A momentous day (to bury good news).

I’ve now run two evening classes for a small group of local adults in my home, where we are covering the rudiments of Critical Thinking. The experience is doing me a lot of good: it has brought back some confidence that not only can I still teach, but do it well enough to enthuse and inform my ‘pupils’. (Yesterday, by word-of-mouth my class voluntarily grew in size). Two years on, it is starting to reassemble something from the debris of my professional self-esteem.

I make no apology for continuing to document my mental health experiences. My wish is to do what I can to communicate the severe impact that stress and overload can have on teachers, and people generally, in the hope that it will be both a support and a warning. Some of my posts have been re-used by those raising the profile of the issue elsewhere. Perhaps less honourably, should any of those who caused the situation happen to read, I want them to know the full repercussions of their actions on this erstwhile long-serving and conscientious member of their staff – not that I expect it will cause them any lost sleep.

However, the issues are still ongoing, and our current means are extremely tight. Last November, I secured an interview for a basic administrative post. During the associated test, my anxiety kicked back in, I froze – and failed on that count. So things are still not ‘right’; I won’t be going near a classroom any time soon.

But I don’t mean to wallow. The Guardian this morning is reporting that on this politically momentous day, Ofsted will formally announce major revisions to its inspection regime. This has been in the offing for some time, and can only be good news.

At long last, official recognition is being made that the quality of education is not synonymous with exam data. Amanda Spielman will apparently say that “we have reached the limit of what data can tell us” – a diplomatic way of accepting the flaws in decades of policy.

But what damage has been done in its name! Not only off-rolling (excluding children whose results will harm the school’s data) – but also a host of other policies which have brought the ethical standards of those who run schools into serious disrepute. Gamesmanship should have no part whatsoever in a principled activity such as education.

The ruthless quest of incentive-driven senior managers for compliance at all costs cares little for the impact of that selfish myopia on others.  As well as off-rolling, it has been the primary driver of curriculum-narrowing, the wider neglect of non-core subjects, the deprofessionalisation of staff – and worst of all, the ‘spike’ in mental health problems amongst both pupils and their teachers. The quest for ‘maximising opportunity’ always was nothing more than a thin veil for self-serving institutionalised lust. Hence perhaps the current alarm at this reform in some managerial quarters. It is a sick irony that a supposedly caring profession has been driven by those who often publicly profess to ‘care’ most deeply of all (Ofsted included), severely to damage the very wellbeing that it claimed to promote.

Not long before the end, my school’s union reps (of which I was one) were mandated by their members to approach the management with severe concerns about morale. We were hardly the only school where this was a problem.

But we had just such a ‘driven’ management, which not only ignored the representation made at that time, but also my personal attempt at back-door diplomacy when it failed. But then, it also ignored numerous other manifestations of the harm that its data-craziness was causing. I cannot be sure that this did not contribute to an agenda that did not stop (whether by conspiracy or cock-up) until it had played a large part in badly damaging my mental health. Just one casualty amongst many.

Today’s reforms by Ofsted should be welcomed with open arms. If they can be successfully implemented, they should play a significant part in restoring the balance and perspective that has been lost in education. They are also an explicit recognition that good education cannot be wholly quantified, and that it was a mistake to think otherwise. With any luck, they will also reduce some of the pressure that was brought to bear on those of us who are/were in pure educational terms perfectly competent practitioners, but who were vilified for refusing to sell our souls and accept the Long Winter.

It will no doubt take a long time to change a culture where so many influential people are invested in the outgoing mindset. Long enough that it will more than see out the years I might have had left in the profession. But it needs to be done. The tragedy is that the collateral damage has been so great.

Advertisements

Sheeple

“You can’t not have exams!” The old guy (a former teacher) was incredulous. I decided to play devil’s advocate. “Why not?”

“How would you educate the pupils? How would they get jobs without qualifications?”

The conversation came after he had finished reading The Great Exception, and I was being subjected to an intense grilling over its contents. I decided not to go down the avenues of what constitutes meaningful assessment, or the fact that other countries seem to manage very well with alternative structures.

I will say outright that I do not doubt the need for testing; the discussion was founded on a misreading of my point – but it only emphasised the extent to which the education world is lost in its own circular reasoning. One could easily get the impression that the world would stop turning were formal education – and hence exams – to cease to exist. But it is not so. What I question is that exams should be seen as the purpose of education: a view that has become steadily more pervasive.

Without exams, education would continue in other forms – after all, in essence it is nothing more than the process by which newly-arrived young creatures (even sheep) make sense of the world they find, and the vast majority of life on this planet manages quite well without examinations. It is true to say, however, that most ‘higher’ forms of life involve some form of education of the young by the old, even if mostly just by imitation. And even in ‘primitive’ human societies, some form of testing often emerges to validate that process.

