A Critical Thinking approach to Brexit – Part 2

I am sharing this here not for political purposes but to highlight the withdrawal of A Level Critical Thinking, no longer taught as it could not be reconciled with the new, narrower validation criteria. Had it been more widely taught, the skills it developed would have been serving the nation well in these troubled times. Part 1 can be found at the same place.

SPREZZATURA

After the long discussion in part 1, this is somewhat shorter…

If it is accepted that public debate on the specifics of matters like Brexit is inevitably limited to unprovable matters of belief, one is left with the question of how should it be debated.

Rather than resorting to claim and counter-claim, it would have been much better to establish a set of key principles against which to evaluate competing options. While this partially happened at political level, the difficulty is transferring it to the public arena, and an audience that inevitably has neither the knowledge to evaluate what is being suggested nor (probably) much patience with arcane technicalities.

The proof of this was the failure of Remain to capture public support. And their opposition did not help either its own case or the debate as a whole by being repeatedly unable to convey either a focused, specific definition of…

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A critical thinking approach to Brexit – part 1

I am posting this here not to make a political point but to mourn the passing of the teaching of Critical Thinking, which has fallen victim to the narrowed validation criteria for exam courses. The skills which it taught would have been useful to very many people in Britain over the past 30 months.

SPREZZATURA

For all of the “debate” going on in Britain about Brexit (much of which falls woefully short of any reasonable criteria for being considered to be such), little time has been given to examining the real issues with E.U. membership. The problem here may in many cases be wanton partisanship – but there are bigger matters that all sides of a mature debate ought to be able to agree on.

The principle one is that a position based on fact is stronger than one based on assertion (i.e. belief). It is probably necessary (and wise) to set aside epistemological debates on the nature of knowledge – but the difference between a ‘fact’ and an assertion is that the former is supported by provable (i.e. replicable, thus verifiable) evidence whereas the latter is not. In a sense it is ‘belief without proof’ – a definition best applied to religion, but which…

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She’s done it again!

When Amanda Spielman was appointed as Chief Inspector of Schools at Ofsted, there were the predictable sniffy responses from the profession: what could a non-teacher know about the education profession?

Well, it turns out that an outside voice is proving to be just what is needed. Spielman is unexpectedly becoming the ‘breath of fresh air’ that the profession so badly needs.

In recent days she has observed that it is not reasonable to expect schools and teachers to address all of society’s ills – that parents and other agencies need to be responsible for their own impact too. And more recently still she has called on professional leaders to abandon their preoccupation with pedagogical gimmicks  (singling out Brain Gym as an example), and allow teachers to focus on the basics using tried and tested techniques that work for them in classrooms.

The teaching profession has always been prone to the distractions of gimmickry: the whole progressive movement is predicated on – as Spielman observed – the belief that the Holy Grail is waiting just around the next corner. It is not. The problem has only been made worse in recent years by school managements desperately plugging anything that they hoped might push their institutions up the league tables.

My only regret is that personally, Spielman has come a few years too late: during my career I was repeatedly bombarded with instructions to adopt such gimmicks by a few influential people in my school who saw this as the way to ‘lead learning’. Their influence was reinforced by rather more others in middle management who were reluctant to challenge them. It was made clear that disagreement was not permissible. It was my reluctance to comply with – and my willingness to challenge – such idiocy that first saw me marked by those who in reality were more interested in compliance that cultivating real professional excellence. Much of what Spielman is now saying formed the core of my own book on teaching and education.

There remain those for whom it seems imperative that education should dance to some all-embracing meta-tune. It is not unreasonable for the profession to seek some form of consensus over what works – but it should not be ideologically driven, and it is good to see Spielman in effect challenging this. As I proposed in The Great Exception, it is entirely possible to derive a model of good professional practice that is based in the realities of good classroom practice rather than the vanities and insanities of those who are always looking for the Next Big Thing.

Festina lente

There are occasionally times when specific events give rise for a little educational optimism. The change of heart at OFSTED regarding the use of data in inspections is one such, which I have mentioned before.

It will, of course, take a long time to work through a system that has been obsessed with data for several decades. But for every point of optimism, there still seem to be several heading in utterly the wrong direction, that reveal modes of thought that one might have hoped would have been completely seen-through and rejected by now. All the more regrettably, they often seem to be coming from those in policy-making positions.

