All the Aitches

I knew about the Danish notion of Hygge a long time before it became trendy. The Welsh also have a word, Hiraeth, which (being Welsh) is a rather more melancholy version. The Germans use the word Heimat to express an untranslatable sense of belonging to one’s roots. The English have no such word.

It was once suggested to me that in the lengthy exchange of words between English and French, the French take practical words from us (le parking) and we take abstract words from them (sang-froid). The Brits, it sometimes seems, are not much good at the intangibles of life.

If there remains anyone who does not now know, hygge expresses the sense of warmth and belonging, a sense of security and nearness to people and places one cares about. And what happened when the word arrived in England? It was turned into a retail concept, thereby instantaneously becoming a pale, insincere shadow of its authentic self.

For hygge, read education. Sitting as I am at a distance from the chalk face, but reading the occasional blog post as and when my addled brain will allow, I see another concept that has been debased almost beyond salvation. The British crave education – even as many seem to have little real understanding of what it is and how it is acquired.

The thing is, of course, education cannot be traded or turned into a retail concept – but that hasn’t stopped us from having a darned good try.

Grades can be subject to targets, production lines and ‘interventions’. Time lines and tick lists can be devised to demonstrate (as I saw on a recent Australian example) that Jonny ‘knows what he thinks about’ something (What? All the time? Without a shadow of reflective doubt?) – and can thus be given a grade for it. Job done.

But by quantifying the thing we think we want, its very essence slips away. We are no closer to educational Nirvana than ever, perhaps even further away. More bits of paper to our name, but no more enlightened about the world – or even about why those bits of paper are, in their own right, meaningless. A bit like Quantitative Easing – money with nothing to back it.

All because The System cannot see that the best things in life need to be left to just happen – cultivated, yes – but not commanded; they cannot be produced to order.

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Quality will out – part 1

kettle

In a rather unfortunate coincidence, our kettle and our fridge both expired recently. We have had the fridge for fifteen years – and the same kettle for nearly twenty. This is far longer than the average for such goods – but then we spent what seemed like crazy amounts on them at the time. In the mid-Nineties, £100 seemed an inordinate price for the simple ability to boil water. But both items proved to have been sound investments: the premium paid for ‘quality’ is not all hype, and in this little kitchen-sink drama, hindsight has justified the apparently counter-intuitive, even reckless behaviour at the time.

Not only have these goods lasted far longer than cheaper alternatives, but we have enjoyed the superior build, functionality and appearance that they afforded. The best choice is not always the most obvious, and certainly not the cheapest.

I am lastingly intrigued by what it is that constitutes ‘quality’; one might almost consider it a nature versus nurture question. ‘Best’ is of course subjective: it depends on what your criteria were in the first place – but to be too precious about that is to deny the fact that in these things, there seems to exist a hierarchy, albeit an elusive one, of something rather more objective. It is fairly clear that some materials are inherently more robust than others – but the qualities added by careful manufacture, not to mention ergonomics and aesthetics are less so.

I think it is important to accept that high quality is not an overriding concern for many people, and that is not necessarily wrong. It is quite possible knowingly to opt for less for entirely sensible reasons – but just because one might choose to do so is not in itself to deny the issue either. Neither is this a comment on personal taste: you can still respect the quality, even if you don’t like the style. Yet quality, it seems, will out – and certain people are prepared to pay handsomely for it, whether it concerns kettles – or education.

More controversially, I think that we use a similar judgement when it comes to people and places: I suspect that many would understand my impression that in the round, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark exemplify good quality, but Italy (for all that I love it) exasperatingly less so. I suspect many Italians might agree. Personal experience suggests that we instinctively judge people in a somewhat similar way, and this is not as insidious as might be thought. It is a natural human instinct to attempt to identify ‘them’ and ‘us’ or at least ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and we can be discerning without necessarily being condemnatory. In such matters, quality (or the lack of it) may not be entirely intentional, therefore we may refrain from judging, for all that we exercise choice.

One can speculate on what high quality means in education. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am unconvinced that it means what much of the educational establishment, or its political masters think. Quality as an aggregate concept may differ from that of the individual experience, but in educational matters, the only one that really matters is the latter, and I’m not certain that the one inevitably begets the other. It is possible to go to a good school and still have a lousy experience.

So, in my attempt to broaden the debate on selection, I am going to be shamelessly partisan for a moment. Naturally, I would want my child(ren) to have a high-quality education, and here is what that would mean to me in terms of choice of school:

A school:

  • That does not endorse the world of popular celebrity/pop/sports culture and use it as their default role model, as many seem to do.
  • That does not avoid high culture and thought on the grounds that it is difficult and inaccessible.
  • Whose dramatic productions are not an endless diet of musicals because that is all that will engage the pupils and maximise participation.
  • That has a library that isn’t called a ‘Learning Resource Centre’ or something such, while still containing a woefully small number of books.
  • That gives priority to learning over ‘engagement’, to wisdom over ‘winning’.
  • That has a serious, high-minded ethos, atmosphere and staff that pupils feel slightly in awe of.
  • Where teachers consider themselves to be vaguely academic, rather than ‘life coaches’ or youth workers.
  • That retains a sense of community in its annual rituals and extra-curricular activities.
  • That does not subordinate the greater liberal aims of education to maximising its place in the league tables.
  • That secures good exam results but understands that they are not the purpose of education.

