Death by Management

This is a cross-post from my new general-interest blog which can be found at

I’ve been dabbling on the fringes of local democracy. The small town where I live is noted for its outstanding heritage and excellent quality of life, but like many such places, it presently faces multiple challenges from various forms of development that are closing in. In the case of housing, the big builders frequently target such places because homes sell quickly there for a premium. But in the process, they very often ruin what was attractive in the first place.

Neighbourhood plans were a political initiative to give at least a semblance of local self-determination – it depends on how cynical you want to be. But my impression is that these activities are suffering from the same malaise that seems to afflict all of modern life – over-management.

I will hasten to say that I am sure those heading in this direction mean only well; it is just that for many people, professional life has become about little more than committee meetings. It seems that nothing in modern organisations can move without a pile of policy objectives, dozens of meetings and tome of paperwork.

There are some people who glory in all of this – and I have met my fair share of professional committee-sitters in my time. The Healthy Schools Initiative was one; I spent a fair amount of time in meetings with people who seemed far more concerned with ticking boxes, writing policies and acquiring accreditation logos than actually effecting real change. And for all that the logos were indeed acquired, very little of real use actually changed. Certainly nothing that justified all the expensive professional hours spent in those meetings.

If local democracy is to mean anything, be it in schools or entire communities, it is surely about giving people the ability to make a real impact on the places where they live and work. That should not require dozens of sub-committees and expensive consultants and analysts. And when I put some practical ideas forward, it seemed as though, being ‘projects’ – as opposed to policies – they have to go in the box marked ‘aspirational’, for attention only at some ill-defined moment in the far future.

The cynic in me says that death-by-management is a product of a society that struggles to create enough ‘real’ jobs for its people. Equally, I know that communal activities do need to be co-ordinated, money accounted for, and democracy observed. Good managers facilitate that. But on that last point, the triumph of the professional committee-member is not democratic, for it excludes a whole tranche of people who do not operate in that way.

Furthermore, such hidebound procedure strangles the ability of the doers to operate in their own, possibly rather esoteric ways; policy by definition does not cope easily with diversity. Bureaucracy and committee work is not known for its creativity and imagination, and history is littered with influential people who revolutionised their fields precisely by not following the rules.

Over-management kills stone dead the ability of such people actually to bring about real, on-the-ground improvements.

Declining – if not falling. Part 2.

I think it was the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who, some days ago, said something like, “Selective education does not promote social mobility and therefore it has no part in the British education system.” (my emphasis).

It could not be clearer: the Labour Party sees education primarily as a form of overt social engineering. But the Conservatives are saying exactly the same thing, though they couch it in terms of individual opportunity, of course.

I’m not going to disagree with people trying to optimise their time on this planet – but as the years have passed and education policy has blown this way and that, I have had a growing sense that the whole thing is utterly, profoundly mistaken in its approach. It is at risk of becoming little more than a huge waste of effort. This blog, and my (still unpublished) book were in part an effort to reconcile this, both for my own professional sanity and partly because I genuinely believe that something fundamental needs to shift in the tectonic plates of the British political/social/education systems.

Education works – of that there is little doubt. It permits people to improve their diet and health, to form productive relationships, to reduce their family size, to follow complex procedures, to make more rational decisions and to improve their material conditions. Largely forgotten to policy-makers, it also opens the wonders of human culture and knowledge, and it may encourage people to act more responsibly towards the planet. It can tip the balance of life from suffering to joy. But it is not a panacea.

It does not do those things because of bits of paper with certain letters on them – nor because of green pens or triple-marking. Its success is not measured by league table positions, nor by the size of managers’ salaries. I don’t think it really even does those things because of teachers’ choice of methods. And it certainly does not do it because lessons danced to any particular drum-beat of “progress” in a set amount of time. All of these things are nothing more than the immature preoccupations of an introspective and surprisingly insecure profession.

I don’t think it even really does it because of the specific things that children are taught. It is true that some people develop genuine interests or skills as a direct result of their schooling, but they are probably a minority. It is also true that important information can be passed on – though it’s debatable how much of it is ever retained, let alone acted upon given children’s inherent immaturity. It is pretty certainly not true that people’s attitudes change deeply because of soul-searching during PSHE lessons or the like; in my experience, moralising in schools – even when it contains practical information – often does little more than antagonise.

