Tragedy – à la Grecque

Some of my favourite films are Claude Berri’s 1980s adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. I struggled through the first in a cinema in Amiens not long after its release, when my French was not as good as it is now.  Full appreciation came with a second viewing of it, and reading the novel, a few years later…

The story has been described as an up-dated Greek tragedy, and heart-breaking it certainly is. The patriarch of the Soubeyran family played by Yves Montand finds in the denouement that two films’ worth of scheming deceit have destroyed no one more so than himself, and in the most exquisite of ways.

The Dragon School is an independent school in Oxford. A couple of weeks ago, a newspaper report investigated how the school has managed to produce so many of the nation’s greatest thespians. (I am working from memory here, having not been able to re-trace the source, so please forgive the lack of precision). Further investigation shows a wider set of notable alumni.

One of the deputy-heads attributed success to having the freedom to allow pupils to experiment with acting and public speaking and all manner of other aspects of liberal education. He was asked why he felt the state sector did not achieve similar results. The reply, if I recall correctly, was that the state sector is far too hamstrung by the needs of political accountability and bureaucracy ever to have the latitude to create this kind of opportunity. It also requires a view of education that understands that pinning teachers down to specified procedures and measuring educational success only in terms of league table data is not enough.

It seems to me that there is a distinct undercurrent running through the educational agenda, namely how to capture the enduring benefits of a private education for the many. (Having spent a couple of days in Liverpool over the holiday, one might appreciate why liberating the underprivileged masses might still be a worthy aspiration). The thrust of the Dragon School article was clearly this – and I suspect it may also underpin various governments’ faith in academies. What I can say with more certainty that at least some in state school management are driven by an envy of the private sector.

And yet, just as in Greek tragedy, it seems that the protagonists just cannot see that they are increasingly the agents of their own destruction. The whole point of private sector education is that it:

  1. Places significant onus on the pupils for their progress, not to mention personal development. From my brushes with the private sector, it seems most certainly not to be about teachers running round dementedly trying to be all things to all people, gaming the systems so as to meet arbitrary targets, so that pupils never have to lift a finger for themselves. Indeed, some private schools have run notoriously Spartan establishments.
  2. Still understands the fact that education is not a measurable or even very definable quality. It seems still to appreciate that there are limits to what any school can do for someone – and then you just have to create the space and support for them to fly if they will.
  3. That teaching is an equally elusive process, and that pinning teachers down to specific procedures – most of all bureaucratic ones – does not a good teacher make.
  4. That quality is more important than quantity. Clearly, this is a difficult issue for the mass-education system, but pretending that large class-sizes and an increasingly conveyor-belt like experience make no difference, is plain ignorant.


So if this is what the state sector feels it needs to emulate, how is it going about it?

Answer: by increasing all of the pressures that drive teachers (and schools) in completely the opposite direction: more narrow ‘accountability’, more data, more bureaucracy, more standardisation, less scope for the individual (pupil or teacher). A myopic view of acceptable educational methods and outcomes and decreasing emphasis on the liberal aspects that cannot be measured – but which, if the Dragon School experience tells us anything, is from where great talent sometimes emerges.

And as several experiences last term indicated, this does transmit to pupils. Even as one who has strongly suspected that the present system is the source of, not the cure to, the toxicity of state education, I was hit hard by the strength of the evidence.

Daisy Christodoulou recently reviewed a book, Ouroboros by Greg Ashman about his teaching experiences in Australia and Britain. The imagery here is also classically Greek: this is the notion of the snake eating its own tail, “a vicious antithesis of progress”. Daisy was struck by the endless recycling of bad old ideas within state education; for me the problem is similar: this is a system that thinks it knows where it wants to go, but lacks the insight to see that its chosen methods are heading it in entirely the opposite direction. And the more it struggles, the more it can – tragically – only see one direction: the one it already knows, regardless of the fact that this is increasingly being shown not to work.

You simply cannot bang the table and demand that people deliver liberal, creative or intellectual education in a homogenised, done-to-order, over-specified manner. These are the very things that destroy those qualities. While I accept that the independent sector does have in-built advantages, it does however still seem to understand this. Nicky Morgan may dream about the same being true in state schools – so what has she done?

Imposed another needless, time-consuming and expensive reorganisation on the system, which can only serve to distract further from schools’ true purpose – and if my reading is correct, reduce still further the freedoms of individual teachers to function as they need. Yes folks! The solution for our state education sector’s problems is….. MORE MANAGEMENT!

And in the best traditions of Greek tragedy, by doing so it is sowing yet further the seeds of its own undoing.


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