Some will no doubt throw up their hands at this list – but I am not attempting to be consensual! The point is, this could explain why someone like me might just decide to send their child to a grammar school – or to choose to work in one. For all that others might have different values, there is little in my list that can be objected to on ethical or equality grounds. Neither is there anything in it about wishing to deny the same to others. And the order of priorities is not accidental.

I entirely respect the fact that a school’s job is not just to deliver what parents (think they) want. It has an important role as an intermediary between a developing person’s home life and the wider world. It is important that children are exposed to challenging ideas and different models. But the best way to do this is high-mindedly – hence the value I place on formal study rather than the touchy-feely kind. That is also why I have an aversion to schools appropriating popular culture, quite apart from the fact that it does not make them look cool.

It is the job of a school to be solemnly non-partisan. This is not at all the same as having no standards, which can be established through the wider ethos – but teachers should understand that their role is not to be surrogate parents, social workers, policemen, commercial agents or anything else. Teachers should present children with the wonders of the world for them to contemplate – but they should leave it up to them to work out, in due course, what to do with that inheritance. This is the only way to respect the sovereignty of even an immature individual and avoid accusations of indoctrination. In turn, the only way to help children understand how to do this is by teaching them the benefits and skills of higher level, impartial thought.

My list of preferences may seem unduly prejudiced against popular culture, and indeed it took me some time to work out why. Personally, I feel very uneasy when it comes to employing pop music, celebrities and other popular culture in the classroom. Part of this is because I regard most of such material as meretricious, talent-free junk and incompatible with my own ideals. But more importantly, this is stuff that children are all too widely exposed to elsewhere, often for utterly partisan reasons. I would not want my child to be exposed to this in the one institution that ought to rise above such endorsement. The whole point of a school is to expose children to things they would not otherwise encounter, not to reinforce the low-brow, self-promoting rubbish they get everywhere else. And in any case, I suspect that children generally want to keep such things as their own space without adults invading.

I accept again that this all is entirely partisan; not all popular culture is rubbish. As part of the world it deserves some impartial consideration – but not implicit or explicit endorsement. There is also the small matter than most of the ‘difficult stuff’ arguably just happens to constitute the peak achievements of human culture, knowledge and endeavour – and for teachers to fail to expose children to it on grounds of low popularity is, in my view a betrayal of what our profession is supposed to be about.

I know too many people of my generation who owe their appreciation of the higher aspects of life to various teachers, ever to approve of the descent into populism that much of the education sector has since pursued. I should add that I am not only considering academic matters either: people from my own school ended up as senior engineers, respected musical instrument-makers and more so it’s not just narrowly academic. The point is, low-brow education simply does not expose people to the levels of excellence that might inspire them to follow suit. Neither is this just a matter of culture: it has been commented on several times recently that the U.K. is a nation of excellent consumers – but it has lost the ability to be an excellent producer of very much at all.

Part two (tomorrow) will consider the implications of this for how education is organised.

Gridlock

Theresa May has done us a favour. I think it is high time that educational paradigms are discussed again: all the tweaking and meddling of the past decades have made for a complex muddle, and is perhaps an acknowledgement that the current system is still not providing as well as it might.

That is not the same as taking sides on the Grammar Schools issue. But the assumption by some/many of the pro-comprehensive majority that their preference is so morally and practically superior that the alternatives warrant nothing more than outright dismissal is both wrong and unprofessional. In many walks of life, such an approach would be considered rather suspect. There is enough evidence from around the world that it is more complicated than that. The present system arguably has at least as many flaws as the alternatives; much of the additional workload and pressure on teachers and schools seems to be caused by the need to counter these issues in what are possibly sub-optimal situations. It is right that an open debate should take place.

In the past few weeks, I have heard several local stories about Saturday road-gridlock on what turned out to be Eleven-Plus morning. I must admit, it had not fully registered how the exam has changed. It turns out that grammar schools now largely administer it themselves, as most primaries refuse to have anything to do with it.

It seems to me that this only accentuates the undesirable aspects of that exam, since it favours those with the awareness/determination/ability to reach those venues at the weekend. Very probably this is primarily those who have also paid for coaching etc. and it may disadvantage those, for example, whose parents are at work on a Saturday.

Contrast this with my experience from 1974, when the Eleven Plus took place anonymously as one amongst a series of relatively low-key tests conducted in the final-year classroom at primary school. This reduced pupil stress (although we did know what was happening) and it also meant that the entire mixed intake of that school had equal access to the exam. It seems to me that this was about as fair as that system could get.

On balance I do not agree with the Eleven Plus as the sole method of selection: there are other, if more complex alternatives. But it is not the entirely fault of the grammar schools that the system has been distorted like this, and therefore the present iniquity of the exam is weakened as an argument against selection more widely. It is just another example of what happens when what is effectively deregulation creates a free-for-all.

This weekend, I will make my final offering in this debate. It is in two parts, and examines the reasons why the gridlock still occurs. I think this matter is not being faced.

