the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies: getting it wrong from the beginning

Alongside a recommendation to read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse, came another to read Kieran Egan’s Getting It Wrong From The Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Egan’s book is in a different league to Peal’s; it’s scholarly, properly referenced and published by a mainstream publisher not a think-tank. Although it appears to be about Spencer, Dewey and Piaget, Egan’s critique is aimed almost solely at Spencer; Piaget’s ideas are addressed, but Dewey hardly gets a look in. During the first chapter – a historical sketch of Spencer and his ideas – Egan and I got along swimmingly. Before I read this book my knowledge of Spencer would have just about filled a postage stamp (I knew he was a Victorian polymath who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’) so I found Egan’s account of Spencer’s influence illuminating. But once his analysis of Spencer’s ideas got going, we began to part company.

My first problem with Egan’s analysis was that I felt he was unduly hard on Spencer. There is a sense in which he has to be because he lays at Spencer’s feet the blame for most of the ills of the education systems in the English-speaking world. Spencer is portrayed as someone who dazzled the 19th century public in the UK and America with his apparently brilliant ideas, which were then rapidly discredited towards the end of his life and soon after his death he was forgotten. Yet Spencer, according to Egan, laid the foundation for the progressive ideas that form the basis for the education system in the US and the UK. That poses a problem for Egan because he then has to explain why, if Spencer’s ideas were so bad that academia and the public dismissed them, in education they have not only persisted but flourished in the century since his death.

misleading metaphors

Egan tackles this conundrum by appealing to three metaphors; the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies. The curate’s egg – ‘good in parts’ – is often used to describe something of variable quality, but Egan refers to the original Punch cartoon in which the curate, faced with a rotten egg for breakfast, tries to be polite to his host the bishop. The emperor’s new clothes require no explanation. In other words, Egan explains the proliferation of Spencer’s educational theories as partly down to deference to someone who was once considered a great thinker, and partly to people continuing to believe something despite the evidence of their own eyes.

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

Aristotle’s flies

The Aristotle’s flies metaphor does require more explanation. Egan claims “Aristotle’s spells are hard to break. In a careless moment he wrote that flies have four legs. Despite the easy evidence of anyone’s eyes, his magisterial authority ensured that this “fact” was repeated in natural history texts for more than a thousand years” (p.42). In other words, Spencer’s ideas, derived ultimately from Aristotle’s, have, like Aristotle’s, been perpetuated because of his ‘magisterial authority’ – something which Egan claims Spencer lost.

It’s certainly true that untruths can be perpetuated for many years through lazy copying from one text to another. But these are usually untruths that are hard to disprove – the causes of fever or the existence of the Loch Ness monster, or, in Aristotle’s case, the idea that the brain cooled the blood, for example – not untruths that could be dispelled in a few second’s observation by a child capable of counting to six. Aristotle’s alleged ‘careless moment’ caught my attention because ‘legs’ pose a particular challenge for comparative anatomists. Aristotle was interested in comparative anatomy and was a keen and careful observer of nature. It’s unlikely that he would have had such a ‘careless moment’, and much more likely that the error would have been due to a mistranslation.

The challenge of ‘legs’ is that in nature they have a tendency over time to morph into other things – arms in humans and wings in birds for example. Anyone who has observed a housefly for a few seconds will know that houseflies frequently use their first pair of legs for grooming – in other words, as arms. I thought it quite possible that Aristotle categorised the first pair of fly legs as ‘arms’ so I looked for the reference. Egan doesn’t give it but the story about the four-legged fly idea being perpetuated for a millennium is a popular one. In 2005 it appeared in an article in the journal European Molecular Biology Organisation Reportsand was subsequently challenged in 2008 in a zoology blog.

male mayfly

male mayfly

Aristotle’s observation is in a passage on animal locomotion and the word for ‘fly’ – ephemeron – is translated by D’Arcy Thompson as ‘dayfly’ – also commonly known as the mayfly (order Ephemeroptera, named for their short adult life). In mayfly the first pair of legs is enlarged and often held forward off the ground as the males use them for grasping the female during mating. So the fly walks on four legs – the point Aristotle is making. Egan’s book was published in 2002, before this critique was written, but even before the advent of the internet it wouldn’t have been difficult to check Aristotle’s text – in Greek or in translation.

