Parallel lives

I spent Friday evening at one of Old Andrew’s blog-meets. It did little to disabuse me of the opinion from my previous post that education in the U.K. is an utter mess. True, voices of discontent often shout louder than others, and I do not doubt that plenty of British children still receive a decent education. But I wonder for how much longer this can continue when it is being provided by a profession that is in a state of perpetual turmoil.

The present system has been developing for over a quarter of a century – so what are its achievements? If it is so successful, why the endless quest for the supposed educational Holy Grail? And why are we facing a severe recruitment crisis?

We do not seem to be producing generations of inquisitive, thoughtful people who are moving society in enlightened directions. Judging from the snippets I hear daily, everyday life for the majority is cruder and more intellectually dead than for generations before. Basic functional and life skills seem to show little improvement, and if my experience is typical, more likely deterioration. Certainly, exam results rose – but were not above accusations of manipulation and dumbing down. For all the initiatives, I am not seeing substantially more motivated, educated people emerging. Dylan Wiliam appeared to be pointing to a sort of economic retrenchment as justification for educating; how uplifting is that?

We have also created a teaching profession which seems more widely disillusioned and burned-out than ever before. My previous post elicited comments describing people being over-worked to the point of distraction; of others being put in positions verging on victimisation from which their only escape was to leave teaching. Friday evening was dominated by the frustrations of teachers trying to make the system work, but also to preserve some vestiges of their own sanity. Perhaps the other end of the table was having happier discussions…

Simultaneously, we have witnessed the emergence of a managerial culture that often only has one solution – to be even more intransigent. It is one whose baseline is that educated people – potential role-models – are ignorant and lazy, or else elitist.

These problems are utterly self-made. Teaching is fundamentally not a complex process. It involves finding ways of communicating knowledge and skills to those who don’t have them. Most of these rely on nothing more than the ordinary principles of interaction upon which all human behaviour is based. Key among them is Trust: the fact that one is genuine, something which can be relied upon when the way forward is not clear. Even children dislike being overtly manipulated.

More mysterious are the consequences  of education: it does have a real effect. In particular, getting people to use their rational as opposed to emotional minds brings about changes too complex to elaborate here.

But the process of doing this, particularly with immature minds, is not as direct as those in charge think. The great mistake has been to confuse deeply ordinary, humane interactions that lead to real learning with the technical, large-scale objectives for it – and then to allow the process to be dictated by the latter.

After thirty years, I have developed ways of reaching most pupils. For all that I follow certain principles, many are utterly peculiar to me. And I just know that children leave my lessons being a little better educated – even if they don’t always enjoy or realise it at the time. Yes, it is broadly measurable – but the more important benefits are intangible, such as the relationships I build with them, and the experience of reaching something that feels like insight.

But my difficulty, time and time again – as with many teachers I encounter – is that this does not match what Policy says education should be about. A less hubristic system might conclude that it was the policy that was wrong. But the psycho-tricks of power mean that this is the last question being asked. Time and again, it demands unachievable results using unrealistic methods. It has lost all sight of what ordinary teachers in ordinary classroom can actually deliver, and forces them to live parallel lives, doing what they know works – then pretending to do what they system wants when it is watching. As a way of delivering effective education, this is madness – and in terms of needless workload (and the morale it destroys) it is a disaster.

From my earlier lesson observation, which acknowledged good teaching but still ‘Required Improvement’ because I did not tick enough procedural boxes, to recent experiences of colleagues failing to meet delusory targets, to the whole marking/workload issue, to teachers feeling the only solution is to leave, to the ‘mysterious’ loss of older pupils’ motivation, this is a crisis manufactured by the application of the wrong system to a subtle and almost indefinable process.

Yet it is so engrained as to have become almost articles of the faith. Even John Tomsett repeated recently,

(Head) teachers are rightly challenged to ensure every single student gets the best examination outcomes possible.

I understand the thinking – but no! The responsibility for exam outcomes has to lie with the pupils; teachers cannot – and should not – control enough of the factors, and in any case, the view that ‘all shall have prizes’ is logically flawed. Besides, there are many more purposes to education than exam results or individual self-maximisation. I hope John also remembers what he wrote about Learned Helplessness, which seems to me to be a far more pressing problem.

This is now more about league-tables and inspections and careers than real education: that was lost long ago. And one might ask where the limits lie. Perhaps we should actually sit the exams for the pupils? That would certainly drive up exam results.

Also ignored is the trade-off between the needs of pupils and the entirely legitimate interests of those who teach them. The single-minded focus on pupils has been an excuse to neglect teachers, for example over just treatment or a reasonable work-life balance. It has too often led to the non-solution of flogging teachers harder. The excuse that there is no alternative is not a solution: teachers are not there to be the punch-bag of the system. In any case, any sensible factory-owner will recognise the need to keep the machinery in good working order.

Unlike in many neighbouring countries, British education seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis. What goes on in classrooms is not so different – it is the power that managers have over teachers. Much of my daily energy goes not into battling with unwilling kids (which in any case is what I’m paid for) but into navigating a system that seems intent on making life as difficult as it knows how.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what teachers need to do in classrooms in order to get children to learn, and what those driving the system want it to do. The real irony is that there is no fundamental disagreement about those larger aims – but too many of those who have removed themselves from day-to-day teaching have forgotten that they are best achieved humanely, and that issuing more diktats, bureaucracy, constraints and ways to fail are not likely to make them any more reachable. Indeed, current experience suggests that they are having precisely the opposite effect. And in the process, a monster has been created.

Teaching profession? What other profession drives its own practitioners to disillusion? Right now, I’d call it a shambles.

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3 thoughts on “Parallel lives

    • Well, I like your optimism – but less onerous assessment systems will remove what is now their raison d’etre – to keep tabs on what the teachers are doing. As with many other posts this afternoon, I don’t see that happening any time soon. Too many schools have got to the point of circularity in justifying what they do.

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