The weight of numbers

I’ve never been one for crowds. I even find returning to school hard work for a while, simply because I spend much of the summer in the company of only a few people. I also find it difficult to reconcile my own earnest views with the compromise necessary to achieve a consensus – it’s the dilemma of when to defy the party Whip.

I do dislike the fact that the strength of numbers often means minority views are never really heard. It is not uncommon for numbers to silence those who differ, even when they have a point. I’ll go further: the peer pressure of groups often leads to situations where being on-message becomes more important than being right, where rational discourse is subjugated to the mere weight of numbers. The effect of group-think has been well-documented, and I wonder how many valuable insights go neglected because of the fear they might not meet acceptance.

A problem for those who would challenge this situation is that they inevitably sound as though they are perpetual nay-sayers. I resolved not to mention the name of a certain, currently-newsworthy politician again, but it seems to me that the reaction of those who disagree with him has been to drown what he has to say in a torrent of alarmism, rather than anything more constructive. That instinctively makes me want to listen more closely, not less, and I don’t think that this makes me just a permanent rebel: it’s just that quiet voices can contain their truths, unbridled by the desire to be popular.

I feel the same about my profession. The emphasis on professional obedience has perhaps never been stronger – despite the ongoing obsession with individual performance. This might not be a problem, were it not for the weight with which the majority/establishment view is invoked to define success: given that the absolute truths behind education remain as elusive as ever, using consensus to define what works may be flawed. Making a mark on one’s pupils is so much more subtle and diverse a process than any ‘consensus’ is likely to be able to define.

For example, in a profession that seems to consist largely of individuals whose expressed purpose on this earth is to be personal trainers for the young, it can be hard to argue that it is in everyone’s interest to draw limits around one’s work. No matter that experience suggests that rest makes for better teaching or that is entirely reasonable for those who wish to have a life of their own: to those for whom enough is never enough, this is easily portrayed as inadequacy, no matter how wise self-preservation might be in the long term.

This becomes a problem when narrowed judgements are made about individuals based on such premises. It is understandable why, for example, a school management would preference the person who never says No even if they will burn out within a few years – but it may not be wise. Is it more important that a teacher resonates with his or her pupils using their own techniques, or that they use officially-sanctioned teaching methods even if they work less well? Regrettably, my experience over the past decades is that those who do not sing from the approved hymn-sheet often suffer simply for being different, no matter how effective they might actually be – and I don’t think this is getting any better.

This long preamble brings me to the main point of this post. For all that I observe the undoubtedly genuine enthusiasm of those who can never get enough of this job, whose very being seems defined solely by their determination to be ‘better and better’ teachers (whatever that means), whose undying optimism transcends whatever happens to them, who believe that there is no such thing as luck, and who have an unswerving confidence in their individual ability profoundly to change the world, I cannot help but get a deep but sincere doubt in the pit of my stomach.

This may be a popular view – but is it really an accurate take on the world around us? Are humans really as in-control as such people seem to think? Are the things for which they claim credit really as much in their gift as they would have us accept? (And if so, why are bucks so quickly passed for things that don’t turn out so well?) And is even their vocation really best-served by early burn-out and the neglect of their nearest and dearest?

I have a nagging sense that much of what is being done in the name of our pupils is actually little more than an inverted form of the egocentrism that dominates the rest of society. Can we be sure that being ‘even better’ for our pupils is not really ‘even better’ for ourselves? This seems to me just a form of insatiability; is well-grounded satisfaction never enough?  It seems illogical to me that teachers invest so much of their pupils’ interests in the cult of themselves. Can we hand-on-heart say that this is not more about careers and professional profiles than real pupil welfare? And even if the answer is Yes, how is it possible to define ‘better and better’ in a way that has any useful long-term meaning for those pupils – as opposed to those teachers?

