“If you want to see what education does to a country, just look at one that has none”.

It was perhaps the most convincing argument I ever encountered for doing the job that has occupied the bulk of my working life.

It also provided the perfect justification why someone like me, not a particularly outgoing person and with no children of his own, might go into that line of work. While I was perfectly prepared to support individuals when they needed my help, I never really subscribed to the view of my role as a somewhere between a pal and a life-coach, that has become the mainstream view in recent years. The job of the teacher is to be more impartial than that – a mentor, a critical friend, not a yes-person.

That is not to say that the individual is unimportant: a happy society has to be produced, as far as is possible, from happy individuals – but there is another descriptor that one might use too: Balanced. We all need a well-balanced society, not one that is simply pursuing individual self-realisation at all costs; all the more so when it is equated solely with career and income. This, I am less convinced we are achieving.

A balanced society is perhaps Wise: one that appreciates the perpetual, inescapable and uncomfortable compromise between our own interests and those of others around us. It appreciates, too, the subtle point that even self-interest is not simply a matter of who acquires the sharpest elbows and the largest bank account. It hopefully also sees that many of the things that make life worth living are not a product of ruthless ambition, nor the status that may result.

Therefore my own motives for teaching were more concerned with the role of education in creating a civilised society for all – including those without their own children – and for the transmission of the cultural and intellectual capital that is the very necessary inheritance of all. Looking after the individuals was just a (very important) part of the bigger picture.

I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the view (of not only, but seemingly including many teachers), that the purpose of education was to pass exams, thereby progressing to the next stage of this supposedly pre-ordained, homogenous process until wealth and influence eventually landed in your lap. It is probably no coincidence that such views were peddled most strongly by those within the profession who had themselves followed that trajectory…

My discomfort reached a peak when I was being actively being prevented from teaching in a way and using materials that I knew enhanced understanding, on the grounds that they would not specifically appear in the exam. To me, this was the pinnacle of the narrow-mindedness that I always believed education was meant to counter: a view so limited as to believe that we should only teach things, and in ways, that would supposedly enhance exam performance – at the expense of precisely the breadth of understanding and insight that exams are intended to sample. If this is so, then it is indeed true that the whole thing has been reduced to a pointless exercise in hoop-jumping.

I could not escape my unease that this outlook, which reduced the essential, life-enhancing experience of wonder at, and learning about the world to little more than box-ticking. I could not ignore the sense that is also self-defeating, because when the acquisition of something as indefinable as Wisdom is reduced to such, it does indeed become all but meaningless. Wisdom, by definition is not something that can be either acquired or exercised according to a pre-written formula – as many of the exponents of the hoop-jumping approach unknowingly demonstrated all too well.


These conflicts have been much in my mind again in recent times. First Brexit, and now Covid-19 have severely tested our resilience as a society, and revealed the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, approaches and mindsets around the world.

As everywhere, my own local community has been tested by this unexpected adversity. In the past weeks, people have been taking conspicuous care with social distancing, while a number of local support groups have sprung up, as one would hope. And yet it seems that a few weeks of this are as much as some people can support. There are growing numbers of people appearing in the streets; while our weekly market has done well from people shopping more locally, I find myself incredulous at the speed with which self-discipline seems to be breaking down.

It seems that now the initial shock of the situation has passed, people are increasingly cutting corners; that faced with the choice between immediate convenience and potentially fatal infection, more than I am comfortable with appear to choose the former. Perhaps they think they are invincible; I wonder how many know that we have had the virus here in this community of five thousand…

There are some here (as presumably in all societies) who seem to have a casual attitude to Risk, or who simply can’t be bothered to sustain previous efforts. This might not matter so much if the consequences of their decisions only affected themselves – but the cruel tragedy of this pandemic, is that careless behaviour is at least as likely to harm others as themselves.

I know that some of the local traders have noticed – and have not missed the irony, either, that many who are currently patronising them have never been seen before – and will probably never be seen again once ‘normal’ life resumes. Such is the superficial transience of some people’s behaviour – and, it seems, their ability to learn lasting lessons. It often seems to be the same people who show little awareness of others around them in the street, and who seem to think that social distancing means that everyone else needs to give way…


There as an inherent contradiction within the idea of education: by cultivating people’s resourcefulness and potential, one makes it more possible for those individuals to stand on their own feet; to make decisions about their own lives and interests that are freed from the overwhelmingly-communal concerns that still govern less educated societies, ones where community really is an insurance against adversity.

