Enemy of the People

“It’s all for the children”. In my experience, people enter teaching for a variety of reasons. Yet the single, most over-worked creed to which all teachers are expected to subscribe is this.

One might well ask how working with children can be for anything but their benefit. But the problem, as with so many things in education, is knowing what that ‘benefit’ actually is. What about educating children for the benefit of everyone else – so we don’t have antisocial little savages in our midst?

‘For the children’ seems to be uttered most often by those who favour child-centred approaches and by those who manage schools; in both cases it is appropriated both to justify certain orthodoxies and debunk others.

The former seem to believe that allowing children free rein to decide (or dictate?) their own learning is the most benign approach. The latter seem to think that children’s benefit is synonymous with their schools’ positions in the league tables – and spend least of their daily schedule in contact with living, breathing young people.

Somewhere in the middle are those who advocate a ‘tough love’ approach – to which traditionalist teachers (unfairly in my view) seem to have been attached.

The same phrase is also appropriated by the evangelists who “absolutely love working with children” and who are daily “thrilled” when children “connect” with a new piece of understanding. Well, I have some sympathy, but I think such people probably need to grow up.

As with much evangelism, the message is over-simplified, and not as altruistic as it claims. As fully-functioning adults, teachers ought to have more complex insight and motives. While a genuine pleasure in working with young people is clearly desirable, the over-emotional attachment of a teacher to their pupils seems to be more a matter of surrogate parenthood or their own kidulthood than anything more rational – and professionally rather suspect.

In my own case, the pleasure of genuinely helping people is real enough. Working with children can be very rewarding; some of them I actively come to like. But plenty more are indifferent, frustrating, or downright unpleasant. I try not to conflate help with either permissiveness or helicopter teacher-ing. And I feel distinctly uneasy about claiming to know what is inalienably ‘best’ for other sovereign (if immature) individuals whom I see for only a small proportion of their lives, and in highly contrived circumstances at that.

At least as important to me are the wider, less personal and often unspoken aspects of ‘benefit’. These include the perpetuation of a stable civil society – which requires people to both understand and actively subscribe to a social contract. It also involves the transmission, preservation, accessing and furthering of human intellectual and cultural capital. And it involves striking some kind of balance that allows each individual to grow into a responsible, well-balanced person, capable both of living a fulfilled life of their own and of contributing to the same in a societal sense. Those things are at least as much part of every individual’s interest as anything more selfish; this might be particularly apparent in a world that is as unstable as it currently seems.

Part of that balance is understanding the inevitable trade-off between rights and responsibilities, between custodianship and dominion. That is an exceptionally difficult thing to achieve, let alone develop in others – and all the more so to do in a consensual rather than coercive or confrontational way.

The indulgent culture of modern schools does not manage it. I’m afraid that the education system is well and truly infected with the Cult of the Individual – and why would it not be when the rest of society (ably assisted by the commercial sector) – is so? I do not see promoting education solely as a ‘challenge’ that pits the individual against society, that portrays it as a competition to extract the most (power/money)  for oneself, genuinely serves people either individually or collectively.

Likewise, a system that hypes schools’ own rivalries, or that pretends that classroom teachers can also have stellar careers is insidious. It plays to the self-interest that too often wins out over the interest of the Whole.

The cult of the individual also leads to perverse outcomes. Those who manage schools supposedly in the interests of the children most often absent themselves from contact with those same children. They become apparatchiks of a system whose functioning often works against the complex benefits discussed above. Balancing budgets, surviving Ofsted, hitting performance targets all become more important than individuals’ education or even wellbeing – individuals who become little more than numbers on a spreadsheet. ‘The Children’ simply become an abstract.

Such depersonalisation in turn leads to the culture that drives children and their teachers to the edge of mental illness in order to meet (literally) inhuman targets. It leads to the removal of teachers who might actually understand the complexities of education, who haven’t forgotten that successful teaching is a constant tightrope-walk between multiple conflicting needs, and who appreciate that such false-dichotomy thinking leads to poor conclusions about ‘benefit’ and how to achieve it.

I have even heard it said by a senior manager that no teacher is better than a ‘bad’ (or in my own current case possibly mad) teacher. I wonder if my pupils, who have not had a regular teacher for four months now, would agree.

The worst outcome of this mentality is the myopia that can only see ‘benefit’ in the simplest, most immediate and most selfish of forms. That is the antithesis of successful education – and the fact that there is so much of it around may say something about our success to date. Such myopia is responsible for the inability to appreciate multiple perspectives, or to compromise in the name of consensus. And it is the myopia that falsely labels anyone who tries to temper rather than indulge such selfishness as an Enemy of the People.


Breaking Point

So I must now add myself to the list of those whose mental (and physical) health has been adversely affected by their work. To be fair, there were other pressures too, but the advice being received is that long-term stress in the workplace is probably the root cause.

In the way of these things, recent encounters have revealed that several neighbours and acquaintances have had similar experiences, all except one of whom worked in the public sector. I have also heard of several others who have got out because the demands were just too much. In my own case, I don’t yet feel capable of making a rational decision about the way forward.

There will always be difficult work to be done in society, and we should be thankful that there are people prepared to do it. But it seems that in between the One Percent at one extreme, and the Just-About-Managings at the other, there is a significant number of people in public service whose own welfare is being damaged by a system that has little regard for the impact of its demands.

They are the ones coping with the consequences of both Austerity and increasing demands from public and politicians for ever longer hours and better service. It is all very well ‘demanding’ world-class services, but it is not acceptable that they should come on the cheap and at the deep expense of those who do their best to deliver them. One has to be realistic about what is possible.

It needs to be understood that “breaking point” is not mere hyperbole.


Ships in the night

They say you shouldn’t mix business and pleasure. But a couple of weeks ago, a conversation occurred with a few young colleagues concerning our respective home lives. I was brought up sharp by the perceptions they expressed about my own life outside school: to say they were wide of the mark is an understatement! This is not entirely surprising as I live nearly thirty miles from the school, and I only socialise occasionally with colleagues as a result. And being a somewhat private person, I also do not participate in their ongoing social media conversation.

I was reminded that in many ways, work-place colleagues often remain as ships in the night. We spend up to half our waking lives (superficially) together, and yet often know each other barely at all. In the case of teachers, this is made more extreme by the strange fact that although we spend our days surrounded by people, in some ways it is a rather solitary existence. Unlike say, office workers, much of our working day is actually spend alone with the pupils rather than with colleagues – and when this is not the case, moments are mainly used for professional catch-ups for which time barely exists else-when.

