Service Interruption

To my regular readers:

I regret I will be making few if any posts in the near future. At long last, the pressures of this job have got the better of me, coming as they have at the same time as some personal ones. At present I am not at work and am at a point where blogging about education cannot be high up on my priorities.

Never believe anyone who denies that teaching exacts a long-term toll.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

T.P.

 

Head in the Cloud

I found William Poundstone’s recent book Head in the Cloud – The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google rather a disappointment. I had been hoping for an exposition of the neural benefits of being knowledgeable – but while disowning the view that cognitive development is only about material benefit, this is largely what the book confines itself to.

http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/William-Poundstone/Head-in-the-Cloud–The-Power-of-Knowledge-in-the-Age-of-Google/19397512

More interesting – if still flawed – is Poundstone’s use of online polling to conduct fairly large-scale surveys of public knowledge. With a clear eye to the market on both sides of the Atlantic, he meticulously cites examples from both Europe and America and the results, if taken at face value, make depressing reading. If education’s goal is to produce a more informed populace, it seems that so far we have barely made a dent. That said, one might question the informative value of asking people lists of what they do or don’t know, particularly when the examples in the book itself highlights the extent to which such knowledge is culture-dependent.

Poundstone goes on to correlate scores in such tests with ranges of other views and opinions, often in quite specific ways. He suggests that a high level of ignorance of basic factual information often correlates with more extreme views on a range of issues, something that recent events in the U.K. might reinforce. For example, the past week has demonstrated that many hard-Brexiteers have little real understanding of the institutions they purport to advocate, as seen in their reaction to the High Court ruling regarding the sovereignty of Parliament to trigger  Article 50. And a vox pop in Barnsley on Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme revealed that some people think that the U.K. has already left the E.U.

One might counter that the human species has always functioned more on a mixture of ignorance, prejudice and instinct that its more intelligent members might feel comfortable with – but in a time when the consequences of ignorance are so far-reaching, educators perhaps need to face the music here. Even in so-called developed countries, the power of those baser reactions appears closer to the surface than we have liked to pretend, and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that they present a risk to the very foundations of ‘civilised’ societies.

Poundstone’s book fails, however, principally on its inability to consider the more intangible benefits of knowledge – precisely the same failing as many current educational models. A dependence on supposedly-scientific method stymies any attempt to consider such matters: if one’s ‘proof’ is largely found in statistics and correlations, then one needs a quantifiable outcome to measure against. In this sense, it is indeed easiest to look at relatively practical matters such as test scores, and the eventual earning capacities of differing people. In this, Poundstone shows – relatively convincingly within his own confines – that those who know more tend to have more conventionally successful lives. He hints at the cognitive factors that may lie behind this – the Marshmallow Test gets a mention – but he fights shy of the more difficult analysis. Unfortunately, this is precisely the same mistake that many educational models make: they frame their success criteria in material or at least quantifiable terms, simply because the alternatives are too difficult to measure.

But this is one of the oldest flaws in the book: measuring what you can rather than what you need will not necessarily provides the answers you seek. I am not for a moment pretending that I know the way forward on this – but my longstanding motive for being in education is the intangible benefits. I suspect that this really lies in the realm of assembled neural networks –and by definition those are both so complex and so unique as, I suspect, to be beyond useful analysis.

Much of what successful education ‘does’ simply cannot be quantified – it falls within the realm of Wisdom, and the very nature of this makes it unquantifiable. It is also so multi-faceted that it defies the craving of formal education to ‘know’ and claim credit for its input. I would suggest that education itself is only of most effect when, like a good wine, it has had decades of laying-down in which to mature. In other words, its impact is time-dependent in a way that modern institutions and policies prefer to deny. It relies on accumulation of experience and the benefits of hindsight to make much practical sense. One (hopefully) only has to compare the world-view of a recently educated but still immature undergraduate with that of the same person in later life to appreciate this.

I think we are witnessing the consequences of the collective failure to appreciate such matters: on the one hand, people have never had so much access to information (and education) as they have today – and yet it seems not to be making for better-quality discourse or more considered opinion; if anything, the opposite. I suppose one might consider the real issue to be the divide between those who have (effective) access to information and those who do not – but in which case there remain far more of the latter than we care to admit. But in reality, those views do not seem to correlate with education; there are plenty of educated people who hold bigoted views, and I suspect plenty of the less educated who do not.

What seems to be missing is the transformation of knowledge into wisdom. I suspect that this is because it is a process that no teacher can really do for you; I come back to the notion that teachers are merely the planters of seeds. But the decision of formal education to disown Wisdom as its key objective cannot be helping. In his final sentence, Poundstone edges closer to the real issue: Google might tell you the answer, but it cannot tell you what to ask in the first place – and nor can it tell you what to do with that ‘answer’ when you have it. In this, I think a much more satisfactory answer was provided by the late Douglas Adams, through the voice of Deep Thought: a computer might have given you the answer – but it is up to the individual to work out what the question is.

And that’s where there is no substitute for a properly educated mind.

For what? (part two)

zeller_hallenbad-radonbad-in-menzenschwand-3Teacher de-stressor (not available in the UK.)

It seems to me that in Britain, by comparison, there is a sense of disempowerment – that people have less real control over their lives, that there is less active engagement with living a good life. I contrast this with the very passive act of consumption that seems widely to dominate people’s attention.

I’ve never really been able to separate the extent to which that might be caused by the legacy of a hierarchical society, or because people have willingly devolved responsibility for their lives to the political or commercial sector. Either way, one might argue that one of the purposes of education is to equip people to resist the forces that diminish their autonomy.