Strengthening people’s minds really does give them more autonomy – but there is no guarantee that the result will be used in an enlightened way. The process that we in Britain currently call ‘education’ taps into very strong instincts for self-advancement, even greed: its singular emphasis on personal fulfillment has downplayed the interconnectedness of us all, which the current situation has temporarily re-emphasised. It has led people to become self-focused to the extent that they fail even to consider the impact of their behaviour on others – even it seems when that behaviour can potentially cause death. Not all restraint has gone – but a virus does not negotiate; it does not make allowances for human weakness or stupidity. In fact, it exploits them.

The problem with education is this: done well, it does indeed lead to a more effective, more ‘free’ society – and one in which people might be expected to acquire more than a passing attachment to the currently-required behavioural changes that exist for everyone’s benefit. Where people are wise enough to have a sensible perspective about the situation; where they actively take considered and responsible decisions. Where lessons really are learned.

But done badly, all it does is exaggerate people’s sense of autonomy – empowerment without the necessary wisdom to appreciate the subtle limitations on that autonomy. It leads to a determination to have one’s own way no matter what the consequences; eventually it becomes so habitual that people cannot do otherwise. First Brexit and now the pandemic seem to be showing that for enough of the population to cause a problem, it is indeed such attitudes that now hold sway. No doubt the same people will be the first with the hysterics should there be another spike in infections.

This is what education as hoop-jumping achieves: giving people an exaggerated sense of their own importance, even invincibility – and a diminished sense of the many ways in which that is nothing more than an illusion. They may lose dependency – but they replace it with half-truths. Half-baked education is only concerned with what superficially seems to be the ‘right’ answer – not the imponderable dilemmas and uncertainties that a truly-wise perspective can see. And it fails to equip people to know how to change their minds.

This is where my misgivings came from – for as has been said before, a little education is a dangerous thing.

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of it.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the shared subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

Truth being spoken at last.

At last, someone is talking about the elephant in the room.

Teachers held at gunpoint for meaningless data

What the writer underplays is the fact that some schools actively welcomed this approach, because it was what allowed their managers to big-up their careers and salaries. I worked in one.

You can only deal with the conflict between doing what you know to be educationally right and necessary and that which a gun-pointing system is forcing you to for so long before something has to give.

The more seriously you take your vocation, the more damaging the consequences of such conflicts are likely to be.


It may have been a mistake to start reading Geert Mak’s painfully detailed 1999 history of Europe while my head still suffers from excessive emotional reaction. But never has it been clearer why we need to know our history to avoid making the same mistakes again. Reading excruciating accounts of how the Bolsheviks behaved in Russia 100 years ago , how the Nazis came to power in 1930’s Germany, and how the two World Wars began, hints of the trends repeating in our own age are unmistakable. I just hope that it doesn’t lead us to the same place…

Yet it is so easy for otherwise good people to be taken in by warped patterns of thought. I’m still in touch with a number of practising teachers; one told me recently how he, a deputy head, had been instructed to get tough with a number of un-favoured staff in his school. He objected to treating people harshly – and was told that “That is your job. This is the way it is now. There is no other way”. Admirably, he argued the case and made some headway – but has ultimately decided that he is unwilling to do that management’s dirty work, and has found employment somewhere else. I shivered with recognition.

The case I mentioned previously of irregular, even illegal practices in a primary chain elsewhere in the country continues to develop. The person concerned, the chain’s financial manager, is highly professional, and working for a small fraction of the salary they could command as a chartered accountant. But this person felt professionally obliged to report the malpractice being witnessed – and now they have become the target of the latest management firestorm, the good ‘framed’ once again to justify the deeply inadequate.

I became acquainted this week with the phrase ‘flattening the grass’ – which has also been picked up by John Tomsett and others. Apparently it began as a management euphemism for destroying all opposition to one’s regime. Shivers of recognition once again. But it appears that this is extending to the pupils – with assemblies being run, the purpose of which is to shame, humiliate and intimidate pupils into submission, supposedly in the name of improving discipline. I never witnessed anything like this, though I did see pupils being very heavily read the riot act prior to an Ofsted inspection.