As with musicians working towards a performance, a focus is desirable, if not essential for most learning – as indeed for work in general. It provides both a discrete objective and an incentive, in the form of validation of the effort invested and the standard achieved.

The problem comes from the short-sightedness that can ensue. The fact that one creates a largely artificial construct in order to motivate and validate does not mean that that benchmark is, or should be, the sole purpose of the exercise. I suspect many would accept that the point of learning to play music is not just to pass exams, or even to perform. It is an end in its own right, though the way it is often pursued makes it easy to lose sight of the fact.

Although I have reservations about the mentality that it develops, I don’t even object to the pursuit of targets per se – if that is what gives a certain kind of character its kicks – but we should still not conflate an appetite for challenge with the medium which some people happen to use to fulfil it. If ‘challenge’ is your thing, then it arguably doesn’t matter too much whether you express it through passing music exams, academic exams, learning watch-making or pushing your 100 metres personal best.

But the pursuit of challenge often crowds out the initial purpose of its ‘carrier’ medium. The point of music is to enjoy the creation or hearing of music as in intrinsic ‘good’. One assumes – though the case is somewhat weaker – that the point of running is at least in part to enjoy running. To see it as nothing more than the means to a (target) end is to allow extrinsic motivators to crowd out the intrinsic ones. This comes with a cost.

In the case of intellectual activity, the purpose is not to pass exams, but to develop one’s cognitive ability for its own sake, of which any specific application can only ever be a sub-objective. This is perhaps the most important activity of all, because the ability to use it is not only intrinsically rewarding, but also adaptively useful. It allows one to address life‘s problems in a more considered way, and generally to act more autonomously through the ability to analyse for oneself rather than being reliant on others for what to think or do.

To some extent, I can close purpose with my interlocutor here, because there is no doubt at all that one use of such abilities is indeed their application to Work, and the certificate that one gains through achieving a certain level is (supposedly) a marker of one’s effectiveness in that respect. But we should still not confuse the validation with the process itself.
Einstein is credited with the quote:

“Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

– though he may have been borrowing it from a perceptive but unknown wag. It is surely correct: the only inherent purpose of education is that which is common to all species: the development of the cognitive abilities that allow one to operate more effectively. All else is peripheral, no matter how enjoyable, or socially-useful we make it.

But the old guy’s comments were evidence of the extent to which we have lost sight of this: the social and economic advantages which recognised education can bring have trumped its fundamental purpose. Inasmuch as intellectual fulfilment can be gratuitous, so has this too: the capabilities one can acquire in specific disciplines are useful, and intellectually rewarding in their own right – but they too are nothing more than ‘carriers’ for the neural effect that such experiences can cause in building networks in the brain. This is what Einstein meant: the only true purpose of education is its cognitive effect; once you have that, everything else flows from it.

This is not to say that the incidental benefits of learning are unimportant but they are still nothing more than incidental, and their use is still dependent on effective neural development. It is quite possible for forms of formal education to fail to develop that – while still handing out certificates like confetti, in effect for simply having ‘breathed the air’.

The vast multitude of ‘qualifications’ held by populations around the world do not stop them from making some pretty stupid decisions, which better ability to self-scrutinise cognitively might reveal this fact. This is no surprise: qualifications are simply social constructs that attempt to reflect (imperfectly) someone’s real abilities. But the focusing on the peripheral benefits – to the extent of losing sight of their true status – can even prevent people from using their brains in the way they need to. Alvesson & Spicer’s book The Stupidity Paradox is a testament to the fact the even extremely clever people can act very stupidly when circumstances conspire.

The inability of people to scrutinise claims made in the Brexit debate is just the most extreme recent example of how all the certificates in the world do not in themselves prove people can use their heads. It may even be getting worse. There was some correlation between education levels and voting decisions, but I am not implying that there was a ‘correct’ decision – simply that the grounds on which it was made were often flimsy. Subsequent developments have shown this to be so.

This comes at the time when the subject that arguably most directly addressed the issue has been removed from the school curriculum. Simply because it did not meet QCA’s administrative criteria, Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level is no more. I suppose I should not be surprised: the formal educational establishment in Britain long ago lost sight of its true raison d’être. Just as the financial sector stopped funding the real economy when it was allowed to manufacture greater (spurious) benefit from financial engineering, the education sector long ago stopped being about actually educating people in the neural sense, and started being about fulfilling its own internal objectives.

So long ago, in fact, that it seems that even several previous generations of teachers cannot be relied upon to have noticed. But the consequences of this myopia are very real, and living with us in the way society as a whole is changing today. Its growing failure to do anything more than equip people with meaningless bits of paper is the elephant in the room of why education is not achieving what it supposedly sets out to.

