A welcome and productive half-term break comes to an end. In between our day-trip to Birmingham (approved!) and the odd social engagement, our financial advisor paid us a visit, with the welcome news that our pension arrangements should secure us a modest but comfortable retirement. He based his calculation on my working until I’m sixty, which is another eight years away.
In the bigger scheme of things, even being able to consider retirement at such an age is probably a blessing – and it’s not as though I’ll be short of things to do without work. But it would only be possible of course as a result of doing the work that earned the money… And yet I can’t help being mindful of two things: at my age, my Swiss friend was just a couple of years away from the point where the system lightened his teaching load on account of increasing age and declining stamina, in a way that would probably be portrayed as ageist in the U.K. And after a month which held something of a (hopefully ungrounded) health worry for me, I am also conscious that my mother only made it to 67…
A good colleague has been teaching for ten years longer than I; after a couple of part-time years, the next will probably be his last. As colleagues of nearly thirty years, we sometimes talk over the experience. He agrees that the first ten years of his career, from the late 1970s, were relatively untroubled; it was from the mid ‘80’s that things ratcheted up – in other words about the time I started teaching. So people of my generation are perhaps the first to have spent their whole careers in the hot-house that British education has become. They say that a career in teaching takes its toll; they are not empty words.
We wonder whether the current crop of young teachers will be able to keep going for a full career; recent reports suggest that in many cases they are already deciding that they can’t.
I finished Chang’s book during the holiday; at the risk of labouring it, I will make one further reference. Education is not fully ‘marketable’ in the way that other aspects of the economy have been – but it has still been exposed to the same neo-liberal philosophies. It’s not too difficult to perceive where the outlook came from – the idea that life is inherently a struggle, that flourishing only happens when comfort is dismissed. And yet this seems too much of a convenient legitimation of a culture in which (a few) winners do take all – comfort included. While it may have brought some benefits, the whole process of opening education to something like market forces has paralleled – in my view not coincidentally – the era when too many aspects of it became toxic. Do those benefits really outweigh the very evident costs?
As Chang convincingly argues, education’s principal impact is not economic, and it is the refusal of marketised societies to accept or value this that has done so much damage: in simple terms, education is being forced to do something that it inherently cannot. And in the process, very many of the contradictions and corruptions of the system have become established. What should be the most affirmative undertaking of a civilised society has become ensnared in the debasement of market consumerism.
If that were a merely theoretical argument, it might not matter so much – but the price is being paid by the people in the system: not the new edu-barons who are doing very nicely – but the ordinary teachers and pupils whose careers and educations are being blighted by the fear of burnout or retribution for the failure to march to someone else’s drum.
Education should not be – I would argue cannot successfully be – like that – and I should not be feeling that the return to work after a mere week off is such a huge weight re-descending on my life. By no means do I dislike my work – but holidays are nonetheless ever-more welcome respite. Whatever happened to balance?
In Chang’s words:
We should build a system that brings out the best, rather than the worst, in people.
But I fear that in some ways present-day education has become the latter.