One begins to see how ordinary circumstances are gradually subverted. It may even be that those perpetrating such acts do not see the full implications of what they are doing. But the slippery slope is there, and they are starting to slide increasingly rapidly. Faustus is selling his soul once again. The confrontational, evangelical politico-education system in Britain certainly creates incentives for such thinking – and of course, the country’s political madness is hardly majoring on compassion itself at the moment. It’s catching.

Little by little, we slip collectively further down that slope. We are vaguely aware of what is happening – but ‘accountability’ just leads us from one desperate thing to another – and we justify it to ourselves on the grounds that it can be no other way.

And so we end up with a situation where educational establishments – which promote themselves as the ultimate expression of societal good – can come to believe that it is quite appropriate to demonise their staff and humiliate their own pupils. All in the interests of the greater good, you understand.

People who make a stand, who try to stick to their principles and do the right thing themselves become targets, just as they did in 1930s Germany. Gradually all opposition is expunged. In the echo chambers that remain, those in charge only hear the reverberations of their own warped logic. And they are utterly blinded to the single most glaring fact: if this is the only way they can see to treat others, then the unforgivable inadequacies they correctly claim exist within the system lie not with their victims – but somewhere much, much closer to home.

I am just relieved I am out of the nuclear winter that is now the British education system – and unsurprised to hear that my own former school has lost its Outstanding grade in a recent Ofsted inspection. Too much mafia hubris; too many good teachers ‘disposed of’, and too few replacements available; a perfect storm – and reputations travel. I try to avoid schadenfreude – but maybe there is a glimmer of justice left in the world after all.

There is no other way. Quite correct: if you treat people badly, then you leave them no alternative but to turn against you.

But still the management Mafiosi continue their warped ways:

We must destroy these inadequate teachers. We must reduce these children to tears. It is all for their own good. There is no other way.

Thus is how vicious totalitarianism is ushered in.

But we all know what happened to Mussolini.

School bullies

News just in from an education ‘source’ elsewhere in the country described a situation whereby a member of non-teaching professional support staff was scapegoated, her life gratuitously made hell by senior managers until she eventually left her post. This in a primary school of all places. Perhaps the fact that it took place in an academy chain is not irrelevant. My source is so appalled that she too is considering her position.

Why does this still happen? The education sector repeatedly and understandably majors on the good it seeks to do in society. It claims to be a vocation that is devoted to positive outcomes in life. It champions opportunity, social justice and condemns bullying. By virtue of having the loudest voice, management is often in the vanguard of such crowing.

It is utter hypocrisy.

Because despite the above, it still does not know how to lead by example. It still seems to think that ruining the life chances of its own employees is acceptable. There is still too large an element in school “leadership” (I use the word here with caution) that seems to think that children’s life chances are best furthered by being as beastly to the people who work in that sector as possible.

I experienced it myself, in the way a situation was gradually turned against me because my face no longer fitted. It was nothing to do with competence – as so often. I was by no means alone: there are far too many reported examples of professional victimisation – and similar experiences seem still to be happening elsewhere in the country.

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for this kind of treatment – and in my opinion, people who behave like this towards others are not fit to be in the positions of power that they often hold. It is not a reasonable excuse to claim they need to cut ‘dead wood’ from the system, or take ‘hard decisions’ on behalf of the children. It is not really about that: it is raw professional politics, pure and simple.

Even if someone has committed the most heinous professional crime imaginable, there is, I would argue, still a case for fair and balanced treatment, the retaining of the moral high ground rather than a primitive urge for retribution.

It is very easy to be disillusioned with the profession these days. It seems that the zealots and ideologues still hold sway – and they are ferocious against those who demur. For all the high-minded ideals we are no further from the partisan, cowardly and frankly puerile in-fighting and squabbling that has characterised the profession for so long. So much for the kids fighting in schools – if only they could see some of the adults! I cannot forget the county-council personnel worker who told me she was “well shot” of managing schools – “because they are too often utter poison”.

Many of those who claim to have children’s interests at heart should start by practising the behaviour they preach – towards their colleagues. Otherwise they are no better than the school bullies in the playground.

She’s done it again!

When Amanda Spielman was appointed as Chief Inspector of Schools at Ofsted, there were the predictable sniffy responses from the profession: what could a non-teacher know about the education profession?

