Reinventing the wheel

On my first day as a trainee teacher in 1986, one of the senior staff at the worthily progressive School of Education at U.E.A. really did wheel out the old chestnut:

“If anyone asks you what you teach, the answer is Children.”

I think this derives from the long-standing progressive-left view of education as an instrument of social policy, in which academic disciplines (and pretty much everything else) were subordinated to the raw social objectives of something between an induction and indoctrination process for society’s young.

This was a fore-taste of the reservations I increasingly experienced about the whole way the educational establishment runs things: I unashamedly went into teaching in part from a desire to work with, and educate others in, my specific discipline. I was not best pleased to hear that such things were to be relegated to bit-parts in some grand scheme of social manipulation.

The surprising thing is that this agenda has lasted so long: the stimulus for this post was John Tomsett’s recent rumination on the nature of subject-specific pedagogy, which implied that the notion of subject disciplines having intrinsic importance for how people teach is still unfamiliar or even bizarre to many.

Geography suffers particularly in this respect: for decades it has been a Cinderella subject. The public still seems to think it consists of memorising lists of capital cities, while even its exponents often fail to see it as a repository of discrete expertise. I think this derives from the fact that to those concerned, it appears to study the blindingly obvious.

In recent months I have become involved with the production of the local Neighbourhood Plan – and the ensuing discussion with both those involved and the community at large has revealed this for the myth that it is. It has become clear that local developments and dynamics which were indeed blindingly obvious to me (and another local geographer) seemed largely invisible to many others, to the point that they required significant explanation. What geographers see and understand about the world is certainly not blindingly obvious to those not thus trained. But such training is extremely useful in ‘reading’ the world around us in a complex way – and for that reason, if no other, I would have thought that this subject-specific expertise is highly desirable. The fact is, geographers, like all other academics, live their subject to the point that they cease to notice – and this then saturates their teaching with not just specific content but an entire  mind-set that is unique to their, as every, discipline.

Many of those who were supposedly ‘leading teaching’ in my school were from the pure and applied sciences – including the usual share of overly-competitive ex-P.E. teachers. My experience suggested they never did understand (or perhaps care) why those of us who taught arts and humanities had such difficulties with the concept and application of linear, measurable progression that they were happily using. It was only when I first observed and then taught some basic maths that the utter foreignness of not only their techniques, but also their mindset became apparent. By then I was a highly-experienced humanities teacher – but I struggled greatly to do justice to even basic maths: the required approach was just too alien to my own.

It is tempting to regard this as a case of systemisers versus empathisers: those running the system largely came from technical subjects, whose approach (and perhaps general world-view) was compatible with a mechanistic, linear, quantitative approach; almost none of them had any grounding in the more interpretive, evaluative subjects of the arts or humanities. And being systemisers, they were quite happy insensitively imposing technical-fix approaches on their colleagues in blissful ignorance that it is simply not possible accurately to assess the skills of critical argument, let alone emotive creativity required in such subjects in such reductive, linear ways. It became clear that it was most certainly not a matter of it being ‘all just teaching’: those subject-specific skills were so deeply-imbued that their practitioners (including me) often failed to recognise them for what they were. And yet they (necessarily) coloured our entire view of what we were doing.

Csikszentmihalyi observed a similar divide between psychologists and surgeons: the latter loved ‘practical, mechanical medicine’ and despised the former as wishy-washy, while in their turn, the psychologists revelled in the subtleties of reading human behaviour and despised the surgeons as crude mechanics. And ne’er the twain shall meet. This is why it is essential that one group must not gain hegemony over the other.

To return to the notion of teaching being primarily a matter of social engineering, there is a deep irony here. My objection is certainly not in the desirability of improving people’s life-chances, but to the fact that due to the foibles of human nature (which systemisers often ignore), direct attempts at achieving it rarely work – and are highly vulnerable to political misappropriation. On the other hand, people who learn the basics of geography (and every other specific subject) actually end up equipped with very real life-applicable knowledge, taught by people for whom the appropriate mindset is second nature. Incidentally, we might also reflect here on the unseen consequences of the widespread use of non-specialist teachers.

With the greatest of respect to John Tomsett, to be mystified or bemused by this betrays the extent of the error perpetrated by those for whom education is only a form of direct social engineering. That even reflective individuals such as John are only just reconsidering this shows just how deeply the approach has penetrated the whole profession. I find it hard to believe that they (who must all have their own subject specialities, too) could have been quite so greatly taken in. Or at least I would if I hadn’t been too, for quite some time. (While I ‘felt’ there was something wrong, it took many years to pin-point it).

Those who, from classical times onward, formed the body of education around the study of discrete disciplines knew more about what they were doing than the modern outlook credits. Academic subjects are more than simply a vehicle for delivering education: they are education itself. It seems that many in educational circles who have believed otherwise, but who may now be thinking again, have spent the last forty years in effect reinventing yet another wheel.

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The Ghost in the Machine

Professor Robert Plomin has recently published more findings following from his previous work on the heritability of academic ability, in relation to the merits or otherwise of selective education. He attributes almost all of the 7% difference in performance (as measured by G.C.S.E. grades) to factors other than attendance at a selective school – and suggests that the remaining percentile may be accounted for by genetic variations.

The Guardian naturally seized on this as further evidence against selective education, as no doubt will many others.

I would not be at all surprised if the claims made in this research regarding selective schools were entirely correct. But regrettably, this piece of research is just another example of valuing the measurable rather than (everything) valuable. What neither Plomin nor anyone else can do is measure the cultural effects of attending not necessarily a selective school, but a seriously highbrow one. It should be noted that those two categories need not overlap by 100% – though it is very likely that highly academic and thereby cultured schools will be selective, for obvious reasons.

As one who attended a boys’ grammar school and taught in a comprehensive, I can say with some confidence that the differences between the two were not in the ability-for-ability exam outcomes of the children – but they were most certainly there in terms of the attitudes and – for want of a better word – culture that the children acquired. This is something indefinable, but which still often has a life-long effect on those who experience it. It is not so much about what happens in lessons or exams, as the ‘air that people breathe’ in such places, that seems to remain in the mindset ever after. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the knowledge of having part of a so-called ‘elite’ either: it’s simply a matter of choosing to, and being able to access substantial culture and thought.

