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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Good Sports?

It is a known phenomenon that (ex) P.E. teachers are disproportionately represented in management circles. In fact, I remember during my P.G.C.E. hearing them specifically advised to ensure they secured management roles because of their physical expiry date in terms of how long they could continue to keep up with energetic teenagers. As someone who increasingly feels the pace of even classroom teaching, I am not going to disagree when it comes to the effects of ageing.

I am not going to launch an ad hominem criticism, for despite that rather calculating advice, I am sure the majority of such people have a lot to offer: there are some aspects of learning where the P.E. approach would appear valid. But I am also getting sick and tired of sporting types trying to convince the rest of the world that it would be much better if only we could run everything through the medium of sports psychology.

Regular readers will also know that I have nothing against Psychology either. In fact, I think we need more of it in teachers’ professional armoury. But Sport Psychology is not the only, nor even the most appropriate type for the whole of education, let alone wider human endeavour.

Yesterday, I was invited to consider why the U.K. Olympic team has improved its performance so markedly over the past twenty years. A number of responses were offered by colleagues, but we were assured that it was, in the main, down to the psychology of marginal gains. It is the cumulative impact of lots of small technical adjustments that add up to large effects. This is what led to Olympic success, and it is to what Team Sky coach Dave Brailsford attributes Tour de France success too.

Members of my break-out group were asked to identify marginal gains that we could use in education. It was suggested that we could provide rulers and highlighters for children as they went into the exam hall. Some other ideas emerged. But they were all logistical: practical steps that teachers could do to remedy children’s deficiencies. (Whether we should do that is another matter; there is a view that says bringing the requisite equipment to an exam is part of the test). But when I asked how we might instead deliver – and identify – marginal learning gains, there was silence. Even those who were generally in favour of the concept seemed to struggle to know what a marginal learning gain is, and how we should know it when we see one. And that is before we can explain just how or why a specific marginal increase in knowledge might be tangibly more useful.

Matthew Syed is a well-known motivational speaker, which followed from his career as a top table-tennis player. I have no issue with his success – but he seems to be someone else who believes that what works for sports is directly transferrable to all other human endeavours. I disagree.

Syed falls foul of the Achilles’ Heel of sports psychology: he does not seem to understand the difference between practical, measurable performance such as a sporting ‘best’ and something that is a philosophical or existential imponderable, such as those which concern the effective development of the intellect.  And he multiplies his error by demonstrating his inability sustain an appropriate analogy.

His recent TEDx talk compared the mindsets of the aviation industry to sub-optimal performance with that of the medical profession.

Syed claims that the aviation industry has a rigorous and open culture that discusses its mistakes and conducts forensic investigations with the aim of improving performance. This, he claims is a Growth Mindset. He contrasts it with the medical profession, which he characterises as largely closed-mindset, where complacent professionals rest on their laurels, and will do anything including subverting uncomfortable truths in order to perpetuate their own status and hegemony. Quite where the evidence to support this claims is, is not made clear; it sounds suspiciously like lazy generalisation to me, and is certainly not what my knowledge of the Health Service would suggest.

But the real weakness of the analogy concerns the nature of these two ‘industries’. Aircraft are constructed by (human) engineers using known technologies to perform single, predictable tasks. When they fail, it is relatively straightforward to identify the failure, even if it is human error, and to put mechanical ‘fixes’ in place to rectify recurrent problems. One might also observe that the aviation industry is driven primarily by the profit motive.

Human bodies are not (in the evolutionary sense!) made by people. For all that we do know, they remain in many ways mysterious, and it is certainly not true that a specific intervention such as the administration of a drug will have only one, knowable, proportionate effect. It is also considerably harder and more risky to dismantle a human body and observe the malfunction in concrete terms – especially while it is still functioning. Human beings’ diagnostic software is notoriously unreliable and also subject to whim and emotions such as fear.

The job of a medical practitioner is therefore not the same as that of an aircraft engineer when it comes to offering confident diagnoses and plans of action. While the general principles of the human body are known, the way forward is much less certain, and that is without the problem that a human being has  feelings and multiple (sometimes conflicting) purposes and priorities in the way an aircraft does not. Given these differences, I would suggest that any reticence or even defensiveness on the part of medical practitioners is at least highly understandable. I suggest that at least in the U.K., much of the medical profession is not primarily driven by financial profit.

In many ways, medicine remains in part a matter of judgement, rather than a knowable applied science like mechanical and electrical engineering.

I have discussed this at length because too much is made of such analogies in educational professional development terms. The objections outlined above occurred to me pretty spontaneously – and to others as well. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising when such claims are greeted with scepticism.  There are undoubtedly some elements of education that are quantifiable, but much of what concerns people like me comes much closer to the considered judgement of medical professionals than the conscientious but largely mechanical procedures of aviation.

But there is a further objection, for which Mr Syed is as responsible as any: this is not being used dispassionately, but to promote the Growth Mindset and other specific agendas. There is an implication that those who disagree do so because their thinking or worldview or personal motives are deficient. Or to put it another way, ‘if only you thought properly you would come to the right conclusions’ (i.e. Ours).

I have no difficulty with the Growth Mindset, given certain caveats – but any value it has can only be destroyed by using it in a partisan way: this is not good academic practice. I have heard tell that even Dweck is not entirely happy at the way her concept is being used by education.

With my maverick’s hat on, I argued that the success of the Olympic team shows that selection by ability works. At least some of those athletes were head-hunted for their talent, and then around £5 million per medal thrown at them. No-hopers lost their funding.

