Half-baked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sound of Silence

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“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.” Bertrand Russell

There is a way in which every one of us is alone in the world. Despite social media giving us a greater sense than ever of how we all belong to one great herd of humanity, there is much of life that can only ever be individual. Ultimately, it is not possible to delegate one’s experience of life, and everything that it might throw at you, to anyone else. It is down to individual resourcefulness to deal with.

Bertrand Russell had a lot to say on the subject. For me, his most memorable observation is the one above. Russell died in 1970 – but whether we have made much progress on this in the intervening half-century is moot to say the least.

The present situation, with around 20% of the global population in lock-down perhaps presents the ultimate test of his thinking. One of the things that has struck me in the past couple of weeks – and indeed continues to do so – is the level of unspoken alarm that many people seem to be exhibiting at the thought of not having work to do.

Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why work needs to continue; we cannot press the Pause button on life, because the clocks continue to tick. People have needs that cannot wait.

There may also be a value in work as displacement activity, if it helps distract from the more anxiety-making thoughts of the current time. But I still suspect that a lot of the – frankly excess – effort that seems to be going into “putting arrangements in place” still comes back to Russell’s observations about the human fear of under-occupation, and the unavoidable contemplation of existential issues that may follow shortly afterwards.

As an educator, I find this distressing. My professional raison d’être, as I see it, is to encourage and help people to develop their inner resourcefulness, through the only media that we ultimately have available to us – our minds and bodies. That was the original purpose of education – to develop the individual – not to create efficient but unthinking work-units. Ultimately, these are the only inalienable tools we have with which to buttress ourselves against whatever life does decide to throw at us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted exhaustive research into the experiences that people identified as giving their lives meaning and fulfilment – and he concluded that irrespective of culture, these were things that presented us inwardly with challenges that once mastered increase our sense of autonomy.

Yet somewhere along the way, this ideal has been lost. While we have repeatedly dreamed of a future with increased leisure time, the harsh reality is that we have, if anything, moved in the opposite direction. Even the world of education itself has lost sight of that holistic remit, and has increasingly focused on preparing people for a lifetime of work, a situation which, while it can present personal challenges of its own, in many cases has completely the opposite effect on people’s sense of autonomy and individuality.

This is a long-term trend that is observable in all developed societies: as economies diversify, more and more human activities are contracted-out to other providers – be that food production, child care, entertainment, or almost anything else. Modern media even, in effect, allow us to outsource our own need to think about things. We can just think with the herd – until we discover that the herd doesn’t really know how to think at all. There is perceived as less need to know things because we can resort to Google, and less need to develop intellectual agility as apps will do almost all of the thinking for us.

Except they won’t.

For a start, there is a huge difference between information, knowledge and understanding. In terms of the cognitive development that is so essential for a fulfilled human life, by reducing the need to work at things for ourselves, all the “conveniences” of modern life actually remove from us the need to work at our own intellectual development. They limit the development of our neural networks. Many of those media present us with pre-digested forms of information that require us to do nothing except vegetate and passively, uncritically absorb. The absence of the need to persevere, to struggle and to develop the patience necessary to do so, actually robs us of the mental resilience we find we still need when the world bowls us a spinner.

As I said, the education world has regrettably almost entirely colluded with this trend, in the name of inclusivity and “engagement”. The marketisation of education has turned students and their parents into passive consumers of educational services. That seems to have meant providing wall-to-wall conveyor of equally pre-digested content, without any opportunity ever to stop and seriously think about it. Because anything too demanding (i.e. anything that makes you demand too much of yourself) is likely to deter – and as we know, The Customer is always right.

Yet personal development is just not like that; there is only one way to do it, and that is to struggle with something for yourself. All of the scaffolding now available to learners often does little than defer (perhaps indefinitely) the enduring need to get to grips with German genders or violin vibrato. Let alone your comfort at simply being present with your own mind…

I think this trend has now been embedded in our society for so long that it is almost invisible. As a teacher, I have seen the “helicopter parent” become a more and more prevalent phenomenon; it now extends up the age range to those who are at and even beyond university. And it has been supplemented by the helicopter teacher, who (with, of course, the best of intentions) feels the overwhelming urge to stop at nothing supposedly to assist their students. We can hardly blame them, when social disapprobation can reach the levels that it nowadays does, and when in the case of teachers their careers can hang in the balance if they are seen to be doing otherwise.

