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The ‘G’ word

Our new Prime Minister seems to have ruffled a few feathers with her mention of the G-word. I have read several people in the past few days who were working themselves up into a quite a lather about the possible return of grammar schools, which while (probably) unlikely, appears closer to being on the agenda at present than it has been for many years.

One writer (source lost) went as far as to claim that there are no good reasons for grammar schools whatsoever. Well here, from someone of relatively modest background who went to one, is one – albeit in hypothetical form.

Just suppose it could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that selective systems delivered the best educational outcomes. We can modify that to ‘best outcomes for able pupils’ or ‘best outcomes for all pupils’ as preferred.

We would then be in a situation where those who on the one hand trumpet their devotion to such outcomes but on the other vehemently oppose selective education, had a difficult choice to make. Try it: Are the best educational outcomes for individuals worth securing at the expense of (supposed) equality of access for all, or should we accept lesser individual outcomes for the sake of (supposed) social integration and equality of access?

I don’t think that dodging the question on the grounds that it is a false dichotomy is really a satisfactory response here; it is given as a hypothetical test.

The choice modifiers I offered might be important. If the good outcomes were for only the grammar school pupils, then I suspect many in education would be prepared to sacrifice that on the grounds of equality. On the other hand, if the outcomes were ‘proven’ to be improved for all children, where would that leave the objectors? If the choice is still for equality, then what price the worthy calls for educational excellence?

I am as sensitive to the issues around social exclusion and equality of opportunity as anyone else in education, and were I to let it this could give me endless sleepless nights. But when I read comments such as the one mentioned above, the suspicion reawakens that this debate is less about good education than personal/political agendas. Even as a society, we need to decide whether we prefer educational equality to excellence, and failing to make an active decision only leads to a default one. For several decades, the choice has been for equality, and given this country’s insidious, engrained privileges system, then I can well understand why. But to refuse even to debate the issue, let alone on level terms, strikes me as utterly foolish, particularly as inequality has still got worse over that period.

This is not even to consider the wider issues. For example, were I a parent, I would be facing a dilemma of my own: whether to deny my child the formal academic education I would wish it to have, or to do whatever was possible to secure it, even if that meant going private. We then face the issue of whether the absence of grammar schools has actually led to a more divisive system with more people going private, as indeed my own parents did for my sister when faced with the alternative being a very poor comprehensive. I wonder where this division too leaves the ideologues, even before challenging them to explain to me why as an adherent of formal academic education, only I should be denied the one kind of opportunity that I might prefer.

So we might pose another dilemma: would you prefer academically selective education or economically selective education? Personally, I have a clear answer to that, which is made clearer still if it is emphasised that academically selective education should be available to all, irrespective of their social or economic circumstances.

I know it can be argued that in an ideal world, comprehensives should provide as good an education as the grammar schools. But it is not an ideal world, and the experience of forty or more years suggests that in the round, very few manage to do this. If we are going to wish away the real-world failings of the comprehensive system on ideological grounds, then there is no reason not to do the same for the alternatives. We might also remember that the much-desired social mobility is relative: in order for someone to rise, someone else has to fall; how acceptable is that?

What is more, it is merely a value-judgment that education should be first and foremost about social engineering; personally, I reject that as I prefer to see it as a matter of cerebral development and cultural transmission. Much of the ‘proof’ being offered that selective education does not increase social mobility depends firstly on the assumption that that is what education is intended to do – and secondly on the means (mostly financial) by which such things are being measured.

I suspect that many who oppose selection have never been near a grammar school themselves, let alone spent long enough in one to appreciate how the culture of such places tends to reflect an entirely different value set from those that are unavoidably compromised by the disaffected or uncommitted parts of the population. Even my own highly-rated school increasingly suffers from this, despite its having in the past traded on the ‘non-selective grammar school’ claim.

Opponents of selection should perhaps reflect more on the imperfection of the world, and decide which is the least of the available evils. I am not suggesting that grammar schools are a panacea, but selective education of some form or other still features in many (though not all) of the countries that out-perform this one in international comparisons. As I have suggested before, however, one particular knot to unravel is whether opposition is really to the idea of selection per se, or the means of selection, which I oppose as much as any. There are fairer ways (at probably better ages) in which to make such choices than a sudden-death exam at a young age. I suspect that changing this process would dilute many of the tricks deployed by the more-advantaged to pack such schools with their own. I would also suggest that a failing of past selective education in Britain was the often-poor alternatives on offer – but that is another issue entirely, and is certainly not internationally universal.

We might reflect on whether the loss of strictly academically-focussed education has had a wider effect on the country. As I have mentioned before, I encounter fewer and fewer people, even amongst those who hold multiple bits of paper, who really strike me as being intellectually awake, who delight in cerebral activity for its own, entirely conscious self. I wonder whether they simply never had it awakened. And I feel that the country’s collective culture is ever more debased, in contrast to that which I see elsewhere, where commercial depredations seem to be having less of an effect. Perhaps we have abolished the values and outlooks that tended to anchor such things? And that is before the shortfalls of skilled labour and workforce productivity from which we suffer.

