There’s a long way to go

I discovered rather late that today is World Mental Health Day.

I am not going to bang on further about my own issues, except to say that after nearly a year I finally hope to be off medication soon.

But I will describe a situation encountered perhaps two years ago.

I was present in a meeting with senior managers as the staff Health & Safety Representative. A governor was pressing for a response from the management regarding Stress Policy.

The member of the senior team responsible for personnel issues responded, “Stress is not an issue at this school. There are no teachers who are stressed except perhaps a few weak ones. We do not need a Mental Health Policy and will deal with any cases on their merits”.

Enough said.



Notes from beyond 4: Are we all together in this?

If Gaby Hinsliff is to be believed, it seems as I’m not so much on the scrap-heap as in the vanguard of a revolution against the long-hours culture. If she’s right, people are tiring of the amount of time they are being required to give to their employers. Of course, there’s more to it than that, particularly in a vocation like teaching – but it is possible that a combination of stagnant wages, the country’s ever-growing wealth disparity and the sense that those in charge really don’t care very much really is causing the blinkers to fall.

In my case, I put my all into my career for thirty years, to an extent that is really only apparent now that I have stopped. It is what we were told we should do – by people whom, it turns out were offering illusory rewards, and who were interested in no one’s benefit so much as their own.

When, as a public sector employee one was then expected to endure pay restraint in order to bail out the bad boys of the financial sector who themselves largely escaped scot-free, one might start to ponder the distinction between having a vocation and being a mug. A few years ago, I listened to my local M.P., (herself formerly a highly-paid lobbyist for the tobacco industry) answer my question by lecturing that the public sector ‘has to bear its share of austerity’. What kind of fools do they think we are?

When one then sees those who manage (but rarely teach) not only preserving their own jobs at the expense of those in the classroom, but also awarding themselves (nationally, in percentage terms) an increasing share of the education pie, the impression can only be that the same insidious greed has infected our education sector too. “We need more!” was their ceaseless call while I worked for them; at no point did they make a serious effort to examine the impact on their employees’ wellbeing, let alone life-balance. It’s easy to emotionally-blackmail teachers, and they shamelessly used it to extract more and more from people. Eventually they exploited my own ill heath to save on the salary bill.

If it is indeed true that such experiences are widespread, then Hinsliff may well be right: especially at a time of national cynicism, people may (and should) be asking themselves significant questions about what they are doing with their lives. Just why should we be expected to accept that we foot-soldiers should do ever more now that it is increasingly apparent that the main beneficiaries are only the few at the top?

The impact of living to work is serious in less obvious ways too. A few days ago I was describing my new-found involvement with my local community to a former colleague; his reaction voiced something I have long felt: “Our society is suffering from the inability of people such as teachers, who have initiative and energy, to use them for the wider good because they have been so screwed down in their workplaces”. The live-to-work culture sweeps all before it – for what?

Hinsliff claims that vast numbers of people are doing huge amounts of unpaid overtime; why should they, when they seem decreasingly likely not only to see any benefits from this, but not even not to be treated harshly should the boss deem it necessary? I can well understand if people are starting to feel that loyalty should flow in both directions.

Hinsliff’s article reports on the growing number of people who are foregoing extra income (even at relatively low levels) because they are finding that time and quality of life are more important. Perhaps the current debate about mental health issues in society wouldn’t be so urgently needed, either, if this society itself were not so effective at making people sick in the first place. That is not an over-dramatic claim: as regular readers will know, it is my own experience.

These points all echo my own thoughts, for all that my situation was enforced. In some ways it feels rather selfish to be saying, “Enough – I want more time for me!” but at least I have already done three decades of public service. It is increasingly apparent that unless you are one of the privileged (and hypocritical) few, the current model will chew you up and spit you out with not a second thought for the fact that your life is as valuable as the next.

Medication side-effects aside, I now have the time available to attend to my own personal life first, for once. And to give better attention to the relatives, friends, neighbours and community with and in which I live. My daily routine is now such that people are commenting how much better I look; the body does not lie about such things, no matter whether it is likely to compromise corporate targets or not.

