“Grammar Schools for All!”

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle.

I’ve taken some flak over the past weeks for my defence of selective education – though to balance the record, there has been quite a lot of support too. Politically speaking the matter seems to have gone quiet again – I suspect May has other matters on her mind, but just possibly she is beginning to realise the scale of the opposition she faces.

If the latter is true, she will have regrettably squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a grownup debate about the fundamentals of the education system in this country. Still, I suppose that is just par for the course when one considers the level of discussion on other pressing matters in recent times. Once again, however, the casualty will have been the state of the nation in a country where far too much is still determined on intellectually weak grounds such as prejudice, vested interest and historical precedent.

My own position has perhaps shifted a little during the past few weeks, in particular as a result of reading some of the (unfavourable) findings of international research on the impact of selective education. I would repeat however that the fact I was prepared to entertain the argument did not mean I fully endorsed it. I will leave readers to decide whether that makes me educated or not!

Neither does it mean that I have executed a neat U-turn. What it does show is that the debate is both complex and multi-faceted, and far too complicated to be reduced to a simple black-or-white false dichotomy. I concede the potential price of badly-executed selection but argue that this does not mean that what I prefer to conceive of as ‘specialised’ educational provision is inherently a bad idea. This is the debate that will probably never now happen.

Instinctively, I believe that schools should perform a role of social integration, and that implies being non-selective. What concerns me, however, is the reality of the situation, which I increasingly perceive to be the cultural and perhaps academic debasement of the education system, such that most rather than some are now deprived of the riches that the best of it used to deliver. My impression is that it is now left to a rump of the education system, much of it fee-paying, to sustain the highest levels of culture, intellect and general talent in our country – and that is more rather than less divisive when it comes to opportunity.

The rallying-cry of the early proponents of comprehensives was ‘grammar schools for all’, and on the surface it is hard to object to the sentiment. But as I argued in previous posts, this is based on the assumption that ‘all’ even want, let alone would cope with, a grammar-school style education. Quite frankly, many of the children I teach would probably founder under such a regime, and would in all likelihood detest it as well. I can see no reason why less academic children should be forced through a schooling that they actively dislike because it does not meet their needs, any more than academic ones – but that is what arguably happens nowadays anyway, since academic success has become the benchmark against which all are judged. I really don’t blame the disaffected ones for resenting being put through a system in which they feel they can only ever lose. For that is the harsh reality, whatever the growth mindset might claim.

But the consequence is that their disaffection – or at least the need of schools to try to counter it through the culture and methods they employ – still comes to dominate the character of many schools, both through their implicit needs, and more visibly through their behaviours. Regrettably, it seems to me that one of the markers of lesser intelligence is an inability to empathise with the needs of others; the disaffected or unruly are not about to shut up for the sake of the boffins in their midst. And it is still this dilemma that informs my support for finding a different solution – for the good of all concerned.

‘Grammar schools for all’ might be a noble ideal – but in reality this has simply not come to pass. If this sentiment really meant what it appears, then those of us who experienced grammar schools, who still endorse and hopefully embody their values and cultures, and whose teaching style derives from them, would be embraced by those who wished to spread such opportunities to all.

Instead, I – perhaps we – have spent a career being forced to deny my provenance and cultural-academic values, and to change my techniques to accommodate those whom it was claimed would not cope with them. Education more widely has been moved away from the cultural jewel that it (partly) was, towards a form of mass entertainment-cum-employment training. This means that the educational opportunities available have effectively become limited by the inability of some to cope with them, and that is no more ‘democratic’ than the converse.

It is probably a pragmatically sensible position under the circumstances – but grammar schools for all it most certainly is not.