I have written recently about the inability I perceive of many to access ‘serious’ cultural-intellectual capital, and its potentially disenfranchising consequences for the overall quality of life. There is no doubt in my mind that a school that is able to cultivate a reflective, thoughtful and even highbrow atmosphere, where the pinnacles of human achievement are venerated and imitated, will better equip those who attend it with the expectations (of themselves as much as anyone) and perhaps the skills to access many life-affirming fields and outlooks. As I also wrote, this is a major (and overlooked) element in reducing social inequality – which is not a purely economic matter either.

Unfortunately, schools that need to cater for children (and their parents) who have no inclination to make the necessary effort to do this will always struggle to create such an ethos. This is not only a matter of ability, though it is still likely that the finer points of academe (not to mention any perception of their value) will be intellectually beyond some – and the consequence is that schools will have little choice but to respond in kind. This means, in my experience, that the indefinable atmosphere of an academic institution will simply never emerge, quite possibly reinforced by the staff recruitment choices that are subsequently made.

Sadly, I found my own interests and skills in such matters were largely redundant in the school where I taught – little valued by those in charge, and even less by the numbers of pupils who were unwilling or able to access what I was trying to offer. On the other hand, pop music, celebrity culture and general populist trivia were regularly promoted on the grounds that they were accessible to all; more complex aspirations mostly didn’t get a look-in. Thus the school was unwittingly an ambassador for a low or middlebrow worldview, rather than a repository for the highest kinds of human achievement, which in my view a school should be (no matter what its intake).

I should emphasise that this is not an argument for elitism – in those previous posts I argued that education should be creating opportunities for many more people to access complex forms of culture and thought. But the reality is that non-selective schools necessarily cater for so wide a range of backgrounds, that they in effect can only ever cater for the often-bland middle-of-the-road. To avoid ‘discrimination’, even many of those who might well benefit from exposure to more complex things never get the chance. The consequence of this is everywhere to be seen in our dumbed-down society, where there seem to be fewer and fewer people with the ability and inclination to engage with, and argue for, anything other than lowbrow populism.

The only  elitist or selective argument I would support is that as cultural custodians to society, it is preferable for schools to equip some people to nurture and perpetuate intelligent thought and culture than none.

So Plomin may well be right in his findings – but yet again the emphasis on the measurable outcomes of education only has failed to get near the essence of the ghost in the educational machine.

Putting the Soul back. Part II

Narrowing the remit of state education has proved counter-productive and divisive.

There are hidden implications of taking a work-related functionalist view of education that go beyond the simple difficulty of now knowing what will be appropriate preparation. In fact, I suggest that the supposed focus on workplace skills is precisely what is responsible for the never-ending complaints from employers that ‘young people’ lack the necessary initiative, motivation and more to be fully employable. I will come to this in a moment.

Furthermore, for those intent on the social equality agenda, narrowing educational purpose like this does more harm than good. Those exposed to supposedly ‘privileged’ educations (whether in selective schools or the private sector) are given a wider diet than this. That is not to say that such things are always specifically taught – but a large part of that educational experience might be deemed to be ‘cultural’ rather than economic – whether in the sense of access to high level arts opportunities, the personal development upon which independent schools place such emphasis, the rarefied intellectual climate that tends to be generated in places where intelligence is generally high, the received ‘standards’ that are set – or the social networking opportunities that such institutions tend to construct for later life.

While one might well object to the privilege thus bestowed, it is incorrect to suggest that these things do not amount to a store of cultural capital, whose effect is often to enhance the lives of those who have access to it. The important effect is not just the ability or inclination of the individual to avail themselves of the external opportunities, so much as what it does to the expectations of the individual, of what they might reasonably expect from life – and at least as importantly, of themself. I will talk more about expectations in the following post  – but for those who believe (as I do) in equality of opportunity, reducing the state educational offering to a simple matter of work-readiness is a mistaken way of tackling such inequalities, for all that it might appear to possess more ‘relevance’ than the broader, less focussed approach.

One can easily be a supporter of social egalitarianism without accepting that this means depriving those who already have good opportunities of them in the name of those who have fewer; the aim should be to deliver the best possible opportunity to everyone. There is no reason why state education should be a narrow, low-grade, solely functional experience. We can be pretty certain that those schools that do deliver the wider educations are not about to stop doing so any time soon – and by insisting on a narrower remit for the state sector, proponents of such may be unwittingly perpetuating the very divisions they so wish to remove. By failing to develop that wider breadth of perspective and focusing so strongly on economic attributes, schools may be closing doors on all sorts of dimensions of life that could otherwise enrich the later lives of their pupils.

Certainly, those claims from employers that so many young people lack the necessary ‘attitude’ seem less-often levelled at the independent sector. Since we cannot easily anticipate the specific skills that will be required in the workplace (let alone anywhere else), it would seem a better bet to spend our time developing fully-rounded individuals whose general approach to life is constructive enough that they will bring good attitudes, skills and determination to whatever they do – employment included. And equally important, expect the same considerate treatment in return.

The kids are alright

I had not planned to follow up my last post with another on the same theme – but a rather lump-in-throat inducing session in my on-going talking therapy got me thinking – and then Bottomsbray’s latest post tipped the balance…

https://bottomsbray.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/it-takes-one-to-know-one/

The story of ‘Andy’ appeared to resonate, showing as it did one case where the claim that children’s futures lie entirely in their teachers’ hands was busted for the damaging myth that it is. While there are of course vulnerable and deprived children for whom school may be a salvation, the numbers of critical cases are, I suggest, relatively small; small enough not to predicate the entire system on them.

In any case, during my years teaching, I knew barely a handful of teachers who did not do their utmost for the children in their charge – and yet for most of those years, we were subjected to an unending barrage from a school which self-identified as “bullish” – of how much ‘better’ we needed to be, how we should never be satisfied with ourselves (a mentality perpetuated by some of the biggest voices in education), how there was always so much more we could and should do – and above all, how targets were therefore inviolable. Most people responded, and the levels of stress in the school were, on occasions, horrific. Despite this, most children went out to successful futures – while the staff were horsewhipped ever harder by successive managements to push the headline figures up into the mid 80’s and the school to a multiple- ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted grade. And when the figures finally dipped, as they always eventually do, the only response they could come up with was more of the same.