Spencer in context

I felt also that much of Egan’s criticism of Spencer was from the vantage point of hindsight. Spencer was formulating his ideas whilst arguments about germ theory were ongoing, before the publication of On the Origin of Species, before the American Civil war, before all men (never mind women) were permitted to vote in the UK or the US, before state education was implemented in England, and a century before the discovery of the structure of DNA. His ideas were widely criticised by his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong about everything.

It’s also important to set Spencer’s educational ideas in context. He was writing in an era when mass education systems were in their infancy and schools were often significantly under-resourced. Textbooks and exercise books were unaffordable not just for most families, but for many schools. Consequently schools frequently resorted to the age-old practice of getting children to memorise, not just the alphabet and multiplication tables, but everything they were taught. Text committed to memory could be the only access to books that many people might get during their lifetime. If the children didn’t have books they couldn’t take material home to learn so had to do it in school. Memorisation takes time, so teachers were faced with a time constraint and a dilemma – whether to prioritise remembering or explaining. Not surprisingly, memorisation tended to win, because understanding can always come later. Consequently, many children could recite a lot of text, but hadn’t got a clue what it meant. For many, having at least learned to read and write at school, their education actually began after they left school and had earned enough money to buy books themselves or could borrow them from libraries. This is the rote learning referred to as ‘vicious’ by early progressive educators.

The sudden demand for teachers when mass education systems were first rolled out meant that schools had to get whatever teachers they could. Many had experience but no training and would simply expect children from very different backgrounds to those they had previously taught to learn the same material, such as reciting the grammatical rules of standard English when the children knew only their local dialect with different pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical structure. For children in other parts of the UK it was literally a different language. The history of England, with its list of Kings and Queens was essentially meaningless to children whose only prior access to their nation’s history was a few stories passed down orally.

This was why Spencer placed so much emphasis on the principles of simple to complex, concrete to abstract and known to unknown. Without those starting points, many children’s experience of education was one of bobbing about in a sea of incomprehension and getting more lost as time went by – and Spencer was thinking of middle-class children, not working-class ones for whom the challenge would have been greater. The problem with Spencer’s ideas was that they were extended beyond what George Kelly calls their range of convenience; they were taken to unnecessary extremes that were indeed at risk of insulting children’s intelligence.

In the next post, I take a more detailed look at Egan’s critique of Spencer’s ideas.

the dead sheep in the stream and new special needs legislation

Many years ago, on a walking holiday in the Lake District with friends, the conversation turned to how clean the water in the mountain streams might be. One of the more intrepid members of our party said; “So it would be OK for me to drink this?” “Probably,” replied an experienced fell-walker, “But not if there’s a dead sheep in the beck higher up.”

mountain stream

I was reminded of this incident by my local parent carer group newsletter. Not that there was anything wrong with the newsletter itself, but it included a couple of articles about the proposed legislative changes for the support of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The proposals include;

• joint planning and commissioning of services by local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups
• individual support specified in a single Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan
• support extended to age 25 and
• that families of children with EHC plans should have the option of a personal budget.

The proposals have, overall, been welcomed. However, concerns have also been expressed.

The changes were first put forward in March 2011 in a Green Paper entitled “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability”. I was involved in the responses of several groups to the consultation that followed and the general feeling was that it was difficult to comment on the viability of the proposals because they hadn’t been set out in enough detail. The Department for Education’s response to the consultation, “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability – progress and next steps” was published in May this year and draft legislation was published in September. The Department for Education appointed 20 pathfinder authorities to pilot and evaluate the proposed changes, with a final evaluation due in the summer of 2013 – almost a year later. Queries from interested parties about how the proposals would be implemented were generally greeted with advice to wait for the pathfinder reports. In the event, not surprisingly, the pathfinder evaluation has been extended and it is likely that the legislative programme will be delayed until after the final pathfinder evaluation is published.

In discussions about these changes, I’ve felt like a Cassandra, prophesying doom and gloom whilst many around me have remained relentlessly upbeat. After all, the fact that there’s a SEND Bill at all shows that the current government recognizes there are problems with the current system, and the proposed changes show that the DfE knows what the biggest ones are. Many children are likely to benefit from the changes. But in my view the proposals merely tweak problems caused by much more fundamental factors in the system, and that if these factors aren’t addressed, the current set of problems will simply be exchanged for another. One parent I sat next to in a meeting kept saying “At least it couldn’t be worse than the current system.” Well, actually it could. It could be like the situation prior to the Warnock report in 1978, which recognized that many able children were denied a suitable education because of a physical disability, and many less able children were considered ineducable. Or, as I suggested, the legislation might result in a set of problems that are simply different to the current ones.

