (for example by exchanging an established letter-based grading system for an inverted number-based system with an increased number of categories, or introducing new syllabuses) so that the illusion of continuous progress can be maintained.

Collaborative learning

Within education, a form of cheating, so designated because it circumvents the requirement that learning should be individual and competitive, so that there are winners and losers, and the right people rise to the top.

“Where I grew up, learning was a collective activity. But when I got to school and tried to share learning with other students that was called cheating. The curriculum sent the clear message to me that learning was a highly individualistic, almost secretive, endeavor.  My working class experience . . . was disparaged.”

Henry A Giroux


In England, the set of subjects which make up the content of a liberal education as set out by the Taunton Commission in 1869 for Grade Two schools, and entrenched within formal state education ever since.

Since there is no single set of abilities running throughout human nature, there is no single curriculum which all should undergo. Rather, the schools should teach everything that anyone is interested in learning.

John Dewey


An externally imposed fixed time parameter of great significance to some, e.g. teachers collecting students’ coursework for external moderation, but a loose term indicating the opening of negotiations for students themselves.

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” (Douglas Adams)

Drive up (usually applied to ‘standards’)

To insist that schools and the national pupil population should perform better, within a system where one school’s or one pupil’s success is always gained at the expense of another school or pupil.  (See ‘cohort-referencing’.) 

There are some who claim that ‘driving up’ is therefore more akin to forcing a large flock of sheep to ascend a steep hill with a small summit atop, and then feigning deep disappointment that the shepherds have failed to fit most of the flock onto the summit.


A condition, myth or set of presenting behaviours much argued about.


A right or claim to something.  In standard English usage, the individual may choose whether to take up the right or claim, but in education it is something that the individual can be compelled to take up, as in ‘national curriculum entitlement’.


The lifelong process of the development of the mind, not confined to or defined by the restrictive content of formal schooling.

“It is because modern education is so seldom inspired by a great hope that it so seldom achieves a great result.  The wish to preserve the past, rather than the hope of creating the future, dominates the minds of those who control the teaching of the young.  Education should not aim at a dead awareness of static facts, but at an activity directed toward the world that our efforts are to create.” – Bertrand Russell


The system of punishment used by schools that prevents children from participating in organised learning in the misguided expectation that this will motivate and enable them to participate in organised learning.   It is commonplace for schools to have both exclusion and inclusion policies and, apparently, to implement and run both simultaneously.  (See ‘Policy’ for an explanation of how this is possible.)


A form of compulsory overtime for pupils which must be discharged outside of their workplace, theoretically without supervision. The persistence of homework as a feature of education owes much more to tradition than to the existence of any strong research evidence about its educational benefits and whether they outweigh its costs (including to parents).  An incidental benefit accrues for the very small proportion of pupils who go on to become teachers, because they will have been well prepared for working life.

Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.

Plato, The Republic. Book VII. 536


A set of educational principles open to a wide range of interpretations, starting from the premise that everything should be done to ensure that the child follows the compulsory curriculum, and nothing should be done to alter the compulsory curriculum to fit with the child’s learning needs.  (See ‘Entitlement’)

Key Stage

A block of two or three years within compulsory education.  Why such stages should all be designated as ‘Key’ is not clear, given that none of them is ostensibly any more important than any other and that none can be missed out.  

League Tables

Device for ensuring that there will always be schools open to criticism and which are therefore ripe for enforced academisation (or re-academisation).  (See also ‘Standards’, ‘Attainment 8’ and ‘Progress 8’) These operate on a parallel principle to the annual national furore when it is discovered that, scandalously, an unchanging proportion of children is ‘below average’. 


According to Ofsted today, ‘Learning can be defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.

Paradoxically, for at least ten years, Ofsted inspectors laid claim to be able to ‘see’ the alterations in long-term memory that children experienced, as they were happening, during the observation of lessons.  According to multiple Ofsted School Inspection Handbooks, this extraordinary power of insight (or foresight) provided ‘first hand evidence’ that informed their judgments on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment.

“Learning is not so much an additive process, with new learning simply piling up on top of existing knowledge, as it is an active, dynamic process in which the connections are constantly changing and the structure reformatted.”  – K. Patricia Cross

Local Authority

A bureaucratic organisation designed to act as an intermediary protective buffer between government and its citizens so that it shoulders the blame for government underfunding of public services.

Local Authority Education Department

For parents and children / young people with special or additional needs, a bureaucratic organisation which acts as the protective buffer between children / young people and the resources necessary to meet their special educational needs.

While it is government underfunding that has rendered it incapable of discharging all of its statutory duties, decisions about which statutory duties it will not meet, and how they will be avoided, are left to the creativity of each Local Authority.  This leaves the impression of organisations staffed overwhelmingly by morally upright citizens who have somehow been persuaded to suspend what they know to be right, for the (Local Authority’s) greater good but at the expense of children with special educational needs or disabilities and their families.