The Best of Friends

Even more than most people, children can mean many things with their words. But listening to them still remains the most direct way of probing their minds. The number of ‘shaft-of-light’ moments that I have experienced over the years could probably fill a book in its own right…

My previous post about expectations received much attention (by my normal standards anyway), and I think the longest correspondence of any so far. I should perhaps emphasise that I was trying to consider the issue in the broadest of terms, though inevitably not all got covered equally. So we might consider:

  • Children’s expectations of their school, teachers and lessons
  • Children’s expectations of themselves
  • Teachers’ and schools’ expectations of the same
  • Other parties such as parents and society at large.

It is very possible that there are significant disparities between different groups’ expectations of the same thing – though there is also the possibility for expectations to be contagious from one group to another.  This is a complicated area, and trying to make sense of it is not made easier by one’s own biases and limitations. I am currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, which is making me particularly mindful of this at the moment…

But last week I took an opportunity to delve a little deeper than I usually would into what my pupils were thinking. A discussion in a Year Nine class, that I might normally have suppressed in the interests of learning Geography, I instead let run and even encouraged a little. As I said, one has to be very cautious in drawing conclusions, not least because one cannot verify the facts or ascertain the sincerity of the views expressed, but the observations were not without interest.

The participants were fourteen year old girls (the boys in the class showing no interest whatsoever); most are biddable, but towards the lower end of our ability range. They were working on an extended task, but other discussion developed, which revolved around who was being unkind to whom on the social media, who had the best boyfriend, and their plans for what sounded like a regular (unaccompanied) outing to an expensive shopping destination twenty miles away in London. Not for the first time, I got the impression that school is nothing more than an inconvenient interruption of a hectic social whirl in which their parents are willing accomplices…

I have transcribed their words as accurately as I can, given that I was relying on memory:

Pupil 1: English is really boring. Why do we need to do that stuff? I mean, we already know how to speak. Why do we have to do all those stupid exercises and notes? And literature – what’s the point of knowing stuff about all those boring books?

Pupil 2: …I just do what I want, when I want. (Me: Even in your lessons?)  Yep. (And what about at home?) Yep, the same there. (Don’t your parents tell you things?) Sometimes, but I mostly don’t listen. (And what then?) Nothing happens…

Pupil 3. …we want more fun in our lessons. (Me: what do you think would make lessons more fun?) (pause….) dunno really, just less of the stuff we have to do. (Don’t you think the teachers know why they give you this work?) ….’spose so – but it’s just boring. I don’t see the point.

Pupil 4: Well, we don’t really know what the future will be like, so we don’t really know, do we? (Me: do you accept that your teachers have lived parts of their lives that you haven’t come to in yours yet?) Yes, that’s obvious. I s’pose they do know stuff – but it’s so boring and I don’t want to do it. (What would you rather be doing?) Dunno, probably hanging out with my friends, or going shopping.

…and one contributed by a year 10 pupil courtesy of a colleague with whom I was discussing the issue…

“Aw miss, you only got me a D in my exam….”

I’m fairly certain this is all routine stuff that will be familiar to many. But within it lie clues to how children today may perceive their schooling. I’m certainly not going to idealise the past, but what strikes me is the confidence with which these individuals make judgements based on what is inevitably a very limited appreciation of the wider issues; well, that’s modern children for you.

But what also seems to be lacking is any sense of obligation, be it to teachers, parents – or even themselves. They perceive little use in what they are doing beyond immediate amusement. As RequiresImprovement observed on my previous post, why would affluent children make the effort to think, when (as Kahneman says) it requires effort, and the rewards are so intangible? It’s ironic that ultra-materialism has led children (and adults) to reject the one path that was supposed to lead them to empowerment….

Another expectation which has echoes in the above, is parents who see their offspring as their “best friends”. I cringe every time I hear this. To my mind it betrays a completely inappropriate relationship, one born of infantilisation and one that is in denial of the more difficult responsibilities of parenting. If this is how the other principal adults in some children’s lives behave, it is no surprise if those children cannot cope with the expectations of teachers. If adults and children alike are engaged in some kind of conspiratorial form of play at home, then where is the understanding of the need for effort, perseverance, mature behaviour and good conduct going to come from?

