Faustus

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.

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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.

Taleb.jpg

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.

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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.

Reckless Educationalists

Insight sometimes comes from unexpected places. After working through John Bargh’s book on the unconscious (full review still to follow) I thought I’d have a break and read about something else, related to an entirely different project I’m working on.

Aeron Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. His recent book Reckless Opportunists is about the cynical vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. Davis has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now functions, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to merely achieving and remaining in power for its own sake.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to allow for it, and still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. Besides, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin doctors in the press or professional establishments.

But as I read, I could not help yet again seeing through educational eyes – for many of the trends and attitudes he recounts seem increasingly relevant to the education world too. Once again, sense is to be found well beyond the confines of the usual publications. I wish I had read this book several years ago (rather difficult as it has only just been published) because it suggests that much of what I have rather naively believed to be the unintended consequences of a somewhat malfunctioning system are in probably anything but unintended. That explains a lot.

Davies describes the complete lack of substance or policy behind many of those he interviewed: they appeared to have little command or understanding of the enterprises they headed. Their main objective was to do whatever immediate circumstance dictated in order to preserve their power and authority. He describes the skill-sets of those involved as being not expertise in their supposed fields, but simply in getting to the top for its own sake. In fact, Davis also describes the way in which ‘experts’ are seen as an encumbrance because they tend to have too in-depth knowledge, which makes the necessary fleetness of foot rather difficult. People who have insight and principles have no place in this world, and tend never to make it beyond the lower rungs. I will take that as a kind of back-handed compliment…

I cannot help but see what happened in the last decade to the formerly relatively civilised school where I used to work in this light. Some ten years ago, the management changed. Its first move, within weeks, was to turn the school into an academy, wrong-footing people before they had had the chance to determine trust (or otherwise). The claim that it would lead to financial advantage for the school was later shown to be false, as it was the constraints on academies that was used to excuse much later blood-letting – even while the remuneration at the top continued to rise. (I know this, having been on good terms with certain concerned governors).

Shortly after, senior posts were created and their occupants blatantly imported, thus reuniting a former team in a new location. Around the same time a number of supposedly weak teachers were sacked, a few of whom probably needed to go, but many of whom greater acquaintance would have shown did not. Morale started to fall; alarm to rise, all in a school near the top of its game.

It was ordained that students were supposedly not meeting externally-defined targets; attempts by those (including myself as union rep) to contextualise the situation fell on deaf ears – at least for several years until it became apparent that the catchment area’s culture did present certain attitudinal problems that data did not reflect.

In the following years, other schools were added to the chain portfolio, and measures were gradually introduced that had the effect of turning a reasonably ‘human’ school into a soulless production machine. There was an uncanny sense that, unlike previous incarnations, this management kept its distance, that it was pulling levers remotely, rather than integrating into its host establishment. At the same time, staff wellbeing was neglected; harsh attitudes leached down the management chain, treatment expressly justified on the basis that “it’s thee or me” – and any wider concern for the esprit de corps was lost. Those staff who raised concerns were told that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City” – an absurd comparator, given the difference in operations and rewards involved. But it betrayed a certain mindset.

The Head’s door was now firmly closed, physical access only being available by appointment, past a ‘gate-keeper’ P.A. Attempts at email contact were rarely even acknowledged, let alone responded to. The ‘executive’ of this now-corporate identity became increasingly remote; classrooms were turned into management suites, and direct contact with the children was reduced to the point that some of them did not even know who the Head was.

Let me be clear: this is not a personal attack (the school and individuals remain firmly anonymous) but the impact on the school concerned was very much as outlined in Davis’ book about other sectors of national life. More people were made redundant; wellbeing issues such as staff stress were routinely denied, even as they were ratcheted up; utter loyalty was demanded but not reciprocated.

