Mixed deserts

One evening last week was given to our annual New Parents’ Evening, which is supposedly a social event intended to allow parents of year 7 pupils to put faces to names. It is fair to say that it is not exactly most teachers’ favourite night of the year. But towards the end of the evening, in a packed school hall, I got a glimpse from a distance, of a heart-warming scene. A father was fondly saying something to his eleven-year-old son, and then the lad beamed and flung his arms unselfconsciously around his father’s waist.

It’s not often we see such overt affection in school: even by eleven, I suspect many children would consider it un-cool, certainly in front of their peers. Many of our highly competitive parents, too, might rather keep such displays for home. But for me, who has no children of his own, it was an endearing reminder that our pupils are very much members of hopefully-loving families.

It’s very easy to forget this when one sees their names on Excel tracking sheets, or even when planning one’s lessons with regard to the target culture which makes very possible to think of them simply as material to be processed and delivered. It’s even easier to think like that when being subjected to the various training sessions and research data that mention the recipients of our efforts largely in abstract and aggregate terms.

I am not in the least bit sentimental about children in the rather gooey way that some teachers seem to be; I have a job to do with them, which involves the transmission of knowledge and the development of skills and outlooks so as to improve their options in life, and to integrate them into a hopefully caring and compassionate society. But behind that seemingly rather dispassionate outlook, I do have a genuine concern for their personal wellbeing. I just don’t feel the need to try to out-do their parents, or to curry undue favour with the children themselves.

This is why, despite the above, and despite my genuine regard for most of the sayings and doings of John Tomsett, I was disappointed to see him begin a post the other day with the words,

“Our students deserve the very best; no one I have ever worked with would disagree with that claim.”

Well I do – albeit more out of semantics than sentiment. I dispute the use of the word ‘deserve’ in his claim. It is a lazy and often-repeated mantra that children deserve only the best. It betrays an ill-conceived understanding of the role of the teacher. I am not sure that anyone of school age has been on this planet remotely long enough to be said to ‘deserve’ anything in any great moral sense of the word. Neither am I certain that anyone deserves anything simply by virtue of either having been born or still being young. The naivety of Youth does not, in this often-harsh universe, entitle us to anything. And there are, regrettably, plenty of quite horrid children; one wonders what is ‘best’ for them – and indeed what they ‘deserve’. Genuine unfortunates clearly need special attention, but there are some who are just plain unpleasant. Encouraging them to think they deserve some simplistic version of ‘the best’ is not helpful in a wider sense, for all that some adults might choose to see them as victims.

And then there is the problem of what ‘the best’ is. Even if we can define and recognise it, there are so many conflicting ‘bests’ that it cannot be true that a child deserves them all. I can accept entirely that a parent will strive in a completely partisan way to provide their offspring what whatever they consider to be ‘the best’- but a teacher should take a far more detached view of not only individual children but the whole of the educational and wider societal context. It is simply not possible – and perhaps not even desirable – for all people to feel entitled to the best of everything, which is the value system such a view transmits.

While the scene I recounted at the start was genuinely heart-warming, many of our particular children come from such materially-privileged homes that they have a massively exaggerated sense of their own entitlemement, which can often be hard to stomach. I sometimes think that doing ‘the best’ for them might involve their swapping places with children twenty miles down the road in deprived areas of inner London for a term. They might appreciate their good fortune rather more then – but I wonder how many would agree with my idea.

So we should think through such blandishments more carefully before using them – and it’s all the more surprising that John Tomsett used this one, since the idea of Desert in the moral sense would seem rather at odds with the Growth Mindset that he also advances, with its emphasis on striving rather than entitlement.

However, I am not by any means the heartless individual that the foregoing might suggest! The final irony is that those like me who have resisted the advance of the accountability culture would consider ourselves as advocates of an approach that has the real interests of children deeper at heart than those who insist that education is simply about ‘having the best’. All of my reservations about treating children as exam machines derive from the damage that excess pressure to achieve can inflict on young people. I worry that the very notion of ‘the best’ commoditises education in an unhelpful and untruthful way. And if we are talking about pupils deserving their teachers’ best, then I think this rather denigrates the role of the sovereign adults in the equation; there may be times when those adults cannot deliver their best because of wider conflicts in their own, equally important lives.

Of course pupils need exam passes (in due course) but a system that sees ‘the best’ simply as the maximum number of high grades also has, in my view, a very limited view of what the best might mean. We also need to be sure that there isn’t conflation creeping in about who ‘the best’ is really for – the child or the school?

In my view, it verges on the immoral to discuss what is best for children if they are in fact being manipulated for institutional gain. A letter in The Independent last Friday, signed by around 400 people including a number of prominent individuals also called for an end to the exam-factory culture that is destroying children’s chance to experience of the joy of real learning – and their childhood at the same time. Yet those who make such calls have often been dismissed as the ‘enemies of promise’ –  and not only by those outside the profession.

In summary, what we have here is just another example of the dog’s-dinner that passes for reasoned debate in our profession. It’s hard to know where ‘the truth’ lies – just as hard, in fact, as knowing who ‘deserves’ what, or what ‘the best’ actually is. I wish there were an easy resolution to such conflicts, but I fear there is not. In the meantime, we could do worse than avoid carelessly flinging around meaningless phrases in the guise of argument – and also refraining from demonising those whose views appear contrary to our own.

Much of the time, I only have an uneasy sense of semi-decision on these matters in my own mind – there is simply too much conflict ever to arrive at any kind of conclusion. However, moments of tenderness should remind us that above all, we are dealing with people here, not machines  – and that goes for the teachers too. The only way to reduce pressure on children is to reduce pressure on their teachers, and the only way to do that is to reduce pressure on schools; nobody needs (or deserves?) the gnawing, depressing anxiety that comes with accountability culture. We need to reframe what it is we consider children ‘deserve’ from their schooling; we also need to rethink the pressure on the adults who deal with them, be they parents or teachers.

We might then have less self-consciousness about expressing genuine human emotions and sentiments in school communities, rather than treating the thing as though it is just one great impersonal machine.


4 thoughts on “Mixed deserts

  1. Oh well. I do think my comments need to be taken in the context of my post as a whole i.e. that the adults are providing a deeply flawed service to our children in the guise of the examination system which should be fair and equitable. Always happy to hear criticism, however, and your comments have made me think about exactly what I wrote. Many thanks.

  2. And if you were to visit Huntington you’d realise that it is a place where love for our students genuinely exists. You’re very welcome…just let me know when you would like to visit!

    • Yes, I plead guilty to selective use of your article, and I agree with your larger premise. Sorry about that – it is just a phrase that particularly irks me! Much of your writing I find very interesting and sometimes inspirational, so I was not intending to be personally critical. I know enough about Huntingdon from your own writing and a number of other contacts to believe you about your genuine care – would that all establishments (including, in some ways my own) showed the same level of concern for those who comprise them.

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