I suppose some kind of introduction is in order.
I’m the kind of guy who isn’t fashionable in education circles – over my nearly thirty years in the profession, I’ve remained in the classroom, rather than seeking much in the way of management role; I’ve stayed in the same school for most of my career, rather than changing every few.
But as a result, I have a perspective on education that relatively few people of my service these days have: I have seen one school change over a long period of time as a result of the changing priorities and demands that have been imposed upon it. I have seen the way in which young children turn into older ones and go on to other things – and then become parents, who sometimes send their own children for me to teach. Yet I’m not jaded – I enjoy teaching more than ever I did when younger.
I have worked hard to develop my professional practice and insight over three decades; I felt this was my responsibility in order to be the most effective practitioner that I could. I have reflected on what I found worked with young people, what they seemed to want and need, and on the wider societal context in which education operates. I developed a distinctive view on my field; something that I believed distinguishes the professional from others.
Unfortunately, the education sector as a whole has moved in a very different direction; the growing demands from politicians and others for quantifiable outcomes and standardised delivery has corporatized education in a way anathema to my understanding. It expects teachers to be on-message and to work to standardised tick-box procedures in order to meet numerical targets; it prefers obedient technicians to free-thinking individuals.
Despite pious, ‘child-centred’ imprecations, this view sees education as fundamentally an industrial process, little different from a food-packing plant. It sees education as an extension of economic activity, whose sole purpose is to turn out employable units to generate ‘wealth’. In this world-view, influential people pull levers and educational ‘outcomes’ pop out the other end of the machine. It is self-contradictory, self-defeating and wrong. If it genuinely wants better education, then it is looking in completely the wrong place.
I believe that teaching is completely the opposite – a unique, inter-personal, humanistic activity; it should revolve around a much more sophisticated understanding of how people work, both as individuals and in groups. There is plenty of research and writing about how this can be done; it just isn’t machine-controllable. Its very strength comes from the unique nature of the individual interactions it cultivates. That requires the empowerment of individual teachers – which in turn limits the level of control that can be exerted over them. It is also where the core of good teaching really lies.
It should aim to cultivate talents and interests, and offer multiple pathways through life for people to take as they see fit. It should abandon a one-size-fits-all definition of ‘success’, and allow teachers to develop themselves into diverse role-models. Ultimately it should recognise the free will of the individual, be they the teachers or the taught.
I have been fortunate to work in a school that by many measures has always been extremely successful – precisely that kind of institution that has been at the sharp end of the competitive target culture – and its fallout. I know that the vast majority of the people I have worked with over the years were there because they believed in ideals similar to mine. Even when we have disagreed, I have never doubted their good intentions. I do not criticise them, for all that I am critical of the policies they have been forced to enact, and the compromises they have been forced to make. But that does not make the system right.