One such is the recent revival of proposals to cut degree courses to two years in a drive to make them more affordable. To be fair, the current proposal is intended to provide an option rather than a cover-all. But it is just another example of the extent to which educational policy remains utterly economy-driven. One might have hoped that, by now it would be widely accepted that (supposed) economic efficiency does not always deliver wider, often intangible life benefits – and given the nature of the degree ‘experience’ probably does not deliver very good value for money either. A better solution would be to cut or abolish tuition fees, so as to remove the financial pressures from the learning process.

If one sees a degree as little more than a passport to employment, then I suppose it does make sense to push people through and out into the workplace as quickly as possible. But that is utterly to miss the point of the process, and it is depressing to think that such policies very probably originate from those who went through it themselves. Does it reflect their own understanding of what they did?

What this outlook still fails to understand is that life – most of all a genuine life of the mind – is not a directly-commandable economic utility. Cognitive development cannot be hurried for the sake of simple economic efficiency. While the three-year degree is of course an arbitrary construct in its own right, the longer such courses last – within reason – the more chance there is that the individual undertaking it will ‘grow’ into the experience. That, after all, is one reason why higher qualifications take longer!

In my own case, it was only really in the final year of my degree that the thing started to fall into place, and with it the commitment that had simply not been there during the first two years, when there was so much else to do at university.

And that is the other ignored point: as well as being an intellectual experience, being at university is a time of major personal growth. This can only be even more the case given the relatively recent knowledge that the human brain is not fully mature until one’s mid-twenties. There is still a lot of learning and personal development to be done at that stage, and compressing the process only risks further devaluing the whole thing to begin with: a two-year degree will be over before it has hardly begun.

While schools are not directly concerned, of course, with the duration of pupils’ study, much of the same thinking has been prevalent in them for years. It has all been about quantity and speed (for which read quasi-economic efficiency), without any apparent appreciation that the real experience of learning can neither be hurried in this way, nor packaged and sold in such limited terms. One might have hoped that we would be much further down the road of seeing such economised myopia for what it is – there is plenty of evidence of its effects right across society. We need to accept that there are certain things in life that you just can’t hurry.

But perhaps the critical feature of such myopia is its propensity for being self-perpetuating.

Sheeple

“You can’t not have exams!” The old guy (a former teacher) was incredulous. I decided to play devil’s advocate. “Why not?”

“How would you educate the pupils? How would they get jobs without qualifications?”

The conversation came after he had finished reading The Great Exception, and I was being subjected to an intense grilling over its contents. I decided not to go down the avenues of what constitutes meaningful assessment, or the fact that other countries seem to manage very well with alternative structures.

I will say outright that I do not doubt the need for testing; the discussion was founded on a misreading of my point – but it only emphasised the extent to which the education world is lost in its own circular reasoning. One could easily get the impression that the world would stop turning were formal education – and hence exams – to cease to exist. But it is not so. What I question is that exams should be seen as the purpose of education: a view that has become steadily more pervasive.

Without exams, education would continue in other forms – after all, in essence it is nothing more than the process by which newly-arrived young creatures (even sheep) make sense of the world they find, and the vast majority of life on this planet manages quite well without examinations. It is true to say, however, that most ‘higher’ forms of life involve some form of education of the young by the old, even if mostly just by imitation. And even in ‘primitive’ human societies, some form of testing often emerges to validate that process.

As with musicians working towards a performance, a focus is desirable, if not essential for most learning – as indeed for work in general. It provides both a discrete objective and an incentive, in the form of validation of the effort invested and the standard achieved.

The problem comes from the short-sightedness that can ensue. The fact that one creates a largely artificial construct in order to motivate and validate does not mean that that benchmark is, or should be, the sole purpose of the exercise. I suspect many would accept that the point of learning to play music is not just to pass exams, or even to perform. It is an end in its own right, though the way it is often pursued makes it easy to lose sight of the fact.

Although I have reservations about the mentality that it develops, I don’t even object to the pursuit of targets per se – if that is what gives a certain kind of character its kicks – but we should still not conflate an appetite for challenge with the medium which some people happen to use to fulfil it. If ‘challenge’ is your thing, then it arguably doesn’t matter too much whether you express it through passing music exams, academic exams, learning watch-making or pushing your 100 metres personal best.

But the pursuit of challenge often crowds out the initial purpose of its ‘carrier’ medium. The point of music is to enjoy the creation or hearing of music as in intrinsic ‘good’. One assumes – though the case is somewhat weaker – that the point of running is at least in part to enjoy running. To see it as nothing more than the means to a (target) end is to allow extrinsic motivators to crowd out the intrinsic ones. This comes with a cost.