I saw nothing in the above exchanges that made me reconsider my fundamental views. Children may complain about their lessons, but they appear to have very little idea what they want instead. All we are seeing is the age-old complaints of pupils; the only difference now is that they (and some in education) seem to think they should be listened to. Becoming too emotionally close to children only makes it harder to disregard such whining, and adopting educational policies that condone indulgence at the expense of more demanding development will only make matters worse.

We live in a time where leisure and self-indulgence are such high-profile aspects of life that children have less understanding than previous generations of what real effort actually means. And this is reinforced by a permissive and indulgent parental culture which offers little effective guidance about the appropriateness of behaviour or attitude. As I mentioned before, I encounter many children who genuinely seem to have no understanding of why they cannot have everything they want instantly, with no obligation on them whatsoever.

At the stage when children like those above are about to start exam courses, I doubt how much more we can do to change their fundamental attitudes. Certainly there is an element of mid-teen ennui, but my feeling is that it goes deeper than that.  When I asked one of the protagonists what she expected from her future life, the response was immediate: “To marry a rich man”.

There are several pupils in that Year Nine class who keep themselves apart; while the bulk of the class has made – I am afraid to say – only marginal progress this year, these others  have engaged with what we have done, and have made strong progress both academically and, perhaps more importantly, in their attitude. Several have opted for Geography in Year 10. I have increasingly been able to have meaningful conversations with them, though whether I can claim any credit is another matter; maybe their expectations were just different to begin with.

Of course we need to engage with children as we find them – but there are clearly back-stories and attitudes invisible to those who judge our success. We also need to worry less when our pupils complain. While there are many ways of reading these comments, in the midst of such relativism and indifference, we need to set the expectations for education – and they need to derive unapologetically from the intellectual and personal development that is what we offer.

In this respect, we are employed to know best! But we should neither be surprised nor unduly distressed if some refuse the offer; in the market society they worship, consumers have – as they know well – the option not to buy. But as LeahKStewart implied, teachers must also avoid sending the message, “Please learn these things to do well in the exam so I can keep my job” – otherwise we are no better.

Towards the end of the lesson, I approached one of the more vocal girls; I instinctively dropped down to be on her level. Across the desk, I looked her straight in the eye and said, “You have to trust your teachers. I can’t prove why – but they have been places in their lives that you haven’t yet. They do know what they are talking about.”

She appeared hypnotised. Just for a moment, I had her undivided attention – then she turned and took out her vanity mirror again.

Give me the child for the first seven years…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning it all around #2: Popularity Equals Greatness

It’s that time, when lists are being published regarding who has opted for what next year. It’s always a matter of curiosity, of course – but backed with a degree of minor anxiety about the calibre of pupils and the wider perceptions caused by greater or lesser numbers of pupils opting for one’s subject.

About a week ago, I had a conversation with a bright Year 10 pupil, along the lines of, “I didn’t expect it to be like this: it was so easy in year 9, we played lots of games and it was fun (the F word again…); this year’s its been hard work…”

My reply was to the effect: would he rather I didn’t teach the material that he needs to obtain a good exam grade/ would he rather I left him at (sub-) Year Nine level work/ how did he think people make progress towards tertiary education/gain expertise in a subject – and why, if it is not capable of being “fun”, did he think people take doctorates in the subject and/or spend their working lives teaching it? At the end of that barrage, the poor lad was forced to agree that he has indeed moved his understanding on a great deal since last September, and to take it on trust that greater depth might indeed foster greater interest.

I have known teaching programmes that deliberately cover the more exciting topics just before options are taken. This strikes me as completely wrong, and another example of the system (by linking high take-up to departmental success) perverting the ethical behaviour of teachers. Some would argue there’s nothing wrong with putting a positive shine on one’s subject; well of course not (within reason) – but the timing strikes me as nothing less than cynical.

