A fair crack at the whip.

One Friday in November 2016, I left my classroom – and never went back. The mental health consequences of working in a stressful profession for three decades had finally caught up with me. They were a combination of the specific conditions at the very demanding (but increasingly misguided) school where I worked, and my growing sense that education more generally was moving in a direction that I could no longer reconcile myself with.

In November 2019, I was asked to fill an urgently-needed supply post at a different institution – this time a sixth form college – and I found myself, rather unexpectedly back in front of a class. I greatly enjoyed the experience, and since January I have been working part-time in a different department of the same college, covering long-term staff absence with a contract that will last a few more months.

I didn’t expect to find the profession had changed very much in those three years. But I increasingly sense that it has. While the different context makes direct comparisons difficult, my having tuned more widely back into teacher-talk is leaving me with a similar impression.

I should say immediately that what follows is no criticism whatsoever of the college where I have been working. I am extremely grateful for their having offered me a manageable way back into work, and the fact that they are continuing to employ me even over the current closures. It has been a pleasure to work in a place that values its employees in a way that my last one manifestly didn’t, and not to have to go to work worrying about hidden agendas.

But renewed exposure to the profession is increasingly suggesting that there have been further moves in a direction that gave rise to my previous misgivings. Education seems to have (been?) moved even further down the route of narrowly concerning itself solely with what happens in exams. In the process, the ability of individual teachers to provide creative, thoughtful and (hopefully) inspirational teaching seems to have been eroded still further.

I’m the kind of teacher whose main resources are his own brain, his character, and dare I say, his own eloquence. For me, teaching is akin to acting, not being a lab technician. To be able to function at my best with students, I need the freedom to think, create and interact with students in ways peculiar to me. Without it, I become little more than a human tape-recording. Rigid systematisation is all very well – but such constraints actually prevent the inspirational teaching that the system asks me to deliver. I have enough years in various classrooms to be certain about this – and recent experience is proving no different.

I suspect that this is a consequence of the Gove-led changes, which were only just starting to take effect in 2016. It seems that the changes in content and pitch have led to teachers becoming even more obsessed with what their students will encounter in the exam room. There also seems to have been a discernible quickening of the pace at which it is necessary to move through the curriculum, and a consequent increase in anxiety amongst teachers leading them to jettison anything that might appear not to be of direct use in an exam.

This worries me. It means that depth has been further sacrificed. It worries me even more that those in the profession seem not to have noticed. Or perhaps they just don’t share my misgivings. I read recently that education is not the meeting of fairly constant human intellectual and societal needs that I have always believed – but is instead a valueless, ceaselessly-evolving phenomenon which mutates in the way it conditions individuals for whatever is the prevailing socioeconomic climate of the time. In other words, it is reactive rather than formative, coercive rather than liberating.

This makes sense: as someone in his mid-fifties, I can hardly deny that my own education took place in a different era. It also explains why many of my younger colleagues and friends seem not to have the issues with the marketisation of society that I do, or to even notice what I tend to regard as its manifest failures. It also explains why the same phenomenon seems to prevail within the education profession: I am aware that my reservations seem not to be shared (at least publicly) by very many in the younger two-thirds of the profession. The obvious explanation is simply that they have grown up in a different era, more acclimatised to current norms and expectations. Maybe it really is nothing more than an illustration that I am getting longer in the tooth, than I care to admit.

But I don’t think so. Being adapted to a certain climate is no guarantee that it is actually benign.

I’ve been reading Seneca. The most striking thing about reading a 2000-year-old author is the similarities in the fundamental concerns of life then and now. In many ways, basic human need has not changed very much – and consequently neither, I suspect, has the need for an educated mind with which to tackle life’s difficulties and uncertainties – and whose success in doing so provides an equally enduring reward through a “well-lived life”.

Seneca counselled an approach to life that would serve us very well at the present moment. Yet modern education is moving further and further away from educating the “whole person”. It has become just another systematised production-line: good at maximising output, but lousy at quality control.

While it is of course important that every single young person gets a fair crack at the whip, that importance diminishes if the whip itself actually isn’t really very worth having. No amount of standardised, conveyor-belt education can ever attend adequately to the needs of distinctly un-standardised individuals. Those whom it attends to least are, as usual, those who arguably need it most. Neither is the answer to make the individuals more standardised.