In the case of intellectual activity, the purpose is not to pass exams, but to develop one’s cognitive ability for its own sake, of which any specific application can only ever be a sub-objective. This is perhaps the most important activity of all, because the ability to use it is not only intrinsically rewarding, but also adaptively useful. It allows one to address life‘s problems in a more considered way, and generally to act more autonomously through the ability to analyse for oneself rather than being reliant on others for what to think or do.

To some extent, I can close purpose with my interlocutor here, because there is no doubt at all that one use of such abilities is indeed their application to Work, and the certificate that one gains through achieving a certain level is (supposedly) a marker of one’s effectiveness in that respect. But we should still not confuse the validation with the process itself.
Einstein is credited with the quote:

“Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

– though he may have been borrowing it from a perceptive but unknown wag. It is surely correct: the only inherent purpose of education is that which is common to all species: the development of the cognitive abilities that allow one to operate more effectively. All else is peripheral, no matter how enjoyable, or socially-useful we make it.

But the old guy’s comments were evidence of the extent to which we have lost sight of this: the social and economic advantages which recognised education can bring have trumped its fundamental purpose. Inasmuch as intellectual fulfilment can be gratuitous, so has this too: the capabilities one can acquire in specific disciplines are useful, and intellectually rewarding in their own right – but they too are nothing more than ‘carriers’ for the neural effect that such experiences can cause in building networks in the brain. This is what Einstein meant: the only true purpose of education is its cognitive effect; once you have that, everything else flows from it.

This is not to say that the incidental benefits of learning are unimportant but they are still nothing more than incidental, and their use is still dependent on effective neural development. It is quite possible for forms of formal education to fail to develop that – while still handing out certificates like confetti, in effect for simply having ‘breathed the air’.

The vast multitude of ‘qualifications’ held by populations around the world do not stop them from making some pretty stupid decisions, which better ability to self-scrutinise cognitively might reveal this fact. This is no surprise: qualifications are simply social constructs that attempt to reflect (imperfectly) someone’s real abilities. But the focusing on the peripheral benefits – to the extent of losing sight of their true status – can even prevent people from using their brains in the way they need to. Alvesson & Spicer’s book The Stupidity Paradox is a testament to the fact the even extremely clever people can act very stupidly when circumstances conspire.

The inability of people to scrutinise claims made in the Brexit debate is just the most extreme recent example of how all the certificates in the world do not in themselves prove people can use their heads. It may even be getting worse. There was some correlation between education levels and voting decisions, but I am not implying that there was a ‘correct’ decision – simply that the grounds on which it was made were often flimsy. Subsequent developments have shown this to be so.

This comes at the time when the subject that arguably most directly addressed the issue has been removed from the school curriculum. Simply because it did not meet QCA’s administrative criteria, Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level is no more. I suppose I should not be surprised: the formal educational establishment in Britain long ago lost sight of its true raison d’être. Just as the financial sector stopped funding the real economy when it was allowed to manufacture greater (spurious) benefit from financial engineering, the education sector long ago stopped being about actually educating people in the neural sense, and started being about fulfilling its own internal objectives.

So long ago, in fact, that it seems that even several previous generations of teachers cannot be relied upon to have noticed. But the consequences of this myopia are very real, and living with us in the way society as a whole is changing today. Its growing failure to do anything more than equip people with meaningless bits of paper is the elephant in the room of why education is not achieving what it supposedly sets out to.

With even the professional educational world largely thinking like sheep, one wonders what hope there is.

Why are we not more surprised?

My family has something over 150 years’ combined service to education in Britain, spread over the period since 1950, and covering the working lives of at least five individuals. So it is probably fair to say that teaching and all its collective consciousness is pretty deeply-embedded here. While one has to acknowledge the possibility of the perpetuation of shared fictions, one of the enduring values shared by those people has been the unimpeachable integrity of those who teach. I cannot see that this is anything other than the fundamental sine qua non for entering a profession whose aim is the furtherance of the lives of others – even if we accept that the actual track record has never been quite 100%…

And yet my attention is repeatedly forced to return to the perversions of the system as it exists today, which seem huge compared with anything that has gone before. I cannot help but see direct parallels in education with what is becoming ever more apparent are the inevitable consequences of a wider national system that for several decades has prioritised individual gain and operated as a free-for-all for those who could attain positions of power. How could anyone not see that this would result in the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the sharp-elbowed, narcissistic few?

While it seems that Thatcher was too naive to realise what she was unleashing, it was always too much to expect that a general sense of ethics and morality would act as a restraint on the worst aspects of human nature, or indeed for the supposedly customer-centred market to ensure that fair play always ensued. There are enough people deficient in such qualities in a population of 60 million for them to have been able to fleece the rest of us utterly.

