Two-way Grit

The Headmaster of Gresham’s School, Douglas Robb, has hit the headlines with his criticism of a potential employee who had the temerity to ask a question along the lines of, “Why should I work for your school?” He criticised the sense of entitlement that he perceived in the interviewee’s attitude, and went on to criticise the ‘snowflake’ generation for its lack of grit.

I was initially tempted to agree with his views, and I am as certain as one can be that they were well-meant. I have certainly come across many people in my time who exhibited the outlook that he criticises.

But on second thoughts, it becomes clear that Mr. Robb may be suffering from a certain restriction of vision. I have no particular insight into the conditions of employment at Gresham’s, but I would suspect that they are demanding but fair – in which case, the comments are probably justified. One might have thought that the opportunity to work in a prestigious school would be sufficient additional enticement for a young professional.

But the situation is very different in the wider workplace. Mr. Robb suggests that young people should not flinch from taking first jobs in menial work, and this is probably equally fair enough; I did the same, working for a year as an ancillary in a large psycho-geriatric hospital. It put quite a lot of things into perspective for a young, recent graduate. But for those, increasingly including the highly educated, for whom such employment may be rather more than a temporary prospect, I suggest the matter is rather different: it seems perfectly reasonable to me for them to question the value of what they are contemplating.

The same is not completely unreasonable of teachers. In the current climate, where the demands of the job are as extreme as they are, and the rewards have barely shifted in a decade, then I think anyone entering the profession and meeting a potential employer is entitled to ask what the other half of the ‘deal’ is. I worked for a school that majored on how much its staff could do for it – yet it was, for most of the time remarkably reticent in terms of what it felt its obligations to its staff were in return. Those who have been following my recent experiences will appreciate the poignancy of that – and no, the pay-cheque is not sufficient reward for a high-functioning professional of whom great demands will be made.

When schools, as much as any other influence spend so much time encouraging young people to aim high, think critically and expect a lot, it is rather ‘rich’ for them suddenly to expect those same people, when they return as would-be teachers, to accept ‘put up, shut up and be grateful for what you get’ as an adequate response. One wonders whether senior leaders practise the same attitude when it comes to their own prospects.

The demands on teachers are great, and it seems entirely reasonable for a self-respecting young person to enquire what the other half of the deal is. For too long, educational culture has regarded it as a privilege to work as a teacher, to wear the hair shirt and sacrifice one’s life for the ‘calling’. But there are limits – and they are very close to being reached, as the recruitment and retention crisis shows. Particularly when those at the top are visibly taking an ever larger slice of the cake for themselves, and grass-roots level employment seems in contrast ever more insecure, it seems only a matter of prudence and self-respect to safeguard one’s own position on entering a contract. I would hope that Mr. Robb offers an attractive package to his staff – but there are plenty of school leaders out there who do not, and who seem to consider the way they treat their staff to be no more than an afterthought. It would be no bad thing if they were given more cause for reflection on this, and perhaps themselves showed more ‘grit’ when it came to looking after their staff, especially during difficult times.

A great deal in the exchange described by Mr. Robb depended on the subtleties of inflection and attitude, which the rest of us cannot know – but I increasingly wonder if his real objection is more to the apparent breach of the deference which schools – and in particular private ones – seem to expect from their staff almost as much as from their pupils. In which case, the problem is his: in an equal society, it is not reasonable to expect one’s employees to be any more beholden to their employer than the opposite. It is no more a teacher’s privilege to work for a school than it is for the school to have the teacher work for it.

Saliently, it was once observed, “If hard work is all it is cracked up to be, those at the top would have kept it all for themselves”. If people realise that they need to tread carefully, that is no bad thing.


Putting the Soul Back Part IV

Essex: the societal epitome of our time…

When it comes to the good life, expectations are everything. There are those in society whose expectations are that they should have access to what they deem to be the ‘best’; there are plenty of others who seem to believe – or are resigned to – the opposite about themselves. While access to ‘the best’ is often equated with money, that is by no means the whole story. In Essex, where I worked, much of the population did not want for cash. But the county nonetheless struggled to escape its benighted reputation – and it was its own, self-referential mistake to think that cash was the reason. The county is a fascinating and rather saddening example of ordinary British society today. What irrevocably blighted Essex in the nation’s awareness was not its lack of wealth – but its lack of taste (by which I mean its inability to access valued cultural treasures). Or rather, its conflation of the two.

Perhaps the most telling thing about many of the pupils I taught was that despite their often coming from very wealthy homes, they lacked much sense of conventional social confidence or awareness. I don’t mean pretentions (of which there were plenty), but even basic social courtesies and codes. In many cases, this derived from homes that were cash-rich but values (and parenting time) poor. This was a significant factor in the life-chances of those young people: the social self-limitation that they often expressed was far more powerful as a life-constraint than any lack of wealth (or intelligence). The most extreme expression was the number of individuals I encountered who possessed the raw ability to give them a good shot at Oxbridge entry – but who were too socially intimidated to apply to institutions which they felt would be “too posh for them”. A similar phenomenon manifested itself on those occasions when we took students to the theatre, classical music concerts, museums and major institutions or events: despite the plentiful, even excessive spending money in their pockets, they were often noticeably intimidated. These were people who had financial assets galore – but very few personal or cultural assets to match.