One day a couple of weeks before Christmas, my state of mind suddenly spiralled rapidly down into the pit again; we were out shopping, and bizarrely, by the time we got home, the various physical complaints that I had experienced for many years (but not for the last, medicated one) all suddenly re-appeared: muscle and joint aches – to the point I could hardly get out of the car, headache, extreme lethargy, digestive upheaval, to say nothing of the mental fog that closed off my ability to focus on anything. It got progressively worse for the rest of the day, until I turned in. By the following mid-day after a long sleep, I was virtually back to what currently constitutes normal. I was mystified – and went in search of information. I discovered that all those problems are known symptoms of depression. While I knew that physical pain could cause low mood, I had never before considered the opposite. Nor, apparently, do quite a few G.P.’s who, when presented with unexplained symptoms (just as I had done), tend to go in search of physical causes first. It seems that it is far from unusual for depressed people to experience physical symptoms even before any mental disturbance becomes evident.

This presented the possibility that the numerous ailments of just these sorts that I had been accumulating for perhaps ten years were in fact growing signs of a longer-rooted depression that had eventually got me. Hence the reason I am writing this: I wonder how many other teachers are out there are in a similar situation, not realising where they are heading. Not all may suffer the full consequences – but it is worth pondering.

And how many school cultures are causing it? I clearly remember the depressing effect – not just on me – of the constant message that we were never good enough, that we would damage children irrevocably if we did not do as we were instructed, the outright fear of being found wanting. The message was always that to be a teacher, you first need to be tough – and that meant taking, uncomplaining, whatever the school threw at you. The message was also that schools start from the assumption that their employees are lazy and feckless. But being tough is not, in my experience, the most important quality of a teacher: being sensitive to other people’s needs is. And being sensitive (and conscientious) makes you all the more likely to take seriously what your managers tell you they want.

If I made a mistake, it was precisely this: mortgaging my own sanity in order to do what they demanded. While I did express my doubts, I nonetheless worked unremittingly, under a constant cloud of worry about whether I was doing ‘enough’: that sounds very familiar in this profession. It was only recently, when the demands spiralled ever further up into the deep blue yonder of management fantasy, when they became clearly unworkable – and when they started denying that the school even had a stress problem –  that the whole thing really appeared as the sham that it is, and I eased up.

This is not about children’s welfare; it is about management hubris – or fear. The only rationale that can justify what is now being foisted upon teachers is the insatiable lust of some school managers for advancement for themselves, or (perhaps more likely?) the protection of their own positions. No rational understanding of child wellbeing or of furthering education is sufficient to justify the absurd amount of largely pointless work now (as E=mc²andallthat said the other day) being demanded of teachers, and which even Ofsted does not require. It is the regime of zealots and ideologues, who care nothing for the practical consequences of their own increasingly barmy mania.

https://emc2andallthat.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/markopalypse-now/

I am left with the possible conclusion that my difficulties were a lot longer-standing than I had considered; hence perhaps, why recovery is also taking a long time. Most of it was nothing to do with teaching children, so much as the entirely avoidable demands of an out-of-control system – a system which in the end applied such intense pressure to precisely my weak spot (my professional conscience) that I crumbled. My mistake was to be conscientious enough to take them seriously in the first place.

Meanwhile, plenty of kids like ‘Andy’ come out of the system none the worse for wear. Perhaps schools don’t always succeed (on their own terms) with them – but as ‘Andy’ shows, many are capable of making successes of themselves anyway, as they always have. He is not the only one I have encountered. In fact, the diet that schools force at such children is, in itself, perhaps counter-productive, even damaging: there was no way ‘Andy’ ever wanted – or was going – to be an academic. As a resolutely academic teacher, much of what I could offer was of little use to him; what I did provide – as he fondly remembered – was a patient, consistent, supportive adult. And even on that score, despite my suspicions that other role models may have been more appropriate, I think in a small way, I succeeded.

But school managements are not judged against people like him, or the kind of encounter that he and I had. And because of that, they apply pressure to people like me, who internalise it to their own cost, to do ever more work, the only Sisyphean rationale for which can be to cover management arses.

In a way, my experience is the price the education system now exacts from teachers for ‘Andy’s’ success. It is too big a price – made all the worse by the fact that it is largely needless. Based on the witness of those I know who are still teaching, I wrote something yesterday about the education system to a former colleague that I would never previously have contemplated:

“It is no longer worth sacrificing yourself for”.

Andy was O.K. anyway – and such is my enduring fragility that the realisation that much of that system-induced stress was actually for nothing, was indeed enough to induce a large lump in the throat.

Sense from Spielman

Some surprisingly enlightened words from Amanda Spielman, the new head of Ofsted in the last few days. She has observed that education is about more than passing exams, and that the qualitative cultural experiences of, for example hearing or performing classical music should not be foregone in a race for exam passes. But that is exactly what is happening.

She has said that Ofsted may need to start looking ‘under the bonnet’ of the headline figures a school provides, to see how they were arrived at. I am not confident she will like what she sees.

Spielman has also accepted that the current situation has been reached due to the pressures of numerical accountability on schools, noting that few people, given such targets will be prepared to risk a fall for the sake of principle. She is right – and likewise about the effect on children’s education, which has been to destroy the enlightening experience it should be and replace it with a conveyor belt.

The trouble is, the present system has too much invested in its current mechanisms; while it is true that managements have downward pressures on them, my experience suggests that some at least were all too assiduous in the way they embraced the exam-factory culture. The single biggest influence on educational culture is school-level management, and instead of standing up for educational principle, some at least sold their souls for the sake of institutional hubris. The alternative reading, that the system has actually valued intellectual philistinism so much as to allow it to come to rule the system, is worse. I don’t see these people about to execute a skidding U-turn in a way that would only undermine their own raison d’être.

From my position “beyond”, this is saddening. Spielman is voicing the very issues that I tried to stand up for in my teaching career. I never neglected the importance of qualifications for my older pupils, but ‘qualifications’ are subtly different from ‘results’. My refusal to game results or to be solely driven by the need to maximise them at the expense of children’s real education was one factor that put me where I am now.

 

Different worlds

The Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests that poor performers simply don’t realise just how deficient they are; in order to evaluate one’s own performance, one needs skills and insights that unskilled people by definition do not have.

