Forever blowing bubbles…?

Priceline.com was an online company that sold excess airline capacity. By the year 2000, the stock market had capitalised it to the tune of $150bn, or more than the value of the entire airline industry. That was, of course, before the dot-com crash of that year. A similar effect was seen pre-2008, when Northern Rock amassed loan liabilities of over £100bn on assets of a mere £1.5bn.

Reading further into Aeron Davis’ book, it becomes clear how such bubbles arise: herd behaviour dictates that more and more people pour investments into a company simply because others are doing the same. Even though people know this is risky behaviour, the short-term consequences of not doing so, in terms of lost shareholder confidence – and thereby even senior jobs, are too great. Bad practice is thus actively rewarded – and when the crash ultimately comes, those at the top simply blame everyone else, walk away, and move on to their next executive post.

In both crashes, there were a few individuals who warned of what was to come, and adjusted their behaviour accordingly. They tended to make lower returns – and thus paid with their jobs, in some cases a matter of weeks before they were proved right.

Education can’t have bubbles like this – or can it? Reading Davis’ account, I could not help but consider the possibility that it does, in the form of ideologies. The recent history of education is one of a sequence of fads that gained traction, and were wheeled out across the nation via the networking of senior managers and agenda-shapers. We have seen AfL, The Growth Mindset, Effect Sizes, Brain Gym, Thinking Hats, peer-assessment, green pens, triple marking and more follow this trajectory. Sometimes they originate in research, but quite often they seem to generate their own self-justifying ‘evidence base’ which is used to bludgeon people into compliance. For a few years, everyone piles into the latest idea, whose supposed value rapidly balloons until no one who claims to be serious about education can afford not to be doing it – and talking about it incessantly. Some build entire reputations on such behaviour.

And then the bubble bursts – not so much from financial unviability, but because the fad turns out to be unworkable, or because it does not after all deliver the demonstrable improvement in learning that it promised. I have sat in meetings where certain stellar individuals openly panned the very ideas they had been championing just a few years earlier – but by then they were onto the Next Big Thing, their careers safely intact, unlike the sanity of those who had been charged with implementing their now-disowned schemes. The collateral damage is not so much out-of-pocket shareholders as out-of-education teenagers whose schooling experience was badly distorted by such recklessness, not to mention the frazzled lives of teachers who were required to jump through yet more hoops in the process.

There are bubbles of different sizes too. Those within individual schools may be of quite some concern – but the impact of, for example, the bubble that promoted Free Schools is another matter entirely – in this case the disrupted education of those whose schools are increasingly closing mid-way through exam courses. Those consequences are not imaginary.

In all cases, education bubbles are caused in precisely the same way as financial ones: fads that no one can be seen to be ignoring, that create bandwagons of questionable practice, which can only have one conclusion. Yet everyone is required to take them deadly seriously at the time. One might have hoped for something more considered from the thinking part of society, but it seems the pressures for herd behaviour and the desire of some to build reputations and careers are just too strong.

And as in the financial sector, those who refuse to go along are penalised for their restraint with lost career progression and in some cases their jobs, for not using enough green pen, or not using group work, or failing to cook their pupils’ data records to satisfy the target-mongers. Let alone what befalls those who stand up and publicly say that the whole thing is wrong.

Oops. That’s getting personal again.

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Reckless Educationalists

Insight sometimes comes from unexpected places. After working through John Bargh’s book on the unconscious (full review still to follow) I thought I’d have a break and read about something else, related to an entirely different project I’m working on.

Aeron Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. His recent book Reckless Opportunists is about the cynical vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. Davis has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now functions, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to merely achieving and remaining in power for its own sake.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to allow for it, and still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. Besides, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin doctors in the press or professional establishments.

But as I read, I could not help yet again seeing through educational eyes – for many of the trends and attitudes he recounts seem increasingly relevant to the education world too. Once again, sense is to be found well beyond the confines of the usual publications. I wish I had read this book several years ago (rather difficult as it has only just been published) because it suggests that much of what I have rather naively believed to be the unintended consequences of a somewhat malfunctioning system are in probably anything but unintended. That explains a lot.

Davies describes the complete lack of substance or policy behind many of those he interviewed: they appeared to have little command or understanding of the enterprises they headed. Their main objective was to do whatever immediate circumstance dictated in order to preserve their power and authority. He describes the skill-sets of those involved as being not expertise in their supposed fields, but simply in getting to the top for its own sake. In fact, Davis also describes the way in which ‘experts’ are seen as an encumbrance because they tend to have too in-depth knowledge, which makes the necessary fleetness of foot rather difficult. People who have insight and principles have no place in this world, and tend never to make it beyond the lower rungs. I will take that as a kind of back-handed compliment…

I cannot help but see what happened in the last decade to the formerly relatively civilised school where I used to work in this light. Some ten years ago, the management changed. Its first move, within weeks, was to turn the school into an academy, wrong-footing people before they had had the chance to determine trust (or otherwise). The claim that it would lead to financial advantage for the school was later shown to be false, as it was the constraints on academies that was used to excuse much later blood-letting – even while the remuneration at the top continued to rise. (I know this, having been on good terms with certain concerned governors).