I wonder how many of the Syeds and disciples of this world would demonstrate a growth mindset if presented with that argument, particularly in the field of education.

Unfortunately, the fallout of such P.C., partisan approaches is the undermining of training within our profession, not least in the eyes of those who are meant to be benefiting from it.

In the rush to impose sports psychology on even the most inappropriate of fields, such people ably both demonstrate their own lack of understanding of the complexities and subtleties of education, and perpetuate the misgivings some of us have as to why it is they are deemed suitable to be telling the rest of us what to do.

Don’t be stupid.

My recent reading has been The Stupidity Paradox by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer. It’s one of those books that I think anyone in an organisation, and certainly anyone running one should read. It’s also one of those books which, while not solely about education, will I suspect have many who work in schools nodding with recognition at almost every page.–The-Power-and-Pitfalls-of-Function/18939366

The subject under scrutiny is what the authors call ‘functional stupidity’, in other words the kind of idiocy of the herd mentality or blindly-followed protocol that causes otherwise intelligent, skilled people to do very dumb things in certain situations. The authors are academics and the book is carefully balanced, demonstrating for example how encouraging people to overcome their misgivings can bring short-term benefits to an organisation. But the bigger premise is that this same behaviour can also cause longer-term problems if it prevents people from identifying the reality of situation, and particularly problems as they develop.

I think the book is useful because it calmly but mercilessly illuminates all kinds of stupidity that passes for good practice in all sorts of institutional settings, and while it perhaps focuses on managerial decisions, it also shows us that no one is immune: this is simply a cognitive failure of human beings when put in certain situations. In this sense, one might feel sympathy for those whose decisions, by dint of their seniority, have larger than average impacts, but it also presses the point that seniority ought to bring about a greater than average determination to avoid such pitfalls.

I wonder how many school managers have come across the idea of functional stupidity, let alone take it seriously. I think they should. If nothing else, it should warn of the dangers of micromanagement, and the antidote lies partly in empowering people to make their own decisions, while keeping coded behaviours to a  minimum.

I will end by giving a few examples of the issues the book addresses, and strongly recommend it.

The Knowledge Myth: We now live in a knowledge economy where intellectual power is all. This justifies giving people trumped-up job titles to reflect the fact – but also to ‘help’ them to believe that what they are doing is really smart. In fact, much work has been dumbed-down and is at least as mundane and repetitive as ever. The eventual realisation of this fact causes disappointment and disillusion.

Functional Stupidity. The idea that clever people, put in constrinaing situations, can behave stupidly. For example, the stipulation of institutional procedures can lead to blind adherence, even where there is a clear flaw in doing so. The outcomes can sometimes be disastrous.

Mindlessness. The establishment of routine in the workplace can lead to people following ‘social scripts’ which are so routine they are automatic. It can result in people ‘talking past’ each other, and conforming to role rather than thinking about what they are saying or doing.

Normality.  A variation on the above. People accept that sometimes even bizarre routines and practices are normal simply because they are habitual within the organisation.  They may appear deeply weird when seen from the outside.

Normality -2. People are deeply unwilling to stand out from the herd in organisations because doing so risks social isolation and possibly career suicide.

Leadership-induced stupidity. The creation of specific cultures or mindsets within an institution often comes from the top. They may bring a useful sense of cohesion and purpose – but they often inhibit wider thinking, particularly when there is a risk of upsetting the boss.

System-induced stupidity. There is a tendency to think that if systems are in place, then they must be working. Box-ticking becomes more important than actual functioning. The risk is the emergence of the ‘audit society’ in which it checking that things are being done becomes more important than actually doing them (well).

Culture-induced stupidity. Where an organisation cultivates a particular culture, this can again help cohesion. But, for example an organisation that is implacably positive, where negative thinking is not permitted, may find it very difficult to address real problems that crop up simply because it is not done to contemplate them publicly.

There is plenty more fertile reading, but I hope this whets the appetite.

E.U. decide

The U.K. is currently paying the price of forty years of failure to educate its people about ‘Europe’. I’m not suggesting that we should have been indoctrinating people into one particular view, but the current hypertension over the forthcoming referendum – and the manifest shortcomings of both camps when it comes to making reasoned cases – could have been avoided had the nation actually known anything at all about that which is it supposedly deciding upon. We are now at a point when nothing less than the future of our country hangs on the votes of ignorance that will be cast by the majority of people, largely based on issues that have little to do with the actual one in question.

For quite a few years, I taught ‘AS’ level European Studies, which I should emphasise was not the same as ‘E.U. studies’, as it contained historical, geographical, cultural and environmental elements as well as an in-depth study of the workings of the E.U. Arguably this is what Europeanism is or should really be about, rather than single issues, and an appreciation of this would certainly have provided a more stable basis for a referendum. I wonder how many British people really identify their holidays in Spain (or wherever), pizzeria visits, school exchanges or football fanaticism as acts of Europeanism.

Each year, I took groups of teenagers to the European Parliament and European Court in Strasbourg. We travelled by train and spent several eye-opening days on the Franco-German border. They watched the Parliament in action, talked to M.E.P.s of several nationalities and discussed the work of the Court with one of its lawyers. Despite my efforts to be scrupulously neutral, and despite my working in one of the longest-standing Euro-sceptic parts of the country, during that course the more the students discovered and discussed, the more their views shifted inexorably in favour of pan-Europeanism. The fundamental good sense of co-operation just became more and more evident. Wherever they are now, those former students should be equipped to make informed decisions when they vote in a couple of weeks’ time.