In its fundamental logic, business is amoral: it only operates for its own advantage, and it is even enshrined in Law that shareholders’ interests come before customers’. The same should not be said for public services – and yet it is the same market-based model upon which education has been increasingly run.

I wonder how my forebears would have reacted if one could have told them that by 2015 state schools in Britain would have become chains run by what are in effect private companies. I think they would have been incredulous.

Given the same incentives, how could we have believed that the same distortions would not come to characterise the education sector? Two newspaper reports in just one day cover:
Pupils ‘disappearing’ from the rolls of Multi-Academy Trusts in the run-up to GCSEs (to improve league table ratings).
A former MAT executive head formerly lauded by the government banned from teaching indefinitely for financial irregularities that in addition to a £120k salary resulted in over £1 million (of public money) being channelled to him via a company he set up supposedly as a third-party contractor. (He has admitted making “mistakes”. Hmm.)

I have reliable evidence from elsewhere in the country of outright, illegal cronyism in recruitment practices (upon which I gather a whistle has been blown) – in addition to some distinctly dodgy practice that I witnessed myself – and this is without considering the number of ‘executive’ heads whose salaries are now north of £200k, while they continue to suppress the pay of their employees, and whinge about cuts to school budgets. I hear of very few taking pay cuts in order to ease their schools’ funding crisis – and in at least some cases, structures are such that this ‘cannot be done’ as they are paid by the MAT rather than any individual school. How convenient. But the effect is the same. It is all a direct parallel of what has happened in the commercial sector.


I have increasing time for Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of School, who seems to have rumbled what is going on. Her proposed changes to the inspection regime have the potential to neutralise some of the educational distortions of current behaviour. Her recent letter to the government’s Public Accounts Committee is worth reading, and can be found here.

But this will do little to alter the corporate culture. While individuals are given so much power and incentive to run schools as though they are businesses, we will always be exposed to the risk that those sharp-elbowed types will shove themselves to the top (always while making good-sounding noises about wanting to further children’s chances, of course) simply because the rest are not inclined to out-compete them. Quite how they square improving children’s chances with the huge salaries they often draw – while still making resourcing cuts – is one of life’s continuing mysteries.

And for all the serious stuff that is reported, my own experience suggests that there is a much wider climate of lower-level dis-reputability going on, all for institutional (read managerial) advantage. Spielman is diplomatic enough to suggest that even otherwise ‘honest’ schools are tempted when faced with lower rankings due to competition from schools that are playing dirty. Hmm.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is the lack of public outrage at what is happening. We have become so inured to the sight of snouts firmly in the troughs of big business that it no longer surprises to hear that those supposedly in public service are doing the same.

Yet this is so contrary to the whole ethos and purpose of education that it should be utterly intolerable in decent civil society. True, it is reported in the papers, but it no longer makes headlines. An acquaintance formerly of very senior position in the profession told me some time ago that there is a group of head teachers whose behaviour is bringing the profession into disrepute. The evidence is growing that this is both correct, and perhaps both more predictable and more widespread than previously thought – but few as yet are being challenged. Even otherwise ‘clean’ schools seem to be perpetrating increasingly edgy practices in today’s harsh financial and accountability climate. It is sold as astute management.

When you prioritise greed, why is this a surprise? If it can affect university vice-chancellors, we can be pretty sure that school managers won’t be immune.

Those 150 years of familial service have indeed left me with the belief that teaching is an honourable and moral vocation; my forebears are probably spinning in their graves at what is currently happening. In my own case, this is quite genuinely one factor in my decision not to re-enter teaching: I do not want to work in such compromising conditions. The situation is so anathema to my understanding that I still cannot comprehend what people who think and act in the ways described above are themselves even doing in teaching in the first place – and I certainly do not wish to work for them.

It is often claimed that school leaders have a huge impact on the wider culture; I don’t doubt it is so. Is the reason that there is less outrage evidence of the extent to which the rot has spread?

A letter to my old school (and the many others like it)

So how do you feel now? I’m talking particularly to those who (have) run the place. How do you feel now that the Head of Ofsted no less, has confirmed her intention to remove exam data analysis from school inspections?

She says it distorts educational priorities, even damages children’s interests. Some of us could have told her that a decade or more ago. But it is what you built your whole institution upon. You are the people who were proud to admit that you ran an exam factory. Are you experiencing a sudden loss of purpose, since your whole rationale – if that is not too fancy a word for it – was built for years on the macho extraction of results data from pupils and teachers alike?