Personally, I would rather give my younger pupils teaching that allows them to appreciate the true nature of the subject, and that prepares them to make both the choice for and the transition to higher level work. If they then decide that the subject is not for them, then I would argue that I have done them (and the department) a service. Besides, academic subjects (if not all subjects) are what they are – they are not, in my opinion, there to be cut-and-pasted at whim, just to make a ‘fun’ pupil experience. We need to bring the pupils to the subject, not the other way round.

In the case of this year, my take-up has been relatively small – but then I have been teaching mainly less-able pupils strongly academic work for the past nine months; if they have decided it is not for them, is this a bad thing? And I know that those who have opted for it are the ones who have demonstrated genuine interest in the subject during that time.

Of course, I am delighted when large numbers of pupils do opt for my subjects, but I would rather they made the right choice for them – not the school. I do know, too, that teachers can help pupils discover interest in unexpected places – but that is rather different from playing to the crowd just to secure the right short-term outcome. And if they opt otherwise, we should not automatically conclude the worst about our teaching.

I’m all for extending the reach of my subject – but not by diminishing it in the process; I would rather have fewer, committed students (of whatever ability) than lots of uncommitted ones. We continue to conflate popularity and success; if the wrong pupils take the wrong subjects forward, it’s in nobody’s interest.

Actually, I teach Geography…

My subject is not some kind of obscure, eccentric, elitist aberration. Like all disciplines, it covers an aspect of the world around us which can enlighten people who have yet to know it. Delivered in a coherent way, it has intrinsic interest where that is allowed to shine through, and not fragmented or subverted for ulterior motives. My subject will not be of deep interest to all students (that is reasonable – and not my fault), but a wide and balanced curriculum can provide something for everyone, insofar as most pupils are biddable. For those who respond at a deeper level, it can provide enduring enrichment for life – irrespective of what the jobs market or wider world throw at them. It needs no more ‘use’ than that.

My subject also provides me with a welcome dose of intellectual stimulus (at least when teaching older students) which is part of my reward for doing the job; its subject matter  is intimately linked with both my professional identity and the sense of vocation necessary for me to do this work.

My subject is not merely a means to an end, and I need to be able to teach it in a way that allows me to put my best polish on it. In my case, that is by cultivating a culture of quiet thoughtfulness rather than perpetual novelty.

I see no reason why ‘academic’ (in the narrow sense) should be a dirty word in school circles.

A few days ago, I discussed the questionable wisdom of using education for promoting social mobility. This was not to say, however, that all ‘social engineering’ is wrong: simply to educate someone is to manipulate their life in some way. What seems unjustifiable to me is the foreclosure of so many dimensions of that process simply to promote one centralised view of what is desirable. This applies equally to the restrictions imposed on teachers in the name of being ‘interesting’ ,‘fun’ ,‘economically relevant’ or simply compliant – or on pupils, many whom are implicitly assumed to be incapable of serious thought,  instead needing to be merely edu-tained until they can go out to work. To my mind, this amounts to an unacceptable restriction of individual liberty, when education should be about facilitating diversity not increasing uniformity.

The mental agility developed by academic activity is an invaluable tool in the classroom, whether turned into a quick wit, or a profound well of knowledge that students can draw on, once exposed to it. I have experienced little that cuts through to pupils like the earnest experience of real insight – and that is best cultivated in a pure academic way, free from the pedestrian diversions of minimum targets, peer assessments and the like.

A more inspiring opportunity I think education in the true sense cannot offer – and so much more meaningful than any number of ‘edutainment’ games and party tricks. I cannot claim that this is the easiest route – it takes time and patience before children start to engage in real thought, and the success rate will never be 100%. I fear that all this froth has crept in simply as a way of avoiding the sometimes-challenging task of getting pupils to focus on the real, deep issues.

Despite all of the distractions that beset modern children, we should challenge them to confront serious learning rather than shying away from it. I tell my pupils that we don’t play endless games in my class because I consider their education (and the issues) to be more important than that. They come to understand: we under-estimate children if we think they are incapable of responding to this.

So yes, I am a teacher of Geography – to children, of course.