If I am correct, this passivity is precisely what one might expect a lack of education to cause. Clearly the U.K. does not lack education – but perhaps it is failing to deliver in this critical respect. I can see no other reason why so many people are prepared to live insubstantial, pre-packaged, cloned lives at the expense of any sense of their own individuality. “Because I’m worth it” has been misappropriated from being an inward expression of personal substance and turned into the ultimate in lazy consumer indulgence. Ironically, the more out-sourcing of life goes on, the less what is left might be deemed to be ‘worth’ much at all.

There will always be differences in society of course – but as far as I can tell, like-for-like people in the U.K. somehow seem more resigned and cynical than their continental peers; the greater passivity in their choices of lifestyle betrays something.

I am not trying to suggest that there is only one type of, or path to, a good life – but perhaps the things that evidence the lack of one are rather clearer. While one might argue that people are happy if they think they are happy, it is not always true that the stressed or depressed realise it at the time. All species, when put under pressure, exhibit pathologies of which they may not be fully conscious. The willingness or resignation of many British to believe that life is hard and dull and that there is nothing much that can be done about it, may be one such pathology. The grudging, aggressive or antisocial behaviour one sometimes encounters in this country may be another, the need for constant novelty and escapism a third. Yet for all the politicians and gurus talk about empowering people, very little really seems to change…

Only those with heaps of cash seem able to escape the general precariousness of daily British life; for the rest the sedentary dependence on junk culture, shoddy goods and the dream of unearned fame is an expression of the failure of a society to come up with anything better to live for, rather than evidence of how well we are doing. And the very urge of the rich to buy their way out of wider national life in itself says a great deal – a phenomenon that seems much less marked on the continent.

Most concerning, it seems to apply as much to the educated as anyone else; the present educational direction seems intent on tying people ever more tightly into that world-view rather than liberating them from it. Again, perhaps the significant point is that (externally applied) education alone cannot a good life make. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts. The only other way to escape is to retire – and the expressions of utter relief from those I know who have done so recently itself says a lot about the experience of their working lives.

One encounters many people who are highly-qualified; some of them come from relatively privileged backgrounds, others much less so. But what so often strikes me is that there seems to be no correlation whatsoever between those individuals’ levels of education and their general outlook – except, perhaps, for the absence of severe hardship. For the dullness and pressure of even many professional-grade lives in the U.K. can only say even more about what it is like ‘lower down’.

Above all, there seems to be very little cognitive impact of their education: some of those people do have knowledgeable, enquiring minds – those who are ‘individuals’, who are great company, inspirational even , not because they all match but precisely because they each have something unique and engaging about them. But I encounter more of their type on the continent; in more cases here, the experience of becoming educated seems to have almost no real impact on lived lives at all – except (sometimes) the amount of money in pockets. Many seem still to have narrow perspectives and horizons, even on any perceived ‘purpose’ or context for their own lives. Where is the personal impact of all that education?

I am not entirely exempting myself from the matter either. I like to consider myself a thoughtful and reasonably knowledgeable person – but I attribute that largely to my upbringing and innate curiosity, and cannot say with certainty that my schooling had any more than a reinforcing effect. In that sense, I am no different from those others I may appear to be criticising. But I’m not really seeking to criticise people for the lives they choose to lead, so much as suggesting we may be wrong to believe that the key determinant of the quality of those lives is formal education.

But if this is so, one wonders why we are so mistaken – and how it turned out so differently elsewhere. What is lacking in the culture of this country that results in such a hang-dog approach to life? Maybe we are hoping that external ‘training’ can make up for the lack of something much more inherent and personal?

In many ways, ‘ordinary people’ are the same everywhere; they largely have similar concerns and problems. Except that some of them are fortunate not only to live in beautiful surroundings – but also in well-made buildings, in settlements where people clearly take a pride in their communities and in their relations with others, where civic institutions are strong and there is at least something of a social safety-net. There remains an unassuming sense of the good life, that life is worth living, an opportunity to be seized, that can be seized. It was expressed by the sense of general conviviality present in that restaurant the other evening, by the way each new arrival was generally greeted and each departure bidden goodnight – visitors and locals alike.

But those things did not happen by accident: they are the product either of people deciding those things are important and behaving accordingly – or of making it clear that they will not settle for less.

In the U.K., it seems that no amount of educational progress ever delivers to people anything more than a sense of the inescapability of the rat-race, of the need to gain at others’ expense, of the need to calibrate life in a way that still rarely delivers any tangible benefits. It’s about quantity, not quality. It does not deliver us better homes or roads, it does not improve our indifferent towns or environmental record.  It does not improve the quality of our national discourse or widen the availability of our culture. And if the continent is not entirely Paradise, then the grim bits of this country, and the lives lived there, seem to out-do much of what at least the west of the continent can offer.

‘Opportunity’ seems to be conceived as little more than the ability to work harder and spend more. It certainly seems to do little to enlighten people’s thinking about the things that transform the treadmill into a life well-lived. I know that is not the entirety of life in the U.K. either – but the prevalent mood here often seems to be a sense of weary resignation.

As I said at the start, perhaps education delivers the opportunity for divergent thinking – including precisely the ability to disagree with arguments like mine above – but I still do not understand why so many people here seem never to take their eyes off the ground and look to the stars, even when highly educated. The good life is not a matter of extravagant special occasions or the escapism of behaving badly – It is not a matter of shiny-eyed Panglossian over-optimism, so much as attending to the quality of ordinary everyday life. Our education system seems unable to help people to appreciate that – indeed it seems to be sending them in the opposite direction. But maybe realising such things is not a matter of formal education anyway.

In which case, one is left wondering what on earth all the pressure is actually for.

For what? (part one)

2016-10-25-21-33-02-1

I’ve heard it said that if you want to understand why education is so important for a country, then just look at one that has none. It’s a point that is hard to argue with – and yet the connection between the life-experiences of people in various parts of the world and their educational experiences is anything but direct.

