The House that Jack built

The Easter holiday is proving a welcome respite. I have been doing some jobs around the house, and pushing on with a large hobby-related project. In both cases, the satisfaction gained from a job well done is palpable; unfortunately I cannot say the same about the school term just ended, which was characterised by incredulity, disillusion and upset – not just mine.

When work is hard, I usually remind myself that I could be labouring in the fields, down a mine or in a sweatshop; by comparison, the tribulations of teaching pale. I suppose we have no right to be happy at work – we are paid to do a job – and yet I cannot help but think that a product of advanced human development ought to be the removal of drudgery and the improvement of working life into something constructive. And yet, too often it feels like a punishment. In motivational terms, the pay is not enough.

I sometimes envisage my professional life as a building. I worked hard to build a structure that has integrity, the strength to bear its load, and a design to discharge its function well. I look after it well and regularly improve it. It also has all the hallmarks of my own particular taste in architecture, though as a modernist, in my world form follows function and it is as much about improving the work of the building as making it look pretty.

This is what it used to mean to be a professional. Part of Practice was both the obligation and right to build your own ‘house’ within which you then lived with care and order, but also a degree of comfort. That was both the nature and requirement of the kind of work that the reflective professional did.

And yet others around me are, unknowingly (I hope), tearing buildings down. The deep, cutting irony is that for all its good intentions, the education system in Britain is becoming more destructive by the month. For its professionals, it knows no bounds to the load it places on them; sooner or later, even the strongest of structures will fail. In the past it was the issue of teaching styles: those who used more traditional methods were at best tolerated, at worst torn down. That pressure seems to have eased – but the establishment is now scoring its biggest own-goal by imposing more demands of its own – Heaven forbid that the lessening of Ofsted’s pressures should actually allow ordinary teachers to get on with building! The most significant of these is the marking fiasco, which I see has now even made the national press.

The burdens imposed on my colleagues last term had the makings of the final straw. Suddenly, the insatiability of the system was thrown into sharp focus, and in many cases, I witnessed a hardening of attitudes amongst people who have done their utmost to make the system work. As I commented in previous posts, the demands of the new marking regime are so utterly unmanageable, and so educationally unnecessary, that many are simply refusing to implement them. It’s not (just) a deliberate stance: there simply is no more time, no more energy. The tank is finally empty.

The more I look, the more I see where the system is defeating its own ends. If the approaches of the past few decades had been successful, we would by now be seeing significant growth in both the intellectual pitch and personal motivation of up-coming generations. Yet my experience both in school and beyond suggests the opposite; many pupils are less skilled and less motivated than ever. This is not the singular fault of the education system of course – but recent evidence has tended to confirm my suspicion that we are doing as much harm as good – and certainly are making little of the headway we are supposed to be making. The pupils detect – and do not like – the harsh, depersonalised, target-driven conveyor belt that is their school experience. It is often this that is not enthusing them, not poor teaching.

There are other things. Some years ago, I was involved with the Healthy Schools initiative. I spent many hours in meetings while the great and good blathered on about which boxes to tick and which accreditations to gain. And what is the legacy? Perhaps some residual improvement in school food – but little, really, for all that effort. Simultaneously, in the name of more in-class engagement schools like mine moved to a 4-1 day, with lunch so late that the school day misaligned itself with normal meal times, leading to more snacking. Net result: more harm than good. Cause? Lack of a wider perspective.

Those with hard decisions to make may point out that we do not have the luxury of choice. The expense of an architect is, they say, unaffordable when we need to focus on basics. At face value, they may be right. When the ‘climate’ seems so far out of kilter that government can both be facing a teacher shortage and simultaneously adding disincentives to teach (whether through pay freezes, enforced academisation or booting non-British teachers for not earning enough), then survival may indeed be the name of the game. But when you have stripped out the furnishings, only the walls are left.

What has most effect is what happens at grass roots level. As far as I can see, the marking debacle is entirely self-imposed. The failure to manage teachers’ workloads more generally is at least as much a school issue as a national one. Management blindness adds to the problem – even they cannot wish morale problems away – but the retort that we have no choice is not the right, or only solution.

It is during a storm that strong buildings are most needed. A system that methodically pulls down people’s buildings as fast as they can build them does no one any good, least of all itself. People need to have the scope to construct professional careers – and there has to be a reasonable pay-back for their effort. No, the salary is not enough, and there is only so much austerity that people will bear; a little TLC might in fact be more productive.

Personally, I resolutely continue adding to my building – but I wonder for how much longer I can keep it up: the rate of demolition is rising – and I have no intention of living the last quarter of my professional life homeless. At some point last term, something structural finally snapped – and not only for me. The buildings have not yet collapsed , but they are not as strong as they were. Whereas once, I would have tried to absorb the new marking load, now I am simply neither willing nor able to do so. In fact, I need to spend some time shoring up the damage instead.

I have always tried to build well for education in Britain – but there comes a point when you wonder whether it is worth it; this has become the ultimate Sisyphean task. A would-be architect amongst my older pupils told me the other day that my teaching had moved him in the direction of sustainable building; what better success indicator does one need? The irony was not lost on me…

When times are hard, you need to draw on your staff. If their buildings are already rubble, those who need them may find there is precious little shelter left – especially if it was you who swung the wrecker’s ball in the first place.

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