Putting the Soul back. Part II

Narrowing the remit of state education has proved counter-productive and divisive.

There are hidden implications of taking a work-related functionalist view of education that go beyond the simple difficulty of now knowing what will be appropriate preparation. In fact, I suggest that the supposed focus on workplace skills is precisely what is responsible for the never-ending complaints from employers that ‘young people’ lack the necessary initiative, motivation and more to be fully employable. I will come to this in a moment.

Furthermore, for those intent on the social equality agenda, narrowing educational purpose like this does more harm than good. Those exposed to supposedly ‘privileged’ educations (whether in selective schools or the private sector) are given a wider diet than this. That is not to say that such things are always specifically taught – but a large part of that educational experience might be deemed to be ‘cultural’ rather than economic – whether in the sense of access to high level arts opportunities, the personal development upon which independent schools place such emphasis, the rarefied intellectual climate that tends to be generated in places where intelligence is generally high, the received ‘standards’ that are set – or the social networking opportunities that such institutions tend to construct for later life.

While one might well object to the privilege thus bestowed, it is incorrect to suggest that these things do not amount to a store of cultural capital, whose effect is often to enhance the lives of those who have access to it. The important effect is not just the ability or inclination of the individual to avail themselves of the external opportunities, so much as what it does to the expectations of the individual, of what they might reasonably expect from life – and at least as importantly, of themself. I will talk more about expectations in the following post  – but for those who believe (as I do) in equality of opportunity, reducing the state educational offering to a simple matter of work-readiness is a mistaken way of tackling such inequalities, for all that it might appear to possess more ‘relevance’ than the broader, less focussed approach.

One can easily be a supporter of social egalitarianism without accepting that this means depriving those who already have good opportunities of them in the name of those who have fewer; the aim should be to deliver the best possible opportunity to everyone. There is no reason why state education should be a narrow, low-grade, solely functional experience. We can be pretty certain that those schools that do deliver the wider educations are not about to stop doing so any time soon – and by insisting on a narrower remit for the state sector, proponents of such may be unwittingly perpetuating the very divisions they so wish to remove. By failing to develop that wider breadth of perspective and focusing so strongly on economic attributes, schools may be closing doors on all sorts of dimensions of life that could otherwise enrich the later lives of their pupils.

Certainly, those claims from employers that so many young people lack the necessary ‘attitude’ seem less-often levelled at the independent sector. Since we cannot easily anticipate the specific skills that will be required in the workplace (let alone anywhere else), it would seem a better bet to spend our time developing fully-rounded individuals whose general approach to life is constructive enough that they will bring good attitudes, skills and determination to whatever they do – employment included. And equally important, expect the same considerate treatment in return.


Putting the soul back. Part 1.

I was greatly uplifted by Geoff Barton’s recent call to return the ‘soul’ to teaching. That is probably the only thing that would make me consider setting foot in a classroom again. In my experience, the whole profession has been shorn of precisely those things that made it worth the effort, while the unwanted, unneeded hassle has correspondingly increased. The condition of ‘being a teacher’ (as opposed to the act of teaching) had indeed become  soulless. And they were hacking away at the classroom experience too.

My concern, though, is that it has been this way for so long now, that returning the soul may be nigh-on impossible. Like many cultural assets, this is hard-won and all too easily lost. We have several generations of teachers who, having no alternative experience of their own, may lack an appreciation of what it means – and if they don’t know, there is no way we can bring it back.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am giving consideration to this kind of issue, that has been shoved so far to the back of working teachers’ consciousness by the overload of more pressing practicalities, that it might need someone at a slight remove to highlight them. I hope I can be of some use in that respect. I have serialised the following intentionally rather provocative piece, and will post it in five short sections at intervals of a few days. I will be delighted even if it only provokes dissent!

Part I

I suppose we’re all, to some extent prisoners of our value-systems. Coming from a teaching family, it was probably inevitable that for me, education has never needed any external justification: it was enough of a self-evident ‘good’ for that to be all the reason needed.

I have always dismissed the functionalist view that education needs to be ‘for’ anything in particular – let alone just the gaining of employment. Its effect on people, in my experience is always very significant so long as it is congruent with those people’s innate potential. Often, however, for a variety of reasons that is not the case – and I would suggest that education fails more often because of this, rather than either poor teaching or a lack of ability or commitment by the teacher or student. I would add a caveat to that, however, namely that as an investment in a person’s future, a pupil’s current preferences should not be to only consideration for the form that education takes. This is why the guidance of an enlightened adult is so important – by which I mean someone who has developed a mature perspective of their own, on life.

So it came as something of a surprise, some days ago, for a long-standing former colleague to demur on this point; in his view, for the majority of the population, gaining employment probably does constitute virtually the sole reason for being put through – or putting up with – school.

