A fair crack at the whip.

One Friday in November 2016, I left my classroom – and never went back. The mental health consequences of working in a stressful profession for three decades had finally caught up with me. They were a combination of the specific conditions at the very demanding (but increasingly misguided) school where I worked, and my growing sense that education more generally was moving in a direction that I could no longer reconcile myself with.

In November 2019, I was asked to fill an urgently-needed supply post at a different institution – this time a sixth form college – and I found myself, rather unexpectedly back in front of a class. I greatly enjoyed the experience, and since January I have been working part-time in a different department of the same college, covering long-term staff absence with a contract that will last a few more months.

I didn’t expect to find the profession had changed very much in those three years. But I increasingly sense that it has. While the different context makes direct comparisons difficult, my having tuned more widely back into teacher-talk is leaving me with a similar impression.

I should say immediately that what follows is no criticism whatsoever of the college where I have been working. I am extremely grateful for their having offered me a manageable way back into work, and the fact that they are continuing to employ me even over the current closures. It has been a pleasure to work in a place that values its employees in a way that my last one manifestly didn’t, and not to have to go to work worrying about hidden agendas.

But renewed exposure to the profession is increasingly suggesting that there have been further moves in a direction that gave rise to my previous misgivings. Education seems to have (been?) moved even further down the route of narrowly concerning itself solely with what happens in exams. In the process, the ability of individual teachers to provide creative, thoughtful and (hopefully) inspirational teaching seems to have been eroded still further.

I’m the kind of teacher whose main resources are his own brain, his character, and dare I say, his own eloquence. For me, teaching is akin to acting, not being a lab technician. To be able to function at my best with students, I need the freedom to think, create and interact with students in ways peculiar to me. Without it, I become little more than a human tape-recording. Rigid systematisation is all very well – but such constraints actually prevent the inspirational teaching that the system asks me to deliver. I have enough years in various classrooms to be certain about this – and recent experience is proving no different.

I suspect that this is a consequence of the Gove-led changes, which were only just starting to take effect in 2016. It seems that the changes in content and pitch have led to teachers becoming even more obsessed with what their students will encounter in the exam room. There also seems to have been a discernible quickening of the pace at which it is necessary to move through the curriculum, and a consequent increase in anxiety amongst teachers leading them to jettison anything that might appear not to be of direct use in an exam.

This worries me. It means that depth has been further sacrificed. It worries me even more that those in the profession seem not to have noticed. Or perhaps they just don’t share my misgivings. I read recently that education is not the meeting of fairly constant human intellectual and societal needs that I have always believed – but is instead a valueless, ceaselessly-evolving phenomenon which mutates in the way it conditions individuals for whatever is the prevailing socioeconomic climate of the time. In other words, it is reactive rather than formative, coercive rather than liberating.

This makes sense: as someone in his mid-fifties, I can hardly deny that my own education took place in a different era. It also explains why many of my younger colleagues and friends seem not to have the issues with the marketisation of society that I do, or to even notice what I tend to regard as its manifest failures. It also explains why the same phenomenon seems to prevail within the education profession: I am aware that my reservations seem not to be shared (at least publicly) by very many in the younger two-thirds of the profession. The obvious explanation is simply that they have grown up in a different era, more acclimatised to current norms and expectations. Maybe it really is nothing more than an illustration that I am getting longer in the tooth, than I care to admit.

But I don’t think so. Being adapted to a certain climate is no guarantee that it is actually benign.

I’ve been reading Seneca. The most striking thing about reading a 2000-year-old author is the similarities in the fundamental concerns of life then and now. In many ways, basic human need has not changed very much – and consequently neither, I suspect, has the need for an educated mind with which to tackle life’s difficulties and uncertainties – and whose success in doing so provides an equally enduring reward through a “well-lived life”.

Seneca counselled an approach to life that would serve us very well at the present moment. Yet modern education is moving further and further away from educating the “whole person”. It has become just another systematised production-line: good at maximising output, but lousy at quality control.

While it is of course important that every single young person gets a fair crack at the whip, that importance diminishes if the whip itself actually isn’t really very worth having. No amount of standardised, conveyor-belt education can ever attend adequately to the needs of distinctly un-standardised individuals. Those whom it attends to least are, as usual, those who arguably need it most. Neither is the answer to make the individuals more standardised.

Never has it struck me more forcefully than now, how essential real education is. Society’s responses first to Brexit and now to the coronavirus are symptomatic of a nation that simply lacks the widespread personal-intellectual maturity and resilience to cope with adversity.