It became clear that there was no strategic vision any more – even calls from concerned governors failed to elicit more than vague mutterings about being a ‘good school’. This had longer-term effects: with no vision, the place felt increasingly directionless, nothing was valued any more; initiatives that staff took were not always blocked, but they were clearly not appreciated either – and scepticism gradually increased about the value of the strangely emotionless thank-you letters: it became perceived that they were just another form of tokenism.

The school became increasingly caught in a quasi-feudal arm-lock, the main purpose of which seemed to be to shore up the power of those at the top – and it seemed that nothing was inconceivable if it was necessary to do that, even to the detriment of the organisation. As morale deteriorated, staff turnover increased, encouraged by a view that if you didn’t like it you could always leave; yet leaving gifts ceased. Even senior managers spoke of being routinely side-lined by the cabal in control.

A number of questionable statistical practices were introduced as it became clear that a further genuine ramping-up of the school’s production figures was not in prospect. This presented classroom teachers with the dilemma of lying or potentially facing unpleasant consequences. This badly distorted the perception of pupil ability and progress. One of Davis’ key observations – as seen so many times in the financial sector – is that power-hungry individuals at the top will often not stop at destroying the very organisations they head in pursuit of personal glory.

By the time I left, the place was a hollow, impersonal, demoralised shell of its former self. And the older pupils picked it up too.

I find it profoundly depressing that even a supposedly-principled sector such as education is increasingly succumbing to this phenomenon – for much that I see and hear elsewhere suggests that this is by far from being a single isolated example. How can we possibly claim even to have an education sector when its main purpose is no longer the intellectual or cultural development of our young, but the egotistical reward of a few ruthless, greedy, power-obsessed individuals? And it has infected the universities too.

I once described the failings of such ‘management’ as a cancer; I am beginning to think that was inaccurate, for even the most aggressive cancer is unintended  – whereas the perpetrators of this outrage know precisely what they are doing.

How on earth, in the name of real education, to fight back against this?

Footnote: I emphasise that despite the fact that I eventually became a victim of the same culture, this is not a personal attack; it is simply an account of what I witnessed, which in my opinion virtually hollowed out a previously good school – as corroborated by numerous others, some of whom could see more than I could. And it is possibly happening all over the country; the hue and cry about research, professional bodies, acceptable practice and more is nothing more than the support infrastructure of an embedded, self-interested educational elite for whom pupil interest is nothing more than a necessary, abstract smoke-screen.

The only hope is that greater awareness of the issue is a start.

Why lesson observations reveal little

Maybe there are teachers somewhere who love them, who are such confident extroverts that they seize any opportunity to show off. I never knew any. I did know a few who were quite prepared to keep a few proven, supposedly-outstanding lessons in reserve, to be wheeled out every time an observation was scheduled. But I knew many more for whom lesson observations were a matter of great stress and uncertainty, whose effect was a major factor in destroying professional self-confidence.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that OFSTED has lowered the heat somewhat on individual observations, but in my experience that did not stop school managers from perpetuating high-stakes observations as one of the crudest implements with which they controlled their staff.

I remember wondering how on earth I was supposed to hold in my head every criterion on the multi-page tick-list that was used where I formerly taught – let alone doing it on a daily basis, or planning for every consideration for every lesson. It was a bully’s charter for gratuitously tripping people up.

That is not to say that I oppose lesson observations per se. It is necessary to check that all is broadly well, and in the right hands they can be a useful mirror and improvement tool. But in my experience they were rarely used in that way: for a start, doing so would imply that a two-way dialogue occurred following the observation, rather than the pronouncement from On High which was the norm.

But the main point for writing this is my growing view that the crude judgements that often result from such practices are just the thin end of a much larger wedge: for all the techno-talk which seems increasingly to be surrounding (smothering?) its practice, the teaching profession actually has a very crude, simplistic and partial appreciation of the functioning of the human mind. What’s more, it doesn’t seem hugely keen on rectifying that fact.

