An Interview with Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson: From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery; the Democratic route

Nov 23, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)     Gentlemen, you have just authored a book that examines the current status of education, seemingly in Britain, and perhaps around the world. What brought this about ?

We are former colleagues at Durham University in the North East of England who are still friends. We tend to meet regularly while shopping with our wives in Durham. About two years ago we met on a Saturday morning and both of us immediately began to moan about the state of education, in particular the fact that government policies make matters worse, no matter which political party is in power. We decided to do something about it rather than just whine. We agreed to meet once a week, to write chapters, comment constructively on each other’s work and in this way our book came into being. We’ve written it for all those who despair of the current educational policies of all the main political parties and we want to offer an inspiring alternative. Such policies are not just being pursued in England but all over the world, and especially in the USA.

2)     What are your biggest concerns?

From different starting points, we have both been concerned about persistent, social inequalities both in educational provision and attainment. In the 1930s, R.H. Tawney, the great historian and social commentator, called this the ‘hereditary curse on English education.’ We remain cursed. We are also concerned that our educational system does not prepare young people adequately to face the dangerous future before them, which includes climate change, the recurrent crises of capitalism and the growing dearth of decent jobs. These problems are related and are compounded by another, for which a revitalized system of education is a necessary part of the solution: a democratic renewal of all our educational and social institutions.

3)     There are many American theorists who believe that all this standardized testing, and on –going assessment is going to sour or “ turn off “ kids to learning and the enjoyment of scientific discovery and discovery of the world. What are your thoughts?

Our view is that the over-rigorous regime of testing in England is making students better at passing test but poorer at learning. Students have become mark hungry; they now concentrate on what will help them pass the test rather than trying to understand the subject they are studying; and they don’t attend classes which are not directly concerned with exams or exam techniques. Assessment is considered by them as something really unpleasant that happens at the end of courses, or worse still, at regular intervals during a course. The idea that assessment is their best chance of improving their learning is not part of their thinking, but it should be.

4)     The other side of the coin- is the taxpayer, who may want their son or daughter to learn a bit about the Magna Carta, Canterbury Tales, and of course Winston Churchill- what is your response to that individual?

There is a false dichotomy in much discussion about education: the contrast, the apparent irreconcilability between an approach that values the content of what is to be learned and another which places emphasis on the process of learning. We reject this distinction. The most effective way for people to learn content is through being helped to understand better the manner in which they learn. Closely related is the need for content to be negotiated with the learner so that whatever is to be learned is seen by the learner as being relevant to their needs and interests. If the process of learning meets these criteria, the content is more easily mastered. Our schools, colleges and universities routinely introduce students into the culture and social life of our societies. But we want them to do more. We want the crucial problems facing our societies and the means of dealing with them to be the centre of what education is about.

5)     I have been to England several times, and, like America, you have some problems with illegal immigration. Does that factor impact education in Great Britain?

Yes, we too have our (un)fair share of illegal immigrants which puts huge strains on housing and social services as well as education. But an even greater issue is the presence of large numbers of legal immigrants. For example, in primary and secondary schools in some boroughs of London like Tower Hamlets or Hackney, as many as 140 different languages are spoken. Parents as well as children need to be taught English and introduced to the culture of Britain. Ethnic minorities tend to be concentrated in certain inner city schools and the challenge is to see such cultural diversity as a rich resource which should be celebrated and built on rather than a problem to be tackled.

6)     Also, your country is trying to implement inclusion of students with special needs into regular education classes. How has that impacted education in England?

This is a complicated field of practice that we do not discuss in the book. We take the view that, in principle, it is desirable to include as many special needs pupils as possible into the mainstream. Both groups of students benefit but only if the programmes they follow are well-planned and resourced and, above all, well-led. Continuous staff development is crucial, as well as high levels of parental involvement.

7)     I am vaguely familiar with OFSTED- what is that organization attempting to do- and do you agree or disagree with their methods and philosophical perspective?

OFSTED is an acronym standing for the government Office for Standards in Education, whose inspectors judge all schools, colleges and adult education centres, maintained by the state. Recently, Ofsted has switched to inspecting proportionately to risk, with schools and colleges judged as “outstanding” being inspected every six years, thus allowing inspectors to repeatedly examine those judged to be “satisfactory but coasting” or “inadequate”. We are spending millions checking up to see whether we are getting value for money, money that would be better spent on helping schools in challenging circumstances to improve. Indeed, we are spending more on inspection in England than on improvement services.