The problem is, education is nothing like as predictable as so many want it to be. For a start, its societal benefits are primarily trans-generational. There are plenty who benefit from it as expected – but there are also the widely-publicised cases of people who ‘did well’ only ever having been to the School of Hard Knocks.  I know several cases where access to the best education seems to have made little difference and has arguably not prevented those people from heading in the other direction down the socio-economic scale. More schooling does not automatically lead to better lives.

This is why it is so mistaken to require schools to be social engineers – the issues that really hinder life outcomes run at a deeper and less visible level, and often establish at an earlier age, than we can control. There is only so much that fire-fighting by teachers can achieve. My own educational progress was not mostly down to the quality of the schools or teachers, so much as my coming from a home that established appropriate values to begin with.

I don’t think I have experienced any great social mobility in my life – but my education has nonetheless helped me to access many fields that are a source of perpetual fascination and reward. It has also given me a perspective about to relate to wider society. I am about to be jobless – but education will provide the resilience to keep me interested in life in the interim. It was not achieved through targets – the nearest thing we had to those in the 1970s were firmly in the ‘demotivating’ camp; it was achieved purely and simply through awakening the intellect.

In some ways education’s success has been its own failure:  by encouraging those who can to capitalise on their skills – while politicians were busy removing the social restraint that used to accompany overt greed – we have facilitated the opening of the inequality gap that now troubles so many. And what of those left behind? Few of the social engineers have much at all to say about those who just don’t bother: it’s another expression of the ‘everyone a winner’ syndrome.

The causes of inequality in Britain run far deeper than anything that education alone can tackle. The current view starts from the questionable assumption that the present system does not already allow those who will to flourish. It is about class envy and replacing one elite with another. It assumes that those who fail do so for reasons beyond their control – which real-life examples repeatedly show to be only partly the case.

I’m not suggesting that undeserved privilege does not exist nor that it shouldn’t be tackled – but a better way would be to remove the concept of social hierarchy – whether defined by money or anything else – rather than simply equip a different group of people to profit at others’ expense. This might sound utopian – but my impression is that the relative classlessness of many continental countries is one of the reasons this issue does not trouble them as severely as it does us.

We may achieve isolated wins, but most of the desire to push people up the hierarchy is worthy but pointless hope. The failure of even many educators to appreciate that it is far more subtle and complex than that is the greatest educational  failure of all.

Teachers would be far better doing what they really can – awakening individual intellects – and then leaving them to make what hopefully-enlightened sense of the world they will. It is what I tried to do as a teacher; isn’t that enough?

Enemy of the People

“It’s all for the children”. In my experience, people enter teaching for a variety of reasons. Yet the single, most over-worked creed to which all teachers are expected to subscribe is this.

One might well ask how working with children can be for anything but their benefit. But the problem, as with so many things in education, is knowing what that ‘benefit’ actually is. What about educating children for the benefit of everyone else – so we don’t have antisocial little savages in our midst?

‘For the children’ seems to be uttered most often by those who favour child-centred approaches and by those who manage schools; in both cases it is appropriated both to justify certain orthodoxies and debunk others.

The former seem to believe that allowing children free rein to decide (or dictate?) their own learning is the most benign approach. The latter seem to think that children’s benefit is synonymous with their schools’ positions in the league tables – and spend least of their daily schedule in contact with living, breathing young people.

Somewhere in the middle are those who advocate a ‘tough love’ approach – to which traditionalist teachers (unfairly in my view) seem to have been attached.

The same phrase is also appropriated by the evangelists who “absolutely love working with children” and who are daily “thrilled” when children “connect” with a new piece of understanding. Well, I have some sympathy, but I think such people probably need to grow up.

As with much evangelism, the message is over-simplified, and not as altruistic as it claims. As fully-functioning adults, teachers ought to have more complex insight and motives. While a genuine pleasure in working with young people is clearly desirable, the over-emotional attachment of a teacher to their pupils seems to be more a matter of surrogate parenthood or their own kidulthood than anything more rational – and professionally rather suspect.

