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My book remains unpublished.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.

Living by numbers

For those who thought this is a teaching blog, please indulge me. Documenting my current experience is fully part of being a teacher, and there are lessons to be learned…

I have been using a great app to track my medication and recovery http://www.iodine.com/start .   It reminds me each day to take the tablets, offers words of encouragement, shares the experiences of others, plots progress every two weeks and will even send the information to my doctor (if only she had time to read it). And if I let it, it will harvest my input to become part of the ‘big data’ being used by pharmaceutical companies to improve their products.

But my talking therapist was sceptical. Her main concern was that it would be too easy to rely on the app to tell me my condition, rather than look inwardly to judge for myself. She is equally sceptical about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which I was offered this week. I felt rather let down when the telephone interviewer told me he thought I had “typical anxiety”. It doesn’t feel like typical anything. According to my therapist, CBT is popular because it is “skills-based” and measurable. You get worksheets to do for homework. And at the end of six or twelve sessions, they are likely to terminate your course whether you are fully recovered or not, because you will have ‘demonstrated progress’. Accepting that I don’t know what I don’t know about CBT, the parallels with education are unmistakable. We both agreed that a more holistic approach was proving more helpful.

Having been forced to stand back from working life for the past three months, it has become increasingly evident how ‘conditioned’ to circumstance one becomes. Even as someone who feels he is generally fairly self-aware, it came as a shock to start to see just how time-orientated I have been. I was fretting about how long it would take to recover, about the fact that time was being ‘wasted’ doing very little, about the time targets I might be facing for recovery, when my sick leave would run out. And yes, the app is about numbers too, inasmuch as one has to rate how one is feeling on what is known as a PHQ9 test.

I am just too used to living my life against the clock, a constant battle to get things done by yesterday, with the anxiety about what will happen if I mess up. I am conditioned to being constantly told that one’s teaching can never be ‘good enough’, that the only thing to do when one reaches a target is to look for the next. My working life has run in hourly chunks for three decades, governed by the unbending regime of the school bell and timetable. Even home life was affected by the need to be ready next time the school bell rang. Those three decades seem to have shot past almost unnoticed. Today marks another full year on the clock of life; last time I checked I think I was about 28.

I wouldn’t recommend the experience of the last three months to anyone, but in some ways time has slowed right down again. Although some capabilities have been taken away (bizarrely, I can write but I still can’t read much), in others ways I have got my life back.

Each day has been its own entity, rather than just a notch on the count towards the next weekend/holiday/end of academic year. I have had time to stare at the sky, to watch the changing light in our home, to amble around the picturesque town where we live, to spend real time looking at my own (neglected) needs rather than those of others, to keep up with the admittedly depressing world news. And to spend more time in touch with people who have come out of the woodwork to wish me well; people whom I was previously too busy to keep up with, and who were too busy themselves. Some are people I worked with for twenty years or  more, but who somewhat misinterpreted each other for all that time. Our attentions were too busy elsewhere.

The fact that those people care has been the most salutary lesson of all, for someone who has habitually conducted his life in a relatively self-contained way, whose vexations and objections were either internalised or put to the world through this blog. And though I tried hard to resist, it was easy to view the blog too as a numbers exercise, particularly when others urged me to put it about a bit more.

It can’t carry on indefinitely of course – but it has made me think.

But for all this time, I have fundamentally felt that teaching is about life, rather than the other way round – for all that it was a regularly-obscured and rapidly receding belief. But in the cut-and-thrust of regular school life, it has become too easy to believe that we live to teach. Just like we live to consume, or live to be rich, or popular. It’s all about Quantity. Even mental health treatment seems to have become just another set of production targets. The cart is well and truly before the horse; how foolish can we be?

My attention was drawn to something that a recent pupil wrote about me. I think it is from one of the class whose GCSE figures, while demonstrably sound, were not aspirational enough and so tipped me into my current place.