This leads to me to a final dilemma, which concerns another ‘G’ word. I wonder how many of those who oppose academic development based on ability are also in deep despair at this country’s Gold medal-haul in the recent Olympics. Even an utter non-sportsman like me takes a degree of pride in it – and the wider benefit for society of elite sporting success has already been discussed. The country’s massive turnaround in the past decade has clearly been a result of the much-improved resourcing for such people, even though sporting participation amongst wider society has not grown nearly as much.

Maybe we should have denied those people what they needed on egalitarian grounds that everyone ought to be able to run equally fast, or have access to equal training facilities? A similar approach to industry has been proposed in the wake of Brexit: we need to get much better at backing our best talent and giving it the extra resources it needs to grow, even if some do fall by the wayside or receive less in the process. It’s a matter of best-targeting scarce resources, as well as catering for specific needs.

It is worth remembering that the perception of exclusivity from outside supposed elites is not in itself evidence of restrictive practices to entry. So why deny society the benefits of those – from whatever background – whose high intellectual speed needs nurturing in the same way, if only for the disproportionate benefit that they ultimately bring to everyone?

Green shoots

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Professor Colin Richards pointed out that we have “no firm, reliable, systematic way of assessing pupils’ understanding”. He went on to suggest that learning is idiosyncratic, complex and nowhere near fully understood. He implied that exam outcomes are rarely ‘fair’ in the indulgent sense that modern students and schools have come to expect, because what they can test is very limited. The best way we have of knowing a student’s capabilities is, he suggests, working with them discussing their insights and reading their ideas over a protracted period. I only wondered why he did not question who really needs to measure the workings of an individual’s brain in such precision – and why. Exams work fine – if used properly , and so long as we don’t over-egg what they can show.

I have just finished reading Paul Roberts’ book The Impulse Society. In its later stages, it turns into a discussion of why U.S. society and politics have descended into a polarised, paralysed stalemate. His over-riding theme is that neo-liberal policies have enabled the commercial sector to conflate everyday life with the Market, to the extent that many people perceive them as the same thing. Lives, he says, have become one long tract of self-seeking through the medium of consumption – the full realisation of the atomised market society.

In a world where either you get what you want or you don’t, societal interaction has been reduced to winner-takes-all, which in turn has the tendency firstly to polarise the options available and secondly to promote the aim of winning as an end in itself, rather than a search for the best solutions. The result is almost perpetual stalemate as preventing ‘the other’ from winning becomes a significant end in its own right, no matter what the cost. This is the logical end-point of the competitive society, while the notion of Compromise as the trade-off reached between one’s own needs and those of others (a.k.a. civil society), has all but disappeared.

All of this seems wearyingly familiar to a resident of the U.K., whose recent national history is one of dutifully following wherever the U.S. leads, no matter how blindingly obvious are the dead-ends . Our national conversation seems almost as marketised (and polarised) as theirs.

Roberts’ solution is to ‘create conscious distance between the market and people’ such that they start to observe again the value of non-market, non-commoditised assets and actions. Altruistic behaviour is a clear example of something that makes no selfish economic sense, but perfect sense seen in collaborative societal terms. Intellectual activity can easily be seen as another.

Government has a role in doing this by less actively promoting the bottom line as the defining criterion for everything, and Roberts identifies education as perhaps the key area where such distance can be created. In other words, we should be promoting the intrinsic and collective benefits of education, not simply defining it as yet another consumer durable whose only value is the monetary or at least material benefits it can (supposedly) deliver to the individual.

Writing in today’s Observer, Julian Coman is just the latest to bemoan the commodisation of university education, which he argues should be society’s greatest bastion of non-material values. And yet this too has been progressively taken down the same path, to lengths that now threaten the very essence of what it surely needs to be as a civilising cultural force within society. Through my wife, I gain regular insights into policy at our local university, and the extent to which it is now being run like a profit maximising, hard-sell and sometimes quite disingenuous business is quite galling.

The thing these various reports – along with many others – have in common, is the hint that new thinking is gradually gaining a hearing. After several decades of market-dominance, this is going to take time, but it seems that just possibly, at last, the inevitable limits of the market society are being recognised, and that maybe we need to rebalance our nation in favour of broader values. Education, of course, can play a major part in that – not by what it directly teaches (though less pressure to teach to the test would be a welcome step, and not only because of the messages it sends to the next generation) but through the things that are asked of it by society, and the mechanisms by which it is allowed to work.

The fact that there are many people now pointing out these shortcomings in the policies of recent decades is, of course, no guarantee that they will be widely listened to, nor that we can actually figure out what can be done about the manifest problems. Couching the necessary arguments in terms of false dichotomies doesn’t help: accepting the limitations of the exam system, for example, need in no way imply that the only alternative is a structure-less free-for-all. What it does need is a more realistic acceptance of the imponderability of much of life, and a rejection of the bogus quantification of many aspects of it.

But just maybe these really are the green shoots of a more sensible, balanced era to come. We can but hope.

Road Rage

I travel around 12,000 miles per year to and from work – or put another way, that is around 350 hours each year observing the major public space that is the modern highway. All life is here, and I have witnessed all manner of happenings over the years. I think this is sufficient for me to say with some certainty that much of the most inconsiderate, most aggressive behaviour I see is from those in luxury vehicles who, one might have thought, have clearly done well enough out of society to manifest a greater sense of responsibility than they often do.

