Putting the Soul Back. Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.

Unfinished Business

Thanks to Old Andrew for flagging-up the continued existence of this ‘blogging legend’ on Twitter. I try to limit my social media activity (it takes up too much of life as it is) so I only notify on Twitter, rather than participate. I am always very pleased to receive comments and correspondence via the blog itself, though, or at: blog [at] sandistock.plus.com.  I rather wonder whether a “legend” is something very old, imaginary and probably redundant…

I had been wondering again whether the blog warrants continuation. I’ve now been out of the classroom for well over a year, and the immediacy of my experience is fading. That said, I still keep more than a weather-eye on the education scene, and still read others’ blogs reasonably frequently.

The future here is still not very clear, other than the fact that a crust will somehow need to be earned again from early summer, even though ‘the head’ is still far from right; dilemma – and one that what’s left of the welfare state in this country doesn’t seem unduly concerned about. At least I’ve kicked the drug habit, so there’s a clearer view of the real situation. Salutary lesson: anyone who thinks antidepressants are an easy answer should think again.

There are a few irons in the fire, some in education, some not. One may involve becoming a student again for a while. But without implying criticism of those who have helped me, I don’t think anyone should be under the impression that there is a lot of support out here for people in difficulties. Any hope of ‘obligation’ borne from years spent in public service is pie in the sky. Regrettably, I include my Union in that: I guess that regulation and legal constraints perhaps prevent them from doing more than offer very general observations. Which is all very well – but not especially helpful just at the time when one could do with a stronger lead.

One of my long-time correspondents has urged me to keep the blog going, so that is what I will do, albeit probably on an intermittent basis as and when something comment-worthy comes up. As he put it “There is unfinished business with the toxic culture in education.” Yes indeed: I now know of six people even in my small pool who are signed off/medicated for teaching-associated mental health problems, and many more who are at varying stages of unhappiness or distress with what the job is doing to them. This is not right.

I suppose it is unsurprising that a forceful personal experience makes one more aware of ‘issues’ but once there, the situation seems obvious. Even amongst the zealots who often manage education, it must take a particularly callous person not to be concerned for the mental health of one’s staff. Which is not to say they don’t exist; how they manage not to see either the damage being done to their own institutions or the massive irony of the supposedly life-affirming education sector being toxic to those within it, is beyond my understanding. Of my original group of close colleagues, the last one left the school in question at the end of last term, for largely similar reasons. One might hope that those in charge would reflect on why they are losing good teachers – though I suspect they won’t. Management blindness is too self-confirming for that.

But we should also remember that there are those such as John Tomsett who have been rightly recognised for taking a different approach with regard to wellbeing – though it is informative that Ofsted felt it necessary to tell him that his school’s ‘Outstanding’ came because of his compassion not in spite of it.

Unfinished business there indeed is: not from any need for retribution, but simply because the sector is too important to be allowed to continue in its current unsustainable form. There is plenty of evidence around to support that view, quite apart from my own that much of what education is currently doing (or is perhaps being made to do) is entirely counter-productive to its supposed aims. Damaging entire generations is too high a price for politico-economic dogma…

…which leads me to offer an up-date on my book for those whom I know are already interested – and as a shameless plug at those who aren’t (yet…?). Titled ‘The Great Exception: why teaching is a profession like no other’ it is one teacher’s view of the reasons for education’s intractable problems, and a proposal for a more sustainable model. It is about to go to print, and should be out fairly early in the New Year. More details as they emerge.

Unfinished work – indeed. At which point I will wish everyone a happy and prosperous New Year.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Garbage in, garbage out.


Small steps – but in which direction?

One or two opportunities have come up in recent days that precipitated the writing of letters of application. My wife, who is much-experienced in recruitment, took one look at my first effort and told me (gently) that I might as well not bother. The letter was too esoteric; I needed to write it to a tight and precise template, that allowed the recruiters to tick all the boxes on their job description before I would even get a look-in.

A second line of enquiry elicited an email response from an educational organisation promoting itself of the quality its individual support. It was little more than a template that began “Dear Student…” even though I had provided a name, before providing a large amount of extraneous promotional material, and ending with one line of partial answer to my query. Strange kind of personal service.

I have many years’ experience as a sixth form tutor, and a particularly rewarding part of that job used to be the crafting of UCAS references for students I had known, in some cases for many years, followed by gentle but assured guidance regarding how to match it with an equally-polished and individual personal statement. But as the years progressed, this activity was increasingly squeezed from a system that only wanted conformity. Tutors were provided with yet another template for the reference, which left almost no scope for anything than the mechanical production of cloned comments. Students were given guidance that resulted in the blandest, most repetitious, predictable statements imaginable – so much so that I have heard university admissions tutors admitting that they all-but disregard them as they said nothing of any use.