Empowering people to make more considered decisions about everything from their birth rates to their economic activities or their use of leisure time seems such an obvious thing to do, and it is clear that in aggregate terms there is an effect – even though what we teach rarely relates directly to such trends. Yet education also implies empowering people to make increasingly divergent decisions about their lives, rather than following patterns stipulated by others. There is a pretty significant contradiction here.

What’s more, when one looks at widely-educated nations, the connection between education and life-choices seems to diminish. Putting my curmudgeonly hat on for a moment, the harder I look at life in Britain, the less certain I am about what it is that the increasingly-urgent imperative for more and more education is actually meant to be bringing. When it comes to the norms of British life today, I find it hard to see where education’s effect actually lies.

This comes into sharper relief every time I travel to our near-neighbours on the continent. To be blunt, ‘Here’ I see many supposedly-educated people for whom that experience seems to inform their lives almost not at all; ‘There’ I see by comparison an attractive way of life for which formal education can presumably only be a partial cause. And I know those countries well enough for it not all to be just rose-tinted spectacles.  If the point of education even in developed countries is supposedly to improve the quality of people’s lives, are we looking for the wrong thing in the first place? And if it is not that, once the basics of life have been addressed, then what?

Like most (all?) teachers, I choose to believe in the transformative effect of education – in its ability to change lives substantively for the better – even if I also see it as the only alternative to remaining in savagery. If this is not the case, then just why is so much effort invested in improving ‘opportunity’ for those who supposedly do not already have it? But what does that opportunity consist of? Are we deluded to think that a more educated mind – let alone more bits of paper with grades on – really can make much real difference to people’s time on this planet?

I rather fear that it actually means little more than the ability to work harder or spend more, thereby enriching our masters further. I suppose it may also mean the ability to support one’s dependents better, thereby being less of a burden on the State – thus enriching our masters further. But do such things really equate to ‘more opportunity’ – let alone the best that education can offer? The societal effect of education is actually cross-generational, but in which case, is the story we peddle that learning generally transforms individual lives anything more than a white lie? True, people will sacrifice much for their children – but there comes a point when perpetual deference to the future becomes pointless. In a secular world, the best solution has to be for each equally-valuable life to be lived as well as possible in its own right.

I certainly don’t equate being bound ever more irrevocably into the economic treadmill with a better quality of life. It seems to me, too, that the focus simply on the grades people achieve – which ties them inescapably into an economised view of education-as-currency, rather than what actually happens in their heads during the educative process – is a corruption of the basic aspiration of that activity.

My half-term holiday involved travel by train to Strasbourg, and thence to our friends in Switzerland and their second home in the Black Forest. I took the heading photograph in a restaurant in a remote village 3000 feet up in said Forest . We had just finished stomping up a gorge by a waterfall, followed by an hour’s soak in the local spa-pool: an enlightened amenity for a backwoods – but not neglected – community. We ended with a delicious meal in this homely, family-run restaurant. But what has this to do with education – for all that our party consisted of people with Master’s and Doctorate qualifications? I suppose one might argue that education alters the value one attaches to such experiences, but that seems far from universal – I can think of many who would be bored by the prospect – and I doubt holding a PhD is a prerequisite for appreciating it either.

Question: does education really change the values one has in life?

So what is all the education really for? Germany and Switzerland excel at the ‘protestant work ethic’ – and no doubt running a successful restaurant or spa is indeed hard work when measured in time and physical effort – but where does education really come into it, beyond an ability to add takings up or read the regulations? It is unlikely to generate the understanding that even in business, authenticity and joie-de-vivre are important assets. Likewise, accumulating the money to acquire second homes and pay for meals requires work – but that is hardly sufficient to sum up the beneficial effects.

It seems to me that the things that I find so attractive about those countries’ quality of life have less to do with education than their transmitted culture. They may value hard work and they certainly have no shame about material wealth – but those are not the things that alone bring their high quality of life. If anything, the opposite is true: it is the remaining awareness that the good life is about more than material factors that is important. Contrast this with a conversation overheard amongst educated Britons recently, to the effect that customer-loyalty is pointless any more since all companies overcharge and one should ruthlessly shop around in order to beat the price down. It seems a bleak, dehumanised view even of commerce – and one for which a little independent thought might prompt a re-evaluation.

During our trip, we encountered unfailingly friendly, courteous people in shops, restaurants and the street – as we always do. I’m not so naïve as to believe this is the whole truth – but it is nonetheless a regularly repeating experience. One assumes they do not all hold doctorates, nor put the pleasantness on just for foreigners – but the impression is of a positive outlook on life that if nothing else still has time for the basic civilities.

As always, we found a comfortable, solid stability that appears to provide a high quality of lived experience, no matter how educated people might (not) be. I’m not suggesting that there is no hardship or conflict in those places – I have seen enough of the less attractive side of the continent to know better than overlook it.  But the overall sense is of a better, more satisfied life-balance than is widely achieved in the U.K. where life seems perpetually precarious – as the various ‘social pathologies’, let alone more overt recent expressions of dissatisfaction might suggest.

People ‘over there’ do have pressured lives – but they still seem to retain a greater sense of personal agency, and an awareness that the good life has to come from within – precisely the things that one might expect good education to inform. And they do it seemingly without recourse to either the bleak social Darwinism of the British Right or the indulgent dependency-culture of the Left. One might add a sense that civic structures in those countries are more enabling and less punitive and miserly in their outlook than those we have here.

By contrast, my impression of this country is that no matter how hard one works, Quality of Life is an elusive concept. I have sent countless young people out from my school whose expectation seems to be that life is a rat-race in which the sole purpose is to earn as much cash as possible, unaware of the fact that doing so may cause impoverishment in many other ways. Plenty see education as little more than a necessary evil to accomplish this.