What has this to do with education? Well, the holiday-remove from the immediate daily concerns provides a space to mull over wider issues – such as the purpose of what we do. Working in education has become such an intensive experience that it is easy to lose sight of that greater purpose – but it is therefore more important than ever that we do take stock occasionally. So please bear with me.

Summer reading so far has been The Year of Living Danishly and The Impulse Society. These two have unexpectedly provided a contrast that was food for much reflection on the nature of the society that we are helping to create.–Uncovering-the-Secrets-of-th/18113010–Whats-Wrong-with-Getting-What-We-Want/16462889

The Danes have been consistently reported as being the happiest nation on Earth. Helen Russell investigated why this is so – and her experiences shed as much light on what it is to be a driven Londoner as a laid-back Dane. Behind the light reading, there is some provocative comment on just how work- and career-oriented British life has become, such that Russell finds it difficult to cope with the time freed up by the short Danish working week. Initially she also struggles without the constant frenzied consumerism of London life where everything is laid on for the taking. She finds it difficult even to spend sustained time with her husband, so used are they to barely seeing each other.

And yet she gradually comes to understand how a slower, less aspirational life has its merits. It even allows her to conceive, something that had conspicuously not happened in her previous life. In summary, Russell attributes Danes’ happiness to:

  • A deep sense of connection to the people and places where they live. People know each other and are more socially supportive than in racier societies.
  • A sense of tradition, where the routines and customs of Danish life are widely participated in, which breeds a sense of belonging, stability and rhythm.
  • Attention to their physical surroundings. High quality design brings a sense of calm and aestheticism to daily life, particularly important during the dark winters.
  • A strong social security system, so that people are well supported during times such as parenthood, unemployment or illness. Taxes are relatively high (up to 56%) but people accept this since they understand the benefits. It also makes life more flexible – for example the 80%-of-salary unemployment benefit makes it viable to resign from a job and look at length for something more rewarding.
  • Relatively high levels of social and economic equality.
  • Danish corporate culture subscribes to the above, with little of the long-hours or hierarchical mind-sets of the British workplace. Employers widely recognise the importance of treating staff well and accept that Danes work to live, not the opposite.
  • Possibly a genetic predisposition for happiness. This is supported by a lack of the material competitiveness seen in the U.K., so that people tend to focus on their good fortune rather than constantly yearning for more.

Having been able to spend more time in the small town where I live, rather than treating it as a dormitory, some of these issues became more evident to me in recent weeks: the simple pleasures of chatting to the local shop-keepers, of seeing people I know in the street, of being able to take a different, longer route, of not being driven by constant time pressure. These are all small things, but they noticeably contribute to a sense of wellbeing, perhaps a bit like the Danish concept of Hygge. In a difficult summer for world events, such smallness has been very welcome.

The Impulse Society, by contrast, shows just where other countries, the UK included, are going wrong. It questions whether providing for individuals’ every whim is actually advisable. The premise here is that modern abundance is incompatible with our primitive instincts, and many people are simply struggling to cope with the (commercially-fuelled) conflict that results.

Commercialised societies supposedly empower individuals by allowing them to tailor every aspect of their lives to their individual preferences, in the process excluding anything that is displeasurable. But this easily becomes a form of narcissism in which the individual’s very existence becomes dedicated to chasing ‘self expression’ – largely through the process of consumption.

The problem here is that welcome emancipation is rapidly overtaken by pure, basic greed. As people become more and more able to gratify themselves, their willingness to accommodate or compromise with others decreases; tolerance of diversity diminishes and people become increasingly insistent that they must prevail.

The result is an inflated sense of empowerment generated as every want is met, and a decreasing sense of obligation to anything beyond Self. This, Paul Roberts suggests, is why the wealthy buy large vehicles and then drive them badly. The heightened sense of status ‘entitles’ them to behave as they wish, while externalising the costs onto others, with whom empathy has disappeared. Bluntly, in a crash it is the other guy (in the smaller vehicle) who is meant to die. This certainly chimes with my almost daily experience.

Much of Roberts’ book is concerned with the effects of the growth (and crash) of high finance in western societies. This too is driven by the desire for ever quicker, larger and easier gratification. But the greed instinct means that any sense of restraint is quickly lost, even when the result is likely to be self-destructive. And equally importantly, Get-Rich-Quick sucks both resources and labour out of those parts of the economy that are more genuinely useful and productive. This is in part due to the fact that those tend to require more effort, skill and time to produce a benefit. Individual hegemony consequently diminishes the ability of societies to solve collective problems.

What has this to do with education? The answer, I think, is that our education system, as a significant part of our societisation process, needs to reflect very hard on the values, behaviours and attitudes it transmits.

Too much of what we do is now predicated on the individual benefits that supposedly accrue to those who pass successfully through the system. Much of that is expressed in purely monetary terms; much of it is about employability rather than a wider life.

The systems in place too often reflect the production lines of the workplace rather than a process of intellectual development, and they condition people to place this centrally in their lives. The extension of the school day into revision classes in evenings, weekends and holidays encourages a long-hours culture at the expense of wider activities, ‘consumed’ revision in place of self-reliance.

