On educational totalitarianism – and teaching my first lesson for two years.

In the Beginning, when the world was young, people set up organisations because there was work that was better done collaboratively. The army, for instance, was established in order to defend the nation. The greatest soldier was hailed as he (and it normally was ‘he’) who most successfully defended that nation.

But in time, as armies grew, they developed their own internal structures. They needed their own provisions and evolved their own interests. They needed resources, and those who worked within them wanted to be rewarded as well as possible for their efforts. The best soldier became he who most successfully defended the interests of the army.

It is probably an inevitable side-effect of specialisation that this is so. But it hugely increases the risk that organisations will become diverted from their core purpose – and as those organisations have become more complex, and the competition for resources between them intensified, it has become commonplace that self-perpetuation possibly now even consumes more time and energy than do their original purposes.

I still follow the education world, but with increasing distance, it is ever clearer that it has become just the same as all those others in this respect– just another interest-group within wider society – albeit one that claims special importance (don’t they all?) – whose internal politics and policies may be of massive, overwhelming importance to those who have to deal with them daily, but whose significance withers when seen from a wider perspective. (How on earth did green pens ever assume such a huge significance in my life?)

This is not for one moment to suggest that education is not important. If anything it is more so than ever in a time when the quality of public debate about all sorts of issues seems to be plunging hell-ward through floor after floor that you thought really was the basement. In modern times, there has perhaps never been a greater need than now, for a widespread ability to think clearly and rationally about the big issues facing the world, and one’s own place within it. We are seeing without a shadow of doubt, that a little education is a very bad thing.

But thinking ability is not what the education sector is any longer providing, and nor has it for at least several decades when jumping accountability hoops has been more important. ‘A little’ education  seems for many to be the best it could do, and there were times when I suspected that that was indeed its only aspiration. There is a strange, unspoken counter culture within education that hints darkly that you should not expect too much from the ordinary punter…

While I accept that platforms such as social media have some very strange effects on the dynamics of discourse, turning normally sensible people into raging autocrats, experience of such interaction is leading me to conclude that the mean ability for rational, detached thought within the population is – well, almost non-existent. While the formal education sector cannot be the only culprit here, its success in equipping citizens at large with the ability to be considered, reasonable, responsible members of a developed society seems to have been slight. And while it is very easy to overdo the them-and-us comparison, my experience, as so often, suggests that this deficiency is not the same in every country. It is not inevitable – and hence not solely the product of media that are available everywhere.

It is very easy to conclude that education (at least in Britain) really does now put most of its collective efforts into self-perpetuation. I don’t mean the thousands of unseen hours of classroom teaching that happen every day (though even classroom teachers have been forced to think more carefully about self-preservation in recent times). It is precisely with that filter in place that the other impression comes to the fore.

Seen from the outside, those with audible voices in education really do seem to spend most of their time either pulling wings off intellectual flies, or devising ever more devious ways to command the internal politics of the sector. Not much there any more about the nuts-and-bolts purpose of successful teaching, except insofar as it is necessary to validate the efficacy of the establishments that deliver it. What has happened to the social-intellectual vocation of the profession?

I have been struck (again) by this in recent months in what appears to be the very muted response to the pronouncements of the new(ish) Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman. Were I still teaching, I would be very enthused by her comments about the need to deliver real education as opposed to the box-ticking of recent decades. Her views that breadth and subjective experience are more important than conformity or narrow-definition ‘results’ should be manna from heaven for all in the sector. The downgrading of exam results within inspections should be a blessed release. And yet, my perception is that there has been barely a murmur of approval.

Such is the grip of the edu-establishment over the sector that it is increasingly difficult for any dissenting voices to be heard. Anyone not toeing their desired line simply does not get heard – the blogosphere notwithstanding. And even that seems to have lost the dynamism that it had a few years ago. If even the chief inspector can be met with indifference when she says something out of line, what hope is there for anyone else?

Perhaps all the approval is happening in the privacy of front-line classrooms, but from those whose voices can be heard, very little. I suppose one should concede that this might be the behaviour of those who have seen too many false dawns before – or could it be that those who run the system these days are just too invested in it to want even benign change? Perhaps they actually secretly yearn for those harsh inspections? After all, many of them have done very nicely from it – dynamic careers and even more dynamic salaries for those who have risen to run sometimes multiple schools whose entire position is based on bean-counting, and a feudal approach to those who are more or less willing or able to deliver those beans when they are needed. In this climate, the real imperatives for education are so far removed from their daily preoccupations that they might just as well not really exist at all, any more. Educating children is just an incidental consequence of a system whose real purpose is now the career success of those who climb the ladder.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on them: they are only copying the nest-feathering that is apparent in ever-wider sectors of society. Stellar careers were the carrot offered by past governments to entice people into the profession. But one might have hoped for higher principles from one whose basis is in the altruistic doing of good for others, let alone the preservation and perpetuation of the nation’s higher cultural and societal capital. In that sense, it makes the situation all the more reprehensible.

In the meantime, tomorrow represents my first venture into teaching in over two years. No, I have not changed my mind and re-entered the school environment; I will be running my first adult education evening class in Critical Thinking, a commodity that seems to be in extremely short supply. Despite my initially-low expectations, I have a small group of adults locally who will be coming along over the next six months to learn more about the skill that really should be the fundamental basis of everything the education system says and does – and which school management does its best to suppress.

I have even been planning ‘lessons’ again. I’m looking forward to doing this. Hopefully I can in a small way deliver something of real educational value, free from the shackles of the formal system. But I will never again be submitting to the regimen of those who run the that sector – at least not until something very fundamental changes and there is a re-birth of its true raison d’etre.

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From novice to master

When seen in the driver’s seat, it is barely possible to distinguish between an advanced driver and a novice. Insofar as it is possible at all, it will mostly not be down to the actual operations that they perform (which are largely the same for any driver) so much as their body language and general ease with the task in hand.

Even when being driven by those two people, much of what makes one more accomplished than the other may only rarely be noticeable, for it resides in the domain of cognition. It is perhaps only in extreme situations that the expertise of the advanced driver may become visible, through the speed of their reflexes, and the strategies they can deploy. In many cases, however, the fact that experienced drivers are known to focus much further away from their own vehicle may simply mean that their expertise rests in the ability to avoid difficult situations in the first place.

It is also true that advanced motorists are taught to break some of the rules hard-wired into novices; for example, there are skills that involve using the whole road to corner safely and comfortably – where appropriate – that would leave a novice quaking. But that does not make it poor practice: it is simply that the master has better appraisal of complex situations and a wider range of appropriate responses to hand.

It is not so different in the classroom. Not many attributes will give away the level of experience of an individual teacher; perhaps age may be an indicator, but even that is not reliable since the profession has mature entrants. The basics of classroom craft are little different no matter what the level of experience.

What makes the difference is what the master-teacher knows, how this enables them to interpret what they are encountering – and how they then react. We might call this Experience. And once again, expert reaction may on occasions involve judicious breaking of the rules of supposed ‘good practice’.