In a way I don’t blame you for what you did: it was only what you were told to do. But you still took it much further than you needed to, drunk on edu-corporate bullishness (remember that word?). There were too many glittering careers to be built in going along with it. You discovered that by bleeding people dry you could harvest data which impressed the inspectors, politicians and local public, which justified your management strut, which treated ordinary teachers as machinery and pupils as data fodder.

I don’t think the ‘customers’ were actually unhappy – but the bonhomie in the school existed despite the management not because of it. Even though you claimed all the credit. They are not a particularly enlightened bunch, the ‘clients’ in this area. A passport to a high salary for their children was all they mostly ever wanted. The fact that you paid yourselves handsomely while making front-line staff redundant no doubt impressed them too, since many were probably doing the same in their own lines of work.

You also figured out how to please the inspectors and accreditors; that was far more important to you than the happiness or well-being of your staff. You refused to implement even the most basic workplace guarantees where you could get away with it. I was in the room when you refused to countenance an H&S stress policy. Only bad teachers get stressed, you said. You always said we could go elsewhere if we didn’t like it; many did, and not for the reasons you claimed. That’s how much you valued us.

Playing the corporate game served you well. You had your fancy holidays, your flashy cars and your smart clothes, far out of reach to those who did the real classroom graft day in, day out. Some of you barely taught a class in years, and when you did the results were often no different from those you pilloried for what in their case you called ‘failure’.

I have no doubt you have clear consciences. In fact I genuinely think you did what you believed was right at the time. Who can ask for more? And the fact that the system worked for you only proved you were right – didn’t it? But you still had to sell the soul that any honest educator would find far more difficult to do that you did.

Yet your failure was even deeper than that. In your dismal, mundane world you utterly failed to see what Amanda Spielman has now accepted: that the important thing about educational success is not the grade, but how you reach it. It is the educational experience that is important, not the letters that it generates on a spreadsheet.

In the process, you sold out, too, on the real ethical purpose of education – which is not to help school managers to preen themselves. You didn’t care less about the breadth of the curriculum, or even whether the experiences children were having in classrooms were genuinely educational, let alone motivating, so long as we all pumped out the A grades.

When a hole appeared in the ‘A’ Level results, you chose not to consult the one group of people who knew why: the classroom teachers. We could see that grade-priming was coming at the expense of genuine learning, we could all see students coming into the sixth form without properly-embedded prior knowledge – that too was sacrificed to short-term grade gain. Those students were drained of enthusiasm by the bleak target-slog that you made of GCSE, ever to come back willingly for more: most were only there because they felt they had no choice. It was the educational equivalent of a property bubble: currency backed by no wealth – and now it has burst.

We could feel that it was making the job of teaching children more difficult and less effective. But you over-ruled us every time: you knew best, we were ‘anecdotal’ idiots (remember that word?), not the “experts in their field” that Spielman now accepts teachers are.

Publicly, you will probably say that you welcome the changes – but your behaviour over the past decades went far beyond  doing unwillingly that over which you had no choice. Much of the damage done to the education of British children – to say nothing of the teaching profession – came directly from the offices of school managers. No higher.

So how are you going to function in a world where you may no longer be able to blather your way through, hiding such inadequacies behind reams of meaningless statistics? How are you going to deliver a service that actually requires people to be properly educated? Which requires a school to be a place of learning, not just data mining? Because here is your real failing: you epitomise the emptiness of that approach – people with the right credentials, but nothing behind them. You didn’t understand what we were saying about the priorities and processes of genuine education – because such things were all too evidently a closed book to you too.

Your most abject failure was a glaring lack of leadership – despite the re-branding of management as such. You didn’t lead us anywhere worth going. You and your ilk failed to challenge the powers that were pushing education in the wrong direction; not easy, I know – but presumably that is why you call yourselves Leaders. To do the tricky stuff. But no: there was too much to gain from sucking it up.

You failed, too, to challenge those limited expectations amongst the local populace – to show them that real education is not just an exam grade. But no – that would have required the vision and courage to tackle entrenched beliefs – something you utterly lacked. You never backed those of us who tried to argue otherwise; instead you narrowed the curriculum simply to maximise data outcomes. That is not good education. Education is not about giving people what they want, even less what they already know: it is about challenging them with things they don’t even yet know they need.