Well, it turns out that an outside voice is proving to be just what is needed. Spielman is unexpectedly becoming the ‘breath of fresh air’ that the profession so badly needs.

In recent days she has observed that it is not reasonable to expect schools and teachers to address all of society’s ills – that parents and other agencies need to be responsible for their own impact too. And more recently still she has called on professional leaders to abandon their preoccupation with pedagogical gimmicks  (singling out Brain Gym as an example), and allow teachers to focus on the basics using tried and tested techniques that work for them in classrooms.

The teaching profession has always been prone to the distractions of gimmickry: the whole progressive movement is predicated on – as Spielman observed – the belief that the Holy Grail is waiting just around the next corner. It is not. The problem has only been made worse in recent years by school managements desperately plugging anything that they hoped might push their institutions up the league tables.

My only regret is that personally, Spielman has come a few years too late: during my career I was repeatedly bombarded with instructions to adopt such gimmicks by a few influential people in my school who saw this as the way to ‘lead learning’. Their influence was reinforced by rather more others in middle management who were reluctant to challenge them. It was made clear that disagreement was not permissible. It was my reluctance to comply with – and my willingness to challenge – such idiocy that first saw me marked by those who in reality were more interested in compliance that cultivating real professional excellence. Much of what Spielman is now saying formed the core of my own book on teaching and education.

There remain those for whom it seems imperative that education should dance to some all-embracing meta-tune. It is not unreasonable for the profession to seek some form of consensus over what works – but it should not be ideologically driven, and it is good to see Spielman in effect challenging this. As I proposed in The Great Exception, it is entirely possible to derive a model of good professional practice that is based in the realities of good classroom practice rather than the vanities and insanities of those who are always looking for the Next Big Thing.

Why are we not more surprised?

My family has something over 150 years’ combined service to education in Britain, spread over the period since 1950, and covering the working lives of at least five individuals. So it is probably fair to say that teaching and all its collective consciousness is pretty deeply-embedded here. While one has to acknowledge the possibility of the perpetuation of shared fictions, one of the enduring values shared by those people has been the unimpeachable integrity of those who teach. I cannot see that this is anything other than the fundamental sine qua non for entering a profession whose aim is the furtherance of the lives of others – even if we accept that the actual track record has never been quite 100%…

And yet my attention is repeatedly forced to return to the perversions of the system as it exists today, which seem huge compared with anything that has gone before. I cannot help but see direct parallels in education with what is becoming ever more apparent are the inevitable consequences of a wider national system that for several decades has prioritised individual gain and operated as a free-for-all for those who could attain positions of power. How could anyone not see that this would result in the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the sharp-elbowed, narcissistic few?

While it seems that Thatcher was too naive to realise what she was unleashing, it was always too much to expect that a general sense of ethics and morality would act as a restraint on the worst aspects of human nature, or indeed for the supposedly customer-centred market to ensure that fair play always ensued. There are enough people deficient in such qualities in a population of 60 million for them to have been able to fleece the rest of us utterly.

In its fundamental logic, business is amoral: it only operates for its own advantage, and it is even enshrined in Law that shareholders’ interests come before customers’. The same should not be said for public services – and yet it is the same market-based model upon which education has been increasingly run.

I wonder how my forebears would have reacted if one could have told them that by 2015 state schools in Britain would have become chains run by what are in effect private companies. I think they would have been incredulous.

Given the same incentives, how could we have believed that the same distortions would not come to characterise the education sector? Two newspaper reports in just one day cover:
Pupils ‘disappearing’ from the rolls of Multi-Academy Trusts in the run-up to GCSEs (to improve league table ratings).
A former MAT executive head formerly lauded by the government banned from teaching indefinitely for financial irregularities that in addition to a £120k salary resulted in over £1 million (of public money) being channelled to him via a company he set up supposedly as a third-party contractor. (He has admitted making “mistakes”. Hmm.)

I have reliable evidence from elsewhere in the country of outright, illegal cronyism in recruitment practices (upon which I gather a whistle has been blown) – in addition to some distinctly dodgy practice that I witnessed myself – and this is without considering the number of ‘executive’ heads whose salaries are now north of £200k, while they continue to suppress the pay of their employees, and whinge about cuts to school budgets. I hear of very few taking pay cuts in order to ease their schools’ funding crisis – and in at least some cases, structures are such that this ‘cannot be done’ as they are paid by the MAT rather than any individual school. How convenient. But the effect is the same. It is all a direct parallel of what has happened in the commercial sector.