Conversely, able people possess the insights that can cause them to identify their own limitations and perhaps be unduly self-critical. According to Bertrand Russell:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wise people so full of doubts.

Or as John Cleese says:

 

 

The sting in the tail, of course, is that no one is in a position to judge whether we are as truly clever as we might think we are…

Even though I did not take full advantage of it at the time, I feel that my own education has served me well. Perhaps that is a useful position for a teacher to be in, and I have tried to pass on the best of my experience, while avoiding the pitfalls. Messrs. Dunning and Kruger might reply that I am in no position to judge!

In my experience, educating people is fundamentally a humane process. Certainly, intellectual and personal rigour is required – that goes without saying. Society rightly expects people to emerge from education with formal qualifications by which to validate the process – but the ultimate goal is surely to develop people in the round. That requires wisdom, humour, curiosity and compassion to cultivate people’s more complex senses and perspectives, to take them to the higher levels of civilised human life – and as a result, to further human society and the individual experiences within it.

The more I taught, the more I realised that my prime asset was simply being a balanced human-being myself, able to respond to any situation in an appropriate, compassionate and hopefully wise way. Important though they may be, the hard specifics of subject disciplines are best delivered by way of the soft skills that simply come from being an authentic human being. The hard-headed striving will only ever be an imposition if not delivered with kindness and conviction. My experience says this works; The System fails to understand.

I remember a deputy head once telling me that I was being too idealistic. “There is no way most people will ever attain that,” he said. “The most we can expect is to turn them into useful workforce.” That from someone who subscribed to the cults of egalitarianism and meritocracy…

The system I have been trying to work within has become increasingly removed from my own values. Exam results have become the end in themselves – but more for the benefit of the schools than the children within them. Schools have become fixated with figures, and have lost sight of any meaning behind them. All the ‘research’ is driven by the same lust for results – without any apparent appreciation that real education does not have a singular ‘result’ as such.

Even Increasing Opportunity seems to be couched only in these terms; education is being used more and more as a form of social engineering, but there is little understanding of what that really means. Other than accessing the next level of education, nobody seems to know what the ultimate purpose is for the recipients. This is not surprising when the only real answer can be ‘to live a fulfilling life’. But it is far removed from merely having qualifications, let alone being a ‘good worker’. So the system has avoided the issue by increasingly looked inward to its own interests.

So I have found myself working in an environment where I was increasingly at odds with the organisation I was serving. It has a largely utilitarian view of teachers’ work – to maximise exam results no matter what the cost or the even moral implications of Just Deserts. It wants teachers to operate in an almost purely technical sense – the mechanics of children’s exam performance, ‘intervening’ as and where necessary based solely on numerical information, and with the sole, naïve intention of improving those numbers. Even the motivational talk is focussed on maximising grades; very little about the pleasure of learning or its wider rewards: the classic definition of an exam factory. The role-model is the similar factories of eastern Asia, rather than the liberal views of continental Europe.

No doubt schools would claim that personal benefit was implicit in this process, but I’m not so sure; over the years, wider personal development has been mentioned less and less, in line with the abandonment of many opportunities to deliver it. Any sense of moral compass, except in the widest, most nebulous sense has been sacrificed to a bums-on-seats technocracy.

I should emphasise that I am not making school-specific criticisms; mine has only done what its masters bade or permitted. It has been very successful, too, in those terms. But in my opinion, like many it has lost its soul in the process. School life is now more pressurised, depersonalised, manipulated, mercenary and humourless than ever before – the antithesis of the warm, considered, tolerant, diverse, compassionate place I wanted to work for. Good education it is not; good training, maybe – but that’s not what I do…

My understanding of education, and what The System now says it wants have moved so far apart that I no longer feel prepared to work within it. The quality and breadth of what I am allowed to offer has withered – and the quantity of mindless, time-pressured compliance ballooned. What it permits me to do as an individual, intelligent professional, and what it expects me to deliver are so at odds with my expectations, let alone what is realistically possible – that I am leaving.

I have had enough feedback over the years to know that pupils did identify and appreciate my qualities as a teacher, even if it sometimes took them a while to do so; that was part of the plan. I was told the other day that my ‘problem’ is that I have developed too complex a view of education for an increasingly crude system to value. Be that as it may, those who wish to run education on production-line principles simply do not see what they are missing – and they have never given the likes of me a chance to argue. Such closed-mindedness is not the mark of educational success.

On my own terms, I succeeded as a teacher over a period of thirty years. After a hesitant start, I developed my skills and understanding to become the unique teacher that each individual can only be; not something valued in a corporate age. The System has judged me less favourably because I was not able or willing to confine myself to blinkered and often self-serving agendas.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect makes it impossible to know who is ‘right’. But the manifest contradictions in much of what the present system claims to be trying to achieve – that many people seem simply to ignore – speak to me of something much less considered or coherent than it claims.

So let’s just say that there exist two educational worlds, one like mine – and The System, which increasingly do not mix. I think mine works and can be intellectually supported – but if it’s not what this utilitarian, materialistic, increasingly harsh – and uneducated – country wants, then who am I to argue?

 

Head in the Cloud

I found William Poundstone’s recent book Head in the Cloud – The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google rather a disappointment. I had been hoping for an exposition of the neural benefits of being knowledgeable – but while disowning the view that cognitive development is only about material benefit, this is largely what the book confines itself to.

http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/William-Poundstone/Head-in-the-Cloud–The-Power-of-Knowledge-in-the-Age-of-Google/19397512

More interesting – if still flawed – is Poundstone’s use of online polling to conduct fairly large-scale surveys of public knowledge. With a clear eye to the market on both sides of the Atlantic, he meticulously cites examples from both Europe and America and the results, if taken at face value, make depressing reading. If education’s goal is to produce a more informed populace, it seems that so far we have barely made a dent. That said, one might question the informative value of asking people lists of what they do or don’t know, particularly when the examples in the book itself highlights the extent to which such knowledge is culture-dependent.

