Yesterday evening I spent an exhilarating ninety minutes at a public lecture debating the track record of the coalition government, and the prospects for what might emerge after the General Election in May. I particularly wanted to hear Anthony King, one of the U.K.’s top political commentators, who is Professor of Government at the University of Essex. He (and the other panellists) did not disappoint, and I was particularly struck by the widespread acceptance that politics has become detached from everyday life in the U.K.
One of King’s lines of critique was that while the enduring stability of the British political system may in itself be creditable, the enduring instability of policy that has emerged in recent decades most certainly is not. He argued that many comparable European countries operate a much more consensual system, with a resultant continuity of policy, thus avoiding the perpetual and sometimes destructive policy shifts seen in the U.K. This is indeed my experience too.
I was pleased to note that the panel agreed with my suggestion that the professionalisation of the politics is partly to blame for this, with many politicians having little experience outside the Westminster Village, and also potentially falling prey to the conflicting interests of party career and democratic duty. (This was dramatically driven home to me some years ago in the days when I organised politics days for sixth formers, by one invited speaker spending most of his allocated time expounding not the principles of democracy, but the benefits of politics as a career…)
If they are to learn this lesson, the politicians could well start with Education. I expect there are few teachers who would disagree that political interference of all sorts has been a major destabilising force in recent decades. This is not only because of the incessant policy shifts regarding the delivery of education but also what they have asked of the teaching profession too.
Many of the forces that have turned teaching from a social profession into a form of technical instruction have originated from the political classes, and have paralleled the changes seen in politics itself, from honourable calling to personal career choice. But the teaching profession itself is not blameless in this either, as many parts of it seem to have colluded willingly in the drive to send teaching in this direction, one perhaps driven as much by personal ambition and power-politics as a desire to do the right thing for young people.
Just as in politics, education professionals can now face a conflict between interests of career and duty – and it is by no means clear to me that the latter has always won out. In fact, just as stellar political careers may be deeply incompatible with the proper working of democracy, I would suggest that stellar educational careers may actually have very little to do with educating children.
Politicians could also well learn the lesson that excessive demanding of accountability causes more distortions than it solves – and so should education leaders. In my view, teaching has always been a profession – but not necessarily in the modern sense that seeks to demonstrate its credentials through closed technical procedures, stringent and misleading ‘accountability’, high-profile careers or large salaries. It may be wiser to accept that leaving classroom judgement to teachers is sensible and not just a cop-out for the incompetent. And for all the noble talk, there remains one thing that no senior manager has ever sacrificed to stay near the pupils: their career.
This week has also brought a couple of glimmers of hope: one was the fact that the politicians on the panel were prepared openly to concede that there is a problem, even if they aren’t yet sure how to address it – and the other was the fact that I was presented, during a CPD session, with an article from The Times by Adrian Furnham extolling the virtues of the teacher who is driven by an intrinsic wish to educate rather than an institutional obsession with exam results. That such articles (albeit some years old) are even being written is perhaps a sign of hope, and more important was the fact that it emanated, at school, from a source that has been a major proponent of technocracy, and which might not have entertained such ‘woolly’ views but a short time ago.
The buzz from the audience in yesterday’s lecture also suggested one thing: when people are being given genuine brain food, there is no need for spurious exit polls or progress indicators in order to know as much. Good learning ‘Just is’. We need to let it breathe.
If people are beginning to realise as much, then maybe things are indeed just about to get better…