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?

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Unconditionally mercenary

An eminent writer to a national newspaper recently observed that education in Britain has ‘lost its sense of moral purpose’. That need not imply any particular belief system for it still to be true, inasmuch as education should presumably strive for a higher ideal in the quest for objective knowledge.

As if more evidence were needed of the extent to which this is true, The Independent has reported that the number of unconditional offers made to would-be university students has risen from fewer than 3000 in 2013 to over 68 000 this year. It seems that the sole driver of this has been the desire of universities to fill places in advance and secure their incomes for the year ahead.

Where is the concern for the actual quality that entrants are required to demonstrate, or of the likely impact on their motivation? The adverse effects of this are blatant evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the system on all fronts.

Unconditional offers used to be the preserve of the very few highly talented (or possibly canny) students in whom universities expressed complete confidence that they would achieve their entry requirements. That has been thrown out in favour of the hard logistics of bums-on-seats in an over-supplied marketplace.

But the response of the students is hardly better: while the psychology of receiving an unconditional offer was always the same (I saw how a couple of people I knew who received them suddenly eased up as their ‘A’ Levels approached), it is now plumbing the depths of the mercenary, with The Independent reporting that many students simply stopped showing up at school at all, and one school reporting a fall in its pass-rate as a result from 74% to 14% in one year when 40% of its students received unconditional offers.

As I said, the reverse-psychology effect of the unconditional offer has always been there – but in the past, I think that students still perceived enough inherent value for the learning process to know that it was important to see their courses through for their own sake.

Today’s students would appear to have no more value for their courses than as a passport to the next level, and seem utterly unprincipled in doing absolutely no more than is required to secure it. This is no surprise either, for it follows precisely the known effects of contingent rewards on effort levels.

I hardly blame them, for these are the values that the entire education system has been peddling for several decades now: education as commodity; something whose value is entirely extrinsic and material; learning for learning’s sake an utter waste of time. And a system of exams and qualifications that itself has become more important than the qualities and abilities that it supposedly represents.

I strongly objected to such views when I was still working in education, and did what I could to combat them amongst my own students. It was the reason why I drew clear limits around what I was prepared to do just to cram students through the same corrupted, superficial hoop-jumping process. And I have documented probably ad nauseam the reaction of that system to my principles.

I can only assume that those who promote such values in what now passes for the British education system view these developments without the slightest alarm.

Putting the Soul Back. Part III

A notorious historical phrase claimed that ‘Arbeit macht Frei’. It was wrong then and it is just as wrong now.

As I suggested in the previous post, the narrowing of educational objectives has been a cultural disaster. And not only that, there is only very weak evidence to suggest that the impact on Britain’s economic performance has been anything other than slight. The nation’s poor productivity and overall skill levels have stubbornly refused to improve; average earnings remain depressed and the range polarised. Furthermore, I suggest there is little evidence that our society is becoming generally more sophisticated, cultured and thoughtful – which might equally be reasonable a expectation of a more educated populace. What has perhaps been achieved is a supplier-side benefit in terms of making education (supposedly) more easily definable for the purposes of the accountability processes imposed on it by government – but that is hardly the principal aim of the exercise.

In a post-modern, secular society, difficult questions arise as to precisely what education is for. The initial societal gains in terms of the elimination of absolute poverty, and the controlling of adverse demographic and public health conditions have largely been achieved. In a morally and culturally pluralistic situation, it is no longer possible to impose universal moral imperatives on education such as were used by religious educators in the past.  So what is it for?

If one looks at those societies generally accepted as being the most advanced in the world, one notices the generally high-quality of nearly everything:

  • Certainly the material quality of goods available is generally high, but so often is the access to cultural and artistic capital by a wide proportion of the population. Wealth is not just monetary.
  • People seem confident in their ability to steer their own lives and make their own decisions. They accept ‘agency’.
  • There are relatively high levels of social discourse and political engagement.
  • Local democracy often seems to be strong, as do social support networks and institutions;
  • Electoral systems are sophisticated enough to reflect the pluralistic views of a thoughtful electorate.
  • Large percentages of the workforce are engaged in high-skill, high remuneration work, often in innovative sectors such as R&D, environmental sustainability and artificial intelligence.
  • Often, those societies are receptive to social experimentation and innovation in terms of ways of living and the relationship between the state and the citizen.
  • Quite often they support high levels of direct taxation in the interests of good social provision.
  • The level of basic needs provision, especially housing, is high – not only in terms of quantity but also quality. People feel secure.
  • There seem to be low levels of social or economic envy.

I have sourced these characteristics from a number of countries, mostly in Europe where the model is most prevalent. Denmark, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany and the other Scandinavian countries feature prominently. Britain does not.