But as Russell, I am certain, knew, it is all in vain. All the hyperactivity to create illusory structure and ‘purpose’ for our own and others’ lives cannot ultimately deny that fact that we must all meet our fates alone. I have long harboured an uneasy feeling that the ‘contracting out’ of so much of our lives does little other than render us more helpless, more dependent on others, less equipped to face things that only we will have to face.

What’s more, we deprive ourselves not only of the resilience that comes from self-sufficiency, but also the rewards. No one can learn to play the violin or speak a foreign language for you. Ultimately, we all must make such journeys for ourselves; to avoid the pain is also to avoid the gain – the deep satisfaction and ongoing fulfilment that comes from mastering something difficult, which thereby enhances our own autonomy and empowerment. The brilliant cellist Pablo Cassals, was asked why, in his eighties, he still practised. Apparently, he replied, “Because I think I’m improving”. To deflect others from (having to) do so is almost worse.

I don’t think any of the foregoing is to deny the need for the necessary to be done. There is no question that we can assist each other in all sorts of ways. But as a teacher, I have always kept in mind an image of young birds on the verge of flight: there comes a point when even the best teacher, even the best parent, needs to stand back and let destiny take its course. There comes a point when letting someone struggle (a bit) is the best form of support – and certainly the quickest method of learning. Perhaps the current situation is just such a moment?

I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not only the young who would benefit from the need to spend a bit more time for introspection, for facing the existential realities of who they are, what they stand for, and how they face the sheer, immovable dilemmas of simply existing. I’m not sure that providing more and more vicarious distractions that prevent people from ever facing their own inner selves is ultimately very helpful. It may be why, with the current prospect of enforced leisure, many are rushing around frenziedly trying to find anything and everything that will obviate the need finally to contemplate their own navels. It is a form of helplessness that makes the prospect of months of curfew all the worse, perhaps almost worse (and certainly more immediate) than the risk of viral infection.

I’ve had experience of this. Luckily, I seem to have a restless mind that almost never tires of entertaining itself. This may be a personality trait that is not shared by everyone – but I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to address the issue. It’s a matter of finding what engages you and absorbs you – but being engage-able in the first place is a skill that may need practice. For people who are used to finding their entertainment externally, looking inward may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But my experience of being largely housebound for much of the past three years (as well as being a lifelong hobbyist) is that, in the longer run, it is the inner world that is the more rewarding.

So if you are reading this as a home-constrained worker, a harassed parent, or an over-anxious teacher, I’m not suggesting that what needs to be done should not be done. But it is perhaps necessary to question what that “need” really is.

By all means seek ways of filling the time – but the best place to look is inwardly, not outwardly. Find a new skill, interest or ambition to fulfil. And if you are responsible for others, do not feel you have to fill their every waking moment. Now might be precisely the moment to give them the space and time to explore their inner resources. They are there – even if they need some looking for. The teachers amongst us might benefit our students from giving them the space they need to find themselves, rather than our insisting on doing it for them. It is not a dereliction of duty.

The current crisis might in the longer term shed some beneficial light on our modern human condition. Part of that might be to show the extent to which we have lost our resilience and self-sufficiency and inner lives. Don’t resort to wall-to-wall Netflix; find something more challenging and active to do – and encourage others to do the same. It might be tough to begin with – but you will soon learn to accept the outward silence – and listen to the internal conversation instead.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are we not more surprised?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there room for staff?

There was a thoughtful piece in The Guardian this week about the decline of the staffroom. One can easily see this issue as highly symbolic of the attitude of the education system to its key staff. I must admit I was not previously aware that legislation was enacted in England (only) in 2012 to remove the need for schools to provide any work or social space for teachers. One can only stand speechless at the utter short-sightedness such decisions.

The situation is more complex than it might seem. For example, the school where I passed the bulk of my career was very widely spread across its site: it had previously been two adjacent single-sex schools, which had merged in the early 1970s. It meant that facilities were relatively plentiful, but the distances involved made it difficult for the staff to congregate in one place regularly – particularly as the length of break and lunch times was cut back. Instead, team rooms were provided, and they were generally well-equipped and well used. However, as the emphasis shifted away from a central staffroom – and as the recent management seemed to lose interest in maintaining a cohesive staff body – the place inevitably fragmented.

From a situation where I knew everybody on the staff in my early years, we moved to one where I barely even recognised some colleagues, let alone knew their name or had spoken to them. I was not alone.