I have increasing time for Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of School, who seems to have rumbled what is going on. Her proposed changes to the inspection regime have the potential to neutralise some of the educational distortions of current behaviour. Her recent letter to the government’s Public Accounts Committee is worth reading, and can be found here.

But this will do little to alter the corporate culture. While individuals are given so much power and incentive to run schools as though they are businesses, we will always be exposed to the risk that those sharp-elbowed types will shove themselves to the top (always while making good-sounding noises about wanting to further children’s chances, of course) simply because the rest are not inclined to out-compete them. Quite how they square improving children’s chances with the huge salaries they often draw – while still making resourcing cuts – is one of life’s continuing mysteries.

And for all the serious stuff that is reported, my own experience suggests that there is a much wider climate of lower-level dis-reputability going on, all for institutional (read managerial) advantage. Spielman is diplomatic enough to suggest that even otherwise ‘honest’ schools are tempted when faced with lower rankings due to competition from schools that are playing dirty. Hmm.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is the lack of public outrage at what is happening. We have become so inured to the sight of snouts firmly in the troughs of big business that it no longer surprises to hear that those supposedly in public service are doing the same.

Yet this is so contrary to the whole ethos and purpose of education that it should be utterly intolerable in decent civil society. True, it is reported in the papers, but it no longer makes headlines. An acquaintance formerly of very senior position in the profession told me some time ago that there is a group of head teachers whose behaviour is bringing the profession into disrepute. The evidence is growing that this is both correct, and perhaps both more predictable and more widespread than previously thought – but few as yet are being challenged. Even otherwise ‘clean’ schools seem to be perpetrating increasingly edgy practices in today’s harsh financial and accountability climate. It is sold as astute management.

When you prioritise greed, why is this a surprise? If it can affect university vice-chancellors, we can be pretty sure that school managers won’t be immune.

Those 150 years of familial service have indeed left me with the belief that teaching is an honourable and moral vocation; my forebears are probably spinning in their graves at what is currently happening. In my own case, this is quite genuinely one factor in my decision not to re-enter teaching: I do not want to work in such compromising conditions. The situation is so anathema to my understanding that I still cannot comprehend what people who think and act in the ways described above are themselves even doing in teaching in the first place – and I certainly do not wish to work for them.

It is often claimed that school leaders have a huge impact on the wider culture; I don’t doubt it is so. Is the reason that there is less outrage evidence of the extent to which the rot has spread?

A letter to my old school (and the many others like it)

So how do you feel now? I’m talking particularly to those who (have) run the place. How do you feel now that the Head of Ofsted no less, has confirmed her intention to remove exam data analysis from school inspections?

She says it distorts educational priorities, even damages children’s interests. Some of us could have told her that a decade or more ago. But it is what you built your whole institution upon. You are the people who were proud to admit that you ran an exam factory. Are you experiencing a sudden loss of purpose, since your whole rationale – if that is not too fancy a word for it – was built for years on the macho extraction of results data from pupils and teachers alike?

In a way I don’t blame you for what you did: it was only what you were told to do. But you still took it much further than you needed to, drunk on edu-corporate bullishness (remember that word?). There were too many glittering careers to be built in going along with it. You discovered that by bleeding people dry you could harvest data which impressed the inspectors, politicians and local public, which justified your management strut, which treated ordinary teachers as machinery and pupils as data fodder.

I don’t think the ‘customers’ were actually unhappy – but the bonhomie in the school existed despite the management not because of it. Even though you claimed all the credit. They are not a particularly enlightened bunch, the ‘clients’ in this area. A passport to a high salary for their children was all they mostly ever wanted. The fact that you paid yourselves handsomely while making front-line staff redundant no doubt impressed them too, since many were probably doing the same in their own lines of work.

You also figured out how to please the inspectors and accreditors; that was far more important to you than the happiness or well-being of your staff. You refused to implement even the most basic workplace guarantees where you could get away with it. I was in the room when you refused to countenance an H&S stress policy. Only bad teachers get stressed, you said. You always said we could go elsewhere if we didn’t like it; many did, and not for the reasons you claimed. That’s how much you valued us.