Too little attention is paid to the enhancement of quality, as opposed to the quantity – of life. While there have been improvements in school environments, there are many other aspects of quality of experience that are neglected simply because of time pressures.

Schools themselves have been encouraged to think in economic terms. Large school and class sizes may not statistically impact on ‘results’ – but the human experience of being a small cog in a large machine depersonalises the experience in just the way that Danish life does not. In terms of human experience, I increasingly conclude that small is beautiful, simply because it is manageable for the human brain. Small classes and schools feel better – and that is what matters.

More consideration needs to be given to how such values can be implanted in children. Liberal self-expression can certainly free people – but I think it is becoming clear that taken too far it has just as much ability to enslave as compliant small-mindedness. In fact, it can become just another expression of the same thing. Greater emphasis on shared values may be very desirable for all that it marginally restrains individual freedoms. In fact, it is too much freedom of expression that is at the root of low-level disruption in many classrooms; more conformism would certainly not go amiss in this sense.

Holidays feel good for a reason: they are good for the soul. They are only a problem for people whose lives have been so narrowed that they don’t know what to do when they are not working. Too much of daily working life feels the opposite; there is a reason for this too.

The Danes (and the Swiss who are in some ways similar in outlook) seem to understand how to reconcile a materially high standard of living with more humane values that provide genuine happiness and protect against the antisocial treadmill that daily life has become in many countries.

“Education should allow you to feel the equal of anyone – but superior to no one”.

And yet so much of what we do, even in the education system, simply perpetuates our difficulties.

Ships in the night

They say you shouldn’t mix business and pleasure. But a couple of weeks ago, a conversation occurred with a few young colleagues concerning our respective home lives. I was brought up sharp by the perceptions they expressed about my own life outside school: to say they were wide of the mark is an understatement! This is not entirely surprising as I live nearly thirty miles from the school, and I only socialise occasionally with colleagues as a result. And being a somewhat private person, I also do not participate in their ongoing social media conversation.

I was reminded that in many ways, work-place colleagues often remain as ships in the night. We spend up to half our waking lives (superficially) together, and yet often know each other barely at all. In the case of teachers, this is made more extreme by the strange fact that although we spend our days surrounded by people, in some ways it is a rather solitary existence. Unlike say, office workers, much of our working day is actually spend alone with the pupils rather than with colleagues – and when this is not the case, moments are mainly used for professional catch-ups for which time barely exists else-when.

It’s probably a good thing that teaching encompasses a diversity of souls – after all, we need to cater for even more diversity when it comes to the children – and I am not actually as intolerant as I will be dictator-sounding here. But having spent social time with several groups of teachers recently, I am left wondering if there are any substantial values or outlooks – other than our profession – that we share at all. Or more to the point: are there any common qualities that all teachers ought to manifest?

It is true that societies such as Britain’s are becoming more diverse – but in some ways, the small-‘c’ mainstream public culture seems more uniform than ever. Far from being inspirational individuals, the societising trend seems to be making even educators more homogenous by the year. And it is not homing in on the one thing that I believe should unite all teachers: the life of the mind.

Having just conceded that it can be very difficult to know one’s colleagues, I am still left with the impression that the teacher role-model is – how shall I put it – becoming increasingly little more than a bolt-on that people assume at the classroom door. A life of the mind does not imply that we should all be alike, in fact quite the opposite. As The Independent’s erstwhile strap line used to say, “Great minds don’t think alike”! But there seem to be fewer and fewer really distinctive individuals within teaching, something that (or at least the perception of which) has probably not been helped by conformist career-ambition or the drive for professional compliance within schools. And yet it is distinctive individuals, more than corporate clones, that children often find inspiring.

For example, the recent political turmoil generated more staffroom discussion of political matters than usual – in other words, some rather than none at all. And yet many of those I encountered professed no knowledge of the issue at hand. While Remainers dominated the discussion, I’m afraid I got the impression that just as few really knew much about what they are wanting to remain in as those on the opposite side did the converse. More depressing was the claim that ‘nobody had ever been told’ much about the E.U.

Well, I would say to today’s Ambassadors for the Power of Learning: Go and Find Out! Go and read the literature; go and travel (not just ‘holiday’) in those countries! As we urge the pupils, learning is not a passive process!

I could relate a number of other recent experiences that have similarly reinforced the impression that there is increasingly little to differentiate teachers from the less-educated masses, but to do so would be to identify certain individuals whom I have no wish to offend. But my overwhelming impression is that teachers, like everyone else, are increasingly the victims of a mass-produced, commercialised, cyanosed culture whose only raison d’etre is mindless consumption and the groundless Worship of Me. A wider, personal interest in knowledge, learning, culture and the more cerebral side of life seems increasingly rare.

How this chimes with one’s credibility when it comes to standing up in a classroom and espousing the power of intelligent thought, I do not know. More to the point, what will be the consequences of a growing disconnect between how people behave professionally and personally? It’s an extension of the older objection that smoker-teachers can hardly preach the non-smoking message.