One can speculate on the reasons why school managements might take the decision to remove communal staff space – and as in the rather difficult situation described above, they are not inevitably insidious. As school roles hit the top of their cycle, the pressure on space inevitably grows. But it is still all too easy to suspect that the division of staff and the reduction of their ability to communicate with each other may prove to be an attractive side-effect (if nothing else) when seen from certain management perspectives.

Yet once again, the consequences of this approach may harm more than the teachers themselves – this is another example of what might seem a purely logical difficulty having real impacts that far more deeply damage the fabric and work of the school. The fact that such impacts are either not known or are under-estimated is another consequence of having bean-counters in control of places like schools.

Professional communication is made easier if one has at least the semblance of acquaintance with one’s colleagues; in later years I found myself collaborating with people who were basically complete strangers. In some cases, it was even necessary to spend time finding out who a particular individual was, and where they were to be found; the alternative of email, while useful, diminished the direct personal interaction which can be extremely useful when discussing pupil matters.

Furthermore, the opportunity for the informal sharing of good practice across the school was reduced, as inevitably was one’s sense of shared purpose with one’s colleagues.

But beyond all that one needs to ask what are the perceptions of teachers, both individually and as a body, in Westminster and more locally, to think they should not be given a personal space within a school. Perhaps more light is cast by the case mentioned in the article of the school where the staffroom had windows so that the pupils could see what was going on within. This speaks of the utterly misplaced priorities that see teachers as servants of the children. What does it ‘say’ that a school management should consider the children as having the right to see everything of the staff’s business – and that staff should not have anywhere on the premises where they can gain a little privacy when needed?

I would be extremely suspicious of accepting a job in a school that had no staffroom: for all the innocent ones, there are too many insidious reasons why this might be so. But once again, it is quite possible that this is another own-goal for the schools concerned too. It is a matter of basic principle that people do better work once their basic needs have been met; this includes the ability to be sociable, the ability to rest and have a break – and one might add the dignity afforded by privacy when it is needed. When these things are not met, the end result can surely only erode commitment and quality. And given this week’s government announcements about further intended measures to tackle over-work, one wonders whether thinking will be joined-up enough to address matters like this, which can only make the work-life balance, not to mention general well-being and morale, worse.

 

The kids are alright

I had not planned to follow up my last post with another on the same theme – but a rather lump-in-throat inducing session in my on-going talking therapy got me thinking – and then Bottomsbray’s latest post tipped the balance…

https://bottomsbray.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/it-takes-one-to-know-one/

The story of ‘Andy’ appeared to resonate, showing as it did one case where the claim that children’s futures lie entirely in their teachers’ hands was busted for the damaging myth that it is. While there are of course vulnerable and deprived children for whom school may be a salvation, the numbers of critical cases are, I suggest, relatively small; small enough not to predicate the entire system on them.

In any case, during my years teaching, I knew barely a handful of teachers who did not do their utmost for the children in their charge – and yet for most of those years, we were subjected to an unending barrage from a school which self-identified as “bullish” – of how much ‘better’ we needed to be, how we should never be satisfied with ourselves (a mentality perpetuated by some of the biggest voices in education), how there was always so much more we could and should do – and above all, how targets were therefore inviolable. Most people responded, and the levels of stress in the school were, on occasions, horrific. Despite this, most children went out to successful futures – while the staff were horsewhipped ever harder by successive managements to push the headline figures up into the mid 80’s and the school to a multiple- ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted grade. And when the figures finally dipped, as they always eventually do, the only response they could come up with was more of the same.

One day a couple of weeks before Christmas, my state of mind suddenly spiralled rapidly down into the pit again; we were out shopping, and bizarrely, by the time we got home, the various physical complaints that I had experienced for many years (but not for the last, medicated one) all suddenly re-appeared: muscle and joint aches – to the point I could hardly get out of the car, headache, extreme lethargy, digestive upheaval, to say nothing of the mental fog that closed off my ability to focus on anything. It got progressively worse for the rest of the day, until I turned in. By the following mid-day after a long sleep, I was virtually back to what currently constitutes normal. I was mystified – and went in search of information. I discovered that all those problems are known symptoms of depression. While I knew that physical pain could cause low mood, I had never before considered the opposite. Nor, apparently, do quite a few G.P.’s who, when presented with unexplained symptoms (just as I had done), tend to go in search of physical causes first. It seems that it is far from unusual for depressed people to experience physical symptoms even before any mental disturbance becomes evident.