I understand the rationale behind what is going on: the need to process vast numbers of applications; the need for consistency so as to avoid potential litigation over bias; the need for efficiency; the desire for an entirely knowable outcome. But it is also a self-defeating process: if you prioritise bland, then bland is what you will get – someone who is entirely out of the same mould as everyone else, who brings nothing of originality, individuality or unusual insight to the situation – who may be easily-moulded but will give you nothing more than obedience in return.

I always saw education as a process of bringing out the particular qualities of an individual, of highlighting and celebrating that individuality, of capitalising on diversity of thought and experience. I saw the role of the teacher as identifying such potential and nurturing it. I don’t see any virtue in a society or organisation that is composed of obedient clones – even if the alternative does bring a few headaches with it too. I believe that permitting honesty, authenticity and even weakness will in the long term deliver more commitment and contentment, and more diverse, creative approaches to issues in hand. In particular, I fail to see how a specification can state the need for creativity if it then crushes all prospect of that in the recruitment process.

Personally, I know I am a capable person, but also that I do my best work when given a brief and left to get on with it. I don’t take kindly to people trying to confine my own thoughts and methods just to comply with their tick-lists. That, if I may say it without hubris, I think is merely the product of an educated mind.

The hard fact is, I need to generate some revenue by next spring; I know the advice being offered is well-meant and probably sensible – but if it means the further squashing of round blocks through square holes (which is partly what caused my recent difficulties), then why bother? I realise this may come across as rather pernickety self-indulgence – but the societal monocultures being created by this drive for conformity are no safer or more productive than any other kind.


Socially contracting?

The storm is over, but the sea is still rough. More than a month after coming off the medication, things are slowly reassuming something like a more normal perspective, but they are still prone to dizzy-making peaks and troughs. The pills were a mental splint – necessary but uncomfortable and I am glad to be off them: they effectively lop off the lows – but also the highs – of your mood spectrum, leaving you with a tiny zone in the middle where you can’t do yourself much harm, but at the cost of almost all emotional movement. If you’re lucky you might get left slightly on the ‘credit’ side of zero; I think I went the other way…

So it’s good to be able to appreciate a sunny morning rather than just staring bleakly and impassively at it – but realisation is also dawning about the difficulties ahead.

Perhaps the Social Contract is a dated notion, but I wasn’t aware so: the idea that you contribute to society around you, and in return you can expect reasonable care if things go wrong. The words of wisdom from my (teacher) father when I started my career were, “Look after the kids and the school will look after you”. Well, it sort-of worked in his day. But there’s plenty in the media to suggest that society (if that is still the right word for it) no longer operates like that.

I think I can say that I took his advice seriously, was never one of those for whom teaching was a bit of a lark, a chance to avoid getting a ‘proper’ job for a few years. I approached the work with the utmost seriousness and for most of the time since entering the profession in 1987, worked a long week, doing what I believed was right for my pupils at the expense of my home life and ultimately my health, and learning and developing as a teacher. I recently had some feedback from a former colleague who subsequently rose to a national position within the profession, reinforcing that view, for which I was extremely grateful.

But times changed. Others came into school leadership, people with whom I am ashamed that I share the same generation. Who knows what downward pressures they experienced – but the relish with which they adopted a much harsher attitude can only have been of their own doing. When I was no longer any use to it, ‘Society’ in the form of my state-sector employers showed itself either ruthless or incompetent enough to stop at nothing in order to get rid of me. The terms weren’t entirely unfavourable, but it is now clear that my hope of a modest but secure later career/life is looking decidedly shaky.

I’m no great consumer, but I do like a degree of comfort; my background in a teaching family I suppose led me to think it was a reasonable expectation that by one’s fifties, there should be enough capital accumulated to have a dignified and enjoyable life with a few of the comforts that one wouldn’t have afforded at an earlier stage.

Well, that accumulated capital won’t last long. Present calculations suggest that if I remain incapable of work beyond next spring, we are going to have to cut our cloth in a way that would have made the pips squeak even back when a student.  Hopefully the waves will subside enough, that I can find something else meaningful from which to earn a crust. Failing that, my wife’s income will just about cover our commitments – but everything else will have to go: no meals out, no holidays, no money for hobbies, nothing. We may have to get the cat out on the street to sell his body. There’s little to suggest that the social security system will see me as anything like a deserving case, and I’m several years too young to claim my pension,  In fact, I’m currently skipping contributions to it…yet we still have a mortgage to pay.