I expect many will be bristling at my presumption in commenting on the lives of others – and yet I find it difficult to understand what could be seen as a gentle hypocrisy or blind spot. One of the main impressions I was left with of my own schooling was that the teachers were almost without exception intelligent, thoughtful people: in some ways a pillar of society, who stood up for certain values not only in how they taught, but how they lived. This certainly did not mean that they were all solemn intellectuals (though some were) – but that they nonetheless practised in their own lives the values that they tried to imbue in their pupils; I know – some were family friends, and two were my parents. Perhaps the first of these was a decent formal command of their native tongue. But I am far from certain that this outlook is still universally the case within teaching.

I am not advocating gratuitous elitism here: a certain down-to-earthness was and is probably both necessary and desirable in a teacher – but I have never seen why that should mean actively endorsing the mindlessness or shallow materialism of contemporary life. Surely others can see through it too? In fact, for intelligent culture to be really credible, it needs to be embedded precisely in the everyday lives of people who are not university academics. This is what I have seen amongst teachers on the continent, where a different self-perception still seems to endure. If we as teachers can’t find anything productive to do with our own time on this planet, let alone actively stand up for thoughtful, educated values, then why should we expect any more of others?

In a world where substantial, coherent, intelligent thought is both declining and ever-more necessary, what hope is there if a substantial proportion of even the teaching profession no longer practises what it preaches?

On this note, and gloating over the fact that my teaching year has already finished, TP will be taking its customary break over the summer. While there may well be occasional posts, normal service will be resumed in September, and I wish my readers (in the northern hemisphere at least) a restful summer.

Don’t be stupid.

My recent reading has been The Stupidity Paradox by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer. It’s one of those books that I think anyone in an organisation, and certainly anyone running one should read. It’s also one of those books which, while not solely about education, will I suspect have many who work in schools nodding with recognition at almost every page.–The-Power-and-Pitfalls-of-Function/18939366

The subject under scrutiny is what the authors call ‘functional stupidity’, in other words the kind of idiocy of the herd mentality or blindly-followed protocol that causes otherwise intelligent, skilled people to do very dumb things in certain situations. The authors are academics and the book is carefully balanced, demonstrating for example how encouraging people to overcome their misgivings can bring short-term benefits to an organisation. But the bigger premise is that this same behaviour can also cause longer-term problems if it prevents people from identifying the reality of situation, and particularly problems as they develop.

I think the book is useful because it calmly but mercilessly illuminates all kinds of stupidity that passes for good practice in all sorts of institutional settings, and while it perhaps focuses on managerial decisions, it also shows us that no one is immune: this is simply a cognitive failure of human beings when put in certain situations. In this sense, one might feel sympathy for those whose decisions, by dint of their seniority, have larger than average impacts, but it also presses the point that seniority ought to bring about a greater than average determination to avoid such pitfalls.

I wonder how many school managers have come across the idea of functional stupidity, let alone take it seriously. I think they should. If nothing else, it should warn of the dangers of micromanagement, and the antidote lies partly in empowering people to make their own decisions, while keeping coded behaviours to a  minimum.

I will end by giving a few examples of the issues the book addresses, and strongly recommend it.

The Knowledge Myth: We now live in a knowledge economy where intellectual power is all. This justifies giving people trumped-up job titles to reflect the fact – but also to ‘help’ them to believe that what they are doing is really smart. In fact, much work has been dumbed-down and is at least as mundane and repetitive as ever. The eventual realisation of this fact causes disappointment and disillusion.

Functional Stupidity. The idea that clever people, put in constrinaing situations, can behave stupidly. For example, the stipulation of institutional procedures can lead to blind adherence, even where there is a clear flaw in doing so. The outcomes can sometimes be disastrous.

Mindlessness. The establishment of routine in the workplace can lead to people following ‘social scripts’ which are so routine they are automatic. It can result in people ‘talking past’ each other, and conforming to role rather than thinking about what they are saying or doing.

Normality.  A variation on the above. People accept that sometimes even bizarre routines and practices are normal simply because they are habitual within the organisation.  They may appear deeply weird when seen from the outside.

Normality -2. People are deeply unwilling to stand out from the herd in organisations because doing so risks social isolation and possibly career suicide.

Leadership-induced stupidity. The creation of specific cultures or mindsets within an institution often comes from the top. They may bring a useful sense of cohesion and purpose – but they often inhibit wider thinking, particularly when there is a risk of upsetting the boss.

System-induced stupidity. There is a tendency to think that if systems are in place, then they must be working. Box-ticking becomes more important than actual functioning. The risk is the emergence of the ‘audit society’ in which it checking that things are being done becomes more important than actually doing them (well).

Culture-induced stupidity. Where an organisation cultivates a particular culture, this can again help cohesion. But, for example an organisation that is implacably positive, where negative thinking is not permitted, may find it very difficult to address real problems that crop up simply because it is not done to contemplate them publicly.

There is plenty more fertile reading, but I hope this whets the appetite.

Summerhill by the back door

Desperate times call for different solutions. No, not more about Brexit, though there are parallels. Rather against my better judgement, I found quite a lot to agree with a report in The Guardian about a Berlin school that has turned traditional assumptions about school structures upside down.

In essence, it is the pupils who decide what they wish to study, rather in the way that A.S. Neill’s notorious (?) Summerhill School did (and in fact still does).