So please don’t begrudge those who resisted our current wry smiles. Those whom you didn’t even deign to acknowledge when we passed in the playground, to whom you could be so unpleasant when it suited you. Those whom you hustled out of the place at the first opportunity for daring to stick to our own principles and for not buying into your narrow remit. Educational principles we knew were right. We could see what was really going on.

In some cases, our entire careers were defined – blighted – by this utterly pointless obsession with meaningless data. Spielman has said as much: “Teachers have been forced to become data managers”. Too right they have – forced to game the system and mortgage their own well-being purely to massage the egos of managers – and too many have paid with disillusion, their health and their livelihoods.

Spare a thought for the time I sat at a computer facing a dilemma over whether to falsify so-called achievement data in order to keep you happy, or whether to stick to my principles and record the reality I could see, knowing how unpleasant the consequences might be. I am proud I did the latter, even though it helped to kill my career.

So forgive me for having the last laugh. While you kowtowed to your superiors, some of us were trying to do the right thing. For us small fry, making a stand on a matter of professional principle was important, even when it did us harm. Not an approach shared by you, our ‘leaders’ for whom compliance, even collusion was a far more important consideration than anything that required the courage of conviction.

In some cases, it damaged us personally – but we knew we were right, every time you ignored or over-ruled our input and views. I may be beyond the professional grave now – but I feel well satisfied by what Spielman appears to be saying. The principle we were defending has now been recognised for what is it – and the damage done by your false gods called out, despite the scorn which you poured on us when we tried to speak up.

It was us that kept the true spirit of education alive, while you were busy selling out to the gods of educational mammon. What will you do now?

If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here…

I’m awaiting the arrival of Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA makes us what we are. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Plomin claimed that the statistical evidence suggests that heritability is a more significant determinant of human characteristics than we like to believe. He also observed that one of the fields proving most resistant to his findings is…education.

I find this rather ironic, given how the education world has supposedly jumped on the bandwagon of evidence-based practice over the past few years. If this is to mean anything at all, it has to be about responding to whatever the ‘evidence’ tells us. Instead, it seems that education is still choosing to ignore evidence that does not correlate with its carefully crafted and jealously protected ideology. We are right back to the Cargo-Cult.

Equally ironically, the often-dogmatic view that the main impediment of individual life opportunities is societal, leads the Left quickly in the direction of the Positive Psychology movement, with its right-wing insistence that anyone can be anything they want, if only they try hard enough (and overcome any social obstacles). The logical conclusion of this, of course, is that anyone who failed simply did not try hard enough, and should be shown no pity. I suspect this is a position that many on the well-meaning Left would feel much less comfortable with.

Having also recently read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%, which contains a long chapter on educational inequalities, I have somewhat reconsidered my view of selective education – or at least the process by which it occurs. It has become apparent to me that the whole circumstances in which it now operates have changed considerably from what I experienced in the 1970s. For a start, the Eleven Plus is no longer the discrete, everyday classroom test that it was then. Now it is a pressurised, Saturday-morning marathon, which depends on the ability of parents to ferry their offspring to the nearest grammar school. Consequently the whole social display of preparing for and taking it has become more conspicuously elitist than it was. Likewise, the ability of selective schools themselves to control the nature of the test seems to have dropped it right into the laps of those who would indeed use it for social rather than intellectual purposes.

While this has made me reconsider my views on the test, those who are implacably against selection should also bear in mind that the current nature of the Eleven Plus is not the only way it can be. I would argue that the historic approach was fairer, not least because access to it did not depend on anything other than going to school on an otherwise normal day. Today’s inequities are more about the social context than the intellectual principle of the test itself. We should not allow our view of selection to be determined entirely by the means in which it is sometimes effected. Once again, I can’t help but reflect on the considered, low-key  (and reversible) way in which it happens in Germany and Switzerland, countries where matters of intellect and education are not routinely conflated with social status or mobility, as they are in Britain.

At the root of opposition to selection is, of course, the view that it unfairly discriminates against certain groups. Well, discriminate it does, but as Plomin points out, if it is indeed true that aptitudes are more determined by genes than we care to admit, then it can equally be argued that putting everyone through an identical schooling experience makes no intellectual sense, and may just as easily be unkind or even harmful. Socially, we can of course attempt to use uniform education as a leveller – but only by holding the more able back. Which educator would knowingly embrace that – particularly as (in economic terms) it patently doesn’t work?

Plomin is no elitist: he is at pains to show that the conclusions from his findings might just as easily be used to justify more support being given to those who are ‘genetically disadvantaged’, as the opposite.