I’m not in a position to dispute that view; experience suggests that in terms of current social attitudes it may well be correct – but that does not in itself make that position either tenable or justifiable. It should even less define what education professionals decide to make school ‘about’. Attempts to define education as being ‘for’ anything in particular come up against all sorts of philosophical and indeed practical difficulties, and the increasing attempts of society to do just that have arguably corresponded with a period in which the education system has lost sight of its some of the many domains in which it can have an effect.

Most fundamentally, education is a speculative investment in people’s future lives – lives that neither they nor anyone else can anticipate in detail. While there are certain known ‘likelihoods’, there is no way of knowing the specific future needs of any one individual. Therefore attempting to second-guess what individuals will need in future is problematic at anything more than a very general level. The other risk here is that future-anticipation becomes self-fulfilling. For example, if we strongly promote education on its economic benefits, it is likely that the recipients will believe what they are told; as a consequence it is even possible that they will prioritise its economic benefits and neglect the other things that a more diverse education could have offered. But given that education is an investment, to me it makes little sense prematurely to limit its potential by making closed decisions about what is ‘suitable’ for certain people. Surely we should give them all the opportunity to access the best our culture can offer? If they then reject it, at least they have had their chance.

I think there is much evidence of such limiting behaviour having happened – even to the extent of having shaped teachers’ thinking about the purpose of what they do, as my former colleague’s comments suggested. The potential consequences of this are more far-reaching than might at first seem possible. To be blunt, the emphasis on employment in education is a euphemism for the acquisition of money – whether at one extreme the millions to which the would-be rich aspire, or at the other, the minimal self-sufficiency that the State requires in order to keep people off the social security books.

I am not going to suggest that this is an unimportant aspect to education – but I would suggest that it is insufficient in terms of life-enhancement. Money is only as good as the people who spend it: there are plenty of recorded cases of multi-millionaires having a demonstrably poor quality of life, and equally those of people with limited means having the opposite. I will discuss why that is so in a subsequent post.

A more cynical view might claim that the emphasis on the economic aspects of education actually represents an abandonment of the individual as a locus for concern; while it is possible to sell the dream of wealth and life-fulfilling employment to every child, the reality is that only some will achieve it. What is more, the current thrust of economic development suggests that it may deliver to fewer and fewer people in future. This is without the increasing body of evidence that poor working lives and poor life-balances do significant harm to people’s health; surely education should not be promoting situations that lead to decline?

In a system where management priorities are so dominant, can we be sure that ‘education for employment’ is not just a new inversion of the intentions of the national elite over several centuries – that the masses should be employable not for their own sakes, but for those of their bosses? If so, the risk is that we are dangling prospects in front of people which are largely illusory; they may ensure the compliance that educational managers desire in order to meet their own targets – but that is very different from guaranteeing an experience that provides a meaningful legacy for those who undergo it. Were this correct, it would not be unreasonable to claim that the education system was morally bankrupt.

There is a plausible case that we should increasingly be educating people to help them find fulfilment in places other than the work that for many, may in future be both increasingly dreary and in short supply.

The fundamental mistake is to assume that money provides the means to acquire a fulfilling life – this is not necessarily so. By focussing on certain specific, mechanical goals such as these, education may be harming its own opportunities for providing a more meaningful life-experience for individuals and society as a whole.

Un-managers wanted.

As my day-to-day classroom experience recedes, I will be focusing occasionally on some of the wider perspectives that I feel teachers and schools need to have – and which in my experience have been squeezed virtually to extinction by the pressures on the modern profession. (At the risk of labouring the point, further discussion of many of them will also be found in – ahem – a certain forthcoming publication…)

It seems that the current recruitment and retention crisis is focusing minds.

John Tomsett wrote a thoughtful and honest piece recently in response to the growing teacher shortage. He is right to conclude that classroom teachers’ lives need to be made less intolerable. That is what some of us have been saying for years!

He also cited an inspirational piece of writing by Geoff Barton, calling for a reinvention of the profession of teaching in all its cultured and humane glory.



Again, this is what some of us have been trying to perpetuate for decades. In some ways, it harks back to what teaching was – and who teachers were – in the days before the intrusion of Big Management. But for all I knew it that worked on its own terms, my own small part of the education system disapproved, and eventually pressed the button marked ‘Reject’. Why would they not: I was (in their eyes only) resisting their direction. But their chosen alternative does not seem to be getting the education very far either, it would seem.

John faces a problem: for all his good intentions, he is (now) a manager; even in his recent piece, the current difficulty is seen through the prism of the manager. His proposed solution to the problem is a management one, albeit involving wider consultation; how could it be anything else? But as in many fields, a significant part of the problem in schools is excessive management: what we need are un-managers.

