Death by Management

This is a cross-post from my new general-interest blog which can be found at https://sprezzatura.blog

I’ve been dabbling on the fringes of local democracy. The small town where I live is noted for its outstanding heritage and excellent quality of life, but like many such places, it presently faces multiple challenges from various forms of development that are closing in. In the case of housing, the big builders frequently target such places because homes sell quickly there for a premium. But in the process, they very often ruin what was attractive in the first place.

Neighbourhood plans were a political initiative to give at least a semblance of local self-determination – it depends on how cynical you want to be. But my impression is that these activities are suffering from the same malaise that seems to afflict all of modern life – over-management.

I will hasten to say that I am sure those heading in this direction mean only well; it is just that for many people, professional life has become about little more than committee meetings. It seems that nothing in modern organisations can move without a pile of policy objectives, dozens of meetings and tome of paperwork.

There are some people who glory in all of this – and I have met my fair share of professional committee-sitters in my time. The Healthy Schools Initiative was one; I spent a fair amount of time in meetings with people who seemed far more concerned with ticking boxes, writing policies and acquiring accreditation logos than actually effecting real change. And for all that the logos were indeed acquired, very little of real use actually changed. Certainly nothing that justified all the expensive professional hours spent in those meetings.

If local democracy is to mean anything, be it in schools or entire communities, it is surely about giving people the ability to make a real impact on the places where they live and work. That should not require dozens of sub-committees and expensive consultants and analysts. And when I put some practical ideas forward, it seemed as though, being ‘projects’ – as opposed to policies – they have to go in the box marked ‘aspirational’, for attention only at some ill-defined moment in the far future.

The cynic in me says that death-by-management is a product of a society that struggles to create enough ‘real’ jobs for its people. Equally, I know that communal activities do need to be co-ordinated, money accounted for, and democracy observed. Good managers facilitate that. But on that last point, the triumph of the professional committee-member is not democratic, for it excludes a whole tranche of people who do not operate in that way.

Furthermore, such hidebound procedure strangles the ability of the doers to operate in their own, possibly rather esoteric ways; policy by definition does not cope easily with diversity. Bureaucracy and committee work is not known for its creativity and imagination, and history is littered with influential people who revolutionised their fields precisely by not following the rules.

Over-management kills stone dead the ability of such people actually to bring about real, on-the-ground improvements.

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.

 

Another one bites the dust

So that’s it. I am told that today is officially my last day of paid employment as a teacher, at least for the time being. Although the paperwork has not come through yet, I must mark the day in some way. I was 23, not long out of university when I joined the school; now I’m just a few years off retirement. Sixty percent of my life spent with teaching as (time-wise at least) the dominant waking activity. I now join the growing ranks of EX-teachers: how many more can the system afford?

Many people comment about how stressful it must be working with kids. They assume that is what did for my health. It wasn’t; it was the continual fight with The System to keep the job sensible. We are paid to deal with immature people, and they are mostly manageable – but not so an immature education System. In the end it was the ‘friendly’ fire that did for me, from a system that would apparently rather have no teachers at all, than ones that know their own minds and who adhere to their own sincere and justifiable principles.

I tried to interpret Teaching in a liberal, humane sense. I have no issue whatsoever with intellectual or personal rigour – but I cannot accept that that means nothing more than a Sisyphean chasing of targets. I note a husband-and-wife couple who managed a very successful primary school have recently decided the same thing.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/apr/28/headteacher-and-deputy-send-resignation-letter-to-parents-longparish-primary-school-hampshire

Education is ultimately about developing human beings, not robots, communities not corporations – and it requires a wide perspective on what it is to be human to do that. I believe I have that perspective and I developed my skills to match; in its wisdom, the system has decided it can live without them.

There is not much more to be said. I did my best.

I have no plans to close this blog for the time being; it is possible that in due course it will morph into something wider – but my observations will inevitably be coloured by my new remove from daily life in the classroom. It seems like an appropriate point to thank my growing number of ‘followers’ for their interest and supportive comments, especially over the past five months. Keep watching this space!

Declining – if not falling. Part 2.