Components of a service

A service – whatever it is and whoever it’s for – has to have several components. First, expertise. The people offering the service need to know how to accurately assess their clients’ needs and how best to meet them. Second, capacity and resources. An effective service will need enough people with the right expertise and sufficient equipment, materials, buildings etc. Thirdly, before designing the system the service will need to carry out a requirements analysis for all the people who need the service – usually described as a needs analysis in the case of children with SEND. No service would have an unlimited budget, so once planners and commissioners know what the needs are, they can then decide what expertise and resources are going to be most cost effective and what service users can probably manage without. This might seem self-evident and might appear to be what central and local government are doing already, but since the current system of support for children with SEND clearly isn’t working – and I would argue that it never has worked, in terms of ensuring that most children with SEND achieve their full potential – there must be something going wrong somewhere.

What’s going wrong?

The Department for Education seems to have decided that the problem lies in the way support services are planned, commissioned and delivered. Planning and commissioning aren’t joined up enough, despite local authorities having integrated children’s services for nearly a decade. The process of statutory assessment is too cumbersome and takes too long, even though in principle, assessments could be completed within weeks, rather than months. Support doesn’t go on for long enough, despite adult services being available. Local authorities aren’t allocating finance in the most effective way, even though it’s their job to do so. Consequently, the planning, commissioning and delivery of the system are being changed. Since the people who designed the current system presumably thought it would work, and viable processes for planning, commissioning and delivery are already in place, a key question does not appear to have been asked; what made the system go wrong in the first place?

The dead sheep in the stream

This is where the sheep in the stream analogy comes in. Imagine that you live in a farmhouse at the foot of a mountain. The farm is too remote for a mains water supply and for three hundred years the inhabitants have relied on water from a stream fed by a spring halfway up the mountainside. The purity of the water is renowned locally and the only problems ever reported have been that the stream flows sluggishly during extreme droughts. Then one day everyone at the farm gets sick. The illness is identified as a water-borne one and further investigation reveals the source – the body of a sheep lying in the stream just below the spring, hidden in a densely wooded area where sheep rarely stray. The farming family is advised to boil their drinking water or install a purification unit, but they might not need to do anything that involves that level of inconvenience or expense. It’s quite likely that simply removing the body of the sheep from the stream and letting the water flow for a couple of days would allow farmers to continue drinking the spring water for the next three hundred years without mishap – provided no more bodies end up in the stream.

Requiring local authorities to undertake joint planning and commissioning, implementing EHC plans, extending children’s services to 25 and providing personal budgets are all the equivalent of the farming family boiling their water in pots instead of kettles or installing a more sophisticated purification unit – while there’s still a dead sheep in the stream that’s contaminating the water. So what’s the equivalent of the sheep? I’d say it was a problem with each of the three components of service provision I mentioned earlier – expertise, capacity and resources, and requirements analysis – not downstream in the system near the point of delivery where most of the amendments are taking place, but further upstream.


First, let’s look at expertise. Recent independent reports have indicated a lack of expertise with regard to children, in the education (Lamb, 2009), health (Kennedy, 2010) and social care (Munro, 2011) sectors. Despite the Warnock recommendation that children with SEND be taught in mainstream schools where possible being implemented since 1978, it’s only since 2009 that teachers have been required to have SEN training and that new special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) have had to be qualified teachers. Teaching Assistants (TAs), who now make up around 25% of the mainstream school workforce, are generally not qualified teachers and don’t necessarily have any educational training, but are often the people who spend most time with children with SEN. A recent study (Webster & Blatchford, 2012) revealed that teachers aren’t usually trained to work with TAs, so many TAs are having to work ‘on the hoof’ in the classroom with little or no preparation with a child with learning or behavioural problems. The study found that when TAs worked with the rest of the class for part of the lesson so teachers could spend time with the children with SEN, the achievement of the pupils improved and teachers understood their learning difficulties better. What’s puzzling is how this situation arose in the first place. Here’s an extract from a piece about SENCO training published in the Times Educational Supplement in May 2009.

The [training] courses have been set up to address serious concerns about the perceived “low status” of Sencos and to raise the profile of special needs and disabilities in schools.”

I find it intriguing that although the professional status of SENCOs and poor awareness of special educational needs might be relevant issues, the TES reporter frames SENCO training in those terms of rather than in terms of the expertise required to help all children learn. What does this say about perceptions of SEN?