And then, around 2005, the exam board scrapped the course on cost grounds; even my direct appeal to then-Prime Minister (supposedly pro-European) Tony Blair produced nothing more than a letter disowning the decision.

During the same period, the scheme of work I had designed for our Year Eights, which included a more rudimentary view of the E.U. was also ditched by my then colleagues – our current pupils have had no education on the issue whatsoever. And yet the associated day-trip on the Eurostar to Lille has endured because it was so enjoyable. We ran it again last week, to much favourable comment from the pupils. They were certainly unprepared for the speed of the journey – just one hour from Ebbsfleet to Lille – and the vibrancy of the fourth largest city in France, which they had barely realised lies virtually on their doorstep.

During the follow-up lessons, the matter of the referendum inevitably arose; despite views on both sides, it was evident that the issue of immigration is dominant, with quite a few pupils feeling that the ease of travel was a bad thing. Well, I suppose they never knew the days before the Tunnel when it took nearly a whole day just to reach Lille. They were more mixed when I pointed out that the forthcoming abolition of roaming charges within the E.U. would presumably not apply to Britain if we leave. Nothing like a little self-interest to motivate, but the general growth of parochialism is profoundly depressing, particularly since the U.K. was the chief protagonist in the drive to enlarge the E.U. in the first place.

Eurobarometer, the E.U.’s polling arm has repeatedly shown that of the original fifteen nations, general public knowledge of the E.U. has remained lowest in the U.K. For many years, U.K. governments apparently refused to have E.U. information offices in major U.K. towns, as was common in every other member-state. Even now there are few, mostly hidden in the depths of other buildings and too far from many people to be of any practical use – even assuming their existence is known about.

And short-sighted government is still making mistakes – for example, the link between High Speed 1 rail line (London – Paris) and the planned High Speed 2 (London – North) has been abandoned, which will make the seemingly-obvious integration of, and synergy between the two networks impossible. Things like direct international trains from one’s nearest city do more to raise a sense of connection than might be assumed. By contrast, many of my students are flabbergasted when I point out how much closer they live to much of France or Germany than, for example, to Scotland.

I have always been pro-European in the widest possible sense. Not only does my experience of the European institutions convince me that they are better-conceived – and functionally at least no worse – than Westminster, but my travels and friendships on the continent give the whole thing a personal meaning in which I take genuine pride and pleasure. There are places and people ‘over there’ whose doings are real, every-day part of my own life – and there is only one way to achieve this kind of immediacy. I will be devastated if we leave.

Given the U.K.’s island nature, British people do need to be prompted to think wider – but what, if not that, is the point of education?  Attitudes to language-learning have still not been cracked (though pragmatically the spread of English is reducing the barrier). And yet there seems as much of a complete vacuum of real understanding of Europe in this country as ever.

I’m not suggesting that mine is the only valid point of view, and there are certainly plenty of improvements that could be made to the E.U., but the ugly and parochial mentalities becoming evident in the current debate represent a catastrophic failure to equip Britain’s people with the necessary information and perspective upon which to decide. A few months of media distortion were never going to do what years of formal education should have been doing.

Once again, for all the narcissism and drum-banging the British education system and its political masters have utterly failed the nation when it comes to equipping it with knowledge of something of real, practical and now critical importance.

What if everything they told you….? (with apologies to David Didau)

I guess I had a pretty traditional up-bringing, being taught by my parents that adults were sensible people who knew what they were doing. O tempora! O mores!

I am increasingly of the view that the vast mass of humanity actually has very little idea at all what it is up to, something that education has so far only managed to fiddle with around the edges. One might have thought, however, that those who put themselves forward for positions of power or responsibility would have had an above-average grasp of the larger tides of human affairs, and have been aware of the various ways of interpreting them. It seems maybe not.

Naturally there are differing, sometimes competing readings of the world, and it is unlikely that there will ever be consensus on the way forward – but one might have expected those with the power to make significant decisions at least to have considered a range of alternatives. It seems that even that is too much to hope for. In recent months, I have had several conversations with people both in and out of education, where an awareness of some pretty important ideas was most conspicuous by its absence.

I accept that my tendency to home in on alternative views perhaps sends me in less-trodden directions. I do this not because I am a serial rebel, but because I believe that one has an educated duty at least to find out what those alternatives are, particularly when the present choice seems not to be working very well. And I am not talking about obscure issues; Oliver James (Affluenza), Daniel Pink (Drive), Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (Flow) and Margaret Heffernan (Wilful Blindness) are hardly insignificant – and yet the vast majority of people, even within the profession, seem never to have heard of them. As I said, one might have thought that those charged with making significant decisions would have at least ranged widely before settling their own outlooks.

And yet ideas that people work best when nurtured rather than put-upon, that intrinsic motivations normally out-strip extrinsic ones, that internal challenge is a key driver of human actions, or that management often cannot/chooses not to see as much as it thinks – seem widely unknown. I am not suggesting that everyone should agree with these ideas – but one might expect them to have at least been considered before adopting the opposite.

I am making further progress through Ha-Joon Chang’s book, and I am increasingly impressed by his critical but balanced approach to the ‘truths’ upon which much contemporary social and economic policy is based. He has just addressed the relationship between education and economic growth, upon which much recent policy in Britain has been based.

He dismantles the claim that education is the key to economic growth, examining the many cases where growth occurred despite a lack of education. He dismisses claims that the modern ‘knowledge economy’ changes the game – salient knowledge has always been the source of competitive advantage, he says, so nothing new there. What is more important is the structure within which it is deployed.