There seems to be something of a backlash against the notion that skilled teaching is largely an intuitive matter, that experience is indeed important. The proponents of evidence-based practice argue that intuition, let alone ‘common sense’ is too dependent on the limited perception of the individual, and that it often misinforms or causes complacency. What is needed, they say, is considered practice based on the results of aggregated evidence.

I consider this to be a false dichotomy. It is not that the arguments for evidence are wrong, so much as naive – and impracticable. A significant proportion of a teacher’s time is spent reactively – adapting according to whatever circumstances arise in their class. Some can be anticipated, but many cannot. There is simply not time for rumination on what the evidence would say before a response is necessary.

The point about expertise being unconscious still holds. Having watched expert teachers amongst my colleagues for several decades, it seems evident to me that they operate at an intuitive level: the teacher is the person, and there is no need for them actively to ponder their response: they just drop automatically into ‘teacher mode’.

The trick of mastery is to reconcile these two elements: leaving a novice to work entirely on intuition may indeed lead to poor outcomes, since even if they have excellent technical skills, they probably lack the insight with which to ‘read’ a situation and reach instinctively for a good solution. A Master, on the other hand, will have precisely that back-catalogue of experience to draw upon (of which they may be only dimly conscious), which will allow them to respond in an effective (but not always predictable) way to a given situation. Embedding good practice in intuition is the answer, though what works on the ground may still not always be what aggregate research suggests; the circumstances of teaching are too situation-specific for that.

It is precisely this catalogue of prior experience that is a distinguishing characteristic of a Master, for it allows them to contextualise what they are encountering in a far deeper and more nuanced way than someone who lacks it. (There have been cases of clinicians correctly diagnosing people in restaurants just by noting their demeanour and subconsciously matching it against prior cases; try legislating for that…).

This is why it is both safe and advisable to allow experienced teachers latitude in their personal practice.

The problem is that this means that school managers have to relinquish control over what happens in their classrooms. The path to achieving mastery also makes it almost impossible to specify or prepare for. The course-leader of a significant teacher training establishment recently conceded to me that far too little is provided to help teachers move towards such excellence. Nobody seems to know how to do it. This is in part because that process does not ‘fit’ neatly with institutional practices; indeed it largely has to be done for oneself – and the traditional way has simply been by serving time. In the meantime, school-based professional development has too often become little more than a means of reinforcing institutional policy agendas.

I did significant work in this area to develop my own practice, and in recent years I offered a series of successful and popular CPD sessions to my colleagues. The intention was not to refine classroom craft (which was often already good) but to enhance the perspectives and contexts which people use to interpret what they encounter.

I regret that my personal misfortune brought this programme to a premature end, so I have been developing an online course using those materials and many more. I will be launching this in the coming weeks as an affordable resource for those who want to take the initiative of moving their own practice forward, and who are not afraid to break with convention in order to do so.

Watch this space!

Disorientation

Why am I publicly documenting my mental health problems? Partly as catharsis – but mostly because those glossy adverts for teaching enrage me so much. I think it is necessary to record the potential risks of falling for them…

A new routine has almost established itself; it doesn’t involve getting up and going to work every morning. The last four months are a blur, and I can’t quite believe that the spring flowers are already appearing. A sense of disorientation is setting in, and good though it is not to have to drag myself out of bed at an unearthly hour, it’s worrying.

There are days when I feel like my old self has almost returned – except for the wearying, racing mind, like a car engine revving in neutral. On the other days, it feels as though someone has thrown sand into the closely-meshed gears of my mind. And then there’s the fatigue and the disproportionate angst about every small thing. Such polarity is not yet a recovery, for all that I feel like a fraud on the better days.

The temptation is to make up for lost time when the brain permits, to resume some of the actions of a fully-functioning adult – with the predictable consequences a day or two later. And the unspoken opinion of others seems to be that I am not being as coherent at it feels. A rather fraught session with my talking therapist yesterday suggests that may be right.

It also seems as though my hopes of getting the assurances I need from School are receding; it was pointed out to me that to concede what I need them to would risk opening themselves up to legal action, were I so-inclined (I’m not). Such is the cynicism of modern employment law.

But the racing mind cannot help but chew endlessly over the future; a resolution must happen at some point. The advice is that any return to the classroom would inevitably involve the scrutiny that I know is so unjustified, which triggered the current impasse. I cannot conceive of going through the stress of that process again, even without the feelings of injustice that accompany it. And yet no one remotely seems to think that the result can be annulled, for all that my colleagues keep telling me I have been harshly treated. I am not prepared to have to keep justifying myself in this way, least of all with one hand tied behind my back. Not when the actions of others were so unjustified.

I’ve never been particularly motivated by money, though I do enjoy my comforts. But cutting our household income in half is not an appealing thought, for all that health has to come first. Maybe there is life beyond teaching, but I can’t yet see what it might be. It’s a tough but reliable job, and that has to count for something in uncertain times.

On the other hand, a quick calculation arrives at the top figure under £15 per hour post-tax for my actual  hours worked. Somewhat over double the minimum wage – and I’m expensive for a teacher. One should allow a bit for the extra paid holiday, but it’s still unimpressive. My therapist charges £35 an hour; my G.P. earns double what I do. I don’t begrudge her a penny of it – but she still doesn’t have the unique pressures of the classroom to deal with.

£15 for every lesson taught. 50 pence per pupil per hour. Well, I guess it’s financially efficient. I don’t mind teaching for that; it provides enough for the life we want. But £15 an hour for all the other c**p that the job now involves? For the bullying and micro-management? For the stress of recent years? For the particular upset of the last four months? For the hours of personal and family life given up for the job? For the lack of appreciation and trust? For a totally avoidable broken brain?

Nowhere near enough.

Quality will out – part 1

kettle

In a rather unfortunate coincidence, our kettle and our fridge both expired recently. We have had the fridge for fifteen years – and the same kettle for nearly twenty. This is far longer than the average for such goods – but then we spent what seemed like crazy amounts on them at the time. In the mid-Nineties, £100 seemed an inordinate price for the simple ability to boil water. But both items proved to have been sound investments: the premium paid for ‘quality’ is not all hype, and in this little kitchen-sink drama, hindsight has justified the apparently counter-intuitive, even reckless behaviour at the time.

Not only have these goods lasted far longer than cheaper alternatives, but we have enjoyed the superior build, functionality and appearance that they afforded. The best choice is not always the most obvious, and certainly not the cheapest.

I am lastingly intrigued by what it is that constitutes ‘quality’; one might almost consider it a nature versus nurture question. ‘Best’ is of course subjective: it depends on what your criteria were in the first place – but to be too precious about that is to deny the fact that in these things, there seems to exist a hierarchy, albeit an elusive one, of something rather more objective. It is fairly clear that some materials are inherently more robust than others – but the qualities added by careful manufacture, not to mention ergonomics and aesthetics are less so.

I think it is important to accept that high quality is not an overriding concern for many people, and that is not necessarily wrong. It is quite possible knowingly to opt for less for entirely sensible reasons – but just because one might choose to do so is not in itself to deny the issue either. Neither is this a comment on personal taste: you can still respect the quality, even if you don’t like the style. Yet quality, it seems, will out – and certain people are prepared to pay handsomely for it, whether it concerns kettles – or education.