For all the eventual high salaries of South-East England, this seems to me to be a recipe for a dull, unsatisfying life, the proof of which is the ceaseless, fruitless scrabble for privileged economic status in the town where the school is located. Yet that town itself is a dull, lifeless place; its wealth does not seem to bring it a greater quality of life. Furthermore, that life is seen as competitive rather than collaborative, about extrinsic success rather than intrinsic satisfaction – is, I think, a deeply important point. Put our pupils (as I often have) alongside their Swiss or German counterparts and ask them about their respective lives and the contrast screams loud…

(To be continued)

“Grammar Schools for All!”

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle.

I’ve taken some flak over the past weeks for my defence of selective education – though to balance the record, there has been quite a lot of support too. Politically speaking the matter seems to have gone quiet again – I suspect May has other matters on her mind, but just possibly she is beginning to realise the scale of the opposition she faces.

If the latter is true, she will have regrettably squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a grownup debate about the fundamentals of the education system in this country. Still, I suppose that is just par for the course when one considers the level of discussion on other pressing matters in recent times. Once again, however, the casualty will have been the state of the nation in a country where far too much is still determined on intellectually weak grounds such as prejudice, vested interest and historical precedent.

My own position has perhaps shifted a little during the past few weeks, in particular as a result of reading some of the (unfavourable) findings of international research on the impact of selective education. I would repeat however that the fact I was prepared to entertain the argument did not mean I fully endorsed it. I will leave readers to decide whether that makes me educated or not!

Neither does it mean that I have executed a neat U-turn. What it does show is that the debate is both complex and multi-faceted, and far too complicated to be reduced to a simple black-or-white false dichotomy. I concede the potential price of badly-executed selection but argue that this does not mean that what I prefer to conceive of as ‘specialised’ educational provision is inherently a bad idea. This is the debate that will probably never now happen.

Instinctively, I believe that schools should perform a role of social integration, and that implies being non-selective. What concerns me, however, is the reality of the situation, which I increasingly perceive to be the cultural and perhaps academic debasement of the education system, such that most rather than some are now deprived of the riches that the best of it used to deliver. My impression is that it is now left to a rump of the education system, much of it fee-paying, to sustain the highest levels of culture, intellect and general talent in our country – and that is more rather than less divisive when it comes to opportunity.

The rallying-cry of the early proponents of comprehensives was ‘grammar schools for all’, and on the surface it is hard to object to the sentiment. But as I argued in previous posts, this is based on the assumption that ‘all’ even want, let alone would cope with, a grammar-school style education. Quite frankly, many of the children I teach would probably founder under such a regime, and would in all likelihood detest it as well. I can see no reason why less academic children should be forced through a schooling that they actively dislike because it does not meet their needs, any more than academic ones – but that is what arguably happens nowadays anyway, since academic success has become the benchmark against which all are judged. I really don’t blame the disaffected ones for resenting being put through a system in which they feel they can only ever lose. For that is the harsh reality, whatever the growth mindset might claim.

But the consequence is that their disaffection – or at least the need of schools to try to counter it through the culture and methods they employ – still comes to dominate the character of many schools, both through their implicit needs, and more visibly through their behaviours. Regrettably, it seems to me that one of the markers of lesser intelligence is an inability to empathise with the needs of others; the disaffected or unruly are not about to shut up for the sake of the boffins in their midst. And it is still this dilemma that informs my support for finding a different solution – for the good of all concerned.

‘Grammar schools for all’ might be a noble ideal – but in reality this has simply not come to pass. If this sentiment really meant what it appears, then those of us who experienced grammar schools, who still endorse and hopefully embody their values and cultures, and whose teaching style derives from them, would be embraced by those who wished to spread such opportunities to all.

Instead, I – perhaps we – have spent a career being forced to deny my provenance and cultural-academic values, and to change my techniques to accommodate those whom it was claimed would not cope with them. Education more widely has been moved away from the cultural jewel that it (partly) was, towards a form of mass entertainment-cum-employment training. This means that the educational opportunities available have effectively become limited by the inability of some to cope with them, and that is no more ‘democratic’ than the converse.

It is probably a pragmatically sensible position under the circumstances – but grammar schools for all it most certainly is not.

Clowning around

For much of my career, the emphasis on children’s behaviour has been that of empowerment. In the past, so the fiction went, children were repressed and helpless, and a key part of their education should be giving them the confidence to make their own decisions. If one disregards the progressive back-story to this, I see nothing wrong with encouraging children to make confident decisions, and the fear of getting things ‘wrong’ can still be a powerful influence at times.

Over time, this outlook has had some success, though there are other factors at work which have appeared to empower people more generally in their own lives. I think there is nothing whatsoever to object to in the principle – but being empowered also implies having the necessary ability to assume responsibility for both the decision-making before and the effects after a decision is taken. Some of that capability is a function of maturity – which is something children by definition do not have.

This is where the problems begin: many trends in modern societies have encouraged power without responsibility. I am pretty certain that the impact of modern advertising has given people a sense of entitlement, and has not necessarily emphasised the responsibilities that people might have to use their consumption responsibly. In the U.K., successive governments have emphasised the importance of consumer choice, probably reinforcing the effect.

At the same time, the growth of mass culture and mass consumption has diminished the sense of individuality that people have; I can find no other explanation for why so many people seem entirely content to have tastes and preferences that are clones of each other. And with a diminished sense of individuality perhaps comes a similar sense of agency, or responsibility for one’s actions. Ironically, the effect of so-called empowerment may be largely contrary.

The net effect of this has been both to enhance children’s ‘knowingness’ about the world – their awareness of issues, and opportunities for behaviours that they arguably should not access until adulthood – and ironically, to infantilise adults who can avail themselves of an every-growing array of sophisticated ‘toys’ with which to divert their attention from the matters of responsibility that adulthood arguably brings.

The notion of being a small cog in a large machine has implications.