Management is much of the problem: it is very largely an invention of post-industrial societies for the employment of people whose more productive options have been exported or otherwise disappeared. Its very existence creates certain operational and cognitive difficulties for organisations. Management is parasitic: it produces nothing of itself: its whole point is to intervene (interfere?) in what other people are doing and control the way in which it is done. This might be a little less problematic if it didn’t also suck so many resources out of the system. If management stops directing, then it becomes too easy to ask difficult questions about its necessity, and as we all know, turkeys don’t vote for festive seasons.

Even when the motives are entirely good (which is not always), the immediate effect is to compromise the autonomy which is such a significant part of people’s motivation. That in turn can severely alter not only the practicalities of how a person operates, but also their sense of purpose about their work. In my case, I experienced both: the insistence of managers that I should work in a way that suited their priorities and preferences rather than my own – and the erosion of my self-professed motives for my work. It was the reluctance to accept this that caused some of my recent difficulties.

Teachers are intelligent and skilled people; they work in complex environments deploying subtle and sometimes barely-defined cerebral skills. They need at all costs to retain sufficient flexibility to preserve the choices and values that make them persevere with their work. Most of them are experts at self-management (by comparison with many outside of teaching) – and they do not need other people telling them what to do. Unfortunately, telling other people what to do is the key premise of the vast majority of managers. The conflict is irresolvable – and the effects on the teaching profession are all too clear to see.

This is not to say that we don’t need managers: schools don’t run themselves. The mistake is believing the same about successful people, who often do. The immediate effect of management presence in my lessons was tangibly to make me less effective: it’s called the Hawthorne Effect! Others played the system by putting on show lessons; neither makes for good classroom practice – or a sense or professional pride.

There are other models of management that are less intrusive, less threatening, and more supportive – but the education system does not seem widely to cultivate them. What is more, in the drive to make schools conform to management priorities, many of the skills, attributes and attitudes referred to by Geoff Barton have been extinguished in favour of a more utilitarian, technical approach. And that does not work either: it removes much of what makes for a truly successful teacher.

I would like to suggest to John and concerned others, that they don’t formulate yet more management solutions – because solutions they are not, simply another iteration of the same problem. What we need is un-management solutions. In the words of what now seems to be an apocryphal saying: “Hire good people and get out of their way”. And be ready with a helping hand – if and when it is requested.


Socially contracting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



All the Aitches

I knew about the Danish notion of Hygge a long time before it became trendy. The Welsh also have a word, Hiraeth, which (being Welsh) is a rather more melancholy version. The Germans use the word Heimat to express an untranslatable sense of belonging to one’s roots. The English have no such word.

It was once suggested to me that in the lengthy exchange of words between English and French, the French take practical words from us (le parking) and we take abstract words from them (sang-froid). The Brits, it sometimes seems, are not much good at the intangibles of life.

If there remains anyone who does not now know, hygge expresses the sense of warmth and belonging, a sense of security and nearness to people and places one cares about. And what happened when the word arrived in England? It was turned into a retail concept, thereby instantaneously becoming a pale, insincere shadow of its authentic self.

For hygge, read education. Sitting as I am at a distance from the chalk face, but reading the occasional blog post as and when my addled brain will allow, I see another concept that has been debased almost beyond salvation. The British crave education – even as many seem to have little real understanding of what it is and how it is acquired.

The thing is, of course, education cannot be traded or turned into a retail concept – but that hasn’t stopped us from having a darned good try.

Grades can be subject to targets, production lines and ‘interventions’. Time lines and tick lists can be devised to demonstrate (as I saw on a recent Australian example) that Jonny ‘knows what he thinks about’ something (What? All the time? Without a shadow of reflective doubt?) – and can thus be given a grade for it. Job done.

But by quantifying the thing we think we want, its very essence slips away. We are no closer to educational Nirvana than ever, perhaps even further away. More bits of paper to our name, but no more enlightened about the world – or even about why those bits of paper are, in their own right, meaningless. A bit like Quantitative Easing – money with nothing to back it.

All because The System cannot see that the best things in life need to be left to just happen – cultivated, yes – but not commanded; they cannot be produced to order.


For what? (part one)


I’ve heard it said that if you want to understand why education is so important for a country, then just look at one that has none. It’s a point that is hard to argue with – and yet the connection between the life-experiences of people in various parts of the world and their educational experiences is anything but direct.

Empowering people to make more considered decisions about everything from their birth rates to their economic activities or their use of leisure time seems such an obvious thing to do, and it is clear that in aggregate terms there is an effect – even though what we teach rarely relates directly to such trends. Yet education also implies empowering people to make increasingly divergent decisions about their lives, rather than following patterns stipulated by others. There is a pretty significant contradiction here.

What’s more, when one looks at widely-educated nations, the connection between education and life-choices seems to diminish. Putting my curmudgeonly hat on for a moment, the harder I look at life in Britain, the less certain I am about what it is that the increasingly-urgent imperative for more and more education is actually meant to be bringing. When it comes to the norms of British life today, I find it hard to see where education’s effect actually lies.