Playing the corporate game served you well. You had your fancy holidays, your flashy cars and your smart clothes, far out of reach to those who did the real classroom graft day in, day out. Some of you barely taught a class in years, and when you did the results were often no different from those you pilloried for what in their case you called ‘failure’.

I have no doubt you have clear consciences. In fact I genuinely think you did what you believed was right at the time. Who can ask for more? And the fact that the system worked for you only proved you were right – didn’t it? But you still had to sell the soul that any honest educator would find far more difficult to do that you did.

Yet your failure was even deeper than that. In your dismal, mundane world you utterly failed to see what Amanda Spielman has now accepted: that the important thing about educational success is not the grade, but how you reach it. It is the educational experience that is important, not the letters that it generates on a spreadsheet.

In the process, you sold out, too, on the real ethical purpose of education – which is not to help school managers to preen themselves. You didn’t care less about the breadth of the curriculum, or even whether the experiences children were having in classrooms were genuinely educational, let alone motivating, so long as we all pumped out the A grades.

When a hole appeared in the ‘A’ Level results, you chose not to consult the one group of people who knew why: the classroom teachers. We could see that grade-priming was coming at the expense of genuine learning, we could all see students coming into the sixth form without properly-embedded prior knowledge – that too was sacrificed to short-term grade gain. Those students were drained of enthusiasm by the bleak target-slog that you made of GCSE, ever to come back willingly for more: most were only there because they felt they had no choice. It was the educational equivalent of a property bubble: currency backed by no wealth – and now it has burst.

We could feel that it was making the job of teaching children more difficult and less effective. But you over-ruled us every time: you knew best, we were ‘anecdotal’ idiots (remember that word?), not the “experts in their field” that Spielman now accepts teachers are.

Publicly, you will probably say that you welcome the changes – but your behaviour over the past decades went far beyond  doing unwillingly that over which you had no choice. Much of the damage done to the education of British children – to say nothing of the teaching profession – came directly from the offices of school managers. No higher.

So how are you going to function in a world where you may no longer be able to blather your way through, hiding such inadequacies behind reams of meaningless statistics? How are you going to deliver a service that actually requires people to be properly educated? Which requires a school to be a place of learning, not just data mining? Because here is your real failing: you epitomise the emptiness of that approach – people with the right credentials, but nothing behind them. You didn’t understand what we were saying about the priorities and processes of genuine education – because such things were all too evidently a closed book to you too.

Your most abject failure was a glaring lack of leadership – despite the re-branding of management as such. You didn’t lead us anywhere worth going. You and your ilk failed to challenge the powers that were pushing education in the wrong direction; not easy, I know – but presumably that is why you call yourselves Leaders. To do the tricky stuff. But no: there was too much to gain from sucking it up.

You failed, too, to challenge those limited expectations amongst the local populace – to show them that real education is not just an exam grade. But no – that would have required the vision and courage to tackle entrenched beliefs – something you utterly lacked. You never backed those of us who tried to argue otherwise; instead you narrowed the curriculum simply to maximise data outcomes. That is not good education. Education is not about giving people what they want, even less what they already know: it is about challenging them with things they don’t even yet know they need.

So please don’t begrudge those who resisted our current wry smiles. Those whom you didn’t even deign to acknowledge when we passed in the playground, to whom you could be so unpleasant when it suited you. Those whom you hustled out of the place at the first opportunity for daring to stick to our own principles and for not buying into your narrow remit. Educational principles we knew were right. We could see what was really going on.

In some cases, our entire careers were defined – blighted – by this utterly pointless obsession with meaningless data. Spielman has said as much: “Teachers have been forced to become data managers”. Too right they have – forced to game the system and mortgage their own well-being purely to massage the egos of managers – and too many have paid with disillusion, their health and their livelihoods.

Spare a thought for the time I sat at a computer facing a dilemma over whether to falsify so-called achievement data in order to keep you happy, or whether to stick to my principles and record the reality I could see, knowing how unpleasant the consequences might be. I am proud I did the latter, even though it helped to kill my career.

So forgive me for having the last laugh. While you kowtowed to your superiors, some of us were trying to do the right thing. For us small fry, making a stand on a matter of professional principle was important, even when it did us harm. Not an approach shared by you, our ‘leaders’ for whom compliance, even collusion was a far more important consideration than anything that required the courage of conviction.