I must admit I still struggle with the dilemma between the traditionalist view that the teacher knows best, that they are the experts in the room, that they should decide what children need to learn and that children should therefore be expected to comply – and the problems that this clearly poses in modern times, where children are simply not equipped with the necessary powers of concentration and respect for authority and knowledge that this approach requires. For all my traditionalist leanings, some of the arguments used by the Berlin school may have some traction.

As I have mentioned before, the intake at my school is changing significantly. In some ways, I suspect this simply marks the end of the charmed life that it has led for most of my time there, and it is now being forced to address the reality that many schools have faced for years. But there have been times this year when I admit I have been at a complete loss for how to engage children who seem to have no inherent interest whatsoever in anything I teach,  whose starting-point is below anything I have encountered before, who have no regard at all for the authority of the teacher or indeed any other adult, and on whom my long-established practices make barely a dent. I am very reluctant to go down the edutainment route because I believe I would be neglecting the very things these children above all others need to have addressed. But on the other hand, the traditional approach is being found somewhat wanting too.

In some cases, these are children who hitherto would have gone to other schools, but no longer. Some of them I suspect come from homes where any kind of structure is absent – but by no means are all from underprivileged backgrounds. Some are clearly quite the opposite, and the phrase ‘silver spoon in the mouth’ does not begin to describe the attitude of entitled condescension that they manifest. But the one thing these two types have in common seems to be the sense that they need not lift a finger in support of their own education. Indeed, when challenged over their lack of work, one eleven-year-old this week told me to my face that my lesson had “not been entertaining enough”.

As I said, desperate times call for new solutions. I wonder whether this German approach might have something to recommend it. I think there are two important points here: firstly, so far as one can tell, there is no judgement made about the teacher in situations where, for instance, children choose not to engage with their lessons; likewise, there remain consequences for children if their chosen approaches do not yield the required outcomes. This is not responsibility-free freedom.

By coincidence, I have been deploying a somewhat unorthodox approach to my dilemma outlined above. I am fortunate to have a connecting classroom that is rarely used at this time of year. Consequently, the opportunity has arisen for children to be given the choice of whether to participate in my lesson and thereby accept my rules and expectations, or to spend the time in the other room (albeit under discrete observation by me).

The only consequence is that they will need to explain themselves if found during learning walks (having chosen to opt out of their lessons, they are not being deprived of anything by me) and the lack of marks in their books with consequent lowering of reported grades. In some cases, I provide opters-out with the work to be done at home. A few have chosen to remove themselves – but those who remained have generally shown improved co-operation, and lessons have been smoother without the disruptive elements. After a few weeks of this, one or two are beginning to see this a skive, and I need to think what to do next about them. But opting-out rates have fallen, and the effect seems to have been marginally beneficial. I expect to get into trouble for this sooner or later – but as I said, difficult circumstances require new thinking.

In an age when children come with the Attitude that they do, I increasingly believe that making them face the consequences of it is the only way to break through the arrogance and complacency that causes many of them to think that they can behave as they like within the classroom, safe in the knowledge that their “rights” are inalienable.

Schools and teachers have increasingly been shorn of the ability to deploy sanctions that hit home to this breed of sassy, brazen youth, and children know it. Given that children are now so marketised, perhaps the only thing left is to make them face the consequences of their consumer choices, make them actively ‘buy in’ to their education if they want it, rather than letting them get away with the diminished responsibility whose main effect is to damage the opportunities of the better-thinking others.

Sometimes it is only when we are deprived of something that we come to realise its true value.

To err is to learn

I apologise for the lack of links in this post: WordPress appears not to be allowing them this evening.

When I am advising a student who appears set on going down an inadvisable route, I always try to spell out the considerations – and then allow time for second thoughts. Mistakes are sometimes made anyway, but there is no point in allowing errors to happen that a little reflection might avoid. When it comes to Brexit, we are now in an infinitely wiser place than we were just a few days ago: the general mood of the nation is known and some of the consequences have been seen, so it is no longer just conjecture.

John Tomsett’s post earlier today was eminently sensible, in claiming the campaign was not honest. In the broadest possible sense of the word, this is an educative moment for a nation that has perhaps taken both its democracy and the status quo for granted for too long. Unlike many other European nations, we have never really had to have the kind of national debate that they had following the Second World War. It has been all too easy to sit smugly on our supposed laurels.

While the media will always alight on novelty, there have been quite a few accounts today of people having second thoughts about their Leave votes, of seeing the back-pedalling that is already going on, of saying they did not take the enormity of the consequences seriously enough.

It is entirely correct to say that the will of the people should be respected; in that sense there can be no going back until the ‘right’ result is achieved. Hopefully, that is an abuse of democracy that this country is still above.

But on the other hand, would it not be reasonable to ask the nation to confirm its decision in a second vote, to reaffirm that this is its will, now that the balance of opinion is more clearly known, and now that the nation has in effect looked into the abyss? It would need to be done soon, and on the same terms as the original vote. But is not the ability to learn from one’s mistakes not a key part of the educative process?

We would not write a student off for their folly without a chance to reflect. It is not (quite) too late for informed second thoughts.

The Other

I benefitted from a liberal academic education, whose main purpose was, I believe to develop the intellect for whatever eventualities should arise. It equipped me to make a good life for myself, but above all it sowed the seeds for an appreciation of the power of knowledge and reasoned thought.