My reservations about non-selective schooling derive not from any inherent wish to hive off certain ‘elite’ sections of the population, so much as the dulling effects on those who as a result experience inappropriate education for their needs. Unfortunately, most comprehensives were more a matter of ‘secondary moderns with bright kids’ than ‘grammar schools for all’. What was – and is – too often lacking in comprehensive schools is a strongly thoughtful ethic. Note that ‘thoughtful’ need not mean traditionally academic: it is about valuing the power of deep, demanding thinking, and the achievement of high standards, no matter what the discipline. But the agenda in many comprehensives was that high standards are themselves elitist, and were therefore to be rejected.

The dominance of that view is to be seen throughout the comprehensive sector to this day; my impression is that relatively few of those who staff or run our schools are themselves genuine ‘thinkers’. The mania over exam results is no denial of this: more a confirmation that the entire thing is being run by people who either understand little or care less about the true nature of high cognitive development. Those who understood the true relationship between education and exams would be more considered in their approach.

The impact on the population has recently become all too clear: the legacy of education as a form of low-brow entertainment (just because some supposedly struggle to cope with more) did not prevent the campaigns over Brexit – and the subsequent factionalised nastiness – from proceeding on the most facile of bases. It failed to protect the populace at large (including many who should have known better) from being misled – perhaps by both sides. That people are now increasingly recognising that they were misled does nothing to diminish the fact that a more widely educated population would have been better-informed and less easy to deceive in the first place. The claim that ‘we were told what to think by the wrong people’ misses a much deeper truth about the nature of, and responsibility for, individual knowledge.

The same is undoubtedly true in many other situations where the growing power of the media to distort is meeting little resistance from ‘consumers’ who arguably ought to be better-informed and wiser to begin with. It is such qualities and values that bland, dumbed-down, universalised education has too often failed to transmit.

I have never doubted or disagreed with an egalitarian ideal for education; Heaven knows, this country still suffers enough from its historically having been otherwise. But blank denial of the (possible) reality of the situation hardly strikes me as a good position from which to begin. I am not suggesting Plomin’s work should be accepted without careful scrutiny – but if it turns out to be more correct than our sensitivities would prefer, pretending otherwise will only mean we are starting from the wrong place. And this is only going to frustrate the provision of educational opportunity genuinely tailored to the needs of every individual.

The Unprofessionalisables.

I suppose it’s just yet another Holy Grail to hope that the teaching profession in Britain might ever reach a steady state. I remember my former head teacher saying in the early nineties that henceforth the only constant would be change. Maybe that has always been true, and the perception that there were (and are) steady states is just an illusion. Change probably is endemic.

But one is still entitled to wonder where it all gets us. While the physical world marches to its own rhythm, change in social constructs such as education is a more controllable matter. And we might wonder whether the fundamental need that people have for cognitive development has really changed so much that the constant upheaval is justified.

I came to the conclusion that most change in professional circles is really about people’s perceptions of what they are doing – and about power-play: who is in charge and whose world-view takes precedence. It is not much about delivering the basic service at all. Recent trends have only bulwarked the authority of those at the top of the greasy pole, and made it all worse.

The problem with teaching is that nobody really knows – let alone can agree – on what it is and what it is for. That, despite the essentially simple process of spending time with children and exposing them to things they have yet to encounter.

High amongst the confusions come the ceaseless calls to improve the ‘professionalism’ of the profession. Nobody seems to know what that means either; it is just more empty words. For school managers (and perhaps their political bosses) it probably means a workforce that does whatever it is asked with maximum effort and minimum dispute. Which might be fine, if what was being asked was both uncontentious and sustainable – but it is neither.

Then there is the view (which managers mostly seem to hate), that professionalism is about the ability to operate autonomously, within a set of guiding ethics, and still achieve largely good outcomes (although those outcomes themselves are not beyond question). This seems to me a much more viable model, especially in a field as nebulous as education, but it means allowing people more latitude than the current gate-keepers are willing to grant. It also means accepting the inherent uncertainty of the process, something that those being held to account are understandably reluctant to do, no matter how little they can really change it.

Attempts have been made to impose order and standards on the profession by the establishment of various bodies. But their legitimacy is questionable when they are not composed – voluntarily – of the majority of the grass-roots individuals that they purport to represent. So I am far from convinced that it is possible to increase professionalism simply by imposing structures: in the final reckoning, professionalism is a state of mind, and only the owners of said minds can really control it.

Here we return to the dichotomy mentioned earlier: should the professional state of mind be one of compliance with institutionalised norms (laid down by whom?) or should it rather be a state of independence to follow one’s conscience and experience – albeit probably within a general ethical framework? Until such matters are resolved, it is unlikely than any greater semblance of professionalism will be achieved.