I’ve been reading John Bargh’s book Before You Know It: the unconscious reasons why we do what we do.  I will discuss the book more widely in a following post – but I was struck by a section on the role of the unconscious in high-expertise creativity. Bargh suggests that the essence of expertise is the ability to channel the unconscious processes of the mind into useable conscious form highly effectively. He relates a number of examples to illustrate – but I was struck by the sympathy of this idea with the notion that skilled practitioners are unconsciously competent. In other words, they are so accustomed to doing what they do that they no longer need to think about it – a bit like a seasoned driver compared to a novice.

However, I had always carelessly considered this to be a form of regression from conscious competence – or at least an unexplained development of it. Bargh suggests that unconscious competence is a way of highly efficient functioning which solves complex problems while making minimal use of our limited conscious short-term thinking/memory capacity. It is also the source of Eureka moments, and the way in which issues sometimes resolve themselves after ‘sleeping on them’.

This certainly resonates with the way I was functioning in the classroom before the end of my career – most of what happened did so in ‘the zone’ just below conscious thought: teaching had become an utterly natural process for me. I knew many other experienced teachers for whom the same seemed to be true: they functioned highly efficiently as teachers almost without having to give it any conscious thought at all. It was just ‘what they did’. This is not to suggest complacency – in fact quite the opposite. Such functioning is the mark of a master practitioner – but the educational establishment seems not to realise as much.

I always used to dread lesson observations, for the simple reason that I felt that they were a very poor representation of what happened normally in my lessons. Being towards the introvert end of the spectrum, I instantly became excruciatingly aware of being observed in a way that utterly destroyed the unconscious effectiveness which was what made my lessons work. And if the pupils didn’t detect it themselves, then I am sure the suddenly up-tight teacher in front of them probably transmitted it.

What lesson observations do is move unconscious good practice right back into the realm of conscious, self-aware thought – and the consequent self-consciousness is more than enough to destroy what makes a teacher ‘tick’. Undoubtedly it is worse for some than others, but it still seems to be a commonly reported experience than observation utterly destroys the normal flow of things.

There are many works on the nature of such problems; Bargh’s is good because it comes at it in a slightly unexpected direction, linking a number of my interest areas in a way I hadn’t considered before. This was also the basis of many of my CPD sessions while I was still teaching – and yet the mainstream educational establishment seems peculiarly resistant to those aspects of psychology that don’t reinforce its existing agenda. I wonder why…

The fact is, human behaviour is a lot more complex and oblique than the educational techno-establishment is currently prepared to admit. Doing so would destroy the clear-cut but arbitrary decisions that it likes to make (about most things). But accepting facts such as the one that says an observed lesson is unlikely to be a true reflection of a teacher’s normal practice – and then permitting if nothing else a meaningful two-way dialogue about what had taken place would be both a more sophisticated and fairer way of using this practice.

Yet on that many-paged tick-list, the feedback section lacked even the smallest space for the observed teacher to make their own comment.

Icarus

The criticism of schools minister Nick Gibb by an educational researcher for quoting a ‘mere blogger’ (Old Andrew) seems to have created a minor storm – and rightly so.

That ‘mere blogger’ happens to be not only a practising professional teacher, but also one of the most incisive voices in the British education world today. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that he has helped to bring about substantive change in the educational landscape. But beyond any personal slight is a more far-reaching point. Blogging happens to have become the major vehicle by which grass-roots teachers are able to communicate their thinking and experiences.

By seeking to invalidate such media, those in the educational research (and sometimes management) realm are in effect trying silence anyone who does not have access to the supposedly-superior educational macro-data that they do.

My own (now) rather cynical voice has been honed by similar experiences: while still teaching full-time, my attempts to contribute to the wider debate and development within my school were repeatedly ignored by management seemingly because they did not come from an ‘appropriate’ source – and because they sometimes contained difficult, but necessary and well-meant truths.