And in a world where some people have too much work while others don’t have enough, it ought to be easy enough to resolve this issue – were those in charge really at all interested in doing so. As one of Hinsliff’s (teacher) interviewees says,

“People want to have a family, or they want to have a social life. They don’t want to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” Would anything persuade him to return full-time? “I think things would have to change significantly, in terms of the expectations of staff.”

The deceit has gone on long enough, but I am afraid this country is becoming more, not less hawkish in its attitude to the world as a whole; those in charge (at all levels) very often seem not to give a damn.

In which case, the only person do something about this is us, each one our self.


Crying wolf

Some days ago, I had a gentle professional disagreement with a former colleague. There is a movement to teach mental health issues in U.K. schools; I am sceptical about its value.

Unfortunately, the reaction to most problems in the U.K. (if not the wider world) is to spill more words than actions, in particular from the mouths of politicians and subsequently in classrooms. Having taught various pastoral issues in my time, I came to the view that while the intentions may be worthy, the effects of bringing such things formally into the classroom is of very limited effect.

Children may be immature human beings, but by their teenage years they are entirely capable of being or (becoming) cynical, and they tend to see efforts to direct their opinions in overt ways as unwanted moralising. This approach simply risks placing the issue on the wrong side of the difficult divide that many perceive between the ‘unreal’ world of the classroom and the events of their everyday lives; the very act of bringing something formally into a classroom seems to remove it from ‘real life’ in the eyes of many pupils. I have seen too many children earnestly discuss an issue in a lesson, only to leave and immediately perpetuate the problem; I don’t think this is a failure of the teaching so much as a quirk of human nature. The problem is, any discussion of such matters can only generalise, and this risks diminishing the fraught nature of the real experience.

As Graeme Nuttall wrote in The Hidden Lives of Learners[i], teachers only ever see a small part of children’s lives, and there is a huge professional temptation to believe that they have more influence over the rest than they actually do. Undoubtedly, raising awareness of mental health issues may have a place – but there is a difference between discussing social attitudes and the experience itself. Encouraging children not to stigmatise those with mental health issues may yield a long-term change in social attitudes – which I think is underway in any case – and helping children to understand how bullying can provoke such problems may also be helpful. I do rather suspect, though, that those most prone to becoming bullies won’t care less anyway.

As for teaching mental health itself: can such issues be ‘taught’? I think not. The purpose of education is the acquisition of a capability for structured thought; the problem with mental health is that is does not obey such rules. Attempting to teach people self-diagnosis may again be worthy, but I think it is misguided and even potentially dangerous. Even as an aware and thoughtful adult, I failed to recognise my own difficulties for what they were, and I am not convinced that more ‘awareness’ would have made any difference. (After all, I have worked in a psychiatric hospital in the past, and am well aware of what mental illness looks like from the outside). It may be dangerous in the sense of encouraging children to ‘cry wolf’ with all the behavioural and support difficulties that can cause, amongst which genuine cases may get lost.

As for teaching people what mental illness is like, this is utterly misguided. I’m not sure it is even possible to teach what physical illness is like, except in a clinical sense, and that may not be of great use for those coping with it. Having now been on the ‘inside’, I simply do not see how a teacher could begin to describe what it is like to be the one inside that head. Even with insider experience, I am not certain I could do it either: most of the experience either literally defies words, or is so irrational as to make no sense when described.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to give something a slick ‘rebranding’ than actually do something fundamental about a problem. I saw this writ large having been involved with the Healthy Schools initiative, where many people spent expensive time ticking boxes and gaining accreditations – that still made precious little difference to what went in children’s mouths.

I fear the same will occur here – but from the perspective of those in charge, the requisite boxes will have been ticked even if little really changes.

What would be far more successful would be to lead by example. As I said, actions speak louder than words; there is evidence that even infants are more influenced by what they see than anything else[ii]. The best way to influence what children eat is to set them a good example; the same goes for any other aspect of behaviour, even if the occasional other intervention may also be necessary.