In the case of other professions, one might  observe that status is indeed conferred by membership of august bodies – though they are usually controlled by their members rather than outside agencies. But this form of institutionalism is no guarantee of professional behaviour either – only a recognition of it (or not, as when people are struck off).

Here we come to perhaps the most uncomfortable point of all, for those arguing for a grass-roots definition of professionalism: there is simply no shared understanding of what it means. I can think of very many individuals over the years who, while technically competent, exhibited all manner of behaviours and attitudes that I found professionally questionable. Perhaps they thought the same about me. What are we to make of the Advanced Skills Teacher who was found to be having a relationship with a student? And there were many lesser manifestations of individual attitude that I certainly did not agree with.

Then there is what one perceives as one’s own responsibilities. In my view, a professional should have a degree of ‘benign remove’ from his or her clients (and employers) so as to retain the necessary detachment from partisan interests. How else can ethics be upheld? But I was regarded as old and pompous by the teachers who seemed to perceive themselves more as children’s buddies and life coaches (or management lackeys), things that I found verged on the puerile and professionally compromised.

It seems that attempts to engage with the mainstream teaching body as a profession is stymied by one simple fact: many of those concerned simply aren’t interested. What they want is to have fun with children; or failing that, to drill exam statistics out of them (which is not at all the same thing, but not much better). Or more charitably, just to do their job.

Unlike the researchers, whose interest most often strikes me as nerdishly academic, or the managers whose interest most often strikes me as blindly corporatist, ordinary teachers most often have only a vague sense of belonging to a discrete profession, let alone one that has any sense of dignity. They are more interested in something to get them through the next lesson than the underlying philosophy or psychology of what they are doing. And the short-sighted technocracy which now passes for teaching standards is only making it worse.

That is not meant as harshly as it probably reads: I do have sympathy with those who just want a simple life, though that should not excuse them from identifying and maintaining appropriately high standards. From recent conversations with long-retired teachers, it probably  always was the case, and was not necessarily a bad thing, in that it gave them an authenticity with their pupils. My sadness is that few will discover that bothering to find those underpinnings actually gives such an outlook more sense. (That’s what TonicforTeachers is about…)

Much of the lack of interest is also due to simple time pressure. Full-time teachers are just too overloaded to have much left for the niceties of what they are doing, let alone membership of professional colleges: that is for those who are already looking for ways to escape. Neither is climbing the management ladder (which seems to be the sole reason many suddenly find interest in meta-educational matters) for everyone.

But we are still left with the same dilemma: those who want to apply ‘standards’ don’t understand that imposition is actually the last way to succeed – while those responsible for the day-to-day upholding of said standards seem to have little conception or concern for what that might mean, beyond its simplistically being “all for the children” (which is something else I’ve questioned before now…).

I can hardly be the only person who has attempted to square this circle unilaterally, by self-equipping with the philosophical background that was otherwise conspicuously lacking. In my opinion that is the only way it can be done which is why, in certain other countries, teachers are expected to have higher degrees, even doctorates, before they can teach.

I tried hard to develop my own strain of professionalism in my work: in this blog, in my book and in my contributions to CPD. My approach (though categorically not the content) was sometimes criticised for being over-academic; for my part, I could not see why mature adults should not be able to raise their own outlook above the ‘fun and group-work’ that they deliver to their pupils. We do not need to conduct professional discourse in the manner of Year Nines.

Yet it was my approach that was (supposedly) found wanting in the end; my determination to retain high professional and intellectual standards was apparently not pupil- (or data-) friendly enough – even though the same school was exhorting its teachers to deliver high academic standards. There was a personal dilemma all of its own in there: I found insight that I am certain enhanced my own professionalism – only for it to be ignored, and ultimately rejected, by a blinkered establishment. I can only assume that the individuals concerned either could not see the contradictions in that, or had no real idea what they were talking about.

What kind of professionalism is that?

Tonic for Teachers introductory offer!

Now that the new school year is well underway, time to think about professional development? Tonic for Teachers is a programme of fifty short audio commentaries (and associated downloads) on issues pertinent in education in the widest sense. Developed in the U.K. from a successful series of delivered CPD sessions, it discusses the nature of the teacher’s craft and sets it in a wider philosophical, psychological and social setting.

Available for a short time only at an introductory rate of approx. £10.00 (charged in Aus$) for unlimited access.

Find out more at Tonicforteachers.com or enroll directly at Open Learning