I don’t remember there ever being a mass-hysteria event when I was at school – but then, there were only 850 pupils in that school, who were largely known to all the staff. Contrast that with the nearly 1800 where I work, and where I suspect any one teacher only knows – or perhaps even recognises – a fraction of the total.

In a school of this size, the individual can easily disappear. Already this term, we have had two instances of what can only be described as the herd mentality. Our pupils are normally largely co-operative, but when the crowd dynamic takes over, their behaviour can change, the usual constraints appear to loosen – and there are enough of them to make the situation challenging to handle.

The second of these events concerned something that which, being a false alarm constituted no threat whatsoever – but that was not known at the time. What ensued was a large number of children massing directly towards something that they must have known from media coverage, might have presented a threat. There were a considerable number of staff on duty at the time, but it was an effort to restore complete order and send pupils onward to their lessons. I emphasise that my school is well staffed and supervision procedures are followed closely; there was no risk to the children at any time – except perhaps from the general dynamics of a large crowd of people.

For all we expend considerable time and energy educating children to be responsible individuals, when something like this takes over, normal rules seem to be suspended. The concerning thing is that no amount of teacher input seems to make much difference. I had a somewhat difficult class in the hour following the incident described above, and it took much effort to calm them before we could resume the lesson. I linked their classroom behaviour with what had happened outside under the theme of trust and ‘doing the right thing’. The blank faces suggested I might as well have been talking to the wall. What’s more, while some colleagues correctly pointed out that they are ‘only children’, I don’t see that this should absolve them from the expectation of any sense of responsibility whatsoever. And if that is indeed an acceptable justifier, then it should perhaps instead modify the degree of accountability in which the adults responsible for them are held.

It is an unfortunate by-product of modern society that it seems fewer and fewer people have much sense of responsibility or appropriateness of behaviour. It is easy to blame it on home backgrounds, but whether that is the whole truth is doubtful; most of our children come from reasonably attentive homes. Something is empowering these children to the extent that they have such self-confidence that they feel able to ignore even adults in positions of authority when it suits them – and no amount of teacher-power seems to make much of a dent in it.

It may be old-fashioned, or even repressive, but we should remember that children are not mature adults who are (hopefully) able to make considered decisions. They have immature minds and increasingly cannot, it seems, be trusted to do the right thing. This is what the removal of the notion of obedience has done.

Perhaps what is needed is a bit more old-fashioned restraint and respect for authority: particularly when others are potentially held responsible for the consequences, having the confidence to make their own decisions has gone too far.

Boiling frogs

Many years ago, before becoming a teacher, I worked in a psycho-geriatric hospital. The memory of the pathetic souls therein has never quite left me – but when you see them daily, it is not long before you start to forget quite what ‘normal’ might mean.

They say that if you put a frog in a beaker of water and turn up the heat, it will sit there gradually acclimatising until it boils to death. But if you drop the frog into hot water it will hop out again, safe.

Despite the best efforts of several people, my school has resisted the implementation of a formal stress policy, appearing to argue that only failing teachers get stressed. Other issues will apparently be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I only have to look around me daily to see that this is not the case – though spending years in the profession could quite possibly lead to boiling frog syndrome. I wonder how many of us take as normal levels of stress that in a wider context might be considered alarming, even threatening. Such a policy risks making people internalise a problem that could be defused by sharing, thus setting up vicious cycles likely to make matters worse and perhaps even self-fulfilling.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my previous workplace, I suppose that like many, I lazily tended to think that mental health issues only affect others. But the more interested I become in this issue, the more it becomes apparent that the effects of stress can be both insidious and oblique. One starts wondering whether boiling frog syndrome is at work on oneself.

As I mentioned some posts ago, I recently had something of a health scare. It has been a roller-coaster summer as a result, but after hospital tests proved almost entirely clear, the most likely diagnosis for the remaining symptoms is a problem in which a significant factor can be, yes – stress.

I will spare readers too much medical detail but who would have guessed that chronic prostatitis may be caused by stress? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronic_prostatitis/chronic_pelvic_pain_syndrome )

And some of the test results it can yield overlap with markers for prostate cancer, so plenty of cause there for further alarm. There is also significant co-morbidity with IBS, something I know all too much about. Both have significant psychological as well as physical effects, not least because of the ongoing pain and discomfort that they can cause. Be all that as it may, I won’t pretend that these events haven’t also affected my state of mind, and with it my personal efficiency and (perhaps) professional effectiveness.

This is but one of a number of indeterminate, sometimes overlapping functional problems that the medical profession is still getting to grips with – but unhealthy stress is, nonetheless, implicated as a contributory factor in many of them. Teachers beware!

I wonder how much those in charge of staff really understand such issues. Deflecting the issue with the claim that stress is necessary is mere displacement activity.

They cannot of course be expected to be medical experts, but the causes of problems for their staff are more numerous and more complex than might at first be apparent; a reasonable duty of care might require an acceptance of this. Given the potential of such conditions to impair people’s effectiveness in the workplace, it need not even be a matter of altruism to adopt a sympathetic stance. When someone says they are stressed, certain images and behaviours perhaps come to mind – but if the foregoing is correct, there are both more numerous and less obvious conditions in which stress may be a factor. Denying that it is anything other than a marker of inadequacy seems like the most philistine of responses, to my mind the mark of a system deploying delusion to avoid home truths.

Longer-standing readers will know of my own career turbulence over the past couple of years, and given that these conditions can be (and have also been) long-standing, they may be more of a factor in the equation than I have suspected. It is certainly true that they have become more intrusive as pressure increased under the current regime, until this recent turn of events meant I could ignore them no longer.

How such issues are approached can make a significant difference: there is not a teacher on the planet whose performance would not be affected by the experience of long-term health difficulties – and they are hardly something one invites.