My motive for banging on about this at length is simply the desire to see the issue properly debated. When one repeatedly encounters occasions where senior colleagues use their platform openly to denounce the issue without any apparent regard for considered differences of opinion or the offence they may cause, it reinforces the view that dogma is taking precedence over debate.

In my case this only strengthens my determination to ensure that the alternative side is properly heard. It does not mean that my own views are entirely one-sided. Equally, from my induction into this profession thirty years ago, fully subscribing to the comprehensive model, my concerns have grown steadily that it may not be the best way of addressing many people’s – or society’s – educational needs. The alternatives surely warrant more substantial consideration.

 

 

Dead Cat Bounce – part two.

Were I a parent, I would wish my children to have a traditional academic education, provided they were suited to it. Yes, I suppose I am educated middle class, but I am not knowingly part of any conspiracy – unless by that we mean my wish to preserve my own values along with the next person. My reasons for considering a selective education would not be to deprive others of the same, but simply to exercise a reasonable choice. But the reality is, strict academic education is probably only suited for – and desired by – a relatively small part of any population. History dictates that we try to foist it on everyone; we need to get real.

But I can see no reason why the fact that others’ needs lie elsewhere should deprive those who do value these things from having them – otherwise we are guilty of nothing more than another, equally insidious form of discrimination. What is more, the more difficult access became to what I desired, the harder I would be prepared to fight to secure it. This is why competition is so fierce for what grammar school places remain.

What we are forced to confront here is nothing less than the Social Contract: the relationship of rights and responsibilities between individuals and the society in which they live. In particular, the right of society to constrain or arbitrate the choices of individuals, the obligation of citizens to accept this – and the obligation on society to provide what they want in the first place. It has only become more complex as society has succeeded in educating and empowering a larger fraction of its members.

There are frequent calls from those who oppose selection to encourage the ablest teachers to work in the poorest areas. I am not going to decry that, so long as coercion is not involved, and there is reasonable evidence that people of certain talents can indeed make a huge difference in that situation. But what is being called for here is nothing more than another form of selection. This is a form of positive discrimination that the opponents of academic selection are often entirely happy with, and I suspect that if May had announced a different form of specialisation, that explicitly boosted the chances of the underprivileged – perhaps even providing preferential treatment for them – then the objections would have been far more muted.

So I would like those who might object to aspirations like mine to explain why, if it is right that if the opportunities of disadvantaged children should not be frustrated by others, it is then right that an especially able child’s prospects should be compromised in return. All this does is create a different fall-group.

True equality of opportunity should not mean its removal from those who already have it. And yet that is almost inevitably what it does mean. The most likely outcome of failing to nourish outstanding talent is that it will never fully flourish.

As I said in part one, the evidence of my eyes is that children who are indifferent or worse to academic subjects normally outnumber those who really take to them; it is not even fully a reflection of ability. This is true even in a school with a positive ability-skew, such as mine. I do not decry the non-academic: it is just that their needs are different, and in my experience, by default they normally take tacit precedence.I daily confront the problem of classes with reasonable numbers of willing children being compromised by the indifferent majority.

What is more, the claim that comprehensives encourage social mixing has only minimal traction. My experience is that children, too, largely self-select and stick with their like. In a school with a wide ability and income range, the effect is to stigmatise and disaffect the less-successful, or less wealthy, all the more. This point is often dismissed by proponents of comprehensives – but it too is what I see every day.

I cannot see that it is right that those with the values and aptitudes to benefit most from any rigorous, high-level opportunity should be deprived it because there are those who will not or do not. That should apply equally to vocational education – as it already does, uncontroversially, to fields such as elite sport. In all such situations, it requires deep concentrations of like-minded people to achieve this.

Here we encounter another of the fallacies of those who oppose selection: that it casts ‘the rest’ onto the scrapheap.

There is certainly potential for this to happen – but it is more about social attitudes and alternative provision than it is an inevitable outcome of such systems. In the past, the U.K was not good at this. One might cite Germany, where the majority of children opt for technical schools, and there is certainly little sense of inadequacy about them – or that country’s industrial and technical sector. Countries differ in their cultures, of course – but around Europe, there is no strong evidence that selective systems enhance social division, nor that non-selective ones do the opposite.

The failure to offer high-quality alternatives to selective academic schools is not in itself an argument against the principle of them, or of selection as a whole.

To me, it seems preferable to enable those from under-represented backgrounds who demonstrate commitment and/or aptitude to be admitted to places that will nurture it, than to deprive everyone of it simply because all cannot have it – or choose not to want it.

And while it is easy to argue for social integration in principle, many of those who do so would, I suspect draw their own lines at mixing indiscriminately with those they themselves deem unacceptable. In other words, the fine words mask a deep hypocrisy. Very few people make no distinctions whatsoever when it comes to these matters. I am unapologetic that in my own life there are those whom I find so disagreeable or destructive that I choose to avoid them. I can see no good reason why I should be forced to mix with them, if only for (perceived) self-preservation – though this is not to deny their right to exist.