In my own case, the pleasure of genuinely helping people is real enough. Working with children can be very rewarding; some of them I actively come to like. But plenty more are indifferent, frustrating, or downright unpleasant. I try not to conflate help with either permissiveness or helicopter teacher-ing. And I feel distinctly uneasy about claiming to know what is inalienably ‘best’ for other sovereign (if immature) individuals whom I see for only a small proportion of their lives, and in highly contrived circumstances at that.

At least as important to me are the wider, less personal and often unspoken aspects of ‘benefit’. These include the perpetuation of a stable civil society – which requires people to both understand and actively subscribe to a social contract. It also involves the transmission, preservation, accessing and furthering of human intellectual and cultural capital. And it involves striking some kind of balance that allows each individual to grow into a responsible, well-balanced person, capable both of living a fulfilled life of their own and of contributing to the same in a societal sense. Those things are at least as much part of every individual’s interest as anything more selfish; this might be particularly apparent in a world that is as unstable as it currently seems.

Part of that balance is understanding the inevitable trade-off between rights and responsibilities, between custodianship and dominion. That is an exceptionally difficult thing to achieve, let alone develop in others – and all the more so to do in a consensual rather than coercive or confrontational way.

The indulgent culture of modern schools does not manage it. I’m afraid that the education system is well and truly infected with the Cult of the Individual – and why would it not be when the rest of society (ably assisted by the commercial sector) – is so? I do not see promoting education solely as a ‘challenge’ that pits the individual against society, that portrays it as a competition to extract the most (power/money)  for oneself, genuinely serves people either individually or collectively.

Likewise, a system that hypes schools’ own rivalries, or that pretends that classroom teachers can also have stellar careers is insidious. It plays to the self-interest that too often wins out over the interest of the Whole.

The cult of the individual also leads to perverse outcomes. Those who manage schools supposedly in the interests of the children most often absent themselves from contact with those same children. They become apparatchiks of a system whose functioning often works against the complex benefits discussed above. Balancing budgets, surviving Ofsted, hitting performance targets all become more important than individuals’ education or even wellbeing – individuals who become little more than numbers on a spreadsheet. ‘The Children’ simply become an abstract.

Such depersonalisation in turn leads to the culture that drives children and their teachers to the edge of mental illness in order to meet (literally) inhuman targets. It leads to the removal of teachers who might actually understand the complexities of education, who haven’t forgotten that successful teaching is a constant tightrope-walk between multiple conflicting needs, and who appreciate that such false-dichotomy thinking leads to poor conclusions about ‘benefit’ and how to achieve it.

I have even heard it said by a senior manager that no teacher is better than a ‘bad’ (or in my own current case possibly mad) teacher. I wonder if my pupils, who have not had a regular teacher for four months now, would agree.

The worst outcome of this mentality is the myopia that can only see ‘benefit’ in the simplest, most immediate and most selfish of forms. That is the antithesis of successful education – and the fact that there is so much of it around may say something about our success to date. Such myopia is responsible for the inability to appreciate multiple perspectives, or to compromise in the name of consensus. And it is the myopia that falsely labels anyone who tries to temper rather than indulge such selfishness as an Enemy of the People.


Stiff Upper Lip

Resilience is an issue close to my heart at the moment. The organisational machinery is currently whirring around me. School is not unreasonably enacting its procedures for long-term absence. My Union is now in action too – but there are limits to what they can do, based on their regulations and no doubt pressure on resources.

Whether I will be able to attend the meeting the school wishes to have with me next week is as yet uncertain. I still find it hard enough to go out just to visit my G.P. without the anxiety symptoms returning.

It is both frustrating and embarrassing – though that is probably only my problem because everyone around is being very supportive. It is very easy to feel ‘pathetic’ right now, but for some reason the anxiety returned last week it is not something I can really control yet. But The System has only so much time for individual weakness.

The Daily Telegraph is reporting research finding that children who attend private schools tend to be more resilient than those who attend state ones.

That doesn’t surprise me, having had contact with both. The interviews within the report attribute this greater maturity to the breadth of experience offered. Very little about the hot-housing for exams that the state sector is besotted with.

Resilience and maturity are surely things that education should develop – but recent experience which seems to have focussed more on running the teachers ragged to ‘deliver’ what the children ‘need’ (or are ‘entitled’ to) is unlikely to develop this, so much as Little Emperor Syndrome. And in the meantime, it is clear what it can do to the teachers.