They knew it. And despite the reticence that appeared in formal situations, their more usual out-of-school response was a big fat, sneering Essex V-sign. They expressed their self-perceived inability to access higher social and cultural situations by actively revelling in the brash, crass proletarian culture of Essex – inverted snobbery, even when they should have been perfectly capable of doing otherwise. In doing so, they unknowing perpetuated precisely the kind of social prejudices that cause other segments of British society to turn up their noses – and ensure that they patronise entirely different places. Essex may not care about its reputation – but those children still demonstrated an emergent awareness that their inability to access wider social norms was going to disadvantage them in anything other than a financial sense.

I do not wish to appear an Establishment apologist; I am torn between sympathising (but disagreeing) with the reactionary instincts of those young people in the face of a socially discriminatory system, and my own distaste of their values and behaviours. The fact is, they nonetheless demeaned only themselves by self-defining as crude, uncultured and tasteless. They also excluded themselves from access to many of life’s more complex experiences, of precisely the type that offer the greatest opportunity for self-development. If we return for a moment to the analogy with wine: the inverted snob’s refusal to drink anything other than bargain-basement plonk ultimately achieves little beyond that person’s inability ever to learn to appreciate something more.

If it is true of wine, how much more so it is of just about every other aspect of cultural capital: the riches of literature, music, art, food, design, travel, deep human relationships and more? I accept that this list is partisan, but that is beside the point. The key thing is the complexity, and that delivers quality; it is also essential to look inward for fulfilment, to the kind of person one becomes, at least as much as to any outside player. Besides, I struggle to believe that there are many people for whom high rates of knife-crime, relationship break-down, sub-standard housing, unemployment or material deprivation are highly desirable; maybe there is a consensus after all…

The single most effective means of exclusion from the better side of life is self-censure. The opposite is also true – but it requires personal effort. Certainly, money plays a significant part in accessing better things – but money is not actually essential to their appreciation. Where wealth has been used to create social differentiation, one might easily argue that the best weapon with which to counter it is the genuine subscription to the same cultural standards so as to disarm the wealth argument. No amount of money can remove someone’s appreciation of, say, an orchestral symphony, even if a lack of it can prevent access to the best seats. No amount of money can buy it either, even if it can increase the desirable exposure to such things.


Here, to start the year, is a good news story about something other than my own recent travails…

In the late autumn, we needed to have some interior works done. I contacted a small company that was getting good reports on my town’s local Facebook page. In the days before the owner visited, I pondered the name, and gradually came to a certain suspicion. When the young man called, my thoughts were strengthened, and in the following email negotiations, I established what I suspected. He was a former pupil of mine, now aged thirty and operating in an area some way removed from his childhood home.

The boy – we’ll call him Andy – had been in one of the lower ability sets when I taught him in Year 7 and 8, nearly twenty years ago. His extended family was one of the more troubled local families, whose offspring had caused some difficulty. He himself was a more likeable lad, but susceptible to wind-up from other pupils and sometimes hyper-active in class. I nonetheless patiently built up a good relationship with him, and he worked well for me for two years, before moving to a different school, and then another. From what I can gather, this was because he was increasingly in need of new starts, and in time the family moved to a different area entirely. I don’t know how he did in his exams, but in his own words, “I was not exactly one of your all A* candidates was I?”

Andy did three days’ good work for us, during which a little more of the interim came to light. On leaving school at sixteen, he had eventually gained work refitting London Underground stations – mostly on night shifts. He did this for nearly a decade, while putting himself through five years in college during the day, to gain City & Guilds qualifications in three trades, and saving hard to set up his own business.

In the past few years, this is what he has done, and he now employs up to ten people in varying capacities. He has a smart van, branded work wear, a growing reputation – and as much work as he wants, without even needing to advertise. He has taken advice from his accountant on financial management of a company and is also gaining a lot of insurance repair work. I would call him a resounding success.

As E=MC²andallthat recently mentioned, recent research suggests that the ‘teacher factor’ in children’s life chances accounts for between 0 and 14% of educational outcomes – not the 100% that teachers have repeatedly been told. In the case of ‘Andy’, the total teacher factor amounted, I would suggest, to not very much at all, beyond basic literacy and numeracy. In my own case, I strongly suspect that any effect I had was personal, not academic. And yet the guy is doing really well for himself, and in his own terms (and mine) is a success. Years of ear-bashing by educational theorists from Hattie to batty (who was on SLT at my former school) insisted that we teachers were the lynchpin of children’s future lives; that they “only have one chance” and that failure in school will inevitably lead to a life condemned to the eternal damnation of not being ‘people like us’.

Well, ‘Andy’ is the living proof that this ain’t necessarily so – and that most of what we were told was nothing more than further emotional blackmail from management to get teachers to do what they were told. Education would be well-rid of such ridiculous hubris: to claim entire sovereignty over and responsibility for the outcomes of people’s lives is beyond arrogant: it is preposterous – and the main effect, I suspect, is nothing more than to pile further emotional strain on teachers. Because I have met very few pupils (and even parents) who ever believed it.

To suggest that teachers have complete lives in their gift is absurd; the best they can hope for is to dip a paddle judiciously into the current of people’s lives as they pass, and create some beneficial eddies. In ‘Andy’s’ case, compared with his own achievements, I am not sure we even did that. For him, the best lesson of all was learned though the struggle he had, and determination he invested to make a success of his own life, well away from the meddling of teachers and their academic targets.

On the score-sheet of his/my former school, and formal education generally, I suspect ‘Andy’ is chalked up as a ‘fail’ – but that he most certainly is not. It makes me all the more pleased that he is doing so well.


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.


Quality will out – part 1


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.



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.