With even the professional educational world largely thinking like sheep, one wonders what hope there is.

If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here…

I’m awaiting the arrival of Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA makes us what we are. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Plomin claimed that the statistical evidence suggests that heritability is a more significant determinant of human characteristics than we like to believe. He also observed that one of the fields proving most resistant to his findings is…education.

I find this rather ironic, given how the education world has supposedly jumped on the bandwagon of evidence-based practice over the past few years. If this is to mean anything at all, it has to be about responding to whatever the ‘evidence’ tells us. Instead, it seems that education is still choosing to ignore evidence that does not correlate with its carefully crafted and jealously protected ideology. We are right back to the Cargo-Cult.

Equally ironically, the often-dogmatic view that the main impediment of individual life opportunities is societal, leads the Left quickly in the direction of the Positive Psychology movement, with its right-wing insistence that anyone can be anything they want, if only they try hard enough (and overcome any social obstacles). The logical conclusion of this, of course, is that anyone who failed simply did not try hard enough, and should be shown no pity. I suspect this is a position that many on the well-meaning Left would feel much less comfortable with.

Having also recently read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%, which contains a long chapter on educational inequalities, I have somewhat reconsidered my view of selective education – or at least the process by which it occurs. It has become apparent to me that the whole circumstances in which it now operates have changed considerably from what I experienced in the 1970s. For a start, the Eleven Plus is no longer the discrete, everyday classroom test that it was then. Now it is a pressurised, Saturday-morning marathon, which depends on the ability of parents to ferry their offspring to the nearest grammar school. Consequently the whole social display of preparing for and taking it has become more conspicuously elitist than it was. Likewise, the ability of selective schools themselves to control the nature of the test seems to have dropped it right into the laps of those who would indeed use it for social rather than intellectual purposes.

While this has made me reconsider my views on the test, those who are implacably against selection should also bear in mind that the current nature of the Eleven Plus is not the only way it can be. I would argue that the historic approach was fairer, not least because access to it did not depend on anything other than going to school on an otherwise normal day. Today’s inequities are more about the social context than the intellectual principle of the test itself. We should not allow our view of selection to be determined entirely by the means in which it is sometimes effected. Once again, I can’t help but reflect on the considered, low-key  (and reversible) way in which it happens in Germany and Switzerland, countries where matters of intellect and education are not routinely conflated with social status or mobility, as they are in Britain.

At the root of opposition to selection is, of course, the view that it unfairly discriminates against certain groups. Well, discriminate it does, but as Plomin points out, if it is indeed true that aptitudes are more determined by genes than we care to admit, then it can equally be argued that putting everyone through an identical schooling experience makes no intellectual sense, and may just as easily be unkind or even harmful. Socially, we can of course attempt to use uniform education as a leveller – but only by holding the more able back. Which educator would knowingly embrace that – particularly as (in economic terms) it patently doesn’t work?

Plomin is no elitist: he is at pains to show that the conclusions from his findings might just as easily be used to justify more support being given to those who are ‘genetically disadvantaged’, as the opposite.

My reservations about non-selective schooling derive not from any inherent wish to hive off certain ‘elite’ sections of the population, so much as the dulling effects on those who as a result experience inappropriate education for their needs. Unfortunately, most comprehensives were more a matter of ‘secondary moderns with bright kids’ than ‘grammar schools for all’. What was – and is – too often lacking in comprehensive schools is a strongly thoughtful ethic. Note that ‘thoughtful’ need not mean traditionally academic: it is about valuing the power of deep, demanding thinking, and the achievement of high standards, no matter what the discipline. But the agenda in many comprehensives was that high standards are themselves elitist, and were therefore to be rejected.

The dominance of that view is to be seen throughout the comprehensive sector to this day; my impression is that relatively few of those who staff or run our schools are themselves genuine ‘thinkers’. The mania over exam results is no denial of this: more a confirmation that the entire thing is being run by people who either understand little or care less about the true nature of high cognitive development. Those who understood the true relationship between education and exams would be more considered in their approach.

The impact on the population has recently become all too clear: the legacy of education as a form of low-brow entertainment (just because some supposedly struggle to cope with more) did not prevent the campaigns over Brexit – and the subsequent factionalised nastiness – from proceeding on the most facile of bases. It failed to protect the populace at large (including many who should have known better) from being misled – perhaps by both sides. That people are now increasingly recognising that they were misled does nothing to diminish the fact that a more widely educated population would have been better-informed and less easy to deceive in the first place. The claim that ‘we were told what to think by the wrong people’ misses a much deeper truth about the nature of, and responsibility for, individual knowledge.