One might argue that good influences will rub off – but my regrettable experience is that it is often the coarse, indiscriminate and ruthless who prevail, because they lack the restraints of conscience and empathy that others perhaps possess. I would go so far as to suggest that the ‘success’ of attempts to increase social integration can be seen in the increasing coarseness of our national discourse and standards of public life – even amongst those sectors of society who in past eras might have felt obliged to uphold higher quality.

 Society needs extraordinarily talented people – wherever they come from – not least because they provide disproportionately high returns on the extra resources invested in them. In the long run, this is to the benefit of all – but they need specialist provision.

This is why this issue is ideological: is it desirable to achieve social and educational equality even if that means levelling people down rather than up? There is no straightforward conclusion to that: it is possible to argue either way. For several decades, Britain, for understandable reasons has decided that it is, but globally, historic attempts to do so have all failed. And as with everything, there is a cost. In this case, it might be seen in the quality of our society – be that in the productivity and skills-base problems we face, the erosion of that part of society more inclined to uphold civil standards – and, one might add, the resultant increasing inclination of those who can, to  buy their way out of the system.

 One of the consequences of denying certain sectors of society what they desire is that they will look elsewhere for it. But the means they have to do so are rarely equal.

All social settlements are compromises, education included. Selective education is by no means a perfect solution, and it does have potentially serious downsides. But it is a mistake is to pretend that the same is not true of the alternatives. And then it comes down to which is the least worst.

This is not to argue for deliberate discrimination against the already under-privileged; it is true that we can ill afford to ignore their talents, and it is true that the most serious problem with selective education as it has been delivered in this country in the past, is the perception and reality of what happens to ‘the rest’. But that is an entirely different issue from whether education should be used as a social leveller – which is the actual agenda of those who oppose selection. What is more, acts of wanton destruction are being committed in its name: who for example can justify the dilution of a high-achieving school’s academic standards on the grounds of increasing equality of access. In precisely whose interest is this?

So far I have concentrated very much on one aspect of the debate here, at the expense of others.

But there is almost no discussion about the multiple geometries that might exist. The worst culprit is the conflation of selection as a whole with academic selection, followed closely by its conflation with the Eleven Plus exam. In both cases there are other possibilities – but as so often, this debate is reducing to black-or-white false dichotomies which do nothing to resolve such matters.

For example, there is no reason why selection could not be at least partly consultative: I would agree that in this era, the ability of schools unaccountably to pick and choose is neither democratic nor a reasonable distribution of authority. That said, schools (or some form of arbitration) might provide a more objective judgement than individual parents, who will largely fight for their own interests.

One might also have a discussion about the merits of selection by aptitude as opposed to ability; this would deal with the problem of academically-weaker but motivated children. But where is this debate? In this case, one can present a case for specialisation, whereby children could choose between various types of school according to their preferences as well as abilities. I suspect that much of the sense of injustice around selection comes from the fact that it is imposed – but this need not be so.

 The existence or otherwise of selective system is a different argument from how the selection occurs, and on what basis. Selection does not exclude a consultative process, nor the idea that it can be based on aptitude rather than raw ability. Neither need it inevitably occur irrevocably, nor only at eleven years of age.

I began by accepting that there are many very strong points against selection; I fully share some of them. Grammars are no more a panacea than anything else.

One might mention, for example, that my notion of what a grammar school is, was forever shifted from the modest but traditional one I attended by the experience of attending interviews many years ago at two in Kent. Both appeared poorly run, with widespread complacency amongst staff and pupils and with little challenge. This is simply not acceptable.

One might also accept that grammar schools are not what they were – the practice of tutoring and cramming is certainly much greater than it used to be, and this very probably plays to the disadvantage of those who do not receive it. But that might be seen as a symptom of a situation, or an expression of wider changes in society rather than an inherent problem, and there are ways to neutralise it.

My experience of parents facing the morality of the selection dilemma is not that they seek unfair advantage; it is that they are fleeing from what they see as poor alternatives elsewhere. That would be my experience too: I am simply not confident that even a good comprehensive could deliver the kind of education that I would want for a child of mine.

This situation already exists – but it is a free-for-all based on pushiness and wealth rather than anything fairer or more regulated. It is true that in such a situation, the less advantaged will probably lose out. But we need to ask why certain sectors of society have this perception to begin with. Trying to prohibit it will not work – as with all prohibition, it just tends to send the problem underground. Seeking to deny those people who pursue this course their choices will make no fairer society than denying any other sector their rights – but spreading the benefits more widely could.

It is also not wholly true that grammar schools are simply private schools on the cheap; this is another careless generalisation by their opponents. Grammar schools often provide for those who value academic education but lack the wealth to pay for it; in that sense they are part of the fight against the privileges of wealth, as embodied by the private sector. That is the error of understanding of those who unquestioningly oppose them. Education has been so portrayed as a simplistic fight against privilege that all the other arguments have been marginalised.

 The caricature of a grammar school as being packed with self-serving middle class types is not one I recognise. By no means all grammars are ‘posh’.Even if that is the modern reality, it may more reflect the shortage of desired provision, rather than a conspiracy. The presence of more such schools would weaken such sharp-elbow tactics, while the replacement of the Eleven-Plus with alternative methods would neutralise the ability to exam-cram. This is not an argument against the existence of such schools.