This comes into sharper relief every time I travel to our near-neighbours on the continent. To be blunt, ‘Here’ I see many supposedly-educated people for whom that experience seems to inform their lives almost not at all; ‘There’ I see by comparison an attractive way of life for which formal education can presumably only be a partial cause. And I know those countries well enough for it not all to be just rose-tinted spectacles.  If the point of education even in developed countries is supposedly to improve the quality of people’s lives, are we looking for the wrong thing in the first place? And if it is not that, once the basics of life have been addressed, then what?

Like most (all?) teachers, I choose to believe in the transformative effect of education – in its ability to change lives substantively for the better – even if I also see it as the only alternative to remaining in savagery. If this is not the case, then just why is so much effort invested in improving ‘opportunity’ for those who supposedly do not already have it? But what does that opportunity consist of? Are we deluded to think that a more educated mind – let alone more bits of paper with grades on – really can make much real difference to people’s time on this planet?

I rather fear that it actually means little more than the ability to work harder or spend more, thereby enriching our masters further. I suppose it may also mean the ability to support one’s dependents better, thereby being less of a burden on the State – thus enriching our masters further. But do such things really equate to ‘more opportunity’ – let alone the best that education can offer? The societal effect of education is actually cross-generational, but in which case, is the story we peddle that learning generally transforms individual lives anything more than a white lie? True, people will sacrifice much for their children – but there comes a point when perpetual deference to the future becomes pointless. In a secular world, the best solution has to be for each equally-valuable life to be lived as well as possible in its own right.

I certainly don’t equate being bound ever more irrevocably into the economic treadmill with a better quality of life. It seems to me, too, that the focus simply on the grades people achieve – which ties them inescapably into an economised view of education-as-currency, rather than what actually happens in their heads during the educative process – is a corruption of the basic aspiration of that activity.

My half-term holiday involved travel by train to Strasbourg, and thence to our friends in Switzerland and their second home in the Black Forest. I took the heading photograph in a restaurant in a remote village 3000 feet up in said Forest . We had just finished stomping up a gorge by a waterfall, followed by an hour’s soak in the local spa-pool: an enlightened amenity for a backwoods – but not neglected – community. We ended with a delicious meal in this homely, family-run restaurant. But what has this to do with education – for all that our party consisted of people with Master’s and Doctorate qualifications? I suppose one might argue that education alters the value one attaches to such experiences, but that seems far from universal – I can think of many who would be bored by the prospect – and I doubt holding a PhD is a prerequisite for appreciating it either.

Question: does education really change the values one has in life?

So what is all the education really for? Germany and Switzerland excel at the ‘protestant work ethic’ – and no doubt running a successful restaurant or spa is indeed hard work when measured in time and physical effort – but where does education really come into it, beyond an ability to add takings up or read the regulations? It is unlikely to generate the understanding that even in business, authenticity and joie-de-vivre are important assets. Likewise, accumulating the money to acquire second homes and pay for meals requires work – but that is hardly sufficient to sum up the beneficial effects.

It seems to me that the things that I find so attractive about those countries’ quality of life have less to do with education than their transmitted culture. They may value hard work and they certainly have no shame about material wealth – but those are not the things that alone bring their high quality of life. If anything, the opposite is true: it is the remaining awareness that the good life is about more than material factors that is important. Contrast this with a conversation overheard amongst educated Britons recently, to the effect that customer-loyalty is pointless any more since all companies overcharge and one should ruthlessly shop around in order to beat the price down. It seems a bleak, dehumanised view even of commerce – and one for which a little independent thought might prompt a re-evaluation.

During our trip, we encountered unfailingly friendly, courteous people in shops, restaurants and the street – as we always do. I’m not so naïve as to believe this is the whole truth – but it is nonetheless a regularly repeating experience. One assumes they do not all hold doctorates, nor put the pleasantness on just for foreigners – but the impression is of a positive outlook on life that if nothing else still has time for the basic civilities.

As always, we found a comfortable, solid stability that appears to provide a high quality of lived experience, no matter how educated people might (not) be. I’m not suggesting that there is no hardship or conflict in those places – I have seen enough of the less attractive side of the continent to know better than overlook it.  But the overall sense is of a better, more satisfied life-balance than is widely achieved in the U.K. where life seems perpetually precarious – as the various ‘social pathologies’, let alone more overt recent expressions of dissatisfaction might suggest.

People ‘over there’ do have pressured lives – but they still seem to retain a greater sense of personal agency, and an awareness that the good life has to come from within – precisely the things that one might expect good education to inform. And they do it seemingly without recourse to either the bleak social Darwinism of the British Right or the indulgent dependency-culture of the Left. One might add a sense that civic structures in those countries are more enabling and less punitive and miserly in their outlook than those we have here.