I think it was the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who, some days ago, said something like, “Selective education does not promote social mobility and therefore it has no part in the British education system.” (my emphasis).

It could not be clearer: the Labour Party sees education primarily as a form of overt social engineering. But the Conservatives are saying exactly the same thing, though they couch it in terms of individual opportunity, of course.

I’m not going to disagree with people trying to optimise their time on this planet – but as the years have passed and education policy has blown this way and that, I have had a growing sense that the whole thing is utterly, profoundly mistaken in its approach. It is at risk of becoming little more than a huge waste of effort. This blog, and my (still unpublished) book were in part an effort to reconcile this, both for my own professional sanity and partly because I genuinely believe that something fundamental needs to shift in the tectonic plates of the British political/social/education systems.

Education works – of that there is little doubt. It permits people to improve their diet and health, to form productive relationships, to reduce their family size, to follow complex procedures, to make more rational decisions and to improve their material conditions. Largely forgotten to policy-makers, it also opens the wonders of human culture and knowledge, and it may encourage people to act more responsibly towards the planet. It can tip the balance of life from suffering to joy. But it is not a panacea.

It does not do those things because of bits of paper with certain letters on them – nor because of green pens or triple-marking. Its success is not measured by league table positions, nor by the size of managers’ salaries. I don’t think it really even does those things because of teachers’ choice of methods. And it certainly does not do it because lessons danced to any particular drum-beat of “progress” in a set amount of time. All of these things are nothing more than the immature preoccupations of an introspective and surprisingly insecure profession.

I don’t think it even really does it because of the specific things that children are taught. It is true that some people develop genuine interests or skills as a direct result of their schooling, but they are probably a minority. It is also true that important information can be passed on – though it’s debatable how much of it is ever retained, let alone acted upon given children’s inherent immaturity. It is pretty certainly not true that people’s attitudes change deeply because of soul-searching during PSHE lessons or the like; in my experience, moralising in schools – even when it contains practical information – often does little more than antagonise.

The problem is, education is nothing like as predictable as so many want it to be. For a start, its societal benefits are primarily trans-generational. There are plenty who benefit from it as expected – but there are also the widely-publicised cases of people who ‘did well’ only ever having been to the School of Hard Knocks.  I know several cases where access to the best education seems to have made little difference and has arguably not prevented those people from heading in the other direction down the socio-economic scale. More schooling does not automatically lead to better lives.

This is why it is so mistaken to require schools to be social engineers – the issues that really hinder life outcomes run at a deeper and less visible level, and often establish at an earlier age, than we can control. There is only so much that fire-fighting by teachers can achieve. My own educational progress was not mostly down to the quality of the schools or teachers, so much as my coming from a home that established appropriate values to begin with.

I don’t think I have experienced any great social mobility in my life – but my education has nonetheless helped me to access many fields that are a source of perpetual fascination and reward. It has also given me a perspective about to relate to wider society. I am about to be jobless – but education will provide the resilience to keep me interested in life in the interim. It was not achieved through targets – the nearest thing we had to those in the 1970s were firmly in the ‘demotivating’ camp; it was achieved purely and simply through awakening the intellect.

In some ways education’s success has been its own failure:  by encouraging those who can to capitalise on their skills – while politicians were busy removing the social restraint that used to accompany overt greed – we have facilitated the opening of the inequality gap that now troubles so many. And what of those left behind? Few of the social engineers have much at all to say about those who just don’t bother: it’s another expression of the ‘everyone a winner’ syndrome.

The causes of inequality in Britain run far deeper than anything that education alone can tackle. The current view starts from the questionable assumption that the present system does not already allow those who will to flourish. It is about class envy and replacing one elite with another. It assumes that those who fail do so for reasons beyond their control – which real-life examples repeatedly show to be only partly the case.

I’m not suggesting that undeserved privilege does not exist nor that it shouldn’t be tackled – but a better way would be to remove the concept of social hierarchy – whether defined by money or anything else – rather than simply equip a different group of people to profit at others’ expense. This might sound utopian – but my impression is that the relative classlessness of many continental countries is one of the reasons this issue does not trouble them as severely as it does us.