Even if middle-class pushiness is objectionable, in a fair society why are such people to be denied access to what they too desire, so long as this is not at the expense of others?

This is also in part the cause of the exam-factory education that we have today. In schools where reluctance is the dominant pupil characteristic and schools are judged on how well they overcome it, it is hardly surprising that sweatshop coercion has become the method of choice. The casualty has been any sense of education as being of intrinsic value.

For many, it may never be – but time after time, I encounter pupils who ought to have a wider appreciation – but don’t. And as a teacher, I earnestly believe that some of my own energies and aptitudes have been wasted because non-academic schools have no use for them – and I have been forced to become a conveyor-belt teacher, even though that does not best suit my temperament or abilities. Yes, I am myself a legacy of a grammar school – but the qualities they imbue, of which I hope I possess a little, are in severe decline in this country, to our repeated, collective disadvantage.


 

In Zurich, even the Gnomes use the trams. Certainly, one may observe a great cross-section of Swiss society on public transport; even buses do not carry the negative social connotations that they do in the U.K. Plenty of people in the more urban areas rarely use their cars.

I deeply sympathise with the instincts of those who argue that social cohesion needs to be strengthened, but I cannot see that this can be done by coercion. It is true that the worst problem of selection is what happens to those who are not selected. But the refusal to allow individuals and social sub-groups to exercise choices that reflect their own values results in a less free society, rather than the opposite.

In Switzerland, the people who do not send their children to state schools are seen as a curiosity. Very few people opt out of the system (which is selective, but consultatively so), just as people of all backgrounds use public transport and most residential districts are far less polarised in this country. But the only way to achieve this in a modern, educated democracy is to create a system that is so good that people choose to opt into it rather than the opposite.

 The way to increase social cohesion is to provide as many high-quality pathways as possible. This encourages people to opt in rather than out. Forcing everyone through the same ‘average’ mould will only result in those who can, opting out in favour of what they prefer. This is precisely what has fuelled inequality in Britain.

That demands a commitment to excellence, a significant amount of resourcing, and an acceptance of natural human diversity with commensurate willingness to accommodate and cater for it. Trying to achieve the same thing by forcing all through the same mould can only accentuate the resentments and divisive forces that are such a feature of modern Britain. It is this point that those implacably opposed to selection in education cannot see.

What I have discussed above is not in itself sufficient to say that we should have selective education, let alone that we must. The problem of what happens to the non-selected vexes me as much as anyone else – but as I have shown, there are other geometries that are never even discussed.

Theresa May seems to have picked a fight she will probably lose – and made it worse by couching it in terms of a return to the past. But I think the argument about increasing choice is correct; what we need to be having is a discussion about how such choices are made, and between what alternatives.

The problem with grammar schools is not them – but how bad the alternatives were allowed to become. We should be offering better choices to those for who do not want an academic education and are alienated from school by it. There is no reason why one alternative should not be comprehensives: I think there are plenty of the ‘more privileged’ who would send their children to them on equally ideological grounds. But it would also no longer deny a strict academic diet to those who wanted it. Technical schools should be another choice. Percentage admission rates and other criteria should be part of the discussion.

Someone once said that the civilisation of a society is measured by the way it treats its minorities. In modern Britain, it is those (of whatever background) who value liberal academic education and a high-functioning intellect who increasingly constitute the minority. Who will fight to protect their rights?

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?

 

Maybe the twain could meet…

Last week’s lesson observation fortunately went well, but as so often, the greatest insight was unexpected. After the observer had departed, the Year 9 class, who had put themselves instinctively on their best behaviour (there are still some one can rely on) relaxed somewhat. They had done 45 minutes of formal study of the possibilities for widening wealth distribution in India. They had worked hard and asked pertinent questions, and had told the observer that they found the subject interesting.

But towards the end of the lesson, many expressed exhaustion at the effort required to sustain their concentration for “so long”. For my part, I had been thinking that it was just what I would expect a normal, undisrupted lesson to be like, pretty much like how every lesson used to be when I was at school.

These are children who can expect a crop of top exam grades in a few years time – and yet quite innocently, they confessed that sustaining concentration for three-quarters of an hour was an exceptional demand on them. Yet again I was momentarily transfixed by the starkness of the contrast between what I consider to be a normal teacherly expectation and the starting-point of even able children. It occurred to me that summed up in that simple exchange lay the entirety of the conflict of expectation I quite often experience with my classes.

The experience cast new light on the complaints, later in the week, of another class, that the assessment I had set them was “so difficult” (it wasn’t) – as though that was an unreasonable thing to do. Somewhere, we have failed to transmit suitable expectations to these children – and to prepare them to be able to meet them.

I’ve been asked several times recently what I think of the protests over the testing regime. I’m in two minds. I can remember, even in primary school, doing sustained reading tests, and a series of others, one of which we were dimly aware was the Eleven Plus; I don’t think we felt greatly stressed by such things- it was just what the teacher gave us. And while the yearly grammar school exam regime was distinctly draconian compared with anything I witness now, and we hated it, we coped.