It seems to me that those who genuinely want the best might be more critical in their evaluations than that, more nuanced (dare I say mature?) in their understanding of the world and less prone to glib sound-bites. Similarly, the undying optimism of those who refute luck seems to me little more than an ostrich-like denial of the true complexity/randomness of the world, a hyper-narcissism (or naivety) than reduces the wider world to little more than a bit-player in one’s own life.

For me, public servants – teachers, politicians or whatever – should be self-effacing. This is neither pointless idealism nor defeatism, but it does mean that we are honest about what is self-interest what genuinely is not. Neither is it a position of total self-sacrifice – in fact quite the opposite. It recognises the limits as well as the potential of the obligations we have for each other, preserves the ability of the teacher to exist as a private individual in their own right – but also to use that individuality in the service of others. It means having a realistic view of the smallness of each of us, rather than the hyped opposite, and of the value in exploiting the esoteric in human nature rather than pushing group-think for ulterior purposes.

It also means accepting that I am not my pupils’ saviour, for all that I can have an important effect on them and society as a whole. But I see my pupils for less than one percent of their lives – and there are far stronger currents in those lives than me. Those lives have aspirations, time frames and definitions of success that stretch beyond anything which I can fully control. I can attempt to influence them – but not merely by conditioning them to jump through hoops.

This view certainly sees educational success as more than the exam results by which teachers are now routinely judged. Important though qualifications are, defining ‘outcomes’ in those terms is, I fear, little more than the hubris that I mentioned earlier: a shortened perspective on what we do that is of more direct use to teachers’ and schools’ prospects than the full lives of young people. And if that is so, I think I know why that pit-of-the stomach feeling is there: we have turned the language of altruism into little more than double-speak for self-interest.

Deep thought is not a defining characteristic of populism – but drowning out the quiet voices risks missing something valuable, for all that they may be superficially unwelcome: challenging ideas often are. But at very least we should allow them to follow their own course.

I doubt many will agree with me on the foregoing; several conversations had within the last week have done little more than reinforce my belief that unashamed self-interest is now so embedded as the prime-mover in British society that it will never change; why would teachers really be any different? Those who live it do not even recognise it for what it is – and the fear of confronting it will make them shout down those who dare question. A bit like what has happened to Corbyn.

Damn, I’ve mentioned him again.

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What did you expect?

The boy was confident; despite his mere twelve years, he betrayed no sense that he might need to moderate what he said to an adult more than four times his age, and one of his teachers at that.

“I don’t concentrate because Geography’s hard. It’s not fun and I don’t like it”.

My heart sank a little; whatever our views on teaching, this is not really what we want to hear. But the reasoning is worth exploring further:

  1. I expect lessons above all to be fun;
  2. This subject is difficult;
  3. Therefore it is not fun;
  4. Therefore I don’t like it;
  5. Therefore I am justified in not engaging with it.

I had held him back after a lesson because he has been presenting low-level issues with poor attention and work-rate. He is something of an attention-seeker and one of the many children I encounter who, I would consider, have a self-confidence vastly inflated beyond the normal egocentrism of childhood.

But my teaching has clearly not engaged this pupil, and that gives cause for reflection. Needless to say, my reading of the situation was different. Consistent with the views of colleagues who also teach him, the lad’s reasoning needs to be reversed: being an attention-seeker, he tends to ignore the rules of the classroom, and he needs regular steering in order to keep him on task. He tends to shrug off gentle reprimand and needs firm treatment before he begins to take notice. He is of moderate ability and has struggled to understand the work as a result of his inattention.  His need for instant gratification means he lacks the tenacity when the going gets difficult. In short, he is not equipped for the secondary-school classroom.

There is a clash of expectations here that says much about the central conflict within education.

Given that the pupil concerned has been in this school for less than a year, much of his outlook has probably carried over from his earlier experiences. Whether the attention-seeking is simply temperament, the effects of over-indulgent parenting or a sign of something more complex is not yet clear. Whatever, this boy clearly perceives his schooling as something where his response and effort are conditional, rather than – as I would prefer – an opportunity at which he has a duty to try his hardest. How to turn this round?