More controversially, I think that we use a similar judgement when it comes to people and places: I suspect that many would understand my impression that in the round, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark exemplify good quality, but Italy (for all that I love it) exasperatingly less so. I suspect many Italians might agree. Personal experience suggests that we instinctively judge people in a somewhat similar way, and this is not as insidious as might be thought. It is a natural human instinct to attempt to identify ‘them’ and ‘us’ or at least ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and we can be discerning without necessarily being condemnatory. In such matters, quality (or the lack of it) may not be entirely intentional, therefore we may refrain from judging, for all that we exercise choice.

One can speculate on what high quality means in education. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am unconvinced that it means what much of the educational establishment, or its political masters think. Quality as an aggregate concept may differ from that of the individual experience, but in educational matters, the only one that really matters is the latter, and I’m not certain that the one inevitably begets the other. It is possible to go to a good school and still have a lousy experience.

So, in my attempt to broaden the debate on selection, I am going to be shamelessly partisan for a moment. Naturally, I would want my child(ren) to have a high-quality education, and here is what that would mean to me in terms of choice of school:

A school:

  • That does not endorse the world of popular celebrity/pop/sports culture and use it as their default role model, as many seem to do.
  • That does not avoid high culture and thought on the grounds that it is difficult and inaccessible.
  • Whose dramatic productions are not an endless diet of musicals because that is all that will engage the pupils and maximise participation.
  • That has a library that isn’t called a ‘Learning Resource Centre’ or something such, while still containing a woefully small number of books.
  • That gives priority to learning over ‘engagement’, to wisdom over ‘winning’.
  • That has a serious, high-minded ethos, atmosphere and staff that pupils feel slightly in awe of.
  • Where teachers consider themselves to be vaguely academic, rather than ‘life coaches’ or youth workers.
  • That retains a sense of community in its annual rituals and extra-curricular activities.
  • That does not subordinate the greater liberal aims of education to maximising its place in the league tables.
  • That secures good exam results but understands that they are not the purpose of education.

Some will no doubt throw up their hands at this list – but I am not attempting to be consensual! The point is, this could explain why someone like me might just decide to send their child to a grammar school – or to choose to work in one. For all that others might have different values, there is little in my list that can be objected to on ethical or equality grounds. Neither is there anything in it about wishing to deny the same to others. And the order of priorities is not accidental.

I entirely respect the fact that a school’s job is not just to deliver what parents (think they) want. It has an important role as an intermediary between a developing person’s home life and the wider world. It is important that children are exposed to challenging ideas and different models. But the best way to do this is high-mindedly – hence the value I place on formal study rather than the touchy-feely kind. That is also why I have an aversion to schools appropriating popular culture, quite apart from the fact that it does not make them look cool.

It is the job of a school to be solemnly non-partisan. This is not at all the same as having no standards, which can be established through the wider ethos – but teachers should understand that their role is not to be surrogate parents, social workers, policemen, commercial agents or anything else. Teachers should present children with the wonders of the world for them to contemplate – but they should leave it up to them to work out, in due course, what to do with that inheritance. This is the only way to respect the sovereignty of even an immature individual and avoid accusations of indoctrination. In turn, the only way to help children understand how to do this is by teaching them the benefits and skills of higher level, impartial thought.

My list of preferences may seem unduly prejudiced against popular culture, and indeed it took me some time to work out why. Personally, I feel very uneasy when it comes to employing pop music, celebrities and other popular culture in the classroom. Part of this is because I regard most of such material as meretricious, talent-free junk and incompatible with my own ideals. But more importantly, this is stuff that children are all too widely exposed to elsewhere, often for utterly partisan reasons. I would not want my child to be exposed to this in the one institution that ought to rise above such endorsement. The whole point of a school is to expose children to things they would not otherwise encounter, not to reinforce the low-brow, self-promoting rubbish they get everywhere else. And in any case, I suspect that children generally want to keep such things as their own space without adults invading.

I accept again that this all is entirely partisan; not all popular culture is rubbish. As part of the world it deserves some impartial consideration – but not implicit or explicit endorsement. There is also the small matter than most of the ‘difficult stuff’ arguably just happens to constitute the peak achievements of human culture, knowledge and endeavour – and for teachers to fail to expose children to it on grounds of low popularity is, in my view a betrayal of what our profession is supposed to be about.

I know too many people of my generation who owe their appreciation of the higher aspects of life to various teachers, ever to approve of the descent into populism that much of the education sector has since pursued. I should add that I am not only considering academic matters either: people from my own school ended up as senior engineers, respected musical instrument-makers and more so it’s not just narrowly academic. The point is, low-brow education simply does not expose people to the levels of excellence that might inspire them to follow suit. Neither is this just a matter of culture: it has been commented on several times recently that the U.K. is a nation of excellent consumers – but it has lost the ability to be an excellent producer of very much at all.

Part two (tomorrow) will consider the implications of this for how education is organised.

Footplate footnote

abc-front

Knowing my interests, a neighbour recently gave me the book shown in the picture above. Quite apart from its nerdish historic interest 😉 I noticed something poignantly but topically significant on the back cover:

abc-back

I can honestly say that the multiple prejudices stacked up in this modest text make the modern me instinctively recoil as much as the next person.

But perhaps we should pause and ask ourselves whether this truly represents a more blinkered era, or whether it reflects a time when personal differences and aptitudes were more readily accepted than they are today. Our modern lives insulate us from so many harsh realities – but it does not necessarily do us good. Consider, for example, the problems some have coping with the concept of death, or indeed misfortune of any kind simply because we encounter them so rarely in our sanitised lives.

In 1958 (the year of the book), more work was available for non-academic types – and it is conceivable that they would have neither wanted nor coped with the demands made of “Grammar and Public schoolboys who have the right qualifications…”

One might do well to consider whether this really represents a repression of the opportunities available to people from certain backgrounds, or a more pragmatic acceptance that not everybody is, or wants to be, the same. I think it is also highly significant that apprenticeships were on offer in “specific trades” which could well have offered furtherment to those prepared to work hard.

The world has changed immensely since the publication of this book, and I am certainly not suggesting that our (hopefully) more tolerant and positive language is a retrograde step . But it’s also noteworthy that the language here in no way talks down to young people as is the tendency today.

I’m no nostalgic, nor an apologist for undeserved privilege, but I wonder how different the outcomes from the present system really are, for all our sensibilities. Are we really much further forward when it comes to addressing these issues?

Dead Cat Bounce – part two.

Were I a parent, I would wish my children to have a traditional academic education, provided they were suited to it. Yes, I suppose I am educated middle class, but I am not knowingly part of any conspiracy – unless by that we mean my wish to preserve my own values along with the next person. My reasons for considering a selective education would not be to deprive others of the same, but simply to exercise a reasonable choice. But the reality is, strict academic education is probably only suited for – and desired by – a relatively small part of any population. History dictates that we try to foist it on everyone; we need to get real.

But I can see no reason why the fact that others’ needs lie elsewhere should deprive those who do value these things from having them – otherwise we are guilty of nothing more than another, equally insidious form of discrimination. What is more, the more difficult access became to what I desired, the harder I would be prepared to fight to secure it. This is why competition is so fierce for what grammar school places remain.