Really nice guy who clearly knows his stuff. Never gave up when I lost motivation for his subject and always willing to answer questions…has a lot of knowledge that he shares with us, not just about Geography… he tries to make us think for the answer instead of giving it to us. Respect that as instead of giving us stuff to just memorize, he is trying to get us to think for ourselves and get us prepared for higher education. Thanks.

I don’t believe in an education system that functions largely to justify its own existence. I certainly don’t believe in the mad, messianic drive to make teachers mortgage themselves to breaking point for the supposed sake of the next generation.  Educating the young is one of the most important of human activities – but it does not have to be the institutionalised destruction that it is now.

Education cannot be something that you ‘just do’ to people; it is about developing the potential for intelligent thought, and that fact needs constant renewal. Exam grades are a human construct; sophisticated brain processes are not. As with my app, numbers can be helpful – but an end in themselves, they are not. The relationship between qualifications and education is no more direct than that between treatment and good mental health: the the former seems not to guarantee the latter, for all that that is where the obsession lies.

The pupil quoted above ‘gets’ what I have tried to do: to deliver a holistic education that while academically rigorous was principally about developing high-level thought and personal compassion. The rest of the system seems utterly to have lost sight of this – and it doesn’t any longer rate those who haven’t.

The tone of this post is perhaps sounding like the start of a recovery – but one in which that student’s words might make an apt professional epitaph.

On the fence

Interviewed in The Guardian, the veteran politician Ken Clarke makes a startling claim about government. Speaking about the nation’s intractable regional problems, he observes that despite their upbeat language, most politicians haven’t a clue how to solve them. “We’ve been trying for years” he says.

I admire such candour; more of it might start to re-focus people on the real issues rather than media-friendly sound-bites and facile quick fixes which are nothing of the sort.

I’m looking at the launch of the Chartered College of Teaching in much the same light. Despite Old Andrew’s misgivings, my instinct is nonetheless to join on the grounds that positive engagement might make a difference – and in principle, I’ve always thought that such an organisation is a good idea. But given that my decision to continue teaching is very much in the balance at the moment, and perhaps I’m being naively optimistic, I think I’ll wait.

The launch literature isn’t encouraging. The promise of giving teachers access to “the latest research” concerns me – not because I am against research per se, but because it looks too much like yet more jumping on this latest of bandwagons. As numerous others have pointed out, just where is the time going to come from in the average teacher’s life to avail of such a resource? And where is the research to show that teachers using research genuinely improves education? It might look glossy – but will it work?

I am afraid I am heartily sick of this direction of travel, and on the balance sheet, it is one of the things against my remaining in the profession. I don’t remotely consider myself a Luddite, but I simply cannot accept that even formal education is just about a targets-based production line – and let’s face it, all the ‘research’ into teaching methods is really only about pushing up exam pass rates. Anyone with a real concern for developing people’s capacity for intelligent thought will understand that it a far more subtle process and simply cannot be done to order in this way.

What makes lessons and teachers successful is not a precise science. In fact it could hardly be further from it. The development of the human mind is much more complex than that; as Greg Ashman described it recently, real ‘education’ is an emergent quality. What is taught, and how it is taught are not especially important – unless you are beholden to league tables. I would even say that the retention, while desirable, is not overly important for many people in the long run either, for all that I advocate academic rigour. Filling the Pail is not the be all and end all, as Greg acknowledges. As for how it is retained, that remains as complex and haphazard as ever.

What counts is the residue: what happens inside people’s heads as they go through this process we call education. As important as academic or pedagogic rigour is the quality of the human interaction involved. And as no two people are alike, the only way to develop skill in this is by individual practice – lots of it. This is what the researchers and would-be educational scientists fail to see.

The irony of my current situation is that I have written a book on precisely this issue; a couple of weeks ago it came within an ace of being published by a leading publisher. Despite much very positive feedback, it was torpedoed by one rather less impressed response – on the grounds that it does not make sufficient reference to established educational thought or to recent government policy. Just what does this have to do with classroom teaching (which is the subject of the book)? I am now waiting on a second publisher.