I have few issues with testing as such, even the proposed base line tests, as I think teachers do need to know who and what they are dealing with: how else can they devise suitable strategies or assess successful learning? On the other hand, the stress that testing causes may well be unhelpful, and I also have deep reservations about the way in which modern education in the U.K. has turned into factory-farming. I am increasingly convinced that the narrowness of the regime and the degree of compulsion backing it is a major cause of the indifference and indolence amongst young people that I referred to in my previous post. I worry that a great deal of the wider educational experience and benefit has been lost, to our collective impoverishment.

The balance between rigorous standards and a broad education is being presented as an irresolvable dichotomy. I don’t think it need be so, and a lot of it comes down not to the children at all, but to those who frame education. For all that I propound a rich, wide and intrinsic purpose for education, I don’t think that this needs to be advanced by unstructured classroom ‘play’. Teachers should model high-level intelligent thought and transmit the message that a serious but broad mind is a desirable asset, that is as personally rewarding as it is practically useful. The achievement of such a state demands high levels of concentration and thought, which children need to be shown and expected to work for. They need to be given a serious-minded programme (including due testing) that equips them for this. Unstructured ‘fun’ in the classroom clearly sets up an entirely different, and in my mind inferior, expectation which serves children increasingly badly as they get older.

The issue of stress is, I think, vicarious. My impression is that most is not coming from the children, but their parents and teachers. Undoubtedly this transmits to the children too: why wouldn’t it if the significant adults in their lives are constantly trumping up the stakes and exhibiting serious signs of anxiety themselves? The fact that these adults increasingly believe that education is a zero-sum game (which is, after all what they have been told) is where the stress comes from. With base-line tests, helicopter parents will be anxious that their little dears do not besmirch the upbringing they have thus far been given, or fail to exhibit the early signs of genius; the SATS of course are a public trumpeting of the success or otherwise of both the parents and the schools upon which multiple fortunes hang.

The problem is neither formal teaching and testing nor the breadth of the curriculum, which need not conflict at all – but the stakes we are being made to play for. I suspect that if we were just to shut up about all this, children would pass more smoothly and perhaps more successfully through a balanced regime of testing-within-learning without all the angst that is supposedly being created along the way.

And if we were also to shut up about education needing to be both ‘fun’ and economically relevant, if we allowed teachers the autonomy to model their own good practice and to make enlightened decisions about what to teach, we could restore the balance between the demands of formal study and the intrinsic value that allows it to remain interesting to children, in a way that could indeed resolve a multitude of problems.

St. Jude’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Grammar 2 – Missed Opportunity

To my mind, the greatest missed educational opportunity of the past century was the failure fully to implement Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Several of our more educationally-successful neighbours have had systems broadly similar to that which Butler proposed for a long time, and they arguably have an advantage over us in what they achieve.

I argued in my previous post that there is a perfectly valid egalitarian argument to be made for separating children according to the type of education that they and their parents desire. Perhaps Corbyn’s Labour Party needs to re-examine its opposition to ‘selection’ in its quest to attract new voters.

While putting the onus on families admittedly leaves the door open for neglectful ones to abrogate their responsibilities, just how much responsibility should the state be expected to pick up in such situations? While real deprivation is indefensible, I wonder how much of the lower-aspiring part of the population really is unhappy with its life  – and how much of the ‘problem’ is actually the projection of educated, middle-class ambition onto those who may not want it. I would argue that the best motivator for those who wish for something else is their own aspiration, and the job of the system is to make sure that it does not actively obstruct them. I would also argue that a truly free society is one where people are able to make such choices even if they appear undesirable to others; one could even argue that the determination of those who experience rags-to-riches lives might not have existed were it not for their starting point. I certainly see many affluent children for whom complacency is the main enemy.

Nonetheless, the comprehensive/selective dichotomy is actually a false one, a reaction to what actually came of the Butler Act rather than what was intended. There are other alternatives. This is not to say that the Act got everything right, or that it would still be right now, but had Butler been seen through I think we would be in a significantly better position now than we actually are.

I suspect that many in education in the U.K. only really value academic success because they perceive it as a mechanism for social change; that is why they push the under-privileged agenda so hard, when true intellectual development ought to be available to all irrespective of other circumstances. Their willingness to under-value bright children gives them away. The good news is, you don’t actually need to be rich to be a Thinker – but I hear relatively little in my day-to-day work about intellectual development for its own sake. It mostly seems to be seen as a means of delivering material gain.

The role of Government should be to establish the framework and prevent or correct abuses of the system, rather than attempting large-scale pre-emptive social engineering. While this might be seen as a right-wing outlook, there is nothing un-egalitarian about maximising people’s autonomy and opportunity so long as it doesn’t then adversely affect others. In fact, this is the Left’s dilemma: top-down dirigisme is incompatible with people’s sense of self-determination, and it needs to resolve this conflict. Yet this largely remains the way in which education is framed. In educational terms, opportunity and freedom should be expressed as increasing the genuine choice available to people rather than forcing everyone through the same mould; the role of government should be to ensure that the choices are equitably provided for, and (ideally) equally regarded.