What we are forced to confront here is nothing less than the Social Contract: the relationship of rights and responsibilities between individuals and the society in which they live. In particular, the right of society to constrain or arbitrate the choices of individuals, the obligation of citizens to accept this – and the obligation on society to provide what they want in the first place. It has only become more complex as society has succeeded in educating and empowering a larger fraction of its members.

There are frequent calls from those who oppose selection to encourage the ablest teachers to work in the poorest areas. I am not going to decry that, so long as coercion is not involved, and there is reasonable evidence that people of certain talents can indeed make a huge difference in that situation. But what is being called for here is nothing more than another form of selection. This is a form of positive discrimination that the opponents of academic selection are often entirely happy with, and I suspect that if May had announced a different form of specialisation, that explicitly boosted the chances of the underprivileged – perhaps even providing preferential treatment for them – then the objections would have been far more muted.

So I would like those who might object to aspirations like mine to explain why, if it is right that if the opportunities of disadvantaged children should not be frustrated by others, it is then right that an especially able child’s prospects should be compromised in return. All this does is create a different fall-group.

True equality of opportunity should not mean its removal from those who already have it. And yet that is almost inevitably what it does mean. The most likely outcome of failing to nourish outstanding talent is that it will never fully flourish.

As I said in part one, the evidence of my eyes is that children who are indifferent or worse to academic subjects normally outnumber those who really take to them; it is not even fully a reflection of ability. This is true even in a school with a positive ability-skew, such as mine. I do not decry the non-academic: it is just that their needs are different, and in my experience, by default they normally take tacit precedence.I daily confront the problem of classes with reasonable numbers of willing children being compromised by the indifferent majority.

What is more, the claim that comprehensives encourage social mixing has only minimal traction. My experience is that children, too, largely self-select and stick with their like. In a school with a wide ability and income range, the effect is to stigmatise and disaffect the less-successful, or less wealthy, all the more. This point is often dismissed by proponents of comprehensives – but it too is what I see every day.

I cannot see that it is right that those with the values and aptitudes to benefit most from any rigorous, high-level opportunity should be deprived it because there are those who will not or do not. That should apply equally to vocational education – as it already does, uncontroversially, to fields such as elite sport. In all such situations, it requires deep concentrations of like-minded people to achieve this.

Here we encounter another of the fallacies of those who oppose selection: that it casts ‘the rest’ onto the scrapheap.

There is certainly potential for this to happen – but it is more about social attitudes and alternative provision than it is an inevitable outcome of such systems. In the past, the U.K was not good at this. One might cite Germany, where the majority of children opt for technical schools, and there is certainly little sense of inadequacy about them – or that country’s industrial and technical sector. Countries differ in their cultures, of course – but around Europe, there is no strong evidence that selective systems enhance social division, nor that non-selective ones do the opposite.

The failure to offer high-quality alternatives to selective academic schools is not in itself an argument against the principle of them, or of selection as a whole.

To me, it seems preferable to enable those from under-represented backgrounds who demonstrate commitment and/or aptitude to be admitted to places that will nurture it, than to deprive everyone of it simply because all cannot have it – or choose not to want it.

And while it is easy to argue for social integration in principle, many of those who do so would, I suspect draw their own lines at mixing indiscriminately with those they themselves deem unacceptable. In other words, the fine words mask a deep hypocrisy. Very few people make no distinctions whatsoever when it comes to these matters. I am unapologetic that in my own life there are those whom I find so disagreeable or destructive that I choose to avoid them. I can see no good reason why I should be forced to mix with them, if only for (perceived) self-preservation – though this is not to deny their right to exist.

One might argue that good influences will rub off – but my regrettable experience is that it is often the coarse, indiscriminate and ruthless who prevail, because they lack the restraints of conscience and empathy that others perhaps possess. I would go so far as to suggest that the ‘success’ of attempts to increase social integration can be seen in the increasing coarseness of our national discourse and standards of public life – even amongst those sectors of society who in past eras might have felt obliged to uphold higher quality.

 Society needs extraordinarily talented people – wherever they come from – not least because they provide disproportionately high returns on the extra resources invested in them. In the long run, this is to the benefit of all – but they need specialist provision.

This is why this issue is ideological: is it desirable to achieve social and educational equality even if that means levelling people down rather than up? There is no straightforward conclusion to that: it is possible to argue either way. For several decades, Britain, for understandable reasons has decided that it is, but globally, historic attempts to do so have all failed. And as with everything, there is a cost. In this case, it might be seen in the quality of our society – be that in the productivity and skills-base problems we face, the erosion of that part of society more inclined to uphold civil standards – and, one might add, the resultant increasing inclination of those who can, to  buy their way out of the system.

 One of the consequences of denying certain sectors of society what they desire is that they will look elsewhere for it. But the means they have to do so are rarely equal.

All social settlements are compromises, education included. Selective education is by no means a perfect solution, and it does have potentially serious downsides. But it is a mistake is to pretend that the same is not true of the alternatives. And then it comes down to which is the least worst.

This is not to argue for deliberate discrimination against the already under-privileged; it is true that we can ill afford to ignore their talents, and it is true that the most serious problem with selective education as it has been delivered in this country in the past, is the perception and reality of what happens to ‘the rest’. But that is an entirely different issue from whether education should be used as a social leveller – which is the actual agenda of those who oppose selection. What is more, acts of wanton destruction are being committed in its name: who for example can justify the dilution of a high-achieving school’s academic standards on the grounds of increasing equality of access. In precisely whose interest is this?

So far I have concentrated very much on one aspect of the debate here, at the expense of others.

But there is almost no discussion about the multiple geometries that might exist. The worst culprit is the conflation of selection as a whole with academic selection, followed closely by its conflation with the Eleven Plus exam. In both cases there are other possibilities – but as so often, this debate is reducing to black-or-white false dichotomies which do nothing to resolve such matters.

For example, there is no reason why selection could not be at least partly consultative: I would agree that in this era, the ability of schools unaccountably to pick and choose is neither democratic nor a reasonable distribution of authority. That said, schools (or some form of arbitration) might provide a more objective judgement than individual parents, who will largely fight for their own interests.

One might also have a discussion about the merits of selection by aptitude as opposed to ability; this would deal with the problem of academically-weaker but motivated children. But where is this debate? In this case, one can present a case for specialisation, whereby children could choose between various types of school according to their preferences as well as abilities. I suspect that much of the sense of injustice around selection comes from the fact that it is imposed – but this need not be so.

 The existence or otherwise of selective system is a different argument from how the selection occurs, and on what basis. Selection does not exclude a consultative process, nor the idea that it can be based on aptitude rather than raw ability. Neither need it inevitably occur irrevocably, nor only at eleven years of age.

I began by accepting that there are many very strong points against selection; I fully share some of them. Grammars are no more a panacea than anything else.

One might mention, for example, that my notion of what a grammar school is, was forever shifted from the modest but traditional one I attended by the experience of attending interviews many years ago at two in Kent. Both appeared poorly run, with widespread complacency amongst staff and pupils and with little challenge. This is simply not acceptable.