The state sector is often critical of the independent one, for reasons I largely share. But I suspect this research has hit on something, and I doubt it is only connected with the privileged backgrounds of private school pupils.

I had been feeling that my own resilience leaves a lot to be desired at the moment – until it was pointed out to me that three decades working in a state school is enough to test the resilience of a saint.

Head in the Cloud

I found William Poundstone’s recent book Head in the Cloud – The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google rather a disappointment. I had been hoping for an exposition of the neural benefits of being knowledgeable – but while disowning the view that cognitive development is only about material benefit, this is largely what the book confines itself to.–The-Power-of-Knowledge-in-the-Age-of-Google/19397512

More interesting – if still flawed – is Poundstone’s use of online polling to conduct fairly large-scale surveys of public knowledge. With a clear eye to the market on both sides of the Atlantic, he meticulously cites examples from both Europe and America and the results, if taken at face value, make depressing reading. If education’s goal is to produce a more informed populace, it seems that so far we have barely made a dent. That said, one might question the informative value of asking people lists of what they do or don’t know, particularly when the examples in the book itself highlights the extent to which such knowledge is culture-dependent.

Poundstone goes on to correlate scores in such tests with ranges of other views and opinions, often in quite specific ways. He suggests that a high level of ignorance of basic factual information often correlates with more extreme views on a range of issues, something that recent events in the U.K. might reinforce. For example, the past week has demonstrated that many hard-Brexiteers have little real understanding of the institutions they purport to advocate, as seen in their reaction to the High Court ruling regarding the sovereignty of Parliament to trigger  Article 50. And a vox pop in Barnsley on Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme revealed that some people think that the U.K. has already left the E.U.

One might counter that the human species has always functioned more on a mixture of ignorance, prejudice and instinct that its more intelligent members might feel comfortable with – but in a time when the consequences of ignorance are so far-reaching, educators perhaps need to face the music here. Even in so-called developed countries, the power of those baser reactions appears closer to the surface than we have liked to pretend, and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that they present a risk to the very foundations of ‘civilised’ societies.

Poundstone’s book fails, however, principally on its inability to consider the more intangible benefits of knowledge – precisely the same failing as many current educational models. A dependence on supposedly-scientific method stymies any attempt to consider such matters: if one’s ‘proof’ is largely found in statistics and correlations, then one needs a quantifiable outcome to measure against. In this sense, it is indeed easiest to look at relatively practical matters such as test scores, and the eventual earning capacities of differing people. In this, Poundstone shows – relatively convincingly within his own confines – that those who know more tend to have more conventionally successful lives. He hints at the cognitive factors that may lie behind this – the Marshmallow Test gets a mention – but he fights shy of the more difficult analysis. Unfortunately, this is precisely the same mistake that many educational models make: they frame their success criteria in material or at least quantifiable terms, simply because the alternatives are too difficult to measure.

But this is one of the oldest flaws in the book: measuring what you can rather than what you need will not necessarily provides the answers you seek. I am not for a moment pretending that I know the way forward on this – but my longstanding motive for being in education is the intangible benefits. I suspect that this really lies in the realm of assembled neural networks –and by definition those are both so complex and so unique as, I suspect, to be beyond useful analysis.

Much of what successful education ‘does’ simply cannot be quantified – it falls within the realm of Wisdom, and the very nature of this makes it unquantifiable. It is also so multi-faceted that it defies the craving of formal education to ‘know’ and claim credit for its input. I would suggest that education itself is only of most effect when, like a good wine, it has had decades of laying-down in which to mature. In other words, its impact is time-dependent in a way that modern institutions and policies prefer to deny. It relies on accumulation of experience and the benefits of hindsight to make much practical sense. One (hopefully) only has to compare the world-view of a recently educated but still immature undergraduate with that of the same person in later life to appreciate this.

I think we are witnessing the consequences of the collective failure to appreciate such matters: on the one hand, people have never had so much access to information (and education) as they have today – and yet it seems not to be making for better-quality discourse or more considered opinion; if anything, the opposite. I suppose one might consider the real issue to be the divide between those who have (effective) access to information and those who do not – but in which case there remain far more of the latter than we care to admit. But in reality, those views do not seem to correlate with education; there are plenty of educated people who hold bigoted views, and I suspect plenty of the less educated who do not.