It’s probably a good thing that teaching encompasses a diversity of souls – after all, we need to cater for even more diversity when it comes to the children – and I am not actually as intolerant as I will be dictator-sounding here. But having spent social time with several groups of teachers recently, I am left wondering if there are any substantial values or outlooks – other than our profession – that we share at all. Or more to the point: are there any common qualities that all teachers ought to manifest?

It is true that societies such as Britain’s are becoming more diverse – but in some ways, the small-‘c’ mainstream public culture seems more uniform than ever. Far from being inspirational individuals, the societising trend seems to be making even educators more homogenous by the year. And it is not homing in on the one thing that I believe should unite all teachers: the life of the mind.

Having just conceded that it can be very difficult to know one’s colleagues, I am still left with the impression that the teacher role-model is – how shall I put it – becoming increasingly little more than a bolt-on that people assume at the classroom door. A life of the mind does not imply that we should all be alike, in fact quite the opposite. As The Independent’s erstwhile strap line used to say, “Great minds don’t think alike”! But there seem to be fewer and fewer really distinctive individuals within teaching, something that (or at least the perception of which) has probably not been helped by conformist career-ambition or the drive for professional compliance within schools. And yet it is distinctive individuals, more than corporate clones, that children often find inspiring.

For example, the recent political turmoil generated more staffroom discussion of political matters than usual – in other words, some rather than none at all. And yet many of those I encountered professed no knowledge of the issue at hand. While Remainers dominated the discussion, I’m afraid I got the impression that just as few really knew much about what they are wanting to remain in as those on the opposite side did the converse. More depressing was the claim that ‘nobody had ever been told’ much about the E.U.

Well, I would say to today’s Ambassadors for the Power of Learning: Go and Find Out! Go and read the literature; go and travel (not just ‘holiday’) in those countries! As we urge the pupils, learning is not a passive process!

I could relate a number of other recent experiences that have similarly reinforced the impression that there is increasingly little to differentiate teachers from the less-educated masses, but to do so would be to identify certain individuals whom I have no wish to offend. But my overwhelming impression is that teachers, like everyone else, are increasingly the victims of a mass-produced, commercialised, cyanosed culture whose only raison d’etre is mindless consumption and the groundless Worship of Me. A wider, personal interest in knowledge, learning, culture and the more cerebral side of life seems increasingly rare.

How this chimes with one’s credibility when it comes to standing up in a classroom and espousing the power of intelligent thought, I do not know. More to the point, what will be the consequences of a growing disconnect between how people behave professionally and personally? It’s an extension of the older objection that smoker-teachers can hardly preach the non-smoking message.

I expect many will be bristling at my presumption in commenting on the lives of others – and yet I find it difficult to understand what could be seen as a gentle hypocrisy or blind spot. One of the main impressions I was left with of my own schooling was that the teachers were almost without exception intelligent, thoughtful people: in some ways a pillar of society, who stood up for certain values not only in how they taught, but how they lived. This certainly did not mean that they were all solemn intellectuals (though some were) – but that they nonetheless practised in their own lives the values that they tried to imbue in their pupils; I know – some were family friends, and two were my parents. Perhaps the first of these was a decent formal command of their native tongue. But I am far from certain that this outlook is still universally the case within teaching.

I am not advocating gratuitous elitism here: a certain down-to-earthness was and is probably both necessary and desirable in a teacher – but I have never seen why that should mean actively endorsing the mindlessness or shallow materialism of contemporary life. Surely others can see through it too? In fact, for intelligent culture to be really credible, it needs to be embedded precisely in the everyday lives of people who are not university academics. This is what I have seen amongst teachers on the continent, where a different self-perception still seems to endure. If we as teachers can’t find anything productive to do with our own time on this planet, let alone actively stand up for thoughtful, educated values, then why should we expect any more of others?

In a world where substantial, coherent, intelligent thought is both declining and ever-more necessary, what hope is there if a substantial proportion of even the teaching profession no longer practises what it preaches?

On this note, and gloating over the fact that my teaching year has already finished, TP will be taking its customary break over the summer. While there may well be occasional posts, normal service will be resumed in September, and I wish my readers (in the northern hemisphere at least) a restful summer.

Too empowered by half?

An enduring social theme in recent years has been the need to empower people to take more control of their lives, and for education to provide the ‘horsepower’ they need to do so. We need people, so we are told, who will be more economically productive and more socially self-sufficient than ever before, in order to compete in a globalised world.

The area where I have worked for over a quarter of a century in some ways provides a template for this: it was one of the best-placed to benefit from the economic revolution of the Thatcher era, and when I arrived, Yuppiedom was in full fling. Many people from traditionally modest backgrounds were finding it possible to make very large amounts of money in the voracious environment of The City. Their new wealth was further enhanced by the property bubbles that sent house prices in the area through the roof.

Aspiration was the name of the game, and the area where I work has always been characterised by its extrovert materialism – and also its rather bad taste, which became a national joke. Being who they are, many locals were more than prepared to stare down the mockery and bask in their new-found fortunes, while metaphorically sticking a finger up at those parts of the country which they perceived to be losers. And given that this area, unlike much of the rest of country has a positive balance of payments, they might have had a point.

In the context of the empowerment agenda, the area has been a resounding success – though, for all the competition to get into the best schools, I doubt whether education was really perceived as an essential part of the process so much as another way of out-doing the Joneses. It also responded with relish to the view that education is a consumer service, with an attitude towards teachers sometimes not dissimilar to operatives at McDonalds.

The children I teach today are the offspring of the generation described above; very many of them come from homes where it is taken for granted that life’s every luxury only needs to be paid for. A lesson this week about global footprints done with several classes, revealed material wealth beyond what even I expected – with huge eco-footprints to match. What was, however, vanishingly small was the concern shown when the global consequences of this were pointed out…”Somebody else’s problem”, one twelve-year-old observed.

According to everything that successive governments have said they wanted education to do, these people are successes: they are the future of society in Britain. And yet to say that many of their children exhibit utter indifference to education is an understatement. Regrettably, the effect of their materially-privileged birth seems only to have been to breed a level of complacent but groundless self-belief that often seems utterly undentable.