Here again, we have the Establishment refusing to give breathing space to anything that does not confirm existing prejudices. And yet, as Ken Clarke admitted, that approach often masks nothing more than a remote and ineffective ignorance of what works on the ground. This is not an intelligent way to proceed.

The current climate in education is (in part) giving rise to a spike in childhood mental health issues – to say nothing of the teachers. Educators are being urged to attend to this – by the same establishment whose policies exacerbate the problem.

And yet those who advocate a different approach borne of years in the front line are ignored. A common theme amongst many who have wished me well in recent weeks has been “we all know the system is crazy”. What is the College of Education going to do about THAT?

The mechanical approach is being still being advanced, to destructive effect. In my own case, the trigger that finally fried my brain – and has led me to consider my future in the profession – was the consequence of “my” failure to meet an arbitrary target with an exam class.  Despite the fact that experience strongly suggested it was deeply unrealistic (and my saying so repeatedly), the system has proved incapable of accepting that my years of humanely-successful teaching might be a sound basis on which to challenge the figures, let alone to consider the bigger picture.

I cannot and will not back down on this – hence the stress. Personally I can neither function in, nor tolerate, a system which demands that teachers operate simultaneously like robots and clowns, which so confines their modus operandi and then judges them in such an arbitrary and mechanistic manner. This is not a system that permits either meaningful teaching nor effective learning; it is good only for automatons.

Anyone want to publish a book on how to do things more benignly?

Stiff Upper Lip

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

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

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

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

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/01/18/private-school-children-tougher-state-educated-peers-study-finds/

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

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

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

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

Levels have their uses.

While the use of Key Stage Three levels nationally seems to be retreating into the dim past, and I’m not sorry about this, my school has made the decision to retain them for reporting purposes. I’m not sure how for long this position is sustainable, but that’s not the point of this post.

I have just completed the marathon of assessing twelve lower school classes of all abilities using the testing technique previously mentioned – that’s over three hundred A3 sheets.

The need was clearly there for something that allowed rapid but meaningful marking, and the levels provided it. The irony is this: freed from the overtones of spurious accountability and national reporting, these levels are not unhelpful. In my subject, I have reduced them to a simple series of statements that makes it straightforward to identify the general cognitive level that a pupil is at with given subject matter. Broadly speaking, it goes as follows:

  • Level 3: isolated statements of simple, unelaborated fact.
  • Level 4: more sustained or developed statement of fact, beginning to be linked into more complex statements
  • Level 5: Fully sustained factual knowledge, beginning to turn into simple explanation
  • Level 6: Developed explanation and sustained linkages of information
  • Level 7: Starting to reach considered conclusions.

This assumes that the subject information is sufficiently correct as to have merit in the first place, but taken as is, this taxonomy is simple enough that even my overworked brain can retain it. This is in stark contrast to the nightmare of how levels looked when they were first introduced, and is arguably what was needed in the first place. There are inherent ‘grey’ areas when one is deliberating, for example over the point when detailed statement of knowledge actually starts becoming an explanation, but this need not matter unduly when the framework is being used in a low-stakes situation between the teacher and the pupil. One soon gets a feel for it, and this is surely what professional judgement is all about.

As I mentioned a short while ago, my sometimes severe scepticism should not be read as an outright rejection of everything The System throws at us; I think that a universal framework for expressing cognitive development is potentially both useful and workable, so long as the tail does not start wagging the dog again. What it did not need to be was the huge and inflexible exercise in bureaucracy that we actually got.

I see the latest growing buzz idea is SOLO Taxonomy, to which we were formally introduced yesterday; to my eyes, this looks remarkably similar to the scheme I have outlined above, and I don’t have any particular attachment to one set of labels over another. The important thing is that it works and is manageable.

The sad irony, as I see it, is that many of the ideas put forward by the educational bandwagon are not necessarily unhelpful: they can become useful elements of a teacher’s repertoire. The problem comes when they are used in overdrawn ways, required by diktat be universally applied, to hold people to account or to offer scientifically precise representations of learning, at which point they rapidly lose any sense or helpfulness.