What seems to be missing is the transformation of knowledge into wisdom. I suspect that this is because it is a process that no teacher can really do for you; I come back to the notion that teachers are merely the planters of seeds. But the decision of formal education to disown Wisdom as its key objective cannot be helping. In his final sentence, Poundstone edges closer to the real issue: Google might tell you the answer, but it cannot tell you what to ask in the first place – and nor can it tell you what to do with that ‘answer’ when you have it. In this, I think a much more satisfactory answer was provided by the late Douglas Adams, through the voice of Deep Thought: a computer might have given you the answer – but it is up to the individual to work out what the question is.

And that’s where there is no substitute for a properly educated mind.

For what? (part two)

zeller_hallenbad-radonbad-in-menzenschwand-3Teacher de-stressor (not available in the UK.)

It seems to me that in Britain, by comparison, there is a sense of disempowerment – that people have less real control over their lives, that there is less active engagement with living a good life. I contrast this with the very passive act of consumption that seems widely to dominate people’s attention.

I’ve never really been able to separate the extent to which that might be caused by the legacy of a hierarchical society, or because people have willingly devolved responsibility for their lives to the political or commercial sector. Either way, one might argue that one of the purposes of education is to equip people to resist the forces that diminish their autonomy.

If I am correct, this passivity is precisely what one might expect a lack of education to cause. Clearly the U.K. does not lack education – but perhaps it is failing to deliver in this critical respect. I can see no other reason why so many people are prepared to live insubstantial, pre-packaged, cloned lives at the expense of any sense of their own individuality. “Because I’m worth it” has been misappropriated from being an inward expression of personal substance and turned into the ultimate in lazy consumer indulgence. Ironically, the more out-sourcing of life goes on, the less what is left might be deemed to be ‘worth’ much at all.

There will always be differences in society of course – but as far as I can tell, like-for-like people in the U.K. somehow seem more resigned and cynical than their continental peers; the greater passivity in their choices of lifestyle betrays something.

I am not trying to suggest that there is only one type of, or path to, a good life – but perhaps the things that evidence the lack of one are rather clearer. While one might argue that people are happy if they think they are happy, it is not always true that the stressed or depressed realise it at the time. All species, when put under pressure, exhibit pathologies of which they may not be fully conscious. The willingness or resignation of many British to believe that life is hard and dull and that there is nothing much that can be done about it, may be one such pathology. The grudging, aggressive or antisocial behaviour one sometimes encounters in this country may be another, the need for constant novelty and escapism a third. Yet for all the politicians and gurus talk about empowering people, very little really seems to change…

Only those with heaps of cash seem able to escape the general precariousness of daily British life; for the rest the sedentary dependence on junk culture, shoddy goods and the dream of unearned fame is an expression of the failure of a society to come up with anything better to live for, rather than evidence of how well we are doing. And the very urge of the rich to buy their way out of wider national life in itself says a great deal – a phenomenon that seems much less marked on the continent.

Most concerning, it seems to apply as much to the educated as anyone else; the present educational direction seems intent on tying people ever more tightly into that world-view rather than liberating them from it. Again, perhaps the significant point is that (externally applied) education alone cannot a good life make. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts. The only other way to escape is to retire – and the expressions of utter relief from those I know who have done so recently itself says a lot about the experience of their working lives.

One encounters many people who are highly-qualified; some of them come from relatively privileged backgrounds, others much less so. But what so often strikes me is that there seems to be no correlation whatsoever between those individuals’ levels of education and their general outlook – except, perhaps, for the absence of severe hardship. For the dullness and pressure of even many professional-grade lives in the U.K. can only say even more about what it is like ‘lower down’.

Above all, there seems to be very little cognitive impact of their education: some of those people do have knowledgeable, enquiring minds – those who are ‘individuals’, who are great company, inspirational even , not because they all match but precisely because they each have something unique and engaging about them. But I encounter more of their type on the continent; in more cases here, the experience of becoming educated seems to have almost no real impact on lived lives at all – except (sometimes) the amount of money in pockets. Many seem still to have narrow perspectives and horizons, even on any perceived ‘purpose’ or context for their own lives. Where is the personal impact of all that education?