I think the only workable answer the question of education’s purpose in such societies is the optimisation of every individual’s life experience. It should not be defined any more closely than that, for fear of excluding certain aspects of great importance to some of those individuals. That is enough of a big ‘ask’ to keep us going for some time. I consider it consists of two interlinking matters:

  1. The ability of the individual to achieve autonomy, authenticity and self-actualisation;
  2. The understanding that that ability needs to function with consideration for the needs of others to do the same.

One might hope that an understanding that peaceable negotiation is the optimum means of dispute resolution would figure in there somewhere, too – as might the cerebral skills necessary to resist the incursions of others through means of deception or manipulation. As the psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi has said, “People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.” The recent past holds a clear lesson for Britain in this respect.

That ‘internalised symbolic system’ means a set of values, priorities, preferences and insights that are specific to the sovereign individual concerned; education has a major role to play in developing it. For me, Csikszentmihalyi’s statement sums up superbly the absolute imperative for education to be a liberating force, rather than an enslaving one in the way educating for employability greatly risks being. Our role as teachers is not primarily to subjugate the spirit and free will of young individuals to the requirements of their future employers, even if encouraging them to develop the qualities and aptitudes that may appeal to those employers is part of it. Neither is it to deliver cash-ready consumers to corporate markets.

Far more important is the need to enable people to follow their own inclinations as far as they choose, provided of course that this does not impair the ability of others to do the same. Where this happens, it tends to demonstrate the kind of active engagement with life outlined above, rather than the very passive, delegated experience that I suggest many in Britain currently have; it is widely known, for instance, that the British have the highest level of T.V. viewing, some of the longest recreational shopping times and the lowest levels of physical activity engagement in Europe.

There remains the vexed question of what those values should be; either we submit to a set of accepted norms, which are by definition externally-defined, or we descend into a morass of cultural relativism where nothing can be deemed either to be superior to anything else, nor to be of any intrinsic value itself. If that is the case, the only resort available is indeed the transfer of purely utilitarian assets. The likely consequence of this is a life lived in an equally utilitarian way, which also tends to mean a low-level functionalism, without the personal ambition or emotional investment necessary to savour many of life’s best experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi has useful things to say about this too: rather than pass arbitrary judgements about what is worth doing and what is not, we should, he suggests, focus on developing complexity. No matter what the activity, doing it at a high level, with personal challenge and the resultant sense of both achievement and growing insight, should be our aim. This is what causes individuals to ‘grow’ as people, and what provides the incentive for further development. From the perspective of the employer, it is these attributes that will provide effective employees – and they are only delivered by a much wider type of education than one aimed specifically at ‘employability skills’. It is worth noting, however, that if such individuals are indeed desired, it is more likely that they will be autonomous and independent-minded – and less susceptible to domination or exploitation by unscrupulous or uncaring employers (or retailers). In a wider societal sense, this surely has to be a good thing.

I would argue, however, that it is not beyond the abilities of modern societies to come to at least a loose consensus over what the ‘good things’ in life are. These need by no means all be material, though many of them contain material elements. One of the problems with modern consumption is that it largely happens for the wrong reasons – and this too is partly an educational matter. If we accept even a vague notion of ‘the good life’, then it perhaps implies an expectation on the part of the individual to be able to access it. The problem is where those expectations are perceptually ‘located’ in people’s minds.

An economic reading of the world implies that most of one’s needs are satisfied externally, via some form of trade and consumption. While this is often the case, modern societies have taken it to such an extreme that it seems that anything one desires can be had depending only on the size of one’s wallet. This is a fundamental mistake: as study after study has shown, beyond a fairly basic level of material need, the acquisition of more externally-supplied assets does little in itself to create a more rewarding life, and may even do the opposite. The error is to believe that happiness comes from outside oneself. In fact, even in situations involving material goods, the satisfaction that they (can) bring is largely internal, through a developed sense of appreciation and enjoyment. Mere ownership, let alone competitive ownership, is not enough to do that.

The interesting thing from an educational point of view is the fact that the ‘only’ thing that separates an inexpert consumer from a connoisseur is the ability of the individual to appreciate what they have. It is not the ability to pay: there is nothing to stop a rich ignoramus from buying, for example an expensive wine that he or she will largely fail to appreciate, and nothing to stop a relatively impecunious connoisseur saving up for one from which he or she will derive far more satisfaction than the rich-but-inexpert person. The significant difference between the individuals is not their wealth but their complexity – and that is a matter that education can do something about. And yet even education, these days, is making the error of suggesting to people that it is their (financial) wealth alone that will provide a good life.

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.”

Grind

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.