Yet as with OId Andrew, my contributions found much favour amongst my teaching colleagues, as a huge pile of enthusiastic CPD feedback sheets shows. Those in charge must have seen them – but on no occasion was I able to persuade any of the school’s senior ‘leaders’ to attend. On the sole occasion that one of the lesser minions did appear, he described the session as the most thought-provoking CPD session he had ever attended. And still none of the others would come.

I apologise if this sounds a little like gilding my own cage – but the fact is, while it has become easier for the grass-roots teachers make their thoughts known, if anything, those in control seem to be shutting their ears ever more firmly to what is being said. My book (the publication of which by John Catt is hopefully a reasonable validation of its content) has also encountered scepticism from the same quarters that it might contain anything that those who make the decisions need to hear.

We have in Britain an education system that is becoming more like a regular branch of autocratic commercial activity by the month. The behaviour is strikingly similar: those at the ‘sharp end’ are treated with visible contempt, while those in charge continue to feather their own nests even at a time of crisis. The effects are the same everywhere: given my own experience there, it was with some schadenfreude that I learned recently that my former school is struggling to recruit humanities teachers to replace the several that it seriously disaffected in the past few years. Had they listened when we tried to speak, this might never have happened.

The ‘executive’ arm of the education system is increasingly becoming what in my book I called ‘management cancer’: not merely is it making life more difficult for the regular functionaries, but it is actively eating away at the system it supposedly serves. The dismissal of practising professionals as ‘mere’ anything is an expression of an attitude that sees education as either some kind of high-handed abstract apparatus for social intervention, or an under-handed personal career opportunity for a few – rather than a crucial personal-intellectual process that shapes the actual lives of real people. The punters and the labourers are little more than the necessary grist in that mill.

Emeritus Professor Michael Bassey asked in The Guardian a few days ago whether “school standards, teachers’ morale, young people’s wellbeing and parents’ aspirations are being held back”. The answer is yes they are – not in the main by classroom practice, but by the vast, stifling thicket of management ideology and so-called research which claims to be powering the system – but in actual fact is doing much to damage it, while uttering the usual platitudes of executive parasites everywhere about how essential they are for the smooth-running, indeed mere existence of the whole edifice.

 

I should, as always, temper my comments with the acknowledgement that there are undoubtedly many school leaders everywhere who are doing a decent, genuine, unsung job of running their schools as humanely well as they possibly can. It is not them who I am criticising, but those with the sharpest elbows and loudest voices who have acquired – no, seized – disproportionate influence in education. I have sources from enough schools around the country to know that this is not just an isolated problem. A tellingly-anonymous article in The Guardian over the weekend which described experiences and sentiments amazingly close to my own might suggest the same – and is worth quoting from:

“…Then there was the endless river of snake oil flowing from educational consultants – mountebanks who promise they can solve all your educational ills if you follow their five-minute fad. And while you’re at it teachers, solve the problems of society! Teach kids to avoid drugs, underage sex and radicalisation.

So how should things be? Let teachers get on with the job; stop politicians interfering in education; allow good teachers the freedom to inspire their pupils. This is not going to happen. No wonder the average length of service for a teacher in the UK is five years. No wonder I left after 30.”

I also accept (as should we all) that due allowance needs to be made for ‘unknown unknowns’ when criticising the actions of others. It would be good if the same allowances flowed more often in the opposite direction too… We should probably also throw into the mix the fact that in a field like education, a single, stable, universally-applicable consensus is probably a dream too far – but all the more reason to accept and respect all parties in the debate.

I see a corporate culture whose hubris shows no sign of abating – to the point that its subscribers are no longer even ashamed of decrying their front-line practitioners in effect as ‘mere teachers’, whose views and needs can reasonably be ignored and even publicly dismissed. It is becoming more autocratic by the month and as some high-profile cases have shown, some individuals will not even stop at bringing the profession into disrepute in the process of furthering their own interests. How can this possibly be good for education?

Like the writer of the Guardian article, I have no doubt that these people will continue to fly higher and higher, to the detriment of the rest of the educational system. Indeed, I hope they do, for I have a new name for them: Icarus.