I am not entirely exempting myself from the matter either. I like to consider myself a thoughtful and reasonably knowledgeable person – but I attribute that largely to my upbringing and innate curiosity, and cannot say with certainty that my schooling had any more than a reinforcing effect. In that sense, I am no different from those others I may appear to be criticising. But I’m not really seeking to criticise people for the lives they choose to lead, so much as suggesting we may be wrong to believe that the key determinant of the quality of those lives is formal education.

But if this is so, one wonders why we are so mistaken – and how it turned out so differently elsewhere. What is lacking in the culture of this country that results in such a hang-dog approach to life? Maybe we are hoping that external ‘training’ can make up for the lack of something much more inherent and personal?

In many ways, ‘ordinary people’ are the same everywhere; they largely have similar concerns and problems. Except that some of them are fortunate not only to live in beautiful surroundings – but also in well-made buildings, in settlements where people clearly take a pride in their communities and in their relations with others, where civic institutions are strong and there is at least something of a social safety-net. There remains an unassuming sense of the good life, that life is worth living, an opportunity to be seized, that can be seized. It was expressed by the sense of general conviviality present in that restaurant the other evening, by the way each new arrival was generally greeted and each departure bidden goodnight – visitors and locals alike.

But those things did not happen by accident: they are the product either of people deciding those things are important and behaving accordingly – or of making it clear that they will not settle for less.

In the U.K., it seems that no amount of educational progress ever delivers to people anything more than a sense of the inescapability of the rat-race, of the need to gain at others’ expense, of the need to calibrate life in a way that still rarely delivers any tangible benefits. It’s about quantity, not quality. It does not deliver us better homes or roads, it does not improve our indifferent towns or environmental record.  It does not improve the quality of our national discourse or widen the availability of our culture. And if the continent is not entirely Paradise, then the grim bits of this country, and the lives lived there, seem to out-do much of what at least the west of the continent can offer.

‘Opportunity’ seems to be conceived as little more than the ability to work harder and spend more. It certainly seems to do little to enlighten people’s thinking about the things that transform the treadmill into a life well-lived. I know that is not the entirety of life in the U.K. either – but the prevalent mood here often seems to be a sense of weary resignation.

As I said at the start, perhaps education delivers the opportunity for divergent thinking – including precisely the ability to disagree with arguments like mine above – but I still do not understand why so many people here seem never to take their eyes off the ground and look to the stars, even when highly educated. The good life is not a matter of extravagant special occasions or the escapism of behaving badly – It is not a matter of shiny-eyed Panglossian over-optimism, so much as attending to the quality of ordinary everyday life. Our education system seems unable to help people to appreciate that – indeed it seems to be sending them in the opposite direction. But maybe realising such things is not a matter of formal education anyway.

In which case, one is left wondering what on earth all the pressure is actually for.

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.

Affirmative Assessment

People don’t like feeling threatened, so it’s no surprise that children look worried when I announce a no-notice assessment; tests are traditionally seen as threatening. Many of my lower school pupils have been doing their first round of ‘brain only’ tests, and the reactions continue to be interesting.

I’ve written about these before, but to summarise, they consist of a mind-map projected onto the board, with a few topic headings and sometimes some content hints but nothing else. The purpose is to put the onus 100% on the pupils to show what they know, without support of any kind. I refuse to give anything more away than clarification of the summary points, which forces pupils to make their own decisions about their knowledge and how to use it. I’ve been doing this for several years now, and a number of colleagues have also taken up the idea, which has the added benefit of being blissfully straightforward to implement.

The rationale, which I share with my pupils, is that things that have been properly learned should be ‘in there’ just waiting to pop back out; mugging for a test is inherently artificial, and prone to immediate forgetting once the ‘threat’ has passed. This way, they can’t do that; we are effectively testing long-term rather than short-term memory.

Judging from the initial reactions of those who have never done this before, the idea of relying entirely on their own cognitive resources is distinctly unfamiliar. I worry that so much teaching in the past decade has revolved around the idea of easy accessibility that we have scaffolded learning to the point where children themselves rarely have to break a sweat. Some seem unfamiliar with the concept of actually being expected to know anything long-term; when I mention the problem of leaving your learning at the lesson door, some (metaphorically) nod in recognition. This way plays to the ‘Quiet’ qualities of inner knowledge – and there is no escape.