The best way to tackle the growth in reported mental health issues is to stop causing them (and in that applies to the teachers’ experiences too). The irony of this seems to have gone largely unnoticed: from my experience the biggest single cause of stress in schools is the over-inflated stakes that the results-obsessed education system itself imposes on its employees and clientele alike. The politicians’ recent pronouncements have been strikingly short of comment on this, let alone teacher mental health, even in the sense it might have a knock-on effect to their pupils.

The system caused the problems; it now feels that it needs to address them. It could start by aiming the water at the flame rather than the smoke.





Another one bites the dust

So that’s it. I am told that today is officially my last day of paid employment as a teacher, at least for the time being. Although the paperwork has not come through yet, I must mark the day in some way. I was 23, not long out of university when I joined the school; now I’m just a few years off retirement. Sixty percent of my life spent with teaching as (time-wise at least) the dominant waking activity. I now join the growing ranks of EX-teachers: how many more can the system afford?

Many people comment about how stressful it must be working with kids. They assume that is what did for my health. It wasn’t; it was the continual fight with The System to keep the job sensible. We are paid to deal with immature people, and they are mostly manageable – but not so an immature education System. In the end it was the ‘friendly’ fire that did for me, from a system that would apparently rather have no teachers at all, than ones that know their own minds and who adhere to their own sincere and justifiable principles.

I tried to interpret Teaching in a liberal, humane sense. I have no issue whatsoever with intellectual or personal rigour – but I cannot accept that that means nothing more than a Sisyphean chasing of targets. I note a husband-and-wife couple who managed a very successful primary school have recently decided the same thing.

Education is ultimately about developing human beings, not robots, communities not corporations – and it requires a wide perspective on what it is to be human to do that. I believe I have that perspective and I developed my skills to match; in its wisdom, the system has decided it can live without them.

There is not much more to be said. I did my best.

I have no plans to close this blog for the time being; it is possible that in due course it will morph into something wider – but my observations will inevitably be coloured by my new remove from daily life in the classroom. It seems like an appropriate point to thank my growing number of ‘followers’ for their interest and supportive comments, especially over the past five months. Keep watching this space!

Stiff Upper Lip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Point

So I must now add myself to the list of those whose mental (and physical) health has been adversely affected by their work. To be fair, there were other pressures too, but the advice being received is that long-term stress in the workplace is probably the root cause.

In the way of these things, recent encounters have revealed that several neighbours and acquaintances have had similar experiences, all except one of whom worked in the public sector. I have also heard of several others who have got out because the demands were just too much. In my own case, I don’t yet feel capable of making a rational decision about the way forward.

There will always be difficult work to be done in society, and we should be thankful that there are people prepared to do it. But it seems that in between the One Percent at one extreme, and the Just-About-Managings at the other, there is a significant number of people in public service whose own welfare is being damaged by a system that has little regard for the impact of its demands.

They are the ones coping with the consequences of both Austerity and increasing demands from public and politicians for ever longer hours and better service. It is all very well ‘demanding’ world-class services, but it is not acceptable that they should come on the cheap and at the deep expense of those who do their best to deliver them. One has to be realistic about what is possible.

It needs to be understood that “breaking point” is not mere hyperbole.


Head in the Cloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grammar Schools for All!”

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle.

I’ve taken some flak over the past weeks for my defence of selective education – though to balance the record, there has been quite a lot of support too. Politically speaking the matter seems to have gone quiet again – I suspect May has other matters on her mind, but just possibly she is beginning to realise the scale of the opposition she faces.

If the latter is true, she will have regrettably squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a grownup debate about the fundamentals of the education system in this country. Still, I suppose that is just par for the course when one considers the level of discussion on other pressing matters in recent times. Once again, however, the casualty will have been the state of the nation in a country where far too much is still determined on intellectually weak grounds such as prejudice, vested interest and historical precedent.

My own position has perhaps shifted a little during the past few weeks, in particular as a result of reading some of the (unfavourable) findings of international research on the impact of selective education. I would repeat however that the fact I was prepared to entertain the argument did not mean I fully endorsed it. I will leave readers to decide whether that makes me educated or not!