That is a failure, amongst other things, of its long-term educational approach. We have created a society that is so deafened by the noise of trivial distractions that we have not bothered to develop the internal grit – strength of personality and character – to cope when it stops, and we are forced to fall back on the void where our own personal resources should be.

Many seem to be afraid of how they will cope when they no longer have endless working hours to fill their lives, to help them avoid having to stop and contemplate anything more fundamental – like how to address our own mortality, or the fragility of modern society. They seem to lack the intellectual horsepower that might help them get a grip on the real nature and scale of the current problems – and deal with them in a thoughtful, considered and resilient way.

A local acquaintance told me about his (adult) daughter – who goes out every night to some kind of event. They have all stopped; her comment was, “My life is over”. My response, had I met her in person, would have been, “No: it has just begun”. I tried the same approach, with varying success, with my students in the week before the college closed: “Now is precisely the time when you have an unprecedented opportunity to find out more about yourself, and what you are capable of when all the scaffolding is taken away”.

What it boils down to in the final reckoning is a system that does not know how to stop consuming. In a very real sense, education is just being consumed in exactly the same way as everything else: superficially, at top speed – and then discarded, without ever a chance to savour, and learn from, the quality of what really does not benefit from rushing so giddily past.

This is what concerns me about the headlong rush to cover exam syllabuses: at what point do students ever have the chance to stop and ponder the implications and deeper meaning of what they are encountering? How are they ever supposed to gain in wisdom from their studies if they are whip-cracked ever onwards, the whole thing just merging into an indistinct blur whose only purpose is to be just sufficiently organised that it can be regurgitated in an exam?

It is incredibly difficult to buck this trend, not least because it is now the prime determinant of what people expect education itself to be like. That goes for the teachers as well as the students. I have tried hard to enhance my new students’ lessons, in order that they could understand and appreciate the significance of what we are covering, rather than just fill pages with notes that do nothing more than scratch the surface.

It is, however, difficult to persuade them that this is worth doing, as it seems to be something they haven’t encountered before. It is almost as hard to convince colleagues that it is worth disrupting the hell-for-leather teaching schedules for, too. It is hard to persuade them that occasionally going a little off-piste for the sake of contextualising and enriching learning may be entirely productive even in the narrow, exam-specific sense. There is value – where one judges it appropriate – in going beyond what the exam board says we should know. Especially when the dividend is better learning – and wiser people.

There is so much more to education than skimming an exam specification. And so much more to teaching. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should abandon exams and formal syllabuses in favour of a 100% curriculum of fuzzy navel-gazing. But there is an art to getting people to think that is beyond “being lost”; in my experience, it is already widely lost. We are in a situation where education consists – and can consist – of sitting in a room going through the motions, without any real thinking going on at all. Just as long as sufficient is remembered to get through the exam. It’s not really the teachers’ fault, nor the institutions’. This is what, via the democratic process, ‘the nation’ decided it wanted its education system to become.

As a result, we are perhaps in the final throes of an education system that no longer knows why it really exists, except to perpetuate its own conveyor belt-like existence churning out more false certainties to people left too incurious ever to discover better. And to distract from the really big issues they need to be thinking and learning about. That art resides in allowing teachers to be more than mere technicians: to draw on their own intelligence, wisdom and above all humanity, in the interests of drawing the same qualities out of their pupils.

That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all: in these most pressing of times, the one force within human society that has the potential to help people to cope – education – has, to my mind failed to prepare them adequately for the enduring challenges of existing and surviving – let alone thriving – on this planet. It was too busy meeting targets. In the interests of preparing people to be compliant workers and consumers, it failed in its duty to encourage them to become complete humans. And faced with the last-chance saloon for doing so, it is still so busy listening to its own trivial internal chatter that rather than looking hard at what it could be doing right now, it is just busy churning out even more of the same. Fiddling like Nero. Meeting targets. In overdrive.

Holding this belief central to my own practice, I have seen all over again why my own sense of purpose went into meltdown those years ago. I simply cannot spend an hour in a classroom with young people and come out feeling they have done nothing more than learn how to jump through a few new hoops, but are otherwise none the wiser.

I feel that the way people are responding to the present wider emergencies is vindicating me.

Guest post: ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ or How to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine – Part 1

Stress seems to be a problem that is everywhere these days. Its implications for individuals are widely appreciated, but perhaps less well-understood. In this guest post, Adam Bantick discusses the causes of exam stress, and in part 2 he will examine strategies for addressing it.

He would like to hear the thoughts and experiences of others on this subject and can be reached via the comments column.

Adam teaches History at Colchester Sixth Form College.