He goes on to discuss the weak and unimportant link between what is taught in schools and workplace skills. He argues that it is usually generic skills that give graduates the edge, rather than subject expertise. It cannot be otherwise, since workplaces are too diverse ever to be catered for at school level, even university level, and their specific demands can often only be learned on the job. It is an error to believe otherwise.

He examines the case of Switzerland, which has achieved the world’s highest economic productivity and yet has one of the lowest rates of university enrolment. Until 1996, it was just 16%. (He does rather ignore that country’s extensive system of vocational training – but this is not inconsistent: work-specific training has a better chance of driving economic growth than the general education that schools can offer). Chang offers wider examples that suggest that education is a very weak driver of economic growth, and that research has failed to find much correlation between growth and even fairly concrete measures such as maths scores. If we want to head in that direction, maybe we should take note.

Yet Chang is not arguing for less education. He says it is one of the most important things a society can provide for its people – but its benefits are not primarily economic. Education’s role is to broaden and enrich people’s lives in ways that material wealth alone cannot. Its main economic contribution is indirect: the creation of a contented and independent population/workforce that lives balanced lives and has the perspective to understand that good economic functioning is an important but not unique aspect in a well-lived life.  Knowing Switzerland well, I would say this is a very apparent characteristic of that country (but not of the U.K).

Chang argues that the drive to increase participation in higher education has also been misplaced. The economic role of education, he says, is largely limited to indicating to employers the level of skill they might expect from a given individual; all the growth of higher education has done is to dilute the skill-set one might expect of a graduate – and having a regular news-feed from our local university, this would seem to be the case. The result has simply been degree-inflation and the down-grading of graduate status. Further evidence that more education can even be economically counter-productive.

Chang’s view is of course only one among many – and yet it seems to me that he and the many others who are arguing for different approaches are systematically ignored by those who actually make policy, be that governments or individual school managers. What’s more, at the risk of my own confirmation-bias, I would say that it seems like common-sense to individuals like me who think a lot about such matters – and yet even within our own establishments, we are too often voices in the wilderness.

At a time when many social and economic problems seem more intractable than ever, one might have thought it wise at least to be casting around for as many views as possible – but bitter experience tells me that entrenched dogma seems to be the order of the day. Those who reach positions of power do not necessary know better than – or perhaps even as well as – some of the rest of us. Is it just ambition or ruthlessness, rather than breadth of vision that allows them to rise, thereby perpetuating one (often harshly Darwinian) view at the expense of the others?

What price enlightened decision-making?

Something in the water?

It’s extremely difficult to extrapolate from individual experiences to national trends. I am enough of a statistician to understand significance testing and the difference between correlation and causality, but sometimes tendencies have the appearance of something more, no matter how flawed the theory might suggest it is.

My school is currently experiencing something of a downturn in the quality of its intake. Having been there for so long, I think I can say that with confidence, knowing that I have already allowed for the tinting of spectacles. Many colleagues agree.

We are finding pupils coming to the school less equipped with basic skills and attitudes than ever before. We are also encountering more, even aged 11, who seem actively, deliberately antagonistic. More time is being spent addressing these issues than ever, in a way unprecedented in the school’s experience over several decades.

I’m not going to fall into the number-cruncher’s trap of trying to attribute simple causality to this: my whole understanding of education is based on the view that many social and cognitive phenomena are simply too complex to deconstruct.

There are, however, a few factors that may well be part of the mix. The area now has a religion-oriented free school that is undoubtedly attracting some families and thereby changing the intake of the longer-established local schools. There have also been subtle changes to our own admissions policy, which I don’t agree with but whose aims are understandable. It is perhaps bringing to us more children who really need our help, but are less inclined than ever to accept it.

I suspect that impacts of the social media and technology revolution are beginning to be seen: there appears to be a change in children’s ability to concentrate, their ability to interact harmoniously, and their tolerance of people telling them to do anything that does not involve using an iPhone. I wonder too, whether this is narrowing children’s ability to find things interesting: it is becoming more and more difficult to catch children’s enthusiasm; many pass their lessons listlessly on auto-pilot, rarely really engaging with topics in the way that used to happen. Their default setting seems to be non-committal loafing; the old tactic of standing and waiting for silence seems to have a longer and longer lead-time. This despite my methods having, if anything, been improved and refined over the years.

I am finding more children ill-prepared with basic school equipment, and less willing to put more than the cursory effort of a couple of minutes into the tasks they are set. And above all, they seem less and less concerned about – and increasingly prepared to challenge – any instruction to the contrary.

I tried to engage my year 13 tutor group this week in a light-hearted discussion about their next steps. I used one of my stock lines for such situations: if you’re not a bit fed up with school by now, then we’ve done something wrong. But the grunts that were the habitual reply then crystallised into a torrent of resentment about how boring school has always been and how they expect university to be just the same. Nose stuck firmly on his phone, one muttered that he is only going so he can get a certain job; no amount of arguing that boring is all in the mind cuts any ice.

In between the two age-groups, I find low level disruption becoming a fact of life, and I know I am not alone. I had a discussion with some otherwise-biddable year eights whom I had had to tick off. The rather perceptive comment emerged, “I guess we got into bad habits at primary school”. If I have any sympathy it is only because my own enthusiasm for the endless round of target-setting that education now is, is no greater than theirs; has modern education actually created this ennui?

On the other hand, some of my year elevens said they were choosing my revision classes over others because I “teach the subject not just give us exam practice”.

If I were to put these pieces together and blame recent educational practice, no doubt the instrumentalist, statistics-faithful classes would accuse me of bias or weak analysis. It would be down to confirmation bias, because I am on record as opposing the grinding down of education into the dull conveyor belt that it has become. I would be over-ruled in my view that petty hoop-jumping, far from being motivating, is a dull and demoralising experience.