One might also accept that grammar schools are not what they were – the practice of tutoring and cramming is certainly much greater than it used to be, and this very probably plays to the disadvantage of those who do not receive it. But that might be seen as a symptom of a situation, or an expression of wider changes in society rather than an inherent problem, and there are ways to neutralise it.

My experience of parents facing the morality of the selection dilemma is not that they seek unfair advantage; it is that they are fleeing from what they see as poor alternatives elsewhere. That would be my experience too: I am simply not confident that even a good comprehensive could deliver the kind of education that I would want for a child of mine.

This situation already exists – but it is a free-for-all based on pushiness and wealth rather than anything fairer or more regulated. It is true that in such a situation, the less advantaged will probably lose out. But we need to ask why certain sectors of society have this perception to begin with. Trying to prohibit it will not work – as with all prohibition, it just tends to send the problem underground. Seeking to deny those people who pursue this course their choices will make no fairer society than denying any other sector their rights – but spreading the benefits more widely could.

It is also not wholly true that grammar schools are simply private schools on the cheap; this is another careless generalisation by their opponents. Grammar schools often provide for those who value academic education but lack the wealth to pay for it; in that sense they are part of the fight against the privileges of wealth, as embodied by the private sector. That is the error of understanding of those who unquestioningly oppose them. Education has been so portrayed as a simplistic fight against privilege that all the other arguments have been marginalised.

 The caricature of a grammar school as being packed with self-serving middle class types is not one I recognise. By no means all grammars are ‘posh’.Even if that is the modern reality, it may more reflect the shortage of desired provision, rather than a conspiracy. The presence of more such schools would weaken such sharp-elbow tactics, while the replacement of the Eleven-Plus with alternative methods would neutralise the ability to exam-cram. This is not an argument against the existence of such schools.

Even if middle-class pushiness is objectionable, in a fair society why are such people to be denied access to what they too desire, so long as this is not at the expense of others?

This is also in part the cause of the exam-factory education that we have today. In schools where reluctance is the dominant pupil characteristic and schools are judged on how well they overcome it, it is hardly surprising that sweatshop coercion has become the method of choice. The casualty has been any sense of education as being of intrinsic value.

For many, it may never be – but time after time, I encounter pupils who ought to have a wider appreciation – but don’t. And as a teacher, I earnestly believe that some of my own energies and aptitudes have been wasted because non-academic schools have no use for them – and I have been forced to become a conveyor-belt teacher, even though that does not best suit my temperament or abilities. Yes, I am myself a legacy of a grammar school – but the qualities they imbue, of which I hope I possess a little, are in severe decline in this country, to our repeated, collective disadvantage.


 

In Zurich, even the Gnomes use the trams. Certainly, one may observe a great cross-section of Swiss society on public transport; even buses do not carry the negative social connotations that they do in the U.K. Plenty of people in the more urban areas rarely use their cars.

I deeply sympathise with the instincts of those who argue that social cohesion needs to be strengthened, but I cannot see that this can be done by coercion. It is true that the worst problem of selection is what happens to those who are not selected. But the refusal to allow individuals and social sub-groups to exercise choices that reflect their own values results in a less free society, rather than the opposite.

In Switzerland, the people who do not send their children to state schools are seen as a curiosity. Very few people opt out of the system (which is selective, but consultatively so), just as people of all backgrounds use public transport and most residential districts are far less polarised in this country. But the only way to achieve this in a modern, educated democracy is to create a system that is so good that people choose to opt into it rather than the opposite.

 The way to increase social cohesion is to provide as many high-quality pathways as possible. This encourages people to opt in rather than out. Forcing everyone through the same ‘average’ mould will only result in those who can, opting out in favour of what they prefer. This is precisely what has fuelled inequality in Britain.

That demands a commitment to excellence, a significant amount of resourcing, and an acceptance of natural human diversity with commensurate willingness to accommodate and cater for it. Trying to achieve the same thing by forcing all through the same mould can only accentuate the resentments and divisive forces that are such a feature of modern Britain. It is this point that those implacably opposed to selection in education cannot see.

What I have discussed above is not in itself sufficient to say that we should have selective education, let alone that we must. The problem of what happens to the non-selected vexes me as much as anyone else – but as I have shown, there are other geometries that are never even discussed.

Theresa May seems to have picked a fight she will probably lose – and made it worse by couching it in terms of a return to the past. But I think the argument about increasing choice is correct; what we need to be having is a discussion about how such choices are made, and between what alternatives.

The problem with grammar schools is not them – but how bad the alternatives were allowed to become. We should be offering better choices to those for who do not want an academic education and are alienated from school by it. There is no reason why one alternative should not be comprehensives: I think there are plenty of the ‘more privileged’ who would send their children to them on equally ideological grounds. But it would also no longer deny a strict academic diet to those who wanted it. Technical schools should be another choice. Percentage admission rates and other criteria should be part of the discussion.

Someone once said that the civilisation of a society is measured by the way it treats its minorities. In modern Britain, it is those (of whatever background) who value liberal academic education and a high-functioning intellect who increasingly constitute the minority. Who will fight to protect their rights?

Dead cat bounce – part 1

The issue of selection is back on the agenda, and temperatures are rising. Is this anything more than May’s dead cat bounce to deflect attentions from Brexit?

However the issue will never be resolved until a mature discussion can be had – and that seems as far away as ever. I have tried here to discuss some of the underlying issues that rarely figure in the headline debates. It is a long piece and will appear in two parts. For those who wish to cherry-pick, my key points are summarised in the boxes…

 

There are many reasons why my wife and I have never had our own children – but the innumerable dilemmas that face modern parents are certainly not something I miss. Chief amongst them is the vexed issue of education.

As expected, the can of grammar school worms has been re-opened. Quite why, at this moment, I don’t know. Perhaps May is more scheming than some suspect, and she knows it will be a good way of drawing fire away from Brexit…

I really do not know what to conclude of the grammar schools issue – but what I do know is that the venom it draws forth is such that measured debate still seems all but impossible. For all that I am prepared to make the arguments for selective education, I am far from decided about them, and I accept the underlying principle of education, that it should maximise opportunity for all, irrespective of background.

What I really want to see is a properly considered debate, but yet again the opponents of selection are wheeling out the well-rehearsed sound-bites, in some cases with such venom that a proper debate is the last thing we will get. The selection issue is in actual fact a conflation of several different arguments, none of which ever gets much of an airing, and for which the case is far more complex that its opponents will ever allow to be heard.

The grammar school issue is par excellence the one that shows the extent to which this so-called profession is still ideologically rather than intellectually driven. For all the claims of professional rigour, the valuing of objective ‘research’ and the tomes of worthy comments supposedly exalting educational excellence, when it comes to matters like this, the education world descends into simple, bald dogma.

 The failure to have a reasoned discussion about selection shows just how dogmatic the education profession remains. We will never move forward until the arguments in favour are properly debated.