So what might such a system actually look like?

To begin with, the tinkering of recent governments through various forms of school specialisation goes nowhere near far enough. Choice is meaningless when all available alternatives are actually purveying pretty much the same thing.

Had Butler been seen through, each locality would by now have had an academic school, one or more technical schools and some general schools. This would be the minimum guaranteed provision; the actuality would need to reflect local demographics. This would have presented real choice, provided sufficient capacity was available, which in turn would rely on funding that permitted a degree of excess capacity to persist.

Primary schools would exist very much as now, though their role might move further towards identifying children’s early aptitudes. While they would focus on core skills there would be no need to prepare for the Eleven Plus, since this would not exist – anywhere. They would however need to record each child’s development in a way that supported the important choice that was to come later. It is worth remembering that in most continental systems, children start school at a later age without adverse educational effects later on; establishing a secure home life is seen as more important for the very young, and the social security system promotes this.

There would be a policy decision to be made whether a child’s future pathway was to be chosen at eleven or later; there is an argument that it should be at fourteen, and this is the direction that continental countries seem to have taken – an age where preferences and aptitudes are becoming clearer. In this case, there would need to be some form of generalist middle school, which could perhaps be collapsed with later-years primary as indeed happened under the middle school system. Again, the focus is on securing the basics and preparing for the later stages of education.

A fourteen-to-eighteen upper school could then better reflect the educational phase that all young people now effectively experience anyway, at the cost of a little continuity. A consultation process would need to take place to establish not ability, but aptitude and preference for a particular path. This would need to draw on evidence from previous schooling as well as parental and pupil choices. While this may sound unworkable, it is effectively the system by which this phase of education is determined in Switzerland – a combination of track record, preference and school consensus, with no sudden-death, high-stakes exam for which the more-advantaged can be primed. It is worth noting that independent schools are seen, as a Swiss friend memorably put it, “Only for children who have something wrong with them” (!)

The advantage of such a system is that it would present greater real choice to individuals, while also making them responsible for those choices. Schools would need the ability to transfer pupils who had made inappropriate choices or who were otherwise not meeting requirements. An independent appeals process would also be needed.

I don’t think that the academic schools would inevitably end up as the most popular; technical schools could easily involve support from industry and might well end up better resourced than the academic ones. I suspect there would be considerable demand, not only from the less able; aged fourteen, I might have been tempted to take that path myself, and might have worked harder as a result. Academic schools arguably do not need so much hardware in any case, and would probably benefit from being smaller – but they would need to be highly academic (relative to pupils’ ability), in order to attract only those who really wanted that approach.

It is likely that general schools would be more numerous and hence closer to home for many; these might however be more problematic in terms of perception, but they could be acceptable so long as they were properly resourced and not publicly vilified – something similar to a community school. Or they might not be needed. I suspect that those who desired specialised facilities would be prepared to travel further so long as cost did not prevent.

This is of course only a theoretical outline and it would not be perfect. But by providing real choice, sharing responsibility between schools and families and removing the social stigma of the Eleven Plus it could work, as it does elsewhere. By focusing on individual realisation rather than socio-economic competition, it might start to tackle both the inequality and the snobbery that so infest the current system, in a way that overt social engineering has not.

There are other coherent cases to be made, but it seems to me that we help no one by confusing socio-economic arguments with educational ones – and while we point-blank refuse even to discuss some issues for purely ideological reasons, we may be overlooking workable solutions that lie beneath our very noses.

Better and Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Watch

Some years ago, we used to use an exercise called The Golden Watch as an ice-breaker at sixth-form induction. It established a moral dilemma over acting honestly in a workplace situation. There was clearly a ‘right’ solution, but my abiding memory is of the significant numbers of students who failed to choose it. On more than one occasion, the view was voiced that it’s only wrong to cheat if you get caught;  well, I suppose this is an area where many parents work in The City…

But in my naivety, I was repeatedly shocked at the number of (one might hope idealistic) young people whose moral compass appeared so different from my own.

I have worked my entire career in a climate of Thatcherite neo-liberalism – and in close proximity to the national (if not global) hub of it all at that. On turning eighteen, I voted for Thatcher during her first two terms – having grown up during the retrenchment of the Seventies, the bright new ways of the Eighties offered a shiny optimism I hadn’t experienced in Britain before. I also remember on entering the teaching profession, a number of colleagues struggling even to make themselves speak to me once this news was out.

Yet, I find myself this weekend in the somewhat surprising position of being labelled (by proxy) ‘Hard Left’. Yes, I am one of the several hundred-thousand who have affiliated to the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn, the left-winger unexpectedly leading in the leadership contest. Ironically, I suspect that it is now some of my younger colleagues who are going to refuse to speak to me on the outing of this news – and I thought one is supposed to become more conservative as one grows older…

I have always had reservations about teachers being politically active; it is within their personal rights of course, but the conflation of teaching with political indoctrination has always been rather close for comfort. I certainly remember some teachers who did not always stay on the right side of that line.