In some cases, it damaged us personally – but we knew we were right, every time you ignored or over-ruled our input and views. I may be beyond the professional grave now – but I feel well satisfied by what Spielman appears to be saying. The principle we were defending has now been recognised for what is it – and the damage done by your false gods called out, despite the scorn which you poured on us when we tried to speak up.

It was us that kept the true spirit of education alive, while you were busy selling out to the gods of educational mammon. What will you do now?

The Joy of Confirmation Bias

I wish I had read The Black Swan sooner. It is an engaging if sometimes challenging read. Taleb is a somewhat unconventional writer and he does not always explain complex concepts with the layman in mind. (I was initially floundering on the use of fractals in probability calculations…) But its basic message is worth the effort, and confirmation bias alone sees to it that it is satisfying to read something that justifies one’s own prior thoughts!

I show below a table reproduced from the later stages of the book. In it Taleb summarises contrasts in ways which different paradigms approach uncertainty. A Black Swan is a high-impact, low-frequency event that nonetheless has a massive effect; for instance, Taleb claims that 50% of the value of American stocks has been added by just ten tumultuous days in the last 50 years; similarly, just one blockbuster can completely turn a publisher’s fortunes around. Getting lucky enough to ride such a wave can be transformative, as can the negative impact of unforeseen catastrophes.


The salient point for teaching, I think, is that there are aspects of life where grand master-plans and scientific predictions simply do not wash. Taleb points out that the social sciences and human behaviour in general are amongst them. There is no point in organising such phenomena around the diktats of elegant theories, or statistical predictions: the range of possible human responses to educational acts is just too great to call, and it does not regress to the mean either – something which most models assume. It is the educational equivalent of the Butterfly Effect.

One might conceive of a small event in a pupil’s schooling, that unbeknown to the teacher ‘lights a bulb in the mind’, and eventually causes that pupil to become the next Bill Gates or Stephen Hawking. I wonder what effect size John Hattie would ascribe to that… But to a lesser extent, the same is true about the actual effects of any educational (or other) interaction; this is why trying to identify and then depend on known ‘outcomes’ is pointless. (One might also consider the effect on the ‘total career impact’  of a teacher, of the act that produces the next Einstein!).

When I was writing my own book, I felt slightly uneasy that I could not substantiate sufficiently my claim that educational interactions are ‘irreducible events whose outcomes are only known to those involved’. For all that it felt right, justifying it was more difficult. But here, at last, is something that I think comes close. If it is indeed true that some effects in this world are governed by a fractal model of probability rather than a Bell Curve, then it is entirely possible for the effects of a teacher on a pupil to be unknowable – an educational Black Swan.

This does not mean that extreme events will occur frequently, but equally it does mean that they are eminently possible, and that we should not seek to build theories without allowing for them. Likewise, for every pupil who ‘works hard and succeeds’, how many (often unseen) pupils work hard but don’t? Or don’t work hard, but still do? It’s a deeply misleading relationship to suggest to people.

But given that they are unknowable in both nature and occurrence, we cannot therefore build accurate models of our effect. Resorting to those we have on the grounds that they are better than nothing does not make them any more accurate.

Taleb suggests that the only sensible response to this is Sceptical Empiricism, in other words a mode of working that is deductive: it works from reality to concept, rather than the opposite, always remembering that the past is not a good predictor of the future. The chart summarises the differences between this approach and the more conventional one, which does indeed look more like the present-day character of some education systems.

I was delighted to note that Taleb describes this approach as being ‘sophisticated craft’ rather than ‘poor science’ – which is indeed exactly how I would characterise my view of teaching vis à vis the established one, and what I proposed in the conclusion of my own book. And as he says, it is better to be broadly right than precisely wrong.

Which is what the current models being used in education are.

Lessons Learned

I have been reading Brian Lightman’s book Lessons Learned: A life in education.


Brian was a colleague of mine for a few years in the early 1990s and I am indebted to him for both his support early in my career (where much else was lacking), and more recently for encouraging the publication of my own book The Great Exception.

In the meantime, he went on, via several headships, to become General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

His book provides a fascinating insight into his experiences as he ascended to the top of the profession. The memoirs of a head teacher should be required reading for all in education: both those in the classroom for the appreciation it can bring of the breadth and challenges of the role – something it seems that few others bother to communicate to their staff – and those in political positions for a view of just how complex and demanding a job it is.