We will do it; as people keep saying, something will come along. I have some ideas which may by then come to fruition (and my book is still slowly chugging its way along at my publisher). I am not writing this because I want pity – that’s not my way – but am I angry? Most certainly. Neither have I forgotten that there are many deeply worse off than we – but I simply never expected to have to deal with this: teaching is secure, isn’t it?

But for all those good-hearted people labouring away to educate the nation’s children, and to those considering entering that profession, I urge you to look extra-hard at the financial implications of working in a job that rarely allows you to accumulate sufficient resources to cushion a severe blow. And don’t expect your employer to be able to be generous either. I would caution you against any tendency to believe that three or four decades of hard, socially-productive work ‘entitles’ you to anything whatsoever – no matter what the myths we still peddle at children regarding the value of hard work.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer with his umpteen “jobs” probably doesn’t blow his nose for the kind of amounts we are talking about here; but that’s the kind of inequality that is acceptable in this country these days. Likewise, while I have no envy whatsoever of my more fortunate friends who, in their fifties are thriving, I can’t help wondering what I’ve done to ‘deserve’ this; the only answer  I can find is is nothing.

I sincerely hope that my experience is not typical, and that most schools would treat a situation like this more supportively – but in the current economic climate, I wouldn’t bank on it.

Still I can rest assured that I am still doing my bit for the nation: having supposedly become dead weight to the school, at least I can take comfort that I am a “cost saving” for our increasingly cash-derelict education service. Huh.



Death by Management

This is a cross-post from my new general-interest blog which can be found at https://sprezzatura.blog

I’ve been dabbling on the fringes of local democracy. The small town where I live is noted for its outstanding heritage and excellent quality of life, but like many such places, it presently faces multiple challenges from various forms of development that are closing in. In the case of housing, the big builders frequently target such places because homes sell quickly there for a premium. But in the process, they very often ruin what was attractive in the first place.

Neighbourhood plans were a political initiative to give at least a semblance of local self-determination – it depends on how cynical you want to be. But my impression is that these activities are suffering from the same malaise that seems to afflict all of modern life – over-management.

I will hasten to say that I am sure those heading in this direction mean only well; it is just that for many people, professional life has become about little more than committee meetings. It seems that nothing in modern organisations can move without a pile of policy objectives, dozens of meetings and tome of paperwork.

There are some people who glory in all of this – and I have met my fair share of professional committee-sitters in my time. The Healthy Schools Initiative was one; I spent a fair amount of time in meetings with people who seemed far more concerned with ticking boxes, writing policies and acquiring accreditation logos than actually effecting real change. And for all that the logos were indeed acquired, very little of real use actually changed. Certainly nothing that justified all the expensive professional hours spent in those meetings.

If local democracy is to mean anything, be it in schools or entire communities, it is surely about giving people the ability to make a real impact on the places where they live and work. That should not require dozens of sub-committees and expensive consultants and analysts. And when I put some practical ideas forward, it seemed as though, being ‘projects’ – as opposed to policies – they have to go in the box marked ‘aspirational’, for attention only at some ill-defined moment in the far future.

The cynic in me says that death-by-management is a product of a society that struggles to create enough ‘real’ jobs for its people. Equally, I know that communal activities do need to be co-ordinated, money accounted for, and democracy observed. Good managers facilitate that. But on that last point, the triumph of the professional committee-member is not democratic, for it excludes a whole tranche of people who do not operate in that way.

Furthermore, such hidebound procedure strangles the ability of the doers to operate in their own, possibly rather esoteric ways; policy by definition does not cope easily with diversity. Bureaucracy and committee work is not known for its creativity and imagination, and history is littered with influential people who revolutionised their fields precisely by not following the rules.

Over-management kills stone dead the ability of such people actually to bring about real, on-the-ground improvements.


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.


Undervalued and outcast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What Money Can’t Buy

I often struggle with educational initiatives. I’ve always been fiercely independent-minded, and I take exception to people telling me what to think, at least when convincing reasoning is not forthcoming. I’m not entirely sure whether this is helpful or not, but I suspect it may be a by-product of owning the kind of restless mind that education arguably seeks to foster – and perhaps those years of knowing just how crucial autonomy is to the classroom teacher.

Nonetheless, one has a professional duty to take reasoned view, and this I always try to do. And one does, to some extent, have to operate within the system one finds, even it is not entirely to one’s liking. Yet as time progresses, I am increasingly confident that my professional instinct is true; I know I have the moral motives of the educator truly at heart – but this only makes it all the harder when, as not-frequently happens, I recoil instinctively from the directive that is being ordained.

Rationalising one’s instinct is not always easy. This is why I think it is essential that teachers look as widely as possible for their perspectives, including the realms of psychology and philosophy. As I suggested in a previous post, I think it is impossible for a teacher to operate fully within the ethical remit of the profession without a degree of moral idealism.