We may achieve isolated wins, but most of the desire to push people up the hierarchy is worthy but pointless hope. The failure of even many educators to appreciate that it is far more subtle and complex than that is the greatest educational  failure of all.

Teachers would be far better doing what they really can – awakening individual intellects – and then leaving them to make what hopefully-enlightened sense of the world they will. It is what I tried to do as a teacher; isn’t that enough?

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?

 

The Eurostar of teachers

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There seems to be a tide in the affairs of my life whose flood I have no choice but take: several of its defining moments have been unexpected and opportunistic to say the least. I doubt that’s particularly unusual – but it shows the folly of believing we can plan our lives with much certainty at all.

The recent particularly high tide has left me well and truly beached; four and a half months now and counting, since I did any teaching. At long last there have been some signs of more substantial improvement in my state of mind, though it’s by no means stable or consistent yet. Life has assumed a sort of non-routine in which the mornings remain largely useless and the afternoons consist of dabbling with small activities and doing some of the household chores.

But it’s not coming before major changes in my working life. It looks increasingly as though I am headed for the exit door from my school, after almost three decades. The fact that I am struggling to get my head round this probably shows just how necessary change is.

I am under a cloud that I fervently believe is not of my own making. There is probably not a teacher left in the country who would admit to being less than ‘good’: you can’t afford to admit human weakness these days. I don’t have difficulties with admitting my own real shortcomings – but despite that, I know my work has been good. I don’t need anyone with a tick-sheet to recall the positive effect had on many young people, the opportunities I devised for them, the relationships nurtured, the humour shared, the growth witnessed.

But I can’t deny the fact that modern schools only seem interested in pumping out exam results, and you really are only as good as your last figures. No matter that experience suggests my results were in line with the children’s abilities – a single, abstract figure, a computer-derived target missed, I believe due to its gross inaccuracy, looks as though it will be used to end my time at the school. And that single figure is enough to raise institutional doubts about my efficacy as a teacher, no matter what the mitigating circumstances.

There is no point in arguing; if that is what the system thinks it wants, then I guess it is entitled to do so. For my turn, I have never taken targets as anything more than a guide. Life is not simple or certain enough to do otherwise; all we are doing is creating hostages to fortune.

I could not accept that it was the rightful job of a teacher to force unwilling kids through a sausage-machine that left decreasing time for other aspects of learning or personal development. It is not fair on the willing ones either. Nor that that is all there is to education in any case.

Bringing out the potential in people is one thing –  that does sometimes require ‘gentle’ coercion – but there is a difference between that and the compulsion that now seems the rule. It’s also a long-term process, like playing a strong fish on a line – not a drag-net for bulk small fry.

I cannot be part of a corporate machine that seems intent on ingesting people at an ever earlier age – for what? It’s hardly as though the evidence of a thriving society is all around us.

I still consider that the role of the teacher is fundamentally a job of cultivation; my recent experience is not going to change that view. I don’t see education as a process of stamping conformity on people – in fact quite the opposite. The freest societies are those that allow individuals to follow their own paths, by breaking the mould if necessary. In the process, one hopefully builds a society good enough that people choose to opt back into it.

I have my suspicions about the real agenda. Top of the list has to be the disposal of expensive teachers in the least expensive way. But it is both cowardly and cruel not to do the right thing by people who have given good – and long – service: to throw them on the scrap-heap simply because it’s the cheapest thing to do. And doubly so, if my suspicions are right, to engineer situations by which to ‘justify’ those actions, to the extent of exploiting people’s weaknesses or misfortunes.

The worst part is that I will not have the opportunity to clear my name. If my departure does come to pass, I will go down on the list of ‘necessarily removed failures’ rather than much-missed assets. I know this is deeply unjust – but it will probably still be the case.

I am unclear what the future holds. At 53, I am hardly at peak employable age; I will come expensive to any school that might want me. I am the Eurostar of teachers – the latest thing in its day, now mid-life but good for plenty more, given a bit of T.L.C. But now being prematurely scrapped because big business thinks it costlier to refurbish than replace. What a waste!