The same is undoubtedly true in many other situations where the growing power of the media to distort is meeting little resistance from ‘consumers’ who arguably ought to be better-informed and wiser to begin with. It is such qualities and values that bland, dumbed-down, universalised education has too often failed to transmit.

I have never doubted or disagreed with an egalitarian ideal for education; Heaven knows, this country still suffers enough from its historically having been otherwise. But blank denial of the (possible) reality of the situation hardly strikes me as a good position from which to begin. I am not suggesting Plomin’s work should be accepted without careful scrutiny – but if it turns out to be more correct than our sensitivities would prefer, pretending otherwise will only mean we are starting from the wrong place. And this is only going to frustrate the provision of educational opportunity genuinely tailored to the needs of every individual.

Out of the blue

If you had told any of the poor unfortunates involved in Genoa’s disaster that their fate was to be sealed when a bridge fell away beneath them, I doubt they would have believed it. Such events lie close to the margins of human credibility, at least when it comes to personalising the matter so brutally.

I am reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ground-breaking work The Black Swan, whose main contention is that events in this world are far more frequently determined by the unexpected and unknown than humans feel comfortable with. The events in Genoa must come close to such a phenomenon, and feel quite raw here, as I have driven over that bridge several times.

And yet it seems that the actual direction of human travel is still to try to rationalise ever more aspects of our existence, even though all that the signs are that this process constrains and depersonalises the very experience of being human.

One might argue that the maintenance of a bridge should be entirely rational and systematic – but that overlooks the fact that no matter how good the systems, they cannot cope with the irregular, irrational or unexpected. And I suspect those elements of human nature run far deeper than mere logic.

In reality, our attempts to impose order and predictability on this world are as self-defeating as they are superficial. Indeed, much of what we value most is anything but systematic.

I suspect the tendency derives from two things:

1) The huge size of modern societies and organisations, such that the only way to co-ordinate consistent behaviour seems to involve a reduction in scope for individual decision-making. There are serious implications here for both democracy and individual autonomy.

2) The reliance on I.T. and other technical systems, interaction with which requires intransigent adherence to the structures (and limitations) put in place by those who created them. I suspect that they gradually condition the mind to a linear, box-ticking view of the world.

In both cases, the effect seems to me to be a diminution of the scope for individual human initiative – and blindness that this perhaps increases our exposure to the kind of systemic failures that cause bridges to collapse or other seemingly out-of-the-blue happenings to take place. (It seems that warnings about problems with the bridge were lost in Italian cultural laxity…)

I was recently struck by the same impression on reading that up-take of arts, humanities and modern foreign languages continues to decline in the U.K., at the expense of the STEM subjects. This is no surprise, since it has been policy at both governmental and individual school level for some time – and students do tend to respond to such steer. It is also no doubt in part due to the fact that such subjects lend themselves more easily to the kind of technocratic, easily-defined form of ‘progress’ that has been favoured in recent years – and no less to the perception that these fields are where success is clearest and rewards greatest. No need to inconvenience ourselves with such imponderables as ‘unknown unknowns’ let alone matters of relative wisdom; just churn out more of the same black-or-white and collect rather more than £200 just for passing Go.

And reading this blog drove home to me – as its author eventually realised –  the extent to which the whole edifice of present-day education is built upon assumptions of consequentialism that may make teachers, and even pupils feel temporarily good about themselves, but which vastly overstates the actual power and predictability of our interventions. And all sorts of serious consequences are hung on the failures of such world-views.

There are times when I feel completely at odds with the general direction of travel of the world. Maybe it’s just Age, but most of the really valuable experiences and insights of my life have been anything but technical in nature – and I fear that the tendency to orientate our lives as though they were just part of one large machine risks neglecting many of the subjective, creative and even downright irrational moments of inspiration that are the essence of what separates humans from machines.

I find it deeply regrettable that even the one process that ought to lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition is increasingly abandoning this difficult territory in favour of simplistic technical fixes.

I have recently completed a vocational diploma myself. While it has equipped me well enough with the technical skills and knowledge that I need, it has been a relatively sterile experience simply because it was so predictable: while it had the full plethora of learning objectives and assessment criteria, there was little provision or requirement for the kind of deeper thinking that might have led to richer insight. What’s more, being online, it lacked the real human contact that is an important part of much learning. I have ended up technically qualified, but (had it not been for my own irrepressible curiosity, which inevitably led me off the beaten track) I don’t think I would have been much wiser or insightful as a result. It is training, not education.

