I read with sadness last week’s Secret Teacher from an Australian teacher who is returning home, fleeing teaching in Britain. It seems that Britain’s world-class education system is capable of doing to others what it does to home-grown talent – utterly destroying the morale of those who teach. A bigger indictment of the system it is hard to imagine.
No, I am not in a particularly grim mood today – but I have had a week where several colleagues were once again head-in-hands at the unending, and largely pointless things they are being required to do. I look at committed, hard-working people and inwardly rage that they are put in this situation. It clearly is visible to those who come here from other parts of the world, so it’s not just ‘us’. The Guardian article left me wondering just how this country’s education system is capable of scoring such spectacular own goals.
The malaise currently afflicting the system is simply the inevitable consequence of its corporatisation and the managerialism it brings. If you commodify education, you will assume that teachers are more effectively motivated by cash, promotion and power than the core activity of teaching. You will promote teaching on its career benefits, the management opportunities rather than the pedagogic ones.
You will downgrade its more cerebral qualities in favour of the material ones, and you will assume you can demand whatever you want in return for your King’s Shilling. You will assume that the process can legitimately be managed top-down. And you will attract a certain sort of person whose life-aims do indeed coincide with such views, who will then by dint of their ambition out-compete more modest souls for the top positions.
Let’s be honest. Classroom teaching is not, and will never be, a glamorous job. The pay is unlikely ever to be better than adequate. But we need people to do it day in, day out because teaching is necessarily labour-intensive. The drawbacks were once balanced by the profession’s ubiquity, autonomy, intellectual dimension and collegiality, and it tended to appeal to those who were not motivated by career mono-mania. It is reasonable that there is work for such people, as with those who prefer to be small-town G.P.s or solicitors rather than city superstars. We don’t need stellar careers or celebrity awards, just a decent wage, a civilised working environment and the ability to balance our lives.
Ironically, many of those now running education purport to have the common good at heart, without acknowledging that social engineering is a futile and insatiable master, in whose name enough can never be done. The quiet souls have been dissuaded from teaching – or got rid of. In the effort to replace them we lost sight of the core purpose of this work and become embroiled in the webs of corporate promotion, power and self-interest that bedevil much of the commercial sector. And the more we struggle, the more ensnared we seem to become.
Teaching in the countries that I admire, which are educationally successful, is done by keeping a firm grasp on the fundamentals – equipping up-coming generations with the knowledge and skills to live effective lives and play a useful role in society. They keep it small-scale, unpretentious, autonomous – and respected. I never hear people in Germany or Switzerland using the over-worked phrase ‘World Class’ – they don’t need to. Yet they don’t have people fleeing their systems.
Britain has become obsessed with a The Apprentice model of education. But this mentality is fundamentally opposed to the true nature of quiet, inner development that real education involves, and it serves no other purpose than to divert our energies. Unlike the Asian pressure-cooker some now seek to emulate, we lack the engrained cultural respect for education that is actually what makes it successful – and just end up with the safety-valves valves blowing instead.
Neither the Australian teacher nor my colleagues were complaining about the children; nor were they raging at specific individuals – but the system that has been created in this country which is the true source of the problems. The institution of educational management has become an utter millstone around the neck of the profession: the mindset it creates is where most of the problems originate, the consequences of which are increasingly clear to see. Much of the (unnecessary) work and anxiety of classroom teachers originates not from their pupils, but their pressurised or approval-hungry peers further up the management hierarchy.
Nobody can seriously claim that schools could operate without any management at all, but by extending into every nook and cranny, the Hydra that has been created is having no other effect than to throttle the very thing it claims to value.