My (teacher) parents supported this with the same values and by ensuring that I had a good foundation in speaking French, which I have subsequently developed to near-fluency and also branched out into DIY German and Italian. Our many continental childhood holidays also pushed back our frontiers, a process I have also continued in my adult life by travelling widely within Europe, forging friendships and familiarising with places such that the continent does not feel in the least alien to me.

The erstwhile tendency of people in this country to go distances to university further cultivated the ability to cope with other places, and to extend one’s horizons; this tendency too seems to be in decline.

Forget exam grades, targets, value added and even employability; the most important job for education is the rolling back of prejudice and ignorance, not by indoctrination but simply by expanding horizons such that the limitations of smaller thinking become obvious. They say travel broadens the mind, and in my experience this is absolutely true, not only by pushing the frontiers back and fostering tolerance and adaptability but also by casting a different light on one’s own roots within the larger scheme of things.

And yet the people of this island have today demonstrated that their collective will is the antithesis of the above. They have once again demonstrated an insularity that is nothing more than fear and defensiveness against a world they do not understand. Nothing in the last four months was ever going to combat the previous forty years of indifference and misinformation, of failure to give the people of the U.K. anything like a citizen’s pride in being part of the European Project.

Some will claim that Britain can return to its glorious past, something I am not entirely sure it ever really had when viewed through any prism other than the national myth. And in any case, the true measure of a people who have come to terms with The Other – the fact that people are both very alike and very different – is the need neither to serve nor rule them, neither to fear nor to dominate.

Personally I am very angry that this decision has robbed me of a significant part of my identity, and indignant that this has been done not on the back of level discussion but of bigotry and fear. I have devoted a significant part of my career to developing informed and reasoned discussion of the European issue, both through the ‘A’ Level subject and my wider teaching. It seems it has been for nothing.

Many of my colleagues expressed distress and dismay at the result – but few are old enough to remember the past thirty years, during which to be outwardly pro-European was to be a voice in the wilderness, even within education circles.

The views of the populace have clearly been formed by many factors, of which formal education is but one – but if the giving of a lead to the less informed by the more is not part of education, then I really am lost for what it is for. ‘Employability skills’ will be as naught if the worst economic consequences of Brexit come to pass – and we have likely blown our supposedly global reputation for tolerance and reason too.

Forget the myopic navel-gazing and petty squabbles of the education world: when it comes to equipping the nation with something as important as the ability for mature civic deliberation, I fear we failed. In the U.K. fear born of ignorance rules and we remain as unable as ever to comprehend the true significance of The Other.

E.U. decide

The U.K. is currently paying the price of forty years of failure to educate its people about ‘Europe’. I’m not suggesting that we should have been indoctrinating people into one particular view, but the current hypertension over the forthcoming referendum – and the manifest shortcomings of both camps when it comes to making reasoned cases – could have been avoided had the nation actually known anything at all about that which is it supposedly deciding upon. We are now at a point when nothing less than the future of our country hangs on the votes of ignorance that will be cast by the majority of people, largely based on issues that have little to do with the actual one in question.

For quite a few years, I taught ‘AS’ level European Studies, which I should emphasise was not the same as ‘E.U. studies’, as it contained historical, geographical, cultural and environmental elements as well as an in-depth study of the workings of the E.U. Arguably this is what Europeanism is or should really be about, rather than single issues, and an appreciation of this would certainly have provided a more stable basis for a referendum. I wonder how many British people really identify their holidays in Spain (or wherever), pizzeria visits, school exchanges or football fanaticism as acts of Europeanism.

Each year, I took groups of teenagers to the European Parliament and European Court in Strasbourg. We travelled by train and spent several eye-opening days on the Franco-German border. They watched the Parliament in action, talked to M.E.P.s of several nationalities and discussed the work of the Court with one of its lawyers. Despite my efforts to be scrupulously neutral, and despite my working in one of the longest-standing Euro-sceptic parts of the country, during that course the more the students discovered and discussed, the more their views shifted inexorably in favour of pan-Europeanism. The fundamental good sense of co-operation just became more and more evident. Wherever they are now, those former students should be equipped to make informed decisions when they vote in a couple of weeks’ time.

And then, around 2005, the exam board scrapped the course on cost grounds; even my direct appeal to then-Prime Minister (supposedly pro-European) Tony Blair produced nothing more than a letter disowning the decision.

During the same period, the scheme of work I had designed for our Year Eights, which included a more rudimentary view of the E.U. was also ditched by my then colleagues – our current pupils have had no education on the issue whatsoever. And yet the associated day-trip on the Eurostar to Lille has endured because it was so enjoyable. We ran it again last week, to much favourable comment from the pupils. They were certainly unprepared for the speed of the journey – just one hour from Ebbsfleet to Lille – and the vibrancy of the fourth largest city in France, which they had barely realised lies virtually on their doorstep.

During the follow-up lessons, the matter of the referendum inevitably arose; despite views on both sides, it was evident that the issue of immigration is dominant, with quite a few pupils feeling that the ease of travel was a bad thing. Well, I suppose they never knew the days before the Tunnel when it took nearly a whole day just to reach Lille. They were more mixed when I pointed out that the forthcoming abolition of roaming charges within the E.U. would presumably not apply to Britain if we leave. Nothing like a little self-interest to motivate, but the general growth of parochialism is profoundly depressing, particularly since the U.K. was the chief protagonist in the drive to enlarge the E.U. in the first place.