Furthermore, while it is normal that professional consensus will emerge, that is no guarantee that it is the product of high-quality deliberation rather than the ability to shout the loudest. More than anything, I object to the fact that one faction assumes it is entitled to define the terms of not only this debate but of education as a whole. In the process, it is quite prepared to ride roughshod over any opposition, no matter how considered, and no matter how much disharmony it creates in the process. I had this experience in my own workplace this week. So much for tolerance and sensible professional debate.

This is why I am prepared to advance the alternative argument.

In fact, the arguments in favour of non-selective education are weakened by the failure of its proponents even to consider and address the more reasoned points of the opposition; what we get instead is a hysterical, vitriolic and intellectually weak tsunami of dogma that does little more than condemn the opposition for being subhuman. I oppose the assumption that all ‘right-thinking people (in education)’ share a single view on this, and therefore reasoned discussion is not necessary. One might read more into this…

It fell to Friday’s Guardian, to its credit, to concede that while grammar schools may seem to many to be the spawn of the devil, the reasons why some argue for them may in themselves be less so.

For example, it would be interesting to know how opponents of selection explain the fact that plenty of our neighbouring countries have selective systems, and yet do not have the degree of social division within them that this country experiences.

 That education exists primarily to tackle social division is merely one opinion. It is not necessarily important enough to over-ride all others. Beliefs that education can or should be the means of tacking this issue may be wide of the mark. There is only partial evidence that it succeeds – and enough countries operate selection without extreme social division to doubt the connection between the two.

Furthermore, social justice is an intangible and subjective concept. It can never be objectively achieved. Therefore it is a weak objective for education to focus on, even though we should never stop trying to maximise opportunity for all.

The assumption that education is about social justice is not tenable. There are many other reasons to educate people. Achieving social justice is undoubtedly one of the objectives of education – but the U.K. seems to have fallen into thinking that it is the sole purpose. It is not.

Furthermore, the objectives of education may vary from place to place, even within a country. There are clearly areas where tackling deprivation must be the primary concern – but there are equally  areas where this need be a lesser concern. There is no clear reason why the whole of the nation’s education policy should be dictated by this one issue, particularly when there are other priorities (of which more later) that are arguably being neglected as a result.

What social justice really means in practice is never explained. How it differs from the politics of envy is not clear. There is a deep assumption from those who deploy this argument that the country is rife with injustice, that given a level playing field many of those who hold important positions would be ousted by kids from council estates who, were it not for the injustice of their prior lives, would prove to be far superior. Or would we simply replace one elite with another, as is often the case in revolutions?

I will not deny that there (probably) is a socially-caused waste of talent in this country – as there probably is in all. But a little-discussed consequence of education as guarantor of social mobility is what should happen to those who simply prove not to be capable (or willing) to do very much. Are the sirens of ‘social justice’ really content to let such people remain where they fester as a result? Maybe that is what already largely happens? And while I am certainly not going to defend incompetents who use privilege to attain unwarranted power, are those who advance this argument really content to allow other people to sink downwards as a result? For the consequence of the hidden assumption about the unrecognised meritocracy is that those who are currently advantaged must fall to make way at the top.

The undeclared premise of those who champion this argument is nothing more than the old chestnut of Prizes for All, the old delusion of an attainable Utopia. Unfortunately, too many in education are still in thrall to this dream, which incidentally, is not the same as the wish to cultivate all people’s potential, since it casts far too many judgements about what constitute ‘successful’ outcomes.

The fact is, for all those individuals who do manage to rise against the odds, many more are simply not able to, or cannot be bothered. Whatever the reasons for this – and basic cognitive ability may well be one, however unpalatable to some – the truth is, not everyone has the same aptitudes or inclinations. In many ways, the Left is happy to celebrate diversity – so why not in education? Caring for those who need support, as a compassionate society should, cannot be conflated with pretending that all can be kings.

And if the real priority is to ensure that no child wants for the best opportunities, then the far harder, but more significant issue is to tackle the home cultures into which children are born. Some would argue that improving education would tackle this across the generations, but this only raises a deeper issue: just who we are (middle-class professionals) to dictate to other sovereign individuals what is important in life.

Does society as a whole have the right to make such judgements and thereby curtail the rights of certain parents to raise their children as they see fit? So long as the laws regarding children’s physical and mental safety are not abused, who has the right to insist that parents must instil a respect for education in their children? The fact is, for all the decrying of middle class values, the entire education system is grounded on precisely those – the belief that everyone must benefit from what ‘we’ feel is important. It is where a lot of alienation comes from; equally, the right-thinking, left-leaning establishment can easily be accused of wanting to eliminate the problem by simply creating ‘more people like us’.

There are plenty of parents even in the affluent area where I teach, who have no such values. In fact, they and their children may well be quite content with their lives, without the intrusion of bourgeois values; I get little impression to the contrary. If one encounters people who set no store by education, but are living perfectly contented lives, who are we to tell them they’re wrong?

Technology has provided the means for most to live in at least reasonable material comfort – so if they wish to live small-scale, short-sighted (to our eyes) lives and bequeath their children the same, then who are we to argue? It is not as though higher-powered lives come with no costs. Neither, from an employability perspective is it that society no longer needs such people, and while their vulnerability to technological change is real, to some extent that has always been the case. Arguably, we need to equip them to use their lives in other ways – if they so choose.

One might go further and argue that commerce and the media increasingly cater for lower-brow majority tastes, and it is actually the needs of the more thoughtful that are neglected; in my part of the country, it is the tasteless, conspicuous wealth of those who have cash but little else that dominates. For all their failure to appreciate liberal educated values, deprived they certainly are not; they care not a jot that they offend some, but while I don’t like their mores, I am hardly entitled to wish them into oblivion. Round here, it is the higher-minded who are the endangered species.

 It can be argued that a free society does not have the right to impose ‘educated values’ on those of its members who may not want them. It may be little more than an underhand means to wish away the less desirable factions of society. The existence of the underclass, while clearly not in doubt, is often over-stated by those with a certain agenda – and it need not inevitably take priority over the wishes of other parts of society.

There is another side to this argument. Quite possibly I would not be living the relatively modest, but thoughtful life I choose today were it not for the fact that my uneducated grandparents still valued the Intellect enough to support their children through working-class grammar schools. In due course they (and we) entered the professions. Despite the equally-available opportunity, some of my grandparents’ neighbours did not do the same. Others went to the local technical college; many went down the mines. But while this might seem to justify non-selective education, in fact there were many factors other than academic ability at work.

Such life-stories are often dismissed as irrelevant, the tales of the lucky few. Well perhaps – but in my mother’s case in particular, one unpretentious grammar school in a small Midlands mining town managed to produce a considerable number of people who went on to eminence, in some cases internationally. Like my mother, from within their professions they then championed the case for others to have the same chance. In terms of the talent pool, that is worth not dismissing. Had that not been the case, those individuals may well have gone down the mines too – and perhaps be prematurely dead from silicosis. Why are such success storied dismissed by those who oppose selective education? They may not be the majority – but as I said, lack of opportunity is not the only reason for supposed failure.

It is a widely-seen human propensity that people self-select their social groupings; as anyone who has read Richard Hoggart’s study of 1950’s northern working class communities will know, this is by no means the preserve of the self-entitling middle classes as many of the ideologues would have us believe. It is also worth noting from such accounts, that the resentment of the ‘lower orders’ to their superiors was not always as burning as is sometimes implied. Are we really proposing to intervene in people’s right to choose their own social circles?

