Hydra

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.

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13 thoughts on “Hydra

    • Thanks. I think that part of the problem is that the ‘collateral damage’ is rarely seen by those who cause it, as it by nature manifests in the times and places unseen by managers…

  1. It seems we have managed to combine the worst bits of the public sector (long hours, no bonuses, lack of recognition, lack of autonomy) with the worst bits of the private sector (low pay, job insecurity, internships, ‘customer is always right’).

    Perhaps Stockholm Syndrome will help us?

    • I think you’re right: we seem incapable of conceiving of a dualism where some things are best done by private enterprise but others publicly/collectively. We seem incapable of seeing any benefit in anything other than the bottom line – and enough time has elapsed that much of the population has never known it any other way. It distorts their perception of what is possible or desirable.

  2. This isn’t about public/private, (there are independent schools, after all and most do not operate on a model of performance related bonuses, detailed targets, etc.)

    It’s about a failure to understand that “the sorts of things required to operate an intellectual organisation” are not the same as “the sorts of things required to operate a salesforce”.

    In direct sales, it’s normal to set ‘aspirational’ targets and to kick out poor performers after 6 months. There’s always someone more cut-throat ready to come in and gouge the customers that bit more.

    It’s the way you sell double glazing. But it’s not the way you get a bridge built.

    To get a bridge built, you need a great many experienced professionals each operating expertly in their own fields (be that materials science, mathematics, logistics or driving a dumper truck). No one would think it would be OK to force the dumper truck driver to use a truck without fuel ‘in order to challenge him/her’. No one demands the materials engineer spends his/her evenings and weekends putting data that no one will ever use into a computer system no one understands.

    And teaching is more like the latter than the former. Trouble is, the people who pontificate it see “The Apprentice” as the right way to run a business, not the ‘less suitable for TV’ slow-but-correct way construction contractors operate.

    If we built bridges the way we currently run education, crossing them (or living under one) would really be taking your life in your hands.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree it’s not about public versus private within education but the application of the wrong model to a social good. I believe that there are certain functions that a just society should guarantee and if necessary underwrite in order to keep it just. They tend to be things that are not profitable in the commercial sense. Education is one of these, and the winner-takes-all model has (possibly fatally) distorted its proper function.

      Unfortunately those who make the decisions seem incapable or understanding this despite the fact that most equivalent countries are content to retain their social assets without the need to pervert them in the name of commerce. It’s not as though the U.K. is any more efficient economically as a result. Depressingly, he only solution available to the resultant problems seems to be more of the same, in particular that the failings of micro-management can be solved by more not less of it.

      I think your analogy is excellent and sums up the problem with running a complex professional service for short term ‘gain’ admirably.

    • Is it significant that the two business areas linked to high-profile education chains are retail (Harris) and high finance (Ark)? I’m not saying that we don’t need either of them, but even in the context of the private sector, they are at the “set (high) targets, treat mean/keep keen” end of things.

      The ownership as such isn’t the key thing; it’s quite possible for the state sector to obsess about production statistics, losing the meaning behind them. Arguably, that’s what happened in the first decade of the 21st century.

      What is needed is to acknowledge that different functions have different demands, and a type of management (and assumptions) that may be effective in one field can’t just transfer to another.

      • Yes, I’m sure you’re right that the state is quite capable of getting carried away with the targets. It’s just a matter of which set of masters you want – leftist Five Year Plans or rightist sweat-shops… I think the problem is, there is only one model in currency for how to run an organisation and it tends to come from a business background. I would argue that education and other public services need one that starts from the vocation of many of those who undertake them.

  3. That’s interesting – I’d missed the Guardian article but after the ResearchED conference I was talking with another speaker, a teacher from Australia, who had already bought her 1-way ticket back to Australia a few months ago, but decided to try a last ditch attempt to stay in the UK by applying to private schools. She got into one and now talks so enthusiastically about the things she can do as a teacher in a trusting environment. Thanks for this blog post!

    • Thanks for your comment, Leah. A great shame if it turns out that this was not an isolated case. Unfortunately our masters seem to think they know better than to look at how the rest of the world does these things…

      • I’d love your thoughts on the discussions I’ve summarised on my website from the Politics in Education Summit – http://leahkstewart.com/politicsineducation/ – based on what you’re saying here and in other posts I’m hoping you’ll find the summaries informative, interesting, hopeful? Feel free to contact me with thoughts. I’m refusing to believe we can’t improve things, even little people like us.

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