He appears not to distinguish between himself and adults in terms of knowledge or authority; while not disrespectful, he shows no embarrassment when reprimanded, and considers it acceptable to respond with his own view.  This may be part of regular childish immaturity, but the over-assurance of the response perhaps is not. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall of his home.

No matter how unacceptable I find this boy’s attitude, I am nonetheless required to address it. Indeed, it is going to be necessary to break through it before it is possible to educate him effectively. By the age of twelve, it may already be too late, and the degree of progress possible is unclear, for all that I will continue to correct his behaviour. Maybe the lad will find the teacher who ignites him, but I’m not holding my breath.  Any change is more likely to be gradual and partly a matter of how he matures. We cannot claim sole credit for that…

The progressive movement correctly identified this problem: we cannot, ultimately, control the autonomous actions of our pupils – only influence them (however strongly). But it arrived at precisely the worst conclusion – that therefore we need to curry our pupils’ favour by making school ‘fun’. The problem with this is its denial of the conditions necessary for learning. Most subjects vary internally in their appeal, but learning is also matter of hard work. Then there is the historic fact that children have disliked school throughout the ages – probably because of the loss of freedom that it represents as much as anything more specific. Believing that one can address this by changing the nature of lessons is a step too far.

Failure to face the difficulty of learning causes avoidance of precisely those elements essential to advance it.  This is not the approach advocated in other fields – for example it is accepted that prowess at sport requires graft, and musicianship likewise. So why does collective wisdom insist that academic learning must primarily be ‘fun’? We should be showing children that it’s more important than that.

I’m not sure that Geography is inherently ‘fun’ anyway. It has its appealing topics – but in the final reckoning, it is what it is – the rational study of the complex world around us. Developing an awareness and understanding of that is a profoundly important activity – but in my experience, the only way to make it self-consciously ‘fun’ is by using activities that distract from the content by masking it with trivia. Real interest requires a mindset that is prepared to find the world interesting, and which enjoys challenge. It is not something that can be generated by jelly-carving or puppet shows, and I suspect that the same is actually true of most subjects. By the time children arrive at my door, they need at least an implicit acceptance of that.

Interest (rather than ‘fun’) comes from the role- and knowledge-model that I present to my pupils. One can sometimes ‘hook’ children by reference to prior experiences – but this is restricted to things they already know about. Formalising our ‘study’ is just as good – and there are other ways: my classroom persona and wit are helpful tools for engagement, as is narrative, as is my ‘desk-side manner’ – all parts of the teacher-craft that conventional performance measures tend to diminish. Communicating the importance and ‘bigger picture’ of education plays a part too.

But what are we to do about pupils who are already lost to this? While much of the problem may come from beyond school, we do need to examine the expectations that the school system itself is creating. Children’s expectations of school inevitably come principally from what they encounter there, both formally and through peer contact.  I suspect that the call for ‘fun’ comes largely from unstructured primary school experiences, which may explain the difficulty some children find in coping with more formal situations.

In secondary schools, we should be careful with the messages we send: if we create specific expectations regarding teachers’ methods, it is hardly surprising if pupils respond accordingly. Almost as bad is the emphasis on engagement over all else; by highlighting this, we are all but legitimising disengagement. This also affects how teachers decide to teach. If enough opt for the high fun/low learning approach because that is what has been stipulated, then it is hardly surprising if pupils struggle when they encounter a teacher who makes more formal demands. It is hardly fair to judge the teacher alone on the consequences.

I am not suggesting that teachers should give no consideration to how they present their subject – but we need greater realism about the purpose of secondary education, and it is essential that pupils are equipped to cope with it. It is of course incumbent on teachers to teach as well as they can – though what that means and how it is defined is much wider than the mechanics of what happens in a specific lesson. But how, and to what extent they can be deemed responsible for the learning that results is another matter, especially when they are facing ill-prepared pupils. Neither am I convinced that less able pupils need ‘more fun’ in the name of differentiation – I have seen plenty of children of modest ability who coped perfectly well with formal learning; what makes all the difference is the expectation.