Michael J. Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy is therefore very helpful.  This considers the moral limits of markets – the critical distinction being between a market economy as means of distributing goods, and a market society, where everything (and everyone) has their price. Sandel argues that the effect of this is the erosion of the moral settlement upon which societies function, and the eclipsing of other more benign behaviour.

Sandel’s arguments are elegantly simple, and offer a clear rationale for anyone who like me, has instinctive misgivings over the application of commercial principles to areas of life where they don’t seem appropriate. They can be summed up as follows:

  1. Intrinsic nature of the ‘commodity’.
  2. The Fairness Principle
  3. The Corruption Argument
  4. The Crowding Effect

The intrinsic nature of the commodity.

There are some qualities in life which naturally resist commercialisation. For example, the essential nature of friendship is altruistic and voluntary, not contingent on financial gain. It is possible to purchase the services of someone who will act in all the ways that a personal friend would, but the presence of a payment corrupts the substance of the relationship. Applying the price mechanism to such activities diminishes them, not the converse.

Education is similar: it too is not a commodity but a quality; not mass-replicable, but unique in each person’s experience. Setting targets for its acquisition, character, delivery and application deny the essential nature of the matter and risk narrowing how and why it is experienced.

The Fairness Principle.

Economics argues that the market is the most efficient way of reconciling supply and demand; Sandel counters that demand cannot be fully expressed through the price mechanism. The willingness to pay is an expression not only of the desire but also the ability to pay – and people do not have this equally, for reasons not always within their control; those who cannot pay are disenfranchised. People who pay premium prices may not be expressing the strongest demand or greatest appreciation, but simply the ability their wealth confers for casual trophy-hunting.  Those who pay to by-pass queues may not be expressing the greatest need, but simply their disdain for social justice.

Sandel argues that fairness is an essential societal construct, which explains why people feel outrage towards those who, for example buy access to politicians, or who engage in other nepotistic behaviour. One might observe this in the way rising property prices within the catchments of popular schools exclude those on lower incomes, thus restricting fair access to what is presented as a universal entitlement – let alone the deceit some will resort to in order to secure a place.

First come first served – or even, dare I say, selection on the grounds of exceptional aptitude – is arguably a fairer way to allocate scarce resources than recourse to the depth of people’s pockets.

The Corruption Argument.

Market principles argue that people should be able to buy and sell anything so long as it does not violate the interests of others. But the corruption argument questions the genuine free will of those who sell things such as their bodily organs, against their own deeper interests. Thus the market can operate counter to human wellbeing, and it tends to discriminate against those with lesser means and fewer choices. Education should not endorse this.

Furthermore, putting a price on priceless things (such as education) changes their nature, and with it the way people value them. Paying for private access to politicians, for example, corrupts the nature of (supposed) democracy; paying for kidneys changes the way people regard their bodies. Sandel argues that this is morally wrong, even in a secular sense, as it inequitably redistributes human wellbeing.

Worst of all, the application of price changes incentives – for example, paying people for hitherto selfless acts alters their motives. Sometimes it even results in less action; for example, paying people to donate blood has been shown to reduce the amount given as people feel their altruism has been corrupted.

Similarly, paying pupils and teachers by results subverts their motives, and in the case of teachers divides their loyalties; just about any other incentive given to teachers to ‘perform’ will compromise their integrity in some way. Furthermore, incentives do not always achieve the desired outcome: the market in carbon offsets does not inevitably change the amount of pollution, simply its source – and there is little evidence that payment significantly boosts exam results.

Compromising the altruism of teachers may have serious effects. Applying market principles to education risks valuing the marketable trappings of education (exam grades) over the more elusive cerebral qualities, which cannot be priced. And the more this happens, the more people will concentrate on the tradable facsimiles at the expense of the real thing.

The crowding principle.

Very simply, given its chance, selfish behaviour can easily displace other more socially desirable motives and actions. I would argue that the self-interest/self-protection instinct created by the regime of inspection, quantification and accountability has crowded out the time-honoured, altruistic principles of teaching.

Sandel argues that while moral arguments remain hard to substantiate, it is inescapable that flourishing human life does depend on attributes such as health, friendship, wisdom and trust that are impossible to price. In fact, applying a price simply dissolves their benefit. He argues that this is a fundamental human experience, which is governed by ethical principles, not economic ones.

I suspect that the greatest objection is to the unprincipled acquisition and (ab)use of wealth, rather than wealth itself. But applying the price mechanism more widely just makes its unscrupulous use all the easier, and in areas where the consequences may be more malign. Sandel’s book explains why I recoil from directives that push education further in an economised direction: they taint the honest principles of this vocation – and with it my own professional ethic.