I had a similar experience when developing the online resource that I will be launching shortly: the platform that I adopted is technically an excellent tool to work with. But in order to produce the course as conceived, I had to ignore some of the stipulations of the technicians who developed the platform: I was expected to make my innovation fit the system, rather than the opposite. Official listing of a course is purely a matter of fitting the ideological system-template rather than the quality of the content, which seems to have been ignored. What is more, there was no possibility of contextualising the submission: it was a simple pass/fail when subjected to a check-list of what the producers (think they) want. A classic case of style over substance. Systems that lack even the possibility of interaction or feedback are weak, if not dangerous.

The platform is thoroughly rooted in constructivist ideology, and so I suppose it is not surprising that it rejected something more traditionally based. But the point is still the same: a good system should be capable of identifying quality and value wherever and however it appears. Too many reject potentially good – perhaps even ground-breaking – material simply because it does not comply with superficial norms or expectations. Is our education system more generally increasingly making the same mistake?

Many of the greatest leaps of human achievement have been made by mavericks who chose not to follow the rules but to redefine them. This often involved the rejection of pre-existing systems, and a reliance on intuition, talent and the not-so-obvious, rather than the ability to follow others’ instructions. Many of the innovations that frame modern life were in reality just the result of useful accidents. Something similar might be criticised in a system that rejected the Black Swan possibility that a bridge might actually be likely to collapse due to sheer human incompetence, despite its supposed (perhaps illusory?) technical prowess.

There is no point in pretending that human life is a purely technical matter; while we have learned (to some extent) to control the material world around us (and we need systems to do that), very much of the experience of being human does not obey such rules, and thus proves otherwise. We need to acknowledge the limits of systems as well as their utility. We should actually be growing our appreciation of the fact that a rich, well-lived human life is about more than mere technical matters – but such matters are too complex for reductivist instincts.

By moving so many fields of human endeavour – and perhaps most critically the subjects and methods by which we learn – in a purely technical direction, I fear we are losing sight of the very subjectivity upon which many of our greatest achievements stand.

Unconditionally mercenary

An eminent writer to a national newspaper recently observed that education in Britain has ‘lost its sense of moral purpose’. That need not imply any particular belief system for it still to be true, inasmuch as education should presumably strive for a higher ideal in the quest for objective knowledge.

As if more evidence were needed of the extent to which this is true, The Independent has reported that the number of unconditional offers made to would-be university students has risen from fewer than 3000 in 2013 to over 68 000 this year. It seems that the sole driver of this has been the desire of universities to fill places in advance and secure their incomes for the year ahead.

Where is the concern for the actual quality that entrants are required to demonstrate, or of the likely impact on their motivation? The adverse effects of this are blatant evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the system on all fronts.

Unconditional offers used to be the preserve of the very few highly talented (or possibly canny) students in whom universities expressed complete confidence that they would achieve their entry requirements. That has been thrown out in favour of the hard logistics of bums-on-seats in an over-supplied marketplace.

But the response of the students is hardly better: while the psychology of receiving an unconditional offer was always the same (I saw how a couple of people I knew who received them suddenly eased up as their ‘A’ Levels approached), it is now plumbing the depths of the mercenary, with The Independent reporting that many students simply stopped showing up at school at all, and one school reporting a fall in its pass-rate as a result from 74% to 14% in one year when 40% of its students received unconditional offers.

As I said, the reverse-psychology effect of the unconditional offer has always been there – but in the past, I think that students still perceived enough inherent value for the learning process to know that it was important to see their courses through for their own sake.

Today’s students would appear to have no more value for their courses than as a passport to the next level, and seem utterly unprincipled in doing absolutely no more than is required to secure it. This is no surprise either, for it follows precisely the known effects of contingent rewards on effort levels.

I hardly blame them, for these are the values that the entire education system has been peddling for several decades now: education as commodity; something whose value is entirely extrinsic and material; learning for learning’s sake an utter waste of time. And a system of exams and qualifications that itself has become more important than the qualities and abilities that it supposedly represents.

I strongly objected to such views when I was still working in education, and did what I could to combat them amongst my own students. It was the reason why I drew clear limits around what I was prepared to do just to cram students through the same corrupted, superficial hoop-jumping process. And I have documented probably ad nauseam the reaction of that system to my principles.

I can only assume that those who promote such values in what now passes for the British education system view these developments without the slightest alarm.

Fake education?

Question: What is the connection between fake news and educational research?

The recent public release of targeted images used by Leave organisations during the Brexit campaign has revealed the potency of targeted advertising, some of which did indeed cross over into misinformation, if not downright fake news.

One might consider that a purpose of education is to counter the effect of such strategies, for example by equipping people with the critical thinking skills to see through such assaults. But there is a deeper and less flattering commonality: it seems to me that much educational research is (naively or otherwise) actually directed at precisely the same objective of ramming information ever more ‘efficiently’ into people’s heads.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the intent of the two activities is the same – but the impression that I often get from those who promote such research is that they are in search of ever more effective ways of planting information in people’s minds.