So after a brief preamble, they are let loose and spend the remainder of the hour working on their mind maps. Pupils are given A3 paper on which to communicate their ideas as they decide. This format is helpful because it allows pupils to start writing at whatever point they feel they can. Getting started is often the most difficult part, after which everything does indeed just ‘pop back out’, with many writing at length. Credit is given for (correct) extra information that pupils can provide from their own knowledge.

I have refined the process over the years – I judge more carefully the point at which they are allowed to consult their books deferring it if it seems appropriate. This is a one-way decision of their own choosing, following which they notionally score marks at half the rate. They must write in a different colour from that point, for which we now use GREEN – the idea being that knowledge which requires book consultation is effectively that which needs further work.

I have used this across the ability range, with very little modification – the intention being for all to aim as high as they can. I  level the results broadly using KS3 levels, with five or above needing reasonable explanation and six or more needing analysis. Writing diagnostic comments is easy – and the scripts are relatively quick to mark.

But the best bit is that, once familiar with the process, many pupils say they like the format. Quite a few rise to my challenge not to need to open their books – and very many report being pleasantly surprised at how much they find they do know; that is very empowering. I find it rewarding, too, to observe the explicit effects of my teaching. There is ample scope for positive reinforcement, and it also forces a realisation upon those who struggle that maybe they do need to pay more attention. Over time, this procedure provides an incentive to try to retain what they learn in lessons, as they now know they will be expect to demonstrate it. We are talking about real learning here, not just short-term performance.

Progressive teachers may be nodding knowingly at this point – but I see little to contradict the traditionalist ethos either, in giving pupils what amounts to a half-termly exam in silence. The key thing is that the task is demanding but still affirmative. And it has an interesting effect on behaviour, which also makes me wonder what the pupils are experiencing across their education more generally as a result of the all-singing-all-dancing type of lesson they perhaps more frequently encounter.

For all that they often seem unable to focus for long, when given a challenging task of this sort for which they have no option but to concentrate on their own resources, many do seem perfectly capable of rising to the challenge. Last period on Friday, I had a sometimes-difficult low ability class writing in silence for an hour without any bidding from me. Now that has to be worth doing.

Bad Grammar 2 – Missed Opportunity

To my mind, the greatest missed educational opportunity of the past century was the failure fully to implement Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Several of our more educationally-successful neighbours have had systems broadly similar to that which Butler proposed for a long time, and they arguably have an advantage over us in what they achieve.

I argued in my previous post that there is a perfectly valid egalitarian argument to be made for separating children according to the type of education that they and their parents desire. Perhaps Corbyn’s Labour Party needs to re-examine its opposition to ‘selection’ in its quest to attract new voters.

While putting the onus on families admittedly leaves the door open for neglectful ones to abrogate their responsibilities, just how much responsibility should the state be expected to pick up in such situations? While real deprivation is indefensible, I wonder how much of the lower-aspiring part of the population really is unhappy with its life  – and how much of the ‘problem’ is actually the projection of educated, middle-class ambition onto those who may not want it. I would argue that the best motivator for those who wish for something else is their own aspiration, and the job of the system is to make sure that it does not actively obstruct them. I would also argue that a truly free society is one where people are able to make such choices even if they appear undesirable to others; one could even argue that the determination of those who experience rags-to-riches lives might not have existed were it not for their starting point. I certainly see many affluent children for whom complacency is the main enemy.

Nonetheless, the comprehensive/selective dichotomy is actually a false one, a reaction to what actually came of the Butler Act rather than what was intended. There are other alternatives. This is not to say that the Act got everything right, or that it would still be right now, but had Butler been seen through I think we would be in a significantly better position now than we actually are.

I suspect that many in education in the U.K. only really value academic success because they perceive it as a mechanism for social change; that is why they push the under-privileged agenda so hard, when true intellectual development ought to be available to all irrespective of other circumstances. Their willingness to under-value bright children gives them away. The good news is, you don’t actually need to be rich to be a Thinker – but I hear relatively little in my day-to-day work about intellectual development for its own sake. It mostly seems to be seen as a means of delivering material gain.