Capacity and resources

A second factor is capacity and resources; I’ll talk about capacity first. A recurring problem for parents of children with SEND is how long it takes to see professionals who can carry out assessments. Often all children get is repeated assessments; because of limited service capacity sometimes parents (and occasionally teachers) are expected to implement therapies even though they have no idea what might be causing the child’s problems or what outcomes to expect. Another recent report (Bercow, 2008) suggested that speech and language therapy in England was a postcode lottery, and there doesn’t seem to have been a significant improvement since then. The British Psychological Society has expressed concerns (not for the first time) about cuts in the number of educational psychologists employed by local authorities. Google ‘shortage occupational therapist’; and you’ll find reports from various parts of the globe. Then there’s resources. Parents report problems getting wheelchairs and nappies; even the NHS website says that there might be a waiting list for assessments (waits for the actual wheelchair aren’t even mentioned). My local occupational therapy service apologized for the delay in providing therapy for my son. One problem was that they hadn’t been able to access his school to show teachers how to integrate exercises into his school day. Another obstacle was that because their equipment takes an hour to put up and an hour to dismantle, the only time they were able to book a room large enough and available for long enough for them to treat several children in one day was during the school summer holidays.

Requirements analysis

And then there’s the requirements analysis. Under the 1989 Children Act, local authorities are required to keep a register of children with disabilities. This should provide the information they need to enable them to design support services. The register is a voluntary one in the sense that parents volunteer information about their children, and there are obviously questions over what qualifies as a disability, so at best such a register is only going to provide approximate information about the needs of children with disabilities in a given locality. But an approximation is all that’s required. In the past twenty years, it should have been possible to form a fairly accurate picture of local needs, trends over time and year-to-year fluctuations. But judging by recent reports, support for children with SEND has been getting worse, rather than better. So what’s gone wrong?

I suggest that because education, health and social care systems have been evolving piecemeal during this time, national government initiatives have cut across local authorities’ ability to use data to design effective services. For example, following the Warnock report in 1978, local authorities were encouraged to educate children with disabilities in mainstream schools where possible. An inspiring example of this is the collaboration between a mainstream junior school and a school for children with visual impairment described by Hegarty and Pocklington (1981). At that time, local authorities and individual schools had complete control over such initiatives. Then in 1988, the Education Reform Act introduced a compulsory national curriculum, followed in 1991 by national curriculum assessments, commonly known as SATs. Although there might have been good reasons for introducing both, they have each had an impact on the Warnock recommendation for the inclusion of SEND pupils in mainstream schools. If the performance of schools is assessed by pupils’ performance in standardized tests, systems pressures will inevitably lead to a tendency to marginalize pupils with SEND, either overtly – by schools discouraging admittance or by formal or informal exclusions – or covertly by simply not allocating sufficient resources to their education. Add to this the absence of SEN from initial teacher training and the reduction in SEN expertise within the education system as a whole due to a focus on children within the normal range and the closure of special schools, and no amount of tinkering with statutory assessments or who holds budgets will be able to compensate.

Failure demand

Overlooking shortcomings in factors that are upstream in a system means that whatever you do to problems downstream, they won’t get fixed. In fact the upstream issues create the need for further resources that wouldn’t be needed if the upstream problems were fixed. This phenomenon is what John Seddon calls failure demand – demand created solely by failures of system design. A common failure demand in the case of children with SEND is that avoiding early intervention in an attempt to avoid unnecessary costs often means that simple problems become complex ones, requiring expensive interventions later on. Not to mention the sometimes permanent damage done to a child’s self-esteem and the time wasted by teachers, parents and professionals trying to get problems resolved in the meantime. Providing sufficient resources to meet needs might not cost more; in fact, once failure demand is eliminated, costs can go down.

In short, until teachers, healthcare and social care professionals are trained to meet the needs of all children, not just those within the normal range, until there are enough people with that training working within the education, health and social care sectors, and until there are enough materials, equipment and space available to meet the needs of all children, the needs of all children will not, and cannot be met.


Hegarty S. and Pocklington K. (1981). “A junior school resource area for the visually impaired” in W. Swann (Ed.) The Practice of Special Education, Basil Blackwell/Open University Press.

Webster R. & Blatchford P. (2012). “Supporting learning?:.How effective are teaching assistants?” in P. Adey & J. Dillon (Eds) Bad Education: Debunking myths in education, McGraw Hill.


Photograph: Tullynaglack, Donegal, copyright Louise Price, used under Creative Commons,