It is not true that all groups that have high entry requirements are inevitably exclusionist; in many cases this is an illusion perceived by those who either cannot – or choose not to – enter. While one could debate the pathways to access, I think it is clear that rigorous selection criteria for surgeons or airline pilots are probably a good thing. It does not mean that there is a social conspiracy to exclude large sections of society, as some would suggest.

It is self-evident from the arguments of those who profess greatest concern that social inequality has grown since the abolition of selective education. Again there are many ways to explain this – but claiming that the relatively few remaining grammar schools are to blame is not statistically tenable. Suggesting that their absence has driven more who can afford it into the private sector may be nearer the mark. And as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest – and my own experience supports – we now have selection by house prices instead.

The simple fact is, those who have the means to achieve an advantage will always try to do so, be it by intelligence or by hard cash. We have to assume that those who advocate the furtherment of the underprivileged still accept this fact – though I do wonder… What they in effect seek to do is bestow advantage on another portion of society – but ‘advantage’ at whose expense?

How far, in a free society, should we intervene here? Unless we are advocating a full-blown communist revolution, there are few signs of how it will ever be prevented. Perhaps it would be better to harness this tendency rather than disown it? In which case, when it comes to access to academic education (indeed, all types of specialist provision), I would far rather it were allocated on the basis of the potential to benefit and use its legacy wisely, than on either the distribution of cash in society – or the random throw of a dice.

When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school. As one who attended a grammar but worked for three decades in a comprehensive, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge this than many.

Such is the nature of a comprehensive school that even good ones struggle to assemble a really strong academic centre of gravity. Even my own – which is comfortably within the nation’s top hundred by results – increasingly struggles to do this. By specialising, academic schools simply have the ability to cultivate and insist on a culture that does not arise elsewhere. As Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian put it, they are “intellectual hothouses bringing working-class kids to the world of ideas and debate”. This is the identity I recognise, not that caricatured by their opponents, of state-sponsored, fees-free private enclaves for the middle classes.

[to be continued.]

The ‘G’ word

Our new Prime Minister seems to have ruffled a few feathers with her mention of the G-word. I have read several people in the past few days who were working themselves up into a quite a lather about the possible return of grammar schools, which while (probably) unlikely, appears closer to being on the agenda at present than it has been for many years.

One writer (source lost) went as far as to claim that there are no good reasons for grammar schools whatsoever. Well here, from someone of relatively modest background who went to one, is one – albeit in hypothetical form.

Just suppose it could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that selective systems delivered the best educational outcomes. We can modify that to ‘best outcomes for able pupils’ or ‘best outcomes for all pupils’ as preferred.

We would then be in a situation where those who on the one hand trumpet their devotion to such outcomes but on the other vehemently oppose selective education, had a difficult choice to make. Try it: Are the best educational outcomes for individuals worth securing at the expense of (supposed) equality of access for all, or should we accept lesser individual outcomes for the sake of (supposed) social integration and equality of access?

I don’t think that dodging the question on the grounds that it is a false dichotomy is really a satisfactory response here; it is given as a hypothetical test.

The choice modifiers I offered might be important. If the good outcomes were for only the grammar school pupils, then I suspect many in education would be prepared to sacrifice that on the grounds of equality. On the other hand, if the outcomes were ‘proven’ to be improved for all children, where would that leave the objectors? If the choice is still for equality, then what price the worthy calls for educational excellence?

I am as sensitive to the issues around social exclusion and equality of opportunity as anyone else in education, and were I to let it this could give me endless sleepless nights. But when I read comments such as the one mentioned above, the suspicion reawakens that this debate is less about good education than personal/political agendas. Even as a society, we need to decide whether we prefer educational equality to excellence, and failing to make an active decision only leads to a default one. For several decades, the choice has been for equality, and given this country’s insidious, engrained privileges system, then I can well understand why. But to refuse even to debate the issue, let alone on level terms, strikes me as utterly foolish, particularly as inequality has still got worse over that period.

This is not even to consider the wider issues. For example, were I a parent, I would be facing a dilemma of my own: whether to deny my child the formal academic education I would wish it to have, or to do whatever was possible to secure it, even if that meant going private. We then face the issue of whether the absence of grammar schools has actually led to a more divisive system with more people going private, as indeed my own parents did for my sister when faced with the alternative being a very poor comprehensive. I wonder where this division too leaves the ideologues, even before challenging them to explain to me why as an adherent of formal academic education, only I should be denied the one kind of opportunity that I might prefer.

So we might pose another dilemma: would you prefer academically selective education or economically selective education? Personally, I have a clear answer to that, which is made clearer still if it is emphasised that academically selective education should be available to all, irrespective of their social or economic circumstances.

I know it can be argued that in an ideal world, comprehensives should provide as good an education as the grammar schools. But it is not an ideal world, and the experience of forty or more years suggests that in the round, very few manage to do this. If we are going to wish away the real-world failings of the comprehensive system on ideological grounds, then there is no reason not to do the same for the alternatives. We might also remember that the much-desired social mobility is relative: in order for someone to rise, someone else has to fall; how acceptable is that?

What is more, it is merely a value-judgment that education should be first and foremost about social engineering; personally, I reject that as I prefer to see it as a matter of cerebral development and cultural transmission. Much of the ‘proof’ being offered that selective education does not increase social mobility depends firstly on the assumption that that is what education is intended to do – and secondly on the means (mostly financial) by which such things are being measured.

I suspect that many who oppose selection have never been near a grammar school themselves, let alone spent long enough in one to appreciate how the culture of such places tends to reflect an entirely different value set from those that are unavoidably compromised by the disaffected or uncommitted parts of the population. Even my own highly-rated school increasingly suffers from this, despite its having in the past traded on the ‘non-selective grammar school’ claim.

Opponents of selection should perhaps reflect more on the imperfection of the world, and decide which is the least of the available evils. I am not suggesting that grammar schools are a panacea, but selective education of some form or other still features in many (though not all) of the countries that out-perform this one in international comparisons. As I have suggested before, however, one particular knot to unravel is whether opposition is really to the idea of selection per se, or the means of selection, which I oppose as much as any. There are fairer ways (at probably better ages) in which to make such choices than a sudden-death exam at a young age. I suspect that changing this process would dilute many of the tricks deployed by the more-advantaged to pack such schools with their own. I would also suggest that a failing of past selective education in Britain was the often-poor alternatives on offer – but that is another issue entirely, and is certainly not internationally universal.

We might reflect on whether the loss of strictly academically-focussed education has had a wider effect on the country. As I have mentioned before, I encounter fewer and fewer people, even amongst those who hold multiple bits of paper, who really strike me as being intellectually awake, who delight in cerebral activity for its own, entirely conscious self. I wonder whether they simply never had it awakened. And I feel that the country’s collective culture is ever more debased, in contrast to that which I see elsewhere, where commercial depredations seem to be having less of an effect. Perhaps we have abolished the values and outlooks that tended to anchor such things? And that is before the shortfalls of skilled labour and workforce productivity from which we suffer.