From the lower rungs, it is easy to criticise ‘management’, and I have done my share of this, although I have always tried to tackle the issue rather than the person. I have also identified ‘management’ as being more than just that found at school level. But it is also fair to say that from a classroom perspective, management hubris often ensured it was not clear just where some of the impositions and conflicts that we struggled with were originating from. Those in such positions would do well to remember which parts of the anatomy are most visible from beneath…

One might argue it would be in their own favour for school managements to be more open with their staff about the imposed conflicts they face, rather than (as was my experience) trying to present an invincible, non-negotiable stance which was certainly not interested in the thoughts or ideas of mere classroom teachers. By sometimes claiming total authority, school managements have not only deprofessionalised their staff, but also in effect claimed ownership of many of the education system’s failings that may not actually have been their fault. That said, in many cases, it has clearly been school managements’ interpretations of political diktats that have caused the real problems.

While Lightman naturally comes at these issues from a very different, more strategic perspective, it is reassuring that the former leader of a Head teachers’ union corroborates many of my own views on issues seen from the classroom, such as:

  • the need for individuals to be able to develop their own good practice
  • the need for schools to support their staff rather than micro-manage or otherwise demean them
  • the need for more a pluralistic appreciation of the nature and aims of education
  • the need to reduce the narrow emphasis on exam results as the sole driver for both teaching and schools as a whole
  • the desirability of extended professional development for teachers that aims at a wider professionalism than basic classroom skills or production-line techniques.

I do however lack his apparent belief that complex policy and control structures really are the best means to achieve higher standards. I doubt that they actually have the ability to reach to the level of individual classrooms with anything more than a restricting effect. And we still haven’t really pinned down what ‘better education’ actually means.

While I have certainly experienced the impacts of different styles of school management, I have also seen far flatter structures being very successful elsewhere. If we had a highly-educated and trained, fully professionalised work force (in spirit and approach rather than just intent) in this country, such as is found in Finland, Switzerland and elsewhere, there would simply be much less need for towering hierarchies to drive everything. To be fair, Lightman does hint at this. The lack of such is the fault of education policy over decades.

The later stages of the book recount Lightman’s encounters with the political establishment during the last Labour years and then the 2010 Coalition-era government. It is not edifying reading.

This account of the means by which education policy was made: the sheer prejudice brought to bear – not least on the achievements of prior administrations, the refusal to credit professional expertise and insight, the sometimes ad-hoc, opportunistic nature of policy-making, and the sheer, arrogant cronyism of the system, makes depressing reading. It has to be said without much pleasure, that all of these traits were, according to Lightman, far worse under the Conservatives than the other parties.

Sometimes it is the small and non-education related points that are enlightening: for example, the observation that while most parties’ annual party conferences are packed with pressure-groups’ stalls, the Conservative one mostly features up-market traditional country-wear.

The impression Lightman gained is that this party represents a regressive, privileged and condescending – yet immensely powerful – force within society that has little understanding of, or interest in, any world-view except its own. And it still believes in its own entitlement to govern.

For someone who is increasingly more widely critical of the ways in which the U.K. is governed, this blows a major hole in the claim that this country is well governed, for all the veneer of authority and control that the Establishment can still put on. And in the light of the nation’s current difficulties, if this account of the education department is representative of approaches in (Conservative?) government more widely, one can only fear for the nation’s future.

Back with teaching, in my own way, I believe I attempted to develop a form of professionalism close to that which Lightman describes. My own approach attempted a blend of the best of proven traditional techniques with the more promising and workable aspects of newer ideas. I tried to educate young people rather than just prepare them to jump hoops. And this blog is testament to this teacher’s attempts to widen his perspective on his professional practice.

It was hard work as it often involved swimming against the tide of a system that eventually burned me out, threw me out – and stamped on the remains. And whatever the perceived or real weaknesses of this particular individual, I now represent just one more experienced, committed teacher lost to a system that can ill afford it – against which Lightman rails.

In very many ways, the education system needs to become much less dogmatic in its approach – and much more trusting of professionals to do a good job. Lightman’s experiences in Germany (he is a linguist) reflect my own in Switzerland in this respect.

All in all, a thought-provoking account of a life in education that does much to cast light on layers of the structure not normally visible to those in the classroom, but one that does not lose sight of the fundamental importance of the grassroots nature of the profession.