My experience is that most teachers are not people to shirk their responsibilities, and I include myself in that. Yet a widespread view in schools these days seems to be the opposite: it is implied that any sign of weakness is the teacher’s (deliberate) fault. As was recently pointed out to me, pressures sometimes build up to unhealthy levels without one even being fully aware of what is happening, yet my default setting was to blame myself, very ably assisted by a professional environment which encourages that. There is no guarantee that the demands made of teachers these days are either reasonable or achievable simply because they have a veneer of authority – but it is all too easy for them to set up a destructive train of thought in someone’s head as a result.

I don’t think that I am unusual: at some point, most adults probably experience pressures and conflicts in their lives that affect them adversely, even if they are not aware of it – but  this particular manifestation of the issue nonetheless came as a surprise, and has been the cause of much worry. I have come close enough to the matter, both physically and mentally, to take greater care in future.

Given the value they place on learning, one might hope that schools would be enlightened employers, particularly as the occupation can be identified as a significant cause of stress in the first place. But recent times suggest that this is far from always the case. It is not an easy situation to resolve – but offloading complete responsibility for any eventuality onto the shoulders of individuals is neither fair nor productive. The refusal to accept that wider issues will ever legitimately intrude on the perfect world of the educational zealot is just another expression of the warped perspectives of some in this profession.

And I would recommend to all teachers that they take seriously the impact of stress, even if they think they are immune. It can have some unexpected effects.

Good for the Soul

“I wanted her to learn piano because I thought it would be good for her soul”.

So commented ‘Pique Boo’ recently on my blog.

‘Good for the soul’ is an extremely important aspect of what learning is – and one that I think has been almost entirely forgotten by educators. Thanks to the daily pressures of the job, I (nearly) include myself in that, for all that I genuinely subscribe to the sentiment, and I should thank Pique Boo for reminding me of it.

Whatever the technical debates about this policy or that, education remains for some people fundamentally a matter of individual personal development of the most intimate, profound, reflective sort. I think it is the same experience of something completely intrinsic, intellectual, even spiritual in nature that perhaps drives enquiring minds, to a far greater extent than those obsessed with the mundane ticking of boxes ever realise.  It is precisely this kind of matter that has become almost entirely lost on present-day managers, policy makers and maybe even teachers.

I think it also sums up why I feel vaguely uneasy every time I encounter education being discussed in coldly mechanistic or materialistic terms: people who do this seem to have entirely missed the point of the self-discovery that it can provide. Every time such discussions take place, it is a reminder of just how far from their true remit modern education systems have strayed. ‘Good for the soul’ is in fact why I teach, and what I try to do for my pupils – and what a system devised by hard-heads sometimes criticises me for.

‘Good for the soul’ also serves to illustrate the artificiality of the divisions created within such systems. For example, when a true sense of intellectual enquiry is present, notions of ‘accountability’ dissolve – no one need be accountable for something done completely for love. Even formal distinctions between teacher and pupil become less significant when the undertaking is almost a shared enterprise.

It is probably asking too much to expect many young people to see the matter in this way, though I think it is far from impossible by the time they reach the sixth form – but that should not in itself invalidate the sentiment as an ideal.

And when it comes to debating the pros and cons of different types of education, I think it is important to remember that some people at least, wish their offspring to have this experience if they are capable of it. I cannot see that this is an unreasonable aspiration for a school system, and it might actually do society good if more emphasis were placed on it. Schools that are not good for the soul are still failing at least some of their pupils – and arguably, all of them.

This post is not intended to be a continuation of the previous debate on selection – but it strikes me that so long as people propounding certain models for education fail to take account of those who wish to have their children educated in ways and surroundings that are ‘good for the soul’ – and to ensure that suitable provision is made for them – then we are unlikely ever to make much headway in truly resolving the resultant issues.

Quality will out – part 2

Much was made recently about the fact that so many of our Olympic successes were independently educated. The implication, as always, was that this shows the lack of wider opportunity in our country. Maybe there are many other potential medal-winners out there – but a little-discussed possibility is that if those people had not had the kind of education they did, they might not have been successes either. If you attribute so much influence to schooling, you cannot avoid this argument.

The blogger Muggedbyreality made an excellent point recently, which took my own thinking further:

“…to create a strong, flourishing academic culture in a school or a subject department or a class requires a disproportionate, perhaps excessive number of persons of an ‘academic’ inclination.

…An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.”

https://muggedbyrealitycom.wordpress.com/2016/09/17/critical-mass/

This is my experience entirely. Whatever the arguments about selection, it seems to me that the effect of comprehensive schools has been to level people to the middle. The most probable outcome when a wide range of individuals is put through a common mould, is that there will be a tendency to a mid-point norm. This may well provide uplift at the bottom – but it comes at the expense of the greatest development of the most talented. In 1980, when I entered the sixth form, my grammar was turned into a sixth form college; its character changed almost overnight. No doubt some would argue that this was a good thing – but it was very clear to those who knew it before, that the academic ethos was instantly diluted by the simple arrival and behaviour of many who did not share that outlook.

This is precisely what I feel has happened to the U.K. over the past several decades. For all that diversity is supposedly celebrated, the common culture of this country has become ever more centred around the middle to low brow. Many educated people now have tastes and preferences no different from the less thoughtful mainstream. It has almost become a point of embarrassment to admit to anything more. I am not saying that they should not participate in that culture – but the number who also retain a diverse perspective, and who have the capacity to supplement their diet of soaps, celebrity and shopping with more demanding interests and activities, seems to have shrunk. And that is without the perceived intolerant eccentrics like me who would prefer their own diet to remain entirely unpolluted with junk. In other words, the pursuit and appreciation of challenging (but rewarding) high quality seems largely to have been lost, except perhaps when it only requires the flex of a credit card. And with it have been devalued the common cultural norms and values of the entire nation. I place part of the responsibility for that at the door of the education system.