Most of the outcomes seem to be implicitly directed more at improving schools’ performance in the various accountability measures than developing independent critical (and by definition uncontrollable) thought. This is reinforced by the widespread use of the glib and unelaborated notion of ‘better education’ – which in the worldview of such researchers (and their patrons, educational ‘leaders’) really only ever seems to equate with better results.

I do not dispute the importance of qualifications for young people – but it is nonetheless true that they do not need to be entirely synonymous with the exam results that are increasingly driving the system, and indeed the entirety of what schools seem to think they exist for.

Seen from that perspective, it makes complete sense for them to support research that could reveal the perfect system for securing 100% pass rates – in just the same way that retail and political organisations have a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to secure what they perceive as optimal outcomes. In both cases, this presumably means every last person doing and thinking what they are told.

But the prime means of doing that is by controlling people’s behaviour as closely as they can- which in my understanding is the diametric opposite of increasing people’s liberty which I view as a much superior objective for education. Is there really a great difference between educational research and that into other forms of thought-manipulation such as marketing techniques or targeted political advertising?

The education system has already travelled a long way down this partisan route: ever since it was made to compete for ‘customers’ and justify its existence in every last way, any sense of objectivity about what it is doing has been long abandoned.

Universities now compete for students on the basis of glossy marketing and branding rather than genuine academic quality. What matters is controlling perceptions – and schools are not far behind them: witness the banners that are almost a sine qua non of school gates these days, proclaiming the supposed brilliance of every last institution to the world at large. How demeaning can it get?

And when we reduce it to basics, even thought the professed aims might be otherwise, what is really so different from the ways in which schools – through publicity and result-enhancing ‘research’ are seeking to manipulate minds, and the techniques now being employed by the shady world of misinformation?

We might be proclaiming one thing, but the effects of education-as-thought-control are not so very different.



 

Lessons Learned

I have been reading Brian Lightman’s book Lessons Learned: A life in education.

bl

Brian was a colleague of mine for a few years in the early 1990s and I am indebted to him for both his support early in my career (where much else was lacking), and more recently for encouraging the publication of my own book The Great Exception.

In the meantime, he went on, via several headships, to become General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

His book provides a fascinating insight into his experiences as he ascended to the top of the profession. The memoirs of a head teacher should be required reading for all in education: both those in the classroom for the appreciation it can bring of the breadth and challenges of the role – something it seems that few others bother to communicate to their staff – and those in political positions for a view of just how complex and demanding a job it is.

From the lower rungs, it is easy to criticise ‘management’, and I have done my share of this, although I have always tried to tackle the issue rather than the person. I have also identified ‘management’ as being more than just that found at school level. But it is also fair to say that from a classroom perspective, management hubris often ensured it was not clear just where some of the impositions and conflicts that we struggled with were originating from. Those in such positions would do well to remember which parts of the anatomy are most visible from beneath…

One might argue it would be in their own favour for school managements to be more open with their staff about the imposed conflicts they face, rather than (as was my experience) trying to present an invincible, non-negotiable stance which was certainly not interested in the thoughts or ideas of mere classroom teachers. By sometimes claiming total authority, school managements have not only deprofessionalised their staff, but also in effect claimed ownership of many of the education system’s failings that may not actually have been their fault. That said, in many cases, it has clearly been school managements’ interpretations of political diktats that have caused the real problems.

While Lightman naturally comes at these issues from a very different, more strategic perspective, it is reassuring that the former leader of a Head teachers’ union corroborates many of my own views on issues seen from the classroom, such as:

  • the need for individuals to be able to develop their own good practice
  • the need for schools to support their staff rather than micro-manage or otherwise demean them
  • the need for more a pluralistic appreciation of the nature and aims of education
  • the need to reduce the narrow emphasis on exam results as the sole driver for both teaching and schools as a whole
  • the desirability of extended professional development for teachers that aims at a wider professionalism than basic classroom skills or production-line techniques.

I do however lack his apparent belief that complex policy and control structures really are the best means to achieve higher standards. I doubt that they actually have the ability to reach to the level of individual classrooms with anything more than a restricting effect. And we still haven’t really pinned down what ‘better education’ actually means.

While I have certainly experienced the impacts of different styles of school management, I have also seen far flatter structures being very successful elsewhere. If we had a highly-educated and trained, fully professionalised work force (in spirit and approach rather than just intent) in this country, such as is found in Finland, Switzerland and elsewhere, there would simply be much less need for towering hierarchies to drive everything. To be fair, Lightman does hint at this. The lack of such is the fault of education policy over decades.