Of course, some form of accountability for large sums of public money is essential; the question is what form that accountability should take. We would be in favour of a system of peer review, moderated regionally (with democratic representation for parents and elected politicians), which focused on stimulating improvements.

8)     How do schools go about turning out the informed , engaged, responsible citizens that the world needs?

It is not only schools that need to do this. Our book highlights the importance of building democratic communities of discovery into the worlds of workplace learning and in the institutions of civil society as well as in schools, colleges and universities. To be more specific: schools prepare people to understand democracy and to become engaged citizens by becoming more democratic in the ways in which they function. Democracy cannot really be taught as if it was just another subject. It has to be lived. Democracy cannot be just switched on and off; it must be cultivated over time.

9)     England is highly regarded, at least in my opinion for his fine University system- Cambridge, Oxford, Southampton, and the like. Yet, your country needs electricians, plumbers, nurses, and other workers. How do you reconcile this ?

England, like all other countries, needs doctors, lawyers and engineers as well as electricians, plumbers and nurses. The problem historically in England, however, is that we have had and still maintain a highly elitist system which continues to work very well for the elite. But this is at the expense of a large, excluded minority and a huge and growing gap between the attainments of those at the top and the bottom. We have yet to produce anywhere in the UK a prestigious vocational pathway which could stand comparison with, say, the dual system of apprenticeship in Germany.

A strong theme in our book is the need to build up ‘learning-rich’ work environments where young people at the start of their working lives can develop abilities, understandings and skills that they will be able to build on throughout their learning careers in the worlds of employment and civil society.

10) Let’s directly discuss your book- why do you refer to schools as “ exam factories “ and how has this crisis if you will come about?

Exam factories are places where a standardised and tested “ product” is made to explicit design specifications. In the UK, we have seen the standardisation and centralisation of curricula and testing. Educators have lost much of their professional autonomy and ability to innovate flexibly with learners. This situation has come about over the past three decades as successive governments, responding to the demands of employers, have attempted to boost educational attainments in the interests of economic competitiveness. Our claim is that these pressures have resulted in education policies that are narrowly instrumental, short-term and which compound rather than challenge some of the greatest weaknesses of the educational system.

11) Many educational theorists ( Jerome Bruner, Alfie Kohn ) believe that schools should employ discovery and investigative methods. Your stance?

We agree with Jerome Bruner when he wrote in the Culture of Education that “learning is at its best when it is participatory, proactive, communal, collaborative, and given over to constructing meanings rather than receiving them” (p84). That is why we argue in our book for communities of discovery, where tutors and learners are learning partners, who become experimenters, researchers, thinkers, pragmatists and joint developers of a new curriculum which will tackle the main threats facing our societies.

It is why we insist that schools (and other settings for learning) should change to become more democratic in their functioning. Learning and discovery flourish when the right of people to contribute, to have their views respected and challenged, is valued and supported and when institutions celebrate what the poet Keats described as ‘negative capability’. He defined it as: ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainty, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. We’ll forgive him the reference to a man and stretch his idea to include the whole society and a little further to suggest that people should be encouraged, too, to live with conflict and disagreement that they manage democratically. Under such conditions, people and learning both flourish.

12) What have I neglected to ask ?

You might have asked why we felt it was so important to frame our discussion of education with what, Karl Mannheim in the early 1940s,described as a ‘diagnosis of our time’. We believe educators (not just those in schools) have to take a view of the world for which they are preparing their students so that they can assess, with them, the appropriateness of their learning. We want educators to take a long-term rather than a short-term view of their work.

Related to this, you might have asked more about what we see as a key idea running through the book: that of the community of discovery. We look forward to helping educators and learners work creatively across boundaries in ways that challenge some of the dysfunctional features of our society so that democratic institutions and practices can be strengthened. We know it is possible to work in this way. We have seen it happen. We know that it takes courage to work in this way. We know that it needs support and leadership. We know that when people do work in this way, their understanding of learning, of themselves as learners and of their possible futures is transformed.

13) Now, the final question – Where can interested individuals get a copy of the book or more information about your ideas?

This book is available to order in North America from Stylus Publishing ( and can also be ordered from all online book retailers such as Amazon and The Book Depository.

In the UK it can be purchased from John Smith’s Education Bookshop and all good bookshops and online retailers.

Frank Coffield is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London (IOE). Bill Williamson is Emeritus Professor of Continuing Education at Durham University.

The Institute of Education (IOE) is an autonomous graduate school of education within the University of London. During the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, the IOE was judged to be the best Higher Education Institute in the country for education research. (

Print Friendly, PDF & Email