They have very little understanding of what it means to strive for anything. When asked, they are in the main adamant that they do want a good education – but the idea that this means personal effort and self-discipline is not even on the radar of many. It’s just another thing that they think will fall into their lap, well below the next top-end gadget or luxury holiday. There is very little that will gain traction with children who implicitly consider themselves already their teachers’ superiors, whose material wealth has given them nothing more than the belief that they are entitled to everything but need to work for nothing, to say nothing of an utter disregard for the life of the mind.

I would not normally write in such critical detail about the specific pupils I encounter – but as time progresses, I find myself increasingly doubting the outcomes that we are being told to work for. Increasing opportunity is one thing – but empowerment seems to come at the price of the complacency, economic snobbery and anti-intellectualism that I witness daily.

I know from my experiences elsewhere that affluence does not inevitably bring with it anti-social attitudes – but that does seem to be the case in the U.K. When one prioritises success above effort, and when that is couched in material terms amidst  a wider societal vacuum, the results are quite unpleasant. They are also, I believe ultimately self-defeating – for how many of these children with their grand sense of entitlement will actually make the effort that is really necessary to go on to where they think they deserve to be?

Call me old-fashioned – but what value a policy that leads the supposedly-successful to scorn the very society that provides the opportunities ostensibly to help them?


Gun point

A couple situations cropped up last week that cast light on children’s views of education.

The first happened with an able class who had a short assessment, something that should have been straightforward. They had been given some days’ notice, and the test had already been deferred once because of missing pupils; there was no excuse for not doing well.

As the test began, four or five pupils owned up that they had not been in the lesson and did not know the subject matter; I asked why they had not copied up. Shrugs. I put them in the neighbouring room to catch up. At the end of the test we peer-marked, and the problems began. Many found the test difficult to mark, and when I looked at the papers, they had not done well on what was basically a simple diagrammatic knowledge test.

I investigated. The original work had been done in a cover lesson a couple of weeks previously and I had not seen the books in the meantime, the intention being to collect them after the test. Then the admissions came: they had done the work mechanically, without thinking about it. Some said they hadn’t understood at the time, though the material was well within their capabilities. Others said they hadn’t completed it (even though it was the first task for that lesson). One wonders what happened during that cover lesson.

But the issue is this: during the whole process, not one pupil asked for help, nor saw fit to tell me that they hadn’t understood, or had not completed the work – even when the test was imminent. They just turned up – and failed.

Even after all these years, there are times when I am left speechless.

The second situation concerned another able class, who were being introduced to a study of Russia (we have decided to humour Mr. Gove…). I ended up telling them about the time I found myself at gunpoint at three in the morning on a train on the Hungarian-Czech border. (I had offered myself as a linguistic go-between for some Japanese tourists whose papers the border-guards did not like; I failed to stop them being thrown off the train…). The pupils’ eyes grew large; I told them that teachers do not just stand in the cupboard each evening and wait for them to return…

Moral of the week: many children do not understand or care half as much about their education as we sometimes credit. I’m not really surprised, and I don’t think we were much different in my day. School was just where you went and learned stuff; at that age there was no bigger picture.

That said, behind the present immaturity I fear there lurks a depth of indifference that was not there in the past. It is not only that children lack the perspective to see the long-term benefits of education, but now many actively don’t care even when it is suggested there might be some.

I’m just about the last teacher in the school who regularly eats lunch in the dining hall; when there is a production on, there is no staff table on the stage, so I sit with the masses. It yields insights into what children are preoccupied with when they think no teacher is listening. Much is the usual small stuff of their lives, though turbo-charged by the technology and pampering available to them. But I am left with the feeling that a life of the mind is utterly lacking from what most of them do. Active thought is an alien process.

It seems we cannot rely on many homes to help cultivate it, and few have hobbies. Or else the distractions are just too great. Most of these children seem obsessed with the trappings of ostentatious wealth, and I can only assume this too comes from home. This is in sharp contrast to my own school experience, where there was at least an implicit acceptance among most of the importance of learning.

It’s a moot point how troubled we should be about this. As I said, children were probably always like this to some extent. But the problem is, the educational establishment does not realise it. It holds a view of children as miniature postgraduates who spend their waking hours hungering to be taught, thirsting for knowledge, who will always go the extra mile, and who should not under any circumstances be held back by those miserable failures of teachers. Particularly those who don’t stick to approved form, in the forlorn hope of trying to snare their pupils’ absent enthusiasm. And then it blames the teachers for failing. Experiences like those recounted here make me wonder whether we should take any notice at all of what children say when asked about their learning; mostly, they just don’t get it.

I had an inquest with the class who failed the test. I tried to explain to them why they needed to take their learning a bit more seriously as they grew up, and why developing their ability to think was important. I looked out over a sea of blank, indifferent faces, and they scarpered as soon as they could at the end of the lesson.

But I hope that somewhere, I did spark a few thoughts that might just linger. I increasingly suspect that these children have never been given any reason to find intrinsic interest in learning. There are few role models at home – and the education system itself is now more concerned with getting them to jump through performance hoops than inculcating a genuine love of learning. Maybe we need to do a lot more of the latter: stop talking about targets and employability and wealth and just start encouraging them to find things interesting. Maybe the seed is not really absent, but simply has never germinated – their every want is catered for without the need to think, or be curious about anything at all. It may take unconventional approaches like authentic stories about guns at 3 a.m. to awaken it.

Maybe this is why so many children seem utterly incurious – that and rapidly-acquired familial wealth that has only shrunk horizons, and turned the world into little more than the storehouse for their designer fantasies.

Learned helplessness can be serious! I sense that something is wrong: these kids come from affluent homes and have good brains. They go to a very good school; they should have everything going for them – and yet all we see, far too often, is indolence. They want for nothing – and we hold them at gun-point to achieve educationally. All it has done is make them passive and incurious. They know how to do nothing for themselves.

The second class wanted to know what I had been doing on that train; I explained that in the early Nineties I spent several holidays backpacking round post-communist Europe. Their eyes grew wider; I remembered hearing about the then-new Inter-Rail Pass with excitement when I was at school.

A hand went up. “Why would you want to do that?”

“What, help those Japanese people?”

“No. Go backpacking round Europe.”