I was satisfied with one comment from my pupil: he is finding the subject difficult. Were that not the case, then I could stand guilty of pitching my lessons too low. But how we change the highly limiting perceptions he expressed is much less obvious. He needs to work harder and concentrate more – but how to ‘persuade’ him when that is not already engrained belief is much harder. It is not, I think, a bone of contention between traditionalists and progressives that the most effective learning requires intrinsic motivation; the problem is what to do where that does not already exist.

I may be required to address the situation as I find it – but what success might reasonably be expected for issues that range wider than – and possibly predate – my intervention is far from clear.

Give me the child for the first seven years…

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we could provide hard scientific answers to the question of what works best in education. Having spent most of my career on the receiving end of a steady stream of progressive ideology, I find myself asking what would be the consequences of its being possible to prove that this does actually harm children’s prospects.  Would there be a sudden U-turn?

Having witnessed, earlier this year, the results of a pupil survey that showed unequivocally that they distrust peer assessment – and the subsequent instruction that therefore we need to do more of it “in order to show the children why it is valuable” – I somehow doubt it. In fairness, I equally doubt that many traditionalists would abandon their ideas either, were they shown to be flawed.

I persist in my doubt that there will ever be hard answers, so perhaps ideologues need not worry too much, but recent events have got me thinking about another, perhaps more easily identified matter, namely learned behaviours, and the degree to which these do or do not support the learning process.

In particular, this is about the effectiveness with which one phase of education prepares children for the demands of the next. I have kept an open mind about the primary sector, because I have little direct experience of it, and because I know how essential its work is. But following the blog of Quirky Teacher in recent weeks, I have encountered some controversial views from a mature entrant to primary education and this has sown some doubts over its efficacy. While the long-term effects of learning are invisible, it is easy enough to observe how pupils fare with the increasing demands placed on them as they age.

My brushes with the primary sector have not filled me with confidence. Some time ago, I attended a Healthy Schools seminar dominated by primary teachers; I came away incredulous. The majority were young and female (I mention this purely in the light of Quirky Teacher’s comments about the over-feminisation of the primary sector). Much of their attention seemed to revolve around voracious careerism, various gossip and scandal. Not much specifically about teaching young children…

This was of course one isolated instance – but other experiences, including having a similarly-minded primary teacher as a near neighbour for many years, hardly dispelled the impression. I do wonder whether rampant careerism is really compatible with the core priorities of establishing key cognitive abilities in young children.

Equally, I sympathise with Quirky Teacher’s reservations about teachers (at all levels) who claim to ‘love children’. To me, this speaks of a level of emotional involvement incompatible with the role of a professional; we are not their parents. Certainly, the word may be used loosely, but that in itself raises questions about professionalism – and it also ignores the many other reasons for going into teaching. We do need compassion – but love?

This implies an emotional involvement that may prejudice the more detached work we have to do with them. Such focus risks cuddly indulgence, a narrow focus on the current state of a child’s being rather than where he or she is going next, and perhaps a reluctance to create situations that cause short term ‘pain’ in the interests of long-term gain. While it is hardly contestable that children entering the education system for the first time need a caring transition from the home environment, our job as teachers is gradually to wean them from this and induct them into the wider world. By the end of primary education, children should be equipped with the skills and attitudes needed to cope with the greater demands of secondary school.  Indeed, my own memories centre on groups gradually giving way to formal teaching and lines of desks.

I am not convinced that this is widely happening. Before I am accused of being over-critical of primaries, secondary schools make it worse by falling over themselves to smooth that transition; I would rather that children arrived in Year 7 being – yes – slightly apprehensive about what they will encounter. I think they should be a little in awe of the teachers, and we should not discourage this.

In secondary school, the problem is extended by treating educational ‘outcomes’ as being the end of secondary schooling with its attendant exam results; we need to question whether we are really using Key Stage Three to prepare pupils for Key Stages Four and Five – and whether we are really equipping older pupils with what they will need after school.