The later stages of the book recount Lightman’s encounters with the political establishment during the last Labour years and then the 2010 Coalition-era government. It is not edifying reading.

This account of the means by which education policy was made: the sheer prejudice brought to bear – not least on the achievements of prior administrations, the refusal to credit professional expertise and insight, the sometimes ad-hoc, opportunistic nature of policy-making, and the sheer, arrogant cronyism of the system, makes depressing reading. It has to be said without much pleasure, that all of these traits were, according to Lightman, far worse under the Conservatives than the other parties.

Sometimes it is the small and non-education related points that are enlightening: for example, the observation that while most parties’ annual party conferences are packed with pressure-groups’ stalls, the Conservative one mostly features up-market traditional country-wear.

The impression Lightman gained is that this party represents a regressive, privileged and condescending – yet immensely powerful – force within society that has little understanding of, or interest in, any world-view except its own. And it still believes in its own entitlement to govern.

For someone who is increasingly more widely critical of the ways in which the U.K. is governed, this blows a major hole in the claim that this country is well governed, for all the veneer of authority and control that the Establishment can still put on. And in the light of the nation’s current difficulties, if this account of the education department is representative of approaches in (Conservative?) government more widely, one can only fear for the nation’s future.

Back with teaching, in my own way, I believe I attempted to develop a form of professionalism close to that which Lightman describes. My own approach attempted a blend of the best of proven traditional techniques with the more promising and workable aspects of newer ideas. I tried to educate young people rather than just prepare them to jump hoops. And this blog is testament to this teacher’s attempts to widen his perspective on his professional practice.

It was hard work as it often involved swimming against the tide of a system that eventually burned me out, threw me out – and stamped on the remains. And whatever the perceived or real weaknesses of this particular individual, I now represent just one more experienced, committed teacher lost to a system that can ill afford it – against which Lightman rails.

In very many ways, the education system needs to become much less dogmatic in its approach – and much more trusting of professionals to do a good job. Lightman’s experiences in Germany (he is a linguist) reflect my own in Switzerland in this respect.

All in all, a thought-provoking account of a life in education that does much to cast light on layers of the structure not normally visible to those in the classroom, but one that does not lose sight of the fundamental importance of the grassroots nature of the profession.

Putting the Soul back. Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Declining, not falling. Part 1.

Two weeks from now, for the first time in sixty years, there will be no teachers in my family. I will be just another private individual, removed from the in-some-ways very public role of teacher. Apart from a GAP year, this will also be the first time that my life has not depended directly on education. Or it would be, if you discount my wife’s university-paid income that will hopefully keep us alive while I figure out what to do next.

Education is in the news again at the moment, it being union conference season – but greater distance lends a different perspective. My plan is to record some of my thoughts at this unexpected point, assuming the still-faulty brain will permit.

My book remains unpublished. I have been repeatedly told that it is well thought-out and well-written – but the people who would want to read it (i.e. practising teachers) don’t have the time, and those who do are not interested in what I have to say. I think it was summed up by one reviewer, who on the strength of only the proposal decided (wrongly) that it would be nothing more than a personal polemic, lacking in references to accepted research and government policy.

So that says it all: those who actually do education are too snowed under actually to think about it, while those who make the decisions are not interested in what a classroom teacher has to say.

I am not ruling out teaching again, but it won’t be in the immediate future. I’m still feeling very hurt by what has happened. More likely, I will find some non-classroom role, as I’ve seen that the job I have been doing has progressively eroded my health and wellbeing to a point that is no longer acceptable. But I have other directions I want to explore first.

I suppose I am looking for some kind of closure on the last three decades – though it is unlikely really to happen, as I will probably never know for sure what the actual agenda was for pushing/neglecting a committed and long-serving teacher to the point of breakdown, and then ‘losing’ them, on the basis of a couple of disputed exam targets.

Normally, I would have jumped at the opportunity for five months’ ‘sabbatical’ – who wouldn’t? But I would not recommend my experience to anyone; I also now realise that the clouds of that storm had been brewing for considerably longer than I thought. But in the interim, my life has been transformed. I suppose every cloud has its lining…. I now have time to appreciate everyday life, to nurture relations with people around me, to value the simple but fundamental pleasures of life that hitherto were squeezed to almost non-existence by the ever-present weight of Teaching. I never lived to work, but I had failed to appreciate the extent to which my work had come utterly to dominate my life.

I’ve not turned against education; I was brought up to value it, and I believe it to be a cornerstone of a civilised society. It continues to enrich my own life in very many ways, and I still believe it is one of the greatest gifts that any society can offer its members. In troubled times, it is more important than ever.