Fish64 recently pointed me towards Dylan Wiliam’s sexily-titled book Embedded Formative Assessment  (thanks) but being stingy, I took a ‘look inside’ on Amazon first… Chapter One begins:

Wiliam 5

Two things struck: Wiliam talks about ‘educational achievement’ and not education; I assume this is intentional. I concede that I have not read the rest, but on this showing I am not inclined to.

Secondly, I wonder what Wiliam thinks about the education that leads to the all-important ‘achievement’. How does reading Shakespeare’s plays or studying the customs of rainforest peoples lead to ‘achievement’? Perhaps he has the times-tables more in mind, but then he is a mathematician…  I’m also curious about how he manages to define achievement so precisely. Maybe I should read it after all.

He continues:

Wiliam 6

Now, he may be right about the harsh economic realities of the world. I don’t think many would contest the need to be self-supporting, nor that reducing unnecessary burdens on the State is undesirable. Nor is it wrong to look to the future, though Dylan risks falling prey to the ‘Twenty-first Century Skills’ fallacy.

But I read with a heavy heart. For if these are the only reasons that an eminent educationalist can find to justify educating people, then we really are in trouble. Becoming an educated person has been subordinated to the abstract of ‘achievement’; in this view, the day-to-day reality of teaching real children in real classrooms has no other purpose than to stave off macro-scale socio-economic disaster.

I do not get up on dark January mornings with such utterly miserable aims in mind.

For all that these things are undoubtedly useful by-products of what we do, to have sunk to such utilitarian depths fills me with despondency. Are we really suggesting that the pleasure to be had from an appreciation of poetry or world culture or scientific insight is of no higher use that keeping the pay-cheques rolling in? And in any case, global trends are tending to de-skill most work, not the opposite – so will more education really help?

At present, I am loosely privy to investigations into under-achievement in older students. My reluctance to discuss specifics makes it difficult to be more precise, but I know this group well and have worked with its predecessors for over 25 years, longer than anyone else involved. I have noticed changes from close at hand; I have views on what the issues are, supported by an accumulated back-catalogue of comment and discussion.

Here we have a microcosm of the wider problem: those addressing the issue have tried any number of technical fixes and none has worked. The thinking seems to be that what is needed is more control, more coercion and less freedom. The solution is seen in changing the procedures.

I beg to differ. Both this approach and Dylan Wiliam’s book are missing something essential, namely that education is about people, not machines. In fact, people generally intensely dislike being treated as though they are machines. I don’t care how many books dissecting the human mind tell us that it is all a matter of brain chemistry and cold behaviouralism: people do not experience life like this, and therefore do not understand it thus.

Those who believe people can be engineered in this way, and that successful education is simply a matter of getting the systems right, miss the vital point. What is actually needed is more emphasis on the intrinsic life-affirming qualities of education, and less on the dull routines. The situation I described above is both a delicious and an exasperating example of the limitations of the technocrat’s world-view, the most striking evidence yet that my instincts are correct. I am simultaneously bathing in schadenfreude and wishing I could do more to help.

My certainty comes from two sources: in a rather oblique way, I asked the students for their perceptions. I am in a slightly unusual position, one that perhaps gains me answers they wouldn’t give under more senior scrutiny; more of this anon.

The second source is even simpler: the experience of the other human beings enduring similar difficulties: their teachers.

Teaching is often described, with reason, as the most satisfying of occupations, and yet many of the teachers I know best sound increasingly sick to the back teeth of it. I will not mince my words: I know many dedicated, competent and hard-working teachers who seem utterly hacked off with the way their chosen profession is going.

It’s not the teaching, nor for the most part the pupils. And I’m not even aiming for the easy (management) target – but the fact is, the whole joyous ensemble has been reduced to little more than an unremitting grind by the sheer pointless tedium of the production-line mentality.

This most creative and intellectually stimulating of activities is having every last breath of life squashed from it by the endless, grinding routine of targets, reviews, initiatives and yet more targets. The pleasure of learning has been replaced by the fear of failure, curiosity usurped by the dullness of tick-box and target review. And so far, I’m only taking about the teachers.

When I asked the students what they felt was important they were forthright:

  • Schools that feel like a community not an exam factory.
  • Teachers who know you as a person not an exam target.
  • A regime that does not threaten and constrain as its way of ‘motivating’.
  • Interesting things to learn, from teachers who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them.
  • And they were honest enough to admit that their own motivation was key: without it, no amount of coercion will work; with it, none is necessary.

There are other subtexts – but the fundamentals are little different from how the teachers are feeling about their work. It is about nothing more than the basic considerations of the ‘Humane Factor’.

We might learn two things:

  1. Forcing people to teach or learn (well) doesn’t work.
  2. Paying people, whether in certificates or salaries, is not enough either.

And this is precisely what the technocrats cannot see even when it is staring them in the face.

Both teachers and pupils are utterly beset by imposed diktats that sap their morale, kill their interest and reduce their work to little more than a chore for the sake of keeping their superiors off their backs. Each time they jump, the only response is ‘jump higher’. And we wonder why motivation evaporates…

I know from bitter experience, when you cloak education in bureaucracy and compulsion, it kills the vital interest STONE DEAD. The only motivation left is to survive in the bland and futile world that remains.

The most likely human reaction is to put the brakes on. There comes a point where enough is enough, where the tank is empty, where there simply is no more to give. And at that point, people start refusing to co-operate. They become desperate to preserve what remains of their autonomy and wider lives and if anything, commitment falls.

And the people who instigated these systems? They look on with puzzled expressions, wondering why their clever science and management algorithms no longer give the results they expect. But being products of a utilitarian world where nothing other than mechanical pragmatism and material outputs matter, they do not see. What’s more, though all this is hardly news (there is a large body of work from people like Daniel Pink on what really motivates people), they do not have the grace to listen to anyone who dares suggest that they have it wrong. Their only remedy is More of the Same.

I’m not given to sympathy for wide-eyed progressives who believe that education should be a process of indulgence, but this surely worse. I don’t believe we have an entitlement to a cushy life, but is this really the best the (arguably) most advanced civilisation the world has known can come up with for even its more privileged members?

To reduce one of the great civilising and cultivating forces of human existence to nothing more than an exercise in defensive utilitarianism is a catastrophe. It crushes the spirit – not that those responsible would understand, less care, for such concepts. It turns life to dull routine, grind, drudgery. It kills optimism and the genuine appetite for knowledge. We become just grist to a particularly faceless, mean-spirited mill. And it’s insidious: it reaches even into my weekend, when I sit down to plan the week’s lessons.