We all know that exams are stressful, and so if we can find ways to overcome these stresses, then we should be able to train our students to become better at exams. A frequent comment from those tasked with dealing with the stress of life-or-death situations, from the police to the armed forces, is that ‘and then my training kicked in’. This article aims to explain what Exam Stress is, how it can be dealt with, and how to train our students to become Exam Machines. Part 1 explains what Exam Stress is, and Part 2 explains how to deal with it.

The problem is that exams are stressful situations, and the human body reacts to stressful situations in particular ways. Although much has been written about students feeling stressed before exams, and how teachers can help their students to deal with these stresses, these are mostly about mental health or a ‘how to revise’ strategy. Little has been written about what actually happens during an exam and how these stresses impact on student performance. Sometimes students remember enough to tell us afterwards, but other times they appear shell-shocked and unable to remember anything about the exam.

We need to understand what exams are, as well as what happens when we take them. Exams can be defined as time-limited, high stakes (pass/ fail/ graded), and taken solo. For these reasons, they are usually stressful – which manifests itself in a number of ways such as feeling sick, sweaty palms, needing the toilet, being thirsty, unable to concentrate, unable to remember…

Our brains have evolved to deal with stressful situations, but with the consequences listed above. A simplified explanation (Horvath and Lodge 2016), is that the brain has three parts which interact together. The Hypothalamus bridges the emotions and physical senses, and connects to the endocrine system controlling the flow of hormones in the body.

The Hippocampus stores information, and is very important for learning and retrieval of facts and concepts. The Pre-Frontal Cortex is the rational part of the brain. It includes Working Memory (holding and using information in the brain), Impulse Control (controlling outward physical behaviour), and Decision Making (choosing which response to give).

When a Threat is identified, two kinds of thinking are used, depending on the threat level. If a Mild Threat is encountered e.g. crossing a busy road, the brain uses Cold Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be low. The Hypothalamus produces small amounts of stress hormones, but the Hippocampus and Pre-Frontal Cortex operate as normal. If a Serious Threat is encountered e.g. driving test, the brain uses Hot Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be high. The Hypothalamus floods the body with the stress hormones Cortisol and Norepinephrine. Cortisol in the Hippocampus stops the neurons in the brain from communicating with each other, stopping memory retrieval. Norepinephrine in the Pre-Frontal Cortex prevents the neurons from working together, and affecting the ability to speak, write etc. The brain is shutting down non-essential functions in order to meet the Serious Threat. The Cold Cognition-driven Pre-Frontal Cortex has been supplanted by the Hot Cognition-driven Hypothalamus, affecting the ability to think straight, recall information, and write it down accurately – thus, poor exam performance.

The effects of Cognitive Stress are widely known, with most people familiar with the idea of ‘Fight or Flight’, where we either physically deal with the Serious Threat or run for our lives from it. As fighting a battle is about as stressful as it gets, soldiers have to confront this situation in their day jobs.

Military psychologist Leo Murray (‘Brains and Bullets’ 2013) identified not just Fight or Flight, but two other conditions as well – the ‘Four F’s’. Fight is where the body prepares for a physical encounter by using adrenaline to prime the muscles for action, by giving the feeling of extra strength and damping pain by narrowing blood vessels. Flight is where the adrenaline prepares the muscles to flee. In both cases, the body shuts down non-essential functions, such as food digestion, by re-directing blood flow to essential organs such as the lungs – sufferers feel ‘butterflies’ or nausea in their stomachs. Freeze is where the brain cannot decide whether to fight or flee, and sufferers are ‘caught like a rabbit in the headlights’, and do nothing – often appearing zombiefied. Fussing is where the brain moves on from Freeze, but not enough to do anything. The sufferer will ‘fuss’ over things that are trivial but well-learnt, such as re-checking equipment that does not need checking (micro-managing).

In addition to the Four Fs, Murray also identified Thinking Straight and Seeing Straight as problems. Thinking Straight is where the brain prevents rational thinking by cutting out new information/ short-term memory, and reverting back to older, long-term memory. In Murray’s observations, sufferers would blank out new instructions and follow older plans, despite the fact that they had been told of changes to the plan. Seeing Straight is where stress produced shut-downs of perception and senses, such as blurred vision, time speeding up or slowing down, or decrease in motor-skills. Depending on the gravity of the Stress Threat we face, we all respond in some form of the Four Fs and Thinking/ Seeing Straight, and we can see how that would play out in an exam that we found particularly stressful, with faster heart rate, feeling sick, sweating, time-speeding up, inability to remember ‘known’ facts, reversion to pre-prepared answers, going blank, doodling on the paper…

As well as the ways that stress affects our thoughts and behaviour, there are other, more education/ exam focused issues for us to consider. Dave Putwain (2008) has discussed Test Anxiety and Exam Stress, although there are similarities between them. Test Anxiety can be described as the way that we feel about the idea of exams in general.