My recent lower school teaching has been heavily loaded with less able classes. I resolved to continue with my broadly traditional approach, and this initially created some low-level behavioural issues from children who appeared unused to it. Nonetheless, I established good relationships with the majority, even those who sometimes fell foul of my expectations. In particular, the issue of inappropriate talking arose; it seems to me that many children no longer have the self-discipline to know when it is inappropriate to talk; even with a very firm hand, self-restraint does not come easily. Delving into this suggests that they don’t understand what they are doing wrong, or that they need to modify their behaviours to others’ expectations. A lot of children transgress not through deliberate naughtiness but through learned bad habits – at which point we need to ask where they learned them…

The expectation appears to be that school is about fun (that word again) and not formal learning – hence the grumbling about being formally taught – and given that this started in Year 7, this message may have come from primary school. By the time they arrive in secondary school, it is harder to change the expectation, even though their book work has improved…

Confronting my Year 10 G.C.S.E. class this week about a very mixed set of exam results, the confession gradually emerged about how little revision many had done; despite clear advice, most seemed to think that a few hours just before the exam were enough to master a content-heavy subject like geography. I deployed the thinking of Robert Bjork and David Didau – the necessity for spaced learning, desirable difficulties and the rest. There was silence… and then one voice muttered, ”But that means we have so much work to do…”

Why exactly are able students, with much to gain from the educational system, who overwhelmingly come from comfortable home backgrounds, baulking so greatly at the need to work hard? And this in an outstanding school? Why is it that many of them have found the workload at Key Stage Four difficult?

I suggest there are many reasons. Wider lives have to play a part: many of these children want for nothing, and are used to being indulged by wealthy parents; they lack the hunger for self-improvement that often feeds educational effort as much as they lack clear boundaries. Schools may have fuelled this by providing extra support to get them through the exams; learned helplessness has become an epidemic. I have frequently challenged pupils up to sixth form age about this: they admit that the more we do for them, the less they do for themselves – and consequently know how to. On the other hand, maybe we need to consider the possibility that too much pressure has been applied through testing, and we are turning children off learning. Can both even exist together?

It is possible that the focus of Key Stage Three teaching, often informed by primary school techniques, is preparing pupils insufficiently for the greater intellectual demands to come – and it is also possible that over-loving primary schools are too focussed on naturalistic readings of early childhood to establish the key expectations of self-discipline and cognitive focus at that critical stage – apart from cramming for KS2 tests, that is. By the time children arrive in secondary school, it is nearly too late; many of the issues I deal with seem rooted in their earlier years.

While there is not much we can do about the wider societal issues, I think the time is overdue for the education sector as a whole to have a lengthy discussion about the totality of how we prepare children for their futures.

Turning it all around #1: Child-centredness

…the first of several short posts questioning supposedly universal truths in education but which are, as several other writers have discussed recently, nothing of the sort – simply acts of faith which have no more grounding than the alternative practices which they have been used to discredit. In at least some cases, it is not difficult to suspect they may even lead to poorer outcomes.

I am indebted to Quirky Teacher for a recent post about child-centeredness, which set a train of thought in motion. She suggested that child-centeredness has the unexpected outcome of stifling children’s development – by making children the centre of adults’ attention and descending to their level, we are depriving them of models of how adults think and behave, and thereby mature standards to aspire to.

And yet this has become so embedded in educational (and wider societal) consciousness that it is barely questioned these days. To fail to come down to the level of the child is supposedly to demonstrate one’s lack of empathy, and unsuitability for a role like teaching. To maintain some adult distance from the immature behaviours of children is to manifest one’s remoteness – and yet to treat them like proto-adults, who are capable of sensible consideration of thoughtful ideas without the need to dress material up as games, or to talk down to them,  is to expect too much.