Wiliam’s error is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. True, the world around us is changing – but the basic needs of ordinary people really do not change very much. The basic functions of life remain broadly the same, as do those of the human mind, such as the ability to be motivated or bored, fascinated or uninspired.

There is very little point in trying to organise a small-scale, bespoke activity like teaching from the perspective of the macro-strategist. What is important is not whether economic Armageddon is being averted, but whether people are finding their education interesting, whether they are making sense of the world around them, whether they feel valued and cared for – and whether they can go on to live largely ordinary but fulfilled lives; this isn’t primarily about ‘achievement’.

The problems facing education are not those of macro economics. But in creating an education system predicated the converse, they have utterly failed to notice that these are not the things that inspire people, unlike the fascination that comes from a genuinely lively, humane mind. And if this comes good, most of those larger concerns will probably take care of themselves. You can only create an educated society by creating educated people. Yet the system has created such vast amounts of pointless busy-work that people scarcely have time to pay attention to the things that really do matter, such as the time to think deeply or to build meaningful relationships.

I don’t doubt that Dylan Wiliam is correct about the trends, but a much better approach would be to educate people for a world where they see different priorities, different ways of finding fulfilment and of supporting themselves. It means lifting our eyes from the ground – what education has long been about – not simply fixing them ever more firmly in the dirt. It may mean helping people to find fulfilment elsewhere than the shopping mall. Wiliam’s is an outlook based on an Affluenza-fear of losing what we have got – but the solution is not to make the anxiety greater.

This approach has turned education into little more than an unending cycle of grinding procedural drudgery. Willing workers have been turned into resentful slaves, and those responsible look on uncomprehendingly while their grandiose visions fail before their eyes, and then they crack the whip once more.

No wonder people are looking for ways out.


St. Jude’s Day

It’s the little things that offer a window into people’s minds – like the intermittent grooving of some of our younger pupils (normally but not always girls) as they move around the school. They may be at school, but in their minds they’re in a pop video. It’s in the fact, too, that not only the girls but their parents appear to think it is acceptable to go through a school day laden with shiny helium balloons and armfuls of expensive gifts that lets you see that they all dream of being princess for a day – and that their parents think it’s O.K. to collude in this show of competitive consumption, even when it creates both a practical nuisance and a perpetual distraction within the classroom. When it comes to splashing wealth, learning suddenly takes a back seat. And then there was the sixth former who said her ambition was to be a Disney Princess…

I’m going to be non-gratuitously offensive during this post, albeit more in sorrow than anything else – but those of a sensitive disposition should stop reading now. I take my work seriously, and I cannot help, when confronted by such expressions of consumerist froth, asking myself hard questions about what we in education actually think we’re achieving. What would the world look like if we were actually being successful in raising the intellectual level of the populace?

I suppose I’d better concede that I start from a fairly extreme position. After all, while we do own a T.V. I think the last time it was turned on was during the Olympics – and only then because some guests wanted to watch. It’s not that we have ideological objections, so much as a lack of time, too many far better things to be doing – and an utter failure to find anything that even remotely entices us to watch. Even the documentaries and current affairs are so sugary and patronising these days as to feel like an assault on one’s intelligence. My only screen-watching comes from hobby-related clips on YouTube.

We are so far out of the T.V. watching habit that when faced with one, I consciously experience a rather unpleasant hypnotic effect that is clearly alien to the mass of the population: I find it hard to drag my eyes away from the screen in a way that others don’t even seem to fight. I did a little research and found out that the British are near the top of the viewing league, with something like four hours a day, during which they watch around 50 advertisements – something else which make me recoil in horror at their utter inanity.

I encountered a pupil the other day who owned up to having eight televisions in her home. On the other hand, the data are conflicting, with this making interesting reading. For what it’s worth, the people I know in other European countries seem to watch more selectively, though I suppose one does need to beware the Hawthorne Effect.

In my view, this whole education business is only worth it if we are making a meaningful difference to the quality of people’s lives. One might hope that with developing intellects, people would appreciate the enriching effects of self-growth. The Danes have a word for the warmth of a well-lived life: hygge. The rewards from unselfconsciously developing new skills, knowledge and insights are for my money the very stuff that makes life worth living; that, and warm, meaningful relationships of course. Life lived with such substance is fantastic, be it through building new friendships, developing one’s appreciation of art, food, music or whatever, and growing one’s own worldly competence in the process.

The ability to cut though hype and propaganda and move towards a more considered view of the world is another part of a life well-lived. It’s perplexing and sometimes infuriating – but what is the alternative? To go about our lives wrapped in a fog of ignorance and second-hand opinion? If I believed that the only purpose in educating people was to permit them to fill their increasingly cramped, insubstantial houses with ever larger amounts of mass-produced tat, I think I would give up tomorrow.

And yet, I fear we are fighting a losing battle. Oliver James has written about the insidious effects of T.V. on people’s world view and self-perception, and in particular the way it increases their susceptibility to Affluenza and commercial manipulation.

I visited some people I have known for many years and see occasionally. They are a little younger than me; both are professionals, and educated in some of the country’s most prestigious institutions; nice people. Maybe I simply don’t understand – but they nonetheless seem to live utterly indiscriminate lives. They have a daughter whom I have known since her birth, who is now approaching secondary school age: a delightful girl, clearly bright and already exhibiting considerable musical ability. And yet this is gradually being crowded out by the tsunami of commercial tat to which she is being exposed. Her mind seems dominated by the social media, the latest commercially-hyped girlie bling, a never-ending round of indulgent social events – and the dreaded disco groove is making an increasing appearance.

Even for a ten year old, she seems completely self-obsessed, with little of the growing awareness of the world outside herself that one might just start to see budding in a bright child of that age, and seemingly not much awareness of her own intelligence – utterly unlike the rather serious kids we were forty years ago, with our nerdy but knowledgeable hobbies.

And the T.V. was on loud, as it always is when we visit, even through mealtime; conversation was painfully lacking and abrupt – and I was exposed for the first time ever to the horror that is Strictly Come Dancing.