Neither does it mean that I have executed a neat U-turn. What it does show is that the debate is both complex and multi-faceted, and far too complicated to be reduced to a simple black-or-white false dichotomy. I concede the potential price of badly-executed selection but argue that this does not mean that what I prefer to conceive of as ‘specialised’ educational provision is inherently a bad idea. This is the debate that will probably never now happen.

Instinctively, I believe that schools should perform a role of social integration, and that implies being non-selective. What concerns me, however, is the reality of the situation, which I increasingly perceive to be the cultural and perhaps academic debasement of the education system, such that most rather than some are now deprived of the riches that the best of it used to deliver. My impression is that it is now left to a rump of the education system, much of it fee-paying, to sustain the highest levels of culture, intellect and general talent in our country – and that is more rather than less divisive when it comes to opportunity.

The rallying-cry of the early proponents of comprehensives was ‘grammar schools for all’, and on the surface it is hard to object to the sentiment. But as I argued in previous posts, this is based on the assumption that ‘all’ even want, let alone would cope with, a grammar-school style education. Quite frankly, many of the children I teach would probably founder under such a regime, and would in all likelihood detest it as well. I can see no reason why less academic children should be forced through a schooling that they actively dislike because it does not meet their needs, any more than academic ones – but that is what arguably happens nowadays anyway, since academic success has become the benchmark against which all are judged. I really don’t blame the disaffected ones for resenting being put through a system in which they feel they can only ever lose. For that is the harsh reality, whatever the growth mindset might claim.

But the consequence is that their disaffection – or at least the need of schools to try to counter it through the culture and methods they employ – still comes to dominate the character of many schools, both through their implicit needs, and more visibly through their behaviours. Regrettably, it seems to me that one of the markers of lesser intelligence is an inability to empathise with the needs of others; the disaffected or unruly are not about to shut up for the sake of the boffins in their midst. And it is still this dilemma that informs my support for finding a different solution – for the good of all concerned.

‘Grammar schools for all’ might be a noble ideal – but in reality this has simply not come to pass. If this sentiment really meant what it appears, then those of us who experienced grammar schools, who still endorse and hopefully embody their values and cultures, and whose teaching style derives from them, would be embraced by those who wished to spread such opportunities to all.

Instead, I – perhaps we – have spent a career being forced to deny my provenance and cultural-academic values, and to change my techniques to accommodate those whom it was claimed would not cope with them. Education more widely has been moved away from the cultural jewel that it (partly) was, towards a form of mass entertainment-cum-employment training. This means that the educational opportunities available have effectively become limited by the inability of some to cope with them, and that is no more ‘democratic’ than the converse.

It is probably a pragmatically sensible position under the circumstances – but grammar schools for all it most certainly is not.

Quality will out – part 2

Much was made recently about the fact that so many of our Olympic successes were independently educated. The implication, as always, was that this shows the lack of wider opportunity in our country. Maybe there are many other potential medal-winners out there – but a little-discussed possibility is that if those people had not had the kind of education they did, they might not have been successes either. If you attribute so much influence to schooling, you cannot avoid this argument.

The blogger Muggedbyreality made an excellent point recently, which took my own thinking further:

“…to create a strong, flourishing academic culture in a school or a subject department or a class requires a disproportionate, perhaps excessive number of persons of an ‘academic’ inclination.

…An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.”

This is my experience entirely. Whatever the arguments about selection, it seems to me that the effect of comprehensive schools has been to level people to the middle. The most probable outcome when a wide range of individuals is put through a common mould, is that there will be a tendency to a mid-point norm. This may well provide uplift at the bottom – but it comes at the expense of the greatest development of the most talented. In 1980, when I entered the sixth form, my grammar was turned into a sixth form college; its character changed almost overnight. No doubt some would argue that this was a good thing – but it was very clear to those who knew it before, that the academic ethos was instantly diluted by the simple arrival and behaviour of many who did not share that outlook.