Poundstone goes on to correlate scores in such tests with ranges of other views and opinions, often in quite specific ways. He suggests that a high level of ignorance of basic factual information often correlates with more extreme views on a range of issues, something that recent events in the U.K. might reinforce. For example, the past week has demonstrated that many hard-Brexiteers have little real understanding of the institutions they purport to advocate, as seen in their reaction to the High Court ruling regarding the sovereignty of Parliament to trigger  Article 50. And a vox pop in Barnsley on Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme revealed that some people think that the U.K. has already left the E.U.

One might counter that the human species has always functioned more on a mixture of ignorance, prejudice and instinct that its more intelligent members might feel comfortable with – but in a time when the consequences of ignorance are so far-reaching, educators perhaps need to face the music here. Even in so-called developed countries, the power of those baser reactions appears closer to the surface than we have liked to pretend, and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that they present a risk to the very foundations of ‘civilised’ societies.

Poundstone’s book fails, however, principally on its inability to consider the more intangible benefits of knowledge – precisely the same failing as many current educational models. A dependence on supposedly-scientific method stymies any attempt to consider such matters: if one’s ‘proof’ is largely found in statistics and correlations, then one needs a quantifiable outcome to measure against. In this sense, it is indeed easiest to look at relatively practical matters such as test scores, and the eventual earning capacities of differing people. In this, Poundstone shows – relatively convincingly within his own confines – that those who know more tend to have more conventionally successful lives. He hints at the cognitive factors that may lie behind this – the Marshmallow Test gets a mention – but he fights shy of the more difficult analysis. Unfortunately, this is precisely the same mistake that many educational models make: they frame their success criteria in material or at least quantifiable terms, simply because the alternatives are too difficult to measure.

But this is one of the oldest flaws in the book: measuring what you can rather than what you need will not necessarily provides the answers you seek. I am not for a moment pretending that I know the way forward on this – but my longstanding motive for being in education is the intangible benefits. I suspect that this really lies in the realm of assembled neural networks –and by definition those are both so complex and so unique as, I suspect, to be beyond useful analysis.

Much of what successful education ‘does’ simply cannot be quantified – it falls within the realm of Wisdom, and the very nature of this makes it unquantifiable. It is also so multi-faceted that it defies the craving of formal education to ‘know’ and claim credit for its input. I would suggest that education itself is only of most effect when, like a good wine, it has had decades of laying-down in which to mature. In other words, its impact is time-dependent in a way that modern institutions and policies prefer to deny. It relies on accumulation of experience and the benefits of hindsight to make much practical sense. One (hopefully) only has to compare the world-view of a recently educated but still immature undergraduate with that of the same person in later life to appreciate this.

I think we are witnessing the consequences of the collective failure to appreciate such matters: on the one hand, people have never had so much access to information (and education) as they have today – and yet it seems not to be making for better-quality discourse or more considered opinion; if anything, the opposite. I suppose one might consider the real issue to be the divide between those who have (effective) access to information and those who do not – but in which case there remain far more of the latter than we care to admit. But in reality, those views do not seem to correlate with education; there are plenty of educated people who hold bigoted views, and I suspect plenty of the less educated who do not.

What seems to be missing is the transformation of knowledge into wisdom. I suspect that this is because it is a process that no teacher can really do for you; I come back to the notion that teachers are merely the planters of seeds. But the decision of formal education to disown Wisdom as its key objective cannot be helping. In his final sentence, Poundstone edges closer to the real issue: Google might tell you the answer, but it cannot tell you what to ask in the first place – and nor can it tell you what to do with that ‘answer’ when you have it. In this, I think a much more satisfactory answer was provided by the late Douglas Adams, through the voice of Deep Thought: a computer might have given you the answer – but it is up to the individual to work out what the question is.

And that’s where there is no substitute for a properly educated mind.

“Grammar Schools for All!”

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle.

I’ve taken some flak over the past weeks for my defence of selective education – though to balance the record, there has been quite a lot of support too. Politically speaking the matter seems to have gone quiet again – I suspect May has other matters on her mind, but just possibly she is beginning to realise the scale of the opposition she faces.

If the latter is true, she will have regrettably squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a grownup debate about the fundamentals of the education system in this country. Still, I suppose that is just par for the course when one considers the level of discussion on other pressing matters in recent times. Once again, however, the casualty will have been the state of the nation in a country where far too much is still determined on intellectually weak grounds such as prejudice, vested interest and historical precedent.

My own position has perhaps shifted a little during the past few weeks, in particular as a result of reading some of the (unfavourable) findings of international research on the impact of selective education. I would repeat however that the fact I was prepared to entertain the argument did not mean I fully endorsed it. I will leave readers to decide whether that makes me educated or not!

Neither does it mean that I have executed a neat U-turn. What it does show is that the debate is both complex and multi-faceted, and far too complicated to be reduced to a simple black-or-white false dichotomy. I concede the potential price of badly-executed selection but argue that this does not mean that what I prefer to conceive of as ‘specialised’ educational provision is inherently a bad idea. This is the debate that will probably never now happen.

Instinctively, I believe that schools should perform a role of social integration, and that implies being non-selective. What concerns me, however, is the reality of the situation, which I increasingly perceive to be the cultural and perhaps academic debasement of the education system, such that most rather than some are now deprived of the riches that the best of it used to deliver. My impression is that it is now left to a rump of the education system, much of it fee-paying, to sustain the highest levels of culture, intellect and general talent in our country – and that is more rather than less divisive when it comes to opportunity.

The rallying-cry of the early proponents of comprehensives was ‘grammar schools for all’, and on the surface it is hard to object to the sentiment. But as I argued in previous posts, this is based on the assumption that ‘all’ even want, let alone would cope with, a grammar-school style education. Quite frankly, many of the children I teach would probably founder under such a regime, and would in all likelihood detest it as well. I can see no reason why less academic children should be forced through a schooling that they actively dislike because it does not meet their needs, any more than academic ones – but that is what arguably happens nowadays anyway, since academic success has become the benchmark against which all are judged. I really don’t blame the disaffected ones for resenting being put through a system in which they feel they can only ever lose. For that is the harsh reality, whatever the growth mindset might claim.

But the consequence is that their disaffection – or at least the need of schools to try to counter it through the culture and methods they employ – still comes to dominate the character of many schools, both through their implicit needs, and more visibly through their behaviours. Regrettably, it seems to me that one of the markers of lesser intelligence is an inability to empathise with the needs of others; the disaffected or unruly are not about to shut up for the sake of the boffins in their midst. And it is still this dilemma that informs my support for finding a different solution – for the good of all concerned.