Shortly after, senior posts were created and their occupants blatantly imported, thus reuniting a former team in a new location. Around the same time a number of supposedly weak teachers were sacked, a few of whom probably needed to go, but many of whom greater acquaintance would have shown did not. Morale started to fall; alarm to rise, all in a school near the top of its game.

It was ordained that students were supposedly not meeting externally-defined targets; attempts by those (including myself as union rep) to contextualise the situation fell on deaf ears – at least for several years until it became apparent that the catchment area’s culture did present certain attitudinal problems that data did not reflect.

In the following years, other schools were added to the chain portfolio, and measures were gradually introduced that had the effect of turning a reasonably ‘human’ school into a soulless production machine. There was an uncanny sense that, unlike previous incarnations, this management kept its distance, that it was pulling levers remotely, rather than integrating into its host establishment. At the same time, staff wellbeing was neglected; harsh attitudes leached down the management chain, treatment expressly justified on the basis that “it’s thee or me” – and any wider concern for the esprit de corps was lost. Those staff who raised concerns were told that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City” – an absurd comparator, given the difference in operations and rewards involved. But it betrayed a certain mindset.

The Head’s door was now firmly closed, physical access only being available by appointment, past a ‘gate-keeper’ P.A. Attempts at email contact were rarely even acknowledged, let alone responded to. The ‘executive’ of this now-corporate identity became increasingly remote; classrooms were turned into management suites, and direct contact with the children was reduced to the point that some of them did not even know who the Head was.

Let me be clear: this is not a personal attack (the school and individuals remain firmly anonymous) but the impact on the school concerned was very much as outlined in Davis’ book about other sectors of national life. More people were made redundant; wellbeing issues such as staff stress were routinely denied, even as they were ratcheted up; utter loyalty was demanded but not reciprocated.

It became clear that there was no strategic vision any more – even calls from concerned governors failed to elicit more than vague mutterings about being a ‘good school’. This had longer-term effects: with no vision, the place felt increasingly directionless, nothing was valued any more; initiatives that staff took were not always blocked, but they were clearly not appreciated either – and scepticism gradually increased about the value of the strangely emotionless thank-you letters: it became perceived that they were just another form of tokenism.

The school became increasingly caught in a quasi-feudal arm-lock, the main purpose of which seemed to be to shore up the power of those at the top – and it seemed that nothing was inconceivable if it was necessary to do that, even to the detriment of the organisation. As morale deteriorated, staff turnover increased, encouraged by a view that if you didn’t like it you could always leave; yet leaving gifts ceased. Even senior managers spoke of being routinely side-lined by the cabal in control.

A number of questionable statistical practices were introduced as it became clear that a further genuine ramping-up of the school’s production figures was not in prospect. This presented classroom teachers with the dilemma of lying or potentially facing unpleasant consequences. This badly distorted the perception of pupil ability and progress. One of Davis’ key observations – as seen so many times in the financial sector – is that power-hungry individuals at the top will often not stop at destroying the very organisations they head in pursuit of personal glory.

By the time I left, the place was a hollow, impersonal, demoralised shell of its former self. And the older pupils picked it up too.

I find it profoundly depressing that even a supposedly-principled sector such as education is increasingly succumbing to this phenomenon – for much that I see and hear elsewhere suggests that this is by far from being a single isolated example. How can we possibly claim even to have an education sector when its main purpose is no longer the intellectual or cultural development of our young, but the egotistical reward of a few ruthless, greedy, power-obsessed individuals? And it has infected the universities too.

I once described the failings of such ‘management’ as a cancer; I am beginning to think that was inaccurate, for even the most aggressive cancer is unintended  – whereas the perpetrators of this outrage know precisely what they are doing.

How on earth, in the name of real education, to fight back against this?

Footnote: I emphasise that despite the fact that I eventually became a victim of the same culture, this is not a personal attack; it is simply an account of what I witnessed, which in my opinion virtually hollowed out a previously good school – as corroborated by numerous others, some of whom could see more than I could. And it is possibly happening all over the country; the hue and cry about research, professional bodies, acceptable practice and more is nothing more than the support infrastructure of an embedded, self-interested educational elite for whom pupil interest is nothing more than a necessary, abstract smoke-screen.

The only hope is that greater awareness of the issue is a start.

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.

‘Andy’

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.

G.I.G.O.*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Garbage in, garbage out.

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.