This is precisely what I feel has happened to the U.K. over the past several decades. For all that diversity is supposedly celebrated, the common culture of this country has become ever more centred around the middle to low brow. Many educated people now have tastes and preferences no different from the less thoughtful mainstream. It has almost become a point of embarrassment to admit to anything more. I am not saying that they should not participate in that culture – but the number who also retain a diverse perspective, and who have the capacity to supplement their diet of soaps, celebrity and shopping with more demanding interests and activities, seems to have shrunk. And that is without the perceived intolerant eccentrics like me who would prefer their own diet to remain entirely unpolluted with junk. In other words, the pursuit and appreciation of challenging (but rewarding) high quality seems largely to have been lost, except perhaps when it only requires the flex of a credit card. And with it have been devalued the common cultural norms and values of the entire nation. I place part of the responsibility for that at the door of the education system.

I probably appear hugely intolerant here, but I want to make a point. A nation comprises vast numbers of people, all with their own world-view and preferences. But that nation’s collective civil and cultural life is the sum of all its parts, and perhaps more than that. If there are few willing or able to uphold the more exacting end of the spectrum, the whole suffers as a result. If no one is prepared to be intransigent in the name of high quality, then it will simply disappear.

The casualty is then the collective standard of culture, thought, discourse, innovation and achievement of the nation. I would argue there is enough evidence to suggest that those things have declined in Britain, at least to claim that education has failed to act as a brake on other destructive pressures. I realise that there are very many wider factors that are influencing such trends – but my point is that at least for some, education ought to be providing a counter-balance to the mind-rot, and in the majority of the non-selective sector, I strongly suspect that it is not.

In the meantime, those who do still worry about these things perhaps perceive their last refuge to be in the remaining grammar schools – or the fee-paying sector.

In terms of the general health of a country’s society, culture and wider welfare – to say nothing of individual preferences – I find it hard to accept that it is in the collective interest for the brightest and best not to be developed as far as they can be, for the sake of a rather low-grade equality. This is certainly not the approach that I see a number of our (rather more successful) neighbouring countries taking.

However, this is not in itself an argument for selection; in an ideal world, such aspirations would indeed be achievable universally. But the reality is that this does not happen; people are too diverse to be catered for so specifically all under one roof. Academic divisiveness is a distraction: the real issue ought to be whether specialised institutions of all sorts could achieve a broader but higher-quality education for more people than the current one-size-fits-all approach. Likewise, the mechanism for selection is nothing more than another distraction. I suspect that selection’s opponents well know it.

As Muggedbyreality says, it takes a surprisingly  large number of like-minded people to create a culture. I suspect that s/he is right: I work in a school that has a significantly positively-skewed ability range. I encounter lots of clever children – but very few who are academic. There are some – but nowhere near enough to influence the whole. This is not surprising, since they come in many cases from not especially academic backgrounds, and in any case, in most populations, I suspect the numbers of parents wishing or able to project such values is small. Institutional culture and values are things that schools have to instil – and in my experience, very few comprehensives successfully do so in academic terms, even where they claim otherwise.  Again there are too many reasons for this to discuss here, though my scrawling over the past three years has covered many.

In some ways, comprehensive education has indeed been the leveller that its proponents wanted. The trouble is, it had no alternative but to level as many down as up. I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind –at least I hope it isn’t. The idea of grammar (i.e. academic) schools for all is a practical non-starter. Too many people simply do not set sufficient store by high intellectual quality ever to attain the necessary critical mass. I should add that exactly the same claim could be made with respect to schools of technical excellence, and other specialist needs.

This is the blind spot of those who oppose selection: it is not (principally) a matter of securing ‘unfair’ advantage; it is a matter of perceived cultural quality. For the most resolute of selection opponents, the principal purpose of education is social engineering; they often see teachers as class warriors. I’m not suggesting that tackling disadvantage is unimportant, but shift to a different paradigm, and the argument shifts too.

Whether the reality of selection matches that perception is almost immaterial, though my memories of both grammar school and local independents are indeed ones of integrity. As a grammar school pupil, I only visited secondary moderns a couple of times, but their different ‘feel’ has stayed with me. It was not a matter of superiority, but it was definitely different. In cultural terms, I am afraid that comprehensives are more like ‘secondary moderns for all’ than grammar schools, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Neither is this even a matter of ability, so much as attitude. The problem stems not so much from the weak-but-willing, as the indifferent and the disaffected. Putting everyone together solves nothing; the lowest common denominator tends to prevail – and if it doesn’t, those who cannot meet the standards and norms risk feeling all the more excluded.