This presented the possibility that the numerous ailments of just these sorts that I had been accumulating for perhaps ten years were in fact growing signs of a longer-rooted depression that had eventually got me. Hence the reason I am writing this: I wonder how many other teachers are out there are in a similar situation, not realising where they are heading. Not all may suffer the full consequences – but it is worth pondering.

And how many school cultures are causing it? I clearly remember the depressing effect – not just on me – of the constant message that we were never good enough, that we would damage children irrevocably if we did not do as we were instructed, the outright fear of being found wanting. The message was always that to be a teacher, you first need to be tough – and that meant taking, uncomplaining, whatever the school threw at you. The message was also that schools start from the assumption that their employees are lazy and feckless. But being tough is not, in my experience, the most important quality of a teacher: being sensitive to other people’s needs is. And being sensitive (and conscientious) makes you all the more likely to take seriously what your managers tell you they want.

If I made a mistake, it was precisely this: mortgaging my own sanity in order to do what they demanded. While I did express my doubts, I nonetheless worked unremittingly, under a constant cloud of worry about whether I was doing ‘enough’: that sounds very familiar in this profession. It was only recently, when the demands spiralled ever further up into the deep blue yonder of management fantasy, when they became clearly unworkable – and when they started denying that the school even had a stress problem –  that the whole thing really appeared as the sham that it is, and I eased up.

This is not about children’s welfare; it is about management hubris – or fear. The only rationale that can justify what is now being foisted upon teachers is the insatiable lust of some school managers for advancement for themselves, or (perhaps more likely?) the protection of their own positions. No rational understanding of child wellbeing or of furthering education is sufficient to justify the absurd amount of largely pointless work now (as E=mc²andallthat said the other day) being demanded of teachers, and which even Ofsted does not require. It is the regime of zealots and ideologues, who care nothing for the practical consequences of their own increasingly barmy mania.

https://emc2andallthat.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/markopalypse-now/

I am left with the possible conclusion that my difficulties were a lot longer-standing than I had considered; hence perhaps, why recovery is also taking a long time. Most of it was nothing to do with teaching children, so much as the entirely avoidable demands of an out-of-control system – a system which in the end applied such intense pressure to precisely my weak spot (my professional conscience) that I crumbled. My mistake was to be conscientious enough to take them seriously in the first place.

Meanwhile, plenty of kids like ‘Andy’ come out of the system none the worse for wear. Perhaps schools don’t always succeed (on their own terms) with them – but as ‘Andy’ shows, many are capable of making successes of themselves anyway, as they always have. He is not the only one I have encountered. In fact, the diet that schools force at such children is, in itself, perhaps counter-productive, even damaging: there was no way ‘Andy’ ever wanted – or was going – to be an academic. As a resolutely academic teacher, much of what I could offer was of little use to him; what I did provide – as he fondly remembered – was a patient, consistent, supportive adult. And even on that score, despite my suspicions that other role models may have been more appropriate, I think in a small way, I succeeded.

But school managements are not judged against people like him, or the kind of encounter that he and I had. And because of that, they apply pressure to people like me, who internalise it to their own cost, to do ever more work, the only Sisyphean rationale for which can be to cover management arses.

In a way, my experience is the price the education system now exacts from teachers for ‘Andy’s’ success. It is too big a price – made all the worse by the fact that it is largely needless. Based on the witness of those I know who are still teaching, I wrote something yesterday about the education system to a former colleague that I would never previously have contemplated:

“It is no longer worth sacrificing yourself for”.

Andy was O.K. anyway – and such is my enduring fragility that the realisation that much of that system-induced stress was actually for nothing, was indeed enough to induce a large lump in the throat.

G.I.G.O.*

I was delighted to read yesterday that Huntingdon School in York, where John Tomsett is head, received Outstanding judgement at its recent Ofsted inspection.

I have not met John but have followed him online for several years, and corresponded with him on a few occasions; indeed his comments regarding the compassion with which he believes one should treat one’s staff were what led me to the world of educational blogging in the first place. He also helped me, a total stranger, with a particularly knotty problem I needed to resolve a couple of years ago.

I suspect John’s school has its share of petty frustrations like any other, but it is refreshing to see in black-and-white a statement of faith from a school leader that places integrity and human values above the rat-race of results and league tables –  and his being acknowledged for it. He is absolutely right on two things:

  1. Life is not a zero-sum competition: enhancing the experience of each individual is what matters, not who comes first (thereby devaluing the efforts of all the others). In this country’s current cultural climate, this is a mistake that too many make. Competition can of course add challenge – but the only competition many people actually need is with themselves; the need constantly to ‘beat’ others is neither healthy nor necessary. And I suspect it is only really important to those alpha-individuals whose own motivation is the acquisition of status and power, even in the education system.
  2. Treating people properly pays dividends in terms of the loyalty and motivation they will show in return. This is a day-to-day truism, but it is particularly so when times are tough and a lot depends on goodwill. A memorable feature of my own career was watching the systematic destruction of such goodwill.