I might equally be criticised for my opposition to techniques that seem to have left primary-age children without the basic habits of mind to be able to cope in secondary school. I might be lambasted for continuing to believe in education for education’s sake, for trying to maintain, even enhance, the academic content of my teaching even when it was not immediately ‘fun’.

The more perceptive might accuse me of being the root of the very things I complain about, a proponent of ‘dull’ traditional teaching, without seeing that those year elevens have now come to realise that deep command of a subject is where the interest really lies, and that dabbling while lacking the basic skills you need to access it might initially be fun but is not ultimately very rewarding.

I might be further criticised for having the wrong expectations of our poor, troubled young people. But these are not the unknowing under-privileged. These are in the main children from homes where they want for nothing, who in some cases are almost sickeningly affluent and indulged. These are children who have grown up with such a massive sense of entitlement that nothing a mere teacher can tell them need be taken very seriously, children who treat their education as a consumable service, who believe they are entitled to the very best no matter how little effort or responsibility they invest for themselves. These are baby cuckoos, squatting beaks-open at others’ expense, not foals struggling against the odds to find their feet. This is the boredom of want-for-nothing wealth.

The experience is changing my views of education. Instinctively, I believe in equality of access, and I support moves to increase it for those who genuinely lack opportunity. But I am also increasingly of the view that those who knowingly reject what education has to offer have only themselves – and those who raised them – to blame. The argument that even these children are the blameless recipients of unfortunate circumstances has only so much traction when it comes to off-loading the blame for their boredom and laziness. People who live by the view that the customer is always right should have to shoulder the burden of their own poor choices.

I no longer feel much guilt at limiting what I am prepared to do for them; I don’t see why I should perpetuate their expectation of being waited on hand and foot. By secondary age, children are quite capable of making conscious decisions for themselves, and at very least of understanding the advice they are being given. If they wish actively to reject what the education system has to offer, I no longer feel that teachers or schools should lose sleep over it. Let them go out and try to make a go of their free-market lives using that grossly inflated self-confidence that so many possess – and good luck to them. They say education is wasted on the young…

Those wearisomely reading this, grumbling at another disillusioned teacher may be thinking that there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps so – but this malaise does seem to be spreading. I would be entirely prepared to accept that this is simply the product of a set of local circumstances that say nothing about the wider health of the education system – were it not for the fact that I have unprecedentedly heard of two other schools within fifteen miles of here who are finding the same thing with their Year Sevens. Hardly statistically significant – but just a coincidence? One is a grammar school.

It is no doubt easy for the educationally right-on to dismiss my concerns and to claim I have a dystopian world view. It is also beyond their abilities even to consider that the policies they enthusiastically advanced might actually be harmful. But maybe they are right.

In which case, what was in the water round here back in 2004, when those children were born?

Tragedy – à la Grecque

Some of my favourite films are Claude Berri’s 1980s adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. I struggled through the first in a cinema in Amiens not long after its release, when my French was not as good as it is now.  Full appreciation came with a second viewing of it, and reading the novel, a few years later…

The story has been described as an up-dated Greek tragedy, and heart-breaking it certainly is. The patriarch of the Soubeyran family played by Yves Montand finds in the denouement that two films’ worth of scheming deceit have destroyed no one more so than himself, and in the most exquisite of ways.

The Dragon School is an independent school in Oxford. A couple of weeks ago, a newspaper report investigated how the school has managed to produce so many of the nation’s greatest thespians. (I am working from memory here, having not been able to re-trace the source, so please forgive the lack of precision). Further investigation shows a wider set of notable alumni.

One of the deputy-heads attributed success to having the freedom to allow pupils to experiment with acting and public speaking and all manner of other aspects of liberal education. He was asked why he felt the state sector did not achieve similar results. The reply, if I recall correctly, was that the state sector is far too hamstrung by the needs of political accountability and bureaucracy ever to have the latitude to create this kind of opportunity. It also requires a view of education that understands that pinning teachers down to specified procedures and measuring educational success only in terms of league table data is not enough.

It seems to me that there is a distinct undercurrent running through the educational agenda, namely how to capture the enduring benefits of a private education for the many. (Having spent a couple of days in Liverpool over the holiday, one might appreciate why liberating the underprivileged masses might still be a worthy aspiration). The thrust of the Dragon School article was clearly this – and I suspect it may also underpin various governments’ faith in academies. What I can say with more certainty that at least some in state school management are driven by an envy of the private sector.

And yet, just as in Greek tragedy, it seems that the protagonists just cannot see that they are increasingly the agents of their own destruction. The whole point of private sector education is that it:

  1. Places significant onus on the pupils for their progress, not to mention personal development. From my brushes with the private sector, it seems most certainly not to be about teachers running round dementedly trying to be all things to all people, gaming the systems so as to meet arbitrary targets, so that pupils never have to lift a finger for themselves. Indeed, some private schools have run notoriously Spartan establishments.
  2. Still understands the fact that education is not a measurable or even very definable quality. It seems still to appreciate that there are limits to what any school can do for someone – and then you just have to create the space and support for them to fly if they will.
  3. That teaching is an equally elusive process, and that pinning teachers down to specific procedures – most of all bureaucratic ones – does not a good teacher make.
  4. That quality is more important than quantity. Clearly, this is a difficult issue for the mass-education system, but pretending that large class-sizes and an increasingly conveyor-belt like experience make no difference, is plain ignorant.