This leads to me to a final dilemma, which concerns another ‘G’ word. I wonder how many of those who oppose academic development based on ability are also in deep despair at this country’s Gold medal-haul in the recent Olympics. Even an utter non-sportsman like me takes a degree of pride in it – and the wider benefit for society of elite sporting success has already been discussed. The country’s massive turnaround in the past decade has clearly been a result of the much-improved resourcing for such people, even though sporting participation amongst wider society has not grown nearly as much.

Maybe we should have denied those people what they needed on egalitarian grounds that everyone ought to be able to run equally fast, or have access to equal training facilities? A similar approach to industry has been proposed in the wake of Brexit: we need to get much better at backing our best talent and giving it the extra resources it needs to grow, even if some do fall by the wayside or receive less in the process. It’s a matter of best-targeting scarce resources, as well as catering for specific needs.

It is worth remembering that the perception of exclusivity from outside supposed elites is not in itself evidence of restrictive practices to entry. So why deny society the benefits of those – from whatever background – whose high intellectual speed needs nurturing in the same way, if only for the disproportionate benefit that they ultimately bring to everyone?

Too empowered by half?

An enduring social theme in recent years has been the need to empower people to take more control of their lives, and for education to provide the ‘horsepower’ they need to do so. We need people, so we are told, who will be more economically productive and more socially self-sufficient than ever before, in order to compete in a globalised world.

The area where I have worked for over a quarter of a century in some ways provides a template for this: it was one of the best-placed to benefit from the economic revolution of the Thatcher era, and when I arrived, Yuppiedom was in full fling. Many people from traditionally modest backgrounds were finding it possible to make very large amounts of money in the voracious environment of The City. Their new wealth was further enhanced by the property bubbles that sent house prices in the area through the roof.

Aspiration was the name of the game, and the area where I work has always been characterised by its extrovert materialism – and also its rather bad taste, which became a national joke. Being who they are, many locals were more than prepared to stare down the mockery and bask in their new-found fortunes, while metaphorically sticking a finger up at those parts of the country which they perceived to be losers. And given that this area, unlike much of the rest of country has a positive balance of payments, they might have had a point.

In the context of the empowerment agenda, the area has been a resounding success – though, for all the competition to get into the best schools, I doubt whether education was really perceived as an essential part of the process so much as another way of out-doing the Joneses. It also responded with relish to the view that education is a consumer service, with an attitude towards teachers sometimes not dissimilar to operatives at McDonalds.

The children I teach today are the offspring of the generation described above; very many of them come from homes where it is taken for granted that life’s every luxury only needs to be paid for. A lesson this week about global footprints done with several classes, revealed material wealth beyond what even I expected – with huge eco-footprints to match. What was, however, vanishingly small was the concern shown when the global consequences of this were pointed out…”Somebody else’s problem”, one twelve-year-old observed.

According to everything that successive governments have said they wanted education to do, these people are successes: they are the future of society in Britain. And yet to say that many of their children exhibit utter indifference to education is an understatement. Regrettably, the effect of their materially-privileged birth seems only to have been to breed a level of complacent but groundless self-belief that often seems utterly undentable.

They have very little understanding of what it means to strive for anything. When asked, they are in the main adamant that they do want a good education – but the idea that this means personal effort and self-discipline is not even on the radar of many. It’s just another thing that they think will fall into their lap, well below the next top-end gadget or luxury holiday. There is very little that will gain traction with children who implicitly consider themselves already their teachers’ superiors, whose material wealth has given them nothing more than the belief that they are entitled to everything but need to work for nothing, to say nothing of an utter disregard for the life of the mind.

I would not normally write in such critical detail about the specific pupils I encounter – but as time progresses, I find myself increasingly doubting the outcomes that we are being told to work for. Increasing opportunity is one thing – but empowerment seems to come at the price of the complacency, economic snobbery and anti-intellectualism that I witness daily.

I know from my experiences elsewhere that affluence does not inevitably bring with it anti-social attitudes – but that does seem to be the case in the U.K. When one prioritises success above effort, and when that is couched in material terms amidst  a wider societal vacuum, the results are quite unpleasant. They are also, I believe ultimately self-defeating – for how many of these children with their grand sense of entitlement will actually make the effort that is really necessary to go on to where they think they deserve to be?

Call me old-fashioned – but what value a policy that leads the supposedly-successful to scorn the very society that provides the opportunities ostensibly to help them?

 

More please!

Some days ago, The (soon to be ex-) Independent reported on the latest University Technical College to open. Based in West Bromwich, it specialises in preparing pupils for work in the health sector. I was never a fan of Kenneth Baker when he was education secretary, but I agree with the Indy’s report, that sometimes people’s best work is not done at the highest-profile times of their lives.

In this case, Baker has delivered something I’ve argued we desperately need in this country, namely high-quality vocational education for those of that inclination. Unlike many other British attempts at vocational education, UTC’s feel like something solid.

While the article claims that ‘other western countries’ (namely the U.S.) don’t push their young people into anything this specialised as young as fourteen, I think this is misleading. Plenty of our nearest neighbours, notably Germany and Switzerland have had technical schools for 14-19 year-olds for decades, and I think it is no coincidence that their recent industrial and commercial reputation is superior to ours.

While we should perhaps ignore the quotes from pupils “not regretting the choice” (as they haven’t had the chance to make a comparison), the impressive employability figures of earlier UTC’s seems to support the claims being made for them.

The longer I teach, and currently witnessing a changing pupil profile, the more I become convinced that we should be offering a large proportion of young people something radically different. It is worth noting that UTCs do offer ‘A’ Levels and a route to university, so it is not a matter of being intellectually second-rate. But an increasing number of the children I encounter seem to struggle with traditional academic demands and perhaps more significantly appear to perceive little value in what people like me can teach them. Perhaps it is time to accept the reality, that the majority of people will never be greatly academic, and do something different. And of course, that way, those who do prefer the traditional academic route could be left to pursue it without the drag caused by those who don’t want to be there. There are currently 39 UTCs, but in my opinion we should have one, or something like them, in every town.

But conventional schools are often refusing to co-operate:

Most of the students had also been urged by their schools not to make the switch.  Last week it was revealed most secondary schools had closed their doors to the UTC movement and refused to allow it to address their pupils about what opportunities were on offer.

So once again educational vested interests take precedence over a development that may be in the genuine best interests of some young people. Although there are plans for more UTCs, what I don’t understand is why this is being done piecemeal rather than as a coherent national strategy – or why other schools are being allowed to boycott them in this way. All for the benefit of the children, of course.

 

In other news, it is pleasing to see the Schools Minister Nick Gibb echoing traditionalist views that education should celebrate the fascination of knowledge rather than dispensing “joyless processes”. I wonder if he read my recent pieces on the tedium of hoop-jumping education.

It’s a short leap from there to the admission for teachers’ organisations that A Level student’s predicted grades are being inflated under pressure from students, parents and (sometimes) school managements. When one’s performance is all that matters, and the stakes for getting it wrong are so high, just why are we surprised? All in all, it’s what you get if you treat education as little more than a pre-packaged commodity.