Meanwhile, it sounds as though another school of my acquaintance continues soullessly to chase ratings, while treating its people as dispensable pawns on the path to league-table glory. Some school managements give a strong impression that they think they are running an industrial production facility, rather than a human enterprise; I wonder what on earth drives them to do so, other than selfish ambition. It is certainly not compatible with any greater ethical, humane vision for education.

The only surprise is that they still seem surprised when people who have been treated with disdain return the favour in kind; quite how they feel entitled to expect so much while giving so little is a constant mystery to me.

Perhaps they should remember that it is no more a privilege for teachers to work for a school, than it is for the school to have them. Knowing that, I think is the key to John Tomsett’s success; I wish I knew of a few more head teachers who were following his lead.

*Garbage in, garbage out.

Notes from beyond 4: Are we all together in this?

If Gaby Hinsliff is to be believed, it seems as I’m not so much on the scrap-heap as in the vanguard of a revolution against the long-hours culture. If she’s right, people are tiring of the amount of time they are being required to give to their employers. Of course, there’s more to it than that, particularly in a vocation like teaching – but it is possible that a combination of stagnant wages, the country’s ever-growing wealth disparity and the sense that those in charge really don’t care very much really is causing the blinkers to fall.

In my case, I put my all into my career for thirty years, to an extent that is really only apparent now that I have stopped. It is what we were told we should do – by people whom, it turns out were offering illusory rewards, and who were interested in no one’s benefit so much as their own.

When, as a public sector employee one was then expected to endure pay restraint in order to bail out the bad boys of the financial sector who themselves largely escaped scot-free, one might start to ponder the distinction between having a vocation and being a mug. A few years ago, I listened to my local M.P., (herself formerly a highly-paid lobbyist for the tobacco industry) answer my question by lecturing that the public sector ‘has to bear its share of austerity’. What kind of fools do they think we are?

When one then sees those who manage (but rarely teach) not only preserving their own jobs at the expense of those in the classroom, but also awarding themselves (nationally, in percentage terms) an increasing share of the education pie, the impression can only be that the same insidious greed has infected our education sector too. “We need more!” was their ceaseless call while I worked for them; at no point did they make a serious effort to examine the impact on their employees’ wellbeing, let alone life-balance. It’s easy to emotionally-blackmail teachers, and they shamelessly used it to extract more and more from people. Eventually they exploited my own ill heath to save on the salary bill.

If it is indeed true that such experiences are widespread, then Hinsliff may well be right: especially at a time of national cynicism, people may (and should) be asking themselves significant questions about what they are doing with their lives. Just why should we be expected to accept that we foot-soldiers should do ever more now that it is increasingly apparent that the main beneficiaries are only the few at the top?

The impact of living to work is serious in less obvious ways too. A few days ago I was describing my new-found involvement with my local community to a former colleague; his reaction voiced something I have long felt: “Our society is suffering from the inability of people such as teachers, who have initiative and energy, to use them for the wider good because they have been so screwed down in their workplaces”. The live-to-work culture sweeps all before it – for what?

Hinsliff claims that vast numbers of people are doing huge amounts of unpaid overtime; why should they, when they seem decreasingly likely not only to see any benefits from this, but not even not to be treated harshly should the boss deem it necessary? I can well understand if people are starting to feel that loyalty should flow in both directions.

Hinsliff’s article reports on the growing number of people who are foregoing extra income (even at relatively low levels) because they are finding that time and quality of life are more important. Perhaps the current debate about mental health issues in society wouldn’t be so urgently needed, either, if this society itself were not so effective at making people sick in the first place. That is not an over-dramatic claim: as regular readers will know, it is my own experience.

These points all echo my own thoughts, for all that my situation was enforced. In some ways it feels rather selfish to be saying, “Enough – I want more time for me!” but at least I have already done three decades of public service. It is increasingly apparent that unless you are one of the privileged (and hypocritical) few, the current model will chew you up and spit you out with not a second thought for the fact that your life is as valuable as the next.