Eurobarometer, the E.U.’s polling arm has repeatedly shown that of the original fifteen nations, general public knowledge of the E.U. has remained lowest in the U.K. For many years, U.K. governments apparently refused to have E.U. information offices in major U.K. towns, as was common in every other member-state. Even now there are few, mostly hidden in the depths of other buildings and too far from many people to be of any practical use – even assuming their existence is known about.

And short-sighted government is still making mistakes – for example, the link between High Speed 1 rail line (London – Paris) and the planned High Speed 2 (London – North) has been abandoned, which will make the seemingly-obvious integration of, and synergy between the two networks impossible. Things like direct international trains from one’s nearest city do more to raise a sense of connection than might be assumed. By contrast, many of my students are flabbergasted when I point out how much closer they live to much of France or Germany than, for example, to Scotland.

I have always been pro-European in the widest possible sense. Not only does my experience of the European institutions convince me that they are better-conceived – and functionally at least no worse – than Westminster, but my travels and friendships on the continent give the whole thing a personal meaning in which I take genuine pride and pleasure. There are places and people ‘over there’ whose doings are real, every-day part of my own life – and there is only one way to achieve this kind of immediacy. I will be devastated if we leave.

Given the U.K.’s island nature, British people do need to be prompted to think wider – but what, if not that, is the point of education?  Attitudes to language-learning have still not been cracked (though pragmatically the spread of English is reducing the barrier). And yet there seems as much of a complete vacuum of real understanding of Europe in this country as ever.

I’m not suggesting that mine is the only valid point of view, and there are certainly plenty of improvements that could be made to the E.U., but the ugly and parochial mentalities becoming evident in the current debate represent a catastrophic failure to equip Britain’s people with the necessary information and perspective upon which to decide. A few months of media distortion were never going to do what years of formal education should have been doing.

Once again, for all the narcissism and drum-banging the British education system and its political masters have utterly failed the nation when it comes to equipping it with knowledge of something of real, practical and now critical importance.

Doing the sums…

A welcome and productive half-term break comes to an end. In between our day-trip to Birmingham (approved!) and the odd social engagement, our financial advisor paid us a visit, with the welcome news that our pension arrangements should secure us a modest but comfortable retirement. He based his calculation on my working until I’m sixty, which is another eight years away.

In the bigger scheme of things, even being able to consider retirement at such an age is probably a blessing – and it’s not as though I’ll be short of things to do without work. But it would only be possible of course as a result of doing the work that earned the money… And yet I can’t help being mindful of two things: at my age, my Swiss friend was just a couple of years away from the point where the system lightened his teaching load on account of increasing age and declining stamina, in a way that would probably be portrayed as ageist in the U.K. And after a month which held something of a (hopefully ungrounded) health worry for me, I am also conscious that my mother only made it to 67…

A good colleague has been teaching for ten years longer than I; after a couple of part-time years, the next will probably be his last. As colleagues of nearly thirty years, we sometimes talk over the experience. He agrees that the first ten years of his career, from the late 1970s, were relatively untroubled; it was from the mid ‘80’s that things ratcheted up – in other words about the time I started teaching. So people of my generation are perhaps the first to have spent their whole careers in the hot-house that British education has become. They say that a career in teaching takes its toll; they are not empty words.

We wonder whether the current crop of young teachers will be able to keep going for a full career; recent reports suggest that in many cases they are already deciding that they can’t.

I finished Chang’s book during the holiday; at the risk of labouring it, I will make one further reference. Education is not fully ‘marketable’ in the way that other aspects of the economy have been – but it has still been exposed to the same neo-liberal philosophies. It’s not too difficult to perceive where the outlook came from – the idea that life is inherently a struggle, that flourishing only happens when comfort is dismissed. And yet this seems too much of a convenient legitimation of a culture in which (a few) winners do take all – comfort included. While it may have brought some benefits, the whole process of opening education to something like market forces has paralleled – in my view not coincidentally – the era when too many aspects of it became toxic. Do those benefits really outweigh the very evident costs?

As Chang convincingly argues, education’s principal impact is not economic, and it is the refusal of marketised societies to accept or value this that has done so much damage: in simple terms, education is being forced to do something that it inherently cannot. And in the process, very many of the contradictions and corruptions of the system have become established. What should be the most affirmative undertaking of a civilised society has become ensnared in the debasement of market consumerism.

If that were a merely theoretical argument, it might not matter so much – but the price is being paid by the people in the system: not the new edu-barons who are doing very nicely – but the ordinary teachers and pupils whose careers and educations are being blighted by the fear of burnout or retribution for the failure to march to someone else’s drum.

Education should not be – I would argue cannot successfully be – like that – and I should not be feeling that the return to work after a mere week off is such a huge weight re-descending on my life. By no means do I dislike my work – but holidays are nonetheless ever-more welcome respite. Whatever happened to balance?

In Chang’s words:

We should build a system that brings out the best, rather than the worst, in people.

But I fear that in some ways present-day education has become the latter.


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