In any case, I am not sure I have much left to give: at present, this experience feels as though it has drained what was left of my will to work in education.

I look at those glossy adverts for teaching and want to shout, “Don’t do it – if only you knew…!” Not because teaching is a bad job; on the contrary, it is an excellent job. But it has been turned bad by a system that has lost sight of what it is actually for, that needlessly makes teachers’ lives so difficult that almost no one feels as though they can do it well and stay sane.

And then, when it has had enough of you, that same system actively helps you to feel even worse about yourself.

The solution to the teacher shortage is not glossy adverts; it is about creating a system that is realistic in its expectations, manageable in its demands – and doesn’t burn people up in the process, because I know I’m not the only Eurostar teacher.

 

Warped.

I have an email from a parent, thanking me for five years’ teaching her child. The grade at G.C.S.E. was not high – but given that the child had significant learning difficulties, as a colleague observed, it probably still represents positive value added. According to the parent, my subject was the only one at school the child had really engaged with, thanks to my teaching.

I have a second email from a pupil in the same class thanking me, as I mentioned previously, for my support when the going got tough. That pupil got an A*.

Unfortunately, an algorithm predicted that the first pupil ‘ought’ to have scored four grades higher (even though the pupil didn’t manage that in any subject), whereas the second pupil simply got what was expected. I submitted both emails as annual review evidence; I cannot be certain they have even been read.

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman reportedly gave a speech this week criticising schools for their obsession with league tables. She rightly pointed out that gaming the system simply to improve schools’ standing is in effect a corruption of the education process. Sean Harford of the same organisation has apparently said that data is a signpost, not a destination.

And yet we continue to be deluged with initiatives, from the College of Teaching down, seemingly intent on furthering ‘research-driven’ teaching. Presumably the research relies heavily on data for its ‘proof’.

I cannot accept that this is anything more than a distortion of the education process – and I have never been able to let my own teaching be driven by such concerns. The emails mentioned above might suggest why. As far as I am concerned, both of those pupils fulfilled their potential and equally important, had an affirming experience along the way.

Data/evidence/research/league tables have nothing to do with how educated young people become; knowing you got an A* may be a validation, but it is not being ‘educated’ per se. No, this obsession is not about pupils at all – but everything about teachers and schools ‘proving’ they have met political requirements. The sheer energy going into this at the moment shows just how narcissistic the education sector has (been forced to?) become.

Educational data simply cannot be impartial: there are too many unknowns involved. But if the system is going to set so much store by them, then it has a profound responsibility to get it right to a very high level of confidence. And if one accepts my concerns, then that it cannot but fail to do.

I will restrict myself to a couple of observations, which are not without personal signficance.

  1. Little heed is paid to the volatility of small data sets. In a class of 25, each child represents a +/- 4% effect on the data. One child’s performance makes a significant difference. Quite apart from the inherent instability, it is not consistent directly to compare the results for a teacher who had, say 75 exam candidates (and hence a less volatility) with one who only had 25.
  2. The breakdown of classes makes a difference. A former colleague had two classes in the same year group. One group scored 100% A*-C; the other scored 25%. Nobody questioned that because the classes were of different ability. And yet my colleague’s average A*-C percentage is lower than the one that got me into trouble with a mixed ability class. It came down to an arbitrary judgement that my result ‘ought’ to have been higher – even though comparison of ‘my’ grades with the same pupils in their other subjects suggests otherwise.

That is not a rigorous use of data, but equally, it is not clear what would be – and this is the reason I have no faith in this approach. Selective use of data thus becomes just another managerial weapon.

And what about the data suggesting that pupils’ results may correlate with their teachers’ state of mental health? Bitter experience makes this plausible for me; it is only on such grounds that I might be prepared to concede some deficiency. But it is hardly something I should be held accountable for, particularly when my working conditions arguably have been the cause to start with. Amanda Spielman may perhaps be thinking similarly – but in my case it is looking increasingly as though I am going to pay for my earlier obduracy with my career.

If statistics are inherently so powerful, then ones for mental health surely ought to be treated seriously and the root cause of the problem addressed. Yet the system seems intent on doing the opposite by just scrapping people when they burn out.