The role of Government should be to establish the framework and prevent or correct abuses of the system, rather than attempting large-scale pre-emptive social engineering. While this might be seen as a right-wing outlook, there is nothing un-egalitarian about maximising people’s autonomy and opportunity so long as it doesn’t then adversely affect others. In fact, this is the Left’s dilemma: top-down dirigisme is incompatible with people’s sense of self-determination, and it needs to resolve this conflict. Yet this largely remains the way in which education is framed. In educational terms, opportunity and freedom should be expressed as increasing the genuine choice available to people rather than forcing everyone through the same mould; the role of government should be to ensure that the choices are equitably provided for, and (ideally) equally regarded.

So what might such a system actually look like?

To begin with, the tinkering of recent governments through various forms of school specialisation goes nowhere near far enough. Choice is meaningless when all available alternatives are actually purveying pretty much the same thing.

Had Butler been seen through, each locality would by now have had an academic school, one or more technical schools and some general schools. This would be the minimum guaranteed provision; the actuality would need to reflect local demographics. This would have presented real choice, provided sufficient capacity was available, which in turn would rely on funding that permitted a degree of excess capacity to persist.

Primary schools would exist very much as now, though their role might move further towards identifying children’s early aptitudes. While they would focus on core skills there would be no need to prepare for the Eleven Plus, since this would not exist – anywhere. They would however need to record each child’s development in a way that supported the important choice that was to come later. It is worth remembering that in most continental systems, children start school at a later age without adverse educational effects later on; establishing a secure home life is seen as more important for the very young, and the social security system promotes this.

There would be a policy decision to be made whether a child’s future pathway was to be chosen at eleven or later; there is an argument that it should be at fourteen, and this is the direction that continental countries seem to have taken – an age where preferences and aptitudes are becoming clearer. In this case, there would need to be some form of generalist middle school, which could perhaps be collapsed with later-years primary as indeed happened under the middle school system. Again, the focus is on securing the basics and preparing for the later stages of education.

A fourteen-to-eighteen upper school could then better reflect the educational phase that all young people now effectively experience anyway, at the cost of a little continuity. A consultation process would need to take place to establish not ability, but aptitude and preference for a particular path. This would need to draw on evidence from previous schooling as well as parental and pupil choices. While this may sound unworkable, it is effectively the system by which this phase of education is determined in Switzerland – a combination of track record, preference and school consensus, with no sudden-death, high-stakes exam for which the more-advantaged can be primed. It is worth noting that independent schools are seen, as a Swiss friend memorably put it, “Only for children who have something wrong with them” (!)

The advantage of such a system is that it would present greater real choice to individuals, while also making them responsible for those choices. Schools would need the ability to transfer pupils who had made inappropriate choices or who were otherwise not meeting requirements. An independent appeals process would also be needed.

I don’t think that the academic schools would inevitably end up as the most popular; technical schools could easily involve support from industry and might well end up better resourced than the academic ones. I suspect there would be considerable demand, not only from the less able; aged fourteen, I might have been tempted to take that path myself, and might have worked harder as a result. Academic schools arguably do not need so much hardware in any case, and would probably benefit from being smaller – but they would need to be highly academic (relative to pupils’ ability), in order to attract only those who really wanted that approach.

It is likely that general schools would be more numerous and hence closer to home for many; these might however be more problematic in terms of perception, but they could be acceptable so long as they were properly resourced and not publicly vilified – something similar to a community school. Or they might not be needed. I suspect that those who desired specialised facilities would be prepared to travel further so long as cost did not prevent.

This is of course only a theoretical outline and it would not be perfect. But by providing real choice, sharing responsibility between schools and families and removing the social stigma of the Eleven Plus it could work, as it does elsewhere. By focusing on individual realisation rather than socio-economic competition, it might start to tackle both the inequality and the snobbery that so infest the current system, in a way that overt social engineering has not.

There are other coherent cases to be made, but it seems to me that we help no one by confusing socio-economic arguments with educational ones – and while we point-blank refuse even to discuss some issues for purely ideological reasons, we may be overlooking workable solutions that lie beneath our very noses.