I have nothing against ballroom dancing; even have a few medals for it myself from long – very long – ago, but the utter mind rot that is that programme beggared belief; I doubt it’s the worst. It is not so much the subject matter – but as with those documentaries, the bling of the presentation, the ‘values’ that it implicitly promotes, the utter two-dimensional superficiality of those featuring and the ruthless sudden-death of the way the competition seems to work. To a gentle outsider such as me, this was an utterly appalling example of the way in which the media is conditioning an entire population, entering unquestioned into the homes of even the highly educated.

I know that this example is by no means unique; indeed it is probably far closer to the national norm than my own quiet way of life. It was echoed in the uncouth parenting we witnessed on the train a couple of days ago, and it is certainly replicated in the houses around us. We live in a lovely medieval town, but even on fine summers’ evenings, most people can be seen indoors glued to the Box. It is the subject of much of the non-teaching talk in the staffroom at school too. Quite a few of the people we know live lives that seem to consist of little more than fast food, T.V. and shopping centres.

I suppose it is none of my business how other people live – and yet I wonder what this says about how successful we are (not) being at awakening people’s desires and imaginations for what their lives might be. I don’t for one instant expect that everyone would choose to live as I do – but there is still so much more to life than many seem to find – or want.

It is not a solely British problem: German and French T.V. is, if anything even more execrable than ours, but it does not seem so utterly invasive in those countries, at least in the lives of the more educated. They seem to retain some sense of a life well lived.

Maybe T.V. is the new opiate of the (uneducable) masses – but one might have hoped that at least the educated part of the population would wish for more. Instead, it seems as though the mass media are dragging almost everyone down into a pit of mindless game shows, fatuous ‘celebrity’ and inane advertising – filling minds with c**p – and most are lapping it up. What does this say about our society, if people within it can think of nothing more constructive to do with their lives than this?

And clearly, we educators – who both wish for, and (sometimes) know personally the satisfaction that comes from doing things another way – are fighting a losing battle. How on earth can we compete with the mind rot with which the mass media are filling even intelligent people’s lives? The only answer so far seems to be to ape it.

Maybe I’m just blue as the clocks have gone back, but I think not – winter is the time for maximum Hygge – and 28th October is St Jude’s Day – the patron saint of lost causes.

Bad Grammar?

I see the nation is working itself up into a lather again about the issue of grammar schools, and the debate shows every sign of degenerating into its habitual, simplistic factions when a more sophisticated discussion is badly needed. Unfortunately, the U.K. has always been hamstrung by social snobberies that cause fewer distortions elsewhere; issues of social mobility simply do not seem to get conflated with educational success in many continental countries as they do here. I accept that this means some of their solutions may not be completely appropriate here, but we do need to clear the air and clarify the issues. There is a perfectly good egalitarian case to be made for what I prefer to call specialised education.

The primary role of education cannot be to promote social mobility, which it can never guarantee anyway, but to develop the intellects and other abilities of those who receive it. If this leads to socio-economic advancement then all well and good, but there are too many other intervening life factors ever to guarantee it, no matter what system is in place. Expecting the education system to right every social wrong and then guarantee every child a privileged, affluent future is simply asking more than it can deliver; more gullible Affluenza at work here, no matter how noble the aspiration. And what is the point of encouraging children to be ambitious if those who are not are artificially boosted to equal success? The fact, which is unpalatable to some, is that for education to succeed, in relative terms, seemingly some have to fail.

It is no more equitable to dismiss bright children as being able to succeed under any system than to disregard less able ones because they may not. All children should have their needs addressed, and in my experience the comprehensive system does not do that as well as it might simply because it is asked to be a jack-of-all-trades. Furthermore, the failure of some state primary schools to secure Eleven Plus passes may say more about them and their methods (or their intake) than it does about the manipulation of the system by others. My (traditional) primary school proved itself more than capable of securing a good clutch of grammar school places – in a town that had three independent secondary – and even more prep – schools. It did so by concentrating on developing intellects, not righting social wrongs.

And given that the system aspires to create more prosperous, empowered citizens (or at least I hope it does) then who are we to argue if those it has already created clamour to send their children to a certain type of school?

But there is another way to resolve the ‘failure’ problem. It lies in how we define the word. The deep problem with British education is not the selective/comprehensive dichotomy, but the snobbery attached to it, which runs far deeper than the education system can change. The problem is that academic education is seen as the only route to success, despite much evidence to the contrary, if one examines the lives of ‘successful’ people. We then take the less academically-inclined (of all abilities) and force them through a single, pseudo-intellectual system in which they can only ever hope to be second-rate – and then effectively label them as failures. So much for the uplift effect of comprehensives. At the same time, we deny the academically-inclined the all-embracing culture that is needed to nurture their attitudes and talents. And to add insult to injury, we fail to provide the ‘failures’ with a more appropriate outlet for their often considerable talents.

The harsh fact is, some people have greater abilities than others, and society as a whole needs every talent to be developed to its maximum. I suspect this can best be done in specialist establishments; we do not expect Wimbledon champions to win simply by playing at their local tennis club or by being forced to study, say, electronics at the same time. We need top-quality technical skills – and we also need top-quality intellects; having been educated in one and taught in the other, there is no doubt in my mind that for the academically inclined of whatever background, grammar schools can offer a superior education. I see no reason why academically-inclined children should be denied their opportunity – but we also need to provide equally good technical and vocational schools for those with that aptitude, as many of our neighbours do.

Note that I say ‘inclination’ – not ability, for it would be perfectly possible to send children to a school according to professed preference, so long as that then manifested itself in their (and their parents’) commitment to it, rather than their raw I.Q. or exam results. The possibility of changing schools where application was lacking would provide a useful incentive here. Personally, I would rather teach less able but suitably-disposed children than bright but antagonistic ones – but I can only see it as counter-productive to be made to compromise my own academic inclinations in order to do my job.

My parents bettered themselves by having access to the only type of school that could academically rival the unaffordable independent sector, and my own grammar school was by no means packed with the middle classes. Many of those people have gone on to lead productive lives.

The only alternative to educating those capable to the highest level is to produce a generation where no one receives more than an average education, irrespective of ability – except those who can pay for it, and in my view, discrimination by wealth is more iniquitous that separation by aptitude. If we wish to create a truly comprehensive system, then we do need to remove the advantages enjoyed by those who went to independent schools – but that would not be the end of it: we would consequently also need to tackle the exacerbated effects of house-price inflation around popular state schools. Then we would need to cleanse people’s snobberies about which school they attended, which I suspect would only surface in another form. Where would it end?