‘Grammar schools for all’ might be a noble ideal – but in reality this has simply not come to pass. If this sentiment really meant what it appears, then those of us who experienced grammar schools, who still endorse and hopefully embody their values and cultures, and whose teaching style derives from them, would be embraced by those who wished to spread such opportunities to all.

Instead, I – perhaps we – have spent a career being forced to deny my provenance and cultural-academic values, and to change my techniques to accommodate those whom it was claimed would not cope with them. Education more widely has been moved away from the cultural jewel that it (partly) was, towards a form of mass entertainment-cum-employment training. This means that the educational opportunities available have effectively become limited by the inability of some to cope with them, and that is no more ‘democratic’ than the converse.

It is probably a pragmatically sensible position under the circumstances – but grammar schools for all it most certainly is not.

Quality will out – part 1

kettle

In a rather unfortunate coincidence, our kettle and our fridge both expired recently. We have had the fridge for fifteen years – and the same kettle for nearly twenty. This is far longer than the average for such goods – but then we spent what seemed like crazy amounts on them at the time. In the mid-Nineties, £100 seemed an inordinate price for the simple ability to boil water. But both items proved to have been sound investments: the premium paid for ‘quality’ is not all hype, and in this little kitchen-sink drama, hindsight has justified the apparently counter-intuitive, even reckless behaviour at the time.

Not only have these goods lasted far longer than cheaper alternatives, but we have enjoyed the superior build, functionality and appearance that they afforded. The best choice is not always the most obvious, and certainly not the cheapest.

I am lastingly intrigued by what it is that constitutes ‘quality’; one might almost consider it a nature versus nurture question. ‘Best’ is of course subjective: it depends on what your criteria were in the first place – but to be too precious about that is to deny the fact that in these things, there seems to exist a hierarchy, albeit an elusive one, of something rather more objective. It is fairly clear that some materials are inherently more robust than others – but the qualities added by careful manufacture, not to mention ergonomics and aesthetics are less so.

I think it is important to accept that high quality is not an overriding concern for many people, and that is not necessarily wrong. It is quite possible knowingly to opt for less for entirely sensible reasons – but just because one might choose to do so is not in itself to deny the issue either. Neither is this a comment on personal taste: you can still respect the quality, even if you don’t like the style. Yet quality, it seems, will out – and certain people are prepared to pay handsomely for it, whether it concerns kettles – or education.

More controversially, I think that we use a similar judgement when it comes to people and places: I suspect that many would understand my impression that in the round, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark exemplify good quality, but Italy (for all that I love it) exasperatingly less so. I suspect many Italians might agree. Personal experience suggests that we instinctively judge people in a somewhat similar way, and this is not as insidious as might be thought. It is a natural human instinct to attempt to identify ‘them’ and ‘us’ or at least ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and we can be discerning without necessarily being condemnatory. In such matters, quality (or the lack of it) may not be entirely intentional, therefore we may refrain from judging, for all that we exercise choice.

One can speculate on what high quality means in education. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am unconvinced that it means what much of the educational establishment, or its political masters think. Quality as an aggregate concept may differ from that of the individual experience, but in educational matters, the only one that really matters is the latter, and I’m not certain that the one inevitably begets the other. It is possible to go to a good school and still have a lousy experience.

So, in my attempt to broaden the debate on selection, I am going to be shamelessly partisan for a moment. Naturally, I would want my child(ren) to have a high-quality education, and here is what that would mean to me in terms of choice of school:

A school:

  • That does not endorse the world of popular celebrity/pop/sports culture and use it as their default role model, as many seem to do.
  • That does not avoid high culture and thought on the grounds that it is difficult and inaccessible.
  • Whose dramatic productions are not an endless diet of musicals because that is all that will engage the pupils and maximise participation.
  • That has a library that isn’t called a ‘Learning Resource Centre’ or something such, while still containing a woefully small number of books.
  • That gives priority to learning over ‘engagement’, to wisdom over ‘winning’.
  • That has a serious, high-minded ethos, atmosphere and staff that pupils feel slightly in awe of.
  • Where teachers consider themselves to be vaguely academic, rather than ‘life coaches’ or youth workers.
  • That retains a sense of community in its annual rituals and extra-curricular activities.
  • That does not subordinate the greater liberal aims of education to maximising its place in the league tables.
  • That secures good exam results but understands that they are not the purpose of education.

Some will no doubt throw up their hands at this list – but I am not attempting to be consensual! The point is, this could explain why someone like me might just decide to send their child to a grammar school – or to choose to work in one. For all that others might have different values, there is little in my list that can be objected to on ethical or equality grounds. Neither is there anything in it about wishing to deny the same to others. And the order of priorities is not accidental.

I entirely respect the fact that a school’s job is not just to deliver what parents (think they) want. It has an important role as an intermediary between a developing person’s home life and the wider world. It is important that children are exposed to challenging ideas and different models. But the best way to do this is high-mindedly – hence the value I place on formal study rather than the touchy-feely kind. That is also why I have an aversion to schools appropriating popular culture, quite apart from the fact that it does not make them look cool.

It is the job of a school to be solemnly non-partisan. This is not at all the same as having no standards, which can be established through the wider ethos – but teachers should understand that their role is not to be surrogate parents, social workers, policemen, commercial agents or anything else. Teachers should present children with the wonders of the world for them to contemplate – but they should leave it up to them to work out, in due course, what to do with that inheritance. This is the only way to respect the sovereignty of even an immature individual and avoid accusations of indoctrination. In turn, the only way to help children understand how to do this is by teaching them the benefits and skills of higher level, impartial thought.

My list of preferences may seem unduly prejudiced against popular culture, and indeed it took me some time to work out why. Personally, I feel very uneasy when it comes to employing pop music, celebrities and other popular culture in the classroom. Part of this is because I regard most of such material as meretricious, talent-free junk and incompatible with my own ideals. But more importantly, this is stuff that children are all too widely exposed to elsewhere, often for utterly partisan reasons. I would not want my child to be exposed to this in the one institution that ought to rise above such endorsement. The whole point of a school is to expose children to things they would not otherwise encounter, not to reinforce the low-brow, self-promoting rubbish they get everywhere else. And in any case, I suspect that children generally want to keep such things as their own space without adults invading.