A Test Anxious person will see exams as a Serious Stress Threat. The sufferer will fear failure, and being judged by others as a failure. This fear of failure will transmit to fear for the future, where no exam passes = no job. This fear will result in a negative spiral of self-doubt and self-fulfilling prophecy, and so the sufferer will procrastinate to put off the inevitable failure. Exam Stress can be described as the way we feel about the current exam or round of exams.

The Exam Stress sufferer will face having to do lots of exams in a short space of time, exam season will impact on social life/ eating and sleeping patterns, this particular high-stakes exam fear (‘If I fail this exam I will be thrown out of 6th Form’), and judgements from peers, teachers and parents. Putwain says that Test Anxiety and Exam Stress have particular effects on individuals.

‘Catastrophising’ is where the sufferer cannot get a sense of perspective about exams, and the slightest problem is seen as a catastrophe e.g. ‘I cannot answer Question 2, so I will fail this exam, then I will not get a job and I will die in a ditch’. ‘Selective Abstraction’ is where the sufferer focuses only on the negative things, and ignores what has gone well e.g. ‘I may have done Question 1 ok, but I’ll fail Question 2’. ‘Behavioural problems’ are where the Hot Cognition problems kick in, and ‘Personalising’ is where the sufferer feels that failing exams is just another thing that they fail at in life e.g. ‘I am the most stupid person in the world’.

So far, we have discussed why exams are stressful and how they affect our performance. In Part 2 we will discuss what we can do about these stresses and even turn them to our advantage to perform better.

Stand Back!

I am a heartless ***. I must be, because I never cried or lost sleep over pupils’ exam results on their own account (although I did when some less-than-spectacular ones were weaponised professionally against me). I did not spend my entire summer holiday in fear of results day, or head to school early on that morning in order to High-Five with my pupils. Their public success did not need my validation; my job was done.

Neither did I ever feel the need to discuss my sexuality with my pupils.

Both of these issues warranted attention in The Guardian’s education pages this week. Maybe I am just too long in the tooth, but such things make me wonder whatever happened to the concept of Professional Detachment.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that teachers should be indifferent to their pupils’ successes (and failures) – but there should remain a difference between private thoughts, and what one transmits publicly. The extreme blurring of such boundaries, while simply reflecting wider modern attitudes, is really not at all helpful either to teachers as professionals, or to their pupils.

I’m in little doubt that it is me who is out of line on this: my own school had more than enough teachers who seemed to feel that their role was something between personal buddy and whole-life coach, that this did come to pervade official expectations. It was me who was the party-pooper for adopting a more reflective, proportionate stance, who saw his job as simply to sharpen his pupils’ minds. I never could see the similarities between exam results and winning the lottery.

The problems with the soppy approach are many. From a pupil’s perspective it implies that their teacher is complicit in some kind of battle that they are both conspiratorially fighting against the big, bad outside world, as represented by the Exam Paper. By taking so much on themselves, teachers actually risk creating a dependency culture – particularly, perhaps, with vulnerable pupils. Better to encourage self-reliance – and that requires both the scaffolding to exist only at a certain distance, and the ability to spot when to let someone fail. Removing failure as an option – sometimes a deserved one – does not really do people a service.

While we all know what pupils mean when they say they “couldn’t have done ‘it’ without their teacher”, to me that is actually the last thing they should be thinking. It is (or should be) about their achievement, not the teacher’s. Whatever ‘it’ is…. While in reality we are undoubtedly a significant factor in their outcomes, we should not be seeking such ownership of their successes – or their failures. We are just doing our job as kindly muses, and our responses should be calibrated accordingly.

Becoming too close to one’s pupils risks professional compromise. It is almost impossible to be equally close to the numbers of individuals that teachers encounter – so the immediate accusation is of favouritism. Being human, all teachers probably do have  favourites but in the interests of a wider fairness, this is something that should be utterly concealed from pupils. Being able to over-ride one’s personal biases is what it means to be a professional.

Becoming personally involved also risks letting children down more seriously than would adopting a more detached position. There are times when teachers have to take difficult decisions – and becoming too close to the individuals concerned risks clouding professional judgement – and there is the risk that the pupil may feel “betrayed” by a teacher who suddenly needs to step back.