I probably appear hugely intolerant here, but I want to make a point. A nation comprises vast numbers of people, all with their own world-view and preferences. But that nation’s collective civil and cultural life is the sum of all its parts, and perhaps more than that. If there are few willing or able to uphold the more exacting end of the spectrum, the whole suffers as a result. If no one is prepared to be intransigent in the name of high quality, then it will simply disappear.

The casualty is then the collective standard of culture, thought, discourse, innovation and achievement of the nation. I would argue there is enough evidence to suggest that those things have declined in Britain, at least to claim that education has failed to act as a brake on other destructive pressures. I realise that there are very many wider factors that are influencing such trends – but my point is that at least for some, education ought to be providing a counter-balance to the mind-rot, and in the majority of the non-selective sector, I strongly suspect that it is not.

In the meantime, those who do still worry about these things perhaps perceive their last refuge to be in the remaining grammar schools – or the fee-paying sector.

In terms of the general health of a country’s society, culture and wider welfare – to say nothing of individual preferences – I find it hard to accept that it is in the collective interest for the brightest and best not to be developed as far as they can be, for the sake of a rather low-grade equality. This is certainly not the approach that I see a number of our (rather more successful) neighbouring countries taking.

However, this is not in itself an argument for selection; in an ideal world, such aspirations would indeed be achievable universally. But the reality is that this does not happen; people are too diverse to be catered for so specifically all under one roof. Academic divisiveness is a distraction: the real issue ought to be whether specialised institutions of all sorts could achieve a broader but higher-quality education for more people than the current one-size-fits-all approach. Likewise, the mechanism for selection is nothing more than another distraction. I suspect that selection’s opponents well know it.

As Muggedbyreality says, it takes a surprisingly  large number of like-minded people to create a culture. I suspect that s/he is right: I work in a school that has a significantly positively-skewed ability range. I encounter lots of clever children – but very few who are academic. There are some – but nowhere near enough to influence the whole. This is not surprising, since they come in many cases from not especially academic backgrounds, and in any case, in most populations, I suspect the numbers of parents wishing or able to project such values is small. Institutional culture and values are things that schools have to instil – and in my experience, very few comprehensives successfully do so in academic terms, even where they claim otherwise.  Again there are too many reasons for this to discuss here, though my scrawling over the past three years has covered many.

In some ways, comprehensive education has indeed been the leveller that its proponents wanted. The trouble is, it had no alternative but to level as many down as up. I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind –at least I hope it isn’t. The idea of grammar (i.e. academic) schools for all is a practical non-starter. Too many people simply do not set sufficient store by high intellectual quality ever to attain the necessary critical mass. I should add that exactly the same claim could be made with respect to schools of technical excellence, and other specialist needs.

This is the blind spot of those who oppose selection: it is not (principally) a matter of securing ‘unfair’ advantage; it is a matter of perceived cultural quality. For the most resolute of selection opponents, the principal purpose of education is social engineering; they often see teachers as class warriors. I’m not suggesting that tackling disadvantage is unimportant, but shift to a different paradigm, and the argument shifts too.

Whether the reality of selection matches that perception is almost immaterial, though my memories of both grammar school and local independents are indeed ones of integrity. As a grammar school pupil, I only visited secondary moderns a couple of times, but their different ‘feel’ has stayed with me. It was not a matter of superiority, but it was definitely different. In cultural terms, I am afraid that comprehensives are more like ‘secondary moderns for all’ than grammar schools, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Neither is this even a matter of ability, so much as attitude. The problem stems not so much from the weak-but-willing, as the indifferent and the disaffected. Putting everyone together solves nothing; the lowest common denominator tends to prevail – and if it doesn’t, those who cannot meet the standards and norms risk feeling all the more excluded.

And this does not only apply to pupils: I increasingly feel that some of my professional tribulations over the years have come from working in a culture to which I am not entirely suited, and much of my more dubious workload has actually been generated as schools battle to control the problems and tensions inherent within the comprehensive system. I chose to express my faith in that system by working in it notwithstanding the personal cost – but were I to choose now, with the benefit of hindsight I would make a different decision. There are plenty of teachers who thrive in the comprehensive setting – but there are those like me, as with pupils, who can do their best work somewhere else. To ignore their needs is no more acceptable than to do the same to any other group.

David Willets, the former trade minister, writing in Prospect magazine says research shows that non-graduate incomes are higher in areas where there are lots of high-calibre graduates than elsewhere. That spreads opportunity – but it is not necessarily an argument for making everyone a graduate. High quality has a more widely beneficial impact by raising norms.

The fact that some people insist on high quality, and will go out of their way in order to secure it is both their reasonable right, and in fact of benefit to more than themselves. In cultural terms, their effect permeates to the standards of wider society. If one eliminates such people from the wider mix on the grounds that not everyone wishes to emulate them, the effect on the whole is disproportionately large. On the other hand, distributing them widely but thinly removes the critical mass necessary to sustain them. The same applies in education, whether we are considering the needs of the academic minority or any other.

Is this really such a desirable template for a thriving modern society?

Quality will out – part 1

kettle

In a rather unfortunate coincidence, our kettle and our fridge both expired recently. We have had the fridge for fifteen years – and the same kettle for nearly twenty. This is far longer than the average for such goods – but then we spent what seemed like crazy amounts on them at the time. In the mid-Nineties, £100 seemed an inordinate price for the simple ability to boil water. But both items proved to have been sound investments: the premium paid for ‘quality’ is not all hype, and in this little kitchen-sink drama, hindsight has justified the apparently counter-intuitive, even reckless behaviour at the time.

Not only have these goods lasted far longer than cheaper alternatives, but we have enjoyed the superior build, functionality and appearance that they afforded. The best choice is not always the most obvious, and certainly not the cheapest.