I accept again that this all is entirely partisan; not all popular culture is rubbish. As part of the world it deserves some impartial consideration – but not implicit or explicit endorsement. There is also the small matter than most of the ‘difficult stuff’ arguably just happens to constitute the peak achievements of human culture, knowledge and endeavour – and for teachers to fail to expose children to it on grounds of low popularity is, in my view a betrayal of what our profession is supposed to be about.

I know too many people of my generation who owe their appreciation of the higher aspects of life to various teachers, ever to approve of the descent into populism that much of the education sector has since pursued. I should add that I am not only considering academic matters either: people from my own school ended up as senior engineers, respected musical instrument-makers and more so it’s not just narrowly academic. The point is, low-brow education simply does not expose people to the levels of excellence that might inspire them to follow suit. Neither is this just a matter of culture: it has been commented on several times recently that the U.K. is a nation of excellent consumers – but it has lost the ability to be an excellent producer of very much at all.

Part two (tomorrow) will consider the implications of this for how education is organised.

Dead cat bounce – part 1

The issue of selection is back on the agenda, and temperatures are rising. Is this anything more than May’s dead cat bounce to deflect attentions from Brexit?

However the issue will never be resolved until a mature discussion can be had – and that seems as far away as ever. I have tried here to discuss some of the underlying issues that rarely figure in the headline debates. It is a long piece and will appear in two parts. For those who wish to cherry-pick, my key points are summarised in the boxes…

 

There are many reasons why my wife and I have never had our own children – but the innumerable dilemmas that face modern parents are certainly not something I miss. Chief amongst them is the vexed issue of education.

As expected, the can of grammar school worms has been re-opened. Quite why, at this moment, I don’t know. Perhaps May is more scheming than some suspect, and she knows it will be a good way of drawing fire away from Brexit…

I really do not know what to conclude of the grammar schools issue – but what I do know is that the venom it draws forth is such that measured debate still seems all but impossible. For all that I am prepared to make the arguments for selective education, I am far from decided about them, and I accept the underlying principle of education, that it should maximise opportunity for all, irrespective of background.

What I really want to see is a properly considered debate, but yet again the opponents of selection are wheeling out the well-rehearsed sound-bites, in some cases with such venom that a proper debate is the last thing we will get. The selection issue is in actual fact a conflation of several different arguments, none of which ever gets much of an airing, and for which the case is far more complex that its opponents will ever allow to be heard.

The grammar school issue is par excellence the one that shows the extent to which this so-called profession is still ideologically rather than intellectually driven. For all the claims of professional rigour, the valuing of objective ‘research’ and the tomes of worthy comments supposedly exalting educational excellence, when it comes to matters like this, the education world descends into simple, bald dogma.

 The failure to have a reasoned discussion about selection shows just how dogmatic the education profession remains. We will never move forward until the arguments in favour are properly debated.

Furthermore, while it is normal that professional consensus will emerge, that is no guarantee that it is the product of high-quality deliberation rather than the ability to shout the loudest. More than anything, I object to the fact that one faction assumes it is entitled to define the terms of not only this debate but of education as a whole. In the process, it is quite prepared to ride roughshod over any opposition, no matter how considered, and no matter how much disharmony it creates in the process. I had this experience in my own workplace this week. So much for tolerance and sensible professional debate.

This is why I am prepared to advance the alternative argument.

In fact, the arguments in favour of non-selective education are weakened by the failure of its proponents even to consider and address the more reasoned points of the opposition; what we get instead is a hysterical, vitriolic and intellectually weak tsunami of dogma that does little more than condemn the opposition for being subhuman. I oppose the assumption that all ‘right-thinking people (in education)’ share a single view on this, and therefore reasoned discussion is not necessary. One might read more into this…

It fell to Friday’s Guardian, to its credit, to concede that while grammar schools may seem to many to be the spawn of the devil, the reasons why some argue for them may in themselves be less so.

For example, it would be interesting to know how opponents of selection explain the fact that plenty of our neighbouring countries have selective systems, and yet do not have the degree of social division within them that this country experiences.

 That education exists primarily to tackle social division is merely one opinion. It is not necessarily important enough to over-ride all others. Beliefs that education can or should be the means of tacking this issue may be wide of the mark. There is only partial evidence that it succeeds – and enough countries operate selection without extreme social division to doubt the connection between the two.

Furthermore, social justice is an intangible and subjective concept. It can never be objectively achieved. Therefore it is a weak objective for education to focus on, even though we should never stop trying to maximise opportunity for all.

The assumption that education is about social justice is not tenable. There are many other reasons to educate people. Achieving social justice is undoubtedly one of the objectives of education – but the U.K. seems to have fallen into thinking that it is the sole purpose. It is not.

Furthermore, the objectives of education may vary from place to place, even within a country. There are clearly areas where tackling deprivation must be the primary concern – but there are equally  areas where this need be a lesser concern. There is no clear reason why the whole of the nation’s education policy should be dictated by this one issue, particularly when there are other priorities (of which more later) that are arguably being neglected as a result.

What social justice really means in practice is never explained. How it differs from the politics of envy is not clear. There is a deep assumption from those who deploy this argument that the country is rife with injustice, that given a level playing field many of those who hold important positions would be ousted by kids from council estates who, were it not for the injustice of their prior lives, would prove to be far superior. Or would we simply replace one elite with another, as is often the case in revolutions?

I will not deny that there (probably) is a socially-caused waste of talent in this country – as there probably is in all. But a little-discussed consequence of education as guarantor of social mobility is what should happen to those who simply prove not to be capable (or willing) to do very much. Are the sirens of ‘social justice’ really content to let such people remain where they fester as a result? Maybe that is what already largely happens? And while I am certainly not going to defend incompetents who use privilege to attain unwarranted power, are those who advance this argument really content to allow other people to sink downwards as a result? For the consequence of the hidden assumption about the unrecognised meritocracy is that those who are currently advantaged must fall to make way at the top.