What Money Can’t Buy

I often struggle with educational initiatives. I’ve always been fiercely independent-minded, and I take exception to people telling me what to think, at least when convincing reasoning is not forthcoming. I’m not entirely sure whether this is helpful or not, but I suspect it may be a by-product of owning the kind of restless mind that education arguably seeks to foster – and perhaps those years of knowing just how crucial autonomy is to the classroom teacher.

Nonetheless, one has a professional duty to take reasoned view, and this I always try to do. And one does, to some extent, have to operate within the system one finds, even it is not entirely to one’s liking. Yet as time progresses, I am increasingly confident that my professional instinct is true; I know I have the moral motives of the educator truly at heart – but this only makes it all the harder when, as not-frequently happens, I recoil instinctively from the directive that is being ordained.

Rationalising one’s instinct is not always easy. This is why I think it is essential that teachers look as widely as possible for their perspectives, including the realms of psychology and philosophy. As I suggested in a previous post, I think it is impossible for a teacher to operate fully within the ethical remit of the profession without a degree of moral idealism.

Michael J. Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy is therefore very helpful.  This considers the moral limits of markets – the critical distinction being between a market economy as means of distributing goods, and a market society, where everything (and everyone) has their price. Sandel argues that the effect of this is the erosion of the moral settlement upon which societies function, and the eclipsing of other more benign behaviour.

Sandel’s arguments are elegantly simple, and offer a clear rationale for anyone who like me, has instinctive misgivings over the application of commercial principles to areas of life where they don’t seem appropriate. They can be summed up as follows:

  1. Intrinsic nature of the ‘commodity’.
  2. The Fairness Principle
  3. The Corruption Argument
  4. The Crowding Effect

The intrinsic nature of the commodity.

There are some qualities in life which naturally resist commercialisation. For example, the essential nature of friendship is altruistic and voluntary, not contingent on financial gain. It is possible to purchase the services of someone who will act in all the ways that a personal friend would, but the presence of a payment corrupts the substance of the relationship. Applying the price mechanism to such activities diminishes them, not the converse.

Education is similar: it too is not a commodity but a quality; not mass-replicable, but unique in each person’s experience. Setting targets for its acquisition, character, delivery and application deny the essential nature of the matter and risk narrowing how and why it is experienced.

The Fairness Principle.

Economics argues that the market is the most efficient way of reconciling supply and demand; Sandel counters that demand cannot be fully expressed through the price mechanism. The willingness to pay is an expression not only of the desire but also the ability to pay – and people do not have this equally, for reasons not always within their control; those who cannot pay are disenfranchised. People who pay premium prices may not be expressing the strongest demand or greatest appreciation, but simply the ability their wealth confers for casual trophy-hunting.  Those who pay to by-pass queues may not be expressing the greatest need, but simply their disdain for social justice.

Sandel argues that fairness is an essential societal construct, which explains why people feel outrage towards those who, for example buy access to politicians, or who engage in other nepotistic behaviour. One might observe this in the way rising property prices within the catchments of popular schools exclude those on lower incomes, thus restricting fair access to what is presented as a universal entitlement – let alone the deceit some will resort to in order to secure a place.

First come first served – or even, dare I say, selection on the grounds of exceptional aptitude – is arguably a fairer way to allocate scarce resources than recourse to the depth of people’s pockets.

The Corruption Argument.

Market principles argue that people should be able to buy and sell anything so long as it does not violate the interests of others. But the corruption argument questions the genuine free will of those who sell things such as their bodily organs, against their own deeper interests. Thus the market can operate counter to human wellbeing, and it tends to discriminate against those with lesser means and fewer choices. Education should not endorse this.

Furthermore, putting a price on priceless things (such as education) changes their nature, and with it the way people value them. Paying for private access to politicians, for example, corrupts the nature of (supposed) democracy; paying for kidneys changes the way people regard their bodies. Sandel argues that this is morally wrong, even in a secular sense, as it inequitably redistributes human wellbeing.