One comment

  1. An article I wrote in 2018:

    I am a retired teacher and loved working together with the children as active partners and participants in the exploring and discovery process. I saw myself and still would, as a facilitator, not an instructor. Encouraging questions and inviting opinions were all part of teaching & learning.
    Sadly, since Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of a ‘National Curriculum, nearly 30 years ago, this methodology has gradually been worn away. In fact, a few years ago when Tory, Michael Gove, was Secretary of State for Education, he referred to teachers like me, who objected to the new curriculum, as “Trotskyist Troublemakers”. Now, the children are passive recipients of a curriculum which takes little account of their individual and joint interests, needs & requirements. I feel sorry that they miss out on so much and are merely taught facts, expected to memorise them and then regurgitate them in tests. Indeed, they are tested to oblivion. Many children suffer from stress and depression related to test situations. It is a shame that teachers are being discredited and demoralised. It’s not what I want to see for future generations.
    Children in Britain begin school at 4 years old. Even at this young age, education has become more formalised. The government have even talked recently about testing children upon entry to school ! A 4 year old does not even understand the concept of a test. At this age children learn through play. “Play is behaviour that looks as if it has no purpose,” says psychologist Dr. Stephen Suomi. “It looks like fun, but it actually prepares for a complex social world.” Numerous studies have evidence suggesting that play has considerable benefits for children, including boosting brain function, improving communication skills, increasing fitness, improving co-ordination and teaching co-operation.
    Schools are pressured into administering tests that only measure the academic aptitude of their students. It is these results which dictate the “success” of a school, according to Ofsted, the school inspection body. Targets, set by government, not teachers, must be met. Any achievements that do not directly correlate with the tests’ purpose are not considered worthy of note. Social, practical and physical education skills are ignored.
    It is not unusual these days for creative activities like music, dance and art classes to be the first to be cut. Even playtime, which demonstrates and highlights so much about children’s behaviour, is regarded as irrelevant. Cutting creative outlets is narrowing opportunities and can cause long term damage, in terms of social skills and levels of fitness.
    A child’s brain is very malleable and easy to manipulate. Brainwashing children into believing in a rigid set of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours means it is fairly easy to negatively influence a child. Children’s self-identity and confidence are not fully formed. They can be undermined and destroyed by a person in authority. Children’s minds can be twisted, manipulated, and reprogrammed until a new person emerges that is consumed by self-doubt, envy, even hate of others who appear to be succeeding where they have failed.
    I don’t believe in violence or war. As a teacher I would encourage children to respect other people and their opinions. Treat people as you would hope to be treated yourself. Be kind and tolerant. Talking is better than fighting.

    Moving on from school children to university students, many British universities have changed. The traditional university model used to be based on broad-based teaching and research, encouraging independent study. Now, universities have been forced to go over to a business model, using companies and corporations as sponsors. These business institutions then have the power to dictate what they want. Now, study is geared to business requirements rather than the pursuit of knowledge. I am against this and as a lecturer at a university changing over to such a method, have protested. Universities should not be preparing students to be the slaves of industry. Students now arrive expecting their teachers to provide them with a package containing all the answers, which they can take away and digest. I always asked a new intake of students what they hoped to gain from a university course. Latterly, the answer was often “value for money” ! The result of these changes ? Older staff, such as myself, were encouraged to leave or take retirement !!
    The end result is now generations of people who possess the standard ideas of the status quo. They take things at face value, don’t question or criticise. It is the age of the key word and the sound-bite. The media is indeed the opiate of the masses and they need to wake up quickly before the walls enclose them and there is no escape.
    Cultural assimilation is partly a matter of what has been called “group-think,” The ability of people to adopt the views of their teachers, managers and peers, so as to be seen as one of the crowd.
    Our education system has been hi-jacked and subverted. The curriculum or programmes of study have become training for industry and commerce.
    Education is driven by a deliberately created agenda. Schools and universities are no longer places of learning. They are preparation for work and compliance. A love of shopping abounds in Britain. A materialistic world has been created. You have to work to be a successful consumer.
    The process of ‘conditioning’ and ‘training’ makes the rulers feel secure. The population outside of the ruling class pose a potential threat to the status quo of the privileged. The only possible way out of this problem is through real education. I mean that which I describe at the start of my article.
    If our opportunities are limited by our leaders, we need to change the situation and rethink our educational processes. People are born curious and have the ability to develop their imaginations. The chance to develop and extend such skills must be present in our society.
    How can we improve our society ? By opening doors and allowing our minds to fly free. Teachers of my generation, the 60s and 70s, wanted to have these possibilities and we encouraged such ideals in our pupils. I started with a quote from Albert Einstein. I shall finish with another:
    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

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