And this does not only apply to pupils: I increasingly feel that some of my professional tribulations over the years have come from working in a culture to which I am not entirely suited, and much of my more dubious workload has actually been generated as schools battle to control the problems and tensions inherent within the comprehensive system. I chose to express my faith in that system by working in it notwithstanding the personal cost – but were I to choose now, with the benefit of hindsight I would make a different decision. There are plenty of teachers who thrive in the comprehensive setting – but there are those like me, as with pupils, who can do their best work somewhere else. To ignore their needs is no more acceptable than to do the same to any other group.

David Willets, the former trade minister, writing in Prospect magazine says research shows that non-graduate incomes are higher in areas where there are lots of high-calibre graduates than elsewhere. That spreads opportunity – but it is not necessarily an argument for making everyone a graduate. High quality has a more widely beneficial impact by raising norms.

The fact that some people insist on high quality, and will go out of their way in order to secure it is both their reasonable right, and in fact of benefit to more than themselves. In cultural terms, their effect permeates to the standards of wider society. If one eliminates such people from the wider mix on the grounds that not everyone wishes to emulate them, the effect on the whole is disproportionately large. On the other hand, distributing them widely but thinly removes the critical mass necessary to sustain them. The same applies in education, whether we are considering the needs of the academic minority or any other.

Is this really such a desirable template for a thriving modern society?


Theresa May has done us a favour. I think it is high time that educational paradigms are discussed again: all the tweaking and meddling of the past decades have made for a complex muddle, and is perhaps an acknowledgement that the current system is still not providing as well as it might.

That is not the same as taking sides on the Grammar Schools issue. But the assumption by some/many of the pro-comprehensive majority that their preference is so morally and practically superior that the alternatives warrant nothing more than outright dismissal is both wrong and unprofessional. In many walks of life, such an approach would be considered rather suspect. There is enough evidence from around the world that it is more complicated than that. The present system arguably has at least as many flaws as the alternatives; much of the additional workload and pressure on teachers and schools seems to be caused by the need to counter these issues in what are possibly sub-optimal situations. It is right that an open debate should take place.

In the past few weeks, I have heard several local stories about Saturday road-gridlock on what turned out to be Eleven-Plus morning. I must admit, it had not fully registered how the exam has changed. It turns out that grammar schools now largely administer it themselves, as most primaries refuse to have anything to do with it.

It seems to me that this only accentuates the undesirable aspects of that exam, since it favours those with the awareness/determination/ability to reach those venues at the weekend. Very probably this is primarily those who have also paid for coaching etc. and it may disadvantage those, for example, whose parents are at work on a Saturday.

Contrast this with my experience from 1974, when the Eleven Plus took place anonymously as one amongst a series of relatively low-key tests conducted in the final-year classroom at primary school. This reduced pupil stress (although we did know what was happening) and it also meant that the entire mixed intake of that school had equal access to the exam. It seems to me that this was about as fair as that system could get.

On balance I do not agree with the Eleven Plus as the sole method of selection: there are other, if more complex alternatives. But it is not the entirely fault of the grammar schools that the system has been distorted like this, and therefore the present iniquity of the exam is weakened as an argument against selection more widely. It is just another example of what happens when what is effectively deregulation creates a free-for-all.

This weekend, I will make my final offering in this debate. It is in two parts, and examines the reasons why the gridlock still occurs. I think this matter is not being faced.

My motive for banging on about this at length is simply the desire to see the issue properly debated. When one repeatedly encounters occasions where senior colleagues use their platform openly to denounce the issue without any apparent regard for considered differences of opinion or the offence they may cause, it reinforces the view that dogma is taking precedence over debate.

In my case this only strengthens my determination to ensure that the alternative side is properly heard. It does not mean that my own views are entirely one-sided. Equally, from my induction into this profession thirty years ago, fully subscribing to the comprehensive model, my concerns have grown steadily that it may not be the best way of addressing many people’s – or society’s – educational needs. The alternatives surely warrant more substantial consideration.