Interview: Frank Coffield

Just suppose this man ran education

Professor Frank Coffield, feted and sometimes feared for his excoriating attacks on the UK education system, talks to Janet Murray about his life and work ahead of his 70th birthday.

Raised in a Catholic family in the smart suburb of Hyndland, Glasgow, Frank Coffield grew up with a strong sense of social justice. 

Educated at a selective grammar school – and, more informally, by his tax inspector father, a Classics graduate who inspired in him a love of Latin and Ancient Greek – he knew he was privileged. And from a very early age, he was acutely aware, that just a few streets away, children were growing up without the same kind of advantages.

It was this that inspired him to volunteer as a teenager, first for the St Vincent de Paul Society, shopping and cleaning for the housebound. Later, while studying Classics at Glasgow University, he began fundraising for the housing charity Shelter.

“The smell of some of the houses still haunts me,” he says. “Compared with my own home…I just couldn’t believe that people were expected to live in those places.”

Gangs

Professor Coffield was drawn to education research and teaching after taking a summer job driving a minibus for an approved school for young offenders (now generally known as secure units) where he was fascinated by the youngsters, some of whom were just a few years younger than him, but already
heavily involved in gang culture.

In a bid to “try and understand what delinquency was all about,” Professor Coffield went back to university where he studied psychology alongside a teaching qualification.

After his second degree, and a short spell teaching Greek and Latin in a mainstream school, he returned to the approved school where he’d worked as a bus driver, but while he was still fascinated by the pupils (his first major piece of research ‘A Glasgow Gang Observed’, published in 1973, was about a group of them), a few years into his teaching career, he was already feeling drained.

He had realised early on, that – far from being correctional – in many cases, approved schools were actually“incubators of crime”. Many reoffended within days or weeks of being released. “I couldn’t cope with the failure…” he recalls.

On the advice of a colleague, he moved into teacher training, first at Keele and later at Newcastle and Durham universities. In the early 1990s, he became fascinated with the way colleges were changing having been freed from local authority control following incorporation, particularly the way they were being “turned into businesses”.

In 2002, he gave a speech at the Association of Colleges (AOC) annual conference that stunned the audience into silence.“I stood up and amazed this conference by saying ‘there is nothing about teaching and learning in this whole conference, it’s all about finance and businesses and estates…’” he recalls.

The speech led to an invitation from John Stone (then chief executive of the Learning and Skills Network) to write something on the subject and his influential research paper ‘Just Suppose Teaching and Learning became the first priority’ was published in 2008.

In the meantime, Professor Coffield authored another controversial study, which concluded that – despite their widespread use in schools and colleges – there was no hard evidence to prove that the use of learning styles in teaching was effective.

Red thread

Professor Coffield is also damning of the“audit culture” of the current education system, which he says is “the death knell of good learning.” With teachers under pressure to teach to the test, “students have become good at passing examinations… but they have got worse at learning,” he says.

He recalls the early part of his teaching career at Keele University, when he was given a budget to have students round for dinner once a term.

“Mary [his wife] and I just made spaghetti and got some cheap wine in and they’d [the students] be there until three or four in the morning. And they’d pick books off the shelves and say ‘Can I borrow it?’…and that’s what real learning is about - getting enthused about things.”

While Professor Coffield officially retired four years ago, his research, consultancy and writing work (he’s authored four books in that time) keep him busy, and though he turns 70 in October, he says he
has no intention of slowing down.

His latest book ‘From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery; the Democratic route,’ co-authored with Bill Williamson, is typical of the “red thread,” that runs through his work. In it, the two academics (Williamson is Emeritus Professor of Education at Durham) argue that schools should not teach children to jump through hoops to pass exams. Their priority should be to prepare people to understand democracy and to become engaged citizens.

Reflecting on his 45-year career in education, Professor Coffield hopes his legacy to students and colleagues alike will be to ‘question everything.’ He explains: “I think it was the remark that Karl Marx wanted put on his tomb ‘de omnibus dubitandum est’… you should question everything. The asking of good questions is sometimes the most important thing of all."

Janet Murray is an education journalist. She writes mainly for The Guardian.

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