We need to separate the benefits of specialised education from the admittedly iniquitous nature of the test that historically provided access to one aspect of it, for which more equitable alternatives exist possibly at a later age. We should be more realistic about what education can actually deliver – then it might be possible to have a sensible discussion about the best way to deliver it.

Ceasing to see education in excessively competitive terms might be a start.

Better and Better

At my school’s Open Evening last week, I noticed a couple staring intently at me. This resolved in an increasingly familiar way, as I had taught them both over twenty years ago; they were now returning with a child of their own. I even managed to dredge one of their names from the subconscious…

I enquired about their intervening years and was told a story of how many of their cohort had done the usual thing on leaving education and headed for ‘the money’ in The City; that many of them are not particularly happy but had done what parents and school had urged was important. In their own case, they had since made a significant change of direction to something they felt was more worthwhile. “People need to think what they really want from their lives”, they said. “The current system is just a conveyor belt”.

We need to ask something similar about education: what is it for? I have my own ideas which daily drive me strongly – but I’m not sure they are particularly congruent with what the system is currently set up to do.

I have just started reading John Tomsett’s book. I respect John: he seems to have achieved a balance between managerial responsibility, intellectual curiosity and compassion for those in his care, and it was his blog that led to my starting my own. Early on, he challenges teachers to be ‘ever better’. But as always, the more one thinks about this the more meaningless it seems: the issue is so huge and complex that it can seem overwhelming. It is one thing to talk aspirationally about success, excellence and constant improvement, but quite another to know what those things really mean.

I fear that such optimism derives from the Affluenza belief that more is better – one that doesn’t trouble itself with the hard questions about what More or Better actually mean. By such logic, the world 100m sprint record will eventually reduce to zero seconds. After all, we can all keep on improving indefinitely… can’t we? No we can’t. Human beings will never be able physically to be in two places at once. By the same logic, we will one day arrive at a state where every school has a 100% A* pass rate. And what will we do then? Besides, we will have very neatly rendered the whole purpose of qualifications redundant. There comes a point where we have to settle for good enough.

Maybe John will come to that, but very few of the answers I have ever encountered about the deep conundrums within education are really very satisfactory. It is encouraging to see that he is pluralistic – but there remains the thorny problem that to be helpful, we need to know what such wishes mean. No doubt conventional definitions would see those former pupils of mine as successes – requisite bits of paper leading to well-paid employment. And yet, in their own terms (which are surely the most valid) those people have discovered that the received wisdom was not right. Likewise, if we subscribe to the present view of the link between teaching and learning, then we, their teachers, delivered successful outcomes – except that the recipients themselves have come to find them wanting. The best I can hope for is that the education we provided helped them along that journey of self-realisation – but I doubt that is what the education system has in mind by way of ‘outcomes’.

One can argue that sooner or later, one must settle one’s objectives in order to achieve anything at all. One might further argue that those like me who constantly split hairs are being evasive or obstructive. Perhaps – but one must still ask whether setting inappropriate or unachievable objectives is really better than having none at all. Perhaps such things are better left undefined?

So I think we need answers to the following questions before the call for ‘ever better’ becomes plausible:

  1. In what way can/should teaching get ever better? What would such teaching look like compared to present practice? It implies changing the long-established basics of human interaction – but how? What definition of ‘better’ are we using here, and how will we know when it happens? My concern is that this can only be defined against some arbitrary preconception.
  2. Why do we want teaching to get better and better? What is actually wrong with it now, and is that anything we can control anyway? Do the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits?
  3. For whom does teaching need to get better? How will people benefit from such progress, compared to those who experience the present type? Teachers cannot know their real impact on their pupils so how can we even define what is better? What is the point in pinning so much on unknowable, even unachievable aims? I fear that here we are heading back to exam results as the arbiter – and as my former pupils demonstrated, such societal indicators of success are not foolproof. The only alternative is our own evaluation of our work – with all the problems of consensus and cognitive biases therein. Is this really about what we provide for children – or is it really for us? Or – Heaven forbid – just the ability of The System to account for itself better? It’s easy to see why these things preoccupy head teachers, but their reasons for doing so are not necessarily educationally sound.
  4. Why is all this dumped at the door of the individual teacher? Why is there so little recognition that the conditions within which teachers operate also need to get better and better? Given that most teachers are already working at or beyond capacity, this might even yield quicker returns. It all looks perilously like risk-displacement by an establishment intent on squeezing more and more from less and less. The fine words might mean more if those saying them were equally focused on addressing the limitations under which teachers work. Plenty of the mediocrity in the present system lies not with classroom practitioners, and why exactly does the need to be better exclude the workplace experiences and general sanity of teachers?

I can accept that we might want teaching to be better to optimise the life-chances of our pupils – if that is really what it does; I would like to think it also cultivates a more deliberative society. But I worry that it is being equated purely with narrow institutional definitions of success related as usual to exam passes and conformity of ambition rather than anything more genuinely liberating.

I also agree that professional pride should make us want to do the best job we can under the circumstances. But that is not the same as believing there are no limits, nor for accepting all the blame when it is otherwise. Life is a compromise. There is such a thing as ‘good enough’ – and it comes at the point where going further down one avenue in one’s life seriously damages the others.

My own teaching is always compromised, and always will be, by my obligations to my wife and family, by my own limitations and my reasonable personal needs. It is unrealistic to expect otherwise – certainly while little is being done to reconcile the external conflicts and constraints faced by teachers, whose actual effect is the opposite of making them better. This is the real irony: for all the imprecations, the things being demanded often push us in the opposite direction. If those who utter such words really mean them, the first thing they could do is get off teachers’ backs.

All the more so since the usual answer is that we have to work with what the system will allow. Well, that goes for expectations of teachers too.

If the education system is serious about wanting better teaching, then it can start by halving my teaching load so that I have adequate preparation and marking time to deliver the standards it says it wants. It can work harder to resolve the dog’s dinner of a timetable I have been given this year. It can continue by removing the utterly unproductive anxiety I experience due to ‘accountability’ and the unrealistic direct causality it thinks exists between teacher inputs and pupil outcomes. And it can recognise that my life, as everyone’s, is a compromise between conflicting demands of which my profession is but one. I don’t think this makes me a bad, uncommitted – or unusual – teacher.