By contrast, my impression of this country is that no matter how hard one works, Quality of Life is an elusive concept. I have sent countless young people out from my school whose expectation seems to be that life is a rat-race in which the sole purpose is to earn as much cash as possible, unaware of the fact that doing so may cause impoverishment in many other ways. Plenty see education as little more than a necessary evil to accomplish this.

For all the eventual high salaries of South-East England, this seems to me to be a recipe for a dull, unsatisfying life, the proof of which is the ceaseless, fruitless scrabble for privileged economic status in the town where the school is located. Yet that town itself is a dull, lifeless place; its wealth does not seem to bring it a greater quality of life. Furthermore, that life is seen as competitive rather than collaborative, about extrinsic success rather than intrinsic satisfaction – is, I think, a deeply important point. Put our pupils (as I often have) alongside their Swiss or German counterparts and ask them about their respective lives and the contrast screams loud…

(To be continued)


Clowning around

For much of my career, the emphasis on children’s behaviour has been that of empowerment. In the past, so the fiction went, children were repressed and helpless, and a key part of their education should be giving them the confidence to make their own decisions. If one disregards the progressive back-story to this, I see nothing wrong with encouraging children to make confident decisions, and the fear of getting things ‘wrong’ can still be a powerful influence at times.

Over time, this outlook has had some success, though there are other factors at work which have appeared to empower people more generally in their own lives. I think there is nothing whatsoever to object to in the principle – but being empowered also implies having the necessary ability to assume responsibility for both the decision-making before and the effects after a decision is taken. Some of that capability is a function of maturity – which is something children by definition do not have.

This is where the problems begin: many trends in modern societies have encouraged power without responsibility. I am pretty certain that the impact of modern advertising has given people a sense of entitlement, and has not necessarily emphasised the responsibilities that people might have to use their consumption responsibly. In the U.K., successive governments have emphasised the importance of consumer choice, probably reinforcing the effect.

At the same time, the growth of mass culture and mass consumption has diminished the sense of individuality that people have; I can find no other explanation for why so many people seem entirely content to have tastes and preferences that are clones of each other. And with a diminished sense of individuality perhaps comes a similar sense of agency, or responsibility for one’s actions. Ironically, the effect of so-called empowerment may be largely contrary.

The net effect of this has been both to enhance children’s ‘knowingness’ about the world – their awareness of issues, and opportunities for behaviours that they arguably should not access until adulthood – and ironically, to infantilise adults who can avail themselves of an every-growing array of sophisticated ‘toys’ with which to divert their attention from the matters of responsibility that adulthood arguably brings.

The notion of being a small cog in a large machine has implications.

I don’t remember there ever being a mass-hysteria event when I was at school – but then, there were only 850 pupils in that school, who were largely known to all the staff. Contrast that with the nearly 1800 where I work, and where I suspect any one teacher only knows – or perhaps even recognises – a fraction of the total.

In a school of this size, the individual can easily disappear. Already this term, we have had two instances of what can only be described as the herd mentality. Our pupils are normally largely co-operative, but when the crowd dynamic takes over, their behaviour can change, the usual constraints appear to loosen – and there are enough of them to make the situation challenging to handle.

The second of these events concerned something that which, being a false alarm constituted no threat whatsoever – but that was not known at the time. What ensued was a large number of children massing directly towards something that they must have known from media coverage, might have presented a threat. There were a considerable number of staff on duty at the time, but it was an effort to restore complete order and send pupils onward to their lessons. I emphasise that my school is well staffed and supervision procedures are followed closely; there was no risk to the children at any time – except perhaps from the general dynamics of a large crowd of people.

For all we expend considerable time and energy educating children to be responsible individuals, when something like this takes over, normal rules seem to be suspended. The concerning thing is that no amount of teacher input seems to make much difference. I had a somewhat difficult class in the hour following the incident described above, and it took much effort to calm them before we could resume the lesson. I linked their classroom behaviour with what had happened outside under the theme of trust and ‘doing the right thing’. The blank faces suggested I might as well have been talking to the wall. What’s more, while some colleagues correctly pointed out that they are ‘only children’, I don’t see that this should absolve them from the expectation of any sense of responsibility whatsoever. And if that is indeed an acceptable justifier, then it should perhaps instead modify the degree of accountability in which the adults responsible for them are held.

It is an unfortunate by-product of modern society that it seems fewer and fewer people have much sense of responsibility or appropriateness of behaviour. It is easy to blame it on home backgrounds, but whether that is the whole truth is doubtful; most of our children come from reasonably attentive homes. Something is empowering these children to the extent that they have such self-confidence that they feel able to ignore even adults in positions of authority when it suits them – and no amount of teacher-power seems to make much of a dent in it.

It may be old-fashioned, or even repressive, but we should remember that children are not mature adults who are (hopefully) able to make considered decisions. They have immature minds and increasingly cannot, it seems, be trusted to do the right thing. This is what the removal of the notion of obedience has done.