But I also consider that I have a wider societal responsibility as a supposedly- educated professional. I have seen the changes wrought during decades of free-market doctrine. I’m not suggesting that these were solely caused by specific political policies – but there can be little doubt that this country’s chosen path has made it more possible for certain trends to emerge than might otherwise have been the case. The worrying thing is the self-perpetuating consensus that has taken hold that there is no other way, and which is endlessly repeated by commerce – and all of the mainstream political parties. As impartial educators, we have a duty to encourage the questioning of such claims.

I know other even wealthier countries, and have observed numerous cohorts of their young from close quarters. I know that the values the students expressed in The Golden Watch are by no means equally prevalent everywhere, and while increasing wealth does not inevitably bring greater social responsibility, it does not have to bring greater amorality either. It’s more a matter of the thinking that is encouraged about how that wealth should be made, and how it should be used. As one writer to The Independent put it, it’s about whether we want to become more like Denmark or the U.S.- and this is, to my mind, clearly an educational question.

I no more have an answer than anyone else to the deep philosophical conflict between social solidarity and individual opportunity, but I am certainly not ‘intensely relaxed’ about living in a society where the few are ‘filthy rich’ (to quote New Labour’s Peter Mandelson) – at least while inequality is a great as now. The privatised market-economy simply has not delivered what was claimed – and if anything has decreased opportunity, increased costs and coarsened life for the majority. Utilitarianism – whether from politicians or sixth-formers – may appear to be a practical answer to modern problems until one realises that ‘ends justifying means’ effectively unleashes a race to the bottom in terms of the moral and democratic benchmarks of society.

I find it difficult to support the rampant individualism pedalled by my (as no doubt many) schools, when it leads young people to have no higher principles than those I described earlier; this is a product of an Affluenza mentality that promotes self-interest (even in academic performance) as more important than anything else. But I work in education to further a fair and just society, where honesty, authenticity and the life of the mind are valued – not the kind of debased dog-eat-dog, society-as-market-transaction that has now taken hold. Many of the people currently ringing the alarms about the supposed resurgence of the hard left themselves seem so deeply saturated in market values, that they simply cannot conceive of anything else. And it is just not acceptable for people who dissent from this not to be able either to advance their arguments or to expect to be represented.

Corbyn is simply expressing values that I agree with, and he has a plain-talking sincerity that other glossy, career-politicians clearly just don’t ‘get’. I admire his refusal to engage in negative campaigning – and I would have been attracted to this no matter what party he represented. The crude, false-dichotomy terms in which much debate in British public life is now couched must itself raise concerns for the skewing effect it has on public understanding and debate. More than ever, we need an educated population that can cut through the c**p. It is not true, for instance, that all of Corbyn’s supporters are Militant Tendency cryogenes – some like me are just people who are fed up with a non-choice of self-aggrandising politicians and their unvarying diet of pulp commercialism.

Neither is it true that there is no alternative to the market society – it exists quite comfortably just across the Channel; is it a coincidence that those more ‘socialist’ societies are in many cases more stable, tolerant and outward-looking than our own? As a teacher, these are issues that deeply inform my professional purpose.

I do have concerns that the far-left would reassert progressive education, but hopefully the traditionalist genie is too firmly out of the bottle now to be put back. And this is certainly no more concerning than the deep damage that has been done to education by the imposition of market principles on what should be an impartial provider of social capital.

Corbyn’s actual electability is, in a sense, beside the point: what is important now is to create a wider choice within the British political system. The obsession with election-winning is understandable, but it also shows how far politics has moved away from the principle of democratic representation towards the sheer exercise of power. But people cannot vote for an alternative if one does not exist – and the overwhelming sense at the last election was that it would make no difference in the end who won…

In fact this surge of interest is precisely what good politics should be about – a genuine movement of the electorate wishing to express their views. The fact that the Party and the media are united in telling people that they are ‘thinking the wrong thoughts’ demonstrates the degree to which the tail of what is left of our democracy now wags the dog; as an educator, that is also something that I need to take seriously. On a more personal level, I am simply seizing the opportunity to express a preference that our broken electoral system denies, by virtue of my living in a ‘safe’ constituency.

I don’t apologise for being political here – it is a truism that politics affects education, and not just at a policy level. Both are fundamental forces that shape how we live, and the society of which we form part. This issue also shows how we need more complex insights than a simple Left/Right shouting-match. I see no conflict between my conservative-traditionalist teaching and my more liberal social views; I am certainly not ‘hard-left’ and even the label ‘Socialist’ does not sit easily. It is more complicated than that – for a start, old-school conservatism actually shares this sense of social responsibility.

The irony is not lost on me that in the process I seem to have ‘gone native’ as a teacher more fully than I ever expected. But how can one do this job without some sense of social idealism? And how can that square with a view of life as being just one long commercial transaction?

Education has an essential role to play in developing more complex insights in people, and at times like this, these are sorely needed. In other ways, we are witnessing the political system struggling to cope with the more complex motives and loyalties of ‘thinking people’.

I used to play a fuller part in this by teaching ‘A’ Level European Studies and Critical Thinking. But both courses have been scrapped or downgraded – you guessed it – thanks to (privatised) exam-board ‘market forces’.

No alternative to cheating unless you get caught? I don’t think so. Principles are important.