The undeclared premise of those who champion this argument is nothing more than the old chestnut of Prizes for All, the old delusion of an attainable Utopia. Unfortunately, too many in education are still in thrall to this dream, which incidentally, is not the same as the wish to cultivate all people’s potential, since it casts far too many judgements about what constitute ‘successful’ outcomes.

The fact is, for all those individuals who do manage to rise against the odds, many more are simply not able to, or cannot be bothered. Whatever the reasons for this – and basic cognitive ability may well be one, however unpalatable to some – the truth is, not everyone has the same aptitudes or inclinations. In many ways, the Left is happy to celebrate diversity – so why not in education? Caring for those who need support, as a compassionate society should, cannot be conflated with pretending that all can be kings.

And if the real priority is to ensure that no child wants for the best opportunities, then the far harder, but more significant issue is to tackle the home cultures into which children are born. Some would argue that improving education would tackle this across the generations, but this only raises a deeper issue: just who we are (middle-class professionals) to dictate to other sovereign individuals what is important in life.

Does society as a whole have the right to make such judgements and thereby curtail the rights of certain parents to raise their children as they see fit? So long as the laws regarding children’s physical and mental safety are not abused, who has the right to insist that parents must instil a respect for education in their children? The fact is, for all the decrying of middle class values, the entire education system is grounded on precisely those – the belief that everyone must benefit from what ‘we’ feel is important. It is where a lot of alienation comes from; equally, the right-thinking, left-leaning establishment can easily be accused of wanting to eliminate the problem by simply creating ‘more people like us’.

There are plenty of parents even in the affluent area where I teach, who have no such values. In fact, they and their children may well be quite content with their lives, without the intrusion of bourgeois values; I get little impression to the contrary. If one encounters people who set no store by education, but are living perfectly contented lives, who are we to tell them they’re wrong?

Technology has provided the means for most to live in at least reasonable material comfort – so if they wish to live small-scale, short-sighted (to our eyes) lives and bequeath their children the same, then who are we to argue? It is not as though higher-powered lives come with no costs. Neither, from an employability perspective is it that society no longer needs such people, and while their vulnerability to technological change is real, to some extent that has always been the case. Arguably, we need to equip them to use their lives in other ways – if they so choose.

One might go further and argue that commerce and the media increasingly cater for lower-brow majority tastes, and it is actually the needs of the more thoughtful that are neglected; in my part of the country, it is the tasteless, conspicuous wealth of those who have cash but little else that dominates. For all their failure to appreciate liberal educated values, deprived they certainly are not; they care not a jot that they offend some, but while I don’t like their mores, I am hardly entitled to wish them into oblivion. Round here, it is the higher-minded who are the endangered species.

 It can be argued that a free society does not have the right to impose ‘educated values’ on those of its members who may not want them. It may be little more than an underhand means to wish away the less desirable factions of society. The existence of the underclass, while clearly not in doubt, is often over-stated by those with a certain agenda – and it need not inevitably take priority over the wishes of other parts of society.

There is another side to this argument. Quite possibly I would not be living the relatively modest, but thoughtful life I choose today were it not for the fact that my uneducated grandparents still valued the Intellect enough to support their children through working-class grammar schools. In due course they (and we) entered the professions. Despite the equally-available opportunity, some of my grandparents’ neighbours did not do the same. Others went to the local technical college; many went down the mines. But while this might seem to justify non-selective education, in fact there were many factors other than academic ability at work.

Such life-stories are often dismissed as irrelevant, the tales of the lucky few. Well perhaps – but in my mother’s case in particular, one unpretentious grammar school in a small Midlands mining town managed to produce a considerable number of people who went on to eminence, in some cases internationally. Like my mother, from within their professions they then championed the case for others to have the same chance. In terms of the talent pool, that is worth not dismissing. Had that not been the case, those individuals may well have gone down the mines too – and perhaps be prematurely dead from silicosis. Why are such success storied dismissed by those who oppose selective education? They may not be the majority – but as I said, lack of opportunity is not the only reason for supposed failure.

It is a widely-seen human propensity that people self-select their social groupings; as anyone who has read Richard Hoggart’s study of 1950’s northern working class communities will know, this is by no means the preserve of the self-entitling middle classes as many of the ideologues would have us believe. It is also worth noting from such accounts, that the resentment of the ‘lower orders’ to their superiors was not always as burning as is sometimes implied. Are we really proposing to intervene in people’s right to choose their own social circles?

It is not true that all groups that have high entry requirements are inevitably exclusionist; in many cases this is an illusion perceived by those who either cannot – or choose not to – enter. While one could debate the pathways to access, I think it is clear that rigorous selection criteria for surgeons or airline pilots are probably a good thing. It does not mean that there is a social conspiracy to exclude large sections of society, as some would suggest.

It is self-evident from the arguments of those who profess greatest concern that social inequality has grown since the abolition of selective education. Again there are many ways to explain this – but claiming that the relatively few remaining grammar schools are to blame is not statistically tenable. Suggesting that their absence has driven more who can afford it into the private sector may be nearer the mark. And as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest – and my own experience supports – we now have selection by house prices instead.

The simple fact is, those who have the means to achieve an advantage will always try to do so, be it by intelligence or by hard cash. We have to assume that those who advocate the furtherment of the underprivileged still accept this fact – though I do wonder… What they in effect seek to do is bestow advantage on another portion of society – but ‘advantage’ at whose expense?

How far, in a free society, should we intervene here? Unless we are advocating a full-blown communist revolution, there are few signs of how it will ever be prevented. Perhaps it would be better to harness this tendency rather than disown it? In which case, when it comes to access to academic education (indeed, all types of specialist provision), I would far rather it were allocated on the basis of the potential to benefit and use its legacy wisely, than on either the distribution of cash in society – or the random throw of a dice.

When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school. As one who attended a grammar but worked for three decades in a comprehensive, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge this than many.

Such is the nature of a comprehensive school that even good ones struggle to assemble a really strong academic centre of gravity. Even my own – which is comfortably within the nation’s top hundred by results – increasingly struggles to do this. By specialising, academic schools simply have the ability to cultivate and insist on a culture that does not arise elsewhere. As Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian put it, they are “intellectual hothouses bringing working-class kids to the world of ideas and debate”. This is the identity I recognise, not that caricatured by their opponents, of state-sponsored, fees-free private enclaves for the middle classes.

[to be continued.]