Furthermore, by using such tenuous grounds to make teachers’ lives more difficult, the sector is contributing to its own difficulties by wantonly disposing of experienced staff who, in any wider reading may be doing a perfectly good job.

And that is just warped.

Sorry!

Quite some years ago now, I received a minor ticking-off from a senior manager because of the way I had handled a parental concern. It seemed that there had been a genuine error, and during a telephone call, I had accepted as much and apologised. Some weeks later, I had a very satisfactory and entirely productive exchange with the same person at a parents’ evening.

But when the senior manager asked me how I had dealt with the matter, I was told it is inadvisable ever to admit you are wrong or to apologise, least of all to the public. A small point, but one that has stuck with me ever since.

There are innumerable instances where errors are made in all walks of life. At the current time, I can think of pronouncements from government about teacher shortages and the effect of the business-rate rise on small businesses to name just two. In each and every case, someone is wheeled out to state that everything is exactly as intended, and all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Except we know it isn’t.

And politicians wonder why people don’t trust them…

It seems to me that there is a major crisis of trust in society, and one of the places where this is most glaring is the levels of accountability being demanded of public servants. I read this as a mechanism for retribution borne of an inability to trust people to make honest decisions – even if they later prove to be wrong. The problem is, when the stakes are raised to extreme levels people become defensive and admitting errors, let alone apologising, becomes the last thing on their minds, even if that would actually be the best resolution.

I don’t blame the manager for that ‘advice’, for all that I think it mistaken. It was quite possibly borne from a bad previous experience. But the job of managers is to manage difficult situations, not just take the (apparently) easy way out.

My school is not unreasonably asking whether I am yet fit to return to work; the answer is no, for many reasons that I cannot control. But one small step would be receiving an admission of the error that caused me finally to snap last November. Yet there is no sign of this happening, even though it would be one fewer obstacle in the way of my possible return.

Readers will have to judge whether to take my word for this, of course – but to most people surrounding the issue, that error is so glaring as to make conceding the fact the obvious solution. And yet it looks as though that won’t happen.

Plenty of people are willing to bemoan the difficulties being faced in society today – and yet fewer seem to realise that by refusing ever to concede an issue, they are only adding fuel to that fire. To err is only human, and the acceptance of such more often than not will defuse issues far more readily than digging heels in. I think it is entirely consistent with a high standard of professionalism to admit errors when they arise – especially when the other party is not ‘big’ enough to do so; it lowers the temperature and is far more honest than pretending we are perfect or closing professional rank. I wonder how may ‘difficult’ situations are exacerbated by such perceptions.

Apologising requires some courage, particularly where there is a worry that such an apparent admittance of weakness may be exploited – but by working on that assumption we tar everyone with the same adversarial brush. In fact, admitting an error is a demonstration of strength which in the vast majority of cases will resolve an issue quickly – and in the long run we are all the worse off for the failure to accept as much.

 

Living by numbers

For those who thought this is a teaching blog, please indulge me. Documenting my current experience is fully part of being a teacher, and there are lessons to be learned…

I have been using a great app to track my medication and recovery http://www.iodine.com/start .   It reminds me each day to take the tablets, offers words of encouragement, shares the experiences of others, plots progress every two weeks and will even send the information to my doctor (if only she had time to read it). And if I let it, it will harvest my input to become part of the ‘big data’ being used by pharmaceutical companies to improve their products.

But my talking therapist was sceptical. Her main concern was that it would be too easy to rely on the app to tell me my condition, rather than look inwardly to judge for myself. She is equally sceptical about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which I was offered this week. I felt rather let down when the telephone interviewer told me he thought I had “typical anxiety”. It doesn’t feel like typical anything. According to my therapist, CBT is popular because it is “skills-based” and measurable. You get worksheets to do for homework. And at the end of six or twelve sessions, they are likely to terminate your course whether you are fully recovered or not, because you will have ‘demonstrated progress’. Accepting that I don’t know what I don’t know about CBT, the parallels with education are unmistakable. We both agreed that a more holistic approach was proving more helpful.