Never has it struck me more forcefully than now, how essential real education is. Society’s responses first to Brexit and now to the coronavirus are symptomatic of a nation that simply lacks the widespread personal-intellectual maturity and resilience to cope with adversity.

That is a failure, amongst other things, of its long-term educational approach. We have created a society that is so deafened by the noise of trivial distractions that we have not bothered to develop the internal grit – strength of personality and character – to cope when it stops, and we are forced to fall back on the void where our own personal resources should be.

Many seem to be afraid of how they will cope when they no longer have endless working hours to fill their lives, to help them avoid having to stop and contemplate anything more fundamental – like how to address our own mortality, or the fragility of modern society. They seem to lack the intellectual horsepower that might help them get a grip on the real nature and scale of the current problems – and deal with them in a thoughtful, considered and resilient way.

A local acquaintance told me about his (adult) daughter – who goes out every night to some kind of event. They have all stopped; her comment was, “My life is over”. My response, had I met her in person, would have been, “No: it has just begun”. I tried the same approach, with varying success, with my students in the week before the college closed: “Now is precisely the time when you have an unprecedented opportunity to find out more about yourself, and what you are capable of when all the scaffolding is taken away”.

What it boils down to in the final reckoning is a system that does not know how to stop consuming. In a very real sense, education is just being consumed in exactly the same way as everything else: superficially, at top speed – and then discarded, without ever a chance to savour, and learn from, the quality of what really does not benefit from rushing so giddily past.

This is what concerns me about the headlong rush to cover exam syllabuses: at what point do students ever have the chance to stop and ponder the implications and deeper meaning of what they are encountering? How are they ever supposed to gain in wisdom from their studies if they are whip-cracked ever onwards, the whole thing just merging into an indistinct blur whose only purpose is to be just sufficiently organised that it can be regurgitated in an exam?

It is incredibly difficult to buck this trend, not least because it is now the prime determinant of what people expect education itself to be like. That goes for the teachers as well as the students. I have tried hard to enhance my new students’ lessons, in order that they could understand and appreciate the significance of what we are covering, rather than just fill pages with notes that do nothing more than scratch the surface.

It is, however, difficult to persuade them that this is worth doing, as it seems to be something they haven’t encountered before. It is almost as hard to convince colleagues that it is worth disrupting the hell-for-leather teaching schedules for, too. It is hard to persuade them that occasionally going a little off-piste for the sake of contextualising and enriching learning may be entirely productive even in the narrow, exam-specific sense. There is value – where one judges it appropriate – in going beyond what the exam board says we should know. Especially when the dividend is better learning – and wiser people.

There is so much more to education than skimming an exam specification. And so much more to teaching. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should abandon exams and formal syllabuses in favour of a 100% curriculum of fuzzy navel-gazing. But there is an art to getting people to think that is beyond “being lost”; in my experience, it is already widely lost. We are in a situation where education consists – and can consist – of sitting in a room going through the motions, without any real thinking going on at all. Just as long as sufficient is remembered to get through the exam. It’s not really the teachers’ fault, nor the institutions’. This is what, via the democratic process, ‘the nation’ decided it wanted its education system to become.

As a result, we are perhaps in the final throes of an education system that no longer knows why it really exists, except to perpetuate its own conveyor belt-like existence churning out more false certainties to people left too incurious ever to discover better. And to distract from the really big issues they need to be thinking and learning about. That art resides in allowing teachers to be more than mere technicians: to draw on their own intelligence, wisdom and above all humanity, in the interests of drawing the same qualities out of their pupils.

That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all: in these most pressing of times, the one force within human society that has the potential to help people to cope – education – has, to my mind failed to prepare them adequately for the enduring challenges of existing and surviving – let alone thriving – on this planet. It was too busy meeting targets. In the interests of preparing people to be compliant workers and consumers, it failed in its duty to encourage them to become complete humans. And faced with the last-chance saloon for doing so, it is still so busy listening to its own trivial internal chatter that rather than looking hard at what it could be doing right now, it is just busy churning out even more of the same. Fiddling like Nero. Meeting targets. In overdrive.

Holding this belief central to my own practice, I have seen all over again why my own sense of purpose went into meltdown those years ago. I simply cannot spend an hour in a classroom with young people and come out feeling they have done nothing more than learn how to jump through a few new hoops, but are otherwise none the wiser.

I feel that the way people are responding to the present wider emergencies is vindicating me.

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