So if this is what the state sector feels it needs to emulate, how is it going about it?

Answer: by increasing all of the pressures that drive teachers (and schools) in completely the opposite direction: more narrow ‘accountability’, more data, more bureaucracy, more standardisation, less scope for the individual (pupil or teacher). A myopic view of acceptable educational methods and outcomes and decreasing emphasis on the liberal aspects that cannot be measured – but which, if the Dragon School experience tells us anything, is from where great talent sometimes emerges.

And as several experiences last term indicated, this does transmit to pupils. Even as one who has strongly suspected that the present system is the source of, not the cure to, the toxicity of state education, I was hit hard by the strength of the evidence.

Daisy Christodoulou recently reviewed a book, Ouroboros by Greg Ashman about his teaching experiences in Australia and Britain. The imagery here is also classically Greek: this is the notion of the snake eating its own tail, “a vicious antithesis of progress”. Daisy was struck by the endless recycling of bad old ideas within state education; for me the problem is similar: this is a system that thinks it knows where it wants to go, but lacks the insight to see that its chosen methods are heading it in entirely the opposite direction. And the more it struggles, the more it can – tragically – only see one direction: the one it already knows, regardless of the fact that this is increasingly being shown not to work.

You simply cannot bang the table and demand that people deliver liberal, creative or intellectual education in a homogenised, done-to-order, over-specified manner. These are the very things that destroy those qualities. While I accept that the independent sector does have in-built advantages, it does however still seem to understand this. Nicky Morgan may dream about the same being true in state schools – so what has she done?

Imposed another needless, time-consuming and expensive reorganisation on the system, which can only serve to distract further from schools’ true purpose – and if my reading is correct, reduce still further the freedoms of individual teachers to function as they need. Yes folks! The solution for our state education sector’s problems is….. MORE MANAGEMENT!

And in the best traditions of Greek tragedy, by doing so it is sowing yet further the seeds of its own undoing.

Evidence-based policy? I don’t think so!

Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan recently provided a post for Mumsnet, in which she defended the government’s policy of compulsory academisation for all schools.

BBC Radio 4’s More or Less programme was asked to investigate the evidence she cited. It is worth listening to the report on the programme, which lasts about five minutes from approximately 10’00″ and can be accessed here for the next few days.

I am not going to discuss the whole issue here today, but suffice it to make two points:

  1. Any policy that is being even remotely advanced on the basis of questionable or selective evidence (which probably makes most of them) opens itself to doubt that it can be more substantially justified. What are we to make of a government that needs to justify its policies on the scantiest of evidence?
  2. Given that we are constantly being exhorted to make teaching an evidence-led profession, then one might have expected a more robust case from the originator of national education policy.

I work in a ‘converter’ academy with an Outstanding Ofsted rating; without attempting to pin down specific reasons for this, I think it is fair to say that professional experience has become leaner and meaner for a large number of the staff since this happened. Some of this may be down to ‘circumstances’, some may be more structural.

The government’s claim to be returning decision-making to classroom teachers is becoming more laughable by the week. What local management has always done is put teachers increasingly at the mercy of often minimally-accountable school managements. This can cut both ways – one might have hoped that this could be seen as an opportunity for a virtuous cycle – but in the majority of cases I know about, it has led to worsening treatment of staff. And now even school managements are having their right to determine fundamental circumstances removed from their hands. So much for the Conservative principle being the devolution of power.

And meanwhile, the next time anyone demands that I provide evidence to justify my teaching decisions, I think I will refer them to Nicky Morgan.

A matter of perspective

This post is a response to a slightly tetchy discussion that occurred on Quirky Teacher’s blog yesterday. It concerned the perceived lack of work ethic and general ‘backbone’ amongst today’s young, but the discussion quickly moved towards political attitudes. Be prepared for a long read!

Despite the best efforts of the education system, each generation has to make sense of the world for itself. Its primary source of information is what (and who) it finds, and it tends to ignore the fact that the world may have been a very different place in even the recent past. The other source is the media of the day, but the coverage is not the same everywhere. It is also subject to distortion from as many vested interests as can be imagined, the more so in an era of deregulation.

I’m not claiming that ‘everything was better in the past’ – but it is increasingly clear to me that the longer one lives, the longer a perspective one gains. There is a huge difference between knowing something as ‘history’ and having lived through it. The continuity of the years casts light on what is transient and what is not, and allows one to identify cause and effect in a way difficult in shorter lives.

We take for granted what we find. I was surprised to read recently that some houses in the U.K. even in the 1950s did not have piped running water. For me, television (B&W) has always existed, and likewise cars – even though my parents had bought their first only a few years before I was born, and none of my grandparents ever learned to drive.

I remember getting our first landline telephone. What must life be like for those who never known a time before the iPhone?

Born in 1964, I suppose I was a child of the Welfare State, which had existed for less than twenty years, and was just getting into its stride. That is the world I found, where a generally benign state supported its people. There is nothing inherently less valid about it than today’s.

The greatest error is to assume that there is no alternative to life as it currently is – yet that is precisely what so many of those currently objecting to the resurgence of the Left claim; what a defensive argument! Many of those claiming it are too young not only to remember life pre-Thatcher, but even pre-Blair. They will not remember Labour’s lurch to the Right, and while I was no Labour voter, I remember being concerned that there was no longer a clear alternative to right-wing free-marketism.

Those people may not realise that those now returning to Labour have always been there, but have had no political voice for the past two decades. They have as much right to representation as anyone else, and I object to their demonisation, even though I rarely agree with them. Their behaviour is not always perfect, but is no more insidious than that seen elsewhere across the political spectrum.