Having been forced to stand back from working life for the past three months, it has become increasingly evident how ‘conditioned’ to circumstance one becomes. Even as someone who feels he is generally fairly self-aware, it came as a shock to start to see just how time-orientated I have been. I was fretting about how long it would take to recover, about the fact that time was being ‘wasted’ doing very little, about the time targets I might be facing for recovery, when my sick leave would run out. And yes, the app is about numbers too, inasmuch as one has to rate how one is feeling on what is known as a PHQ9 test.

I am just too used to living my life against the clock, a constant battle to get things done by yesterday, with the anxiety about what will happen if I mess up. I am conditioned to being constantly told that one’s teaching can never be ‘good enough’, that the only thing to do when one reaches a target is to look for the next. My working life has run in hourly chunks for three decades, governed by the unbending regime of the school bell and timetable. Even home life was affected by the need to be ready next time the school bell rang. Those three decades seem to have shot past almost unnoticed. Today marks another full year on the clock of life; last time I checked I think I was about 28.

I wouldn’t recommend the experience of the last three months to anyone, but in some ways time has slowed right down again. Although some capabilities have been taken away (bizarrely, I can write but I still can’t read much), in others ways I have got my life back.

Each day has been its own entity, rather than just a notch on the count towards the next weekend/holiday/end of academic year. I have had time to stare at the sky, to watch the changing light in our home, to amble around the picturesque town where we live, to spend real time looking at my own (neglected) needs rather than those of others, to keep up with the admittedly depressing world news. And to spend more time in touch with people who have come out of the woodwork to wish me well; people whom I was previously too busy to keep up with, and who were too busy themselves. Some are people I worked with for twenty years or  more, but who somewhat misinterpreted each other for all that time. Our attentions were too busy elsewhere.

The fact that those people care has been the most salutary lesson of all, for someone who has habitually conducted his life in a relatively self-contained way, whose vexations and objections were either internalised or put to the world through this blog. And though I tried hard to resist, it was easy to view the blog too as a numbers exercise, particularly when others urged me to put it about a bit more.

It can’t carry on indefinitely of course – but it has made me think.

But for all this time, I have fundamentally felt that teaching is about life, rather than the other way round – for all that it was a regularly-obscured and rapidly receding belief. But in the cut-and-thrust of regular school life, it has become too easy to believe that we live to teach. Just like we live to consume, or live to be rich, or popular. It’s all about Quantity. Even mental health treatment seems to have become just another set of production targets. The cart is well and truly before the horse; how foolish can we be?

My attention was drawn to something that a recent pupil wrote about me. I think it is from one of the class whose GCSE figures, while demonstrably sound, were not aspirational enough and so tipped me into my current place.

Really nice guy who clearly knows his stuff. Never gave up when I lost motivation for his subject and always willing to answer questions…has a lot of knowledge that he shares with us, not just about Geography… he tries to make us think for the answer instead of giving it to us. Respect that as instead of giving us stuff to just memorize, he is trying to get us to think for ourselves and get us prepared for higher education. Thanks.

I don’t believe in an education system that functions largely to justify its own existence. I certainly don’t believe in the mad, messianic drive to make teachers mortgage themselves to breaking point for the supposed sake of the next generation.  Educating the young is one of the most important of human activities – but it does not have to be the institutionalised destruction that it is now.

Education cannot be something that you ‘just do’ to people; it is about developing the potential for intelligent thought, and that fact needs constant renewal. Exam grades are a human construct; sophisticated brain processes are not. As with my app, numbers can be helpful – but an end in themselves, they are not. The relationship between qualifications and education is no more direct than that between treatment and good mental health: the the former seems not to guarantee the latter, for all that that is where the obsession lies.

The pupil quoted above ‘gets’ what I have tried to do: to deliver a holistic education that while academically rigorous was principally about developing high-level thought and personal compassion. The rest of the system seems utterly to have lost sight of this – and it doesn’t any longer rate those who haven’t.

The tone of this post is perhaps sounding like the start of a recovery – but one in which that student’s words might make an apt professional epitaph.

