Charley says…


I read with sadness this week’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher, written by a soon-to-be ex-teacher who, after a couple of years has realised that an aspiration simply to teach one’s subject is no longer sufficient. I feel the loss to the profession of one who may well have been or become a fine teacher – rejected by a professional monomania that cannot tolerate diversity of intent, and which places almost anything above a simple love of one’s subject. Education has become just too technocratic for its own good.

It’s difficult to pin-point any moment when an intellectual inclination ceased to be the principal asset of a would-be teacher, but there has nonetheless been clear shift in emphasis in the past few decades. Both my parents taught, but while there was a clear pastoral element to their work, their principal focus was always ‘their subject’. Contrast that with the comment I shall never forget (for the wrong reasons) when on the first morning of my own P.G.C.E., I was told, “If ever asked what you teach, the answer is, “Children””.

I’ve discussed the semantic difficulties of that statement before, but it also portrays the extent to which a certain mindset has dominated the teaching profession, no doubt egged-on by the politicians and educational theorists  whose comfortable careers depended on grandiose ideas of social change. Just to want to teach one’s subject was no longer enough, when the purpose of education had become something between a velvet social revolution and life-coaching for the masses. And since then have been added the institutionalised performance pressures that mean it’s no longer sufficient just to try to change people’s lives; anything short of a fully measurable metamorphosis is just not acceptable.

As Secret Teacher concedes, it’s hard to argue that schools should have no concern at all for the wider wellbeing of their pupils – but that’s rather different from the full-on social engineering that we’re meant to engage in today with the supposed aim of ‘preparing pupils for life’. With the perennial debate about sex education again in the headlines, it’s clear that some things probably do need to be specifically taught, if only because one cannot rely on all parents to do so themselves. But that position also represents the top of a slippery slope whereby there is no end to the number of socially well-meaning interventions schools should make to compensate for supposed parental or wider societal failures.

The education system has hoisted itself well and truly on this petard. Over the years, it has never stood up to those arguing that it should ‘teach’ this, that or the other; to do so would have been to admit its impotence, or at least insignificance as the guarantor of the social Good. The result has been the ceaseless expectation that teachers will have no limits to what they can or will do for their pupils, whether academically or otherwise.

I’ve done my share of ‘social education’ over the years, having been rather inexpertly involved in careers education, First Aid and more; I’ve also spent hours sitting on various box-ticking committees whose job it was to transform, for example, children’s eating habits – but whose more mundane (but one suspects actually more desired) achievement was to add another accreditation-mark to the foot of the school’s letter-paper.

My conclusion is that such lessons are always going to be treated with time-honoured scepticism by many pupils; while there may be some who do gain directly (and they may not always be visible), the majority of young people do not take lightly to such worthiness. I suspect they see it as school going beyond its remit, and probably justifiably so – and they are adept at separating general discussions from anything that might apply directly to themselves. This is only compounded by the fact that it is extremely difficult to make such lessons anything other than nebulous.

While there has always been a place for a guiding word from an adult, in general such things cannot be overtly taught. Here is fine example of the need for a more oblique approach – and more so of the perception of the need for such; the transmission of values and attitudes is rarely effective when stipulated directly even by parents, let alone teachers. These are things which are assimilated, learned from other people’s ongoing example, though this is not to deny the need for intervention when actual transgression occurs. In general, a more helpful way is via the ethos of a school, and the  behaviour  modelled by those who lead and work in it. The error is then doubled by judging teachers and schools on the ‘outcomes’. In fact, it is equally possible that all we are doing is antagonising young people, perhaps even awakening their natural rebelliousness, or worse: it is known that prisons are a breeding ground for criminal technique…

Where more is needed, a pithy five-minute discussion within normal lessons can be productive, assisted by the fact that the matter in question tends to arise naturally, in a non self-conscious manner. This is a technique I have used to advantage on many occasions, and I have found that it tends to command more attention than any enforced programme of worthiness. It does, however, require sufficient flexibility in lesson –planning to make such digressions acceptable – and a teaching body sufficiently adept as to embrace issues as and when they arise.

This is a fine example of the own-goal typical of over-controlled education. While its intent may be valid, its desire to standardise, specify and measure has done more harm than good. The most meaningful way of embedding ‘desirable’ values in pupils is by having teachers who personify them; instead we have an imposed, extrinsic, corporate view of correctness. It has directed such things to be delivered in a way that almost guarantees resistance from many young people – and then it wonders why it fails to make an impact.

Yet it has become almost the dominant view that education is primarily about life-skills and life-chances. Well, in one sense, it always was – but not in the overt way that believes it can control both the inputs and the outcomes. The consequence, of course, has been ever-greater demands on teachers, backed with the emotional blackmail that if one drew a line then one was letting one’s pupils down.

Secret Teacher was absolutely right to draw closer limits to their aspirations – and not unreasonable to be seeking a degree of intellectual fulfilment as a motive for their work. That model also represents a more realistic and sustainable ambition for what one might expect of a typical teacher. It is especially regrettable that such intellectual fulfilment is now non grata and that the only acceptable motives derive from ‘welfare’.