Perhaps what is needed is a bit more old-fashioned restraint and respect for authority: particularly when others are potentially held responsible for the consequences, having the confidence to make their own decisions has gone too far.


Quality will out – part 2

Much was made recently about the fact that so many of our Olympic successes were independently educated. The implication, as always, was that this shows the lack of wider opportunity in our country. Maybe there are many other potential medal-winners out there – but a little-discussed possibility is that if those people had not had the kind of education they did, they might not have been successes either. If you attribute so much influence to schooling, you cannot avoid this argument.

The blogger Muggedbyreality made an excellent point recently, which took my own thinking further:

“…to create a strong, flourishing academic culture in a school or a subject department or a class requires a disproportionate, perhaps excessive number of persons of an ‘academic’ inclination.

…An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.”


This is my experience entirely. Whatever the arguments about selection, it seems to me that the effect of comprehensive schools has been to level people to the middle. The most probable outcome when a wide range of individuals is put through a common mould, is that there will be a tendency to a mid-point norm. This may well provide uplift at the bottom – but it comes at the expense of the greatest development of the most talented. In 1980, when I entered the sixth form, my grammar was turned into a sixth form college; its character changed almost overnight. No doubt some would argue that this was a good thing – but it was very clear to those who knew it before, that the academic ethos was instantly diluted by the simple arrival and behaviour of many who did not share that outlook.

This is precisely what I feel has happened to the U.K. over the past several decades. For all that diversity is supposedly celebrated, the common culture of this country has become ever more centred around the middle to low brow. Many educated people now have tastes and preferences no different from the less thoughtful mainstream. It has almost become a point of embarrassment to admit to anything more. I am not saying that they should not participate in that culture – but the number who also retain a diverse perspective, and who have the capacity to supplement their diet of soaps, celebrity and shopping with more demanding interests and activities, seems to have shrunk. And that is without the perceived intolerant eccentrics like me who would prefer their own diet to remain entirely unpolluted with junk. In other words, the pursuit and appreciation of challenging (but rewarding) high quality seems largely to have been lost, except perhaps when it only requires the flex of a credit card. And with it have been devalued the common cultural norms and values of the entire nation. I place part of the responsibility for that at the door of the education system.

I probably appear hugely intolerant here, but I want to make a point. A nation comprises vast numbers of people, all with their own world-view and preferences. But that nation’s collective civil and cultural life is the sum of all its parts, and perhaps more than that. If there are few willing or able to uphold the more exacting end of the spectrum, the whole suffers as a result. If no one is prepared to be intransigent in the name of high quality, then it will simply disappear.

The casualty is then the collective standard of culture, thought, discourse, innovation and achievement of the nation. I would argue there is enough evidence to suggest that those things have declined in Britain, at least to claim that education has failed to act as a brake on other destructive pressures. I realise that there are very many wider factors that are influencing such trends – but my point is that at least for some, education ought to be providing a counter-balance to the mind-rot, and in the majority of the non-selective sector, I strongly suspect that it is not.

In the meantime, those who do still worry about these things perhaps perceive their last refuge to be in the remaining grammar schools – or the fee-paying sector.

In terms of the general health of a country’s society, culture and wider welfare – to say nothing of individual preferences – I find it hard to accept that it is in the collective interest for the brightest and best not to be developed as far as they can be, for the sake of a rather low-grade equality. This is certainly not the approach that I see a number of our (rather more successful) neighbouring countries taking.

However, this is not in itself an argument for selection; in an ideal world, such aspirations would indeed be achievable universally. But the reality is that this does not happen; people are too diverse to be catered for so specifically all under one roof. Academic divisiveness is a distraction: the real issue ought to be whether specialised institutions of all sorts could achieve a broader but higher-quality education for more people than the current one-size-fits-all approach. Likewise, the mechanism for selection is nothing more than another distraction. I suspect that selection’s opponents well know it.

As Muggedbyreality says, it takes a surprisingly  large number of like-minded people to create a culture. I suspect that s/he is right: I work in a school that has a significantly positively-skewed ability range. I encounter lots of clever children – but very few who are academic. There are some – but nowhere near enough to influence the whole. This is not surprising, since they come in many cases from not especially academic backgrounds, and in any case, in most populations, I suspect the numbers of parents wishing or able to project such values is small. Institutional culture and values are things that schools have to instil – and in my experience, very few comprehensives successfully do so in academic terms, even where they claim otherwise.  Again there are too many reasons for this to discuss here, though my scrawling over the past three years has covered many.

In some ways, comprehensive education has indeed been the leveller that its proponents wanted. The trouble is, it had no alternative but to level as many down as up. I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind –at least I hope it isn’t. The idea of grammar (i.e. academic) schools for all is a practical non-starter. Too many people simply do not set sufficient store by high intellectual quality ever to attain the necessary critical mass. I should add that exactly the same claim could be made with respect to schools of technical excellence, and other specialist needs.