But I have become increasingly disenchanted with what formalised education has become, in Britain at least. It is no longer doing that which I described above. It has utterly lost sight of its fundamental purpose, its methods and intentions hijacked by uncomprehending vested interests. I had a simple, even naive wish when I entered the profession: to cultivate and broaden the minds of up-coming generations and in particular to share my appreciation of those fields that interested me. The educational system has increasingly diverted, even prevented me from doing that, in ways and to extents that I have largely lost interest in being part of it.

A society that has lost the understanding to educate it people, as well as house and feed them, provide for their health and allow them to have a stake in its destiny is one that is heading down the pan. As I wrote nearly a year ago, recent national events have only fuelled that perception.

But the current education scene is, I believe more part of the problem than the solution. In the next post or two I will discuss why.  This seems widely known: I have not had a single person from a wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions tell me that I am making a big mistake in leaving, and I don’t think they are just being kind. They know teaching as presently configured is a fool’s (or a saint’s) job; I’m neither.

But perhaps the biggest indictment is that is it now extensively harming the basic welfare of those who go through it, whether as teachers or pupils. I don’t only mean mental health, though that is perhaps the sharp end of it.

And of that, I want no part.

Warped.

I have an email from a parent, thanking me for five years’ teaching her child. The grade at G.C.S.E. was not high – but given that the child had significant learning difficulties, as a colleague observed, it probably still represents positive value added. According to the parent, my subject was the only one at school the child had really engaged with, thanks to my teaching.

I have a second email from a pupil in the same class thanking me, as I mentioned previously, for my support when the going got tough. That pupil got an A*.

Unfortunately, an algorithm predicted that the first pupil ‘ought’ to have scored four grades higher (even though the pupil didn’t manage that in any subject), whereas the second pupil simply got what was expected. I submitted both emails as annual review evidence; I cannot be certain they have even been read.

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman reportedly gave a speech this week criticising schools for their obsession with league tables. She rightly pointed out that gaming the system simply to improve schools’ standing is in effect a corruption of the education process. Sean Harford of the same organisation has apparently said that data is a signpost, not a destination.

And yet we continue to be deluged with initiatives, from the College of Teaching down, seemingly intent on furthering ‘research-driven’ teaching. Presumably the research relies heavily on data for its ‘proof’.

I cannot accept that this is anything more than a distortion of the education process – and I have never been able to let my own teaching be driven by such concerns. The emails mentioned above might suggest why. As far as I am concerned, both of those pupils fulfilled their potential and equally important, had an affirming experience along the way.

Data/evidence/research/league tables have nothing to do with how educated young people become; knowing you got an A* may be a validation, but it is not being ‘educated’ per se. No, this obsession is not about pupils at all – but everything about teachers and schools ‘proving’ they have met political requirements. The sheer energy going into this at the moment shows just how narcissistic the education sector has (been forced to?) become.

Educational data simply cannot be impartial: there are too many unknowns involved. But if the system is going to set so much store by them, then it has a profound responsibility to get it right to a very high level of confidence. And if one accepts my concerns, then that it cannot but fail to do.

I will restrict myself to a couple of observations, which are not without personal signficance.

  1. Little heed is paid to the volatility of small data sets. In a class of 25, each child represents a +/- 4% effect on the data. One child’s performance makes a significant difference. Quite apart from the inherent instability, it is not consistent directly to compare the results for a teacher who had, say 75 exam candidates (and hence a less volatility) with one who only had 25.
  2. The breakdown of classes makes a difference. A former colleague had two classes in the same year group. One group scored 100% A*-C; the other scored 25%. Nobody questioned that because the classes were of different ability. And yet my colleague’s average A*-C percentage is lower than the one that got me into trouble with a mixed ability class. It came down to an arbitrary judgement that my result ‘ought’ to have been higher – even though comparison of ‘my’ grades with the same pupils in their other subjects suggests otherwise.

That is not a rigorous use of data, but equally, it is not clear what would be – and this is the reason I have no faith in this approach. Selective use of data thus becomes just another managerial weapon.

And what about the data suggesting that pupils’ results may correlate with their teachers’ state of mental health? Bitter experience makes this plausible for me; it is only on such grounds that I might be prepared to concede some deficiency. But it is hardly something I should be held accountable for, particularly when my working conditions arguably have been the cause to start with. Amanda Spielman may perhaps be thinking similarly – but in my case it is looking increasingly as though I am going to pay for my earlier obduracy with my career.

If statistics are inherently so powerful, then ones for mental health surely ought to be treated seriously and the root cause of the problem addressed. Yet the system seems intent on doing the opposite by just scrapping people when they burn out.

Furthermore, by using such tenuous grounds to make teachers’ lives more difficult, the sector is contributing to its own difficulties by wantonly disposing of experienced staff who, in any wider reading may be doing a perfectly good job.

And that is just warped.