Charley says… “Don’t go into teaching if you simply love your subject.” It’s a pity that we have lost this one to the profession as a result.


 “Charley says” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –


12 thoughts on “Charley says…

  1. Thank you very much for another post that really wrestles to get to the nub of a matter. You know my own opinion that there is no way for us to avoid having some responsibility for these soft areas, but I think there is something incredibly powerful in the ‘obliquity’ idea, and how we should use this to remove the soul-destroying, and often backfiring, ‘formal’ attempts to tackle such areas.

    One linked, but adjacent thought which occurred to me during reading this was that, yes (as I’ve argued here – put as self-advertising, as you get more views than me!) as teachers, we can’t disown all responsibility for ‘softer’ areas of education, but just like the parents, who also have clear responsibility, we can’t actually be held accountable for life outcomes (nobody can, although it’s fair to say that the individual carries the consequences). So lots of groups have clear “responsibility towards”, without there being any sense in which they could or should be seen as being “accountable for” the overall outcome. Nevertheless, there does seem to be this push in society, that if there is responsibility, then there logically must be accountability.

    Thanks again, Chris

  2. I think you’re right – like it or not, we have some responsibility for those soft areas. In fact, I don’t think it’s anything to object to – the problem lies with the way we address them and the accountability we are accept or are ‘given’ for any outcomes.

    I’m just not sure that addressing them head-on through compulsory formal teaching is either wise or productive. It certainly concerns me that teaching has arguably become more of a welfare service than an intellectual exercise, at least in the minds of those driving it. It greatly saddens me that people of an academic inclination can feel they are not appropriate in education any more (as in Secret Teacher). I too went into it more for the intellectual exercise than to become a pseudo-social worker or life-coach.

    As for Obliquity, I too think it is a very useful concept: it could allow us to attribute all those difficult-to-systematise bits of education to an approach that would keep the technocrats happy while still acknowledging their inherent unpredictability.

  3. Lovely post and very eloquently put. I’ve always believed that there is a reason nature gives a mother and father between 2 and 4 children to raise, and not 30. 2 is hard enough and even then you feel like you haven’t done a good enough job. The sheer mental anguish of having 30 children to not only teach, but to parent too, is too much. I wanted to teach because I love knowledge and intellectual pursuits but am faced with a multitude of social problems.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m fortunate that my school circumstances do allow a reasonable degree of academic work, at least some of the time.

      I don’t have any particular issues with the pastoral side, indeed I do think we need to accommodate the ‘whole person’ – my reservations mostly concern the expectations for what is possible. I could name plenty of difficult situations that have needed dealing with – the problem is, you can only do what you judge is best at the time – hindsight is a wonderful thing. The wider world forgets that. Moreover, sometimes one’s own circumstances limit the options.

      I also think the emphasis is more widely wrong when education is turned into some kind of panacea for the difficulties of life, and when social engineering takes precedence over matters of the intellect, which in my view are still our primary concern.

  4. It never ceases to amaze ne how quickly the blob can shrug off failure. SEAL–Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning–was one of the key programmes launched in the wake of Every Child Matters. It was also one of the few to be decently evaluated. The report, published in 2010, found that SEAL

    “…failed to impact significantly upon pupils’ social and emotional skills, general mental health difficulties, pro-social behaviour or behaviour problems… Analysis of school climate scores indicated significant reductions in pupils’ trust and respect for teachers, liking for school, and feelings of classroom and school supportiveness during SEAL implementation.”

    • Thanks for your comment. I think that SEAL was just another part of this trend to extrinsic correctness. It ticks institutional boxes but utterly fails to appreciate the fact that they young learn best by seeing and emulating the example of others. That means dealing in real human behaviour rather than mere enforced policy initiatives. Tricky.

      • No link right off hand–I probably got this from Google Scholar. The reference is

        Humphrey, N; Lendrum, A and Wigglesworth, M (2010) /Social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) programme in secondary schools: and evaluation, /Research Report DFE RR-049, DfE, London, pp 2-3

        The chap who sponsored my visiting professorship is Dennis Hayes, one of our most vocal opponents of therapeutic education. His main work on the subject, co-authored with Katherine Ecclestone, is reviewed at

        Best wishes, Tom

      • Thanks Tom! Very interesting . “In schools a concern with vulnerability is giving way to a programme that actively promotes ’emotional well-being’ as part of the curriculum. This is a bizarre kind of attempt by government to order up happiness by edict.”

        In the jurisdiction where my son goes to school there seems to be a full-court push for this sort of thing as well as described by this teacher:

        What amazes me- beyond the moral aspect of whether an “entrepreneurial spirit” (among other personality attributes that are now apparently on offer) should be taught- is that I don’t see any real discussion as to if it even can be done. I feel sorry for the teachers whose careers are to be judged on how well they can do the impossible. Maybe they should just teach children to be attractive, upper middle-class and above average height… It might be easier.

  5. Alas, the example our young see at school is overworked and stressed out teachers whose authority is continously undermined by inspections and ‘performance management’. The bullying culture starts with Ofsted: at a think-tank lunch, an inspector once bragged to me that “Teachers are afraid of us”. A rare moment of honesty!

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