We in the U.K. have a strangely ambivalent attitude towards children. On the one hand, we neglect them (see the UN report some years ago) while we are busy building our careers and social lives – and then we indulge and smother them to assuage our guilt. We have a romantic, backward-looking view of childhood that we expect children to fulfil, then we flip again, using them as the vicarious matter for our own competitive parenting – and for an encore we try to shield them from every conceivable contretemps in a way that more reflects our own paranoia than any accurate perception of either the real risks, or their ability to cope. Just look at the average school trip risk-assessment. And yet that indulgence is a means of avoiding having to treat young people in a more considered way, of ensuring they continue to dance to our tune.

This problem has big repercussions. If children are never led to understand that the world does not revolve around them, they risk never learning to cope with the demands made on them by the unsympathetic world at large. They may never develop an understanding of the need to modify their behaviours or defer their gratification when in situations where other people require consideration. They may never develop a measured understanding of respect or reasonable authority.

If adults immediately stop what they are doing and pay instant attention every time a child pipes up, the young will never understand that they need to wait their due turn– and if their every demand is instantly met, they will never realise the value of  longer time-frames – and the fact that one cannot normally have everything one wants in this world simply for the stamp of a foot.

The seems to me to be a very plausible reason why many otherwise normal children have difficulty operating in communal situations such as the classroom, why they frequently expect instant attention, and why they feel they can, for example, question instructions that they do not like. In many cases I encounter, there does not seem to be a wish to disobey; some of these children genuinely do not understand that they cannot have everything their own way. In the olden days, we called it ‘spoiled’. It also suggests why many of the same children have at best a tenuous work ethic, despite coming from comfortably-off working homes.

Yet the constant emphasis on overt ‘discipline’ in British schools and homes equally suggests a lack of confidence in young people’s ability to get things right – hardly surprising when they don’t often get the chance. There was dumbstruck silence in my current G.C.S.E. class when I asked them why they expected me to start from the assumption they were lazy, untrustworthy and disobedient, rather than the opposite.

The plague of child-centredness is just another manifestation of the hidden problem of ‘success’ – an increasingly self-indulgent complacency created within society, which breeds a culture of entitlement that significantly shifts the balance within a pupil’s relationship with his or her school and teachers. It seems to be seen most strongly in newly-affluent areas where entitlement is all and responsibility seemingly ignored.

Anecdote suggests a different approach is often taken on the continent. Children are neither idealised nor patronised. They seem less likely to be supervised every moment of the day (they do not even need to be in school all day in some countries). There are far fewer restaurants that offer kids’ menus (i.e. beans and chips) – and it is far more normal to see children eating ‘adult’ food, without the pickiness that many British children exhibit. They are expected – and trusted – to confirm to general expectations of table manners and so on. There are other similar signs of greater self-reliance in young people – but also a relationship with adults that seems simultaneously less formal and yet more respectful. I suppose it is simply part of the way people in general treat each other.

Poor parenting is an easy target for blame – but here I think it really does have a case to answer. It comes not from deprived areas from where we condescendingly expect no better – rather from those, often educated, who might indeed be expected to know better. But on second thoughts, when one remembers the media and commerce-induced phenomenon of kidult-hood  we might begin to see a repeating pattern. Childishness is the new adulthood, it seems. The children of such people will never have the opportunity to see how thoughtful, mature adults behave at home, either.

In this case, school needs to become even more the place where children are shown how to grow into adults, not how to remain children indefinitely.

Disinterested?

One of John Tomsett’s most memorable statements to date has been, “Any[one] who claims she or he always puts students first [without equally thinking of the welfare of their staff] probably hasn’t thought through in detail exactly what that means.”

Yet that is what teaching is ‘supposed’ to be for: “it’s all for the pupils”. Well yes, in a sense, but that doesn’t necessarily imply the kind of ‘cuddly love’ mentality that seems to be prevalent these days. One can have a wider, if more detached view of one’s pupils’ interests.