I am lastingly intrigued by what it is that constitutes ‘quality’; one might almost consider it a nature versus nurture question. ‘Best’ is of course subjective: it depends on what your criteria were in the first place – but to be too precious about that is to deny the fact that in these things, there seems to exist a hierarchy, albeit an elusive one, of something rather more objective. It is fairly clear that some materials are inherently more robust than others – but the qualities added by careful manufacture, not to mention ergonomics and aesthetics are less so.

I think it is important to accept that high quality is not an overriding concern for many people, and that is not necessarily wrong. It is quite possible knowingly to opt for less for entirely sensible reasons – but just because one might choose to do so is not in itself to deny the issue either. Neither is this a comment on personal taste: you can still respect the quality, even if you don’t like the style. Yet quality, it seems, will out – and certain people are prepared to pay handsomely for it, whether it concerns kettles – or education.

More controversially, I think that we use a similar judgement when it comes to people and places: I suspect that many would understand my impression that in the round, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark exemplify good quality, but Italy (for all that I love it) exasperatingly less so. I suspect many Italians might agree. Personal experience suggests that we instinctively judge people in a somewhat similar way, and this is not as insidious as might be thought. It is a natural human instinct to attempt to identify ‘them’ and ‘us’ or at least ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and we can be discerning without necessarily being condemnatory. In such matters, quality (or the lack of it) may not be entirely intentional, therefore we may refrain from judging, for all that we exercise choice.

One can speculate on what high quality means in education. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am unconvinced that it means what much of the educational establishment, or its political masters think. Quality as an aggregate concept may differ from that of the individual experience, but in educational matters, the only one that really matters is the latter, and I’m not certain that the one inevitably begets the other. It is possible to go to a good school and still have a lousy experience.

So, in my attempt to broaden the debate on selection, I am going to be shamelessly partisan for a moment. Naturally, I would want my child(ren) to have a high-quality education, and here is what that would mean to me in terms of choice of school:

A school:

  • That does not endorse the world of popular celebrity/pop/sports culture and use it as their default role model, as many seem to do.
  • That does not avoid high culture and thought on the grounds that it is difficult and inaccessible.
  • Whose dramatic productions are not an endless diet of musicals because that is all that will engage the pupils and maximise participation.
  • That has a library that isn’t called a ‘Learning Resource Centre’ or something such, while still containing a woefully small number of books.
  • That gives priority to learning over ‘engagement’, to wisdom over ‘winning’.
  • That has a serious, high-minded ethos, atmosphere and staff that pupils feel slightly in awe of.
  • Where teachers consider themselves to be vaguely academic, rather than ‘life coaches’ or youth workers.
  • That retains a sense of community in its annual rituals and extra-curricular activities.
  • That does not subordinate the greater liberal aims of education to maximising its place in the league tables.
  • That secures good exam results but understands that they are not the purpose of education.

Some will no doubt throw up their hands at this list – but I am not attempting to be consensual! The point is, this could explain why someone like me might just decide to send their child to a grammar school – or to choose to work in one. For all that others might have different values, there is little in my list that can be objected to on ethical or equality grounds. Neither is there anything in it about wishing to deny the same to others. And the order of priorities is not accidental.

I entirely respect the fact that a school’s job is not just to deliver what parents (think they) want. It has an important role as an intermediary between a developing person’s home life and the wider world. It is important that children are exposed to challenging ideas and different models. But the best way to do this is high-mindedly – hence the value I place on formal study rather than the touchy-feely kind. That is also why I have an aversion to schools appropriating popular culture, quite apart from the fact that it does not make them look cool.

It is the job of a school to be solemnly non-partisan. This is not at all the same as having no standards, which can be established through the wider ethos – but teachers should understand that their role is not to be surrogate parents, social workers, policemen, commercial agents or anything else. Teachers should present children with the wonders of the world for them to contemplate – but they should leave it up to them to work out, in due course, what to do with that inheritance. This is the only way to respect the sovereignty of even an immature individual and avoid accusations of indoctrination. In turn, the only way to help children understand how to do this is by teaching them the benefits and skills of higher level, impartial thought.

My list of preferences may seem unduly prejudiced against popular culture, and indeed it took me some time to work out why. Personally, I feel very uneasy when it comes to employing pop music, celebrities and other popular culture in the classroom. Part of this is because I regard most of such material as meretricious, talent-free junk and incompatible with my own ideals. But more importantly, this is stuff that children are all too widely exposed to elsewhere, often for utterly partisan reasons. I would not want my child to be exposed to this in the one institution that ought to rise above such endorsement. The whole point of a school is to expose children to things they would not otherwise encounter, not to reinforce the low-brow, self-promoting rubbish they get everywhere else. And in any case, I suspect that children generally want to keep such things as their own space without adults invading.

I accept again that this all is entirely partisan; not all popular culture is rubbish. As part of the world it deserves some impartial consideration – but not implicit or explicit endorsement. There is also the small matter than most of the ‘difficult stuff’ arguably just happens to constitute the peak achievements of human culture, knowledge and endeavour – and for teachers to fail to expose children to it on grounds of low popularity is, in my view a betrayal of what our profession is supposed to be about.

I know too many people of my generation who owe their appreciation of the higher aspects of life to various teachers, ever to approve of the descent into populism that much of the education sector has since pursued. I should add that I am not only considering academic matters either: people from my own school ended up as senior engineers, respected musical instrument-makers and more so it’s not just narrowly academic. The point is, low-brow education simply does not expose people to the levels of excellence that might inspire them to follow suit. Neither is this just a matter of culture: it has been commented on several times recently that the U.K. is a nation of excellent consumers – but it has lost the ability to be an excellent producer of very much at all.

Part two (tomorrow) will consider the implications of this for how education is organised.