Worst of all, the application of price changes incentives – for example, paying people for hitherto selfless acts alters their motives. Sometimes it even results in less action; for example, paying people to donate blood has been shown to reduce the amount given as people feel their altruism has been corrupted.

Similarly, paying pupils and teachers by results subverts their motives, and in the case of teachers divides their loyalties; just about any other incentive given to teachers to ‘perform’ will compromise their integrity in some way. Furthermore, incentives do not always achieve the desired outcome: the market in carbon offsets does not inevitably change the amount of pollution, simply its source – and there is little evidence that payment significantly boosts exam results.

Compromising the altruism of teachers may have serious effects. Applying market principles to education risks valuing the marketable trappings of education (exam grades) over the more elusive cerebral qualities, which cannot be priced. And the more this happens, the more people will concentrate on the tradable facsimiles at the expense of the real thing.

The crowding principle.

Very simply, given its chance, selfish behaviour can easily displace other more socially desirable motives and actions. I would argue that the self-interest/self-protection instinct created by the regime of inspection, quantification and accountability has crowded out the time-honoured, altruistic principles of teaching.

Sandel argues that while moral arguments remain hard to substantiate, it is inescapable that flourishing human life does depend on attributes such as health, friendship, wisdom and trust that are impossible to price. In fact, applying a price simply dissolves their benefit. He argues that this is a fundamental human experience, which is governed by ethical principles, not economic ones.

I suspect that the greatest objection is to the unprincipled acquisition and (ab)use of wealth, rather than wealth itself. But applying the price mechanism more widely just makes its unscrupulous use all the easier, and in areas where the consequences may be more malign. Sandel’s book explains why I recoil from directives that push education further in an economised direction: they taint the honest principles of this vocation – and with it my own professional ethic.

F is for Fun – but also False and Farce

I spent two hours earlier this evening in a web seminar delivered by one of the major exam boards, whose specification my department is thinking of adopting. The session was ostensibly about teaching outstanding lessons; it served to remind me just how polarised the profession still is. The session began with a reference to Ofsted’s guidance that there is no preferred teaching style, though this was not drawn from the latest statements regarding the acceptability of formal teaching, teacher exposition and ‘passive’ learning.

There followed an undiluted diet of progressive methodology, including the view that 14-16 geography can be taught through baking cakes, carving jelly and playing in sand trays. The emphasis at all times was on Fun, learning through play, and ‘learning without even realising it’. There was quite a lot about moving bits of card around and making models. Peer assessment featured quite strongly as it is important to give learners ownership of the process – even if it is the teachers who are the subject experts. There was nothing about promoting inherent subject interest, but a lot about how to ‘snag’ pupils via lesson starter gimmicks such as using pop songs to define a topic. (Hint: not all teachers – or pupils – should be assumed to value or know about pop music, let alone whether it needs further endorsement in the classroom).

Assessment for Learning also featured strongly, with no apparent awareness that this too has come under sharp criticism from some quarters. The overall message was explicit: “This is what Ofsted wants to see in outstanding lessons” – even though this is patently no longer true.

I’m not going to criticise the teacher who delivered the session: in a free world we would all be at liberty to choose the methods that worked best for us. His own school would appear to be very successful, and its take-up rates for his subject higher than ours. Quite what to make of this last point, I don’t know – unless it is that a lot of pupils like playing with Play-Dough, or they actually do a lot of more formal teaching alongside. (They did mention doing past-question practice, though whether this constitutes learning as opposed to exam drilling is a moot point in my mind). What we were presented with did not, in my own mind, amount to a rigorous approach to developing older pupils’ intellects and preparedness for higher study.

However, one teacher’s personal preferences are one thing, and wheeling them out under the official auspices of an exam board is another. The message that came across was clearly that this exam board considers its course should be taught by progressive methods – and by extension was perhaps prepared with them in mind. There was not even passing recognition that there clearly exists (at least) a large minority of teachers that still prefers more traditional methods, and that there is a strong intellectual case being made for their validity. For example, there was no awareness shown that many progressive activities simply divert pupils’ attention away from the content towards the transient process of what they are doing.