How can it be claimed that these people do not deserve a voice in anything that even purports to be democracy? Or are we even prepared to throw this great cornerstone of Western society on the adulatory pyre to me-first-ism? But many of Corbyn’s supporters are young. I heard one make an impassioned speech about how the Educational Maintenance Allowance had allowed her to pursue an education she would have otherwise been denied. Is she any more deluded than those who believe that the Market is the answer to everything, Santa Claus made real?

Even as a teenager, I remember being concerned about the privatisation of state assets – whereas today many people have never known otherwise. I see a distinction between areas where the free market can reasonably operate – where consumers can exercise straightforward choice and where the option to refrain is present. It is quite reasonable for people to make a fair profit from such transactions.

But the situation changes when we consider basic needs such as food, shelter, healthcare, mobility – and perhaps (since it is compulsory) education. There is no option but to consume these things, which means people effectively constitute a captive market. I believe it is wrong to profit from such situations, particularly as the profit motive tends to push prices higher than the non-profit State could provide. Why else have train fares, energy prices etc. risen so much?

In many cases, real choice does not, or cannot exist – and given the nature of those intangible and many-faceted amenities, very little way of assessing quality either. I cannot see that it is ethically acceptable for society to devolve provision of such things where the scope is so great for people to be exploited for private gain. This is where the benign State should step in and provide such things universally and affordably – and raise revenues accordingly.

This is the flaw in the private model. For all the efficiency of the ad. men, The Customer is not at the centre of commerce – the owner and shareholder are. It is of course true that some businesses look after their customers better than others, but they do it because it is good for business. Customers are, fundamentally, just the cash-cows needed to keep companies in business. Bigger companies are generally worse than smaller ones where personal loyalties become more important, but it should come as no surprise that companies bend or break the Law when they feel they can get away with it – or treat their employees badly if that is what higher profits appear to demand.

Many basic needs cannot easily be supplied though the profit motive – they are too labour or capital intensive for a start. Even the heartily capitalist Swiss accept that their transport system will always need subsidy; in the U.K. we pretend otherwise – but the railways are receiving far higher state support than they ever did under British Rail – and fares are higher too. Why? Because there is the profit motive to satisfy. The notion that public services should be self-supporting or be allowed to wither is not a part of natural law: it is a piece of doctrine that has been so strongly propagated for the past thirty years that many British can no longer conceive otherwise.

The State is different. Fundamentally, it is the coming together of the people of a given territory for their mutual advantage and security – and the resolution of the inevitable conflicts between them. It is called the Social Contract – a concept that seems of little interest to many people today. Indeed, the rejection of the public sector can be read as increasing numbers of people turning their backs on the society that supports them – which may be their right, except that they often still expect it to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.

I accept that The State can be corrupted, not least by the self-promotion of those within society most intent on gaining power and privilege. It’s no different from any other form of management! But we should not confuse this with its basic role, nor think that it can only ever be bad. It is true that the more we neglect it, the worse it will be. The past three decades are proof of that; countries that maintain their civic sector well tend to have good ones.

The State also fulfils the role as arbitrator through the legal system and collects and spends pooled income in the form of taxation. And because the market has another deep-seated flaw – the assumption that all people have equal ability to express their consumer preferences (which they clearly don’t) – it intervenes so that even the least advantaged can still access a civilised standard of living. It is in everyone’s interests that they do so, as otherwise they tend to be a source of crime, disease and revolution.

In market society, the best can be given to those with the means to pay, while the rest are treated like cattle to minimise costs. Look at what has happened to seat space in standard class British trains since profit became a consideration! The same template can be applied to virtually any other aspect of British society over the past thirty years, which is why it is no surprise to me that our nation has the greatest inequality of any in Europe. Once one’s status becomes solely defined by one’s ability to access wealth, then those who can do so will fight hard to retain it – hence the venomous response to Corbyn.

The workings of democracy are being thrown to the wind not by Corbyn but by those who are using all their considerable power to ensure he never wins. Corbyn should expect to make his case before the electorate as any other politician would – but he is being prevented. This is not democracy as the electorate is being deprived of objective reporting.

There is little doubt in my mind that the political centre has been moved to the right by thirty years of unremitting market doctrine. People haven’t voted for the Left – but that may be because there was no Left to vote for! I have always voted out of civic duty, but in recent election have struggled to find anyone to support; that is not good for democracy.

This argument has little to do with one’s choice of teaching styles – but it certainly has a huge effect on the climate within which we teach – and the value and nature of the work we are required to do. Perceptions influence the ways we are treated by the system, and it is clear to me that the average teacher’s lot has deteriorated as quasi-commercial influences have been introduced. Those countries that have not done this tend to have much more measured educational environments, and fewer problems with pupil complacency, since education tends not to be viewed as just another consumer service.

Many of the problems which Quirky Teacher’s original post discussed seem to have got worse over the past decades. I’m not claiming this is purely because of commercialism, but the trend has certainly not been the opposite. As society has become richer, it has also become more materialistic, more selfish and more short-sighted. Money has replaced just about every other measure of worth, even in education.

People’s listlessness is largely the result of their having been persuaded that as customers all they have to do is pay and their every wish will be provided for them. No matter than some things can’t be bought in this way, or that personal responsibility is still needed. The effect has been to narrow people’s horizons, their sense of self-agency and their empathy with others. Hence we see the growth of uncompassionate attitudes towards the disadvantaged; even charitable giving has been diluted into a sentimentalised form of feel-good.