A deeper message that such conspiracy sends is that pupils actually need such utterly partisan support. I suspect more really want to be helped – from a distance – to stand on their own feet. To lead children to think that they will always be surrounded by people who think the sun shines from certain parts of their anatomies is doing them a disservice. That is the job of – if anyone – their relatives (and I would argue not, inevitably, them either). The teacher’s role is to form an intermediary between home life and the indifference of the wider world: a person who will support and nurture, but also be the critical presence that is not afraid of pointing out deficiencies and encouraging the strength of character to take knocks on the chin. Not to be a surrogate wet nurse.

Of course teachers can and should feel satisfaction in their pupils’ (deserved) successes – but that is rather different from the level of partiality that now seems to be seen as necessary. We should also be able to look dispassionately at those who are less successful, feeling a philosophical regret when it was not deserved and vindication when it was. But above all, we should be able to look at such things as part and parcel of life, where our greater wisdom reminds us that things are not always “fair”, but that in many cases good can come from adversity, and that what does not kill us can make us stronger. Then we can teach our pupils the same thing.

(Behind this argument, I am of course aware that the extent to which the raising of short-term exam stakes has led to much greater ‘investment’ by teachers in their pupils’ results – but that is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It has decimated teacher’s ability to remain at a certain distance from the minutiae of their pupils’ lives and focus on the bigger developmental picture.)

 

The same edition of The Guardian included an article about whether gay teachers should come out in their schools. The mere existence of such an article to me speaks of yet more self-indulgent floppy-lippedness. I simply fail to see why, in almost any circumstance, this need even be an issue.

I had gay colleagues. I have gay friends. As far as I am aware, for the majority of my colleagues it was simply not an issue. The individuals concerned were liked and respected not for their sexuality, but for their wisdom, integrity and professionalism. One’s personal life is not, or should not be, any concern of one’s employer, at least as long as it is not compromising one’s professional standing. I cannot see that sexual orientation does that, so long as it does not influence one’s professional conduct. Part of being a professional involves ensuring that it doesn’t.

Of course there are going to be occasions when one’s personal circumstances become evident to one’s colleagues – but once again, this is where a degree of professional detachment from both parties can be helpful. The need to import intimate aspects of one’s personal life into one’s professional life is really not helpful or necessary; to do so seems to me to invite controversy. This is not the same, by the way, as not challenging real discrimination where it happens.

The Guardian’s interviewee expressed concern that her sexuality was going to prejudice her career – which it actually seemed not to have done. But I question her apparent need to introduce the issue in the first place – let alone with her pupils. A teacher’s private life (or at least potentially-sensitive aspects of it) should remain utterly out of bounds to one’s pupils, and by not enforcing this, she was in fact increasing her risks of discrimination.

I also question her desire to become a (self-appointed) role model for gay pupils. Why did she feel the need to engage in this attention-grabbing behaviour? She might better have been willing to participate in formal educational discussion of sexuality – but that is a rather different matter. Quite apart from the above-mentioned risks, it seems to me that homosexual people might object if overtly heterosexual role models were presented in schools. Taking it upon oneself to become an icon is hardly compatible with genuinely equal treatment, which should be blind to such matters. The best role model this teacher could have presented would have been to make her sexuality an utter non-issue. Deliberate flag-flying does not allow that to happen.

It also forces people to adopt dishonest positions. Inwardly,  I am somewhat uncomfortable with homosexuality – as, I suspect are many heterosexuals if the truth were known. But that discomfort evidently exists in the other direction too. I suspect that it is an instinct to shrink from whichever polarity is not one’s personal norm. I have gay friends – but once again, it is simply not an issue. They just are who they are, no different from other friends. My discomfort is purely internal, and it does not adversely affect those friendships whatsoever, indeed others have resulted from them.

This is about a form of personal detachment, which acknowledges rather than denies one’s weaknesses and imperfections – and then overrides them in the interests of a greater good. That is also the essence of professionalism.

I am by no means an advocate of the Stiff Upper Lip approach – but I really don’t see that the modern hyper-floppy one that causes people to become hopelessly, self-indulgently, squeamishly partisan about every issue, is really better. Having the fortitude not to weep over one’s pupils, or to display one’s sexuality publicly need not imply emotional coldness or callousness; it is simply the mark of a mature, wise mind that is able to calibrate its responses and take an at least partly-detached and bigger view.

It is that which teachers, above all, should be nurturing in their pupils: an ability to rise above one’s petty, transient emotions, to see the world from a wider, wiser perspective and even to accept that it requires a degree of stoicism. We need to encourage young people to see their egos in a wider context, rather than encouraging them to centre the world even more firmly on themselves, than both immaturity and modern social attitudes promote. Perpetually wearing our hearts on our sleeves is not really very helpful.

And as professionals, the place to start is with ourselves.

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.

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.