As a teacher who has no children of his own, I’m quite used to a degree of incomprehension over my motives. You are expected to ‘love children’ and the sole acceptable raison d’etre for a teacher seems to be a willingness to lay down one’s life selflessly for the sake of the little darlings.

I wouldn’t wish to underestimate the challenges faced by those who deal with the consequences of under-privilege and social breakdown, where the basic personal well-being of the child necessarily takes a much higher priority, but the bleeding-heart ‘children only get one chance’ mentality really is not widely helpful. For a start, it implies a zero-sum view of life that is simply not accurate; it over-states the causality between education and life-outcomes, and it inflates the indispensability of the teaching profession. I suspect it is also not really what the majority of young people want, certainly by the time they are of secondary-education age. Most really are rather more robust and independent than we like to think, and while they want good, supportive relationships with their teachers, I rather doubt they really want us playing the role of busy-body life-coaches – helicopter teachers to add to their helicopter parents.

The emergence of the Cult of the Pupil, coupled with the increase in the political accountability of education has led to a decline in the professional disinterest that explains why a childless individual like me might still want to do the job. It has in fact narrowed the remit of the teacher.

I’m sure that readers will appreciate that ‘disinterested’ is not the same as uninterested. For a teacher to be uninterested in their pupils would indeed be a neglect of duty. Disinterested implies one (desirable) stage of remove. It is the quality that dictates when one should stand back and let a pupil struggle through, rather than rushing in with an academic sticking-plaster. It is that quality that views pupils’ exam success as largely their own responsibility – because by standing back, it sees that bigger picture that neither the pupils nor society as a whole are helped by artificially inflating pupil achievements. It is the view that gives young people space to make their own decisions. I recently told my sixth-form tutor group that despite the official instruction, I would not be hassling them to complete their university applications. I would be there to advise them as and when they were ready – but if they couldn’t be bothered to complete the form, then they clearly didn’t want to go enough. They got the message.

This is not neglect.

Professional disinterest has also been eroded at an institutional level. By making schools’ incomes dependent on pupil numbers, and by attaching such severe consequences to the exam-result and inspection regimes, government has forced schools to abandon impartiality in favour of self-interest – or perhaps that should be self-preservation. Consequently, schools have become less authentic, more ready to ‘spin’ themselves and less likely openly to acknowledge their failings.

The same self-interest/preservation effect can be seen at an individual level, from teachers who ‘game’ the inspection regime by having unrepresentative ‘showpiece’ lessons that they wheel out for inspectors, to sailing very close to the wind with exam regulations in the interest of boosting their pupils’ results. It also pushes people towards playing for popularity, because self-interest and The Cult of the Pupil are in reality superficially driven by teacher-popularity.

But education and educators actually have numerous other roles that dictate a rather less self-absorbed view of their pupils:

1) Education is the means by which a civilisation’s technical knowledge and cultural capital is transmitted from one generation to the next. That gives teachers a role that implies that what seems to be of immediate interest to their students should not always take precedence. It is why knowledge is still important for the cultural cohesion and self-perspective it fosters.  It is a role that also seems to have been largely forgotten. A recent report criticised British ICT teaching for being too preoccupied with the consumption of technology and not enough with the harder job of production.

2) Education is the mechanism by which young people are gradually weaned from their home environments and set free into the wider world of society at large. This implies exposing them to some of the harsher realities – and letting them understand that they are not, after all the centre of the universe, in the way which loving relationships at home might disguise. This is why parental preference should be treated with caution; the role of schools should not just be to reinforce home-prejudices and stereotypes.

3) Education has to balance the needs of all individuals, and pupils (and parents) need to understand that. Pretending that we can be all things to all people is doomed to failure, the result of which has been a narrowing of the qualities that education promotes – and of the types of people it employs. This is not in the wider interest of a diverse society, and may explain some of the disaffection we see.