It might also ask itself what it actually means by such phrases as ‘ever better’. What do they mean in practical terms? What pressures do they impose on those charged with – and held accountable for – delivering such indefinable ideals? Do we even know what better looks like? It is not as though there have never been false educational dawns in the past – and as my former pupils show, the present view of success is no more absolute than any other.

Such notions are best left as vague aspiration, a useful mechanism by which we self-monitor in order to maintain high professional standards. But beating ourselves up for accepting that there is such a thing as good enough is another matter entirely – particularly when those who question it clearly hold that view in the way they often treat us.

Undervalued and outcast

I have never been good at this time of year. No teacher is going to win much sympathy for coming to the end of six weeks’ paid holiday – but that doesn’t negate the difficulty of switching from one mode of life to the other. I am dedicated to my teaching, but I am not one who can’t wait to get back to work. Our profession may be important, but it is still subsidiary to the living of life as a whole.

While it is probably true that the thought of returning is worse that the doing, I nonetheless find it difficult to remain upbeat over the few days before the old routine re-establishes itself. And this year my feeling is somewhat heavier than usual because I am no longer convinced that my school values or supports my presence. Last year definitely qualified as my annus horribilis, and while the new prospects ought to be brighter, certain circumstances have created a gnawing doubt, despite the results being fine. Maybe mud sticks…

But I think the end-of-holiday sensation is about more than that. Dr. Giles Fraser summed it up well in ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio Four’s Today Programme a few days ago (can be heard here, at least in the U.K., for the next seventeen days). Even leaving aside the religious overtones, his suggestion that work is about Doing while play (and by extension holidays) are about Being sums it up neatly. Importing the workplace ethic into leisure time is fruitless: the notion that leisure ought to be professionally or economically productive alters its very nature. Or put another way, replacing its intrinsic value with extrinsic aspiration destroys it. True leisure is not about doing things that have external value, or even being loosely competitive (except possibly with oneself); one’s other obligations accepted, it is about a simple state of Being for its own sake, something akin to Flow. This is a counter-establishment wisdom worth striving for, and certainly passing on to the next generation: leisure is a valuable part of life.

I’m just not persuaded by those who imply that the sole purpose of life is to be economically productive. Were I to follow that doctrine, much of what makes my own life worth living would simply disappear. I don’t see much evidence around me that a life devoted solely to economic functioning is healthy, socially beneficial, or popular – and what’s more, the self-evident recharging of the batteries, and the visible increase in life-satisfaction that comes from leisure would just not exist.

This is why this transition is hard. But as with so many non-material things, it has become harder as the purpose of education became more economically-driven. When teachers were largely autonomous and intellect-driven, it was probably easier to import some of that sense of Being into one’s work too. But in these days of accountability and hard-headed management, there are just too many external, uncontrollable factors dictating one’s day-to-day functioning. The attendant loss of autonomy, as compared with holiday times, makes the transition from one to the other harsher, no matter how inevitable.

I am certainly not idle in my holidays: apart from time spent abroad, much has been done in terms of home improvement and in fulfilling various other roles. But the flexibility largely to follow one’s own schedule is priceless – as is the mental space it creates for an amount of day-dreaming – for which read Big Picture Thinking. These are the conditions I need for thinking about the underlying principles behind things I do, be they the next projects in my various hobbies, my responsibilities as Chair of the mutual company that runs the old building in which I live, and yes, to some extent my profession and the lives which it is supposed to enrich. There has just been the simple pleasure of doing things without too much need to watch the clock or to follow someone else’s diktat.

I have serendipitously researched a completely new avenue within one of my hobbies – and as my last two posts described, very unexpectedly got entangled in the political debate within the Labour Party.

In some ways, that last experience sums it all up: as a columnist in The Independent wrote a few days ago, the establishment backlash against Corbyn shows what happens to people who dare to question supposedly-accepted norms, of which the primacy of Work and The Economy are the sirens of our time. The out-casting of reactionaries is hardly new, but the implication that anyone who proposes something different can only be a naive idiot has, in its own right made me all the more convinced that Corbyns are very necessary. So has the implication that there are some world-views which “we all know” are now beyond thoughtful debate. Like the fact that it is possible to create a kinder society.

Corbyn is a symbol of anti-managerialism – or the view that we already have the best of all possible worlds and therefore nothing can or should ever be different – precisely the unambitious ‘realism’ of the other Labour candidates. Managerialism can afflict anyone: it is a state of mind borne from a defeatist, utilitarian view of the world where all we can do is tinker around the edges. The fact that it reinforces the status quo is of course as coincidental as it is ironic that the same message is pedalled by authoritarian regimes around the world. And the same could be said for Education, which itself increasingly functions in a similarly autocratic manner…

In a society that claims to be democratic and educated, the right to disagree has to be worth defending in its own right.

The suggestion that people who put their principles first are somehow naive or otherwise unrealistic is a criticism that has come my own way more than once. But the view that contemporary politics, education and indeed life, can be about nothing more than bland, unimaginative pragmatism creates a false dichotomy – vested interest wrapped up as supposedly hard-headed realism; whether of the Left or the Right barely matters. This is not an inspiring message for the next generation, so it is perhaps not surprising that many of Corbyn’s supporters are young.

It is not as though the current incumbency (in education or politics) has delivered bounty to all: the narrowing of acceptable values, priorities and occupations has hardly made for an inclusive, democratic society; one might have expected that the realists would have spotted that exclusion is the surest way of breeding rebellion, of pushing moderates towards the extremes – but that is clearly an abstract too far…

Ideals are a much-undervalued asset. They are the soil within which tolerance should grow, where day-to-day actions are informed by bigger intentions and insights rather than the unquestioning ‘busy-work’ demanded by small-minded managerialsm. That is equally true in politics, day-to-day lives – and education.

Its enforced loss reduces potentially rich lives to mere existence – we all need greater and more humane things to strive for, however incomprehensible they may seem to our critics. Destroying them is counter-productive: it is in such situations, where people no longer feel they have a meaningful stake or purpose that they turn from would-be loyal employees/citizens/members into sceptics, if not cynics. Of all the professions, Teaching ought to understand that.

In the final reckoning, the end-of-holiday blues comes from the knowledge that the Being of the last six weeks now has to go back in the box, to be replaced by the Doing of a system that (like the political system that directs it) now largely involves the ideal-less busy-work of managerialism. As though there were no alternative.