This is the blind spot of those who oppose selection: it is not (principally) a matter of securing ‘unfair’ advantage; it is a matter of perceived cultural quality. For the most resolute of selection opponents, the principal purpose of education is social engineering; they often see teachers as class warriors. I’m not suggesting that tackling disadvantage is unimportant, but shift to a different paradigm, and the argument shifts too.

Whether the reality of selection matches that perception is almost immaterial, though my memories of both grammar school and local independents are indeed ones of integrity. As a grammar school pupil, I only visited secondary moderns a couple of times, but their different ‘feel’ has stayed with me. It was not a matter of superiority, but it was definitely different. In cultural terms, I am afraid that comprehensives are more like ‘secondary moderns for all’ than grammar schools, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Neither is this even a matter of ability, so much as attitude. The problem stems not so much from the weak-but-willing, as the indifferent and the disaffected. Putting everyone together solves nothing; the lowest common denominator tends to prevail – and if it doesn’t, those who cannot meet the standards and norms risk feeling all the more excluded.

And this does not only apply to pupils: I increasingly feel that some of my professional tribulations over the years have come from working in a culture to which I am not entirely suited, and much of my more dubious workload has actually been generated as schools battle to control the problems and tensions inherent within the comprehensive system. I chose to express my faith in that system by working in it notwithstanding the personal cost – but were I to choose now, with the benefit of hindsight I would make a different decision. There are plenty of teachers who thrive in the comprehensive setting – but there are those like me, as with pupils, who can do their best work somewhere else. To ignore their needs is no more acceptable than to do the same to any other group.

David Willets, the former trade minister, writing in Prospect magazine says research shows that non-graduate incomes are higher in areas where there are lots of high-calibre graduates than elsewhere. That spreads opportunity – but it is not necessarily an argument for making everyone a graduate. High quality has a more widely beneficial impact by raising norms.

The fact that some people insist on high quality, and will go out of their way in order to secure it is both their reasonable right, and in fact of benefit to more than themselves. In cultural terms, their effect permeates to the standards of wider society. If one eliminates such people from the wider mix on the grounds that not everyone wishes to emulate them, the effect on the whole is disproportionately large. On the other hand, distributing them widely but thinly removes the critical mass necessary to sustain them. The same applies in education, whether we are considering the needs of the academic minority or any other.

Is this really such a desirable template for a thriving modern society?



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.




Works in practice but not in theory.

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference … our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”    Stanley Kubrick

When you’re forced to face the possibility of potentially serious illness, as I was recently, certain things come into full perspective. You realise, for example, that no amount of wishful thinking or reassurance from those around you will make the slightest difference to the reality of the situation. Fortunately, on this occasion, I seem to have escaped – but I guess this is the stuff that gives people existential crises in middle age.

When I taught Critical Thinking, my sixth formers used to struggle with the notion of an indifferent universe – one that is inherently neither good nor bad, but simply is. If one does accept this, the inevitable conclusion is that all notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are nothing more than human interpretation.

What interests me is the reactions that people have to such perceived realities. One can be brutally, even cruelly honest, but Alvesson and Spicer suggest it is more normal for people, organisations and even entire nations to retreat into avoidance, euphemism and self-deception, into stories they tell to create an illusion that the real world conforms more closely than it does to what they desire. There may be some utility in doing this – it makes for reassurance, optimism and unity – but it can also be dangerous if it blinds people to very real threats. For as I suggested, an indifferent universe is not governed by puny human desires, and at a collective scale, that applies as much to societal phenomena as to the natural world. We can no more steer the outcomes of billions of human decisions by ideology alone than we can natural processes by wishful thinking.

An Anglo-German family of my knowledge has just taken the step of renouncing their British-born sons’ nationality in favour of German. I think it is an astute decision, if a difficult one – and in some ways I wish I could follow suit. Whatever one’s opinion of Brexit, there will be an objective effect on this country, no matter what those in the respective camps wish to be the case. I have no idea what it will actually be – but in thirty years’ time, if this country has fallen into terminal decline, history will not judge us kindly for falling for a delusion.  In the meantime, both sides are continuing to interpret developments purely in the light of their own self-constructed narratives; how close they are to the truth, only time will tell.

As for education, I fully subscribe to the inclusive principle that it should benefit as many as possible. I also subscribe to the fact that this means providing quality. But what that really means is far less clear than those who use the word with abandon appear to think. Personally, I tend to believe that we should be trying to cultivate ‘quality’ people – and by that I mean in all their aspects: intellectual, technical, ethical and more generally behavioural. I don’t, however, fully accept that this means giving the same thing to everyone. Meanwhile, the system we have seems to believe that high quality education is synonymous with the largest number of high grades on the nation’s exam certificates; the real-world consequences of this belief, I suggest, beg to differ.

