Tony Blair can say what he will; New Labour ignored research that is how we ended up with VAK LS

Reading Tom Bennett’s recent piece in the TES I thought it was rather ironic that Tony Blair cast aspersions about the quality of educational research rather than reflect on the educational policies developed by New Labour. In the article Blair says:

“[That’s] a very good question, what is the role of research? I think we do need good quality research from outside of government. But I found there wasn’t a good deal of it around.”

The evidence is that he, and his colleagues, didn’t try hard to find it. Even as they were commissioning it, evidence that is, they were ignoring it. Here is one example; there are a lot but lets start with the “biggie”. The one that has struck in the craw of every teacher intelligent enough to know that you cannot predict or personalise outcomes based on a single sense; visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Actually I’m being generous quite a lot of teachers thought you could or at least were prepared to accept that it could be true. OFSTED thought it was true. As recently as 2013 citing learning styles in inspection reports.

You see policy is pernicious; people comply, jobs depend upon it. Quite often they come to believe in that which they have to comply. A kind of pedagogical stockholm syndrome. The same people who endorsed VAK Learning Styles are now debunking them and advocating “grit”, feedback circles, mind gym, ahem I mean, mind growth or whatever. People have to get ahead; carve a niche in the education game.

So where does the VAK learning styles story begin? I originally assumed that it began in the field of research. As it turned out there was relatively little research on VAK learning styles. A huge number on learning styles per se (see Coffield, 2004) but little specifically about VAK learning styles. Learning styles instruments such as Dunn and Dunn had aspects of it but apparently it emerged from some aspect or other of NLP.

The earliest reference to VAK learning styles I could find in government documents was a VAK learning styles questionnaire produced by an organization called FEDA in 1999. Subsequently I found references to VAK learning styles by other government funded organisations such as BECTA. Both organisations are now gone as are many others. It’s quite dizzying how often policy units related to education change names and morph into something else.

It seemed from a policy perspective that VAK learning styles really began to gain traction as a construct to support the policy of personalisation. In 2004, David Miliband was as a junior minister in the department of education and skills. In his policy document, Personalised learning: building a new relationship with schools, Miliband describes

……. a system in which every child matters; careful attention is paid to their individual learning styles, motivations and needs; there is rigorous use of pupil target setting linked to high quality formative assessment and marking; lessons are well paced and enjoyable; and pupils are supported by partnerships with others beyond the classroom (Miliband, 2004, p. 2)

Miliband refers specifically to “individual learning styles” within the context of the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda but does not state a specific type of learning style or how they should be used. The purpose of the personalisation agenda was described as a means to diminish the persistent achievement gaps between different social and ethnic groups outlined in the White Paper: Higher Standards, Better Schools for All (2005, p. 50).

At the time personalisation, was a concept, that had been floating around think tanks for a while, in this case Demos, and introduced into the policy arena by the publication of a paper Personalisation through participation by Charles Leadbeater in 2003. It is not clear whether Leadbeater had much experience in the social services or education it seems that he was a journalist prior to his move into policy with Demos. Nonetheless, personalisation developed with the intention of including service users in the planning of provision, by the time Miliband had finished with it the concept had become something different altogether.

Now if you are anything like me the hackles begin to rise when you hear a “mish mash” of fairly bog standard teaching concepts such as; learning styles, formative assessment, marking and delivering enjoyable lessons described as “pioneering work”, as it is, in the text below from the Miliband’s original policy document. There is also reference to two other government bodies, the Implementation Review Unit, which was setup by the partners to the National Agreement on Workforce Reform. The former is currently being (or has recently been) reviewed and the latter is …well…. if you are interested, feel free to look it up.

The proposals have been developed significantly from the pioneering work of the Implementation Review Unit, which was set up by the partners to the National Agreement on Workforce Reform, and I pay tribute to their efforts and look forward to working with them as this agenda progresses. (Miliband, 2004, p. 2)

As I began to lose interest (and the will to live), I did begin to wonder how many government agencies, quangos, “think tanks”, and policy makers does it take to cobble together a personalisation agenda. Clearly, it takes quite a few. Ironically in the very same year that David Milliband was launching his policy document proclaiming “new relationships with schools” another government department, the  Learning and Skills Development Agency (subsequently the Learning and Skills Network and now gone) funded a piece of research by Frank Coffield. This research poured quite a good deal of scorn on the notion that learning styles can identify an individual’s learning preferences.

I’m not sure I really got to the nub of learning styles (VAK or otherwise). I think it was little more than a policy convenience. It sounded right – it made sense. If you only engage with education at a conceptual level and do not engage with it at a practical level it probably sounds plausible. Whilst New Labour did not invent learning styles its adoption as a policy tool certainly elevated its status; ensuring that a profession obsessed with compliance would perpetuate its use way beyond its usefulness.

Subsequently the ECM policy agenda was shelved but not before a great deal was spent on glossy brochures and, professional development etc. Personalisation as a concept still exists albeit as ill defined as it ever was and teachers still formatively assess, mark, and deliver enjoyable sessions as much as they ever did. VAK learning styles are still being debunked on a daily basis. As for David Miliband we all know that after his brief stint in education he is no longer in politics.

The moral of the tale is that as a profession we tend to think that someone somewhere knows more than we do. The “others” who just know. Often that is not the case. As often as not those making the decisions, or influencing decision makers, are not educational professors (in their ivory towers) but those who have made a career influencing people, journalists, think tankers, politicians and the like.

Tony Blair can say what he will about educational research but the evidence suggests that where there was good quality research he, and his colleagues, happily ignored it. In the same year David Miliband was launching personalisation, based on learning styles, another government department was releasing research that completely debunked the whole concept as barely having a scrap of evidence to support it.


1) This is based on a BLOG from 2013. In some cases Idleness does get things done.

2) No matter how bad New Labour were; the coalition has been infinitely worse.

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