Medication side-effects aside, I now have the time available to attend to my own personal life first, for once. And to give better attention to the relatives, friends, neighbours and community with and in which I live. My daily routine is now such that people are commenting how much better I look; the body does not lie about such things, no matter whether it is likely to compromise corporate targets or not.

And in a world where some people have too much work while others don’t have enough, it ought to be easy enough to resolve this issue – were those in charge really at all interested in doing so. As one of Hinsliff’s (teacher) interviewees says,

“People want to have a family, or they want to have a social life. They don’t want to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” Would anything persuade him to return full-time? “I think things would have to change significantly, in terms of the expectations of staff.”

The deceit has gone on long enough, but I am afraid this country is becoming more, not less hawkish in its attitude to the world as a whole; those in charge (at all levels) very often seem not to give a damn.

In which case, the only person do something about this is us, each one our self.

https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/sep/16/part-time-working-revolution-people-want-family-social-life

 

Declining, not falling. Part 1.

Two weeks from now, for the first time in sixty years, there will be no teachers in my family. I will be just another private individual, removed from the in-some-ways very public role of teacher. Apart from a GAP year, this will also be the first time that my life has not depended directly on education. Or it would be, if you discount my wife’s university-paid income that will hopefully keep us alive while I figure out what to do next.

Education is in the news again at the moment, it being union conference season – but greater distance lends a different perspective. My plan is to record some of my thoughts at this unexpected point, assuming the still-faulty brain will permit.

My book remains unpublished. I have been repeatedly told that it is well thought-out and well-written – but the people who would want to read it (i.e. practising teachers) don’t have the time, and those who do are not interested in what I have to say. I think it was summed up by one reviewer, who on the strength of only the proposal decided (wrongly) that it would be nothing more than a personal polemic, lacking in references to accepted research and government policy.

So that says it all: those who actually do education are too snowed under actually to think about it, while those who make the decisions are not interested in what a classroom teacher has to say.

I am not ruling out teaching again, but it won’t be in the immediate future. I’m still feeling very hurt by what has happened. More likely, I will find some non-classroom role, as I’ve seen that the job I have been doing has progressively eroded my health and wellbeing to a point that is no longer acceptable. But I have other directions I want to explore first.

I suppose I am looking for some kind of closure on the last three decades – though it is unlikely really to happen, as I will probably never know for sure what the actual agenda was for pushing/neglecting a committed and long-serving teacher to the point of breakdown, and then ‘losing’ them, on the basis of a couple of disputed exam targets.

Normally, I would have jumped at the opportunity for five months’ ‘sabbatical’ – who wouldn’t? But I would not recommend my experience to anyone; I also now realise that the clouds of that storm had been brewing for considerably longer than I thought. But in the interim, my life has been transformed. I suppose every cloud has its lining…. I now have time to appreciate everyday life, to nurture relations with people around me, to value the simple but fundamental pleasures of life that hitherto were squeezed to almost non-existence by the ever-present weight of Teaching. I never lived to work, but I had failed to appreciate the extent to which my work had come utterly to dominate my life.

I’ve not turned against education; I was brought up to value it, and I believe it to be a cornerstone of a civilised society. It continues to enrich my own life in very many ways, and I still believe it is one of the greatest gifts that any society can offer its members. In troubled times, it is more important than ever.

But I have become increasingly disenchanted with what formalised education has become, in Britain at least. It is no longer doing that which I described above. It has utterly lost sight of its fundamental purpose, its methods and intentions hijacked by uncomprehending vested interests. I had a simple, even naive wish when I entered the profession: to cultivate and broaden the minds of up-coming generations and in particular to share my appreciation of those fields that interested me. The educational system has increasingly diverted, even prevented me from doing that, in ways and to extents that I have largely lost interest in being part of it.

A society that has lost the understanding to educate it people, as well as house and feed them, provide for their health and allow them to have a stake in its destiny is one that is heading down the pan. As I wrote nearly a year ago, recent national events have only fuelled that perception.

But the current education scene is, I believe more part of the problem than the solution. In the next post or two I will discuss why.  This seems widely known: I have not had a single person from a wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions tell me that I am making a big mistake in leaving, and I don’t think they are just being kind. They know teaching as presently configured is a fool’s (or a saint’s) job; I’m neither.

But perhaps the biggest indictment is that is it now extensively harming the basic welfare of those who go through it, whether as teachers or pupils. I don’t only mean mental health, though that is perhaps the sharp end of it.

And of that, I want no part.

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.