4) Education is the mechanism by which we identify individuals’ aptitudes. This is both for their own benefit and so that they can be deployed within society according to their abilities. This need not be the straight-jacket that is often portrayed – but we really do need to know which individuals have the aptitude to be brain surgeons and which don’t. This means taking a detached view of individuals’ abilities, and identifying ‘failures’ as well as successes. Concealing such issues with a ‘prizes-for-all’ mentality could actually be dangerous.

5) It could also be argued that education provides useful employment openings for those in society who by talent or temperament are not suited for – or do not wish to work in – the aggressive commercial sector. It provides a more reflective, altruistic focus, and forcing educational institutions to operate on aggressive self-interest removes from those individuals the chance both to do their best work – and to be most useful to the society of which they too are a part. This is true of universities as well as schools. It is salutary that the needs of teachers are so far down the list that I almost hesitate to write this.

As a childless individual, I have as much interest as any parent in the society that education helps to shape. But while I have excellent relationships with the majority of my students, I am not unduly sentimental about them in the way their parents hopefully are. I am pleased when they do well, but also try to remember the larger perspectives on my work, which explain why I do it in the first place.

It also helps me to remember that I am equally a member of that society, with my own valid needs and interests (that may sometimes conflict with those of my pupils), at times when the system would play on ‘it’s all for the pupils’ to the unreasonable detriment of my own life balance.

How do you start a new blog?

I suppose some kind of introduction is in order.

I’m the kind of guy who isn’t fashionable in education circles – over my nearly thirty years in the profession, I’ve remained in the classroom, rather than seeking much in the way of management role; I’ve stayed  in the same school for most of my career, rather than changing every few.

But as a result, I have a perspective on education that relatively few people of my service these days have: I have seen one school change over a long period of time as a result of the changing priorities and demands that have been imposed upon it. I have seen the way in which young children turn into older ones and go on to other things – and then become parents, who sometimes send their own children for me to teach. Yet I’m not jaded – I enjoy teaching more than ever I did when younger.

I have worked hard to develop my professional practice and insight over three decades; I felt this was my responsibility in order to be the most effective practitioner that I could. I have reflected on what I found worked with young people, what they seemed to want and need, and on the wider societal context in which education operates. I developed a distinctive view on my field; something that I believed distinguishes the professional from others.

Unfortunately, the education sector as a whole has moved in a very different direction; the growing demands from politicians and others for quantifiable outcomes and standardised delivery has corporatized education in a way anathema to my understanding. It expects teachers to be on-message and to work to standardised tick-box procedures in order to meet numerical targets; it prefers obedient technicians to free-thinking individuals.

Despite pious, ‘child-centred’ imprecations, this view sees education as fundamentally an industrial process, little different from a food-packing plant. It sees education as an extension of economic activity, whose sole purpose is to turn out employable units to generate ‘wealth’. In this world-view, influential people pull levers and educational ‘outcomes’ pop out the other end of the machine. It is self-contradictory, self-defeating and wrong. If it genuinely wants better education, then it is looking in completely the wrong place.

I believe that teaching is completely the opposite – a unique, inter-personal, humanistic activity; it should revolve around a much more sophisticated understanding of how people work, both as individuals and in groups. There is plenty of research and writing about how this can be done; it just isn’t machine-controllable. Its very strength comes from the unique nature of the individual interactions it cultivates. That requires the empowerment of individual teachers – which in turn limits the level of control that can be exerted over them. It is also where the core of good teaching really lies.

It should aim to cultivate talents and interests, and offer multiple pathways through life for people to take as they see fit. It should abandon a one-size-fits-all definition of ‘success’, and allow teachers to develop themselves into diverse role-models. Ultimately it should recognise the free will of the individual, be they the teachers or the taught.

I have been fortunate to work in a school that by many measures has always been extremely successful – precisely that kind of institution that has been at the sharp end of the competitive target culture – and its fallout. I know that the vast majority of the people I have worked with over the years were there because they believed in ideals similar to mine. Even when we have disagreed, I have never doubted their good intentions.  I do not criticise them, for all that I am critical of the policies they have been forced to enact, and the compromises they have been forced to make. But that does not make the system right.