The fact that education is seen as an economic tool is the reason why its scope is being narrowed, why learning for its own sake has been downgraded – and why pupils seem to understand the process even less than ever.

I have found myself drawn into several similar discussions with younger colleagues. Corbyn keeps being mentioned in very negative tones. The State is viewed as an insidious, self-serving entity only fit for diminution vis a vis those virtuous operators of the private sector. I find myself talking to people who seem to be living in an entirely different country from the one I inhabit. They accuse me of being naive – as though the world can only be the harsh, dog-eat-dog kind of place that is all they have known.

People – and the market – do not always know best. Americans seem to think that the right to bear arms will keep them safe in their own country despite the evidence; they also pay more for health care no better than that in Europe –because it feeds corporate profits first – and yet oppose state healthcare at every turn.

To return to Quirky Teacher’s complaints: it is precisely the trends outlined above that coarsen people, generation on generation. They cannot be blamed for reacting to what they find – but many of the problems of narrowness, selfishness and complacency seem directly connected to the harsh and manipulated society we have created in Britain. It is exactly that that is creating the little bubbles of me-firstism that enclose people – their sole focus in life is their own gratification, encouraged by self-interested high commerce.

I work in a very wealthy town; the views expressed by many of my pupils regularly attest to this reading. The loss of social solidarity makes for a more aggressive and uncaring society, while ironically leaving the market to kid people into believing that their every want and need will be met for the wave of a friendly credit card.

Most fundamentally of all, replacing the state with the profit-motive changes the nature of social transactions. If you remove altruism, all that is left is selfishness.  Education above all should be a matter of academic disinterest, and turning it into a tool of vested interest perverts the very impartiality on which it is based. Unfortunately, this is all too evident from the arguments being put forward in some of those blog posts.

In my mind, there was a clear watershed in British life in the late Eighties. The new doctrine was starting to become established – but it is only now that the long-term effects on society are becoming clear. People born since then have known nothing else – and it is unsurprising if they therefore can’t see the problems and dysfunction within. They have been taught by vested interests to distrust anything else. The sad thing is they would rather clamour for more of what they know – even though it may be precisely the cause of the effects they dislike – than support an outsider who argues for a “gentler, more caring society”. Such is the power of the market mentality.

Read Affluenza and I Spend therefore I Am!

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Political tribalism is, in many ways the antithesis of what education allegedly stands for. I hold by my perhaps-naive ideal that the purpose of my daily work is to develop in people the independence of mind to make their own decisions, rather than remain prisoner to those foisted on them by received wisdoms and historical precedent. I also equate that with a growing  breadth of vision, and a widening of horizons that hopefully lead to the realisation that one’s own interest is more than a simple matter of self-serving.

It is also evident to me that the resultant perspective is more likely to cross partisan boundaries than respect them. Thus, my own general perspective is progressive, even while I embrace a generally small-c conservative conception of what constitutes a good society. The values of fairness, compassion, the rule of law and a positive-default respect for one’s fellow citizens are not the exclusive property of any one political group, and they belong as much to the future as the past.

This belief in community extends to offering a real welcome to those who seek refuge or genuine self-improvement within our shores, and to working co-operatively within the family of European nations, from many of whom we can actually learn a lot. When it comes to Europe, it is this spirit of consensual co-operation that our petty, confrontational nation just does not ‘get’.

It involves supporting those who struggle within our society – for whatever reason – accepting that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor – and probably morally and intellectually indefensible while we persist with not making the same distinctions when it comes to the rich.

I cast my vote unwillingly, being deeply unimpressed with almost all of the choices in front of me – and as expected it made no difference at all; I am one of the millions disenfranchised by our current system. In the end, mine was a vote of principle, a call for more regard for our environment because if we get this wrong, the rest of human affairs amounts to little more than fiddling while Rome burns.

Yet conversely again, I believe that the best way to advance liberal societal views is through the use of long-established educational techniques. The surest way we have found to give people independence of mind is to equip them with rigorous critical skills and deep knowledge about the world within which they live.  In this way, they will be most able to draw their own conclusions – and, I hope, achieve the perspectives that understand why parochialism and narrow, material self-interest are not ultimately the best model for our species.

And with the same logic, I conclude that our education system – in its broadest sense meaning any and every way in which the young are inducted into the world – is failing as never before. Neither the progressive philosophy of magical self-discovery nor the narrowly economised approach of recent decades has made much headway against the ongoing descent of our nation into a factionalised, dysfunctional set of self-interested tribes, much as it was in primitive times.

The growth of rampant self-interest and the depth of approval for the winner-takes-all culture is, in my view just another sign of this nation’s retreat from compassionate, civilised values. It is also a sign of a society failing to cope with a changing world, and retreating yet further into illusory ‘certainties’. The dogma of yesterday’s election winners must carry the blame for having done more than most to further that – or at least for  failing to counter it.

In my view, teachers and academics should do their utmost to embody higher, more considered values, as part of their wider role within society – though this need not mean having no opinion. But if recent personal and online experiences are anything to go by, even this (theoretically) most altruistic of professions is now increasingly infiltrated by people who are really only in it for their own gain. The deteriorating conditions of employment of many, the increasing hegemony of a few all-powerful people, the disdain with which they treat their juniors – and the unprincipled machinations of those who aspire to join them – must be a concern for any who believe in a fair and principled society, most of all in a profession whose purpose is supposedly to provide positive role models.

I don’t see this improving in the next five years; as Clegg said, this is a victory for fear and regressive thinking. As such it represents a defeat for educated values.

If so, then I’m afraid I think our profession too, stands accused of adopting Nero’s approach to the growing conflagration.