On the fence

Interviewed in The Guardian, the veteran politician Ken Clarke makes a startling claim about government. Speaking about the nation’s intractable regional problems, he observes that despite their upbeat language, most politicians haven’t a clue how to solve them. “We’ve been trying for years” he says.

I admire such candour; more of it might start to re-focus people on the real issues rather than media-friendly sound-bites and facile quick fixes which are nothing of the sort.

I’m looking at the launch of the Chartered College of Teaching in much the same light. Despite Old Andrew’s misgivings, my instinct is nonetheless to join on the grounds that positive engagement might make a difference – and in principle, I’ve always thought that such an organisation is a good idea. But given that my decision to continue teaching is very much in the balance at the moment, and perhaps I’m being naively optimistic, I think I’ll wait.

The launch literature isn’t encouraging. The promise of giving teachers access to “the latest research” concerns me – not because I am against research per se, but because it looks too much like yet more jumping on this latest of bandwagons. As numerous others have pointed out, just where is the time going to come from in the average teacher’s life to avail of such a resource? And where is the research to show that teachers using research genuinely improves education? It might look glossy – but will it work?

I am afraid I am heartily sick of this direction of travel, and on the balance sheet, it is one of the things against my remaining in the profession. I don’t remotely consider myself a Luddite, but I simply cannot accept that even formal education is just about a targets-based production line – and let’s face it, all the ‘research’ into teaching methods is really only about pushing up exam pass rates. Anyone with a real concern for developing people’s capacity for intelligent thought will understand that it a far more subtle process and simply cannot be done to order in this way.

What makes lessons and teachers successful is not a precise science. In fact it could hardly be further from it. The development of the human mind is much more complex than that; as Greg Ashman described it recently, real ‘education’ is an emergent quality. What is taught, and how it is taught are not especially important – unless you are beholden to league tables. I would even say that the retention, while desirable, is not overly important for many people in the long run either, for all that I advocate academic rigour. Filling the Pail is not the be all and end all, as Greg acknowledges. As for how it is retained, that remains as complex and haphazard as ever.

What counts is the residue: what happens inside people’s heads as they go through this process we call education. As important as academic or pedagogic rigour is the quality of the human interaction involved. And as no two people are alike, the only way to develop skill in this is by individual practice – lots of it. This is what the researchers and would-be educational scientists fail to see.

The irony of my current situation is that I have written a book on precisely this issue; a couple of weeks ago it came within an ace of being published by a leading publisher. Despite much very positive feedback, it was torpedoed by one rather less impressed response – on the grounds that it does not make sufficient reference to established educational thought or to recent government policy. Just what does this have to do with classroom teaching (which is the subject of the book)? I am now waiting on a second publisher.

Here again, we have the Establishment refusing to give breathing space to anything that does not confirm existing prejudices. And yet, as Ken Clarke admitted, that approach often masks nothing more than a remote and ineffective ignorance of what works on the ground. This is not an intelligent way to proceed.

The current climate in education is (in part) giving rise to a spike in childhood mental health issues – to say nothing of the teachers. Educators are being urged to attend to this – by the same establishment whose policies exacerbate the problem.

And yet those who advocate a different approach borne of years in the front line are ignored. A common theme amongst many who have wished me well in recent weeks has been “we all know the system is crazy”. What is the College of Education going to do about THAT?

The mechanical approach is being still being advanced, to destructive effect. In my own case, the trigger that finally fried my brain – and has led me to consider my future in the profession – was the consequence of “my” failure to meet an arbitrary target with an exam class.  Despite the fact that experience strongly suggested it was deeply unrealistic (and my saying so repeatedly), the system has proved incapable of accepting that my years of humanely-successful teaching might be a sound basis on which to challenge the figures, let alone to consider the bigger picture.

I cannot and will not back down on this – hence the stress. Personally I can neither function in, nor tolerate, a system which demands that teachers operate simultaneously like robots and clowns, which so confines their modus operandi and then judges them in such an arbitrary and mechanistic manner. This is not a system that permits either meaningful teaching nor effective learning; it is good only for automatons.

Anyone want to publish a book on how to do things more benignly?