I ended up feeling extremely disenfranchised by the experience, and left wondering whether we are doing the right thing to adopt a specification that takes such an unbalanced approach. It would seem that this Board has yet to incorporate the latest views from the inspectorate its training, and accommodate the rehabilitated traditional wing of the profession.

For all the high-profile blogs by various traditionalists, the progressive wing still commands the majority of our institutions and does not seem to think that it even needs to make passing acknowledgement that there are those who do not subscribe to this sort of orthodoxy.

Over-professionalised or over-hopeful?

Yesterday evening I spent an exhilarating ninety minutes at a public lecture debating the track record of the coalition government, and the prospects for what might emerge after the General Election in May. I particularly wanted to hear Anthony King, one of the U.K.’s top political commentators, who is Professor of Government at the University of Essex. He (and the other panellists) did not disappoint, and I was particularly struck by the widespread acceptance that politics has become detached from everyday life in the U.K.

One of King’s lines of critique was that while the enduring stability of the British political system may in itself be creditable, the enduring instability of policy that has emerged in recent decades most certainly is not. He argued that many comparable European countries operate a much more consensual system, with a resultant continuity of policy, thus avoiding the perpetual and sometimes destructive policy shifts seen in the U.K. This is indeed my experience too.

I was pleased to note that the panel agreed with my suggestion that the professionalisation of the politics is partly to blame for this, with many politicians having little experience outside the Westminster Village, and also potentially falling prey to the conflicting interests of party career and democratic duty. (This was dramatically driven home to me some years ago in the days when I organised  politics days for sixth formers, by one invited speaker spending most of his allocated time expounding not the principles of democracy, but the benefits of politics as a career…)

If they are to learn this lesson, the politicians could well start with Education. I expect there are few teachers who would disagree that political interference of all sorts has been a major destabilising force in recent decades. This is not only because of the incessant policy shifts regarding the delivery of education but also what they have asked of the teaching profession too.

Many of the forces that have turned teaching from a social profession into a form of technical instruction have originated from the political classes, and have paralleled the changes seen in politics itself, from honourable calling to personal career choice. But the teaching profession itself is not blameless in this either, as many parts of it seem to have colluded willingly in the drive to send teaching in this direction, one perhaps driven as much by personal ambition and power-politics as a desire to do the right thing for young people.

Just as in politics, education professionals can now face a conflict between interests of career and duty – and it is by no means clear to me that the latter has always won out. In fact, just as stellar political careers may be deeply incompatible with the proper working of democracy, I would suggest that stellar educational careers may actually have very little to do with educating children.

Politicians could also well learn the lesson that excessive demanding of accountability causes more distortions than it solves – and so should education leaders. In my view, teaching has always been a profession – but not necessarily in the modern sense that seeks to demonstrate its credentials through closed technical procedures, stringent and misleading ‘accountability’, high-profile careers or large salaries. It may be wiser to accept that leaving classroom judgement to teachers is sensible and not just a cop-out for the incompetent. And for all the noble talk, there remains one thing that no senior manager has ever sacrificed to stay near the pupils: their career.

This week has also brought a couple of glimmers of hope: one was the fact that the politicians on the panel were prepared openly to concede that there is a problem, even if they aren’t yet sure how to address it – and the other was the fact that I was presented, during a CPD session, with an article from The Times by Adrian Furnham extolling the virtues of the teacher who is driven by an intrinsic wish to educate rather than an institutional obsession with exam results. That such articles (albeit some years old) are even being written is perhaps a sign of hope, and more important was the fact that it emanated, at school, from a source that has been a major proponent of technocracy, and which might not have entertained such ‘woolly’ views but a short time ago.

The buzz from the audience in yesterday’s lecture also suggested one thing: when people are being given genuine brain food, there is no need for spurious exit polls or progress indicators in order to know as much. Good learning ‘Just is’. We need to let it breathe.

If people are beginning to realise as much, then maybe things are indeed just about to get better…