On Friday, for a whole hour I held ‘in my hand’ a class of eleven year-olds. Entirely unexpectedly, they responded particularly well to some questions I posed. We ended up going significantly off-piste and discussing both some impressively philosophical matters as well as the general value of learning. They went away enthused – and one pupil remained at the end, sidled up and asked me an entirely unrelated question about the heritability of cancer, something that was clearly troubling her. I gave the most honest answer I could and tried to reassure her. Within that lesson I seemed to have gained her trust.

I like to think that I delivered high-quality education that hour, for all that it could not have been pre-planned. The skill of the teacher lay in the capacity to capitalise on what developed, and to have the depth of personal resources go where the lesson led. I hope the experience the children had that hour will prove to be durable. But I’m not sure how well it would have scored in official ratings.

Since I wrote my recent epic on selective education, the great and good have been queuing up in the media to denounce the idea. This post is not intended to continue that debate, but the imagery has been telling: The Guardian ran a cartoon in which the key figure was a teacher-caricature straight out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The BBC website filled its reporting of grammar schools with pictures of red brick, and wood-panelled staircases. (My own grammar was a bland, 1960’s system-built structure…) We are falling back yet again on comfortable prejudice; an impartial, unprejudiced debate this already is not.

My bigger point is this: be it Brexit, selective education, or any other matter, real-world outcomes will be what they will be, no matter how acceptable or otherwise to ideologues. If it is difficult in the extreme to comprehend the entirety of those consequences, it is even more so to anticipate the future. An intelligent way forward would be to accept this, and at least permit a debate that starts from an acceptance of all the realities, harsh and otherwise.

For example, if Robert Plomin is correct and intelligence is more heritable than it is fashionable to believe, the widespread unacceptability of that finding to educators will not change it. We would then be better to accept the fact and work with it rather than carry on wishing it not to be so.

Regrettably, public debate in Britain is not of an especially high quality: those comfortable delusions all too readily come to dominate. The media do not help – but neither do all those who pontificate publicly without admitting their partisan and inevitably flawed positions.

If it were true that selective education delivers more skilled, more thoughtful, more cultured, even more mobile societies, the fact that it is unpalatable to many will not change it. The assumption that education must be about social mobility and attempts to prove that selection does not deliver that, only skews the wider debate away from those essential truths. If unpalatable options are to be shown really not to work, then the ‘proof’ must be devoid of all ideologies and other partisan agendas. In this light, I really have no idea what the answer is – but I doubt many others do either.

“…fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts”. Bertrand Russell

But one thing seems certain to me: denying hard realities because they don’t match our ideologies is self-deception taken to risky lengths. The relevance for Brexit is all too obvious here; for education, it is also critical. If we really are serious about achieving the best outcomes, then we need to work with more than sound-bites and illusory certainties. And we should be honest that some of our priorities may be contradictory, compromise inevitable.

If nothing else, implacable opponents of selection seem to be missing a key point, namely that those who prefer it probably do so as much for reasons of culture and quality as any wish to secure social, let alone financial advantage. I know many who were impeccably opposed – until it came to choices for their own children. Until this is understood, it will never be countered.

I will develop this more in a subsequent post, but my own reasons for at least entertaining the selection dilemma are twofold: one, the knowledge that I would wish a child of mine to receive an education noticeably more – for want of a better word – highbrow than anything I have ever found in a non-selective school; and two: the sure knowledge that those who want the same are not about to give up on it because of other people’s ideological objections.

For all that I respect John Tomsett, his recent claim that state education in York delivers high quality for the whole city cannot be true while that area has as many independent schools as it does. Disliking or ignoring this uncomfortable fact does not diminish it, will not convince those who disagree with him – and may even make the real effects worse. This is the key difference between my stance and the many who will not even countenance discussion of certain conundrums, be they selection or anything else: until we are realistic about the actual issues, pragmatic about the outcomes, and accepting that differing agendas are not necessarily invalid, we will not even begin to tackle the problems they cause.

My Friday lesson undoubtedly broke many conventions and preconceptions about what ‘good teaching’ is, but using the best criteria I have – the impact on the pupils – it worked. Had I stuck to prevailing ideology, I probably would not have allowed the lesson to develop as it did. Neither would I have relied on the instinct and personality traits developed over the years that mean that from time to time, I do manage to strike gold. And perhaps the fact that it only happens occasionally would get me labelled as inconsistent, even though such things are by nature rare.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote of the BBC in Saturday’s Guardian, “it works in practice but not in theory”. Theory clearly has its place – but when it becomes dogma it may be damaging. Until we adopt a more balanced approach, have discussions as honestly and objectively as we can manage, and accept that in an indifferent universe, solutions may not always be found in the expected or even most comfortable places, we are never going to achieve what we largely agree we want.

That applies in pretty much whatever walk of life you want to apply it to. Education included.